Readings from the week: Hindu influences on Thai Buddhism

This week I finished Sightseeing, Thai Tales, and The Night Tiger. I’m still plugging away at Contes Populaires de Cambodge, du Laos, et du Siam—in fact I’m still reading the same story that I was last week (“Vorvong et Saurivong”), but I feel better about it because I realized this story makes up the entire second half of the book. So when I finish it, I’m done (thank God). I’ve gotten to the point where I’m assigning it to myself, like homework, and am only sticking it out because I’m so close to the end that I might as well finish it.

One thing that has interested me in Thai Tales and Contes Populaires is the mix of Buddhist philosophy and Hindu theology. I realized that this was because I (quite wrongly, of course) think of Hinduism as being largely confined to India and the Indian diaspora, and of Buddhism as being East Asian, whereas of course things aren’t nearly that cut and dried. Not only did Buddhism first arise within a predominantly Hindu tradition, but Thailand itself was a Hindu country as part of the Khmer empire before the spread of Buddhism. I suppose growing up in a country with a largely monotheistic tradition, where the parts of other religions that have been assimilated (like carving faces into vegetables to ward off evil spirits or bringing an evergreen tree into your house to honor the sun god during the winter solstice) have been masked as Christian or secular celebrations and divorced from their original spiritual meanings, prepared me to be somewhat taken aback by the easy mixing of religions that occurs in stories like Vorvong et Saurivong, in which two brothers, descendants of Buddha, are repeatedly helped by the intercession of Phra In, the Thai version of the Hindu god Indra. Thai Tales has this to say about this religious admixture:

When Buddhism spread throughout Thailand, the Buddhist religion did not attempt to stamp out the Hindu beliefs already there. Nor did they attempt to suppress animistic beliefs in nature spirits, which predated even the Hindu religion.

Another interesting element common to both folklore collections is the way the concept of karma is invoked as a comfort when bad things happen. I think there is a tendency in the west to think of karma as largely a deterrent for bad behavior–be nice or you’re going to be reincarnated as a cockroach. But for the characters in the Thai folktales I’ve been reading, when some calamity befalls them, they tend to say, “Oh, I’m paying for my bad deeds from a past life” and that helps them to accept their fate without complaint, thus embodying plongtok, acceptance, a key component of Thai Buddhism.

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