Myanmar gives its people complete freedom of religious beliefs and practices. Many different religions are followed in the country – although the major religion in the country is Theravada Buddhism which is followed by nearly 90% of the population. This style of religion has taken a firm hold in the country, while the local people are dedicated to the worshipping of ancestors (nat), or an observance of animism. Throughout the course of the year there are plenty of local festivals and events that can be witnessed on the Myanmar tours and relate to celebrating ancestors.
Beyond Buddhism and animism there are several other religions, but these are in a minority compared to the major following of Buddhism. Other religions following include Christianity, which is followed by approx 3.5% of the country’s people, while Islam is followed by 4%, Hinduism by 1.5% and Animism by 2%.
Myanmar is today a primarily Theravada Buddhist (also referred to as Hinayana Buddhism) country with this religion first reaching the country at the time of the Christian era, and mingled with indigenous animism and Hinduism (imported from India). The early Pyu and Mon kingdoms that date as far back as the first millennium followed the Buddhist religion. By following Theravada Buddhism it is the responsibility of each person to achieve nirvana and seek salvation.
Buddhism in the country is also followed by most of the ethnic groups that are seen as non-Burmese. Even though the different groups have adopted Theravada Buddhism, there are certain degrees of variation in the practices and beliefs that are followed.
In the process of practicing the Buddhist beliefs, there are some animistic elements that are included and many of these predate the early introduction of Buddhism. This means that animism can include the worshipping of nats which may be associated with natural features, in individuals, or with houses.
It is believed that nearly 3% of the Myanmar people follow the animistic religious beliefs with most of these people are located in the mountainous or other isolated areas of the country.
Islam also reached Myanmar in its early years, but this religion never really took a foothold in the country except for a region of modern Rakhine. Throughout the colonial era, there was a great influx of Hindu and Muslim into the major cities, such as Yangon.
The Christian missionaries first started to work in the country in the 19th century. The missionaries had minimal impact on the Myanmar people that had already started to follow Buddhism. However, they achieved more success with converting the minority groups into adopting the Christian faith. Non-Buddhists that adopted this faith include the Kachin and Karen in Myanmar.
The Chinese had a degree of involvement in the mix of religion in Myanmar with several Chinese temples built in the country in the 19th century during the colonial era. Many of these old colonial era buildings are still present and available to see on theMyanmar travel packages. Plus, there was a large-scale Chinese migration at that time, which was encouraged by the British. Modern Chinese are still migrating to the country, but have little interest in the local Burma religion.
The majority of the young Burmese men (as well as some young women), from the ages of 10 to 16 go to live in a monastery to become Buddhist novices. Most of the young men that attend the monastery will shortly return back to their normal lives – although a few will remain and become ordained monks.
Anyone that wishes to become a full-time monk has to agree not to get involved in secular life, accept disciplinary rules, have the permission of their spouse or parents, and free of certain diseases and debt.
The full time monk is required to lead a life of aestheticism while also having the ability to help in their local communities, such as working as counsellors.
There are a variety of animistic beliefs associated with the Buddhists, such as those concerned with spirit dancers, as well as magicians, tattooists with occult knowledge, other types of healers and astrologers.
Rituals and holy places
The Thingyan is a local water festival that celebrates the Burmese New Year and tends to fall in the middle of April. During this Buddhist festival the monks are offered alms and Buddha images are washed. There are a variety of activities taking place throughout the festival, such as theatrical performances, singing and dancing, which are a joy to watch on the Myanmar customized tour. May has the Kason celebration, which relates to the birth of Buddha, entrance into nirvana, and enlightenment. This festival has ceremonial watering of the banyan trees to observe this plant life which is remembered for the reason Buddha sat beneath the banyan tree while attaining enlightenment.
In July a ceremony is held to commence the 3-month Lenten period and honour Buddha's first sermon. This is the most common time for the young men to become novices. For the duration of lent the monks use this time as a spiritual retreat and stay at the monasteries. For this period it is not permitted for local people to get married. The term of lent is intended to run until October. For a period of three days, there are electric bulbs, paper lanterns, oil lamps and candles to indicate how the angels lit Buddha's return from heaven.
A further celebration takes place in November which is held to create new clothing for the monks. Most of these new garments are created by the local people within a single day.
In the Buddhist faith the people believe those that die return in a form that represents their worth and value while alive. The formal process for a funeral can involve either a cremation or burial. Most ceremonies include mourners and monks accompanying the coffin to the crematorium or cemetery. The monks take on the role of performing rites and chanting. Any funeral held for a monk will be quite elaborate, while the people that suffered a violent death are typically given a quick burial with minimal ceremony because the people believe their spirit will continue to linger as a malicious ghost.