Changing forms of religion as an indicator of current transformations in Nepal
When carefully considered, the motto of “let’s be happy” seems rather appropriate to the current Nepali situation. Political failure, disillusionment with politics, power cuts, a shortage of so many basic necessities, an economic crisis, exodus of the population to foreign countries, severe ecological degradation, repeated bandas—the list of acute problems faced by the Nepali people is long. Issues pertaining to happiness and pain relief that have been raised by so many new religious therapists and practitioners of contemporary Nepal, including Vikashananda, the guru of Godavari Gurukul, in the southern part of the Kathmandu Valley, are thereby particularly suited to these troubled times. Can these difficulties explain the success of these spiritual figures in Nepali cities? My answer to this question is definitely yes.
The proliferation of new religious groups, mostly derived from India, is a striking phenomenon in Nepal’s contemporary urban landscape. Most of these faith-based organisations—Brahma Kumari, Kripalu, The Art of Living, Sathya Sai Baba, Ram Dev Yog Pith—have emerged in Nepal since the 1990s, sometimes even before then. Vipassana Buddhist meditation, which has its own characteristics, also needs to be associated with these developments. For a number of Nepali people belonging to the middle and upper classes, these organisations play an increasing role in religious and social life. The phenomenon not only concerns the Kathmandu Valley, but also the main towns in the Tarai and in the hills.
What do these movements teach? The resolution of personal conflicts, mental equilibrium, relaxation, better daily hygiene and health—swastha. They propose a philosophy of pain and offer salvation from sorrow and grief. Some focus on yoga (remember the Ram Dev camp in Thundikhel in 2010), others on meditation and Ayurveda medicine. The Self instead of the Community, that is the message of the hermit of Godavari, as well as by other gurus and maharajs in the present-day Nepalese Hindu context. In fact, the success of these groups in the country reveals an individualisation of religion. “Let us be happy!” Not in the disappointing contentious public sphere, but privately, within the inner circle of friends and relatives.
In many ways, this religious discourse belongs to the ancient Hindu and Buddhist culture of Nepal. Yet it runs counter to dominant conventional mainstream religion. The almost total rejection of the caste system, of luxurious temples and of lavish divine imagery; and the importance some of them give to women (Brahma Kumari), represent a radical break with former traditions. In addition, these movements welcome followers of other religions—Christians and Muslims, for instance—and people of all castes and ethnic groups. They have a universalistic dimension which appeals to the rising middle class more than old local values, and they are better suited to the increasing sense of equality among the people. Admittedly, a parallel runs between the success of these movements in Nepal and their propagation in India over the last decade. All in all, these transformations reveal a broader crisis of values: the growing divide between a public and the family self (bhitra/bahira), the conflict between tradition and modernity in all sectors of daily life, growing uncertainties in the economic and political realms, more open competition between individuals and the loosening of traditional rules. They also express the impact of globalisation and internationalisation. Religion here becomes disconnected, though not totally, from the former caste-kin bound practises and beliefs, which were taken for granted. Individual options, if not conversions, are more highly valued. Young people in Nepali cities see in these new spiritual figures and their techniques a modern, progressive way of practising religion.
These groups should not be seen as an expression of the Hindu Right. They have received support or encouragement by the Nepalese Republican authorities of all parties. In some ways, they are more adapted to the secularised programme and disconnected from the old royal cults, which is advocated by most political bodies. The Maoist leader Prachanda himself expressed his interest in some of these groups and called for a synthesis between Maoism and spirituality in this concern. One reason could be the investment of these organisations in charitable works and welfare activities, such as the building of hospitals, health centres, orphanages, visits to prisons to help criminals become useful members of society and humanitarian relief action in the event of natural disasters.
At a more profound level than everyday political intricacies, such religious transformations are highly significant. The rise of Christianity and Theravada Buddhism, the changes within the Nepali Muslim community, the rejection of massive blood sacrifices within part of the population and, as I have shown here, emphasis on happiness and swastha among townspeople, all reveal massive transformations in a country where religion is still intimately linked to daily life. To take one example, the ecumenism and transnationalism propagated by these religious groups directly challenge the ethnic nationalist discourse, prevalent in the Nepali political ideological landscape. In stark contrast, they correspond to a more inclusive pan-Nepalese form of citizenship, beyond any internal divisions. Revolution with guns is devalued; revolution of mind (manokranti) is more valued. Changing forms of religion are therefore an excellent indicator of the current transformations in a country like Nepal in this globalising world.
A version of this article appeared in The Kathmandu Post, 29 June 2012.