Religion

Religion

religionOfficially, Nepal is only one Hindu country in the world but it boasts tremendous religious tolerance of the many faiths practiced within its borders. There are 90% Hindu, 7% Buddhist, 2% Muslim, 1% others live in Nepal. In practice the religion is a syncretism of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs with a pantheon of Tantric deities tagged on.

Hinduism

The word Hinduism was introduced in the 19th century to define the aggregate beliefs of the Arya, immigrants who left Central Asia in 1500 BC, and animist religions of native populations in Indian territory. Hindu Nepalese worship the ancient Vedic gods. The much worshipped are Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, different manifestations of the Supreme Hindu Trinity. Common to all of these religions is the integration of religious expression within everyday life. In contrast with western religions, Hindu involves codes for- individual behavior and daily rites of worship. In the morning, people gather at temples, sanctuaries or river banks to offer prayers and Puja. Hindu holy scripts Bhagawat Gita, Ramayan and Mahabharat are widely read in Nepal.

Basic Concepts

Cosmic law rules the good order of the world, be aware and respect cosmic law. Lead the life of a good Hindu, observe rules, perform all rites, and accept the caste of birth. Caste system supplies code of conduct and rites done. Encompasses all parts of life; rites but also who to take drink from, associate with, marry, etc.

Principles

Dharma religious law and moral code by which people can earn enlightenment. Karma is the life balance of action and reaction; individuals responsible for decisions and consequences. Leading good Hindu life will bring rebirth into a better life. Samsara is cycle of reincarnations determined by karma. Moksha is liberation from samsara; individual unites with universal timelessness, ultimate serenity, nirvana. Path to moksha is good Hindu life. Each deity has different names, as well as different symbols, attributes, tasks and powers according to what god it represents. Each deity has a vehicle, an animal usually which serves master. Primary Hindu gods are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Deities

Brahma – Brahma is the creator of the universe. Attributes are the rosary, the receptacle of holy water, the ladle and the book. Mount is a goose or swan. Brahma usually represented with four heads, allows him to watch over world. Very few statues of Brahma since creation are done. Saraswati is Brahma’s consort and is goddess of knowledge, learning and music. She is often portrayed with four arms, plying the veena (seven stringed musical instrument) with two hands as well as holding a rosary and a book. Sits on a lotus riding a peacock or a swan. Often a crescent moon on forehead. Worshipped by Buddhists as a form of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom.

Vishnu – Vishnu is the preserver of life and the world. Attributes are the conchshell, the disc, the lotus and the mace. Mount is Garuda, a mythical half-man and half-bird. He often appears in some of the following forms: Buddha is the ninth reincarnation of Vishnu and Narayan means “he who guides development in all fields” or universal knowledge. Ram – Ram rescued his wife Sita who had been taken by demon-king of Lanka; Ravan. Krishna – Personification of manhood who bewitched ‘gopis’ (milkmaids and shepherdesses) with whom he frolicked. Forms of Ram and Krishna are more popular in Nepal and India.

Shiva – The destroyer and regenerator. Attributes are the trident, the tambourine, the tiger skin, the club, and the lingam. Mount is Nandi (the bull). Lord Shiva also renowned as Pashupatinath, master and protector of animals, especially of cattle, who is the friend of life. Bhairav is another form of Shiva eager to destroy everything, including evil. Shiva is usually seen in a black statue with necklace of human skulls or Shiva Linga (the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva) represents the supreme power in most Shiva temples. Parvati is Shiva’s consort.

Lord Shiva represents the aspect of the Supreme Being (Brahman of the Upanishads) that continuously dissolves to recreate in the cyclic process of creation, preservation, dissolution and recreation of the universe. As stated earlier, Lord Shiva is the third member of the Hindu Trinity, the other two being Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu.

