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Religious Literature in Thailand

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Religious Literature

In thematic terms, Thai works of art can be roughly divided into the following groups. They relate to.

  • Either the life of the Buddha or the story of his last life before entering nirvana.
  • The Jataka stories, i.e. the stories of the Buddha’s earlier life.
  • The universe with its different forms of life.
  • Heaven and Hell
  • Stories from Non – Buddhist Liturature
  • Hindu gods
  • Other stories

Buddha was an Indian Prince, born near Lumpini in the south of what is now Nepal. His birth name was Sitthatha. The events in his life before and after enlightenment are depicted in temple mural’s paintings in Bangkok and elsewhere, most of them are the following episodes:

  • Pictures in which a “Maha Rishi” (a great hermit) shows his respect for Prince Sitthatha as a child, since he recognized all the characteristics of a great personality (Mahapurisa) in him.
  • Pictures depicting the four symbolic visions : an old man, a dying man, a dead man and a monk. Prince Sitthata saw them on the way to his palace park. Because of these visions he decided to give up all his worldly possessions and become a monk.
  • Pictures depicting unpleasant scenes in the palace: sleeping girls at court in despicable positions. From this point of view the prince felt disgusted and depressed.
  • Pictures that describe the moment when the prince finally decides in favor of monasticism and looks at his wife, Princess Yasothara and his son Prince Rahun for the last time.
  • Prince Sitthatha on his horse, accompanied by his court servant Chanta when saying goodbye to the court.
  • Pictures showing Prince Sitthatha at the tonsure before entering monasticism.
  • Prince Sittatha trying to attain enlightenment by inflicting torment on himself.
  • Pictures of Lady Suchada at the handover of “Mathupayat Rice” to Prince Sitthata, shortly before his enlightenment, of that he had decided to eat regular meals again after a long fast.
  • Images of Mara, the evil spirit who tried to distract the prince shortly before his enlightenment.
  • Images of Buddha in meditation when he reached enlightenment.
  • The walking Buddha in meditation after he has reached enlightenment.
  • The Buddha’s first sermon to the five Brahma (Panjawakki).
  • Buddha coming down from heaven after preaching to his mother there.
  • Pictures showing Buddha in a resting position between two Sal trees before entering nirvana.
  • The incineration of the Buddha, where the Brahma Tona distributes the Buddha’s relics to kings.

More details about episodes from the life of Buddha can be found in the following books: Krom somdet Phra Poramanuchitchinorot or in a book entitled “Buddhapravat”, written by the Supreme Patriarch krom Phraya Vachirayarn Varorot.

Krom Somdet Phra Poramanuchichinorot was the son of Ramas I. He was called Prince Vasukrie before he became a monk. When he became Supreme Patriach, he resided in the Vasukrie building in Wat Phra Chetupon. He is also known as a poet.

The Supreme Patriach Krom Phraya Vachirayarn Varorot (1859-1921), son of Ramas IV, wrote literary works for both monks and the general public. His residence was at Wat Bovornivet.

The Jataka stories deal with the Buddha’s earlier life. Buddhists believe in the teaching of rebirth. According to this belief, Buddha had several lives before he was born as Prince Sitthata.

There are 547 Jataka stories in the Traipitaka, the Buddhist Bible. The phrase “Lord of 500 Previous Lives” is sometimes used with reference to these stories.

According to Buddhist belief, the entry of man into his existence, i.e. his birth or death, is connected with his actions (kama).

Buddha did good deeds every time he was born, and because of his decency and good deeds in his previous life, he was able to attain enlightenment.

The Jataka stories serve to explain Buddhist principles in the form of stories. The stories are interesting and entertaining and are used as moral lessons for both adults and children. They can be compared with the Indian “Hitopadesa” or the European “Aesop stories”. There are two groups of Jataka stories in Thailand.

  1. Stories of the first groups go back to Tripitaka.
  2. The others were written in Chiengmai in Pali 300-400 years ago.

