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Burmese Religion


BURMESE RELIGION . The Burmese people, for the purpose of this article, are the majority population of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, the westernmost country of mainland Southeast Asia. The language they speak is Burmese (or Arakanese, its most important dialect variant), and they are often called Burmans. The word Burmese is reserved for the total population of this country, including "tribal" minority peoples (chiefly residing in the mountains and practicing religions other than those of the Burmans), the Tai-speaking Shan of the eastern plateau (the Shan State), and the Austroasiatic-speaking Mon of southern Burma. The traditional religion of the Shan and Mon is the same Theravāda Buddhism as that of the Burmans, although with some variation peculiar to themselves. The Burmese made their first appearance in history about the tenth century of the common era.

Any Burman will tell you that the traditional religion is Theravāda Buddhism, although a small minority of Burmese are not Buddhists. It is sometimes alleged that to be Burmese is to be a Buddhist. What is really at issue is the fact that the traditional social and cultural institutions of the Burmese, now and historically, are found in large measure in the social, political, and ideological fabric of Buddhist doctrine, so that even non-Buddhist Burmese recognize the centrality of Buddhism to their social cultural identity.

There is a good deal about Burmese Buddhism that is distinctive. In the first place, there is a specifically Burmese tradition in the way Buddhism is interpreted and practiced. Burmese Buddhism is no more deviant from a supposed pristine scriptural norm than any past or present form of the religion. In addition, the Burmese also practice a cult of service to various spirits (Spiro, 1967). This cult exists both at the national level as a formal institution of the former Burmese monarchy (the cult of the Thirty-seven Lords [nat s], the spirit guardians of the kingdom) and locally with regard to spirits associated with features of the landscape and with family lines and administrative jurisdictions as their proper domains (nat ), as well as homeless ghosts, demons, and so on. Not only are the details of belief and practice of these cults (sometimes including the serving of killed animals and alcoholic spirits to these beings) not to be found in the Buddhist scriptures or commentaries, but it is also the case that the practices of this cult are often at odds with the Buddhist behavioral precepts. Burmese themselves, while insisting that they are committed Buddhists, see a contradiction between what some authors have therefore called these two different religions. It will be a major task of this article to try to resolve this issue.

Such facts have led many to speak of a syncretic Burmese religion rather than of Buddhism, some of them purporting to see Buddhism as a mere veneer. However, while Burmese religion consists of the two "cults," careful consideration of the full range of canonical Buddhism shows that the religion of the Burmese is simply Buddhism, and that the conflict between the two cults has a basis in paradoxes within canonical Buddhism itself. Nor is it sufficient to say that Buddhism, being ultimately concerned with longterm, transcendental goals, provides no means of immediately quelling one's fears and anxieties about wordly suffering, which the cult of spirits serves specifically to alleviate.

There is ample scriptural basis for the idea that it is the positive duty of authority, in particular of a proper Buddhist monarch, to subdue, by conversion, subversion, or other means, whatever spirit forces may be thought to exist as a threat to the conditions in which Buddhism, its doctrine, practice, and monastic order (Skt., sagha ; Pali, sangha ) may flourish in society. It is therefore the king's duty, and, by extension of his authority, that of all secular persons in his jurisdiction, to protect religion by dealing with potentially harmful spirit agencies. Buddhism presupposes the existence of various classes of spiritural beings, including, of course, gods (deva s, devata s), in its brahmanically derived cosmology, so that it has no need to specify completely either their natures or how to deal with them. That is left to local tradition, and it is unsurprising that, consequentlysince beliefs have to come from somewherethere is in Burma a close relationship between the leading ideas of the spirit cult within Buddhism and the leading ideas of pre-Buddhist animism as evidenced in the traditional religions of neighboring non-Buddhist tribal peoples. Syncretism that may well be, but it is nevertheless canonically motivated, even positively enjoined. Here arises the first paradox.

