Memories of Hindu Nepal
Accounts of a Personal Journey
BY MICHAEL J. WITZEL
I arrived in Kathmandu in September 1972, on my first visit to the subcontinent. None of my colleagues were at the airport to collect me - the postcard announcing my intended visit arrived a week later. So I went to the only telephone then available at Gauchar ("cow pasture") airport and called my colleagues at the Nepal Research Centre. In the evening, all three of us, members of the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project, went to a Krishna puja in a temple near the old Hanuman Dhoka palace in the center of town and participated in a little bhajan-singing and playing of cymbals.
After a pleasant visit to Japan a few years earlier, my first impressions of Nepal-my second Asian country- were those of magnificent Himalayan landscapes, a salubrious climate, a vibrant traditional culture, and, most important of all, a very friendly and honest people, who immediately included me in their religious rites and customs.
People were intensely honest. On her first day in Kathmandu my wife forgot her sunglasses in a taxi; half an hour later the taxi driver was back, handing her the small, lost item. I once dropped a 500 Rupee note (then some $100) on a deserted street corner. Immediately an old woman selling cigarettes called out to me, drawing my attention. The most remarkable story I know of only from the newspaper. An Indian man had come to Kathmandu to buy gold ornaments for the marriage of his daughter, as one was not allowed to do so in India then. He forgot the paper bag with all this gold in a taxi. A few minutes later, the driver was back, handing him the bag -- with contents. Deeply moved, this tourist reported his "shocking" experience in the paper. Honesty and adherence to truth were highly valued, and the worst accusation you could level against someone was "He has cheated even his mit (blood brother by ritual)." My first impressions were to last and prove accurate throughout the more than five years of my continuous stay in Nepal. I extended my 12-month agreement with our Oriental Society time and again, each year, and refused the invitation of my professor to come back to Germany and become an assistant professor. After initial exposure to Nepal, I found it much more important to work there.
That September, I was very lucky, as our project was out of film materials and I could fully enjoy the long holidays surrounding Indra Jatra, a major colorful and multifaceted festival that heralds the end of the rainy season. The whole town was engaged, on many levels, in this grand spectacle.
Nepal then was and is even today, under Maoist threat, a country where official Hinduism and Buddhism coexist peacefully. Nepal is the only remaining Hindu kingdom in the world, and its king must be "an adherent of Aryan Culture and the Hindu Religion," according to the democratic constitution of 1992. But the king also participates in a number of Buddhist rituals and is even worshipped as a Bodhisattva. The situation resembles very much what we know from medieval Kashmir, before and even after the gradual conversions to Islam that trickled down from the top. In both Himalayan kingdoms, Hindus and Buddhists lived peacefully next to each other, and the state furthered such mutual tolerance.
Indeed, if you ask a Nepali whether he is Hindu or Buddhist, the answer is often: yes. People go to the same temples and worship the same gods and goddesses; you can often find out about their actual religion only when they tell you which "house priest" (purohita) they have, a Brahmin or a Buddhist Vajracharya. Both religions, in addition to local "tribal" religions and minority Islam and Christianity, are present in many forms. Buddhism, for example, is found in the traditional Tantric Vajrayana form followed by the local Newar population, the Theravada form that has been newly re-imported from Sri Lanka and Burma, and the various Tibetan forms, whose monks have arrived before and after the 1959 exodus from Tibet. (Islam, then mostly restricted to Kashmiri traders who traveled between Nepal and Tibet and to some populations in the lowlands, was recognized as well. There is a mosque right in Kathmandu.)
My experience was one of multiple religions and their peaceful coexistence, as well as of the overwhelming feeling, manifest in all aspects of life, of simply, spontaneously, and sincerely lived religion and ritual. It made me feel as if I had come-as we joked-to a living museum of medieval India. Things have changed quite a bit now in Kathmandu, and much of the Valley has been superficially modernized, but the same ethos continues to prevail.
