Religions of the Katmandu Valley
Religion is central to Nepalese life,
following colorful patterns of offerings and festivals. The main religions in the Katmandu valley are Hinduism, Buddhism
and Tantrism. Hinduism is the religion of the royalty (and the king of Nepal
is considered by many to be an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu).
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Both Hindus and Buddhists believe that a union of the individual with
a transcendental reality is the
goal of existence; the difference is in
the means. Both Hinduism and Buddhism have many elements of Tantrism and
shamanism, indigenous beliefs in supernatural
beings (often personifications of natural phenomena), and in the ability
of some people, often called shamans, to communicate with them.
Existence, including man, universe and God, is too vast to be
contained within one set of beliefs. Hence Hinduism embraces many metaphysical
perspectives, from which people may select philosophies which suits them, or worship on
a level of morality and
observances. The average Hindu does not need a formal creed to practice
religion; they need only comply with their family and community.
Dharma refers to a set of
obligations, holding that every person should play his
proper role in society. Karma predicts that the consequences of every
action must be realized. Rebirth is required so that karmic consequences
be fulfilled. Thus the role people play in life is fixed by their actions in previous existences. Only people who see beyond
illusion and identify with a
transcendental reality can escape an otherwise
endless cycle of rebirth.
Three important Hindu gods are Brahma, Vishnu
and Siva, representing creative, preservative and destructive forces.
Most Hindus follow Vishnu or Siva, or of one of their incarnations. Krishna,
an incarnation of Vishnu, is popular in Kathmandu.
Siva personifies a
struggle against demons
and evil, and the dangers of knowledge and
death. Siva has creative and benevolent aspects. As a mother goddess Siva has beneficent aspects as the goddesses
Uma and Parvati, and terrible aspects as the goddesses Durga and
Kali. One of Siva’s forms is Pashupati, Lord of Animals.
Ganesh, a benevolent elephant, is popular in Nepal. Ganesh is a
son of Siva and Parvati and is considered to be a problem-solver, a remover of obstacles
and a god of wealth.
Although high caste Nepalese may conform to
the Hinduism of the Brahmin priests and religious texts, the majority
of Nepalese people are less orthodox. Ordinary villagers are less concerned with a
transcendental unity, than with local forces that control their lives.
Most villages have patron deities, and shamanism and
goddess-worship are important. Village gods are usually held responsible
for protecting village land and resources, while goddesses are responsible
for their well-being. Other divinities are ancestral spirits who are
worshipped within families. Most deities are worshipped to
placate powerful supernatural beings rather than offering
thanks to beneficent deities.
Hindu priests have no ecclesiastical organization - there are
temples but no church. Their authority is based on Vedic scripts. Central
religious behaviors include public or private worship, puja, which
welcomes the gods. Statues of deities may be bathed, dressed, incensed
and worshipped with flowers and sweetmeats and paraded through streets.
For many Nepalese, idols are deities.
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Buddhism originated with the teachings of Siddhartha
Gautama, who was born in Nepal about 560 B.C. After six years
of meditation he attained enlightenment. Later called the Buddha, he devoted his
life to preaching his doctrine, reinterpreting many concepts of Hinduism and
promoting morality as part of religious life. Gautama Buddha proclaimed four noble truths:
- suffering dominates life
- desire causes suffering
- desire and suffering end in nirvana
- nirvana can be achieved by an eightfold path
Nirvana is the result of an individual struggle - a merging of
the individual self into the eternal self. Individual morality is the means of gaining
merit - not the observance of rituals.
The two main forms of Buddhism are Hinayana, the
earlier form, and Mahayana Buddhism, which developed around
the beginning of the Christian era and was based on the example of
Buddha rather than on his words. However, the Buddhism
most practiced in the Kathmandu Valley is Vajrayana,
an offshoot of Mahayana. Here the philosophy
of Hinduism and Buddhism is similar. Vajrayana Buddhism emphasizes
Tantric religious symbolism.
There is a sense of unity in Nepal. As Tantrism developed,
Buddhism adopted many Hindu ideas and gods. Both Buddhists and Hindus often use
the same temples and worship the same deities ...
As the Gupta empire declined in the 5th century,
Indians began to show more interest in the cults of feminine divinities and in
magical rites, which often contained licentious features. This is
often called Tantrism from the tantras (scriptures) which describe spells,
formulas and rituals.
Tantrism appeared in an organized form in the 7th century
and was introduced into Nepal at about the same time as Vajrayana Buddhism.
Tantrism remains strong and popular in Nepal, where these magical rituals and
esoteric beliefs are associated with both Hinduism and Buddhism.
Much of Nepal 's art - paintings, sculptures and wood - were inspired by
the many armed and many-headed Tantric deities and
The Himalayan kingdoms welcomed Tantric Buddhists from the
Indian plains. Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim became Buddhist, while Nepal remained partly
Hindu. Nepal occupies a special place in relation to Tantra,
as the Muslim invaders who drove the Tantric Buddhists out of India in the 12th
century CE did not conquer Nepal, leaving Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism to
flourish side by side, influencing each other. Tantrism, both Hindu
and Buddhist, maintains a strong hold in Nepal.
As Tantrism took hold in Nepal, Buddhism turned from the
Bodhisattvayana of Mahayana Buddhism and monastic Buddhism. Although Vajrayana
Buddhism originated in south India, it became more popular in northern India and
Nepal from 7th to 12th centuries CE. There are hints of Tantra in the Buddhist
texts from about 600 CE and many elements of Tantra in Hindu and Buddhist
Tantra takes many forms, including
and eroticism. Recent Tibetan Buddhism and Nepalese Buddhism retain ways to
control the the urge towards union and bliss in yantra. In critical
times, the tantrics tried to end catastrophes like drought or famine by means of
Tantra is all about awareness. Although our minds take in information, we
conscious attention to all details. An empowerment from a Tantric master is said
to stimulate awareness, so that we can attain Buddha-wisdom, the ability of a Buddha to be attentive to everything.
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