For several days in a row, I noticed my neighbor wearing all white clothing. She seemed to be at home more than usual. When she did leave, she pulled open her gate and slid into her station wagon, wearing a white, loose-fitting linen shirt and pants.
When I struck up the nerve to ask her about her change in wardrobe, she told me she was spending every day that month making merit at the local Buddhist temple and was becoming a temporary nun. According to Thai Buddhists, white is a holy and religious color. Thais attending events at their local temple or who go to make merit may choose to don white clothing. My neighbor’s desire to make merit led her to take time off from work—sacrificing time and money—and increase her weekly laundry load to keep her white clothes spotless.
For my neighbor and many Thais, wearing certain colors—not just for temple visits—helps or hinders their luck.
The Culture of Color
In the West, we often associate colors with feelings and emotions, as Disney demonstrated with the film Inside Out. Red is often synonymous with anger, or even love. Black often is tied to depression and death. We use expressions like, “feeling blue,” or “green with envy.”
In Thailand, colors carry deep meaning, have the perceived power to bring luck, and have ancient astrological significance. But a color isn’t deemed lucky simply because someone favors it above others. A color’s luck is determined by the day of the week. The color associated with each day is seen as the day’s lucky color, and wearing that day’s color is traditionally believed to bring good luck.
I spent my middle and high school years in Thailand and had innumerable conversations that started with me telling a Buddhist friend, “I like your shirt,” and they responded with, “It’s Tuesday, pink day!”
I generally understood their belief in the power and importance of color being tied to luck and superstition. What I didn’t understand, though, was that the folklore behind these beliefs about color is rooted in Hindu mythology.
Hinduism’s Lore about Lucky Colors
Buddhism in Thailand has ancient connections to Hinduism and contains syncretistic elements. Some Buddhists and Hindus have overlapping deities and doctrines, including beliefs about lucky colors. Hindu mythology assigns a color to each day, corresponding to a god who is also associated with a planet. These gods are the protectors of the universe, and people believe the gods favor certain colors. Astrologers think the colors of the week originally came from the Sanskrit names of the planets and the deities associated with the planets.
For example, Sunday’s color is red, and the corresponding god is the solar deity Surya, whose name means “sun.” Monday’s color is yellow, and the deity of the day is the lunar god Chandra. Pink is Tuesday’s color, and the god is Mangala, the god of the planet Mars, and so on.
All of the lore isn’t necessarily widely known in Thailand. When I asked several millennial friends what makes a color lucky, some weren’t sure, other than it is ancient Thai culture. Other people in their forties, knew.
What is widely known is that luck is associated with wearing colors on certain days. To complicate things, many Thais believe the color of the day they are born on is their lucky color. And just as there is a lucky color for each day, there is also an unlucky color. If you were born on a Wednesday, green is your lucky color and pink is your unlucky color.
So what does all of this have to do with Buddhism? Buddhism is a works-based religion, and people make merit to counterbalance sin. There isn’t a formula for how much a Buddhist has to do to erase the stain of their sin. An individual can work hard yet still fail. Buddhists may believe much of their fate is out of their control, so they make merit to influence spiritual powers in their favor. And, since so much is out of their hands, many believe luck—not grace—is needed to change their circumstances. Wearing certain colors is one small way to take their destinies into their own hands.
As the Colors Fade
For some Thais, especially the older and aging generation, colors subconsciously influence how they view their success. The value, importance, and interpretation of color by a younger generation of Thais, however, is evolving.
Many people I talk to these days say the color-of-the-day beliefs were more prevalent in previous decades than it is today. Some of the younger Thais say modernization is mitigating the belief that color and luck are important. With the world at their fingertips, their worldviews are influenced by a variety of cultures and countries. Where they place value is also changing. Many millennials idolize fashion and pop culture and don’t generally concern themselves with superstition and fate.
Since many younger Thais see lucky colors as ancient Thai culture, their perception of a color’s efficacy has shifted. They may choose to wear the colors to keep up cultural norms. Or a student who otherwise would be skeptical of color and luck might decide to wear his or her lucky color on an exam day just in case it happens to help.
Although there are negative effects to secularization, it sometimes makes reaching this younger generation of Thais with the gospel easier, as they are less likely to hold rigidly to traditional beliefs. This provides a unique opportunity for Thai churches and missionaries to reach a more receptive generation who are jaded by ineffective religion. For Thais like my neighbor, who today left for work wearing orange—Thursday’s color—the need for persistence and patience has never been greater.
Caroline Anderson is a writer and photographer with the IMB. She currently lives in Southeast Asia.