The strong influence of Hinduism (and Buddhism) on all aspects of life is indeed visible everywhere. You may turn the corner and see a stone embedded in the street, to which no one pays any attention, until it is once per year the object of ritual worship (as Bhairava). Every morning, you see throngs of people flocking to the popular little Maru Ganesh shrine in the center of town, next to the old Hanuman Dhoka royal palace; and there is a never-ending fl ow of visitors to the two most popular Hindu and Buddhist sites, the Pashupatinath temple east of town and the Svayambhunath Stupa on a hill west of town.
However, you may also see the untouchable "sweepers" collecting garbage with discarded buffalo ribs and the skinny 'released' cows eating jute bags or snatching vegetables from the market (for which they are beaten up; some indeed bear burn marks). You may observe someone passing by, touching a wall and then his forehead: the wall, on closer inspection, has a small statue of a deity. At that time, one could also come across a gathering of people who turned out to be participants in a ritual held in just that one section of town: a goat or rarely even a buffalo was sacrificed, and the meat was taken away for cooking and consumption. (Such sacrifices are very common during Dasain, the festival of the triumph of the Goddess over evil, symbolized by the demon Mahishasura.)
Time and again, one is surprised by the music of drums, cymbals, and long trumpets, played by low-caste tailors who lead a procession of some sort, following predetermined paths that are invisible except when they occasionally move through a gap left in a wall-precisely because once per year people have to go through exactly this spot. Some such processions are a thousand years old. For example, the pradakshina patha, the circum-ambulation path around the old town of Deopatan next to the 'national' shrine of Shiva Pashupatinath, meanders through rice fields. Most of the old town of c. 200-800 CE has long disappeared, but people still know and follow the old path on their yearly procession.
People observe the exact routes very carefully. I have come across several cases where someone wanted to have his house included on the auspicious "inside" and not the "wild" outside of the settlement; he would argue his case for an hour, holding up everything, but to no avail-the route has been fixed for centuries, and so it remains. Likewise, some of the people from Deopatan and neighboring Harigaon will go further south, across the Bagmati River, and proceed to Patan, another one of the three old capitals of the Valley, where legend has it that people migrated more than 1000 years ago. People also use such ancient paths in their daily business. For example, they follow the old road leading from the center of town northeast towards Tibet, even though it is occasionally blocked and obscured by the palaces built by the Rana aristocracy a hundred years ago.
The past, whether such old tracks or non-Hindu, tribal marriage customs, is very much alive. So many traditional rites and customs are perpetuated and carried out to the dot that my local friends or the newspapers usually referred to their culture as a "caste- and ritual-ridden society". Indeed, ritual and traditional festivals are everywhere. My small panchanga (calendar) listed some 100 festivals and major rituals for the Kathmandu Valley alone -- one every three days (of course, they frequently happen in just one village or town). You have to carry the panchanga around all the time to know what to expect and where.
One big occasion is Shivaratri in February, when some 30,000 pilgrims from India make their way up to the temple of Shiva Pashupatinath, just east of Kathmandu. Among them are many holy men, of various denominations, who all camp out next to Pashupatinath. February is at the end of the "fifty cold days," and so they need firewood that is provided by the government free of charge.
In Nepal, the visitor can actually attend festivals and participate in various rituals. This kind of attitude was visible even during big festivals such as the yearly Indra Jatra, when the Living Goddess (Kumari) comes out of her house near Hanuman Dhoka, is driven around town in a tall four-wheeled 'chariot' and greets the king on his palace balustrade with a red Tika (tilaka). This is a big event,
with thousands of hill people streaming into town and crowding the pagoda steps around the old palace. They want to see the King who is, after his coronation, a "walking Vishnu." At such occasions, police with small bamboo batons try to keep the crowds in line as to leave some room for the chariot, but not with much success. At every pushing forward of the crowd, the police raise their batons and try to push people back, with jokes and good-natured reproofs. The only excitement was, to all spectators' delight, that the usually rather lethargic local bull came charging through the passage, chasing a cow, surely an auspicious sign: Indra after all is called a bull, and the meeting of the King and the Kumari has, according to medieval legend, a somewhat similar background.
