covering burma and southeast asia

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Saturday, April 18, 2015
Magazine

COVER STORY

Where Spirits Dwell


By Yeni AUG, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.8


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Ancient nat cult still rules in Burmese households.

 

The wedding announcement in a Burmese newspaper read like any other. But there was one startling discrepancy—the bridegroom was dead.

 

The bride, though, believed she was marrying someone who could support her as well as any living being. Her chosen partner was a nat, an influential member of the spirit world. She became a nat kadaw, or nat spouse.

 

 

Such “unions” are quite common in Burma, even though the country is devoutly Buddhist. As in neighboring Thailand, Theravada Buddhism exists happily enough alongside a widespread belief in the existence of a spirit world, and it’s commonly accepted that the Lord Buddha himself went through cycles of being a nat.

 

There are skeptics and critics, however, who charge the nat cult has devalued Theravada Buddhism. Nat festivals—like those held in August—often degenerate into drunken orgies, they claim.

 

Nevertheless, it would take a lot to shake popular belief in nats. Believers are convinced the spirits have the power to make them wealthy and successful and ward off illness or bad luck. Lottery wins are often ascribed to the intervention of a nat.

 

The wives of the regime generals are said by American anthropologist Christina Fink to be devotees of the nat cult. Believers span the entire spectrum of Burmese society, from simple villagers to influential business people and government officials.



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