Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the Subcontinent is the religion; not just one, but a high prevalence of many different ones. In both Nepal and India, various faiths not only coexist peacefully, but bleed together, borrowing from each other’s beliefs and sharing festival celebrations and temples. No less than a half dozen very different religions were born in the region including: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, ISKCON, and many others. Additionally, one can find Islam and Christianity in the mix.
Buddhism – Some argue that Buddhism isn’t really a religion at all. That would depend on your personal definition of religion. Personally, I believe that it is – albeit one with a nontheistic (no god) belief structure. Buddists from India to Japan believe in Dharma, or ‘the right way to live’, a concept based upon the teaching of the historical ‘living’ Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Guatama (the awakened one) who was born of the Shakya caste in a town located in present-day Nepal.
According to tradition, Siddhartha lived and taught in the eastern part of India between the 6th and 4th centuries BC (or BCE). In spite of the local origin of the historical Buddha, only 10% of Nepali people practice Buddhism (most of whom are Tibetan or Burmese refugees, spreading the practice not only to Nepal, but across the Western world as well). In Nepal’s hills and mountains, Hinduism has absorbed many Buddhist tenets as I mentioned above.
Many of you have perhaps heard of the Dalai Lama. The current (14th) is Tenzin Gyatso who’s been in the position since 1950 (the longest running in history) at the ripe age of 15. During the 1959 Tibetan uprising, he fled to India and denounced the People’s Republic of China. He also established the nongovernmental Central Tibetan Administration and advocated tirelessly for Tibetans living both in and outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It is worth mentioning that this head Buddhist monk won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for the struggle of the liberation of Tibet and the efforts for a peaceful resolution.
Jainism – Jainism prescribes a path of non-violence toward all living beings. Believers can obtain liberation through self-control of the five major vows: pacifism, honesty, chastity, non-stealing, and non-attachment. It is one of the oldest religions in the world (and currently the smallest of the major world religions), generally tracing their history through 24 propagators of the faith (known as tirthankaras), ending with Mahavira (a contemporary to the historical Buddha).
The faiths shares many similarities to Buddhism and use much of the same terminology (for instance, followers of both religions must be strict vegetarians as taking any life is forbidden). The major difference is that while Buddhism has been spread to other Asian countries, Jainism has been largely confined to India, although smaller immigrant communities exist in the US, Canada, the UK, and Kenya. The major symbol of Jainism (adopted and corrupted by the Nazis in the 1930s) is the swastika.
Likewise, Jainism has built its history around the Hindu epics and traditions (including karma and reincarnation), creating a faith that bridges gaps between the other two. This has aided the Jains in assimilating with the surrounding Hindu society in India, due to fear of persecution. Their clergy (for lack of a better word) has even allowed this integration and participation in Hindu customs and rituals, providing the said customs don’t infringe upon the basic principles of Jainism.
Sikhism – Sikhism is monotheistic and India’s fourth-largest religion (fifth-largest in the world). It has existed for over 500 years (in this writer’s opinion, the Sikhs are also the friendliest and most generous of India’s population). It is the duty of all Sikhs to engage in personal as well as communal meditation and study of their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, the central teaching of which is the concept of oneness with (a non-gender specific) God (known as the ‘Constant’, a very different idea than in any other religion). The faith considers spiritual and secular life intertwined and unable to be separated. They believe all religious traditions are equally valid and capable of enlightening their followers.
Like Jainism, Sikhism adheres to the self-control over the Five Thieves – Ego, Anger, Greed, Attachment, and Lust. A Sikh can be identified by the unique style in which they fold their turbans. Their place of worship is called the Gurdwara; people of all faiths are welcome and free food is served in the Langar, or kitchen (they also contain libraries, nurseries, and classrooms). We were fortunate to have visited one during our stay in Delhi, and were so impressed that I could compose an entire entry just on the Sikh people and their beliefs.
When I think about their faith and how they practice it, I feel that all other world faiths have been aspiring to Sikhism for thousands of years. They believe in Sewa – service to community and to God – and Simran – remembrance of God. A few prohibitions exist in their faith; for example, Sikhs cannot cut their hair (the only silly one), consume alcohol, care about material wealth, sacrifice any creatures, have extra-marital affairs, live as monks, hermits, or recluses, and engage in ‘worthless talk’ (bragging, lying, slander, and even back-stabbing).