At one Indra Jatra, I had invited a Bengali colleague from Calcutta, who was rather timid and very frightened of a sudden stampede. But I insisted on being in the front row, telling him that "here the police do not use lathi charge, the dogs don't bite, and the bees don't sting." (By now, however, social reality -- especially in the poverty stricken parts of the countryside-- has come to the forefront, and unfortunately, the Maoist onslaught has made society at large, and especially the conduct of police and army, deteriorate fast.)
The Indrajatra is an occasion where state, sections of society, and various aspects of religion overlap. But there are endless private rituals as well. Joint families had dinner together; even if sons' families might have built a house outside the crowded center of town, they returned to their family home for dinner and other family occasions, such as the ritual initiation of a young boy at age seven, and of course, for marriages. These rites of passage draw crowds of relatives and neighbors, and the curious foreigner is easily included, even allowed to make detailed films (as we did with a Japanese TV camera man whom we had flown in for the King's coronation).
We were allowed to intrude and to fi lm whatever rituals we wanted at virtually all festivals and rites. Luckily so, I must say now, for some of these rituals have been modified, shortened or have altogether disappeared due to ever increasing modernization. For example, in 1979, the Patan Agnihotra ritual almost disappeared. There were three persons in the Katmandu Valley who still performed this 3000 year old ritual that ensures the rising of the sun next morning. (This is not like the traditional Vedic ritual, in which the three sacred fires are worshipped, offered to, and then covered overnight with ashes, to be rekindled from the embers next morning.) It was, in a way, typical for the coexistence of modernity and age old rituals, that I saw, at one Agnihotra, the long-haired, motorcycle-riding son of the priest come out of the house, handing something to his father, saying "the foreign minister wants to speak to you." That was the first mobile phone I ever saw, back in 1983 -- not in Holland where I lived then, but at a Vedic ritual in a village next to the Pashupati temple. When I saw my first Vedic Agnihotra, I was deeply moved -- this was, after all, what I had been reading about in the texts for years, and here it was still performed twice daily, exactly in the way we know from the Vedic texts. This particular one was a semi-official one, performed near Pashupatinath and paid for by the Shaha Kings, apparently since they took over in 1767.
The Patan Agnihotra, however, is of a different sort. It is through and through Tantric, though it resembles the Vedic one, with three sacred fires that must be kept alive as long as the priest lives. But here, they are identified with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, whose faces are painted on the altars. It is unique: I have never seen or heard about a similar Tantric Agnihotra anywhere else in Nepal, India or Bali.
However, Nepal being the treasure house that it is, I soon found inscriptions going back to 1040 CE and manuscripts starting in 1353 CE that describe this ritual at length. These texts and the records of the local Rajopadhyaya Brahmins also show how it was changed from a state ritual into a local, public one: each morning dozens of women come with their Puja plates and offer to this anionic deity. Unlike in the usual rituals, the priest's wife, much younger than he, actively participates and she also functions as a counselor to visiting women if they have family difficulties. The daily ritual itself is quite elaborate, as it includes offerings ordered by the women who come on their family members' birthdays to offer if the astrologer has predicted some calamity for the next year. So, they pledge to offer 2000 or 5000 times offerings of grains into the fire that is burning, chest high, on the ashes of all previous offerings. The excess ashes are removed upstairs, and are thrown into the river only when the priest dies.
There were so many rare rituals, customs, manuscripts, and festivals that I regarded it as my duty stay there: much important research and preservation work was to be done, such as collecting,
filming and studying old public and private manuscripts (my official work), but also research on customs, arts and crafts, social and religious organizations, the functioning of towns, or the coronation rituals of King Birendra in 1975, -- all of which were endangered even then and are even more so today. This was my major reason to stay on, -- apart from the benefits of the pleasant Himalayan surroundings, constant exposure to old Hindu culture, and the interactions with friendly, honest people. During my time I also made many visits to India, from Kashmir to Tirupati and Madras and personally microfilmed many inaccessible Vedic manuscripts. Some libraries were very helpful, such as those of the very friendly Kashmiri Brahmins who did not imagine then what would happen to them two decades later: they lived, as I witnessed on many occasions, in perfect harmony with their Muslim neighbors. However, such exhausting one-month trips to India apart, I concentrated on Nepal, as there was so much to do locally.