The Jataka stories in the Tripitaka can in turn be divided into groups according to their length and number of Katha (stanzas in Pali):

  • Ekanibat: Every story is written in only one Katha.
  • Tukanibat: Every story includes two katha.
  • Tikanibat: There are three Katha in each story.
  • Finally, the last group is called Mahanibat. The story therein encompass more than 80 katha.

The Jataka stories written by monks in Chiengmai 300 – 400 years ago form a collection of 50 stories and are called “Panyasjataka” (fifty Jataka stories) or in Thai “Phra Chao Sip Chart” (the 10 earlier lives of Buddha “). The themes and actions of these stories do not come from the Nibatjataka, but from the fairy tales and stories known in Thailand.

The last ten stories of the Nibatjataka, commonly known as Tosajataka, are the most important. Most popular is the last and longest story: Maha Jati or Maha Vessandorn.

The Vessandorn Jataka has been known as a literary work, Mahajati Kham Luang (written 1462), since the reign of King Borom Trailokanat from the Ayutthaya period.

    • Vessandorn, the only son and crown prince of King Sonchai, is known for his donations to poor people and to anyone who asks him for something. He is crowned king by his father and is very popular with his people. However, when he gives away the country’s sacred elephant, Pajayanakendra, his people get very angry.

      King Sonchai is informed of this, and Vessandorn has to go into exile, accompanied by his wife, Queen Mattrie, his son Chalie and daughter Ganha. The family goes to the Wong Kot Mountains and lives there. Everything would be fine if Chuchok, an old Brahma from the city of Kalingkarasdra, did not show up.

      The old Brahma is urged by his young wife, Amitada, to ask Prince Vessandorn for his two children, Chalie and Kanha, to serve as slaves for him. Chuchok then goes to the prince, who fulfills his wish, although he knows very well that the mother or his wife and the children are very dependent on love for one another.

      Also the god Indra turns himself into a Brahmen and asks Prince Vessandorn for his wife, Mattrie, who is also given to him.

      The self-sacrificing gift is considered the highest and last stage before enlightenment. The story ends well. The request of the god Indra for Vessandorn Frau Mattrie turns out to be only a test that serves to test the prince’s steadfastness.

      In addition, Indra also wants to ensure that the woman is not given to an indecent person. Chuchok, on the way to his wife, gets lost and accidentally goes to the city of Seepee, where King Sonchai is staying. The grandfather recognizes his grandson, gives Chuchok a large sum of ransom money and gets his grandson back.

      The people of Seepee, who have learned about Vessandorn’s behavior, now remember his previous good deeds and want him to return. Vessandorn and Mattrie are brought back and rule the city as before.

      The moral of this Jataka story is to praise the selfless giving as a good deed. The story is well known and popular in Thailand as well as in other Buddhist countries.

    • In this story the Bodhisatt (later Buddha) is born as Prince Temieya, son of King Benares. At the age of one month, the little one understands that even as a king he could not avoid evil deeds, such as giving an order to punish criminals.

      The prince therefore prefers to mute himself and make a cripple. Because of this, his father and his people want to bury him alive.

      Prince Temieya then shows that he is neither dumb nor crippled and explains to the people that he wants to avoid becoming king in this way. He goes and becomes a monk.

      This story highlights the importance of virtue in standing by one’s resolve.

    • In this story, the Bodhisatt, born as Merchant Mahachanaka, was shipwrecked and had to swim in the ocean for seven days and seven nights. The sea goddess Mekhala is very impressed by his tireless efforts, helps him and brings him to the country. Mahachanaka later becomes king, but finally enters the monkhood.

      The virtue highlighted in this story is tireless effort.

    • The Bodhisatt, born as a Brahma, has to take care of his blind parents. The family lives in a forest.

      One day, while on the hunt, King Kabilayaka accidentally shoots Suwannasam. He suffers great wounds, but shows himself kind and merciful to everyone, including the king. Because of his mercy, Suwannasam is saved and his parents can see again. This story praises the virtue of mercy.