The means for dealing with whatever spirit agencies may exist are to be arrived at according to what local tradition says of these various spirits. In fact, these demands often require one to act contrary to Buddhist precepts of Right Action. This is no more problematical than the inherent tension (Tambiah, 1976, pp. 2223) in the role of a Buddhist monarch, who, creating and maintaining the conditions wherein religion can flourish, must be responsible for acts of violence, as in war and the punishment of crime. The consequence, in both cases, is ambivalence, defining Buddhism as the Middle Way.

In traditional Burma the king was expected ideally to conform to the Theravāda version of the bodhisattva idea. Yet the king was also one of the "five evils," along with war, pestilence, spirit nat s, and the like; indeed, as a peremptory, if not arbitrary, "lord," a king was himself, not altogether metaphorically, a nat. Although he had to have earned enormous previous merit in order to now have the entire order as his field of merit (a field so productive that he might look forward to future Buddhahood), it was also incumbent upon him, as the bodhisattva (hpaya:laun ) ideal might suggest, to take on a burden of demerit in the course of carrying out his obligations. This is so for the cakravartin (Pali, cak-kavatti ), the Wheel-turning World Conqueror, that ideal min:laung (immanent king) or hpaya:laung, who serves as the model not so much for the general run of Buddhist kings as for what may be called a major Buddhist throne or monarchical lineage and for the ekarāja, the "sovereign king" who rules righteously, the actual model for the ordinary Buddhist monarch depicted in such Burmese court manuals as Hywei Nan: Thoun: Wohara Abhidān (Maung Maung Tin, 1979).

The cult of spirits is also at once enjoined and disparaged by Buddhism. On the one hand there are the aforementioned canonical precedents and injunctions. On the other hand, just as regional nat cults and messianic forms of Buddhism tend to be suppressed by the state because they imply the need to redress social disorder and constitute a challenge to a state and its moral legitimacy, so also from the point of view of an orthodox sangha, the need for extracanonical cult practices addressed to spirits is held to imply that religion is not flourishing, so that the world of spirits is not properly under control and religion is not, of itself, adequate for protection against them. This is not canonically unthinkable, but the order quite reasonably wishes to see itself as pure and vigorous, just as, indeed, government desires its own legitimacy to be upheld by the view that religion is in good order.

Then too, there is the positive injunction, fully canonical, to bring about the end of wrong action. Since much of what constitutes wrong action has to do with causing suffering to other beings (and the spirits are often cast in such a role), it is not only proper to try to get agents of suffering to desist, it is positively enjoined to do so. Thus, both the existence of spirit cults and the ambivalence with which Burmese Buddhists view these cults is well within the scope of canonical Buddhist motivation and rationalization.

The Nats

The chief object of the cult of spirits in Burma are the nat s, of which there are numerous kinds. The first distinction is that between the upapāti nat and the mei ˀhsa nat, that is, between the deva and devata : respectively, denizens of the heavens atop Mount Meru, essentially of Brahmanic origin, and the many kinds of local spirits. The words upapāti and mei ˀhsa derive from Pali terms meaning "well born" and "[born owing to] evildoing." This distinction does not indicate that all of the second kind are of purely indigenous origin. In fact, many of the mei ˀhsa nat s belong to Indian-derived categories of tree spirits (you ˀhka-zou ; from Pali, rukkha, "tree," and Burmese sou:, "to rule or govern," equivalent to Indian yakkhas ) and demons (e.g., Burmese goun-ban, from Pali, kumbhaa ), although technically, demons and ogres, being without fixed abodes or at least without proper domains, are not nat s. Nor should it be thought that all mei ˀhsa nat s are inherently malevolent, in the sense of being anti-Buddhist. The potential malevolence of proper nat s comes from two facts: the manner of their creation and/or the fact that they are lords of their perspective domains, either by nature or by royal appointment (amein. do ). Indeed, most of the appointed nat s, at least, are guardian spirits of the whole country, of regions, villages, families, households, and individuals. As such, they are expected to protect these various levels of jurisdiction of the nation as a Buddhist (originally monarchical) entity, and so they serve as guardians of religion. This is so to the extent that some nat s, speaking through mediums, will take their "subjects" to task for not living according to Buddhist precepts.

