Thursday, March 1, 2001

Stealing Heaven’s Thunder

Culture, The Irrawaddy Magazine, MARCH, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.3

Stealing Heaven’s Thunder


The descent of the Celestial King during the Burmese New Year has been eclipsed by the ambitions of generals who believe they will be rewarded for their deeds here on Earth.

Thagyamin, King of the Celestials, comes down to the Earth. The Burmese people believe that at this very moment the New Year Festival begins.

Yes, the New Year in Burma marks the annual visitation of Thagyamin to the abode of human beings. The New Year Festival, Thingyan or Thingyan Pwe, is not, strictly speaking, a religious event, and is not determined by the phases of the moon like the other twelve-month festivals that are linked to the lunar calendar.

In fact, the word Thingyan is derived from the Sanskrit word Sankranta, meaning "changeover" or "transfer". From the astrological point of view, it denotes the shift of the sun from one sign of the zodiac to another, and in this case specifically from Pisces to Aries. The Thingyan festival was invented by ancient Ponnas or Brahmins who were versed in judicial astrology, in which almost all Burmese place implicit faith.

According to an early stone inscription found in the Saw Hla Wun Pagoda in Pagan, it was not until the Pagan Era that the Thingyan was celebrated for the first time in Burma. Thai scholars’ research seems to support this. When they traced the historical origin of the Thai New Year (Songkran), they found that the Water Festival and related ceremonies had been diffused to Thailand through Burmese influence, during the reign of King Anuruddha the Great of Pagan in the 11th century A.D.

Since the olden days of the Burmese Kings, the Brahmin astrologers have annually drawn up Thingyan-sa, a kind of prophetic almanac, on palm leaves, in which predictions for the New Year are given. On his annual visit, Thagyamin comes and spends the last two (sometimes three) days of the old year in the abode of human beings, and the exact moment of his departure brings in the New Year. The festival lasts for three days (sometimes four), and the day of his arrival is known as the Day of Descent, the day of his departure the Day of Ascent, and the day in between (sometimes two days in between) the Day of Sojourn.

In fact, Thagyamin, the King of Celestials, is none other than Sakra. In Hinduism he was Indra, the god of the thunder bolt, but he was adopted by Buddhism as its guardian-god under the name of Sakra. "The name ‘Thagyamin’ means ‘the Lord who knows and hears everything’, and a twelfth-century fresco depicts him with two pairs of eyes, two pairs of ears, and two noses.

‘Thagyamin’, of course, may be just a derivative of the name Sakra", wrote well-known Burmese scholar Dr. Htin Aung in his book Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism.

"We believe in him (Thagyamin) like people believe in Santa Claus," explained Khin Myo Chit, a leading Burmese woman writer of the postcolonial era. "He is responsible for seeing that people live in accordance with the Buddha’s way. He must see that justice is done; he must protect the good and let the bad get their deserts."

As soon as his downy couch hardens, which acts as a reminder that someone down here needs help, Thagyamin is obliged to switch his attention to the human abode. In stories and plays, whenever the hero or heroine calls for help, he comes down in the form of a human being, a type of Good Samaritan. However, in the eyes of Theravada Buddhist teachers, all these things seem to belong to the realm of myth.

"The King of Devas never came down to the human abode: that is just something the Brahmins invented," Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, the most famous insight-meditation teacher in Burma, stated in one of his discourses, called "Lokadhamma".

In a lighter and more secular way, Thagyamin frequently falls into the hands of Burmese poets and cartoonists—as the object of reproach and complaints for his seeming neglect of duties, such as a failure to protect good people who are both in deep water and in need of help. During the series of crackdowns on pro-democracy activists by the Burmese military in the mid 1990s, a famous cartoonist penned a cartoon in which Thagyamin is ridiculed by his wives for continually missing the target (bad people) with the use of his thunderbolt.

No matter who else believes in the existence of Thagyamin, the Burmese generals certainly do. One of the Jataka tales (the stories of Buddha’s former lives), recounts how the dynasty of Thagyamins started with the story of a man called Magha and his followers who organized good deeds, like repairing roads, building bridges and digging wells. Beyond the realm of common sense, the Burmese generals also believe that they will become Thagyamins or celestials in future lives for similar good deeds such as building roads, bridges, satellite townships, dams and repairing pagodas, which they have done since they took power in 1988.

"In government newspapers, you can see articles seriously claiming that the Tatmadaw (army) leaders and Tatmadaw men will be reborn in the celestial world since they are as noble as Magha (the former life of Thagyamin) in their current lives. The military even made a TV movie in which the generals compared themselves to Magha," reported a journalist in Rangoon.

Not surprisingly, the military always try to create their own special society within Burmese society at large—not only in terms of present privileges but also in terms of the rewards of future lives in the cycle of rebirth.

"The military alone is doing its best and consequently deserves the most fruitful rewards, in spheres ranging from politics to spiritual attainment. That is what they believe and what they want the people to believe," continued the journalist in a sarcastic vein.