    • The Bodhisatt Nemiraja leads a simple and chaste life as a vegetarian and likes to give alms. Impressed by his cheerfulness, God lets Indra fetch him and tour him heaven and hell. After returning to earth, Nemiraja lives as a monk. This story praises the virtue of renunciation and self-denial.

    • The Bodhisatt Mahosatt lives as a scholar at the court of King Viteheraja. He can solve all tasks and problems set by gods as well as men, and defeat all jealous people as well as the king’s enemies.

      Here, the virtue of wisdom is praised.

    • The Bodhisatt is born as a great Naka named Bhuritat. He firmly vows to adhere to the moral laws and never get angry. Captured by a Brahmen, a snake charmer, he is forced to put himself on display. Although he could easily harm it, he insists on it. Instead, he preaches to all who want to harm him until they give up their intentions and their misguided beliefs.

      This story praises the virtue of adherence to religious vows and moral laws.

    • Chantakuman, a Brahma scholar, remains decent and righteous, while the other Brahmen at the royal court are corrupt. Chantakuman is therefore made court judge by the king. The corrupt Brahmas want to harm him, but Chantakuman survives all their attacks and remains patient.

      This story praises the virtue of patience.

    • King Angkataraja follows all ten vows, as is expected of a good king. Nevertheless, he is misdirected at one point. The Bodhisatt, born as a Brahma under the name of Nartha, preaches the prodigal king and leads him on the right path.

      This story praises the virtue of equanimity.

    The Thai cosmology is derived from Buddhism. The most important literary work about it is Traiphumi Phra Ruang or Thephumikatha, written and edited by King Mahathammaraja I (Phraya Li thai), and intended as a sermon to his mother. The content of this book goes back to 30 different written sources. This Thephumkatha was the first Buddhist script written in Thailand and had a great influence on the later Thai literature.

    According to Traibhum Phra Ruang, the universe contains three spheres of existence:

    1. Kamabhumi: the sensual world in which all beings still have sensual desires.
    2. Rupabhumi: or the world of form, in which all beings can have their sensual desires under control, but have not yet given up their pursuit of existence.
    3. Arupbhumi: or the world of formlessness, in which all beings stand beyond sensual desires and their current existence, but still worry about their future because they fear to be born again and have to suffer the torments of existence again.

    The information about the structure of the world with the Sumeru mountain in the middle is also important in this work. The Sumeru mountain rises up to the sky, but its foot is deep underground. The inhabited regions are called Thaviep (continents). There are a total of 4 Thaviep:

    1. Uttarakuru: north of Sumeru Mountain.
    2. Purvavideha: in the east.
    3. Amaragayana: in the west.
    4. Jambhuthaviep: where we now live in the south.

    The most pious people live in Uttarakura. You never get sick and live the longest. Their faces are square, while the people of Purvavideha have a round face like a full moon. The shape of the face of the people in Amaragoyana resembles the waning moon.

    The Sumeru mountain, north of Jambhuthaviep, is the abode of all heavenly beings. It is surrounded by seven mountains and the ocean. : The seven mountains are called Sattabhanthakiri, the ocean between these mountains Sithandorn.

    There are 6 layers of heaven according to Buddhist belief:

    1. Jatumarajiga
    2. Tavatimsa (where the god Indra abides)
    3. Yama
    4. Dusit
    5. Nimmanoradi
    6. Poranimitswatdi

    In the universe, as described in Traibhum Phra Ruang, there are many animals that do not exist on our earth, namely “Ratchasi” (mythological lion), strange elephants, oxen and horses including “Garuda” (a mythological bird) and “Nak “(The snake king).

    At the foot of the Sumeru there is a large lake called “Simplie” called “Chimplie”. This lake is surrounded by Simplie trees, on the top of which Phra Ya Garuda lives.

    Apart from Garuda, other mythological animals come from Buddhism and Brahmism (Hinduism): Yaksa, Mara and Asura. Far away there are heavenly beings who are lower than Theva (deva = god) but higher than humans: Vidhayattara, kinnon, kinnari and Apsara.

