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Buddhas, Nats and Generals

Myanmar, the former Burma, is called the land of the Big Buddhas and the Golden Pagodas. In the South-East-Asian state the Burmese, Shan, Karen, Catchin and the Mon peoples worship not only the founder of the Buddhist World Religion, but also the Nats - the spirits. The generals of the Military Junta governed Myanmar with an iron fist – more or less isolated from the rest of the world. This is one reason why traditions live longer than in other parts of the globe.

The majestic Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is covered with tons of pure gold. Legend tells that two Burmese merchants met the Buddha 2500 years ago while Sidhartha Gautama Shakyamuni was meditating under a Bhodi tree to be enlightened. The Buddha gave them eight of his hairs. The merchants brought the Buddha’s hairs home as relics to be enshrined. On top of the shrine the Shwedagon Pagoda was built.

Older than Buddhism is the worship of the Nats. There are good and bad spirits. When in need people expect help from the good Nats. The bad Nats are to be appeased.

A millennium ago King Anawratha has fought vigorously to defeat animism. But his efforts to wipe out spirit belief - and have it replaced by Buddhism –
were not successful. People objected that merit-making behaviour might well be good for a future life after death.

But during this life practical help was needed. And acute help could only come from the Nats. The king decided to compromise. He introduced Buddhism to be the State Religion – while the belief in many thousand spirits remained tolerated.

37 official Nats were added: spirits of historical personalities who lost their lives under tragic circumstances: murdered kings or princes – or princesses who died from a broken heart. Furthermore there is a vast number of Nats who are worshipped only in special regions.

At a Nat Festivity, the socalled pwe, dancers and singers tell the legends of the murdered royals. Ever so often the authorities are critizised. This is another reason why Nat festivities are famous in Myanmar.