The nat s that are above all the objects of a formally organized cult are the Thirty-seven Lords. There are more than thirty-seven of these, but the number thirty-seven is dictated by the consideration that ideally a Buddhist kingdom should be organized as a microcosm of a proper portion of the Buddhist view of the universe as a whole in order that the proportion between merit and status-power characteristic of the universe as a whole be mirrored in the political and social hierarchies of a Buddhist kingdom. The reason for this organization appears to be that only thus will the economy of merit-seeking necessary to an orderly Buddhist society be effected. Viewed secularly, the king is to his domain as the god Indra (Pali, Sakka; Skt., Śakra; from which Burm. Thagya: [Min:]) is to his heaven, Tāvatisa (Tawadeintha). Moreover, as Indra is ultimate secular ruler in the world at large, so a king aspiring to the state of cakkavatti, the ideal occupant of a Buddhist throne, should have kingdoms under him, on the same galactic principle of merit hierarchy. Hence, the hypothetical ideal organization of the kingdom, in the Burmese (and Mon) view, is a center surrounded by thirty-two subordinate realms, just as Indra at his ultimate cosmic center has thirty-two devata s and their realms as his subordinates. This makes thirty-three; to these are added the Four Kings (cātummahārājā, or lokapāla, Quarter Guardians) of the heaven immediately between Indra's and the world of men, yielding thirty-seven.

However, from the reign of Kyanzittha (fl. 10841113) the kings of Burma were dhammarājika monarchs. That is, while not entirely eschewing various sorts of symbolic identification with one or other Brahmanic god (Kyanzittha himself with Viu), as Buddhist kings they took as their ideal symbolic model a cakkavatti not after the fashion of a conquering king who (re)turns to the center of the cosmic wheel having reached to its rim (cakkavāla ), but rather after the fashion of the Buddha, who, in preaching his doctrine to men, is said to have turned, or set in motion, the "Wheel of Dhamma" (ultimate principle or law). Nevertheless, the god-centered model for kingship had somehow to be realized. This was done by having a sort of spirit kingship of royally appointed guardians in parallel, so to speak, with human kingship, the system of Thirty-seven Lords.

It is Sakka himself who is chief among these thirty-seven, but, as he is in his paradise atop Mount Meru (Burm., Myin:mou Taun), the more immediate head of this group is Min: Maha-giri, the king or lord of the great mountain, who resides atop Mount Poppa, a prominent and sacred hill in the neighborhood of Pagan, the first Burmese capital (tenth to thirteenth century). Mount Poppa served as the local analog of Meru and its placement relative to the capital/center of the kingdom was in the sacred southeastern direction, the directional corner most proper, for instance, to Buddhist and nat shrines in a house. In spite of a great deal of literature suggesting that in the indianized kingdoms of Southeast Asia the symbolic sacred mountain was located in the center of the capitals, in Burma at least, the mountain's symbolic effectiveness required that it be outside, at the center of some even larger domain properly containing the kingdom. Min: Maha-giri serves as guardian of the kingdom as a whole, more particularly as the guardian of the palace, and, by extension, of every house in the kingdom, where, as Ein-hte: Min: Maha-giri ("lord of the great mountain within the house"), he is represented at a shrine in the form of a coconut (representing a head) bound with a red scarf.

The Maha-giri nat seems to have had an indigenous origin, perhaps overlain by brahmanic (specifically, Saiva) influences during the time of the Pyu, the people whose kingdom preceded that of the Burmans in central and upper Burma. All thirty-seven, save Thagya: min:, are filled by a set of royal appointees, mostly male. Each of these was given a fief, each has an elaborate mythological history recording his or her origin, characteristics, and manner of being served. These nat s have various functions as guardian spirits, and most serve several of these. One at least has jurisdiction over certain fields in connection with her primary jurisdiction (shared with another) over Aungpinlei, the great artificial lake and former irrigation tank in the vicinity of present-day Mandalay, although generally, nature nat s, including nat s owning fields, local hills, trees, and the like, are not among the Thirty-seven Lords. Each town and its administrative jurisdiction (myou. refers to both without distinguishing between them) and each village has its official guardian nat, and every person has what is called a mizainhpa-zain nat, that is, a guardian inherited from parents (mihpa, "mother-father"). This should not be interpreted as one from the "side" of each parent; there ought to be only one for each person. Indeed, the parental nat s derive their jurisdiction, as such, from their primary township charges.

