Mysterious Spirits: Nats of Myanmar

Likely, wherever you are right now, most of the people around you don’t believe in spirits or ghosts. If they do, they keep quiet about it, considering it a personal issue. It’s even less likely that those around you believe that spirits can be contacted; or that spirits exist in all things; OR THAT these spirits can effect a person’s everyday life. No, such thinking is highly unreasonable, un-scientific, and largely socially unacceptable. Now, for a moment, image a place where all that is reversed. A place where nearly everyone KNOWS that there are spirits, in fact spirits are everywhere; and spirit contact is not only possible, but can prove very helpful. Imagin a place where disbelieving in spirits is considered ‘abnormal’. Well, welcome to Myanmar, and meet the reigning spirits, the Nats.

Nat Spirits

Representations of Nats at Mount Popa Temple

What Are Nats?

Nats are perhaps best envisioned as non-corporeal entities, spiritual beings, that can nevertheless have a causal effect on the material world. In short, Nats are spirits. The origin of the word ‘Nat’ is unclear. Some scholars feel the word may be derive from ‘Natha’ which means lord, protector or guardian. ‘Natha’ is an ancient word which can be found in Pali(a language untilized in ancient Buddhist scriptures) and Sanskrit (one of the oldest languages known). If the word ‘Nat’ is derived from either language, it would indicate that ‘Nat worship’ is likely thousands of years old.

Nats are typically divided into two main groups. The first group consists of the 37 Great Nats, also known as "Nats sein." The Great Nats are all thought to have lived human lives at one point, and are all believed to have met violent deaths. The other group of Nats are far too numerous to count. Let’s call them ‘minor Nats’. They can be spirits of people who have died, but they also be the spirits trees, rocks, mountains, rivers and forests. Nats are everywhere in nature.

Though they may be spirits, the 37 Great Nats (and ‘minor Nats’) are seen as having typical human characteristic, including typical human flaws and virtues. Nats are believed to have wants and desires that must be addressed through rituals and offerings. Most villages in Myanmar have a shrine to a village Nat guardian, which is usually one of the 37 Great Nats. It is also common for households to hang a coconut from a southeast post of their home as an offering to a personal house guardian Nats. When traveling in Myanmar, one will see many rituals and customs which involve appeasing or pleasing of the Nats. Some might call these practices supertitions, most of those living in Myanmar call them important practices.

location of MyanmarAnd Where the Heck is Myanmar?

Myanmar is a country in Southeast Asian which is home to over 50 million people. It is located along the Bay of Bengal and bordered by Indian, China, Laos, Thailand, and Bangladesh. Myanmar was previously known as the "Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma,". The country changed its name in 1989 to the "Union of Myanmar" following a series of pro-democracy uprisings.

Due to years internal conflicts and political instability, Burma (now Myanmar) spend years on the ‘no travel list’ and official ‘travel warning lists’ for most Western nations. Few outsiders were welcome and those who visited did so at their own risk. This kept Myanmar largely isolated. Most who did venture into Myanmar came from other Asian nations with familiarity regarding Myanmar’s internal conflicts and risks.

Without much outside contact with the West (and very little from other Asian nations) the spiritual and cultural life in Myanmar remained largely unchanged for centuries, especially in the rural areas. It has only been recently that travel and tourism have become available (and only in limited areas). Those who do travel to Myanmar are strongly urged to respect the local customs, which often involve gaining favor from the Nats. It appears the Nats are ready to deal with the outside world.

Nats and Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism arrived in Myanmar in the early 3rd century (200 – 300 AD). At that time ‘Nat worship’ was already established. As a point of clarification, the term ‘Nat worship’ can be a bit misleading. ‘Nat appreciation’ might be a better term. Or, Nat cooperation. Nats are not seen as the creators of the world, but as a part of the natural world. Albeit, the Nats are a very important and powerful part of the world. In this article we will use the term ‘Nat worship’ with the hope the reader understands it is not ‘worship’ as traditionally use in religion.

Little is known of the interaction between the newly arrived Buddhists and Nat worship. The two belief systems seem to have coexisted harmoniously wherever Buddhism was practiced in Burma (now Myanmar) until the 11th century. Then, King Anawrahta attempted to ban Nats worship. All he succeeded in doing, however, was driving the rituals and practices of Nat worship underground.

