Buddhism Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
Nathan McGovern
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0128


The categories “Buddhism” and “Hinduism” are products of the modern discourse on “world religions,” and as such they possess both strengths and weaknesses when applied to contexts in which the word religion itself was not an emic term prior to the modern period. Thailand, in particular, provides an excellent example of the way in which the boundaries between “Buddhism” and “Hinduism”—which, according to the parameters of the discourse on “world religions,” informed as they are by Protestant assumptions about religion, should be wholly separate—are often strained in an actual Asian context. Although 94.6 percent of Thai people today identify as Buddhist (with the largest minority religion being Islam at 4.6 percent), scholars have long recognized the significant presence of “Hindu” elements in Thai religious culture. This includes, among other things, the adoption of the Rāmāyaṇa as the Thai national epic in the form of the Rāmakian; the employment of Brahmans by the king for the performance of royal rituals; the ubiquitous presence of Hindu gods and other motifs in Thai art, literature, geography, and popular worship; and popular festivals that bear a striking similarity to popular Hindu festivals in India. There is a vast literature that addresses either Thai religion in general or Thai Buddhism in particular; this article focuses specifically on sources that address in some way the place of Hindu elements in the broader Thai Buddhist culture. The study of the intersection between Hinduism and Buddhism in Thai religious culture is in many ways still in its infancy; therefore, sources have simply been arranged thematically. Nevertheless, one can say that the general trend in scholarship in addressing this topic has been away from models of “syncretism,” which assume that Buddhism and Hinduism once existed in “pure,” separate forms that were then mixed in contexts such as Thailand, and toward more nuanced models that recognize both the problematic distinction between “Buddhist” and “Hindu/Brahmanical” even in early Indian contexts and the way in which the modern Buddhist identity of Thailand and surrounding countries arose gradually over many centuries.

General Overviews

Despite the dominance of Buddhist studies in the study of Thai religion, few books deal with Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand as such; one of the few exceptions is Kumari 1990, which addresses the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism in general, but focuses primarily on the Thai context. For introductions to Hinduism specifically in Thailand, one can refer to Desai 1980 and McGovern 2010. Generalized introductions to Thai Buddhism, such as Swearer 2010 and Wells 1960, are also useful insofar as they refer to important “Hindu” components of Thai Buddhism, such as Songkran, Loi Krathong, and the First Plowing ceremony. Another good, and particularly visually stimulating, introduction to popular practices in Thai religion, without regard to their purported sectarian origins, can be found in Guelden 1995. For readers of Thai, the สารานุกรมวัฒนธรรมไทย (Encyclopedia of Thai culture) 1999 is an indispensable first stop for all questions about Thai culture, religious or otherwise. Last but not least, Wyatt 2003 provides the standard introductory history of Thailand, with full reference to the role played by religion in Thailand’s historical development.

  • Desai, Santosh N. Hinduism in Thai Life. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1980.

    One of the only book-length studies that focuses exclusively on Hinduism in Thailand. Explores the history of contacts between India and Thailand, Hindu elements within Thai religion, Hindu elements of Thai political theory, and the relationship between the Rāmāyaṇa and Rāmakian.

  • Guelden, Marlane. Thailand: Into the Spirit World. Singapore: Times Editions, 1995.

    Although written for a popular audience, this book presents a remarkable overview of all aspects of Thai religious life, including ghosts, spirits, spirit houses, spirit doctors, Brahmans, popular Buddhism, magic, amulets, tattoos, and more. Color photographs bring the themes of the book to life in a way that can be rivaled only by going to Thailand in person.

  • Kumari, Asha. Hinduism and Buddhism. Varanasi, India: Vishwavidyalaya Prakashan, 1990.

    Although nominally about the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism writ large, most of this book concerns the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand specifically. Addresses the history of religions in Thailand; festivals and ceremonies; Pali and Sanskrit loan-words in Thai; and religious influences on Thai literature, art, and architecture.

  • McGovern, Nathan. “Thailand.” In Sacred Texts, Ritual Traditions, Arts, Concepts. Vol. 2, of Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 371–378. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    A brief overview of the major themes involved in the study of Hinduism in Thailand. Addresses the history of religion in Thailand, popular spirit beliefs and practices, festivals, the Rāmakian, the worship of Hindu gods, royal court Brahmans and their rituals, and contemporary Indian communities in Thailand.

  • Swearer, Donald K. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. 2d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

    Although this book nominally covers all of Southeast Asia, most of the content focuses specifically on Thailand. Provides a general overview of the themes involved in the study not only of Thai Buddhism, but also of religion in Thailand in general; see, in particular, Part 1, “The Popular Tradition: Inclusive Syncretism” (pp. 1–70).

  • Wells, Kenneth E. Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities. Bangkok: Christian Bookstore, 1960.

    Although somewhat outdated, Wells’s study still provides a useful overview of the major daily, annual, and incidental rites, rituals, ceremonies, and festivals involved in Thai religious life, including those that are normatively Buddhist and others of a more “Hindu” flavor.

  • Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History. 2d ed. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm, 2003.

    The standard introduction in English to the study of Thai history. Although the focus is not specifically on religion, the role of various religious traditions and actors, including Buddhist and Hindu, are addressed.

  • สารานุกรมวัฒนธรรมไทย. Bangkok: มูลนิธิวัฒนธรรมไทย ธนาคารไทยพาณิชย์, 1999.

    For readers of Thai, the “Encyclopedia of Thai culture” is an indispensable first resource for questions about nearly any topic regarding Thai culture, including religion. Encyclopedia entries are organized according to region (Central, North, Isaan, or South) and thus address topics more specific than found in any Western encyclopedic source.

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