Religion and spiritualism are complex subjects, especially in Thailand, so I’m not going to cover the complexities in depth, mainly because I would be well out of my own depth. But there are many facets of religion and spiritualism in Thailand which might leave you a little confused and bewildered. Religion and spiritualism play a major role in the daily life of Thai people.
Thailand’s culture, people, architecture and traditions are influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism, they all have their own unique roles in Thai life and culture, yet there is a unique fusion between them. Understanding ‘Thailand’s Spiritual Fusion’ will give you a valuable cultural and social insight. Don’t worry, my knowledge on the subject is far from vast so this will be a basic introduction in lay-mans terms.
It is Buddhism which life’s major events are centered around, and Buddhism which serves and shapes the major events for the majority of people in Thailand. According to the Buddhist faith you might have lived upon this earth during a past life but in a different form or status, the physical form and future life of a newly born may depend on the karma gained or lost in that previous life. Newly Weds are bound by vows according to the Buddhist faith. Upon death the cremation pyre of the local Buddhist temple is the last place their body can be seen in it’s present form, and the last time friends and family can make their peace, make merit for the deceased and say farewell. Most Thai men will serve as novice monks at some point in their life, after they have devoted their selves to, and learned the way of Buddha they are considered to be “truly a man”.
Animism (spirit worship)probably consumes more of an average Thai persons time than any other religion or faith. But whereas Buddhism determines the principles and goals for the majority of Thai people, Animism is a force which must be respected and has certain protocols which must be followed by those who believe in the power of the spirit world.
Hinduism has played a key role in the history and culture of Thailand, it has been present since before the first kingdom of Thailand was formed in the 13th century. Hinduism is a legacy of the former Cambodian empire which ruled over much of Thailand, examples of Cambodian (Khmer) architecture dating back to the 12 century can still be seen at ancient temples like Phanom Rung Historical Park in Northeast Thailand. The earliest form of Hinduism ‘Brahmanism’ is still utilized by the Thai Royal Court, Brahmin priests still serve the needs of the Thai Monarchy, auspicious events such as the Royal Plowing Ceremony, royal weddings and coronations all depend on Brahman involvement.
The fusion of religion and spirituality in Thailand.
‘Thailand’s Spiritual Fusion‘, I think that’s a rather catchy title but it doesn’t really capture the essence of the subject. The topic I’m trying to broach is the harmony, relationship, alliance, merging, inter-locking, intermingling of Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism in Thailand. I have already given you a brief introduction to Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism, and their respective roles in Thai society, but let’s examine the relationship a little closer and try to understand this spiritual fusion which is unique to Thailand to only a handful of other countries.
The first form of worship known to man was Animism, and so Animism (spirit worship) was the first form of spiritual belief in Thailand. Hinduism in it’s primary form of Brahmanism was introduced to this land up to a 1000 years before the first Thai kingdom of Sukhothai. Buddhist influences have been traced back 2000 years and it is suggested that Buddhism had a strong hold by the 6th century A.D. Brahmanism is said to be the fore-runner of both Hinduism and Buddhism, although it is not widely practiced it does have very close ties and in many ways seems to be incorporated into Thailand’s Buddhist practices.
The worship of Hindu deities in Thailand dates back to the pre-Buddhist era, it has remained deeply ingrained into the fabric of Thai culture, as I stated earlier there is a close relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism, hence there is no conflict. Although the people of Thailand worship Hindu deities such as Brahma, they are worshiping them not as Hindus but as Animists who believe in the Hindu deities power of protection, mercy and kindness.
Just why Animism has maintained such a strong following in Thailand is a question best asked of philosophers and historians, but the fact is, most of the modern world which has adopted one of the major religions has relinquished Animism. It could be that the Buddhist and formerly Hindu beliefs in rebirth have somehow galvanized the Thais belief in ghosts and spirits, or ‘phi’ as they are commonly called in Thailand.
Many a scholar has wrote that Thai Buddhism has been strongly influenced by the Thais Animist beliefs and has been accordingly adapted to cater for the Thai need to worship the spirits. In my estimation, the purest and most prolific example of Animism (spirit worship) is the ‘San Chao Tee’ spirit house, this is the smaller and most commonly used spirit house in Thailand, it is the home of the ‘Chao Tee’ (Lord Of The Land).
Visible signs of Thailand’s Spiritual Fusion.
One of the best places to witness this spiritual fusion is underneath the canopy of one of Thailand’s sacred fig trees, the Sacred Fig Tree (ficus religiosa), also known as “Bodhi Tree” itself is significant because it was while sitting underneath a Sacred Fig Tree that Buddha gained enlightenment. Around the base of the tree it is common to see broken or discarded ‘San Chao Tee’ and ‘San Phra Phum’ spirit houses which have both Animist and Hindu characteristics. Either on the ground, on purpose made altars or placed within the tree’s natural cavities or roots many broken figurines of Buddha, Hindu deities such as Brahma and Ganesh can be found.
Pictures of former Thai Kings who have reached an almost divine status are amongst a host of other deities found under the protective canopy of the Sacred Fig Tree. In fact, any item or object of religious, spiritual or superstitious nature can be found underneath the sacred trees. The reason they are there is because broken or discarded objects of such significance should not be simply thrown away, the superstitious Thais believe this could invite bad luck and even the wrath of the spirits. The holy and spiritual sanctuary of the Sacred Fig Tree is seen as suitable home for the displaced figurines and artifacts. Miniature elephants, dancing girls, even toy cars and cigars are also respectfully placed under the tree as gifts to appease the tree’s resident spirit.
The objects and figurines which bear testament to Thailand’s Spiritual Fusion are of course also present in most Thai households, Buddha will often sit on the highest altar in the living room, a portrait of Rama 5 might share the altar or sit on an altar just below Buddha. Ganesh is one of many Hindu deities which are often prominently placed in Thai households. As previously discussed, the 1 or 2 spirit houses positioned outside Thai residences and businesses represent both Animist and Hindu beliefs.
Thais also keep relics of their religious and spiritual beliefs close to their body, the Palad Khik is said to be a phallic form of the Hindu deity Shiva, it is worn by men for protection against evil spirits, it is also an Animist fertility charm, they are often blessed by a Buddhist monk to enhance their power. Buddhist Amulets and Sak Yant tattoos also offer protection, Thai men who believe in the power of evil spirits will often wear a string Buddhist amulets around their neck.
To sum up, at first it may seem a little hotch-potch and confusing, It’s one of those subjects to which you could apply the term “the more you know, the less you understand”. To Thais, it makes sense, Thailand’s spiritual harmony is as old as Thailand itself, this unique blend of religion and spirituality has served the purposes of the Thais through good times and bad times, for better or for worse.