Hinduism – The dominant form of religion on the Subcontinent, with over 80% of the population identifying themselves with it, is Hinduism (about 1 billion followers). Unlike their Western counterparts, Hindus believe in many, many, many gods (over 11,000 to be precise, although most are simply alternate forms of the half-dozen major ones). It is one of the oldest religions, and while its believers subscribe to karma and dharma, most points of view are intellectual and philosophical rather than a set of rigid rules and regulations set in stone (take that Moses!).
The term Hindu developed out of geographic origins as the Persian word for the people who lived in the northwestern part of the Subcontinent, across the Indus River. By the 13th century, Hindustan emerged as a popular word for the nation of India, meaning the ‘land of Hindus’. Hinduism has been spread all over the world by proponents of the faith, including Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century, who brought Vedanta and Yoga to Europe and America. He believed that the divine exists in all beings; even non-Indians (who traditionally believe people are either born Hindu or something else) have the ability to reach Nirvana.
Some Hindu practitioners refer to it as ‘the eternal law’, which is beyond human origins. Like the number of gods and goddesses, Hinduism features a plethora of holy texts and scriptures. You may have heard of some of these including the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. This is another religion with so much information, I could write an entire article about it (if you want to learn more, I encourage all my readers to click the various links I have embedded in the text).
Most Hindus practice vegetarianism, although those who do eat meat, steer clear of cows. One such sect in Bali and Nepal, the Shaktas, practice animal sacrifice to the dismay of the majority of modern Hindus. Shaktism focuses on the worship of the divine mother as the absolute godhead. Cults of goddess worship have existed in this region for tens of thousands of years. Some forms of the goddess are gentle while others are fierce, and the Shaktas actually try and call forth cosmic forces using ‘real’ magic.
(SPOILER ALERT! Graphic Photograhy Ahead! For those of you with weak stomachs [or children], you may want to stop reading here.)
One such place of worship is the Manakamana Temple in Nepal, located atop a high mountain peak (above even the clouds), and dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Bhagwati – an incarnation of Parvati. The temple’s name roughly translates to mean ‘your heart’s desire’. Visitors come from all over Nepal and India to have the goddess grant their wishes (most of whom are newlyweds seeking a male offspring). The trek itself was a daunting feat, particularly before the advent of the cable car that takes worshipers and tourists to the top within minutes (for a small fee).
What sets this temple apart from every single other we visited during our trip was this: the stones in the pavement surrounding the building ran red with the blood of the animals sacrificed to ensure successful granting of people’s wishes. The scene was both fascinating and disgusting. Goats and roosters (all offerings must be male only) could be found along the streets awaiting purchase (if people brought their own, they were made to buy a one-way ticket up the cable car for their animal). Jen and I watched in awestruck horror as two water buffalo were ritually sacrificed in the customary style (decapitated with a single machete blow across the back of the neck – a practice called Jhatka). The spots of blood on my shoes will never come out.
Of course, watching wasn’t enough for Jen. She needed to participate. And so we bought our own goat and led the innocent creature to its slaughter. Bhairav is the the Hindu God of Destruction, and thus a very appropriate name for our goat (yes, we named him). Baaah-rav, lol. So we took our goat to the temple, had him blessed, and then escorted him around back to a big, fat man with fur and congealing blood stuck to his bare feet. Before we realized what was happening (the quickness of the moment astounded both of us), Bhairav was headless, red blood flowed like a river out of his neck wound and his little legs twitched with the residual energy still remaining in his central nervous system.
The obese executioner hoisted the carcass by the legs, and with outstretched arms, dropped it into the plastic bag Jen was holding (I refused to take part in this ritual, Jen led the goat to the temple, and carried the body away afterward). Following Bhairav’s needless death, we brought the corpse down a flight of stairs and into the worst smelling room I’ve ever been in; a handful of women crouched in filth, cleaning goats, roosters, and buffalo bodies (they removed the fur, tied the gizzards together, and boiled the skin), while a couple men blow-torched a pile of heads on a large, flat grill.
An hour later, we picked up what was left of our pet goat and paid about 3 bucks for a butcher to carve it up for our convenience. With a bag full of mutton, we bid a fond farewell to Manakamana Temple and descended the mountain in our cable car for the 3 hour drive back to Kathmandu.
And just so you don’t think we’re completely and utterly heartless, the goat meat was eaten and not wasted. We gifted it to the hotel staff who prepared a lovely meal for us to partake of together (we also shared the coconut that I sacrificed – and Jen’s the vegetarian!).
Thinking back on the experience still turns my stomach: an innocent, baby animal was decapitated on our behalf for a sacrifice to a goddess we don’t believe in. I may have to just give up eating meat altogether.
Until Next Time…