HINDUISM IN NEPAL
Hindus make up about 81 percent of the population of Nepal. In the past they made up more, perhaps 90 percent, but it is always hard to tell in Nepal because so many people are beyond the reach of counting and observation. Nepal was the world’s only Hindu and the king was considered an incarnation of the god Vishnu. now since 2006 it has been a secular state and the monarchy has been abolished.
Shiva is generally regarded as the most popular Hindu god in Nepal. The Ramayana has special significance to Nepal because the Nepalese town of Janakpur is Sita’s hometown. Sita is a Hindu goddess and one of the central figures in the Hindu epic, Ramayana. One of the main story lines is Rama’s effort to rescue Sita after she is kidnapped by Ravana, the mult-headed Rakshasa king of Lanka.
Generally, Hinduism in Nepal is based on the Dharmashastras, Puranas, and various developments in Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu) and Shaivism (worship of Shiva) that have largely originated in India. Hindu Nepalis worship the ancient Vedic gods. Bramha the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, are worshipped as the Supreme Hindu Trinity. People pray to the Shiva Linga or the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva in most Shiva temples. Shakti, the dynamic element in the female counterpart of Shiva, is highly revered and feared. Mahadevi, Mahakali, Bhagabati, Ishwari are some of the names given. Kumari, the Virgin Goddess, also represents Shakti. Other popular deities are Ganesh for luck, Saraswati for knowledge, Lakshmi for wealth and Hanuman for protection. Krishna, believed to be the human incarnation of Lord Vishnu is also worshipped widely. Hindu holy scripts Bhagawat Gita, Ramayan and Mahabharat are widely read in Nepal. Vedas, Upanishads and other holy scriptures are read by well learned Brahman Pundits during special occasions. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992; Nepal government]
Hinduism generally is regarded as the oldest formal religion in the world. The origins of Hinduism go back to the pastoral Aryan tribes, spilling over the Hindu Kush from Inner Asia, and mixing with the urban civilization of the Indus Valley and with the tribal cultures of hunting and gathering peoples in the area. Unlike other world religions, Hinduism had no single founder and has never been missionary in orientation. It is believed that about 1200 B.C., or even earlier by some accounts, the Vedas, a body of hymns originating in northern India were produced; these texts form the theological and philosophical precepts of Hinduism. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Hinduism is polytheistic. It incorporates many gods and goddesses with different functions and powers; but in the most important and widely held doctrine, the Vedanta (end of the Vedas), gods and goddesses are considered merely different manifestations or aspects of a single underlying divinity. This single divinity is expressed as a Hindu triad comprising the religion's three major gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, personifying creation, preservation, and destruction, respectively. Vishnu and Shiva, or some of their numerous avatars (incarnations), are most widely followed.*
Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is regarded as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. Some Hindus identify Christ as the tenth avatar; others regard Kalki as the final avatar who is yet to come. These avatars are believed to descend upon earth to restore peace, order, and justice, or to save humanity from injustice. The Mahabharata (compiled by the sage Vyasa, probably before 400), describes the great civil war between the Pandavas (the good) and the Kauravas (the bad) — two factions of the same clan. It is believed that the war was created by Krishna. Perhaps the flashiest and craftiest avatar of Vishnu, Krishna, as a part of his lila (sport or act), is believed motivated to restore justice — the good over the bad.*
History of Hinduism in Nepal
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Inscriptions from as early as the fifth century indicate that the most important ruling dynasties in what is now Nepal were ecumenical and nonsectarian in their support of both Hindu and Buddhist practice. Following Muslim incursions into North India in the thirteenth century, a significant number of Indian Hindus migrated into what is now Nepal. Sectors of this population came to dominate the then largely non-Hindu population of the central Himalayas in the late eighteenth century, declaring the newly consolidated Nepal "a pure Hindu country." [Source: David H. Holmberg,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006. Holmberg is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University]
“The politically dominant groups actively encouraged Hindu practice and institutions throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Early on, the Hindu rulers banned the killing of cows and enforced respect for Brahman priests among the indigenous Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups. During the nineteenth century the high-caste rulers made the Hindu rituals of Dasain the national rites of Nepal, and most sectors of the population, except those closest to Tibet, adapted these sacrificial rituals for local practice.
