Although Thailand is considered one of the capitals of entertainment, it remains a country with a very strong spiritual component; religion plays a very important role here, influencing the daily life of the population, even if to be more correct we should talk about religions.
Although the dominant religion is Theravada Buddhism, which is the basis of Thai culture and is professed by about 95% of the population, there is a great religious tolerance that allows peaceful coexistence with other faiths, such as Islam, Christianity , Hinduism, Sikhism, etc., each of which has its own places of worship in the country. This openness is born precisely from the Buddhist teachings that promote the ideal of peace and tolerance towards others.
The law provides for freedom of religion and the government respects this right also in practice, allowing the construction of places of worship and schools and giving the faithful the opportunity to celebrate their holidays. The integration of some religious communities is so strong that some holidays of other religions are celebrated on a national level. It is also good to know that in recent decades there have been some violent clashes between Thai soldiers and Malay Muslims, who claim their own independent state, but there is no religious reason behind this conflict.
Buddhism is believed to have begun to spread in Thailand around the third century BC, soon becoming the dominant religion; although not officially a state religion, the king of Thailand is required by law to profess Buddhism.
Theravada Buddhism is based on the teachings of Guatama Buddha and like all other Buddhist schools of thought believes in reincarnation: a person’s life does not begin with birth and does not end with death, but is an infinite succession of lives, each of the which is influenced by the actions performed (karma) in the previous ones. The goal of every follower of Buddhism is the attainment of enlightenment, that is, of that state of peace and liberation from suffering called Nirvana. Through some rituals, such as processions, donations to temples or the lighting of incense, the faithful try to improve their condition and get closer to Nirvana in this life or the next.
The Buddhist religion exerts a strong influence in the life and culture of the Thai people, inspiring art, literature, architecture and sculpture; temples are present in every village and city: there are about 30,000 throughout Thailand. But these are not only places of worship, but also educational and social gathering centers, where libraries, meetings, teaching and recreational activities are made available. Monks are highly respected figures and food offerings are made to them, as they cannot accept money. Most Thai men, usually at the end of their studies, spend a short time in a monastery learning all the teachings of Buddhism and living like monks: it is considered a very important moment in a man’s life.
The large Chinese community made it possible to introduce other religious traditions to Thailand, many belonging to Chinese culture and linked to Taoism and Confucianism; this is why in Thailand there are temples, shrines, festivals and rituals dedicated to particular Chinese gods or traditions. Chinese festivals are widely celebrated especially in the places with the highest immigrants, such as Phuket and Bangkok. Despite the strong presence of followers and temples dedicated to Chinese religions, this community is still considered part of the Buddhist population.
Even the Thais themselves worship deities not related to Buddhism, but to ancient indigenous cults, from which derive some rituals and ceremonies still practiced today.
In the south of the country (in the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Songkhla and Chumphon), the majority of followers of Islam are concentrated, making up the largest religious minority (about 5% of the population). Muslims belong to various ethnic groups, in particular originating from Malaysia. It is from neighboring Malaysia that Islamism is believed to have arrived around the thirteenth century. The Muslim community receives government funding for the construction and maintenance of mosques, which are around 2,000 across Thailand. The profound tolerance towards other religions is also noted in various aspects of daily life: Muslim workers benefit from special permits on the occasion of important religious holidays and some family disputes are judged according to Islamic law. In addition, there are about 200 Muslim schools throughout Thailand, where pupils can combine learning the Islamic religion with their basic studies.
Christianity was introduced by European missionaries around the 16th century and many people converted to this religion, particularly among Chinese immigrants. Although the numbers are relatively low (Christians today represent about 0.5% of the population) historically the Christian religion has played a significant role in the modernization of the country, bringing important innovations in the field of education and medicine: it was the Christians who carry out the first vaccines in Thailand.
Hinduism and Sikhism
In Thailand there are about 20,000 residents of Indian origin, who divide themselves between the Hindu religion and Sikhism.
Hindu believers live mainly in big cities and the largest community is located in Bangkok. It is precisely here that the main Hindu temples and shrines arise, where both Hindus and Buddhists go to pray: some Hindu deities are also worshiped by many Thais of Buddhist faith. The strong influence of Hinduism has very ancient origins: in the past, Thailand was under the rule of the Khmer, who had deep Hindu roots. Despite this, the followers of Hinduism make up just under 0.1% of the population.
The small but influential Sikh community is also present mostly in the cities, where they mainly live in retail trade. Sikhs also have their own places of worship in which to pray and are also very active in providing assistance to the poorest and the sick: they manage various non-profit associations for the sick and elderly and free schools for poor children.
The community has been present in Thailand since the 17th century, with the arrival of some Jewish families from Baghdad and then grew following the persecutions suffered by these peoples. Most Jews live in Bangkok, but there are some small communities in Phuket, Chiang Mai and on the island of Koh Samui where the faithful can pray and meet in the synagogues dedicated to them.