    Kinnon and kinnarie are bird gods and goddess. Their upper bodies are like gods, their lower bodies are like birds. They live on the slopes of the mythological mountain “Sumeru” or in the “Himmaphan forest”

    In the liturature it sometimes happens that the kinnarie are kidnapped because of their beauty. Wall paintings, sculptures or decorative elements in the temple also represent kinnon and kinnarie. They are modeled in dance theater, e.g. in the “Manora”.

    The idea of heaven and hell serves on the one hand to make people believe in what is good. Good deeds are rewarded, especially in the afterlife. On the other hand, the one who sins is punished and has to go into Hell.

    • People who do good deeds in life go to heaven, which in Buddhism is called “Sukkati” (= the happy landscape), while the place where sinners are punished is called “Dhukkati” (= the unhappy landscape).

      Sukkati consists of the six mentioned heavenly layers, in which the heavenly beings are still in the sensual world. Those who come beyond these spheres into the world of Brahma are called “Brahma” in Brahmaloka. They can be divided into two groups:

      Rupabrahma are Brahms who still have form but have eliminated their higher level desires that exist only spiritually. Your world is not shaped.

      In the world of the Brahms. Be it Rupabrahma or Arupabrahma, there are no women.

    • According to the “Traibhum Phra Ruang”, after our death we go straight to the King of Death. To the “Phraya Yom” (Yomaraja) to show him our respect. Four “Deva” (heavenly beings) then check our lists of good and bad deeds. The good ones are recorded on a gold plate and the bad ones on a piece of dog skin. Depending on the result, we are either sent to hell or to heaven.

      The form and extent of the punishment in hell depend on our southern register. All punishments come in the form of torture. – The cave consists of a large number of caves: eight large caves, each of which is connected to 16 smaller caves – a total of 136.

      The lowest and least known is called “Aveci”. However, even those who are sent there have. Another chance to get free and one day to be reborn, be it as a human, animal or spirit.

      In many treatises it is shown how sinners are punished, e.g. they are boiled in a large copper kettle, they are torn to pieces by hellhounds, one often sees pictures of men and women climbing trees with long and sharp thorns must because they committed adultery. Yommabarn uses his spears to force them to climb up and down the trees.

    The literary work “Ramayana”, which originates from Indian literature and whose Thai version bears the name “Ramakien”, is very well known.

    The Indian version of Ramayana is just as old as Buddhism, i.e. about 2500 years.

    The work was probably written by Valmiki, a hermit. The story came to Thailand no less than 900 years ago. In the Khmer temple of Pimei there are stone sculptures depicting scenes from this epic. Caves with the names Rama and Sita are mentioned on the stone inscriptions of King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai.

    During the reign of King Narai the Great (Ayutthaya period), “Nirat Sida” or “Rajapilarp came Chan” were written. The work describes Ramas sorrow in his search for his wife Sida.

    The longest Thai version of Ramakien was written by Rama I (60,000 stanzas). Other versions are from Koenig Tak Sin and Rama II, among others.

    • King Tosarot of Ayodhaya has a crown prince Rama and three other sons, Laksaman, Plot and Sattru, who are from women other than Rama mother. Rama marries Sida, but is driven into exile by means of an intrigue from Prot’s mother, so that Prot becomes king. Rama, accompanied by Sida and Laksaman, goes deep into the forest to live there.

      King Tosakan or Ravana, the demon king of Langka, fascinated by Sida, orders Mareej to transform himself into a golden stag and lure Rama and Laksaman away from Sida. Tosakan abducts Sida to Langka. Pipek, Tosakan’s brother, asks him to bring Sida back to Rama. Learned from this advice, Tosakan drives his brother out of town, whereupon he goes to Rama and helps him as an advisor.

      In the battles that follow Tosakan is supported by countless friends and relatives, while Rama has an army and great ape warriors like Hanuman, Sukriep and Ongkot under his command. Rama wins and finally gets Sida back.