In the time of the Burmese kingdom (until the final British conquest of 1885), virtually all persons belonged to one or other of three sumptuary classes: kyun (slaves, or rather, persons fully bound and without civil status), athi (persons whose duty of service to the king was essentially commutable by a head tax), and ahmu. dan: (persons hereditarily bound to specific civil or military state servicesthe so-called service classes, organized into "regiments"). Athi were generally under the civil jurisdiction of the place where they happened to live, hence under the jurisdiction of that place's guardian nat. Ahmu. dan: were supposed to be under the civil jurisdiction of the place where their regimental headquarters was located, a place where the lands assigned for their maintenance was also to be found. For the latter in particular, intermarriage with persons from different service groups was discouraged because it resulted in mixed civil and spirit jurisdictions, and of course, created difficulties in the proper keeping of the rolls of the service groups. For these reasons, for service people and even for athi, who were also subject to some service requirements, taxes, and census controls, there was a strong tendency toward local endogamy supported by numerous royal orders. These orders made it clear that part of what was intended was clear jurisdiction, and that unambiguous nat jurisdiction was included in this. The system of mizainhpa-zain nat s has its origins in this set of considerations. Many people also have a wholly individual guardian nat (and in fact six deva s and six other guardians who may or may not be of the Thirty-seven), but almost nothing is known about these kou-zaun. (self-protection) nat s.

In order to understand how the Thirty-seven Lords were created, it is necessary to explain the concept of aseinthei, a "green" (i.e., unprepared) death, a widespread concept throughout both literate and tribal Southeast Asia. In ordinary circumstances, when someone is about to die he or she is expected to fix the mind upon his or her accumulated store of merit and demerit, and upon the teachings of religion. Friends, relatives and neighbors will, especially right after the funeral, read religious sermons aloud both to fix the minds of the bereaved so that their spirits will not wander from the body out of grief and shock, and so that the spirit of the deceased, if still about, may listen to dhamma (Skt., dharma ) and so pass to a new birth according to his or her kamma (Skt., karman ). When, however, someone dies violently, the spirit of the deceased will fly off in shock and anger and will be so unprepared that attention to merit, demerit, and dhamma will not be likely. In such a case, the deceased becomes a ghost, indeed a lost dissatisfied one, preying upon the living in its frustration (the most virulent perhaps are the women dying in childbirth).

When the person killed has been a person of great physical and/or charismatic power, and especially when he or she has been killed because of someone's deliberate treachery, the ghost created is especially dangerous. This type of ghost can, however, be dealt with if the king, who is in any event often the cause of the killing, issues a royal order (amein. do ) appointing the spirit to an official position (in particular, one among the Thirty-seven Lords). The idea is no doubt related to the tribal notion that the virulent ghost created by the taking of an enemy's head can be converted to a servant of great power by the rites celebrating the head so taken. In any event, such was the origin of the Thirty-seven Lords; they were powerful guardian spirits of the kingdom and of religion, converted or subverted to the latter interests by royal appointment. They remain, however, a potential danger to the community, especially as lords, so that it remains necessary to placate them. It is to this end that the formal nat cult exists.

An additional function of this system of Thirty-seven Lords is that it replaces strictly local spirits that have regional jurisdiction with centrally appointed ones, thus replacing symbolic motivations to divisive regional loyalties with symbolic motivations to a sense of nationality for all Burmans. This is true not only because the lords are royal appointees, but also because the cult organization of all these nat s is nationwide and because it replaces strictly local cults (understood as going back to pacts made with local spirits by the ancestors of the local inhabitants, hereditarily binding upon these descendents and open to no one else).