Owing to His cosmic activity of dissolution and recreation, the words destroyer and destruction have been erroneously associated with Lord Shiva. This difficulty arises when people fail to grasp the true significance of His cosmic role. The creation sustains itself by a delicate balance between the opposing forces of good and evil. When this balance is disturbed and sustenance of life becomes impossible, Lord Shiva dissolves the universe for creation of the next cycle so that the unelaborated souls will have another opportunity to liberate themselves from bondage with the physical world. Thus, Lord Shiva protects the souls from pain and suffering that would be caused by a dysfunctional universe. In analogous cyclic processes, winter is essential for spring to appear and the night is necessary for the morning to follow. To further illustrate, a goldsmith does not destroy gold when he melts old irreparable golden jewelry to create beautiful new ornaments.

Lord Shiva is the Lord of mercy and compassion. He protects devotees from evil forces such as lust, greed, and anger. He grants boons, bestows grace and awakens wisdom in His devotees. The symbolism discussed below includes major symbols that are common to all pictures and images of Shiva venerated by Hindus. Since the tasks of Lord Shiva are numerous, He cannot be symbolized in one form. For this reason the images of Shiva vary significantly in their symbolism.

  • The unclad body covered with ashes: the unclad body symbolizes the transcendental aspect of the Lord. Since most things reduce to ashes when burned, ashes symbolize the physical universe. The ashes on the unclad body of the Lord signify that Shiva is the source of the entire universe which emanates from Him, but He transcends the physical phenomena and is not affected by it.
  • Matted locks: Lord Shiva is the Master of yoga. The three matted locks on the head of the Lord convey the idea that integration of the physical, mental and spiritual energies is the ideal of yoga.
  • Ganga: Ganga (river Ganges) is associated with Hindu mythology and is the most sacred river of Hindus. According to tradition, one who bathes in Ganga (revered as Mother Ganga) in accordance with traditional rites and ceremonies on religious occasions in combination with certain astrological events, is freed from sin and attains knowledge, purity and peace. Ganga, symbolically represented on the head of the Lord by a female (Mother Ganga) with a jet of water emanating from her mouth and falling on the ground, signifies that the Lord destroys sin, removes ignorance, and bestows knowledge, purity and peace on the devotees.
  • The crescent moon: is shown on the side of the Lord’s head as an ornament, and not as an integral part of His countenance. The waxing and waning phenomenon of the moon symbolizes the time cycle through which creation evolves from the beginning to the end. Since the Lord is the Eternal Reality, He is beyond time. Thus, the crescent moon is only one of His ornaments, and not an integral part of Him.
  • Three eyes: Lord Shiva, also called Tryambaka Deva (literally, “three-eyed Lord”), is depicted as having three eyes: the sun is His right eye, the moon the left eye and fires the third eye. The two eyes on the right and left indicate His activity in the physical world. The third eye in the center of the forehead symbolizes spiritual knowledge and power, and is thus called the eye of wisdom or knowledge. Like fire, the powerful gaze of Shiva’s third eye annihilates evil, and thus the evil-doers fear His third eye.
  • Half-open eyes: when the Lord opens His eyes, a new cycle of creation emerges and when He closes them, the universe dissolves for creation of the next cycle. The half-open eyes convey the idea that creation is going through cyclic process, with no beginning and no end. Lord Shiva is the Master of Yoga, as He uses His yogic power to project the universe from Himself. The half-open eyes also symbolize His yogic posture.
  • Kundalas (two ear rings): two Kundalas, Alakshya (meaning “which cannot be shown by any sign”) and Niranjan (meaning “which cannot be seen by mortal eyes”) in the ears of the Lord signify that He is beyond ordinary perception. Since the kundala in the left ear of the Lord is of the type used by women and the one in His right ear is of the type used by men, these Kundalas also symbolize the Shiva and Shakti (male and female) principle of creation.