Worried that his efforts would cause people to turn away from Buddhism in favor of the Nats, King Anawrahta created the list of 37 Great Nats which still exists today. One change the king did make was by commanding that the 1st Nat be Thagya Min (sometimes spelled Thagyamin). Thagya Min is a prominent Buddhist deity. This seemed to please all the parties involved and Nat worship and Buddhism have been practiced alongside one another ever since. It is not uncommon to see Buddhist shrines and Nat shrines right next to each other inside homes and at holy sites throughout Myanmar.

The coexistence of Myanmar Nats with Buddhist beliefs can be compared with how Buddhism blended with Shinto beliefs in Japan. Like the Nats of Myanmar and the spiritual practices surrounding them, Shinto in Japan is a set of spiritual practices and a belief system involving spirits and ‘kami’, meaning ‘spiritual essence’. As in Myanmar, spirits are everywhere in Japan, especially in nature. In Shinto there are special practices to help people who have died pass on into the spiritual dimension. Equally important are rituals for dealing with other types of spirits in a respectful manner. Buddhism generally has no trouble accepting the existence of deities and spirits from other cultures. We do know that psychic phenomenon in Buddhism is accepted, not rejected or persecuted as with other major religions.

The belief in Nats, as well as the traditions and practices that go along with it, is often considered unique to the people of Myanmar. However, anyone who has spent time studying psychics, mediums and alternatsive spiritual beliefs can see many correlations with classic spirit contact (such as trance mediums). Additionally, one can see a strong correlation between the Nats of Myanmar and the beliefs of Native Americans (North and South America), Druids, Hindus, Shinto in Japan, and many other cultures where spirits can inhabit mountains, trees, rocks, animals as well as people. In Western antropology, beliefs get lumped together in this category called Animism.

What is important to understand is that animism has been used, incorrectly in many scholars views, to mean primitive, as in primitive thinking. That is not what animism means. Animism is from the Latin ‘anima’ which means ‘breath, life and/or soul’ combined with ‘ism’ which can mean a ‘state or condition, principles or a doctrine’.
Animism is the understanding that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical world. All things, including people, have a spirit or spiritual essence. In animism, the spiritual universe and material universe are one. The two cannot be seperated. From the perspective of animism, you can choose NOT to see the spiritual, but then the physical, material universe is likely to be experienced as dead, mechanical and devoid of meaning.

There is nothing primitive about animism other than it pre-dates science, Christianity, Rome, Buddhism and all world religions (and most civilizations). In Myanmar, one could say, the people have preserved the understanding that the spiritual and material world are one. Interestingly, the man who turned ‘animism’ into a tenet of modern anthropology, Sir Edward Burnett Taylor, began formulating his concept of ‘animism’ while observing Spiritualists – the very people who brought us the concept of ‘psychic mediums’. Some consider this wonderfully ironic.

But we’re off topic now … back to those mysterious Nats …

The Significance of Mount Popa

At 4,980 feet above sea level, the dormant volcano known as Mount Popa is considered to be the most sacred site in Myanmar. It is a pilgrimage site that is home to numerous Nats temples and relics, and it is also the location of annual festivals performed in honor of the Nats.

Mount Popa

Mount Popa (also called Taung Kalat), Myanmar, Home of the 37 Nats and Buddhist Monastery

It is believed that the most powerful Nats reside on Mount Popa, and seekers are cautioned not to offend the Nats by bringing meat or wearing the colors red, green or black.

As a testament to the intermingling of folk and Buddhist beliefs, Mount Popa is also an important Buddhist site. In fact, one of the most remote Buddhist monasteries in the world sits on a volcanic plug in Mount Popa’s crater. The Tuang Kalat monastery, which was built in the late 19th century, houses a shrine to the 37 Great Nats. The Nats, who are all depicted as human beings, are adorned in beautiful garments and regularly receive offerings from petitioners. Everyone visiting for Nat ceremonies at Mount Popa must remove their shoes and socks before beginning the climb up to the monastery – 777 steps in all – making the climb a challenging one.

Nat Mediumship

One of the most distinct components of Nat ‘worship’ involves a type of Nat mediumship, very similar to if not indistinguishable from, psychic mediumship as we know it in the West. This display of mediumship is best known for taking place at Mount Popa, especially during the annual festivals. But, mediumship also takes place in regional village ceremonies, also. These ceremonies are known as nat-pwes. They are generally facilitated by someone known as a nat-kadaw, which is a sort of psychic/shaman that can be found in almost every village in Myanmar.