There is enough to keep the non-specialists busy, too. You can move from one of the hundred festivals of the Valley to another, and you will always be greeted by some unexpected sight or event. Just follow your ears and the processions. Some festivals are very spectacular, such as the exhibition of large Buddha images and the ritual washing of the feet of the king at the Buddhist Samyak ritual that takes place every 12 years. (The King is regarded as Bodhisattva then, notwithstanding his position as Vishnu at all other times.) Or one can see the yearly pulling of the giant chariot of Macchendranath (identical with the Buddhist Lokeshvara or the local Bunga Deo) through the town of Patan. At the end of this week-long festival, the King must attend the public showing of his jacket, the Bhoto. Or, one can visit the Tibetan (and Tamang, etc.) New Year (lhosar) in February, when Kagyupa and Karmapa Tibetan sects, that have monasteries at the major Buddhist Stupa of Svayambhunath, perform elaborate rituals. The Karmapa burn the mask of Mahakala in the forest on the western side of Svayambhunbath, -- with hungry spirits (monkeys) waiting in the trees for the goodies (torma) then offered.
We used to live at the foot of that Stupa hill and merely had to listen to the sound of drums and trumpets to be alerted to yet another festival or ritual--whether that of the local village or one of the regular and monthly happenings at the Stupa. At that time, our house was still surrounded by rice fields, and so we could watch the three planting seasons up closely: wheat in winter, followed in April by a fallow period, where just some vegetables or nothing was grown. When I watched a boy spending all day in the field, rubbing some tall herbs, my Vajracharya landlord pointed out to me that he was collecting hashish that grew all around us. He thus earned four times as much that way than working in the fields, digging the heavy black earth with the short backhanded hoe (kodali) that really breaks your back after a few minutes. (Plowing is not allowed for Newars due to an old religious taboo.) Then comes the rice growing season, with the first pre- monsoons showers, the artificial flooding of the fields, and the transplanting of the young bright green rice shoots. This is done by two rows of young men and young women, facing each other and singing in chorus and teasing each other all day long. At the end of the day, there would be the big mud fight. At night, a chorus of various types of frogs erupted, reminding me of the Rgvedic "frog hymn," where the big bull frog is answered by the little speckled one, just like teacher and pupils do when reciting Vedic verses.
One of the many monks passing by our house was a small, red-clad Caucasian boy, who lived in the Karmapa monastery on Svayambhu hill, and who often came down to our village with other small monks to buy sweets from the little shop of our watchman's daughter. He was the son of an American woman whose husband had died and who dabbled in traditional classical Newar dance and painting. She had sent her son to the monastery as a sort of kindergarten. Next time I saw him, many years later, it was on TV in Holland: he had turned into a full monk, a recognized Tulku, who was in Sikkim for further study. He said he had always wished to become a monk... and the welcoming traditions of Nepal has allowed for this.
Customs and incidental rites apart, the deep influence of Hinduism becomes very evident if one takes a closer look at the complex structure of towns and the various groups of people living there. We did a special study on the town of Bhaktapur, situated some 15 miles east of Katmandu. It is yet another one of the old capitals, and it still had been virtually untouched by modernity throughout the seventies. Its old buildings were then being restored by foreign aid-just as we still
do out of Harvard through the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust started by Prof. E. Sekler -- so that the town really looked and felt like the 1600s. But so did its caste organization and the rituals that came with it. The unoccupied royal palace in the center is surrounded by the tall houses of Brahmins and other high castes people. The houses become smaller as we go down the hill towards river, just as we descend within the caste system, until we finally reach the low-caste artisans, such as the potters. Still further down, just next to and beyond the river, there are the small one- storey thatched houses of the Untouchables (pore) who are not allowed to live within the precincts of the settlement circumscribed by the Pradaksina Patha. Our Kathmandu office, fittingly for foreigners, was in the butcher's quarter, among the Outcastes. The situation of the Outcastes, now called Dalits, has been sanctioned ever since the early Vedic texts; it was and still is severe. I have accidentally seen some of their plight myself, such as the cleaning of a toilet with bare hands, when our manager called in an elderly Untouchable woman, and my anthropology colleague reported about this interview with an elderly Pore of Bhaktapur, who turned up freshly bathed and white clad, but whose first sentence was "Do I stink?" The same words are used in a Vedic text (Chandogya Upanishad 5.10.7), when it speaks about the rebirth of chandalas (untouchables): "Those whose conduct here on earth has been good will quickly attain some good birth-birth as a brahmin, birth as a kshatriya, or birth as a vaisya. But those whose conduct here has been evil will quickly attain some evil birth-birth as a dog, birth as a pig, or birth as a chandala." Clearly, old Vedic scripture, reinforced by the law book of Manu, is internalized still. Although forbidden by law since 1960, caste is very much a reality, just as it is in India.