“Hinduism also gained substantial support early on from the rulers of the Newar, the ethnic group that formed the majority population of the city-states of the Kathmandu Valley. The Malla rulers (fourteenth through eighteenth century) enforced caste rules, built grand Hindu temples, instituted Hindu rituals of state, and patronized Brahman priests, even though at the time many of the Newar were Buddhist. Contemporary developments in Nepali Hinduism reflect the changing religious aspirations of a burgeoning middle class, coupled with a greater cultural identification with India that has been facilitated by media and travel. As Hinduism in Nepal has become increasingly allied with the wider politics of the subcontinent, non-Hindu ethnic organizations in the country have exhorted their members to stop observing Hindu rituals.
“Buddhist communities, and ethnic groups who refuse to define themselves as Hindu or Buddhist, opposed the official designation of Nepal as a Hindu state and have called for boycotts of the Hindu national festival.” Under the influence of the Maoist, who led a rebellion against the government and the monarchy and became part of the Nepalese government in the late 2000s, Nepal was made into a secular not a Hindu state.
Although the population of Nepal is mostly Hindu, since the 1971 census Hindus have shown the greatest decline as a proportion of the population, and Buddhists and Kirats have increased the most: in 1971 Hindus were 89.4 percent of the population, Buddhists 7.5 percent, and Kirats statistically 0 percent. However, statistics on religious groups are complicated by the ubiquity of dual faith practices — particularly among Hindus and Buddhists. Moreover, shifts in the population’s religious composition also reflect political changes. The 1990 constitution ended the government’s promotion of Hindu nationalism and official suppression of political participation based on religious, cultural, and linguistic traits. This policy has enabled greater freedom of religious expression and allowed the census to officially enumerate more religious groups. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005]
Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is regarded as the ninth avatar of of the Hindu god Vishnu. Some Hindus identify Christ as the tenth avatar; others regard Kalki as the final avatar who is yet to come. The geographical distribution of religious groups revealed a preponderance of Hindus, accounting for at least 87 percent of the population in every region in the early 1990s. The largest concentrations of Buddhists were found in the eastern hills, the Kathmandu Valley, and the central Terai; in each area about 10 percent of the people were Buddhist. Buddhism was relatively more common among the Newar and Tibeto-Nepalese groups. Among the Tibeto-Nepalese, those most influenced by Hinduism were the Magar, Sunwar, and Rai peoples. Hindu influence was less prominent among the Gurung, Limbu, Bhote, and Thakali groups, who continued to employ Buddhist monks for their religious ceremonies. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: Nepal occupies a special place in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. According to Hindu mythology, the Himalayas are the abode of the gods, and are specifically associated with Shiva, one of the three principal Hindu deities. Pashupatinath, a large Shiva temple in Kathmandu, is among the holiest sites in Nepal and attracts Hindu pilgrims from all over South Asia. Pashupatinath is only one of thousands of temples and shrines scattered throughout Nepal, however. In the Kathmandu Valley alone, there are hundreds of such shrines, large and small, in which the major gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, as well as local and minor divinities, are worshiped. Many of these shrines are constructed near rivers or at the base of pipal trees, which are themselves considered sacred. For Buddhists, Nepal is significant as the birthplace of Lord Buddha. It is also home to a number of important Buddhist monasteries and supas, including Boudha and Swayambhu, whose domeshaped architecture and painted all-seeing eyes have become symbols of the Kathamandu Valley. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Generally, Hinduism in Nepal is based on the Dharmashastras, Puranas, and various developments in Vaishnavism and Shaivism that have largely originated in India. Buddhism in Nepal blends Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle, with Vajrayana, the Diamond Way. Whether Tibetans or Newars, Buddhists believe in the five Dhayani Buddhas, and along with Hindus they believe in the principles of dharma and karma. Hindus in Nepal worship the major gods of Hinduism, such as forms of Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, and Saraswati. In the Kathmandu Valley Hindus along with the Buddhists also worship powerful local goddesses and gods known as Ajima, Vajrayogini, Bhatbatini, and others who can be very powerful, protective, and punitive.” The five Dhyani Buddhas; Vairochana, Akshobhaya, Rathasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi, represent the five basic elements: earth, fire, water, air and ether. Buddhist philosophy conceives these deities to be the manifestations of Sunya or absolute void. Mahakaala and Bajrayogini are Vajrayana Buddhist deities worshipped by Hindus as well. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992; Nepal government]
