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The nats (နတ်; MLCTS: nat; IPA: [naʔ]) are spirits worshipped in Myanmar in conjunction with Buddhism. They are divided between the 37 Great Nats and all the rest (i.e., spirits of trees, water, etc.). Almost all of the 37 Great Nats were human beings who met violent deaths (စိမ်းသေ, lit. "green death"). They may thus also be called nat sein (နတ်စိမ်း; lit. green spirits). The word 'sein', while meaning 'green', is being used to mean 'raw' in this context. There are however two types of nats in Burmese Buddhist belief.
Nat spirits are termed lower nats or auk nats (အောက်နတ်), whether named or unnamed, whereas ahtet nats (အထက်နတ်) or higher nat dewas inhabit the six heavens. Much like sainthood, nats can be designated for a variety of reasons, including those only known in certain regions in Burma. Nat worship is less common in urban areas than in rural areas, and is practised among ethnic minorities of Myanmar as well as in the mainstream Bamar society. It is however among the Theravada Buddhist Bamar that the most highly developed form of ceremony and ritual is seen.
Every Burmese village has a nat sin (နတ်စင်) which essentially serves as a shrine to the village guardian nat called the ywa saung nat (ရွာစောင့်နတ်). An offertory coconut (နတ်အုန်းသီး) is often hung on the main southeast post (ဥရူတိုင်) in the house, wearing a gaung baung (headdress) and surrounded by perfume, as an offering to the Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain), also known as the ein dwin (အိမ်တွင်းနတ်) or ein saung (အိမ်စောင့်နတ်) (house guardian) nat. One may inherit a certain member or in some instances two of the 37 Nats as mi hsaing hpa hsaing (မိဆိုင်ဖဆိုင်; lit. mother's side, father's side) from one or both parents' side to worship depending on where their families originally come from. One also has a personal guardian spirit called ko saung nat (ကိုယ်စောင့်နတ်).
Academic opinions vary as to whether Burmese Buddhism and Burmese spirit worship are two separate entities, or merged into a single religion. Some Burmese might say spirit worship is superstition and downplay its role in society. The formalizing of the official 37 Nats by King Anawrahta (1044–1077) of Bagan, has been interpreted as Burmanisation and establishment of Bamar supremacy in the Irrawaddy valley after the unification of the country and founding of the First Burmese Empire. Worship of nats predates Buddhism in Burma. With the arrival of Buddhism, however, the nats were merged, syncretistically, with Buddhism.
The widespread traditional belief among rural folks that there are forest guardian spirits called taw saung nats (တောစောင့်နတ်) and mountain guardian spirits called taung saung nats (တောင်စောင့်နတ်) appears to act as a deterrent against environmental destruction up to a point. Indiscriminate felling particularly of large trees is generally eschewed owing to the belief that they are dwellings of tree spirits called yokkazo (ရုက္ခစိုး) and that such an act would bring the wrath of the nat upon the perpetrator.
The most important nat pilgrimage site in Burma is Mount Popa, an extinct volcano with numerous temples and relic sites atop a mountain 1300 metres tall located near Bagan in central Burma. The annual festival is held on the full moon of the month of Natdaw (December) of the Burmese calendar. Taungbyone, north of Mandalay, is another major site with the festival held each year starting on the eleventh waxing day and including the full moon in the month Wagaung (August). Yadanagu at Amarapura, held a week later in honour of Popa Medaw ("Mother of Popa"), who was the mother of the Taungbyone Min Nyinaung ("Brother Lords"), is also a popular nat festival.
Nats have human characteristics, wants, and needs. They are flawed, having desires considered derogatory and immoral in mainstream Buddhism. During a nat pwè, which is a festival during which nats are propitiated, nat kadaws (နတ်ကတော် "lord-consort", i.e. "medium, shaman") dance and embody the nat's spirit in a trance. Historically, the nat kadaw profession was hereditary and passed from mother to daughter. Until the 1980s, few nat gadaws were male. Since the 1980s, persons identified by outsiders as trans women or gay male transvestites have increasingly performed these roles.
Music, often accompanied by a hsaing waing ("orchestra"), adds much to the mood of the nat pwè, and many are entranced. People come from far to take part in the festivities in various nat shrines called nat kun or nat naan, get drunk on palm wine and dance wildly in fits of ecstasy to the wild beat of the Hsaing waing music, possessed by the nats.
Whereas nat pwès are annual events celebrating a particular member of the 37 Nats regarded as the tutelary spirit in a local region within a local community, with familial custodians of the place and tradition and with royal sponsorship in ancient times, hence evocative of royal rituals, there are also nat kannah pwès where individuals would have a pavilion set up in a neighbourhood and the ritual is generally linked to the entire pantheon of nats. The nat kadaws as an independent profession made their appearance in the latter half of the 19th century as spirit mediums, and nat kannahs are more of an urban phenomenon which evolved to satisfy the need of people who had migrated from the countryside to towns and cities but who wished to carry on their traditions or yo-ya of supplicating the mi hsaing hpa hsaing tutelary spirit of their native place.
King Anawrahta of Bagan (1044–1077) designated an official pantheon of 37 nats after he had failed to enforce a ban on nat worship. His stratagem of incorporation eventually succeeded by bringing nats to Shwezigon Pagoda portrayed worshipping Gautama Buddha and by enlisting Śakra , a Buddhist protective deity, to head the pantheon above the Mahagiri nats as Thagyamin. Seven out of the 37 Nats appear to be directly associated with the life and times of Anawrahta.
The official pantheon is made up predominantly of those from the royal houses of Burmese history, but also contains nats of Thai (Yun Bayin) and Shan (Maung Po Tu) descent; illustrations of them show them in Burmese royal dress. Listed in proper order, they are: