Religious Melding in Nepal: Hinduism and Buddhism


Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. History of Hinduism

o        Early Vedic Religion

o        Birth of Hinduism

o        Modern Hinduism

  1. History of Buddhism

o        Life and Philosophy of Buddha

o        Forms of Buddhism

  1. Hinduism and Buddhism in Modern Day Nepal

o        Blurring Distinctions between Hinduism and Buddhism

o        Religion and Government

  1. Conclusion
  2. References

Introduction

Originally conceived on the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism is considered to be the oldest living religion in the world.  As many as 3000 deities exist in some places where Hindus live and worship.  The belief system of the Hindus has been adjusted over the nearly 3000 years of its existence to cope with social changes, but the underlying philosophies have remained the same.  About 2000 years ago, a Hindu prince named Siddhartha Gautama took the philosophy of Hinduism and molded it into a new belief system called Buddhism.  Buddhism has also changed over time while generally maintaining the original message. Buddhism and Hinduism continue to be two of the world’s major religions today, and in some parts of the world, the distinctions between the two religions are hard to find.  However, in no part of the world are the lines between Hinduism and Buddhism more blurred than in Nepal.  Although Hinduism is considered the official religion of Nepal, many people consider themselves both Buddhist and Hindu and often worship follows both Buddhist and Hindu principles.

History of Hinduism

According to most historians, some of the earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent were the Vedas, named by scholars after the religious texts they left behind.  Little evidence exists to prove historical theories, but the existing evidence suggests that these inhabitants may have been nomadic Aryan warriors who migrated into northwest India and either displaced or integrated themselves into the existing population of Dravidian-speaking peoples ( Savada, 1991).  The foundations for both Indian culture and the Hindu philosophy were laid in the Vedic era, a period from about 1500 to 500 B.C.E.  One of the most famous Vedas is known as the Rig Veda, and it tells the story of the conquest of the Indian subcontinent from the Aryan point of view.  The Vedas set the standard for the social order of the time.  One of the principle concepts of the early Vedic religion was the idea of Varna, belief that humans had been born from the body of the creator, Brahman.  According to this belief, the highest class, the priests, had been born from Brahman’s head, the warriors and nobles had been born from his arms, the merchant class and farmers had been born from his legs, and the servants had been born from his feet.  The lowest group, called Untouchables, was excluded from the class system entirely.  This belief in a cosmic hierarchy laid the groundwork for the Indian system of castes (Bulliet, 2001, pp.175-177).

Over time the beliefs of the Vedas transformed into a new religion called Hinduism.  Some scholars believe that the evolvement of the Vedic religion into Hinduism was a response to the challenges of new competing religions, namely Buddhism and Jainism Whatever the case may be, Vedic religion adjusted to include new beliefs similar to some Buddhist ideas, as well as some aspects of the Dravidian culture. One of the new concepts was the idea of a tripartite godhead.  Brahman remained an important part of Hinduism, but now present were Vishnu, the preserver, who incarnated into human forms on several occasions to help mankind, and Shiva, the destroyer.  Another new concept was the idea of ethical and social responsibility, or dharma.  The principle behind dharma was established in the Vedic age, but as Hinduism developed, it became even more important.  The last and perhaps most important new concept that developed was the idea of reincarnation.  Never before had the inhabitants of the area believed in the eternal nature of the soul.  With the development of Hinduism came the belief in moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirths (Bulliet, p. 181-2).

 

Today Hinduism has spread to many different parts of the world other than India. It is believed that the religion developed in the part of the Indian subcontinent that is modern day Nepal, and in fact Nepal is the first country to establish a government with Hinduism as the official religion (Savada, 1991).  While Hinduism is most dominant in its home region of South Asia, large populations of Hindus also live in the United States, Britain, South Africa, and many parts of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia (Ash, 1997, pp. 160-61).  The idea of a system of castes has always faced opposition on some level, but in recent years the opposition has grown with the development of human rights organizations like Amnesty International, which mostly fight for the rights of the group known as Untouchables. The caste system has changed greatly over the last couple of centuries, and many modern Hindus regard it only as a formality.  Countries where Hinduism is the main religion have long since outlawed discrimination against someone based on caste, but as in the United States, this law does not entirely eliminate discrimination (Daniel, 1999, online).

History of Buddhism

Buddhism began with the Indian prince Gautama Siddhartha, who was born around 563 B.C.E. into nobility and lived a very sheltered life.  At the age of thirty, he left his wife, family, and wealth and turned to a life of meditation.  His goal was to find the cause of suffering in the world.  One day he was sitting under a tree when he had a realization.  His epiphany led to what became known as the four noble truths.  The first truth in Buddhism is that all life is suffering. The second truth is that the origin of suffering is desire.  The third truth is the idea that suffering can be ended, and the fourth holds that suffering can only be ended by following the eightfold path, which involves right understanding, attitude, action, speech, conduct, effort, attention, and meditation.  Siddhartha soon became known as the first Buddha, or enlightened one, and his teachings became known as Buddhism (Jansen, 2000. p.13).

After Buddha’s death, his followers had different ideas on how to interpret his teachings.  These differences led to many different forms of Buddhism.  The three main forms that still exist today are Theravada, or “the lesser vehicle,” Mahayana, or “the greater vehicle,” and Vajrayana, or “the diamond vehicle.”  Each form more or less follows the original ideas of Buddha and the four noble truths, with slight variations in each form.  For example, followers of Theravada Buddhism believe that anyone can attain enlightenment, while Mahayana Buddhism maintains that enlightenment can only be attained with the help of an experienced teacher (Jansen, p. 14).  Despite the differences, all Buddhists believe in the idea of enlightenment through the eightfold path, which eventually leads to nirvana, or freedom from the cycle of rebirths, a concept also important to Hinduism.

Hinduism and Buddhism in Modern Day Nepal

In the early 1990s, Nepal was officially declared a Hindu state.  Even though the Nepalese recognize Hinduism as the official religion, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs often combine to form one interfaith ideology.  Many people who are regarded as Hindus could just as easily be considered Buddhists.  Religious conflict may exist on some level, but it has never been a dominating factor because Hindus sometimes worship in Buddhist temples and vice versa.  In many places, Buddhist and Hindu temples are built side by side.  Although roughly 87% of the population proclaim themselves to be Hindu, the similarities between the two religions in this area are so subtle that few outsiders can tell the difference.  Those who claim to be purely Buddhist are mostly concentrated in the eastern hills near Tibet (Savada, 1991).  In general, the mutual respect Hindus and Buddhists feel towards each other in Nepal has helped to create a sense of social and political unity. 

 

The constitution of Nepal was written in 1990.  At first there was pressure from many groups to make Nepal a secular state, but the followers of Hinduism eventually won out the opposition to a Hindu state.  Although Hinduism is the official religion, the constitution of Nepal aims to establish “harmony amongst the various castes, tribes, religions, languages, races, and communities (BBC, 1998).  The government of Nepal is a monarchy, and despite the religious freedom that exists in Nepal, the constitution states that the king must be Hindu.  The cow is considered sacred in Nepal, and, as in India, killing a cow is a crime.  Again, the idea of cows as sacred is a Hindu philosophy.  Although many of the laws of the Nepalese constitution are derived from Hindu religion, the Nepalese people have much religious freedom, and those who choose to engage in Buddhist worship are in no way looked down upon or persecuted.

Conclusion

The differences between Hinduism and Buddhism have often been more compelling to the followers of each religion than the similarities.  On many occasions throughout history, tension has existed between Buddhists and Hindus.  In fact, Buddhism has been almost completely eliminated in South Asia, the region of its birth, and exists today almost entirely in Southeast Asia.  Nepal is an exception to this rule.  In modern Nepal, Buddhists and Hindus not only live together and tolerate each other but also share common aspects of worship in many respects.  In Nepal, like almost no place else in the world, exists not only a mutual respect for those who practice a different religion, but also a distinctive dual faith situation where two major traditional religions have combined to form one unique belief system.

References

Bulliet, R. (2001).  The earth and its peoples(2nd edition). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

 

Jansen, E. (2000).  The book of buddhas(7th edition).  Havelte, Holland: Binkey Kok Publications.

 

Ash, R. (1997). Top 10 of everything. New York: DK Publishing, Incoporated.

 

Savada, A. (1991). Nepal: a country study. [Online]. Library of Congress. Available: http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/nptoc.html#np0056 [November 22, 2001].

 

Daniel, A. (1999). Caste system in modern India. [Online]. Available: http://adaniel.tripod.com/modernindia.htm [November 24,2001].

 

BBC. (1998). The Hindu kingdom of Nepal. [Online]. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/features/nepal.shtml [November 22, 2001].


Andrea Westerbuhr, November 25th, 2001.