When one of our friends, a Newar scholar belonging to the dominant Shrestha (Sau, Seth) caste married another scholar of a slightly different caste, this was a big story, and though he could register his wedding at City Hall, followed by a private reception, he could not have the traditional marriage ritual performed. However, compared to many parts of India, the caste system in Nepal was less rigid and much more flexible.
If a Nepali married the 'wrong' woman, the children and especially the grandchildren would gradually be absorbed into the caste of the father, though people would still talk about it, and even grandchildren would still face certain difficulties in finding "proper" spouses. But then, this could be traded off by other factors such as appearance, age and money.
The multiple strands of social and religious relations between the two dozen quarters of the town of Bhaktapur and its inhabitants are regulated along lines of caste as well as by individual religious and local associations. Each quarter has its own demarcation by certain protective deities and some temples such as of Ganesha; and it has its own pathway down to the riverside cremation grounds. Certain rituals and small festivals are carried out only within such a locality; others are connected with mandatory associations such as the local bier carrier one (needed for one's cremation) and voluntary ones such as a special puja or bhajan group. There is such a dense web of associations spanning Newar society that the life of the average person resembles that of anyone in our complex society, with multiple 'identities' and memberships.
However, the whole city becomes really alive during the great Hindu festivals, which are quite different from predominantly Buddhist Patan and 'mixed' and 'modern' Kathmandu. At Bhaktapur, the whole town participates when at Indrajatra the chariot of the God and the Goddess are drawn through town. A big elephant effigy, carried by several men hiding inside, is rushed through town with a lot of fanfare. People want to touch it, as it is connected with family members that died during the last year. I remember best the 14-day laksha homa fire ceremony that was held at Bhaktapur in the monsoon of 1976, because astrologers had predicted dire calamities for that period, caused by an extra (intercalary) month in the Hindu calendar. It was said that special fire rituals were performed in the royal palace, and the Buddhists held a day-long Shanti Homa, that I attended, in front the house of the Living Goddess of Kathmandu, with five priests representing the five Buddhas. But the people of Bhaktapur did things in grand style.
A large, open building with a straw thatched, pagoda-like roof was erected. The sacred fire was lit in a pit inside it, and my friend, the city's main Tantric priest, offered grains and ghee there each morning for two long weeks, one 100,000 times altogether. Other Brahmins read from the four Vedas, and to the amusement of male onlookers, another one cooked a dish of rice that was to be offered as Desha-Bali. All around, several "side shows" took place: bhajan singing next to the fire hall, and Chandi Saptashati recitation with linga abhiseka at a small open shrine just south of it. One
day, the local Kumari presided over an Anna Homa, the offering of a two foot high mound of rice and other foods. Much else was going on: the King was expected for the opening ceremony, but he "merely" sent his Prime Minster. Many enjoyed these activities and spectacles. One of the onlookers exclaimed to me: "Puja is beautiful". Well, not so for the soon-to-be sacked Prime Minister Giri (who is now back in power, at 78). As he belongs to a family whose ancestor had "returned" to society from the renouncer (sannyasin) state, the good Brahmins of Bhaktapur did not feel him worthy enough to enter the actual fire hall, but sat him in a corner just outside the holiest of holies and performed their rites with him right there for the better part of an hour. For the most inauspicious night of this dangerous intercalary month an earthquake was predicted, and many people slept outside. But, the various homas deflected it to northeast China. Ritual always works.
