NATS . The nats of Burma make up a structured system of animistic spirits, predating the advent of Theravāda Buddhism but coexisting with it and with other systems of divination and prediction such as astronomy and alchemy. The nat cult is oriented to handling immediate and personal crises and avoiding evil, whereas Buddhism, the dominant higher religious ideology in Burma, is concerned chiefly with rebirth and eventually with salvation. Most students of Burmese religion agree that the term nat refers to any one of a host of animistic spirits, including human beings who have died violent deaths; former royal figures; spirits in fields, trees, and rivers; and regional, territorial overlords. The nats that are propitiated in Burma are the auk nats, the lower active spirits. The devas of Hinduism are also called nats, but they are not a ritual entity in Burma. In the time of King Anawratha (c. 1044 ce), an official list of nats was compiled. Since then, the members of the list have changed, but the number, thirty-seven, remains constant. The thirty-seven official nats share with the remaining nats the capacity to cause harm and, sometimes, to offer protection. They need to be respected and propitiated if evil is to be warded off.
Anthropological studies of Burmese religion have discovered the surprising fact that the nats of Burma form a structured system. This is in contrast to similar systems of animistic spirits in other Theravāda Buddhist countries, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia. The Thai phī and the Sinhala yakā spirits, which play the same role as the nats, do not form a structure as they do in the Burmese system. Here, the nats are differentiated on four levels: the territorial nats reign over a region; the village nats guard a human settlement; the mizaing and hpazaing are nats at the family level inherited from the mother and father, respectively; and finally there are nats connected with special activities such as travel, domestic protection, and other frequent and mundane activities.
Nats are often represented in carved figures or other symbolic modes such as the coconut and red cloth of the house-protecting nat, Min Maha Giri, found on a house pole in every Burmese home. There are also festivals held to honor certain nats. The most important nat festival, of national prominence, is the celebration consecrated to the Taungbyon brothers, a pair of nats. At some nat festivals, and at other occasions where many people are gathered, there is often dancing by natgadaws. These nat wives are said to be possessed by their nat spouses, and in the trance of possession they offer prognostications for onlookers who feed them strong drink and tobacco. The natgadaws do not take actual husbands, since the nats are said to fill that particular role.
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Manning Nash (1987)