Organized Hinduism in Nepal
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Hindus in Nepal do not proselytize, and conversion by people outside the caste system is virtually impossible. Historically, however, Hindus have encouraged recognition of Hindu divinities and rituals by all Nepalis. [Source: David H. Holmberg, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“Hindu practice in Nepal is not centrally organized, and identifying leaders recognized by broad sectors of the population would be impossible. The king and the royal guru, or spiritual adviser, are important, as are the chief Brahman priests at principal temples and pilgrimage sites. [Source: David H. Holmberg,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006. Holmberg is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University]
“The two most significant Nepali Hindu scholars are Bhanu Bhakta Acharya (1872–1936), best known for translating the Hindu epic Ramayana into colloquial Nepali, and Yogi Naraharinath (1911–2003), a saint and scholar who was the most important Hindu leader in Nepal during the twentieth century.
“Especially in Kathmandu, Nepalese examples of Hindu art, which are usually associated with temples, rival the finest art found anywhere in South Asia. Although nationalist sentiment has linked the development of Nepali-language literature with a nineteenth-century Nepali version of the famous Hindu epic Ramayana, most literature in Nepali is of a secular bent.
Hindus believe that the absolute (the totality of existence, including God, man, and universe) is too vast to be contained within a single set of beliefs. A highly diverse and complex religion, Hinduism embraces six philosophical doctrines (darshanas). From these doctrines, individuals select one that is congenial, or conduct their worship simply on a convenient level of morality and observance. Religious practices differ from group to group. The average Hindu does not need any systematic formal creed in order to practice his or her religion Hindus only to comply with the customs of their family and social groups.*
One basic concept in Hinduism is that of dharma, natural law and the social and religious obligations it imposes. It holds that individuals should play their proper role in society as determined or prescribed by their dharma. The caste system, although not essential to philosophical Hinduism, has become an integral part of its social or dharmic expression. Under this system, each person is born into a particular caste, whose traditional occupation — although members do not necessarily practice it — is graded according to the degree of purity and impurity inherent in it.*
Other fundamental ideas common to all Hindus concern the nature and destiny of the soul, and the basic forces of the universe. The souls of human beings are seen as separated portions of an allembracing world soul (brahma); man's ultimate goal is reunion with this absolute.*
Karma (universal justice) is the belief that the consequence of every good or bad action must be fully realized. Another basic concept is that of samsara, the transmigration of souls; rebirth is required by karma in order that the consequences of action be fulfilled. The role an individual must play throughout his or her life is fixed by his or her good and evil actions in previous existences. It is only when the individual soul sees beyond the veil of maya (illusion or earthly desires) — the forces leading to belief in the appearances of things — that it is able to realize its identity with the impersonal, transcendental reality (world soul) and to escape from the otherwise endless cycle of rebirth to be absorbed into the world soul. This release is known as moksha.*
Veneration for the cow has come to be intimately associated with all orthodox Hindu sects. Because the cow is regarded as the symbol of motherhood and fruitfulness, the killing of a cow, even accidentally, is regarded as one of the most serious of religious transgressions.*
Hindu Rituals, Priests and Religious Practitioners in Nepal