Brahmins such as the Tantric priest mentioned here were quite amenable. I have had only the best experiences with them and I can hardly name one who refused to talk, participate in an interview, or work with me; it is a function of the pleasant Nepalese character that I have described earlier. Brahmins anywhere, as the standard bearers of conservatism, usually are the most difficult to approach and to work with. In Nepal, however, they were quite happy to interact with me, and I have made many friends among them. They were very patient in answering my many questions, and kept chatting with me for hours. Actually, they even told me many "secrets" that they did not share with their compatriots. Certainly, it helped that we often talked in Sanskrit. That made us members of the "same" group: we talked as equals. (Anyhow, all Nepalese are your equals: not having been part of British India, there was no colonial resentment). Thus, I learned many local "secrets": how a new Agnihotra priest was selected in Patan, what kind of "revenge" an important priest took for his grandfather's demotion due to his misalliance with a low caste woman and the subsequent confiscation of his 2000 manuscripts by the strictly Hindu Rana government, or how a stolen image of the all-important state Goddess Taleju was quietly replaced by one quickly brought down from a Newar temple in Tibet.
Even the tradition-bound women had no qualms about talking to you freely. Once I happened to meet the wife of the Patan Agnihotri alone in her house. She soon started to complain in Nepali: kasto dukh cha! -- "how difficult" her life now was, having to be abstinent of meat and much else and how they had chosen to take up the difficult job of performing the Agnihotra ritual daily, after having had some "auspicious dreams". Well, some non-Brahmins of the area later told me that they had paid off the husband, who actually was not in the direct line of succession, just to have someone take up the ritual so important for them and for the entire old Patan kingdom. Even then, another local Brahmin told me a different story: about rivalry between the Newar Brahmins supposed to perform this ritual and the local Shudras of the Jyapu (farmer) caste who-horrible to think of- had threatened to take up the ritual work themselves. That of course, could not be allowed! This ritual is regarded as so important and magically powerful that it must be continued by all means and must not be disturbed either. The story goes that, when the all-powerful Rana Prime Minister (one of the dictators of Nepal for a hundred and four years) once visited the temple on his elephant, a branch of the mythically important 'Varuna' tree in the temple courtyard obstructed his way. He ordered a carpenter to cut it off. Sure enough, the same night that carpenter died vomiting blood. Or when the old Agnihotri died in the late seventies, two snakes were seen fleeing from behind the main fire in the temple...So much for living myth and "Sanskrit field work".
The general openness of people extends even to conservative Pandits. Not only did they accept us foreigners easily as students-payment was never discussed nor expected (but of course given as Guru-dakshina) -- they also found pedagogical ways to explain difficult subjects to us outsiders. My predecessor in the project introduced me to the Pandits of the Valmiki Campus in Kathmandu (Valmiki is believed by some to have written under a tree at Bhaktapur the famous epic Ramayana). That introduction was done in Sanskrit: "ete naiyayikah" "This is the Nyaya scholar", and so we continued. I was then new in the country, having had no time to learn any Nepali beforehand, and my teacher did not speak English. In consequence, we could only talk in Sanskrit to each other. I had elected to learn more about Mimamsa. This is the ancient 'philosophy' that deals with the interpretation of Vedic texts. Indeed, it is indigenous philology that has produced many insights and valuable achievements, such as the discussion about the meaning of words, in isolation or within a sentence, already some 1200 years ago. But it also
has set the standard for the interpretation of the Vedas and of Manu for legal purposes, to which Indian courts sometimes must refer (and which I have used twice already in American courts when it came to Hindu family law).
