John Nisbet.

Burma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) online

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One thing, however, is certain. Unless they abandon
atheism, and become believers in some central being or
power dominating and guiding all things, whatever
change is produced in their religious belief will be a
change for the worse. Cold, cynical, and thoroughly
selfish though Buddhism undoubtedly be, yet it is still by
far the purest and the noblest of all the creeds that have
ever been established except that which inculcates the
beauty of sympathy and of charity in addition to exhort-
ing its professors to lead a life of purity, simplicity, and
self-denial in order to fit them for a future state more
glorious than Neikban.


chapter VI


LIKE every other nation which has not advanced far
up the plane of civiHzation and progress, the
Burmese are superstitious — intensely superstitious, and
consequently credulous to a degree. Their superstition
and their credulity are practically unbounded. In
their religious and (/tmsz-historicsii writings time and
distance are dealt with in the most open-handed and
irresponsible manner imaginable. The ocean ( Thamud-
daj'd) is supposed to consist of equal parts of salt
and water, and to be the scene of eight great wonders,
viz., the continuous alternation of flood and ebb, the
keeping back of the waters from submerging the land,
the throwing up of dead bodies along the sea shore, the
swallowing up of the five great rivers (not to mention
the 500 minor streams), so that these entirely lose their
names, the constant and unvarying volume of the waters,
the complete fusion of the salt water so as to become but
one substance, the gems and precious stones stored up
there as in a repository, and the spirits {Nai) which have
their abode in the waters. The earth {Padawi) supplies
the element of which twenty parts of the body are
formed, including the hair, nails, skin, teeth, bones, etc.

Each living animal body {Kanda) is formed of five
constituent parts, viz., materiality, the organs of sensation,
the organs of perception, the organs of reproduction and
destruction, and the organs of intellect and thought.
There are five good bodily qualities {Kalidnd) associated
with the flesh, bones, skin, hair, and one's age. The
happy female possessing these five beauties would have a
wealth of hair, ruby lips, regular white teeth, and a uniform
colour or complexion not marked by any blemish ; while



she would never look old even though she bore twenty
children, nor have a single grey hair, though she lived to
be lOO years of age. The full force of this last
mentioned gift can only be duly appreciated when the
barbarous seven days' roasting of young mothers at the
time of childbirth is borne in mind.

Being fatalists to a very great extent, the Burmese
duly recognize the destructive currents of life, which
bear away human creatures. These fatal influences
(Awga), fourfold in number, are caused by the currents
of libidinous desire, of life's vicissitudes, of personal
contact, and of ignorance and folly. In addition to the
many other dangers with which the Burman's pilgrimage
through the present state of existence is beset, he is ex-
posed to the malignant influences of the three great evil
periods {Kat), in which famine, pestilence, and slaughter
are rife. Five kinds of enemies {Yan) have also to
be contended against, viz., rulers of all sorts (including
the sun and the moon, ruling the day and the night),
water, fire, thieves, and ill-wishers. If a cultivator's rice
fields have been parched by drought or destroyed by
inundation, he will usually describe his misfortunes as
caused by " the five enemies." There are four different
kinds of fire {Tezaw) in the body, only one of which is
beneficent, the fire [Dat) that prevents corruption even
as salt prevents flesh from becoming tainted. The
remaining three are malignant, including the fire (Than-
dabbana) arising from sorrow and causing the body to
waste as if it were burned, the fire (Daka) producing
infirmity and decay, and the stomachic fire [Pdsaga),
that consumes the food partaken of. Finally, human
beings have five great masters or tyrants [Man) in their
animal constitution (Kaitda Man), in their subjection to
the operations of the four causes (actions, mind, season,
and food : Abithingdya Man), in passion [Kilethd Man),
in death [Missic Man), and in the chief of the evil spirits
{Dewaputta, the Man N^at).

