The main religions of the country are Buddhism (89.2%), Christianity (5.0%), Islam (3.8%), Hinduism (0.5%), Spiritualism (1.2%) and others (0.2%). Religious intolerance or discrimination on grounds of religion is nonexistent in the Union of Myanmar throughout its long history.
Buddhism reached Myanmar around the beginning of the Christian era, mingling with Hinduism (also imported from India) and indigenous animism. The Pyu and Mon kingdoms of the first millennium were Buddhist, but the early Bamar peoples were animists. According to traditional history, King Anawrahta of Bagan adopted Buddhism in 1056 and went to war with the Mon kingdom of Thaton in the south of the country in order to obtain the Buddhist Canon and learned monks. The religious tradition created at this time, and which continues to the present day, is a syncretalist mix of what might be termed ‘pure’ Buddhism (of the Sri Lankan or Theravada school) with deep-rooted elements of the original animism or nat-worship and even strands of Hinduism and the Mahayana tradition of northern India.
Islam reached Myanmar at approximately the same time, but never gained a foothold outside the geographically isolated seaboard running from modern Bangladesh southwards to the delta of the Ayeyarwady (modern Rakhine, known previously to the British as Arakan, and an independent kingdom until the eighteenth century). The colonial period saw a huge influx of Muslim (and Hindu) Indians into Yangon and other cities, and the majority of Yangon’s many mosques and temples owe their origins to these immigrants.
Christianity was brought to Myanmar by European missionaries in the 19th century. It made little if any headway among Buddhists, but has been widely adopted by non-Buddhists such as the Karen and Kachin.
The Chinese contribution to Myanmar’s religious mix has been slight, but several traditional Chinese temples were established in Yangon and other large cities in the nineteenth century when large-scale Chinese migration was encouraged by the British. Since approximately 1990 this migration has resumed in huge numbers, but the modern Chinese immigrants seem to have little interest in religion.
Some more isolated indigenous peoples in the more inaccessible parts of the country still follow traditional animism.
The Roman Catholic Church, Myanmar Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God of Myanmar are the largest Christian denominations in Myanmar.
Myanmar allows complete freedom of religious expression, and there appears to be no inter-religious tensions as such (although there are ethnic tensions, particularly between the dominant Bamar and the descendants of Indian migrants, which can find religious expression). Nevertheless, the current regime’s nationalistic policy of Bama san-gyin, which considers Buddhism a key element of Burmese-ness, does provide a systemic bias in favour of Buddhists in terms of preferment in the armed forces and other State structures.
THE HISTORY OF BUDDHISM IN MYANMAR
The history of Buddhism in Myanmar extends nearly a millennia. The Sasana Vamsa, written by Pinyasami in the 1800s, summarises much of the history of Buddhism in Myanmar.
During the reign of King Anawrahta Theravada Buddhism became prevalent among the Burmese. Prior to his rule existed a form of Mahayana Buddhism, known as Ari Buddhism. It included the worship of Bodhisatta and nagas, and corrupt monks. Anawrahta was converted by Shin Arahan, a monk from Thaton to Theravada Buddhism. In 1057, Anawrahta sent an army to conquer the Mon city of Thaton in order to obtain theTipitaka Buddhist canon. Mon culture, from that point, came to be largely assimilated into Bamar culture in Bagan. Despite attempts at reform, certain features of Ari Buddhism and traditional nat worship continued. Following kings of Bagan built such a large large number of monuments, temples, and pagodas in order to honour Buddhist beliefs and tenets that Bagan soon became major archaeological site. Burmese rule at Bagan continued until the invasion of the Mongols in 1287.
The Shan, in the meanwhile, established themselves as rulers throughout the region now known as Myanmar. Thihathu, a Shan king, established rule in Bagan, by patronising and building many monasteries and pagodas. Bhikkus continued to be influential, particularly in Burmese literature and politics.
The Mon kingdoms, often ruled by Shan chieftains, fostered Theravada Buddhism in the 1300s. Wareru, who became king of Mottama (a Mon city kingdom), patronised Buddhism, and established a code of law (Dhammathat) compiled by Buddhist monks. King Dhammazedi, formerly a Mon monk, established rule in the late 1400s at Innwa and unified the Sangha in Mon territories. He also standardised ordination of monks set out in the Kalyani Inscriptions. Dhammazedi moved the capital back to Hanthawaddy (Bago). His mother-in-law Queen Shin Sawbu of Pegu was also a great patron of Buddhism. She is credited for expanding and gilding the Shwedagon Pagoda giving her own weight in gold.
The Bamar, who had fled to Taungoo before the invading Shan, established a kingdom there under the reigns of Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung who conquered and unified most of modern Myanmar. These monarchs also embraced Mon culture and patronised Theravada Buddhism.