Nat-kadaws often use music and ecstatic dancing in order to reach a trance state which allows a Nat to take possession of them and speak through them. It has been reported that a nat-kadaw’s voice will change dramatically upon possession. These ceremonies are often large social affairs which are focused on spiritual express and having a feast with the Nats. Participants sometimes have a chance to ask questions and present special requests to the Nats through the Nats-kadaw.

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Often participants will receive answers, advice and instructions as a form of guidance. Private ‘Nat seances’ are also available. Nat-kadaws, the psychic mediums who make contact with Nats, have traditionally been female, and the profession was usually passed down from a mother to her daughter. Today, the role seems have to opened up to include transgender women, gay men, and cross-dressing men.

Nats in the Modern Era

Although the vast majority of people in Myanmar today identify themselves as Theravada Buddhists, the majority of those people continue the rituals, practices and ceremonies involving the Nats (in conjuncture with their Buddhism). The traditional belief in Nats is particularly strong among Myanmar’s rural population, and it has been a powerful force against environmental destruction in recent times. The indiscriminate killing of trees or efforts to clear cut entire forests, for example, is frowned upon because of the belief that there are Nats dwelling in the natural environment. Wholesale destruction of nature is considered not just immoral, but will bring about spiritual retribution (likely in ways one cannot foresee because such retribution takes the any number of forms of bad luck or bad fortune).

The Nats of Myanmar have survived over many centuries of social, religious, and political change, and it continues to persist even in the face of encroaching modernity. There is no telling what the future may bring, but, for now, the belief in the mysterious spirits known as Nats is alive and well. With the opening of Myanmar to tourism (and the Nats seem to be one of the top attractions for tourists) perhaps it is an opportunity to re-introduce modern humans to their spiritual roots: Seeing the world as one and not arbitarily divided into spiritual and material realms, or divided between man and nature.

May the Nats be with you … Nat-ually.

If you’d like to talk with a psychic medium with years of experience dealing with spirits, give Psychic Ricky a call at 1-866-407-7164. You may also appreciate Spirit Guides Chat where you can chat online with experts in spirits and spirit guides.

Resource Links You May Appreciate:

Nats of Burma (Myanmar)
Buddhism, Animism and Nature/Nats of Mt. Popa/
Nat Worship in Burma

List of 37 Major Nats … if you’re curious …

1) Thagya (Indra or Sakra)
2) MahaGiri (Lord of the great mountain)
3) Hnamadawgyi (Great royal sister of Magagiri)
4) Shwe Nabe (Lady Golden Sides)
5) Thon Ban Hla (Lady Three Times Beautiful)
6) Toungoo Mingaung (King Mingaung of Taungoo)
7) Mintara (King Hsinbyushin)
8) Thandawgan (The Royal Secretary to Taungoo Minkaung)
9) Shwe Nawrahta (The young prince drowned by King Shwenankyawshin)
10) Aung Zawmagyi (Lord of the White Horse)
11) Ngazishin (Lord of the five white elephant)
12) Aungbinle Hsinbyushin (Lord of the white elephant from Aungbinle)
13) Taungmagyi (Lord of Due South)
14) Maung Minshin (Lord of the North)
15) Shindaw (Lord Novice)
16) Nyaung-gyin (Old man of the Banyan tree)
17) Tabinshwehti (King of Myanmar between 1531-50)
18) Minye Aungdin (Brother-in-law of King Thalun)
19) Shwe Sit thin (Prince, son of Saw Hnit)
20) Medaw Shwedaw (Lady Golden Words)
21) Maung Po Tu (Shan Tea Merchant)
22) Yun Bayin (King of Chiengmai)
23) Maung MinByu (Prince MinByu)
24) Mandalay Bodaw (Lord grandfather of Mandalay)
25) Shwebyin Naungdaw (Elder Brother Inferior Gold)
26) Shwebyin Nyidaw (Younger Brother Inferior Gold)
27) Mintha Maungshin (Grandson of Alaung Sithu)
28) Htibyusaung (Lord of White Umbrella)
29) Htibyusaung Medaw (Lady of White Umbrella)
30) Pareinma Shin Mingaung (The Usurper Mingaung)
31) Min Sithu (King Alaung Sithu)
32) Min Kyawzwa (Prince Kyawzwa)
33) Myaukpet Shinma (Lady of the North)
34) Anauk Mibaya (Queen of the Western Palace)
35) Shingon (Lady Hunback)
36) Shigwa (Lady Bandy-legs)
37) Shin Nemi (Little lady with the flute)