In closer proximity, and entering more thoroughly into
the daily life of the Burman, are the good and the evil
spirits [Nal) that abide in almost innumerable places.
The Nat (from the Sanskrit Nat to, meaning " lord" or



"master") are included in the term indicating rational
human beings {Lii) ; but in common usage " Lu " means
a man or woman only, while spirits of various kinds are
grouped together under the term JVa^. A good man may
in a future state of existence become a JVa^ ; and the
correct expression for the death of a king is that " he has
ascended to the country of the JVaL" The JVa^ is a being
superior to a man, though inferior to a Brahma in status
and in process of evolution. The land of spirits (N'a^
Pye) is located only in the lower portions of the celestial
regions, though to many of them is given dominion over
different parts of the ocean, earth, and sky, or of special
trees, rocks, elements, etc. A Nat is, in fact, a human
being who once was a man, but is now, after having
passed through the ordeal of life with a credit balance in
favour of his personal account, advanced one further step
towards annihilation {Neikdan). For specially meri-
torious actions a being of an inferior kind may even be
advanced to the status of a Nat without first becoming
a man, as in the case of the horse " Kantika," which
leaped over the Anawma river with Gaudama on its
back and then expired from the effort. There are two
distinct classes of Nat. Most probably the main body
inhabiting spirit land was originally identical with the
Dewa of Indian mythology, whilst the excrescence of
dryads and spirits abiding in various animate and inani-
mate objects gradually became grafted on Buddhism
through the influence of the Karens and other spirit-
worshipping wild tribes with which the Burmans succes-
sively came in contact. The belief in good and evil
spirits is one that would easily take firm root in the minds
of so credulous and superstitious a race.

The spirit land forming the lower celestial regions
consists of six divisions. In the first of these one day
is equal to fifty of the years of men, and the year con-
sists of twelve months of thirty such days. Spirits live
500 of these years, and consequently attain an age of
nine millions of our years. In the second region they
live for 1,000 years, each of which is equal to 100 of the
years of men ; hence their age runs to thirty-six million
years as measured by our standard. In the remain-



ing four divisions the ages attained are respectively
144, 576, 2,304, and 9,216 millions of the years of men.

The most prominent and most powerful of all the
spirits is the Thagyd Min, the chief of the thirty-three
spirits located in the second division [Tdwadeintha) of
the lower celestial regions. This chief spirit was on
visitinor terms with the Kins' of Burma. To facilitate
intercourse, a hole {Thagydbaiik ; Minbonbauk) was made
in the ceiling of the palace on the north side to admit
the Thagyd Min. In his abode in the lower celestial
region the Thagyd Min sits upon a throne {Bandukan)
forming ordinarily a cool, soft, and pleasant resting place,
but which becomes hot, hard, and uncomfortable when
anything requiring his assistance takes place here below
in this world of men, or when anything is occurring to
threaten danger to his exalted office. For example,
when a good man is struggling with adversity the fact
is thus communicated to the ruler in spirit land.

It is neither customary nor safe for people to speak
about the spirits, lest they may be offended. Hence it is
usual to refer to them as "master" or "great lord"
[Ashin, As/iingyi). But apparently, as a body, the spirits
are " kittle cattle " ; for, however euphemistically and
circumspectly they may be referred to, they cannot be
depended on in any strait. An example of this fickle-
ness on their part is exhibited in the Burmese equivalent
to " out of the frying pan into the fire," as expressed in
the rhyming couplet " —

Kyd chauk 16, Shin gyi ko ;
Shin gyi, kya tet, s6.

Fearing the tiger, they trusted the A^at,

But soon found this ally much worse than that.

From prudential motives reference to spirits is omitted
from the list of the four things that cannot be trusted — a
thief, the bough of a tree, a ruler, and a woman. In
some parts of Upper Burma tigers are euphemistically
referred to as " the incarnation of a body " [Agaung
Palaung), in case they may happen to be spirits and to
be displeased at being called tigers. More particularly
is this the case with reference to man-eating tigers,



which are also often thus politely mentioned in Lower

The tutelary saint of fishermen is, however, a spirit
{Shingyi). In inland fisheries a portion of the lake or
pond is usually set apart and specially reserved for the
benefit and the propitiation of the Askin. Plays are
often given in honour of the spirits, and are performed
in sheds {Natkdna) erected specially for the purpose.
Large buildings {Natkan) are sometimes built and dedi-
cated either to individual spirits or to the chief Nat,
while smaller constructions [Nalsin) are frequently to
be seen near villages on the banks of streams where
fisheries are formed. Such miniature spirit houses are
still to be seen on all the principal buildings within the
palace enclosure in Mandalay. Food and water are
sometimes laid down in propitious places as an offering
to the spirits by Burmans, and habitually by Karens ;
whilst provisional offerings are also made with the
intention of being supplemented by more substantial
dedications at some future date.

