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The Governor’s Residence, Yangon, Myanmar

Culture & Beliefs

Every Burmese has a birthday once a week, perhaps not in the sense of celebration, but the day of the week on which a Burmese is born affects many decisions in their lives. It dictates the first letter of their name and where they pray at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, which, along with many other shrines features planetary posts for each day of the week. 

There are eight such posts, each identifiable by an animal (a tiger for Monday, a Lion for Tuesday, and so on). Wednesday is split into two, an elephant without tusks in the morning, one with tusks for the afternoon. Corresponding “planets” would be Mercury for Wednesday morning, Saturn for Saturday and the Moon for Monday. 

There is also a Burmese “planet” called Rahu (Wednesday afternoon), said to be the cause of eclipses. Worshippers bring offerings of flowers and fruit to their planetary post, and anoint their animal with water.

Buddhism, more than anything else, has shaped Burmese history and culture. Eighty-five percent of the population today follow the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, a royal prince who lived some 2,500 years ago in India. Though bought up surrounded by wealth and luxury, he eventually renounced worldly riches and devoted his life to teaching. 

Eight of the Buddha's hairs are believed to be enshrined in the Shwedagon Pagoda. The foundation stone of this magnificent gold-leafed edifice, one of the world's great religious sites, is said to have been laid by the Mons around 480BC.
 
Following the Buddha's death, the Buddhist world divided into two schools. Theravada Buddhists believe you are an individual on your own and feel they adhere more to the Buddha's original thinking. Tha Mahayana school believes an individual's life is linked to others, thus affecting the world. 

Buddhists believe that all humanity is subject to pain and suffering from birth to death, and tolerance and forgiveness should supercede, vengeance and hatred. Although Myanmar is a devoutly Buddhist country, the people have retained a wealth of lore and superstitions which date back to the animistic beliefs of their ancestors. 

Buddhism, a tolerant faith, does not contradict these earlier traditions, which have become entwined with the national religion, giving a rich texture to spiritual life.
 
Besides astrology, which influences many aspects of daily life, from the selection of business partners to days when it is unwise to cut one’s hair, traditional beliefs encompass a spirit world inhabited by an assorted cast of supernatural beings, none more important than nats, mischievous little spirits that can wreck havoc if not placated with offerings of flowers, money and food. 

Before Buddism was introduced into Ancient Burma by King Anawrahta in the 11th century, an animistic religion held sway, based on the worship of these spirit gods (nats). 

The spirits are not to be treated lightly, King Anawrahta tried to put the nats in their place and was gored to death by a wild buffalo, a fate predicted by his soothsayers. Buddhism never totally superseded these powerful creatures, and today pagodas and nat shrines sit happily side by side.
 

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