The cult consists essentially of a system of mediums, nat kado (wivesbut see Lehman, 1984, for male nat -wives), who, for various reasons, psychological for the most part, enjoy a relationship with one or more of the lords that obligates the mediums to serve them by dancing for them periodically in offering rituals. Such behavior occurs especially at one of the several annual nat celebrations of national importance (e.g., the Taunbyoun festival devoted to the two Taunbyoun brothers among the Thirty-seventhey were Muslims, so even Buddhists who have them as their mizainhpa-zain nat must abstain from pork), pilgrimage to which tends to create a sense of Burmese national self-identification. This sense parallels that resulting from pilgrimage to such nationally important Buddhist shrines as the Shwei Dagon pagoda at Rangoon and the Maha Muni shrine, the shrine of the palladial Buddha image of the last several kings of Burma. These occasions, which, the great fairs aside, are often local and locally sponsored on an unscheduled basis, are known as nat pwe: (where pwe: refers to any show, display, or demonstration) or, especially in upper Burma, nat kana: (kana: refers to the temporary openwork bamboo shed in which these rites are heldnat sin in other places). The rituals consist of dances symbolic of the mythology of the lord in question, and of obeisances and offerings of fruits and other things at the altars upon which the figurines of various lords are ranged. It is common to speak of "worshiping" nat (nat pu-zo, from Pali, pūjā ; nat hyi. hkou :, to bow down in adoration or homage). Technically, such terms are supposed to be reserved for the veneration of the Buddha, his order, and his relics, and obeisance to those persons (parents, elders, monks, teachers, and king and government as patron of religion) from whom one gets merit by example and by the act of merit sharing that follows all Buddhist rituals. This veneration is undertaken in order to validate their greater merit and apologize for possible offences (gado ). But the act is also performed (at least in its modified form of salutation by raising hands, palms together, to the forehead) toward any powerful or exalted persons (nat s included). The veneration is undertaken sometimes in flattery and out of fear of their power, but sometimes because all officials can be looked upon as extensions of government and because of the implicit correlation between charisma (hpoun:, from Pali, puñña, "merit-quality"), distinction (goun ), and influence and authority (o-za a-na ), on the one hand, and merit (kuthou; Pali, kusala ), on the other. Properly speaking, nat are said to be "served" (pa. tha.) or "offered to" (tin ). No Burmese Buddhist will ever talk of his involvement in nat service as nat ba-tha (from Pali, bhāsa, "doctrine").


Yet another strand in Burmese religion is millenarian Buddhism. It combines magical-alchemical practices with meditational exercises and has a strong association with the aforementioned notion of the min:laun-hpaya:laun as a messianic Buddhist figure heralding the coming of the future Buddha (Skt., Maitraya; Pali, Metteya). Devotees of one or other of these millenarian figures (sometimes appearing as royal pretenders replete with imitation royal courts and retinues, more often held to exist in some mystical state or realms) are frequently organized into gain: (Pali, gaa ). Gain: is often rendered in the literature as "sect," but means "congregation" in this usage. (Within the sangha, Burmese usage maintains a blurred distinction between gain:, with their separate monasteries, ordination traditions, and Vinaya interpretations, and nikāya, sects, which may, in addition, refuse commensality and monastic coresidence with other groups of monks.

These gain: are semisecret congregations, no doubt partly owing to their millenarianism being perceived as defiance of constituted government, but also because of the nature of their practices. These practices, including the attempt to compound alchemical substances (datloun:, "lumps of power"the essential ingredient is mercury) that are expected to make one invincible and to prolong one's existence indefinitely, are intended to ensure that the devotees will attain what amount to the fruits of the higher absorptions or meditation stages (Pali, jhāna; Burm., zān, colloquially understood as the possession of supernormal powers). In this way, the practitioners expect to be preserved until the arrival of Metteya, in order that they may hear him preach his dispensation and so be able "at once" to attain nibbāna (Skt., nirvāa; Burm., nei ˀpan ). The importance of the idea of congregation here is that the conjoint practice of these acts and rites will generate conjoint powers (rather on the analogy of a battery), a notion also employed in the chanting of the protective paritta (Burm. payei ˀ) texts.

