MYANMAR
An independent republic of Southeast Asia, known until
1989 as Burma, located east of India and south of China, and
formerly a province of British India, inhabited by an indigenous
stock of Indo-Chinese people who originally migrated
from Western China at different periods, represented by three
principal groups, the Talaings, the Shans, and the Bama, although
groups of several other allied races are also found.
The largest religious community is the Theravada Buddhist,
though there are significant minority communities of Hindus,
Muslims, Christians, and those who follow forms of indigenous
tribal religions. Many beliefs were affected by the Japanese occupation
during World War II and by the internal power struggles
following independence in 1948, culminating in the creation
of the present socialist republic in 1974.
Some traditional beliefs still linger on. In general, the Burmese
believed the soul is immaterial and independent of the
body, to which it is only bound by a special attraction. It can
quit and return to the body at will, but can also be captured and
kept from returning to it. After death the soul hovers near the
corpse as an invisible butterfly, known as leippya. A witch or
demon may capture the leippya while it wanders during the
hours of sleep, and sickness is sure to result. Offerings are
made to the magician or devil to induce him to release the soul.
The Kachins of the northern hills of Burma believed that persons
having the evil eye possessed two souls, the secondary soul
being the cause of the malign influence.
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Belief in Spirits
Beliefs in spirits, mostly malign, took a prominent place in
the religious beliefs of the people of Myanmar. The spirits of
rain, wind, and the heavenly bodies were in that condition of
evolution that usually results in their becoming full-fledged deities,
with whom placation gives way to worship. But the spirits
of the forest are true demons with well-marked animistic characteristics.
Thus the nat or seiktha dwells in trees or groves. His
nature is usually malign, but occasionally we find him as the
guardian of a village. In any case, he possesses a shrine where
he may be propitiated by gifts of food and drink. Several of
these demonic figures have almost achieved godhead, so widespread
did their particular veneration become, and Hmin Nat,
Chiton, and Wannein Nat may be named as fiends of power,
the dread of which spread across extensive districts.
The nats were probably of Indian origin, and the now thoroughly
indigenous creatures may at one time have been members
of the Hindu pantheon. Many spirit families such as the
Seikkaso, Akathaso, and Bommaso, who inhabit various parts of
the jungle trees, are of Indian origin. The fulfillment of every
wish depends upon the nats or spirits, who are all-powerful as
far as humans are concerned. They are innumerable. Any
house might have its complement, who swarmed in its several
rooms and took up their abode in its hearth, doorposts, verandas,
and corners. The nats also inhabited or inspired wild
beasts, and all misfortune was supposed to emanate from them.
The Burmese used to believe that the more materialistic
dead haunted the living with a malign purpose. The people
had a great dread of their newly-deceased relatives, whom they
imagined to haunt the vicinity of their dwellings for the purpose
of ambushing them.
No dead body would be carried to a cemetery except by the
shortest route, even should this necessitate cutting a hole in the
wall of a house. The spirits of those who died a violent death
haunted the scene of their fatality. Like the ancient Mexicans
(see Ciupipiltin), the Burmese had a great dread of the ghosts
of women who died in childbirth. The Kachins believed such
women to turn into vampires (swawmx) who were accompanied
by their children when these died with them. The spirits of children
were often supposed to inhabit the bodies of cats and
dogs.
The Burmans were extremely circumspect as to how they
spoke and acted towards the inhabitants of the spirit world, as
they believed that disrespect or mockery would at once bring
down upon them misfortune or disease. An infinite number of
guardian spirits were included in the Burmese demonological
system, and these were chiefly supposed to be Brahmanic importations.
These dwelt in the houses like the evil nats and were
the tutelars of village communities, and even of clans. They
were duly propitiated, at which ceremonies rice, beer, and teasalad
were offered to them. Women were employed as exorcists
to drive out the evil nats, but at the festivals connected with the
guardian nats, women were not permitted to officiate.
Necromancy and Occult Medicine
Necromancy used to be common among the Burmese. The
weza or wizards were of two kinds, good and evil, and these were
each subdivided into four classes, according to the materials
they employed, such as, for example, magic squares, mercury,
or iron. The native doctors professed to cure the diseases
caused by witchcraft, and often specialized in various ailments.
