Southeast Asian New Year a Buddhist holiday?

Pohela Boishakh(Inspired by a previous post by kudos.)

This is probably a question that few care to ask, but I thought I’d slop together some information for anyone who was interested in knowing more about this holiday. I usually refer to it as Songkran/Thingyan, but this term (as I understand) is most often used to just denote the first day of New Year celebrations. Temple visits and blessings are typical, but I’ve never really thought of this holiday as Buddhist.

I have been greeting all my Thai, Lao, Burmese, Mon, Khmer and Sri Lankan friends with Happy New Year. But it so happens that one of my best friends is Bengali (and Muslim), and he was quick to point out that this is also the Bengali New Year, known as Pohela Boishakh, celebrated by both Indian and Bangladeshi Bengalis. Not only that, he continued, it’s also the South Indian, East Indian (Assamese, Manipuri, Oriya, Bengali), Nepalese and Punjabi New Year. While the Southeast Asian areas that celebrate this holiday are predominantly Buddhist, the other areas in South Asia are predominantly non-Buddhist. They are mostly Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. So from that more regional perspective, this day isn’t a Buddhist holiday at all.

But when you go back and take a closer look at Southeast Asia, you’ll also notice that Songkran isn’t the only new year. It’s common knowledge that the Vietnamese celebrate Tết at the same time as Chinese New Year in January/February. The Cham people celebrate their new year around September/October, while the Shan celebrate theirs in November/December, and the Karen in December/January. I am guessing that the celebration of Songkran was brought to Southeast Asia from the west (meaning South Asia), along with Buddhism and Hinduism.

All this makes me wonder what really makes a holiday Buddhist. I can imagine that observances of historical importance certainly qualify as Buddhist holidays, such as events in Lord Buddha’s life. Observances relating to practice and doctrine are also important. I always see Kathina as a celebration of the whole Sangha, and the observance of the uposatha days as both reminders of why we follow the path, and also an opportunity to follow more closely. But if we throw religious decoration on what are otherwise non-religious holidays, does that make them Buddhist?

2 Replies to “Southeast Asian New Year a Buddhist holiday?”

  1. Buddhism is what one makes of it and how one defines it, festivities included. Thingyan, at least in the Burmese tradition, started off as a Hindu carryover that was subsequently adapted into the Burmese culture. Just about the only Buddhist characteristic is the widespread observance of the Buddhist sabbath (the eight precepts). I’m pretty sure neighboring Southeast Asian countries celebrate it similarly. Even Vesak day isn’t as prominently celebrated in Burma as other “Buddhist” holidays like the start and end of the Buddhist lent.

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