In the reigns of succeeding kings, the Taungoo kingdom became increasingly volatile. In the mid- 1700s, King Alaungpaya expanded the Bamar kingdoms and established the Konbaung dynasty. Under the rule of King Bodawpaya, a son of Alaungpaya, a unified sect of monks (Thudamma) was created within the kingdom. Bodawpaya restored ties with Sri Lanka started by Anawrahta, allowing for mutual influence in religious affairs. In the reigns of the Konbaung kings that followed, both secular and religious literary works were created. King Mindon Min moved his capital to Mandalay. After Lower Burma had been conquered by the British, Christianity began to gain acceptance. Many monks from Lower Burma had resettled in Mandalay, but by decree of Mindon Min, they returned to serve the Buddhist laypeople. However, schisms arose among the Sangha, which were resolved during the Fifth Buddhist Synod, held in Mandalay. From 1868 – 1871 in the Kuthodaw Pagoda, the Tipitaka was engraved on 729 marble slabs. A new hti (the gold umbrella that crowns a stupa) encrusted with jewels from the crown was also donated by Mindon Min for the Shwedagon now in British Burma.
During the British administration of Lower and Upper Burma also known as Burma Proper, government policies were secular. Hence, monks were not protected by law. Likewise, Buddhism was not patronised by the colonial government. This resulted in tensions between the colonised Buddhists and their European rulers. There was much opposition to efforts by Christian missionaries to convert Burmese people (Bamar, Shan, and hill tribes). Today, Christianity is most commonly practised by the Chin, Kachin, and the Kayin. Notwithstanding traditional avoidance of political activity, monks often participated in politics and the independence struggle.
Since 1948 when the country received independece from Great Britain, both civil and military governments have supported Theravada Buddhism. The 1947 Constitution states, “The State recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The Ministry of Religious Affairs, created in 1948, was responsible for continuing Buddhism in Myanmar. In 1954, the prime minister, U Nu, convened the Sixth Buddhist Synod in Rangoon (Yangon), which was attended by 2,500 monks. It was during this time that the World Buddhist University was established.
During the military rule of Ne Win (1962-1988), he attempted to reform Burma under the Burmese Way to Socialism which contained elements of Buddhism. In the 8888 Uprising, many monks participated and were kil
led by Tatmadaw soldiers. The current military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) patronises Buddhism, although persecution of persons of other religions, namely Islam and Christianity, continues.
THE RELIGION AND EDUCATION
According to the Myanmar tradition, the parents have to send their the children once they pass 7 year age, to the monastery to follow some Buddhist teachings and practice. Myanmar people are devoted to the religion and they believe in Buddhism. According to the Buddhism, the Buddhist, when he was a prince, left his palace on the horse-back with the follower man, “Maung San” to practise the meditation and to dig up what the real life and how the cycle of life is rotating and how to attain Nirvana, and that life is made up of suffering and there is no self after He saw the old, the sick, the dead, the monk in the royal garden.
Myanmar people also send their children to the monastery to conduct Buddhist education.But before they are sent to the monastery, they celebrate the ceremony called “Shinbyu”. In this ceremony, the male children wear the costumes like the princes. Then they ride the horse as the Buddhist did when he left for meditation.
In Burmese ceremony, they also have a follower man to this child, a monk-to-be. Then a lot of people will follow going around the city or village carrying the things , what they called, the “Paraitkayashikba”, the things needed to be a monk including the robe. After the going around, he will be sent to the monastery. The head monk of the monastery will give some teachings.
Then he was balded and let in the robe and he also cites some Buddhist teachings and becomes a young monk. On the following day is the preaching of Buddhist teaching by the head of monastery at the parents’ house with a lot of people. The head monks, the monks from the monastery, as well as the young monks are on the traditional stage cite the teachings first. Then the head monk will give some teachings which takes at least 2 hours. All the laymen and women offer the offerings to the monk and share some traditional food with the guests, and all of them are in great interest in the teachings of Buddhist monks. Then the ceremony is closed and the young monks are sent to the monastery to study Buddhist teachings,where they have to keep the Eight Precepts. They have to study in the monastery at least 2 weeks. But all the parents in Myanmar want their children learn Buddhist teachings as long as possible during the new year festival, called Thingyan.
THE BUDDHISM INFLUENCE IN MYANMAR
The Buddhism made major contributions in the development of Burmese politics. Burmese nationalism first began with the the formation of the Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA) – modelled after the YMCA – which started to appear all over the country. Civilian governments, after the country gained independence, patronised Buddhism donating large sums to fund the upkeeping and building of Buddhist monuments. IN addition, leaders of political parties and parliamentarians, in particular U Nu, passed Buddhist influenced legislations. He declared Buddhism the state religion which isolated minority groups, especially Kachin. This added yet another group to the growing number of ethnic insurgencies. The present military government are such patrons of Buddhism that it has become a joke- “Burmese TV has only two colours, green and yellow” – describing the military green uniforms and monk’s yellow robes or golden pagodas which cover the screen.
The Shwe Dagon has been a local venue for large meetings where both Aung San and his daughter Aung San Suu Kyihad made their famous speeches. The second university strike in history of 1936 was also held at that location. Aung San Suu Kyi, returned from London to lead the National League for Democracy but was placed under house arrest in 1989. However, since she is a devote BUddhist and politicial, she is considered a socially engaged Buddhist.