  • Snake around the neck: sages have used snakes to symbolize the yogic power of Lord Shiva with which He dissolves and recreates the universe. Like a yogi, a snake hoards nothing, carries nothing, builds nothing, lives on air alone for a long time, and lives in mountains and forests. The venom of a snake, therefore, symbolizes the yogic power.
  • A snake (Vasuki Naga): is shown curled three times around the neck of the Lord and is looking towards His right side. The three coils of the snake symbolize the past, present and future – time in cycles. The Lord wearing the curled snake like an ornament signifies that creation proceeds in cycles and is time dependent, but the Lord Himself transcends time. The right side of the body symbolizes the human activities based upon knowledge, reason and logic. The snake looking towards the right side of the Lord signifies that the Lord’s eternal laws of reason and justice preserve natural order in the universe.
  • Rudraksha necklace: Rudra is another name of Shiva. Rudra also means “strict or uncompromising” and aksha means “eye.” Rudraksha necklace worn by the Lord illustrates that He uses His cosmic laws firmly – without compromise – to maintain law and order in the universe. The necklace has 108 beads which symbolize the elements used in the creation of the world.
  • Varda Mudra: the Lord’s right hand is shown in a boon- bestowing and blessing pose. As stated earlier, Lord Shiva annihilates evil, grants boons, bestows grace, destroys ignorance, and awakens wisdom in His devotees.
  • Trident (Trisula): a three-pronged trident shown adjacent to the Lord symbolizes His three fundamental powers (shakti) of will (iccha), action (kriya) and knowledge (jnana). The trident also symbolizes the Lord’s power to destroy evil and ignorance.
  • Damaru (drum): a small drum with two sides separated from each other by a thin neck-like structure symbolizes the two utterly dissimilar states of existence, un manifest and manifest. When a damaru is vibrated, it produces dissimilar sounds which are fused together by resonance to create one sound. The sound thus produced symbolizes Nada, the cosmic sound of AUM, which can be heard during deep meditation. According to Hindu scriptures, Nada is the source of creation.
  • Kamandalu: a water pot (Kamandalu) made from a dry pumpkin contains nectar and is shown on the ground next to Shiva. The process of making Kamandalu has deep spiritual significance. A ripe pumpkin is plucked from a plant, its fruit is removed and the shell is cleaned for containing the nectar. In the same way, an individual must break away from attachment to the physical world and clean his inner self of egoistic desires in order to experience the bliss of the Self, symbolized by the nectar in the Kamandalu.
  • Nandi: the bull is associated with Shiva and is said to be His vehicle. The bull symbolizes both power and ignorance. Lord Shiva’s use of the bull as a vehicle conveys the idea that He removes ignorance and bestows power of wisdom on His devotees. The bull is called Vrisha in Sanskrit. Vrisha also means dharma (righteousness). Thus a bull shown next to Shiva also indicates that He is the etemal companion of righteousness.
  • Tiger skin: a tiger skin symbolizes potential energy. Lord Shiva, sitting on or wearing a tiger skin, illustrates the idea that He is the source of the creative energy that remains in potential form during the dissolution state of the universe. Of His own Divine Will, the Lord activates the potential form of the creative energy to project the universe in endless cycles.
  • Cremation ground: Shiva sitting in the cremation ground signifies that He is the controller of death in the physical world. Since birth and death are cyclic, controlling one implies controlling the other. Thus, Lord Shiva is revered as the ultimate controller of birth and death in the phenomenal world.

 

Ganesh – Ganesh is the son of the lord Shiva and Parvati is one of the most popular gods of Hindu for luck. Infallible, charitable and has power to decide fate of any human enterprise. Parvati bore a son while universal power Shiva was away. Ordered son not to let anyone in. Shiva came home; young guardsman barred him from entering so he chopped off the guard’s head with sword. Parvati terrorized, Shiva promised to bring him back to life by beheading the first living creature he found in the forest. Saw elephant first, so cut off its head, rushed back and put it on Ganesh’s head. Ganesh always dressed in red, four arms and body covered with layers of sandalwood paste. Only one tusks, mount is a shrew, sometimes mistaken for rat or mouse. Consequently all three are sacred.

