Thais are known to be devout Theravada, or Orthodox Buddhists. In fact, the country’s government is a theocracy in which many holidays and ceremonies are officially recognized in its calendar of events. Schools are closing and government institutions closed in order to give its residents a day off to celebrate and participate in national Buddhist ceremonies.
But as you walk through the towns and villages adorned with temples, it becomes difficult to distinguish if everything you see is related to traditional Buddhism. In fact, Thais rank among the adherents of Buddhism, but a lot of the things they believe and practice are intrinsically part of Brahmanism, one of the earliest forms of Hinduism, as well as popular animist religions. These popular animist religions are better known as Animism.
Animism is best described as the cult of spirits or ghosts. The word animism comes from the Latin word anima and means breath, spirit and life. It is said that animists believe that almost everything has a spirit, including plants, animals, rocks, rivers, wind, sun, and other inanimate natural objects, and that the physical world and the spiritual world are closely related. related.
Animists say what they practice is not a belief system, but rather a worldview. In essence, worldview means: the world is a sacred place, and we are part of it. Additionally, it can be viewed more as a value system than any other type of membership.
Satsana Phi, is the Thai word for the belief system which revere the spirits. Animism is included in Satsana because it involves the use of shamans and ancestor worship. The followers of Satsana believe that buildings, territories, things and natural places all have guardian gods or supernatural deities residing in them.
Animism believes that there are guardian spirits of people, which often include ancestors or angelic beings who arrive at various times in life, better known as wada. Malevolent spirits, phi phetu, include the khwans of people who have been evil in past lives or who have died tragic deaths. Khwan, is the finite amount of spirit that exists within an individual, with Thais believing that the khwan has the ability to wander or escape from the body.
It is believed that a spirit that suffers from demerit could be a dangerous ghost, while those with merit are considered good ghosts. Preta, the ghost, for example, would be stuck in the liminality stage, or right of passage, and roam the human realm in the hopes of gaining the merit necessary to cross. Thailand’s most famous ghost, Mae Naak Phra Khanong is feared by many, although she is believed to have corrected her past lives and earned merit.
Since Thais worship their ancestors as part of animism, a popular ancestor, who was part of the Thai monarchy, is the late King Chulalongkorn. And, generally speaking, Thais practice worshiping dead Theravada Buddhist monks who are believed to possess supernatural powers.
Examples of animism can be seen around Thailand if you know what to look for. Things such as spiritual houses or phi houses adorn almost every building or house, as Thais say, is an attempt to appease the spirit of property. The Thais will offer food and drink to the miniature shrines daily and ask for protection from the ghosts that would inhabit the houses. The guardian deities of the places, such as the phi wat of the temples and the lak mueang of the cities, are celebrated with community gatherings and food offerings.
Besides Animism and Buddhism, Brahmanism is another belief system merged with other practices of the Thai people. Brahmanism, like animism, focuses on the practices of thewadas, who are angelic beings or gods. Thais look to these deities for health, prosperity and good luck. Gods such as Bhrama and Indra are examples of popular deities.
Interestingly, almost all of the ceremonies in Thailand that commemorate different points in life cycles and seasonal cycles are rooted in Brahmanism and not Buddhism. A ceremony, the first plow or Raek Na Kwan in Thai, was in fact adopted by the Thai royal court with its auspicious day and time still set today by Brahmin astrologers.
Thais also consider astronomical celestial bodies to be deities. It can also include material astronomical objects. One example is Rahu, who is considered the god of luck and fortune and is often worshiped in central parts of Thailand. The worship of planetary deities is sometimes linked to the Hindu belief in Navagraha, which recognizes 9 celestial bodies as deities. For almost every ceremony, a Brahmin monk or priest will guess an auspicious moment. The current King of Thailand has been invested as Crown Prince at an auspicious time given by a royal astrologer.
Other practices of the Thai people include following pre-Buddhist traditions such as monks wearing robes and shaving their heads. This spectacle is often considered part of Buddhism, but it actually stems from the Semana tradition that predates Buddhism by around 4,000 years. Holy days, or Uposatha, in Thai, which are designated for observing half moons and full moons, were also derived from pre-Buddhist times. In Thailand, they are called the Wan Phra, with Thais traditionally visiting temples in white clothes on these days.
Obviously, for anyone visiting the Land of Smiles, figuring out the belief systems of the Thai people can be intimidating. Thais do not have a word for Animism in their language and tend to classify all of their adopted belief systems under Buddhism. And, indeed, this is perhaps the best way to describe Thailand’s fusion of beliefs and practices. The reasoning behind the use of Buddhism as an umbrella term is due to other adopted belief systems all sharing similar components with the officially recognized “religion” of the realm (although Buddhism is not generally considered a religion in the realm. same vein as the Abrahamic religions).
Buddhism, Animism, and Brahmanism (or Hinduism) all incorporate the worship of spirits and gods who may or may not have merit or good karma. Such beings are used by the Thai people to ask for protection, luck, wealth, health and help to move on to the next life. However, because animism is strictly based on the cult of spirits, which may or may not be controlled, it is believed to be less certain of helping Thais in their quest for a better life.
Animism also contrasts with Buddhist values such as sobriety and self-control, as animist rituals encourage the use of whiskey, dancing, and smoking. Regardless of the differences between Animism and Buddhism, monks still play a vital role in both practices. Ultimately, however, most Thais believe that being a devout Buddhist will lead them to possess the most powerful magical powers.