However, the belief in Thagyamin does not stop here. It goes on. In Burma, about four months before the Thingyan festival, Thingyan-sa, the annual almanac broadsheet, issued by astrologers comes out predicting what to expect in the coming year. It tells how Thagyamin will come down; his arrival and departure times, the color of his dress, on what animal he will be riding; what he will carry in his hands and so on. These details indicate the general characteristics of the coming year. People foretell the future from the paraphernalia that he carries about him.

Thus, when Thagyamin wears a reddish-gold dress, carries in one hand a king’s sword and in another a sickle, and rides on the proper vehicle of the Sun planet, namely the galon bird, the year will be normal, neither very fortunate nor too unfortunate. When he wears a dress of gold, carries in one hand a bunch of flowers and in the other hand a pot of drinking water, and rides on a bull or a buffalo, the year will be an unusually peaceful and prosperous one. When he wears a flaming red dress, carries a burning torch in one hand and a spear or a broad sword or a battle-axe in the other, and rides on a Naga dragon or ogre, the year will be full of bloodshed and disaster. Interestingly, on many occasions the predictions have come true.

"In 1999, Thingyan-sa foretold that there would be deaths of celebrities in Burma. It turned out to be true. Many actors, actresses, writers and other famous people died," explained a well-known astrologer in Rangoon, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Prior to that event, the predictions of earthquake, flood and so on had frequently become reality later on. All in all, the frequent occurrence of events predicted by Thingya-sa makes the generals in power feel uptight.

"They (the military men) are very sensitive to what astrologers say," the astrologer explained with a confident air. For the year 2001 (1363 in the Burmese Calendar), according to the Thingyan-sa, Thagyamin will come down to the human abode wearing a bright blue and yellow dress, carrying a flaming wooden-torch in one hand and holding his belly with another hand, and riding on the ogre on 14 April. "This information indicates that there will be rampant disturbances, such as fires, warfare, bloodshed and starvation in the coming year. But no one is allowed to make such a prediction because of censorship," explained the astrologer.

Before 1886, Thingyan-sa was issued under the authority of the King and later on issued by the Guild of Astrologers. But for the last few decades, individual astrologers interpret the paraphernalia that Thagyamin carries in different ways.

"The censorship board scrutinizes every version of Thingyan-sa with a heavy hand since the broadsheets have a huge influence on the people, especially in rural areas," explained the astrologer. Any political implication or interpretation of the descent of Thagyamin is banned by the censorship board in Burma. In some Thingyan-sa sheets, paragraphs were taken out by the censors. Some astrologers who made sensitive predictions were called in for investigation and some were given strong warnings, and the publishing licenses of some were revoked.

"In the last couple of years, the varieties of Thingyan-sa have been noticeably reduced. You can only find the Thingyan-sa written by astrologers who follow whatever the authorities dictate concerning how to read the paraphernalia that Thagyamin carries on his descent to the human realm. I don’t believe in Thingyan-sa anymore," said Myo Aung of Mandalay, whose hobby is studying palm reading and astrology.

In reality, the most useful part of Thingyan-sa is nothing to do with this paranoia of the military. Thingyan-sa could give great help to the people who depend on agriculture, which is crucial for a country like Burma, a predominantly agrarian society. Since the use of a calendar to calculate the best time for rearing animals and planting crops is of utmost importance, astrologers interpreting Thingyan-sa have to adjust the gap between the lunar calendar—which the Burmese use traditionally—and the solar calendar, which is accurate and reliable. Thingyan-sa thus used to play a very significant role in making predictions in determining the kinds of weather conditions that would come, the best time for planting and harvesting and what types of crops ought to be grown, during which month, and when and what kind of epidemics could hit which part of the country.

"Once all these predictions were a very useful guide for the farmers and people in rural areas. All in all, Thingyan-sa was the cultivators’ calendar in Burma," explained a well-known historian in Burma who asked to remain anonymous.

However, the junta introduced the summer paddy program in 1992, in which the traditional single rice crop per year, sown in the rainy season and reaped in the cool season of October-December, is followed by another crop, raised and reaped in the hot season. Since then, like all other aspects of the people’s lives, the predictions of Thingyan-sa—which serves as the best guide for rural people—have had a topsy-turvy fate.

"This is nothing less than total control. No one except for military men, not even Thagyamin, is allowed to give any guidance to the country. It doesn’t matter what consequences follow," Myo
Aung said derisively.

Even though Thagyamin is disregarded in the hands of the military, he will have to come down to the human realm on 14 April 2001 for his annual visit. As usual, he will bring with him two big volumes, one bound in dog-skin parchment, the other in gold. He records in the dog-skin book the names of those who have committed misdeeds during the course of the year and in the gold book the names of those who have performed acts of merit. You can guess whose names will go down on the dog-skin parchment, but make sure that your own name is entered into the gold volume when Thagyamin writes down his list of good guys.