The supreme adept in gain: practices is said to obtain wei ˀza (Pali, vijjā, "wisdom"), or to be, more correctly wei ˀzadou (Pali, vijjādhara; a knower of charms, a sorcerer). Technically, the point of becoming a wei ˀzadou is to attain the highest zān, in which case one is said to exist in a sort of suspended state. This state, condition, or realm is known to the Burmese as htwe ˀ ya ˀ pau ˀ, which may be translated perhaps as "the point of going out." It seems not unlikely that there are connections here with the idea of "going beyond" in wisdom characteristic of the prajñāpāramitā view in Mahāyāna Buddhism. This is not impossible in view of the long history of mutual influences between the various schools of Buddhism and the complex history of pre-Pagan Mon Buddhism. It was from this latter that the Burmese supposedly got their Theravāda and earliest Pagan Buddhism in Burma, which, far from being pure Theravāda, was largely Sanskritic, partly Tantric, partly Sarvāstivada, and partly other, less clearly known things.

Another reason for the semiclandestine nature of millenarian Buddhism and the gain: is the profound ambivalence that in Theravāda countries has always attended emphasis on meditation practices and the associated study of Abhidhamma, owing to the suspicion that such adepts and students may be chiefly interested not in salvation but rather in securing and using the supernormal powers attendant upon such practices. The deliberate pursuit of such powers as an end in itself, and the overt claim to such powers, is prohibited by the Buddha for monks, and by implication at least, for Buddhists in general. Furthermore, the rise in popularity of both monastic and lay-oriented meditation movements and centers, and perhaps even the prominence in Burma of Abhidhamma pariyatti (scholarship), given the close canonical relationship between the two, may reflect a sort of domestication of millenarian tendencies in a country, and nowadays in an age, marked by a considerable amount of political instability, social change, and cultural malaise. Its popularity among Burma's westernized classes as part of an attempt to make it compatible with their notion of a modern worldview makes this likely. In particular, it may be significant that, as in most aspects of millenarian Buddhism, the organizations are lay only, so there also exists a considerable proliferation of purely lay meditation organizations; the absence of monks in these cases seems to represent a development distinct from traditional notions of Theravāda orthodoxy.

It would be a mistake to equate all aspects of magical Buddhism, however, with millenarian Buddhism. For, as ambivalent as orthodoxy, represented in particular by the Vinaya, is toward the practice by monks of the apotropaic use of Buddhist symbols in astrology, the casting of horoscopes, the provision of amulets, and the preparation of charms, and as common as it is for practitioners of these arts to be laymen, there are plenty of otherwise perfectly orthodox monks who practice them, too. Furthermore, those laymen who possess ability in this area tend overwhelmingly to learn their craft during periods of relatively prolonged monastic residence as monks or novices, presumably from monks.

One final matter requires an account, and that is the question why it is that millenarian movements, the intense and pervasive concern with acquiring merit, and all other attempts to be reborn as a male human being with wealth and status characterize so much of Burmese Buddhism. Is this an indication of a failure of the capacity to believe in the goal of nibbāna, of a noncanonical (if not positively unorthodox) tendency in Burmese religion? Is the fact, common in many Theravāda countries, that merit-making activities are occasions of public display of one's giving (dāna ) unambiguously contrary to the scriptural adjuration that unpublicized giving is the most, if not the only, meritorious form? It seems not.

Consider some ambiguities connected with merit. First, there is the economic principle that it takes the fruits of previously earned merit to make greater merit, and that merit is to some extent proportional to the fruits of previous meritbecause only then does one have the good fortune to be born into the position from which the greater merit may be made. Translated into practical action, this principle leads to the notion that the meritoriousness of any act is arguable. In particular, a person in a position of social or personal obligation with respect to any act of giving earns little merit from it, since only free, unobligated acts really earn merit for the actor. Consider also the principle that one rarely if ever knows where one stands in one's samsaric trajectory; one does not know, for instance, how much demerit may still have to be expiated or how much merit must still be made in order that one may be in the position to make a serious attempt towards transcendental goals, nibbāna above all.