    • The three main Hindu gods are:

      1. Brahma: the creator
      2. Vishnu or Narai: the keeper
      3. Siva or Isavana / Isuan: the destroyer

      • Brahma is the God who made the world and the universe. Every time the demons “Asura” or Yaksa disturb the peace and order of the world or persecute people, it is Vishnu’s task to bring the world back to order and to close the demons remove.

        In this case Vishnu does not come to earth as god, but as an incarnation (= Avartan). In numerous literary works there is talk of ten incarnations of Vishnu (Narai Sib Pang, the Thai title of one of these works).

        According to Hindu belief, people were still perfectly good after Brahma’s creation. However, over time they get worse and worse. The world is divided into four ages that are gradually becoming evil:

        1. Satayayuk
        2. Tredayuk
        3. Twaborayuk
        4. Galieyuk

        In which there is no longer any good. When that age comes, the god Siva will destroy the world.

        The Hindu faith came to Thailand via Khambodia. For the Khmer the god Siva is most important. This fact explains why there are many episodes in Ramakien in which Siva is higher than Vishnu (Narai). For example, he orders Narai to conquer Nontuk.

        Vishnu has four arms. His residence is usually on the Anantanagaraj, which floats on the milk lake (kasirasamutt). His wife is called Lakshmi.

      • Vishnu has four arms. His residence is usually on the Anantanagaraj, which floats on the milk lake (kasirasamutt). His wife is called Lakshmi.

      • Siva looks very different from Vishnu. Usually he looks like a hermit. He wears a tiger skin and no jewelry. But sometimes we see Siva, who also wears a scarf made of skulls and uses a crescent moon as a hairpin. One can easily recognize Siva by the third eye in the middle of his forehead. His residence is on Mount Krailat (the White Mountain). Sometimes he prays or meditates in the seclusion of a cemetery.

        Uma, Siva woman, is highly revered in many regions of India, especially by followers of the Tantra sect who are more Uma than Siva oriented. According to this belief, Siva’s wife is also called Kalie – a terrible, bloodthirsty goddess who demands living beings as sacrifices.

        Many ancient Indians also believe in the fertility power of this goddess. Hence fertility appears feminine to them. Other groups, however, claim that the power of fertility is due to the power of the father, Siva. Therefore “Siva Lingam” is also seen as a symbol of fertility.

    The god Indra is originally the god of lightning and thunder in Hinduism. Later he only becomes a higher, heavenly being without any function. Indra in Hinduism still has sensual desires and sometimes gets into difficulties because of this, such as in his love affair with Adulya, the wife of a hermit, and is cursed by him to get markings all over his body that look like female sexual organs.

    Indra repents and asks the hermit for forgiveness, who finally turns all traits into eyes, which is why Indra is also given the name “sahasanai” (one-piece eyes). Some Thai works give it the name Tao Pan Ta (= one who has 1000 eyes).

    Ganesh is the son of Siva and Uma. He has the head of an elephant and the body of a human with long ears, four arms and two fangs. Ganesh holds a long hook for leading an elephant, a noose, a bowl of holy water and a bolt of lightning. He is considered the god of science and art.

    In the courtyard of the Wat Po temple there is a siva lingam in front of the large stupa, on which pious Buddhists have stuck traces of gold leaf. It is believed that Siva lingam was introduced there as a symbol of knowledge to make the temple a center of art and science.

    Since Siva lingam symbolizes fertility, similar to the Greek phallic symbol, women also come there to ask to become pregnant and leave a gold leaf smear on the Siva lingam.

    The figures of Mekhala and Ramasun are depicted in many Buddhist temples. Although the names come from Sanskrit, their stories cannot be found in Sanskrit literature.

    The Thai people tell the story of the heavenly beings in a version that sounds like a story from India. In pictures and sculptures we see Mekhala with a crystal in hand. When she ascends to heaven, this crystal glitters so beautifully that Ramasun, a demon, wants it.

    Ramasun throws his weapon, an ax, at Makhala, whereupon thunder and lightning arise. The crystal has a magical power that protects Mekhala from the demon.

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