Inside Burma Tours

Religion in Burma

Officially there is no state religion in Burma, but in practice the vast majority of Burmese adhere to Theravada Buddhism - which is given a special position of importance in Burmese society.

Friction between different religious groups in Burma is relatively common, with the ongoing clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State the most recent and fiery example. This is not helped by the government's overt preference for Buddhism over any other religion, allowing only Buddhists into senior government and military ranks and closely monitoring the activities of other, minority religions.

When travelling in Burma, it is essential to be aware of and respect religious customs. In recent times, it has not been unheard of for foreigners to be deported for having a tattoo or a t-shirt depicting the Buddha - and in one notable case a Yangon bar owner from New Zealand received a two-and-a-half year prison sentence for promoting his establishment with a picture of the Buddha wearing headphones. In general you do not need to tread on eggshells, but please do make every effort to behave with respect towards Buddhism whilst travelling in Burma.

Buddhism

Burma is the world's most religious Buddhist country in terms of money spent on religion and proportion of monks in the population, and it is estimated that around 89% of the population are Theravada Buddhists.

History

Buddhism is thought to have existed in some shape or form in Burma for over two thousand years, although historians do not agree on exactly when it arrived, or how. It is known that Buddhist missionaries arrived in Burma from India in the third century BC, then again in the sixth and tenth centuries via Sinhalese missions, and that by the ninth century the Pyu people had knowledge of Theravada, Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhism probably took root in earnest in around the 11th century, aided by the famous empire-builder King Anawrahta - himself a convert to Buddhism by a Mon priest. During the golden age of the Pagan Kingdom, successive kings built vast numbers of Buddhist stupas and temples - many of which can still be seen today on the Bagan plains.
For more on the history of Burma, have a look at our history section.

Buddhism today

Today, Buddhism is the dominant social force in Burma and plays an important part in every aspect of life for the vast majority of Burmese. National festivals are without exception Buddhist, and nearly every Burmese boy aged between 10 and 20 enters a monastery as a novice monk for at least a short period of his life. This novitiation ceremony is called shinpyu, and usually takes place during the Buddhist New Year in April.

Monks (and to a lesser extent, nuns) are given an extremely high position in society, and it is part of Burmese culture to donate food and alms to them in order to accrue merit - which in turn brings about good karma for the giver. Unlike monks in other Buddhist countries, Burmese monks wear maroon robes rather than saffron.

Nat worship

You would be forgiven for thinking that, given the centuries-long dominance of Buddhism, there would be little space in Burma for indigenous religion. On the contrary, the worship of indigenous spirits - called nats - is alive and well in Burma, and forms an important part of the spiritual landscape even for practising Buddhists.

Nat worship has an even longer history in Burma that Buddhism, and practitioners believe that places, people, and areas of life are associated with and governed by particular nats. Some of these are said to have descended from actual historical personages, and legend has it that they can be called upon in times of need to help a worshipper accomplish a task or vanquish an enemy. On the other hand, it is also believed that a nat spirit can possess human beings and force them to perform terrible acts without their consent.

When King Anawrahta took to the throne at Bagan in the 11th century, he destroyed nat temples and abolished nat practices (such as animal sacrifices) in an attempt to purify his land and make Theravada Buddhism the sole religion. Realising, however, that these actions were likely to hinder rather than help his cause - he instead decided to change his tactics and co-opt nat worship into his master plan.

To the existing pantheon of 36 nats, he added a 37th, Thagyamin, whom he modelled on a Hindu deity called Indra and styled as king of the nats. As Buddhist mythology tells that Indra paid homage to Buddha, so the insertion of Thagyamin into nat mythology effectively made all nats subordinate to Buddhism. Anawrahta's plan was highly successful, and laid the foundations for nat worship to flourish alongside Buddhism until the present day.

You will see plenty of signs of nat worship in Burma today if you know where to look. A coconut dressed in a red turban at a local home, a red-and-white cloth tied to a rear-view mirror, or a small shrine under a tree are all evidence of nat traditions. Nat pwe are musical performances held to celebrate the spirits, and involve plenty of extra-loud music as well as the help of a spirit medium.

Though nat worship survives in Burma today, knowledge of these spirits is fading fast amongst the younger generations of Burmese.

Islam

Officially, just 4% of Burma's population is Muslim - however local Muslim leaders suggest that 20% is a more accurate figure. It's likely that the real percentage falls somewhere in between.

Islam has a long history in Burma, having existed in the country from at least the ninth century - perhaps even as early as the sixth century in certain areas of the country. Burma's highest concentration of Muslims reside in Rakhine State, where Rohingya Muslims form the majority in some northern areas.

The status of these Rohingya Muslims is extremely controversial amongst the Buddhist Burmese, many of whom believe that Rohingya should not be granted citizenship because they are not "true Burmese". This is despite the fact that many Muslims have lived in Rakhine State since the 19th century, and some since as far back as the 15th century. At the time of writing, violent clashes between Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine State continue to make international headlines.

Christianity

It is thought that around 4% of Burma's population practise Christianity, of which four fifths are Protestants and the remainder Catholic.

Christianity arrived in Burma in the 16th century via Japanese Christians, who had fled to Arakan (Rakhine State) to escape persecution; then again via the Portuguese, Dutch and French in the 17th century; then again in the 19th century via Anglican, Baptist and Catholic missionaries. Due to most successful missionary work having occurred in isolated areas of the country, most Burmese Christians are to be found amongst the Kachin, Chin and Karen ethnic minorities.

Hinduism

Hinduism arrived in Burma in ancient times, and its influence can still be found in Burmese culture today. In fact - despite the country's strong Buddhist majority, the names "Burma" and "Myanmar" are both derivations of "Brahma", a Hindu deity with four heads. Furthermore, the king of the nats, Thagyamin, is based on a Hindu deity named Indra.

The British colonisation of Burma caused an influx of Indian migrants into the country, and in 1931 a census claimed that 55% of the population of Rangoon (modern-day Yangon) were Indian immigrants - most of them Hindu. Under Ne Win's military government, however, as many as 300,000 Indians were expelled from Burma, and it's thought that today Hindus only account for 2% of the country's population.