Nepali Times
Here And There
A secular Hinduism


To those agitating against the declaration of Nepal as a secular state, prepare to be left behind by logic and history. You may think you're playing a patriotic and faithful game but you're just cynical. Here's why.

To begin with, there's no such thing as a Hindu kingdom. Even when such entities existed thousands of years ago, there was no agreement on whether they were legitimate or not. Various tracts used to justify the absurd notion that a Shah king was an avatar of a god were misquoted or deliberately misused. Respected Hindu scholars say the kings of early Hindudom were entreated to be just and wise, like gods, not to be gods themselves.

In those days of wandering mendicants like Buddha, Mahavira and others, a king who claimed actual godhood would have been laughed out of court. Even Ashoka, no shrinking violet, only referred to himself as 'blessed of the gods'.

Very few people in Nepal know that much of what has passed for palace-sponsored Hinduism here was invented by the Ranas or members of the same courtier class, cherry picked from a heterodox array of traditions that can only be described in and of themselves as secular.

A secular religion? Surely not. But it is so. Hinduism is a creed, not a faith per se. The Mahant of the Tulsi Ghat temple in Varanasi, a saint called Veer Bhadra Mishra, once told me Hindus didn't agree on any aspect of their faith save the sanctity of the family and the responsibility of individuals for their own salvation.

"We have so many schools of thought," he said, "some believe in millions of gods, some just a few, some in one God and others in no gods at all. We have atheist Hindus. Who's to say whether anyone is more correct than anyone else." Then, true to the notion of individual salvation, Mahant-ji slipped into the Ganges and took his holy bath. Tolerance is the only way to approach life under such beliefs.

Nepali Hinduism calcified under state patronage. A culturally sanctioned way of life in India that adapted and served peoples' needs for millennia became a tool of caste oppression and exclusion in Nepal. Pretending to be a force for unity, the Hinduism encouraged by the Nepali elite was largely a way to divide and rule the diverse masses.

It's no accident that the number of Hindus in the country declined in relative terms in the last census. That's because the government stopped simply designating people by religious community and asked them what their faith ways. Magars, Tamangs and others were no longer 'automatic Hindus'.

None of the Hindu reform movements of the past have found root in Nepal, given the role of the state authorities in determining the official stature of religion. What would the Ranas have done, confronted by Swami Vivekananda or Gandhi? In India, Hindus survived Ashoka's Buddhism, centuries of Muslim overlordship and the British Evangelical Chriistian mission to 'civilise' them. More than surviving, Hinduism flourished. It still does. As India becomes prosperous and more modern, its people are flocking to temples and worshipping as never before.

Hinduism may similarly become relevant and supportive of change in the new Nepal. First of all, caste needs to openly debated and discrimination ended. Some sort of affirmative action for dalits and others is essential. The status of women is a national shame in many parts of this country, particularly rural Hindu women. Their religious beliefs, and those of their husbands, have kept them in bondage. No faith justifies slavery. Finally, the endless spectacles of Hindu ritual need to be removed from state functions, including those involving the king, and put back in temples and peoples' homes where they belong.

So here's to secularism. And to Hinduism, whether Shaivite, Vaishnivite, Brahminical or any other kind. Not to mention Bonpo, Islam, Buddhism, Chistianity, Animism, Agnoticism, Atheism and others. Most of all, here's to tolerance that can only take root when the land itself is truly united in diversity.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)