Sak Yant: The Transition from Indic Yantras to Thai "Magical" Buddhist Tattoos

Angela Marie May (amay@artsbma.org)
Art and Art History, University of Alabama at Birmingham
May, 2014
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Abstract

Officially, Thailand is dominated by the state-sponsored Theravada Buddhist
tradition, which has essentially been practiced in Thailand since 1902 when the sangha
bureaucracy was established. However, within the last couple of decades a hybrid form of
Thai Buddhism has emerged. The contemporary, hybridic Thai religion emphasizes
Buddhism—placing it at the top of its hierarchal pyramid—even while it includes
elements of Animism and Hinduism.

This thesis explores the hybridization of popular religions in contemporary
Thailand as reflected in the art form of Sak Yant. Thai Buddhist magical tattoos called
Sak Yant are based on ancient Indic yantras that are considered powerful forms meant to
ward off negative influences. These tattoos incorporate elements of Hindu, Animist, and
Buddhist traditions. In this way, the ideas behind, and practices of, Sak Yant mirror
broader changes in the modern religious context of Thailand. The transformation of Sak
Yant
over time likewise reflects the transformations of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand
as it is converged with Animist and Hindu forms. This transformation is revealed by an
analysis of the social and religious atmosphere of modern Thailand, a comparative
analysis of Indic yantras and their transformation into Sak Yant (including the “Buddhaization”
of the Ramayana into a Southeast Asian “magical text” and Thai Buddhist epic),
an analysis of the function of Sak Yant within the needs of modern Thai Buddhists, and how Sak Yant unites the division between rural and state sponsored Buddhism. By
deconstructing Sak Yant’s form and function, the construction of a modern Thai hybrid
Buddhist religion takes shape.