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “The elementary ritual act of Hindus in Nepal is the performance of puja, or offerings to divinities. Puja ranges from simple offerings made to representations of divinities in households to elaborate spectacles in large temples. Some divinities, especially goddesses, require blood sacrifices. In return for offerings, divinities confer blessings or protection (prasad), usually in the form of a portion of the offerings. Householders can make offerings on their own, but on important occasions or in major temples, Brahman priests act as intermediaries. [Source: David H. Holmberg, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Men of the highest Nepali castes wear sacred threads, which are generally covered with other clothing. Alfred Pach III wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Brahman priests and the Vajracharya Buddhist priests of the Newar are caste-specific roles that may be achieved only by caste members following initiations. These religious specialists perform important rites of passage and domestic rituals and provide important teachings and information on many subjects. Most shamans enter their role as practitioners through the onset of a sickness or possession, which serves as a calling. However, in some groups religious specialists, such as the khepre and pajyu among the Gurung, can achieve their roles only if they are members of one of the ranked divisions of their society. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Many forms of Hindu worship do not require the mediation of a priest. At key rites of passage such as weddings and funerals, Brahman priests read Vedic scriptures and ensure the correct performance of rituals. At temples, priests care for religious icons, which are believed to contain the essence of the deities they represent. They are responsible for ensuring the purity of the temple and overseeing elaborate pujas. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: Nepal occupies a special place in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. According to Hindu mythology, the Himalayas are the abode of the gods, and are specifically associated with Shiva, one of the three principal Hindu deities. Pashupatinath, a large Shiva temple in Kathmandu, is among the holiest sites in Nepal and attracts Hindu pilgrims from all over South Asia. Pashupatinath is only one of thousands of temples and shrines scattered throughout Nepal, however. In the Kathmandu Valley alone, there are hundreds of such shrines, large and small, in which the major gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, as well as local and minor divinities, are worshiped. Many of these shrines are constructed near rivers or at the base of pipal trees, which are themselves considered sacred. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Hindu Temples and Sacred Places in Nepal
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “The most important sacred place in Nepal is the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, which houses an image of Shiva. Closely associated with Pashupatinath is a temple to Guhyesvari, a form of the goddess Durga and the consort of Shiva. Although Shiva is the most important Hindu divinity in Nepal, there are also sites sacred to Vishnu, especially at Changu Narayan and Buddhanilkantha (Jalasyana Narayan). [Source: David H. Holmberg, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“Manifestations of Durga are also focal points for worship, including the temple of Taleju in Kathmandu, where annual royal sacrifices occur during Dasain, the national festival. Outside the Kathmandu Valley, the most important pilgrimage site is Gosainkund. Among a host of other divinities, Nepali give special attention to Ganesh, whose image can be found everywhere, both in independent shrines in homes and neighborhoods and in the temples of other divinities. Shrines or sacred sites of one form or another are found almost everywhere in both rural and urban Nepal, and much of daily worship focuses on these local sites.
“Nepali imbue all unusual features of their mountainous landscape with sacred significance. Rivers — especially the confluences of rivers — are thought to be particularly sacred and, by definition, purifying. Salagrams, fossils of ammonoids (an extinct group of mollusks) found in the upper reaches of the Kali Gandaki River, are worshiped as iconic manifestations of Vishnu. Cows are sacred in Nepal because they are associated with Brahmans and symbolize the Hindu state and the historical ascendancy of high-caste Hindus. Sacred rhesus monkeys are found in huge numbers at temple complexes like Pashupatinath and Swayambhunath. Hindus link tulsi, an herb similar to basil, to Vishnu, and it is not uncommon to find tulsi plants growing in special shrines outside Hindu homes. The most sacred part of a house is the hearth room, which is kept especially pure and which only immediate family members are usually allowed to enter.
