The last few years I have been studying different aspects of religion in Nepal. During my fieldwork, the most common phrase I encountered when asking people about their religious faith was “same same but different”. This pretty much sums up the feelings of many Nepalis toward the two major religions in Nepal: Hinduism and Buddhism.
Religion in Nepal is in many ways unique. The religious landscape erupts from a long history that evolves around Hinduism and Buddhism as the two main religions. They coexist in a strong syncretism, where they often merge into one another. Doctrines, numerous beliefs, traditions and hundreds of yearly religious festivals have affected Nepali society in a way that makes religion the core of everyday life. Graffiti on a wall at the British Embassy in Kathmandu sums it up with the words: “The Valley has more temples than houses and more gods than men”.
Small altars, shrines and religious iconography are visible on every street corner, even in the most remote areas of Nepal. Religion is such an integrated part of society and cultural understanding that it is hard to distinguish between religious acts, ancient traditions and flourishing modern culture.
Hindus constitute approximately 87% of the population of Nepal, and Buddhists 11%. Nepal was, for decades, famous as the only Hindu Kingdom in the world, but in 2007 the Interim Constitution was passed, and Nepal was officially declared a secular state.
When visiting Nepal, religion is certainly impossible to overlook. If you are lucky to be part of a celebration or festival in Nepal you are likely to be blessed with a tikka on your forehead and flower garlands around your neck as an offering of blessing. All religious traditions are highly treasured by the people of Nepal, and they often result in days off from work and school – a big joy for children, but often a hassle for travelers, especially the two major festivals, Dashain and Tihar.
Hinduism in Kathmandu
Definitions of Hinduism are often very complex. For many, Hinduism is not so much a religion as a way of life. In Kathmandu it is seen in the way that culture, respect for family traditions and ancestors are naturally intertwined with everyday chores and religious rites. Hinduism is not a homogeneous religion at all, but rather a mix of religions, doctrines and different attitudes towards life, rites, moral and social norms that are determined by the many different ethnic groups in Nepal.
There are numerous Hindu deities with different powers and areas of influence. The three main gods are Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer and Vishnu the Preserver.
Brahma is not often worshipped daily, as it is believed that his role as the creator of the universe is essentially finished until the next eon starts. He can, however, be seen as a power that flows through and embraces everything.
Therefore, Vishnu and Shiva are the two preeminent gods of Hinduism. Most Nepali non-ecclesiastical Hindus choose one particular deity as their favorite, whom they then worship daily. There is a constant flow in the Hindu pantheon, where new deities are added, and some are forgotten, which allows worshipers to define their own religious views and which deity to worship. The older generations especially take pride in making offerings and doing daily prayers to their family deity, while many belonging to the younger generations are slowly becoming more secular and mostly perform their religious acts to pay respects to the elders.
Buddhism in Kathmandu
Tibetan Buddhism is the most popular variety of Buddhism in Kathmandu. Normally it is categorized as a subcategory of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism originally started as a reform movement within the Theravada tradition. The name derives from Sanskrit, and means “the Big Vehicle”, due to its open-mindedness towards lay people.
It can be argued that Mahayana Buddhism started as a compromise between Hinduism and Buddhism. This is visible in Kathmandu, where many iconic heritage sites include iconography from both Hinduism and Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism incorporated a pantheon with numerous deities. The pantheon of Mahayana deities is subordinate to the Buddha, and is not to be seen in the same light as the pantheon in Hinduism. The purpose of a deity in Mahayana Buddhism can vary from practitioner to practitioner, but in general, they are used as an aid to focus on a particular aspect (such as compassion), personified by that deity, during meditation, leading to transformation and eventually liberation and enlightenment.
Enlightenment ultimately means a release from dukkha, the mental and physical pains of life that keep a person attached to this world. The various deities are not used as supreme powers in which to put all one’s faith, but as guides to motivate practitioners towards different individual goals. The power of the mind is the only true source of spiritual attainment, and can ultimately be seen as the seed of true enlightenment, which everybody holds within. It is, however, important to emphasize that most lay Buddhists uses the pantheon in a similar way as in Hinduism, while they seek guidance and comfort with their deities.
Another important aspect of Buddhism is the cyclic understanding of life, as well as karma. It is the idea that actions in this life have an effect on one’s following reincarnations with personal karma as the determiner of this. Karma is determined by one’s actions, but also by one’s thoughts.
Article by Vickie K.G. Nørgaard
Top image: Wonderlane / Flickr