Update: 2020-07-02 08:27 PM -0400


Nine Gods in the 21st Century


by U Kyaw Tun (UKT) (M.S., I.P.S.T., USA), and staff of Tun Institute of Learning (TIL). Not for sale. No copyright. Free for everyone. Prepared for students and staff of TIL  Computing and Language Center, Yangon, MYANMAR :  http://www.tuninst.net , http://www.softguide.net.mm , www.romabama.blogspot.com

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Offerings of Hswum

UKT notes
no coconut in the offertories

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The following account was based on the Nine-God Puja performed at my home at 35 Thantadalan, Sanchaung, Yangon, Myanmar, on the evening of 2005 Jan 4th which extended into the early morning of the 5th. I feel that this short account should be rewritten by one of my peers with the addition of more cultural information. For the present, I urge the reader to keep in mind that some of the cultural info may not be wholly accurate especially when I am rewriting it in Canada in Feb 2013 without reference books.

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02.2 Offerings


Bur-Myan-Buddhist pujas, unlike those of Hindu and Mahayana, are almost free of music. At the most, there would be blowing of conch shell at the beginning of an incantation, and the striking of a triangular brass gong suspended by a single rope. Because, the gong is suspended from a single string, it rotates when struck on a corner producing a very notable sound that goes up and down, up and down for some time. To the Burmese ears, it sounds like ... {du-w-w ...}. Bells and drums are not part of the Bur-Myan "Theravada" Buddhist ceremonies.

I am using the word "Theravada" because the worshippers are of Theravada Buddhist faith. Even though a ceremony may be deemed by the clergy as not Theravada, they have no way to excommunicate a layman. If a member of the clergy had joined such a group, he may be expelled from their society: he can go on practicing Theravada practices as a layman. Such practices are what we mean by the "folk elements".

Pix: Saya blowing the conch shell. Notice the white jacket and the white longyi worn by the Puja-master. White dress is usually worn when he is performing religious and semi-religious rites. You can see two triangular brass gongs {kr:s} hanging by their ropes in front of him.

Nine God Puja is such a "folk" practice, but so far the clergy has not expressly condemned it. There are other similar ceremonies which are frowned upon by the Theravada clergy in which there is much music and dancing.

Pix on right shows Bodhisattva Tara in SriLanka. The contemporary period in Myanmarpr would straddle the period of the destruction of Sri Ksetra (Prome) and Old Pagan before Anawrahta's reformation in 11th century. Was Tara the {ta-ra nt a.mi:} of the ancient Tantric Aris of Pagan? I was told that there was such a sect in Pagan: I have forgotten the source. -- UKT130205

In the above, I have been using the term Theravada often. So you would be asking what is Theravada practiced in Myanmar after Anawrahta. I guess the best answer is that it is similar -- almost the same -- as practiced in Sri Lanka. That means, we must trace it to time when it was introduced by Asoka missionaries into Sri Lanka. Much of it must have changed during the course of many years, and there is not just one in Sri Lanka. So all are entitled to be called Theravada. Perhaps the brand of Theravada that condones the Nine God Puja -- if it were not a Hindu puja -- is a Theravada sect by itself and the Myanmar clergy has no right to criticize it.

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Offering Hswum

The night is almost over and it's almost time to offer food {hswum:} to the Buddha, his Disciples, the Planets and the Great Gods or major Nats. The Burmese term {hswum:} means "cooked rice for the Buddha and the Sangha". Of course, cooked rice is never eaten all by itself -- it is always taken with curry, salad or fruit. By "curry" or {hing:}, we usually mean meat, sea-food, or vegetable cooked over a fire, and, by "salad" {a.oat} we mean a mixture of cut vegetables usually uncooked. This is the usual fare for ordinary people. However, for highly religious persons, cooked rice is taken with fruit. Offering of hswum in the Nine-god ceremony is exclusively cooked rice, fruits and jams -- "food without the loss of life" {a.ak-t lwut}.

Three kinds of fruits and three kinds of jams are usually offered, however, a Puja-master is free to increase the kinds of items to nine. On the occasion I am describing, Saya Win had chosen to offer nine kinds of fruits. Curiously, the coconut, the usual fruit of the Hindu procedures was not offered. The food (rice, fruits and jam) were simply placed on the altar during the evening. Since, hours past mid-day are not proper to offer food to the Buddha and his disciples, fruits and jams were just placed on the alter for the guests to see.

Left: Of the nine kinds of fruits, here we see three kinds: {hpi:krm:} banana, pine-apple and orange.
Right: The fruits are peeled, and sliced. At dawn, the prepared fruits are offered cooked rice in alm-bowls to the Buddha and his disciples.

