I was recently asked to write about the cultural complexity of Nepal, focusing on Buddhism and Hindu faiths. As i am not Nepali, Hindu or Buddhist, and I have only been living in Nepal for a short time this topic was way out of my area of experience. I am not one to turn away from a challenge so here is my attempt... please feel free to point out any errors as I am new to the topic and this is how we learn!
Life in Nepal is a confusing mix of religious, caste, cultural and modern influences. There are four main castes in Nepal but hundreds of subdivisions, the Mijhar group of Western Nepal has 110 subdivisions alone. Each subdivision has differing rituals and customs and to make things more complicated beliefs and practices of some castes vary dramatically from village to village. There are 21 officially recognized festival days and every area and caste have their own ‘Holy days’ to observe.
In the 2001 Nepali census the religious demographics of Nepal were as follows: Hindu 80.6%, Buddhist 10.7%, Muslim 4.2%, Christian, Bon, Tantrics, Kirant make up the remaining percentage. The two most prominent religions are Hinduism and Buddhist. The cities and country side are dotted with temples and stupas. While Hinduism is older, Buddhism has had an undeniable impact on the nation’s identity and the two religions have become intertwined in the heads of many.
Buddhism and Hinduism both grew out of the Indian Subcontinent. The exact origins of Hinduism are not known but it is relatively well documented that Buddha was born to a Hindu family in Nepal. Buddha studied the Hindu faith in India before his enlightenment and he instructed students to show consideration to Brahmins as they were spiritual and had considerable learning.
Mahayana and Vajrayana forms of Buddhism have developed a variety of ritual and devotional practices that were inspired or influenced by the existing religious cultures of India, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, and Tibet and have the most similarities with Hinduism. Mahayana Buddhism believes the original teachings of the Buddha came from Hindu practices.
Buddhist and Hindu terminology have many similarities. They are both Dharmic religions, meaning they are based on the idea that one has a personal obligation to follow one’s calling and fulfill their spiritual obligations. Both religions support the concept of Kama impacting an individual’s life and reject desire as a negative influence. Meditation is used by both to achieve a higher state of spiritual awareness.
The Buddha is described in many important Hindu scriptures, including the Puranas. Around 1500BC number of Hindu traditions began to portray Buddha as one of the ten forms of Lord Vishnu, known as the "Dasavatara". It is argued by many Hindus that Buddhism is a branch of Hinduism. This acceptance of Buddha as one of Lord Vishnu’s forms is often given as evidence of the religious harmony in Nepal.
Swami Harshananda (1981) stated that the Buddha as an incantation of Lord Vishnu was suggested as a way to control the growing Buddhist population, rather than as a “serious proposition”. Don’t tell this to the many Nepali Hindus who pay their respects at Buddhist stupas.
There has been no serious religious based conflict in Nepal, though many Buddhist may reject the notion that there is religious harmony and that the two are interchangeable as mere propaganda from the dominant class. Tibetan Buddhist author Krishna Bhattachan states the proposition is actually offensive to Buddhists who do not believe in rebirth.
There are in fact many important ideological differences between the Hindu and Buddhist religions. The most prominent is that the Hindu religion recognizes 330 million Gods, while Buddha rejected the idea of supernatural beings such as Gods. Hindus view acquiring wealth as a necessary stage of life which allows the time and means to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Buddhists reject the idea.
There have been no major religious conflicts in Nepal in recent history. There is still a respect between Buddhism and Hinduism. Right or wrong, many Hindus do see Buddhism as an extension of their own beliefs. Most people in Nepal do live in relative cultural harmony.
“I grew up in both cultures of Hindu and Buddhism. I finished my school level through Tibetan school and Higher school through Nepali school. That means I knew both cultures at school. But I don't feel that is hard for people. According to my experienced it depends on how they think and react to other religions. When I was a student, I had lots of friends with different religions but we were so close and there were not any problems. It is the same here at my school too [where I teach]. There are not any problems between the religious like Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim. We have a really good environment” said Tsering Gyalpo Lama, a teacher at a local school.
Parents of Nepali children, whether Buddhist or Hindu will probably agree there are bigger issues arising from the messages, which come into their homes every day, through western TV and modern Hindu moves than there are from conflicting Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.