All Over the Place: Gods Galore
Issue 21: Religion in Thailand
Author’s Note: I am now back in the United States, but I still have some thoughts to share about my time in Thailand, as I didn’t write as many issues of All Over the Place as I had expected to while in Thailand.
I like football. I’m a fan of the Green Bay Packers, and I look forward to watching Aaron Rodgers play on Sundays (despite my past criticisms of him and his lackluster performance this season).
But if someone asked me the question “What sports do you like?”, simply saying “I like football” would be an incomplete picture. I’ve never been to an NFL game in person, but I go to a few minor league baseball games each summer (usually my hometown Kenosha Kingfish), and I follow the Chicago Cubs in their (usually) futile attempts to win the pennant. I occasionally go to a Milwaukee Admirals hockey game, and I used to play tennis (badly).
In a similar vein, saying that Thailand is a Buddhist country would also be an oversimplification. Religion in Thailand is very syncretic, so while I’m not an expert, I have learned some things about religion in Thailand. Reputable English-language information on some of the practices I describe is harder to find than you might expect, so some of it comes from me asking my coworkers about things I stumbled across while exploring.
It is true that Thailand is a very Buddhist nation. At the public school where I worked, Buddhist prayers are said after the national anthem is played, and monks have visited the school, where they were given food offerings by students and staff. But it isn’t hard to spot things that go far beyond the Western idea that Buddhism is strictly an atheistic religion of meditation and nirvana-searching, devoid of the overtly supernatural or material concerns.
On a pedestal near the entrance of the school, and next to many buildings and homes, is a spirit house, built as a home for the spirits that are believed to reside in the area that were disturbed by the construction of the building. For reasons that are unclear to me, they are said to like red liquids, so bottles of strawberry Fanta are often left in front of the houses as offerings, with the caps removed and a straw placed inside.
Temples may feature the Buddha, but are often filled with other deities and supernatural figures, several of them Hindu: Phra Rahu, who is commonly depicted eating the sun and may be blamed by some for the 1997 Asian financial crisis; Ganesha, the elephant-headed four-armed Hindu god; Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of the Hindu god Brahma; and many more, with the quirkiest that I’ve seen being mannequins set up to resemble musicians from a Thai band. At times it seems that their answer to “Which gods do you pray to?” is “All of the above.”
Believers may pray to one, some, or all of these gods, and they may pray to some for certain things and to some for others. Did you make an offering and pray to a god for business success but got fired the next day? Just try a different god. Maybe that one will help you.
Trees wrapped with colored cloth are believed to be home to spirits or gods, and people will leave offerings there as if they were spirit houses. And I haven’t even mentioned ghosts. Special dresses are purchased at religious stores to placate a specific type of ghost that is said to bring good fortune (and occasionally kill men), and whistling at night is believed to attract ghosts. My school’s staff room had an altar with statues on it with the belief that it will keep away ghosts.
Obviously, this is very different from religion in the West, and there are certain points where it is especially striking.
Worshipping giant golden statues? Not in the West, but temples in Thailand have all sorts of golden statues in temples, from a giant golden sitting Buddha at Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit to a giant golden reclining Buddha at Wat Phra Chetuphon to a golden sitting Buddha at Wat Traimit that isn’t as large as the others but is made of gold instead of just covered with it.
Overt appeals to religion by stores and businesses? Hobby Lobby may sell lots of crosses and Christian books, but it stops short of placing a giant cross on the wall. But in Thailand, businesses of all sizes will have their own religious paraphernalia for their protection and fortune. Street vendors may have a cloth image of a Thai deity on their cart, while Bangkok’s Erawan Hotel built a large shrine in the hopes that it would counteract bad events that happened during construction.
Getting a better afterlife in exchange for monetary donations? Outrage over the idea of buying one’s way into heaven was one of the causes that led Martin Luther to nail propositions to church doors, but giving food to monks or donating cash to temples is a way of “making merit,” and “making merit” is believed to be how to get reincarnated as something better in your next life.
Praying for your own material gain? Frowned upon in the West, but monasteries and temple complexes are filled with people selling lottery tickets to the faithful who have just made offerings to their deity of choice.
If you’re thinking that this is all a bit strange or unusual, perhaps it is. And that’s okay, as long as you’re fine with other people finding your religious traditions (or lack thereof) as being a bit strange or unusual to them.
How much Polish food can I find in my American hometown? (page 18)
Kraków’s Royal Route (pages 18-19)