Since the merit from an act is relative to the act's being done freely, and since a consequence of the uncertainty about one's overall store of merit and demerit is a pervasive uncertainty about relative social status and one's sumptuary obligations toward others, the only way one can be reasonably certain about one's dāna is to have its meritoriousness publicly acknowledged, hence publicly displayed. In the same vein, it must often seem canonically justifiable that one finds oneself psychologically incapable of giving serious positive commitment to purely religious goals. In such cases, it may seem perhaps wiser to aspire to a future human birth in which one's store of merit will be sufficient to motivate one toward transcendental objectives, or even to have such objectives taught to one by Metteya. The devotee hopes for greater personal, social, and economic stability at some future time as a better basis for ultimate accomplishments, and invests one's present resources in merit making accordingly. The measure of the practitioner's commitment to nibbanic soteriology is clearly the embarrassment people admit to when they shy away from trying for nibbanic extinction and the fervency with which they pray that they may in a better future life be able to try and attain nibbāna.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Buddhist Religious Year; Cakravartin; Folk Religion, article on Folk Buddhism; Merit, article on Buddhist Concepts; Nats; Sagha, article on Sagha and Society in South and Southeast Asia; Theravāda; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Buddhist Devotional Life in Southeast Asia.


Aung-Thwin, Michael. Pagan: The Foundations of Modern Burma. Honolulu, 1985. A trenchant analysis of the political economy of royal merit making.

Bizot, François. Le figuier à cinq branches: Recherche sur le bouddhisme khmer. Paris, 1976. Fine analysis of non-Theravāda aspects of Southeast Asian Buddhism and monasticism.

Ferguson, John P. "The Symbolic Dimensions of the Burmese Sangha." Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1975. The major study of monastic sectarianism and its history.

Ferguson, John P., and E. Michael Mendelson. "Masters of the Buddhist Occult: The Burmese Weikzas." Contributions to Asian Studies 16 (1981): 6280. The one easy introduction to Burmese millenarian Buddhism.

Htin Aung, Maung. Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism. London, 1962.

Lehman, Frederic K. "On the Vocabulary and Semantics of 'Field' in Theravada Buddhist Society." Contributions to Asian Studies 16 (1981): 101111.

Lehman, Frederic K. "Remarks on Freedom and Bondage in Traditional Burma and Thailand." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 15 (September 1984): 233244.

Luce, Gordon H. Old Burma, Early Pagán. 3 vols. Locust Valley, N.Y., 1969. A great Burma scholar's monumental work; the standard source on earliest Burmese history.

Mendelson, E. Michael. Sangha and State in Burma. Ithaca, N.Y., 1975. To date, the definitive work on its subject.

Nash, Manning. The Golden Road to Modernity. New York, 1965. Probably the best modern village ethnography of Burma.

Ray, Nihar-Ranjan. Sanskrit Buddhism in Burma. Calcutta, 1936.

Schober, Juliane. "On Burmese Horoscopes." South East Asian Review 5 (1980): 4356. The latest and most acute treatment of Burmese astrological concepts in a Western language.

Scott, James George. The Burman: His Life and Notions (1882). 3d ed. London, 1910. The standard general introduction to Burmese social and cultural life.

Shorto, H. L. "The Planets, the Days of the Week and the Points of the Compass: Orientation Symbolism in 'Burma.'" In Natural Symbols in South East Asia, edited by G. B. Milner, pp. 152164. London, 1978. A unique and insightful treatment of Burmese ideas of temporality and directionality.

Spiro, Melford E. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. New York, 1970. Spiro's books are the most thorough descriptions and analyses of Burmese religion, combining fine ethnography and fine anthropological analysis with sound use of philosophical and textual knowledge, although the author's psychoanalytical emphasis has been often criticized.

Spiro, Melford E. Burmese Supernaturalism. Philadelphia, 1978.

Steinberg, David I. Burma: A Socialist Nation of Southeast Asia. Boulder, Colo., 1982. A fine popular introduction to modern Burma, its peoples, history, politics, economics.

Temple, R. C. The Thirty-seven Nats: A Phase of Spirit-Worship Prevailing in Burma. London, 1906. The standard description of these figures, illustrated.

New Sources

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Strachan, Paul. Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma. Edinburgh, 1989.

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Frederic K. Lehman (Chit Hlaing) (1987)

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"Burmese Religion." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved March 24, 2019 from

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Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.