Spirituality is central to the Nepali people and society. In 2014, a poll found that 93% of Nepali respondents considered religion to be important to their daily life. Nepal’s cultural heritage is deeply influenced by religion. For example, Buddha was born in Lumbini – a sacred garden in Nepal and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though the monarchy has lost its power, some Nepalis may still consider the King of Nepal to be an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
In the 2011 Nepali census, 81.3% of the population identified as Hindu and 9% identified as Buddhist. The census also identified significant groups of Muslims (4.4%), Kirant (3.1%) and Christians (1.4%). Hinduism is generally followed by Indo-Aryan and is widespread throughout the nation. Buddhism is more concentrated in areas where Tibetan cultural influences are dominant and is mostly followed by the Tibeto-Burman in the North and in the centre. However, this general correlation between ancestry and religion is not concrete. Many Tibeto-Burmans are Hindu and vice versa.
Nepal has not seen major inter-religious conflicts as its neighbouring countries have. There is little isolation and judgement between faiths. Instead, there has been a lot of intermingling between the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Many people may identify as an amalgamation of these two faiths as they share similar ideas of rebirth (samsara) and causality (karma). Nepali adherents of both religions are historically known to worship at each other’s temples and celebrate each other's festivals. In this way, despite having a defined Hindu majority, there tends to be a dominant feeling of mutual respect throughout Nepal regarding other people’s devotion to their faith and belief system. As an example, a Christian Church of the Lady of Assumption was painted by Buddhist monks. This attitude of acceptance has largely translated into respect for the values and traditions of other cultures among Nepali communities.
Traditional Beliefs in Nepal
The current census statistics of Nepal do not reflect the ongoing shamanic and animist traditions in the country. Indigenous commonly continue to follow their traditional belief system. For example, the Tharu people from the Tarai region have a spiritual system that is closely linked to the natural environment. There is also a widespread belief in witchcraft, ghosts and spirits in rural parts of Nepal. These supernatural beings are thought to have spiteful natures, often seeking to inflict illness and misfortune. Many Nepalis seek shamans (‘jhhakhri’) to discover the cause of illness by mediating between the supernatural realm and the human world. These shamans then recommend treatment or devotions one can do to regain health. There are many cultural taboos that relate to these traditional beliefs. For example, uttering the word “witch” in Nepali is thought to bring a witch’s attention upon you and cause you harm. Many Nepalis combine traditional practices with their religious worship; Hinduism and the practice of ‘puja’ is commonly intermingled with shamanism.
Hinduism in Nepal
Hinduism – the most widely followed religion in Nepal – has been particularly influential in Nepali society, yet it can be interpreted in many different ways. Pinpointing what constitutes Hinduism is complex, with some contending that the religion is rather an umbrella term that encompasses various religions and traditions within it. Followers of the faith often perform many rituals; these may happen once in a lifetime or annually in the form of a colourful festival. They may also happen regularly on a day-to-day basis. For instance, one common Hindu ritual is ‘puja’, which is the making of offerings and prayers to particular gods and deities. Some believe that making specific gestures to the Gods can remove obstacles and bad luck. Therefore, people commonly worship and pray before events or actions, like a wedding, funeral or long journey. Puja may also be performed to ask for forgiveness. Sometimes, priests (who have a prominent position in Hindu society) may ask for the forgiveness of Gods on behalf of others.
Many Hindu temples are built around Nepal in honour of various Gods and deities. They provide a place of solace, prayer and ritual for followers. Some have very specific purposes. For example, the Pashupatinath temple is the most significant temple dedicated to the god Shiva. It is believed that those who die in that temple will be reincarnated as a human in their next life, and so many elderly Hindus travel there to live their last weeks of life in the temple, eventually die and become cremated. Their remains are put into the sacred river, which eventually meets the holy river Ganges.
One of the most visible influences of Hinduism on Nepali society is the ‘varna’ (caste) system, a normative ideal of how society ought to be structured. It was adopted in Nepal, but in practice became complicated by various factors. Stigma was attached to those within particular castes and interactions among them were limited, particularly between those on the bottom tier and their superiors. Today, discrimination based on one’s caste is outlawed. However, prejudices based on caste do exist, even if implicit. See ‘Social ’ in Core Concepts for more information on caste.
Buddhism in Nepal
Buddhism originated as a countermovement to early Hinduism. It sought to present a universal ethic rather than ethical codes based on an individual’s caste. The core doctrine of the religion, known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’, teaches that one can be liberated from the suffering that underpins the cycle of death and rebirth by practising the ‘The Eightfold Path’. The ‘Five Precepts of Buddhism’ also set out commandments of correct and moral behaviour.
There are three main traditions or variations of Buddhism followed in Nepal: Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism. Across all three of these Buddhist traditions, reverence towards the Buddha is an important principle. Theravada Buddhism, known as ‘the way of the elders’, is seen by its followers as the earliest and most unchanged form of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhists generally take refuge in the ‘Triple Gem’: the teacher (Buddha), the teaching (dhamma) and the monastic community (the Sangha).
Mahayana Buddhism is known as the ‘Great Vehicle’ towards enlightenment. It considers its interpretation and additions to the original Buddha doctrine to be legitimate. Compassion is highly valued in Mahayana Buddhism; those who become enlightened (bodhisattvas) are thought to be able to postpone their own ascension to nirvana out of their own goodwill and sense of compassion in order to assist others along the path to enlightenment.
Vajrayana Buddhism (Tibetan Buddhism), known as the ‘Diamond’ or ‘Thunderbolt Vehicle’, is seen by some followers as a quicker path to enlightenment than other Buddhist traditions. It’s generally followed by exiled monks of Tibet and some Nepalis of Tibetan-Burman backgrounds living at high altitudes. Like Mahayana, it emphasises the role of bodhisattvas. It is often referred to as Tantric Buddhism because of the literature and rituals it follows. It involves many devotions to be performed through rituals such as mandalas, mantras and other exercises. These are taught through a guru, such as the Dalai Lama, who has mastered the philosophical and ritual tradition.
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