The spirits are not necessarily malevolent. They
furnish the wild rice {Nat Saba), yielding a scanty meal
in time of famine. But the majority of them are evil
spirits (Natso) ; and in any case it seems to the Burman
a good thing to try and keep on favourable terms with
them, both individually and as a body. In most villages
can be found persons possessed by a spirit, causing loss
of reason or some other deplorable physical defect.
Here and there, too, men can be met with who have
spoken with the voices of children ever since the Nai
stole away their own proper voices.

The chief of the good spirits (IVathondare) is the
guardian Nat of the earth. He is ever on the alert to
record and to bear witness to the religious merit and the
good deeds of the devout worshipper. It is to this
guardian spirit that the Burman appeals as a witness
when dedicating any religious offering. In case Wathon-
dare may perchance be otherwise engaged at the
moment, it is with a view to calling his particular atten-
tion to one's own special devotion that the pious Burman
invariably gives a sounding blow with the crown end of



a deer's antler to the lip of one or other of the large
heavy bells {Kaungla7ing) hung in convenient places
round the platform of every pagoda. Certainly it would
never be consistent with the idea of the debit and credit
account system, forming the basis of the Buddhistic reli-
gion, if the pious Burman were to count his beads and
worship in devout reverence without first making sure
that he had secured the attention of the guardian spirit,
who acts as the recording angel. It seems eminently
desirable to the Burman to call the attention of the
higher powers to the fact of the fulfilment of religious
observances, and in this respect to be more of the
Pharisee than of the Publican on such devout occasions.
There are also many spirits who are something like
tutelary deities to certain towns and families. Some are
the genii of particular localities ; others reside in the air
or in clouds ; and others again are dryads inhabiting
trees, rocks, pools, etc. They take cognizance of the
actions of men, sometimes sympathizing with those who
act rightly, and at other times preventing the acquire-
ment of merit by men who may supplant them in the
possession of the various amenities and powers they
have attained in spirit-land. Even if one only slips and
falls to the ground, it is well to make an offering to the
guardian spirit of the earth at the spot where one has
received the fall ; for who knows whether the Nat may
be offended or not ?

Guardian spirits are not all so well inclined or so
easily dealt with as Wathondare. On the founding of a
new city by any King of Burma it was customary to
perform Sade ^ by burying large jars of oil at each of the
four corners of the city, whilst with much ceremony men
were also either killed and buried or else buried alive, in
order that they might become the permanent guardians of
the city. Around the outer walls of Mandalay, at the four
corners and close to the principal entrance gates, may be
seen several small whitewashed stupas forming the abodes
of these guardian spirits of the royal city i^Myosaung
Natsein). Even so late as 1878 in Lower Burma, after

^ A somewhat similar term, Sadi, is used to denote any ceremony
regarded as a charm to avert or remove evil (see page 163).



twenty-five years of British rule, the beHef among the
country people regarding the necessity of such a ceremony
was so strong that when Government inaugurated the
successful completion of a large engineering work by
giving an open-air dramatic performance at Myitkyo, at
the eastern end of the Pegu and Sittang Canal, no men
attended on the first evening, and only comparatively
few came armed with heavy bills i^Da) on the second
evening. This, too, was after solemn assurances had
been given by the English magistrates and engineers
that Sade was never practised by the British. A guardian
of a different sort ( Uttasaung) is the spirit of a deceased
person guarding over property ; for Burmans believe
that the spirits of those who have during their lifetime
inordinately hankered after riches become after death the
custodians of the property they managed to acquire.

Offerings made to the guardian spirit of a town or
village are called Palinatsa ; but it is somewhat sugges-
tive that this term is also applied to official underlings
who wheedle money out of litigants under the pretence
that they are able to influence their superiors in deciding
cases in the law courts.

