Thursday, April 2, 2009

Spirit Worship

One is frequently reminded that although officially a Buddhist country, Thailand nevertheless has a variety of belief systems woven into its culture. While Buddhist temples dominate the landscape, there are thousands of altars virtually everywhere in the country that have nothing to do with Buddhism. Prior to embracing Buddhism, the Thais were--and still are--animists, believing in the ability of spirits to inhabit just about everything. This is shown in the many spirit houses in yards, in front of hotels, outside of every business, on street corners, and in some cases, at the sites of fatal accidents where offerings are made to the ghosts of departed loved ones. 

Accident site

If one looks closely at these altars, it is generally not the image of a Buddha that receives the prayers. Usually they are mythological creatures, photos of ancestors, or Hindu images, particularly Brahma, the four faced Hindu god of creation or Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of success, as Hinduism continues to exert a strong influence. Even Vishnu, the supreme Hindu deity, is embedded in the official Thai government seal. These are the most popular altars outside of Buddhist temples. Interestingly, they are often seen at street intersections, so that--according to a Thai friend--they act as a type of traffic control: Drivers slow to pay their respects.

Brahma worship

It is indoors, or if outdoors, on the grounds of temples, where images of the Buddha are worshipped. Well, there and on the dashboards of taxis. The religious practice of Thai Buddhists is complex, and offers a fascinating look into the culture of this calm and accepting people. Don't try to figure it out: The Thais will laugh and tell you that they themselves cannot explain it. (To read more about Thai spirit houses, go to

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