One hour before dawn, rice is cooked (but not in new earthen pots as described by Dr. HtinAung and U Sein Pe), and the fruits are peeled and sliced. For the Buddha and his disciples, cooked rice was placed at the bottom of the bowl over which were spread the fruits and jams.

Planets and nats are inferior to the Buddha and his disciples, and though the food offered to them are the same, the food is placed in leaf-bowls made from banana leaves {hpak-hkwak}. Burmese people consider those who had to eat from leaf-bowls to be inferior in status. We say we "offer" {kp} food to the Buddha, but we "feed" {kyw:} eatables to the planets and nats. ( Note: usage of {kup} and {kyw:} may change in other context.)

Pix: Suitable green banana leaves are chosen.

In my childhood days, the leaf-cups were used by ordinary people to hold curry with gravy. The cups were used only once with bio-degradable material -- the banana leaf. As for cooked rice, a piece of banana leaf was spread before the eater. You can feed many guests on these "jade utensils" since banana leaves were a-plenty.

Ordinary folks on a journey did not have have to carry lunch boxes, forks and spoons. We usually carry the food which was prepared before the journey in leaf-packets. For eating we use our "God-given" right-hand fingers.

Pix left: A small leaf cup is made.
Pix right: Leaf-cups now filled with cooked rice, and other eatables for the Nats and Planets.

The entertainers -- the travelling musicians -- had to eat in that way, and they were derisively referred to as "eaters from leaf-cups".

The full altar the night before. Now all the fruits have been peeled, slices and diced and placed on top of the cooked rice and offered to the Buddha and his arahats, the Planets, Mother-goddesses & their male attendants, and the Palas. The children and the inmates of the house waited for the offering to be over, and dipped into all the goodies that had been offered and now considered to be left-overs.

In a few hours, the invited monks would come and we would have a full Hswum-kyw to the living monks. That is another ceremony but it is always held.

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UKT: I still  need to recheck the following material with reference-books I had left in Yangon. -- UKT 130202

The principals (Buddha, Planets and Nats) are so different from each other that the invitations and invocations of the three are bound to be different.

The Puja-master first chants some more extracts from Buddhist texts and offers the alms-food {hswam: kp} to the Buddha and the Arahats. Then he invokes the Planets to come and accept the food. Last of all, he invokes the Great Nats to come and accept it.

He recites a particular formula of invocation for each Planet, in the following order: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Thursday, Rahu, Friday, Kait.

It will be noticed that the Planets are invoked in the order of the cardinal points, and that the King-Planet Kait, is invoked last. After the the Planets and the Great Nats have been invoked, the Puja-master remains silent for a few minutes and then he recites the formula of dispersal. For each, a particular formula is used, but the order is changed.

In the ceremony no special prayers or scriptures are prescribed for the worship and offering of alms-food to the Buddha and the eight Arahats. The Puja-master chooses the prayers and the scriptures at his discretion, but certain set formulas of worship and offering for the nine Planets are prescribed, and the Puja-master must recite those particular formulas. The Buddha and the Arahats are never invoked nor dispersed, but the nine Planets are not only invoked but carefully dispersed.

The term for dispersal of the Planets {groh-nhing}, is really strong. The word {nhing} is used to "drive away" or "expel" an undesirable person or animal, and in fact the formula of dispersal is really a formula of expulsion or exorcism. The term for dispersal of the Great Nats is milder -- {nat po.} to "send off a nat".

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UKT notes

no coconut in the offertories

Why is the coconut not offered? Is it a lapse by the Puja master? Is this the usual practice? If it is so, this fact can be very significant as to the origin of the Nine-God Puja. I have read somewhere that coconut is not indigenous to northern India. It is also probably not indigenous to northern Myanmar especially in the Yaw area which I visited a child.

Coconut is usually given to the burned victims, and so it is offered to Min MahaGiri because as a man, he had been executed in a air-blown furnace. But in the Yaw area and in many areas in Upper Burma, it is not the actual fruit that is offered but a drawing of the fruit. My parents and I noted that the locally grown coconut was quite scarce in Pauk, a small town of the Yaw area, and was not tasty. It had a taste which was very disagreeable to us people from the Delta.

So if the coconut had not been an offertory in ancient times, it would probably (I emphasize the flimsiness of my assertion) that the Nine God Puja has been  a Burmese Puja even before Anawratha, and that the worship of the Planets has its origin in northern Myanmar.

Go back no-coconut-note-b

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