A troublesome spirit in home life is the Deindalein,
supposed to cause a deceived husband to be infatuated
with his wife, or vice versa. In other cases when the
weaker vessel is taken possession of by a spirit she
becomes a " Nat's consort" i^Natgaddw), and as such is
endowed with the power of prophecy or of revealing
hidden secrets. They are frequently resorted to for
obtaining information about stolen property, and, as they
are gossiping busybodies who make a point of hearing
and inquiring about everything going on around them,
they often can suggest in whose hands stolen property
will possibly be found.

There are many different kinds of evil spirits {Natso)
requiring propitiation. Thus the crying of infants is
caused by the Madare Nat. The Upagd is another
kind abiding, often gregariously, in trees and similar
objects, which is said to be sometimes visible ; for many
have borne witness that, after a child had lost its mother,
they had seen an Upagd rocking a cradle in the jungle

VOL. II. l6l M


and personifying the mother. A more aggressive and
dangerous kind of evil spirit is a demon, gobhn, or
ghoul {Kyat), capable of assuming different forms and of
actually devouring human beings. Another of a similar
kind ( Tliaye) haunts burial grounds, forests, and lonely
localities, enters and possesses men, and changes them
into creatures of ghoul-like habits.

The term for possession by an evil spirit {Payawga)
may curiously enough mean either encouragement in a
good sense, as to works of merit and so forth, or else the
very opposite — instigation to evil. But, like many words
in our own language ("prejudice," for example) the com-
mon meaning of the term indicates a bad influence.

As evil spirits are stronger than men it is necessary to
propitiate them, and this may be done in many ways.
One way is for children to carry a small basket {Kaw-
kwet) in which offerings of different kinds of rice, flowers,
etc., have been placed, to the outskirts of the village,
and there deposit it while they chant a rambling chorus.
For personal protection charmed medicine may be tat-
tooed into the flesh of one's body, in order to ward off
the power of witches and warlocks. The proper kind of
cup for the holding of such charmed medicine is made
from the joints of the bamboo pole {Taziiwa) used as a
poker at the cremation of a dead body.

Although the Burman has a separate name for ghosts
{Tas^), which haunt given houses and localities to the
terror of residents or wayfarers after dark, yet he seems
unable to make any distinction between ghosts and evil
spirits. The former are, however, respectfully treated in
similar manner to the genuine evil spirits by propitiatory
offerings enclosed in Kawkwet. Immunity from seeing
ghosts can be obtained by wearing on the smallest
finger of the left hand a ring made of a hair from an
elephant's tail. Such rings, costing about a penny, are
often worn by women, and more particularly when they
are in an interesting condition.

A special form of prayer {Pareik) is also used for
preservation from evil, more particularly in times of
sickness, and when taking up one's abode in a newly
built house. In nearly every house there is a vase



[PareikS) for holding charmed flowers, and charmed
thread i^Pareikche) is worn round the arm or leg. Such
thread also forms the cord [Letpdkyo) used in tying
together the thumbs of the dead. Further, charmed or
holy water [Pareiky^, {vom. par eik, a " muntra " or prayer
for preservation from evil) is either drunk or else
sprinkled over the person and on the ground around the
houses ; and it is also thrown against the four corner
posts, which are besprinkled both from the outside and
the inside. In building a house a large square piece of
white cotton is put on the top of each post, so that the
four ends hang down from it, in order that they may
form pleasant resting places for the guardian spirit of the

The belief of the Burman in charms is childlike in its
simplicity and in its whole-heartedness. It is so abso-
lutely boundless and unlimited that it might almost be
said to form his strongest article of faith. Though the
charms may time after time fail to work, yet his belief
in their efficacy remains just as firm and unshaken as at
first. If the spirits are unpropitious or the elements
averse, is not their strength even mightier than the power
of the charm ? And if malign influences of a more power-
ful nature prevent the charm working, is that the fault of
the charm ? If you were to speak irreverently or dis-
paragingly concerning any charm in the presence of a
Burman, he would certainly think you a person much to
be pitied, and indeed rather to be avoided, as perhaps
exercising an evil influence over some charm that he
might at the moment be employing for the attainment of
any end which seemed desirable in his eyes.