Ganesh is the son of the lord Shiva and Parvati is one of the most popular gods of Hindu for luck. Ganesh always dressed in red, four arms and body covered with layers of sandalwood paste. Only one tusks, mount is a shrew, sometimes mistaken for rat or mouse.

Other Popular Deities

religionOther deities revered and feared in this Himalayan country are; The Goddess Lakshmi is for wealth and prosperity. Many temples in Nepal are dedicated to Shakti as wreaking havoc, forms of Kali, Durga, Bhagavati, Devi, Annapurna, Mahadevi, Mahakali, Ishwari etc. Female deities are in benevolent forms. Their Shakti cult aspires to appease the dynamic element in the female counterpart of Shiva. Kumari (the virgin goddess) also represents Shakti. Hanuman (the monkey god) symbolizes for protection, faithfulness and willingness to help. Associated with successful military undertakings and assisted Ram in fight against demon-king Ravan who kept Ram’s wife Sita imprisoned for 12 years.

Buddhism

Buddha is widely worshipped by both the Buddhists and Hindus of Nepal. Buddhism is based on meditations of Siddhartha Gautam, also called Sakyamuni and later enlightened one as Buddha. Buddha was a son of King Suddhodan born in Lumbini, Nepal around 544 BC. Buddha sought reason for human misery. Left his family and experimented and traveled; found enlightenment through meditation at Bodh Gaya. The five Dhyani Buddha Vairochana, Akshobhaya, Rathasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi, represent the five basic elements; earth, fire, water, air and ether. Buddhist philosophy conceives these gods to be the manifestation of Sonya or absolute void. Philosophical doctrine and code of conduct are based on the three jewels, Buddha himself, Dharma; Buddha’s teachings and prescribed conduct, and sangha; the community.

 

 

Dharma

Dharma is the doctrine of four truths discovered through meditation.

  • Existence is unhappiness.
  • Everything in life brings suffering, birth, responding to needs and death. Origin of suffering is in needs, wants and desires of men and being attached to material values (illusions of the senses).
  • Unhappiness is caused by selfish cravings or passions.
  • Selfish cravings can be eliminated by renunciation desires and following the eight-fold paths:
    • Right views, understanding and vision
    • Right purpose, aspiration and intention
    • Right speech
    • Right vocation and honest livelihood
    • Right conduct and action
    • Right effort and dedication
    • Right alertness and mindfulness
    • Right concentration and meditation.

Sangha

Sangha is community of Buddhists used to mean monastic community but concept broadened showing the path to enlightenment. About 100 years after Buddha’s death, communities disagreed and split over ways to achieve enlightenment. Traditional school of Theravada Buddhists follows Buddha’s original teachings. Mahayana school accepts some changes; various ways to enlightenment Scripts appeared also introducing changes. Deification of Buddha and separation between mortal Buddha like Siddhartha who will reappear, and transcendental ones which are only understood through meditation (Dhyani Buddha). While enlightenment reached through individual effort, idea spread that meditation Buddha give merit to those who worship them. Bodhisattvas are humans who reached enlightenment but instead of joining nirvana chose to help others reach enlightenment.

Tantrism

Tantrism movement from with the Mahayana school appeared in first century AD in fringe areas of India. Hindus and Buddhists came into contact with animist religions and integrated beliefs and practices. Yoga, physical exercises to control body functions, mantras, repetitive utterances, bijas, magic syllables, use of designs and objects such as mandala and dorje. Transformed into Lamaism which penetrated also into Nepal. Purpose was to shorten the road to enlightenment with such practices.

Prayer Flags and Prayer Wheels

Prayer Flags and Prayer Wheels Take prayers to the sky, to the divinities. Idea that movement creates power. Prayer wheels rotated clockwise to send mantra to the divinities. Usually brass cylinder with pre-Sanskrit script, ranja, writing. The wheel contains parchment like paper upon which the Tibetan incantation

Om Mani Padme Hum

Om Mani Padme Hum is repeatedly printed. Some rough translations of this mantra are, Oh, the jewel (mani) concealed in the lotus (padma).