Besides being necromantic, medicine was largely astrological.
There was said to be in Lower Burma a town of wizards at Kale
Thaungtot on the Chindwin River, and many journeyed there
to have the effects of bewitchment neutralized by its chief. Sympathetic
magic was employed to render an enemy sick. Indian
and native alchemy and cheiromancy were widespread. Noise
is the universal method of exorcism, and in cases of illness the
patient was often severely beaten, the idea being that the fiend
that possessed him was the sufferer.
Mediums and Exorcists
The tumsa or natsaw were magicians, diviners, or wise men
and women who practiced their arts in a private and in a nonhierophantic
capacity among the rural Burmese. The wise man
physician who worked in iron (than weza) was at the head of his
profession, and sold amulets that guarded their purchasers
from injury. Female mediums professed to be the spouses of
certain nats, and could only retain their supernatural connection
with a certain spirit so long as they were wedded to him.
With the exorcists, training was voluntary and even perfunctory.
But with the mediums it was severe and prolonged.
Among the civilized Burmanese a much more exhaustive apprenticeship
was demanded. Indeed a thorough and intricate
knowledge of some departments of magical and astrological
practice was necessary for recognition by the brotherhood, the
entire art of which was medico-magical, consisting of the exorcism
of evil spirits from human beings and animals.
The methods employed were such as usually accompanied
exorcism among tribal cultures, that is, dancing, flagellation of
the afflicted person, induction of ecstasy, oblation to the fiend
in possession, and noise.
Prophecy and Divination
Prophecy and divination have been quite popular in Myanmar,
and were in some measure controlled by the use of the Deitton,
an astrological book of Indian origin. Observation of the
direction in which the blood of a sacrificed animal flowed, the
knots in torn leaves, the length of a split bamboo pole, and the
whiteness or otherwise of a hardboiled egg were utilized as
methods of augury. But by far the most important mode of divination
in use in the country was the bones of fowls. It was indeed
an almost universal way of deciding all the difficulties of
Burmese existence. Those wing or thigh bones in which the
holes exhibit regularity were chosen. Pieces of bamboo were inserted
into these holes, and the resulting slant of the stick defined
the augury. If the stick slanted outwards it decided in
favor of the measure under test. If it slanted inwards, the omen
was unfavorable. Other materials of divination were the entrails
of animals and the contents of blown eggs.
Astrology
Burmese astrology derived both from Indian and Chinese
sources, and powerfully affected the entire people, most of
whom had a private astrologer who would be consulted for
knowledge of the trend of the horoscope regarding the near future.
Burmese would be active and enterprising on lucky days,
but nothing would induce them to undertake any form of work
should the day be pyatthadane or ominous.
The bedinsaya, or astrologers proper, practiced a fully developed
Hindu astrology, but being few in number, they were not
as influential as the rural soothsayers, who followed the Chinese
system known as Hpewan, almost identical to the Taoist astrological
tables of Chinese diviners. From this system were derived
horoscopes, fortunes, happy marriages, and
prognostications regarding business affairs. But in practice the
system was often confounded with the Buddhist calendar and
much confusion resulted. The Buddhist calendar was in popular
use, while the Hpewan was purely astrological. Therefore the
Burmese ignorant of the latter was obliged to consult an astrologer
who was able to collate the two regarding his lucky and unlucky
days. The chief horoscopic influences were day of birth,
day of the week, represented by the symbol of a certain animal,
and the position of the dragon’s mouth to the terminal syllables
of the day-names.
Magic
Burmese magic consisted in the making of charms and the
manufacture of occult medicine to cause hallucination, second
sight, the prophetic state, invisibility, or invulnerability. It was
frequently sympathetic and overlapped with necromancy and
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astrology. It did not appear to be at all ceremonial, and was to
a great extent unsophisticated, save where it had been influenced
by Indian and Buddhist monks, who also drew on native
sources to enlarge their own knowledge.
Sources
Fielding, H. The Soul of a People. London n.p., 1902.
Fytche, A. Burma, Past & Present. 2 vols. London n.p., 1878.
Spiro, Melford E. Burmese Supernaturalism. Englewood
Cliffs, N.J. Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Temple, Sir Richard C. The Thirtyseven Nats (Burmese Animism).
London n.p., 1906.