The use of charms enters largely into the everyday life
of a Burman. They range in scope and nature from any
ceremony (Sadt) for removing or averting evil, through
the processes of securing invulnerability or the love of
some fair but coy maid, down to such practical affairs of
daily life as insuring a profit on the sale of goods or
acquiring sound sleep at night. Widely as the charms
vary in their uses, so also do they differ in their nature
or form.

One of the commonest kinds of charm is the amulet



{Letpwe), worn either for preventing evil or for obtaining
good. The same term is also applied to the present
made by the parents and friends of a bride and bride-
groom on the occasion of their marriage. Sometimes its
special object is to avert evil or calamity and to preserve
from danger or harm [Beka) ; while at other times its
use is more particularly to protect the wearer from the
power of one of his enemies {Yinka). In recent days the
latter term has also been much used in applications for a
license to carry arms ; and, curiously enough, the only
word in Burmese for a gun or rifle {^Thdnat) means "the
spirit of death." Again, when some definite but concealed
and unproclaimed evil deed is about to be committed, a
special charm is employed {Akweaka).

For the securing of favour there are three kinds of
medicines or charms {S/io), which have influence with
kings {Ydzasho), with women {Piyasko), or else have a
sort of general efficacy {Thabasho).

When any one has been bitten by a dog, or has received
a cut, or when a sore has made its appearance, or when
the hoofs of a pony are abnormally large, a very simple
ceremony {Sadi) is observed, which consists in merely
inscribing a circle round the wound, sore, or hoof by
means of a piece of teakwood charcoal, whereby peculiar
vis or power {Se£) is conveyed to the portion of the limb
operated on.

Many of the charms in common use are for the gaining
of the affections of some loved one of the opposite sex,
the attainment of which by other means seems difficult
or doubtful. The most potent of these are the philtre or
love-potion of " softening medicine " i^Anilse), and an
amulet {Hnokngo7i) to ensure love being reciprocated.
The latter is kept in his mouth when a youth goes court-
ing. A decoction of various mysterious herbs and other
vegetable substances collected with great secrecy is used
for a similar purpose [Minbaung), and it has also the
wonderful property of making one invulnerable. Com-
pared with these marvellous and potent charms, that for
ensuring a profit on the rate of goods {Konsetaik) is a
very minor sort of aid to business.

But in this world of imperfection, surrounded as it is



by malignant influences each more or less powerful in
its own degree, the efficacy of charms is affected by
the deteriorating influence (Tana) of inappropriate acts.
Thus the virtue of any charm suffers deterioration when
the wearer passes below a bridge over which any one is
crossing, or enters any house where a confinement is
taking place. An indignity of this kind is said to have
been offered to one of the British missions sent to
Mandalay, the embassy being degraded in the eyes of
the Burmese through being conducted to the royal pre-
sence by means of a path passing under an archway
upon which people were standing. The embassy sent
to Amarapura in 1795 was insulted in the grossest degree
by being conducted to the palace through the western
gate of the city (Symes' Embassy to Ava, 1800, page 357),
the route by which malefactors were led forth to their
death, and which, when traversed by a king, was the out-
ward sign of his abdication of the throne.

Closely allied to charms of the above nature are the
various means taken for becoming proof against bullets
and wounds, or for flying through the air and performing
similar feats beyond the unaided powers of ordinary
human beings. Charms of the above category are of
course highly valued by soldiers and robbers. One of
the commonest and most potent of these charms, accord-
ing to the received opinion, is any kind of calculus (Amade)
formed in the body of an animal or plant. Thus the
calculi formed in doves, partridges, snakes, or turtles, or
in the jasmine, have the special power of rendering the
wearer of such a charm proof against any wound inflicted
with a sword or knife, and a like immunity was afforded
by a preparation from the bark of the Ananbo tree
{Cryptero7tia paniculata). A similar charm against mis-
fortune and evil ^tw^x2i\y {Yaungban) was bound up and
worn in their hair by Burmese soldiers. The professors
of invulnerability (Kayatheiddi Sayd) often mix antimony
along with other strange ingredients like calculi, amber, etc.

The power of attaining the state of mind [Zana) which
enables its possessor to fly through the air, or to go
through the earth, or to traverse other worlds than ours,

Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 15 of 41)