Hindu Customs in Nepal
Hindu rituals include worship of household gods (kuldveta), worship of brothers and sisters (bhai tika, celebrated during Tihar) and daily puja (morning and sometimes evening) worship of various Hindu deities such as Ganesh, Shiva, Vishnu, Ram, Krishna, Saraswati, Durga (Kali), Parvati, Narayan and Bhairab. According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: On a day-to-day level, Hindus practice their religion by "doing puja, " making offerings and prayers to particular deities. While certain days and occasions are designated as auspicious, this form of worship can be performed at any time.’ [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Although dietary restrictions are easing among cosmopolitan sectors of society, many conservative Hindus in Nepal will take cooked rice only from those of the same, or of a higher, caste. Foods that are parched or cooked in oil or butter are shared more widely and are the foods of festive occasions. High castes will not accept water from untouchables. Many high-caste Brahman families are vegetarian. Hindus cannot eat beef under any circumstances, and high castes will not eat domestic pork, though some will eat wild boar. [Source: David H. Holmberg, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Hindu women celebrate the coming of the monsoons by taking a ceremonial bath in the Baghamati River in Kathmandu. They honor, Parvati, the wife of Shiva and the bringer of rains from the mountains. To gain merit Hindus sometime roll sideways through the dirty, cobblestone streets of Kathmandu while in a praying position. Followed by a procession of saffroned robed devotees the rollers sometimes keep it up for hours.♀
There are not as many cows wandering around as there in India but they are still present. In the old days there were often stiffer punishments for killing a cow than for killing members of some castes. Even today you can end up in jail with a 20 year sentence for accidently killing a cow with car. Even so it is not unusual to see a farmer whacking a cow with a stick for wandering into his field or a market woman smacking one on the nose for stealing some spinach.
Sadhus (holy men) are not as common as in India but are still found in Nepal. According to The Wandering Yogis: “Smoking weeds, wandering naked for all time, giving up the comfort of the materialistic world, divine madness and devotion for Lord Shiva and their pursuit for the ultimate enlightenment make the spiritual Sadhus the holy icon of Hinduism.”
Caste System and Hindu Ideas of Equality and Social Justice in Nepal
Although Hindu foundations in Nepal often support charitable activities, and some monasteries (ashrams) have become refuges for the dispossessed, Hinduism remains linked with the inequalities of the caste system. Despite the fact that social activists regularly work against caste discrimination, they generally do not do so as members of Hindu organizations. [Source: David H. Holmberg, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“ Caste inequality was an essential part of Nepalese society for centuries, and higher-caste Hindus continue to hold most influential positions in society, despite the leveling of the caste hierarchy. Women are subject to restrictions because their relative purity reflects on their natal families while they remain unmarried and on their husband's once they are married. A first marriage is referred to as "gift of a virgin," and chastity before marriage is carefully guarded. Hindu families are patrilineal, and men have formal authority over the family. Women, however, wield considerable informal power in the home, especially as they gain status in their husband's household after bearing male children. Higher castes do not allow widows to remarry. Nevertheless, Hindu women in Nepal are generally considered less restricted than in India.
“Throughout its history the state of Nepal has encouraged Hindu institutions and practices, and Hindu caste ideology was used to bring organization to Nepal's ethnic diversity. Even after the "people's movement" of 1990 and the establishment of democratic forms of government, Nepal officially remained a Hindu monarchy.
Nepalese Woman Jailed for Killing Sacred Cow
In 2006, a court in eastern Nepal sentenced a woman to 12 years in prison for killing a cow, regarded as sacred to Hindus. The Irish Times reported: “Kripa Bhoteni, 50, was sentenced at a district court in Sankhuwasabha, about 310 miles north-east of the capital Kathmandu, the Kantipur newspaper reported. Bhoteni, who is not a Hindu, killed the animal and was drying the meat to eat later, according to the report. It did not say which religion she followed. [Source: Irish Times, April 3, 2006]
“Cows are considered holy in Nepal, where most of the population are Hindus. Nepalese Hindus worship cows every morning, and in October they hold a one-day festival to celebrate the animal. “Cows are considered to be sacred not just by the people but also as defined by the laws,” said Indra Lohani, a lawyer at the Supreme Court in Kathmandu.
“Under the Civil Code, which defines the civil and social laws in Nepal, anyone found guilty of killing a cow can be imprisoned for up to 12 years. Those found guilty of ordering its death face six years in jail. Another man charged in the same case has fled and police are searching for him, Kantipur reported. Police found the dried cow meat at the woman’s house and seized it as evidence.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022