One specific interpretation of this incantation is that of a prayer the Bodhisattva Padmapani who controls reincarnation

Oh, Padmapani, give me the jewel in the lotus, which is the blessing on non-rebirth or attainment of Nirvana through the acceptance of the Buddhist doctrine.

A more general interpretation is Oh, may the jewel remain in the lotus, meaning may Buddha’s teachings remain pure in our minds and souls.

Vajra or Dorje

Vajra or Dorje looks like two crowns with bases attached by a metal ball. Each crown has four outer spokes and one inner spoke to represent the meditation Buddha, united at the top to convey that they are but one. Means “thunderbolt” symbolic attribute of Hindu god Indra who is the divine power of natural forces, and the “diamond”, the substance that is translucent and unbreakable. The Dorje is primarily a symbol of power but is also a representation of the male.

Ghanta,

Ghanta is the bronze bell and topped with crown shaped handle. The bell symbolizes the female. In a metaphysical sense, male represents knowledge and female represents wisdom. Both important to rituals.

Statues and Stupas of Buddhism or Bodhisattvas

religionChaitya, a somewhat conical stone structure, shrines for gratitude or worship. Always show four statues representing each of the dhyana-Buddhas or meditation Buddha. Facing north, Buddha Amogasiddhi with right hand upward and palms outward to express fearlessness and blessing (associated with green). Facing east, Buddha Akshobya, right hand outstretched with fingers touching earth calling Earth-goddess to witness that Buddha resisted temptations put forth by demon Mara who was trying to lure him away from his meditations. Also thought of as calling to witness Buddha’s deserving supreme enlightenment. (blue) Facing south, Buddha Ratnasambhawa with right hand palm outward to express compassion. Yellow Facing west, Buddha Amithaba, two hands folded, resting on lap in meditation. red. Some chaityas or scrolls show a fifth central figure, the Buddha Vairocana who is above or in the middle of the previously mentioned four. Hands folded in front of chest he is perfect sovereignty as “turning the wheel of the Buddhist doctrine.” white.

Another common Buddhist statue is that of the Tara, either white or green Tara. Were the two wives of Srong Tsam Gampo, King of Tibet that they converted to their faith, Buddhism. Deified. Bodhisattvas honored often are Padmapani, holds a lotus flower and is master or reincarnations. Manjushri is honored as bearer of wisdom by Buddhists and Hindus. Holds book of knowledge in left hand and a sword to strike ignorance with right.

A historical look demonstrates that artistic expression reflects the religious and ethnic diversity within the valley. Nepalese art became prominent in the 13th century through the work of Balbahu, also known as Arniko, an architect for the king of Tibet and possibly the Emperor of China. Nepalese art is recognized for its candour, simplicity and harmony balanced with intricacy and decoration. The Malla dynasty promoted all forms of artistic expression from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Tibetan forms of expression influenced art in the valley beginning in the 17th century. Tantric and Buddhist themes introduced greater differentiation between Nepalese and Indian art.

Buddhism in Nepal

Vajra or Dorje looks like two crowns with bases attached by a metal ball. Each crown has four outer spokes and one inner spoke to represent the meditation Buddhas, united at the top to convey that they are but one. Means “thunderbolt” symbolic attribute of Hindu god Indra who is the divine power of natural forces, and the “diamond”, the substance that is translucent and unbreakable. The Dorje is primarily a symbol of power but is also a representation of the male.

Ghanta, the bell is bronze and topped with crown shaped handle. The bell symbolizes the female. In a metaphysical sense, male represents knowledge and female represents wisdom. Both important to rituals.

Statues and temples for Buddha or to Bodhisattvas.

Chaitya, a somewhat conical stone structure, shrines for gratitude or worship. Always show four statues representing each of the dhyana-Buddhas or meditation Buddhas.

Facing north, Buddha Amogasiddhi with right hand upward and palms outward to express fearlessness and blessing (associated with green).

