The History of Nat Worship in Burma
Burma is a country where Buddhism is the dominant religion. It was due to the pious Indian king Asoka that Buddhism here flourished – he initiated it at mouths of the Iraouaddy and Salween rivers where, in around 200 BCE, the ancient Burmese kingdoms of Pegou and Thaton, the land of Souvarna-Bhoumee, had Buddhism established.
However, in Burma proper (the northern region of Burma), Buddhism was only established here around 1020 CE by the Pagan king Anaoyatazo. Until then, the Burmese worshipped a pantheon of spirits known as Nats who, even today by Kyens, the Katchyens and the Karens, are still worshipped.
The etymology of the name Nat (or Nats) has still not been satisfactory determined, although several scholars have put forward their own theories. “The first is properly applied to the Dewahs, or inhabitants of the six inferior heavens belonging to the Hindu system of mythology. The second sense is entirely different: it means the spirits of the water, of the air, of the forest, of the house, in fact of all nature, animate or in-animate, under all its aspects and manifestations. For example, the word Nat, in its first meaning, is found in the following expression, used by the Burmese when their king has breathed his last; they say: “Nat youa’ sanvi,” “he left for the country of the Nats.””.
It is unsure as to when the Nats were first worshipped and whether they were spirits brought into Burma by outsiders. We do know that throughout the centuries, blood sacrifices were never performed – instead, fruit, rice and water are offered instead. The lack of blood sacrifices may have been influenced by Buddhism which teaches compassion and respect for all living things.
The more ‘wild’ Karens, known as red Karens, only recognise the more negative Nats – bamboos with rice-spirit, food, and also axes, swords, and arrows are laid out at the entrances to their villages so that these spirits do not enter, finding everything they could want outside their homes.
The Burmese, on the other hand, believe in good Nats (Nat-gon) and bad Nats (Nat-so); they believe, moreover, that “each man has his own good or bad spirits, who are constantly fighting, and he is good or bad himself according to the victory of the one or the other”.
“When a grave, contagious disease appears in a city or a village, the figure of a beloo, or evil monster, is roughly painted on a water-pot, and at the end of the day the pot is broken in pieces by the stroke of a dah, or native sword. When the sun has set, all the men as-cend the roofs of the houses, armed with bamboos, and there for nearly half an hour they keep beating the teak-timber posts and the roof, to frighten out of his senses the mischievous Nat; at the same time the women and children scream and yell at the top of their voices, making a hideous noise. This is repeated two or three nights, until they think the Nat has fled”.
The Nats have had different festivals celebrated in their honour – feasts are prepared for the spirits at different times of the year. Different regions of Burma will celebrate one Nat more than others, depending on the region. At the start of these celebrations, a special woman known as Natmaima, will dance before the procession to the Nat shrine.
The history of the Nat worship in Burma is a special thing – it has managed to survive thousands of years of outside influence and still is widely believed in today. Because of this, the history of this religion gives us a valuable insight into the culture, both ancient and present, of the Burmese people.
Vossion, Louis (1891) Nat-Worship among the Burmese, The Journal of American Folklore, American Folklore Society.