Water Festival

[Summary: Songkram water festival, animism in a ‘Buddhist’ culture, and littlebang updating]

While Littlebang updates, and rearranges the pages and icons, and while the new Galleries slowly take form, the outside world here goes to war with water guns. Perhaps Songkram would be a better name of this festival than Songkran.

 The origins of this festival are not clear, but there are Brahmanic connections with the image of washing away people’s sins. Such ritual bathing occurs in Christianity too, but you only need to do it once at your Baptism. Other historians point to an old belief that the Nagas or mythical serpents brought on rain by spouting water from the seas. The more they spouted, the more rain there would be. So, like December’s Loi Krathong, there is an animist percentage in the celebrations. It is also the traditional Thai New Year. Officially the new year was moved to Jan 1st to be in keeping with international timekeeping, but the event remains – why not celebrate new year twice a year ? It was in keeping with the Thai Zodiac: Songkran in Thai means “move” or “change place” as it was originally the day when the sun changes its position in the zodiac to the vernal equinox. Interestingly, this is a solar event, where almost all other events of Thailand follow the lunar calendar.

Do such pagan/animist celebrations belong in a modern culture? The Evangelical Church in Thailand does not think so:

Just beneath the surface, however, the Christian will sense that few Thai people live with spiritual hope. Living in a perpetual cycle of fatalism and apprehension of the spirit world, Thailand has for many years suppressed the truth of the gospel. A spiritual people on the whole, many Thais express their religious devotion through offerings to spirits and images of Buddha, and seeking merit through good deeds.

Similar thoughts were expressed last December:

The sad part about Loy Krathong is that the reason most Thais release krathongs on the waterways is to appease the spirit of the water. They ask forgiveness for polluting the water

 The above groups in fact also celebrate the Pagan originated Loi Krathong, but thank God for the water instead of the water spirits.

Similar thoughts are often expressed by people in Thailand – that the religion of Thailand is as much animist as it is Buddhist. However, it should be remembered that the Buddha himself did not reject local traditions and beliefs, except where they might cause harm. In the Maha Parinibbana Sutta he tells the Vajjians they should

respect, revere, honour and salute the Vajjian shrines at home and abroad.

There are many instances of The Buddha allowing or even indulging in practises that people call ‘animist’ in Thailand today. Floating his bowl upstream as a portent of his immanent success in attaining Enlightenment, or pouring water on the ground as a dedication of merit made. Buddhism was never exclusivist. It never tried to stamp out or disrespect older traditions, except where they were harmful to ones practise or wisdom.

Beyond all that, the Thais do not pay much attention to such things. The events and customs are Thai, and do not have to adhere to a particular teaching, even Buddhism. Really, Songkran is a festival of ‘Sanook’ more than anything else.



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