Facing east, Buddha Akshobya, right hand outstretched with fingers touching earth calling Earth-goddess to witness that Buddha resisted temptations put forth by demon Mara who was trying to lure him away from his meditations. Also thought of as calling to witness Buddha’s deserving supreme enlightenment. (blue)

Facing south, Buddha Ratnasambhawa with right hand palm outward to express compassion. yellow

Facing west, Buddha Amithaba, two hands folded, resting on lap in meditation. red.

Some chaityas or scrolls show a fifth central figure, the Buddha Vairocana who is above or in the middle of the previously mentioned four. Hands folded in front of chest he is perfect sovereignty as “turning the wheel of the Buddhist doctrine.” white.

Another common Buddhist statue is that of the Tara, either white or green Tara. Were the two wives of Srong Tsam Gampo, King of Tibet that they converted to their faith, Buddhism. Deified.

Bodhisattvas honored often are Padmapani, holds a lotus flower and is master or reincarnations. Manjushri is honored as bearer of wisdom by Buddhists and Hindus. Holds book of knowledge in left hand and a sword to strike ignorance with right.

A historical look demonstrates that artistic expression reflects the religious and ethnic diversity within the valley. Nepalese art became prominent in the 13th century through the work of Balbahu, also known as Arniko, an architect for the king of Tibet and possibly the Emperor of China. Nepalese art is recognized for its candour, simplicity and harmony balanced with intricacy and decoration. The Malla dynasty promoted all forms of artistic expression from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Tibetan forms of expression influenced art in the valley beginning in the 17th century. Tantric and Buddhist themes introduced greater differentiation between Nepalese and Indian art.

Religious practices are an important part of the lives of the Nepalese people. Mythologies of various Hindu gods and goddesses abound in this country and cultural values are based on the philosophies of holy books like the Swasthani Gita, Ramayana etc.

Women and children visit neighborhood shrines at dawn to offer worship to the gods. Holding plates of rice, flowers, and vermilion powder, they perform puja by lighting incense, ringing the temple bell, and applying tika, a red paste, on their foreheads. Passers by stop at temples and show their reverence to the gods by spending a few minutes praying. Occasionally, groups of men sit near temples playing music and singing hyms until late night.

In Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism are the two main religions. The two have co-existed down the ages and many Hindu temples share the same complex as Buddhist shrines. Hindu and Buddhist worshipers may regard the same god with different names while performing religious rites.

Though Nepal is the only Hindu country in the world, many other religions like Islam, Christianity, and Bon are practiced here. Some of the earliest inhabitants like the Kirats practice their own kind of religion based on ancestor worship and the Tharus practice animism. Over the years, Hinduism and Buddhism have been influenced by these practices which have been modified to form a synthesis of newer beliefs.

As a result, visitors to this country may often find the religious practices in Nepal difficult to follow and understand. But this does not prevent one from enjoying the idifferent traditional ceremonies and rituals of Nepalese culture. It is indeed a totally new experience of religious fervor.

Hinduism

Thousands of gods and goddesses make up the Hindu pantheon. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are he three major Hindu gods who have heir own characteristics and incarnations. Each god has his own steed which is often seen kneeling faithfully outside that god’s temple. Symbolic objects are carried by the multiple ands of each deity which empowers them to perform great feats.

Buddhism

Sakyamuni Buddha is the founder of Buddhism who lived and taught in this part of the world during the sixth century BC. The great stupas of Swayambhunath and Bouddhanath are among the oldest and most beautiful worship sites in the Kathmandu Valley.

The spinning of prayer wheels, prostrating pilgrims, collective chants and burning butter lamps are some Buddhist practices often encouithtered by tourists. A slip of paper bearing a mantra is kept inside the wheels so that prayers are sent to the gods when the wheel is spun. Scenes from the Buddha’s life and Buddhist realms are depicted on thangka scroll paintings which are used during meditation and prayer ceremonies. Many Buddhist followers are seen performing these practices in Swayambhunath, Boudanath, and at other Buddhist sites around the Valley.

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