My Mimamsa teacher was Jununath Pandit, who had studied at Benares (Varanasi, India) when he was a young man. He also was the royal preceptor (Raj Guru or Dharmaadhikaari), which is different from the royal priest (Raj Purohit). He lived a little north of town, in a house with two cows in the shed attached to his entrance. We met every day after 'tiffin', New and Full Moon days excepted. He always found good examples from everyday life to make things understandable that I could not grasp immediately. Sure, he also invented new Sanskrit words. One day he asked me "mrttara-yantrena-aagatavaan?" which I, after some hesitation, understood as: "did you come by car?" Mrttara was his new Sanskrit term for motor (car) or taxi. Since that day, the word has entered the Sanskrit language.
He was very erudite, patient, and kind. I have the highest esteem for such traditional scholars. Traditional Pandits have studied their field, be it philosophy, grammar, literature, or medicine, very thoroughly and deeply. Having learned by heart and studied the basic texts and the major commentaries, they can argue excellently within their individual scholastic system. Obviously, they are much better in this than any foreigner who begins to learn Sanskrit only at the age of twenty or so. In Nepal there were still traditional families, both Hindu and Buddhist, whose sons began studying at age of four, like one of my old friends, Mahesh. The teacher, his own father Naya Raj Pant, first taught him all the 35 small folios of Panini's grammar, some 4000 very compressed rules that he learned-and has never forgotten-as children's rhymes. Explanation came much later, but the brain was by then 'hardwired' for this task.
To come back to my own teacher, Jununath Pandit: he would occasionally tell anecdotes, such as that of one early Mimamsaka student who took a look at the manuscript that his teacher left on his small 'throne' when he took a midday nap. The student found a few mistakes -- very common in manuscripts hastily copied by professional scribes, as noted in Albiruni's bitter complaints (1030 CE). When the teacher came back and saw the corrections, he merely said: "I would not have taught that anyhow, I know the text (by heart)."
This perfectly illustrates the Indian belief that only the word from the mouth of the teacher is correct, never any manuscript (or print); manuscripts can simply be copied again. This attitude made our life in the manuscript project a bit difficult. Unlike Buddhists and Jains, Brahmins normally do not treat their manuscripts with great care. Once I saw one government Pandit casually throw down, from high up a rack, a thousand year old manuscript, a text that was to be examined by a visitor, who usually came all the way from Japan, Europe, or America to see such treasures. Another time, someone in the National Archives put a manuscript whose pages were stuck together into a bucket of water. Luckily, the ink does not dissolve in water. He then dried and ironed it. This, after having been to Italy on a UNESCO project to learn preservation of manuscripts. However, excepting such attitudes and the workings of the slow bureaucracy trained in the courts of medieval Nepal -- the Nepali proverb is: to work for the king is to wait for sunset (raja ko kam, kahile jhala gham) -- the general openness of local scholars, both Hindu and Buddhist, makes the country a paradise for research and field work. In addition, the Government attitude was and is beneficial towards foreign researchers. They realized early on that the relatively few Nepalese specialists could not cover all aspects of the humanities and social sciences, and that many things would be lost soon to modernization.
Therefore foreigners could do research fairly easily and unrestrictedly, ever since the opening of the country in the early fifties. Some bureaucracy, however, was put in our way in the seventies as much research was published abroad in inaccessible places and in languages not understood in Nepal. Thus, justifiably, a rule was created to involve young local scholars in training and for better reporting of results inside Nepal; but in general, the attitude has remained very open and positive. The result is, as mentioned, that all scholars that have worked in Nepal--as well as many aid workers and even some foreign diplomats- have become well-wishing, "unpaid" ambassadors for the country. The country obviously is too poor to finance any such undertaking. As mentioned, the nature of the people, the pleasant experiences of thousands of researchers and the goodwill thus created with them substitutes more than enough for the lack of funds in undertaking an active foreign cultural policy.
I too am very grateful to all teachers, priests, Brahmins, and of course, to all other Nepalese who helped me in my official and private work for more than five years and gave me so much of their knowledge and time. This is an experience that you do not forget, even decades later. It was always a pleasure to interact and I have a very hard time remembering unpleasant experiences.
A long stay in this deeply Hindu and Buddhist country changes you in many ways. You leave western concepts of time and the consumer society behind pretty quickly. Deeper exposure to Hindu and Buddhist culture changes you for life, in many respects. Your priorities are different. Your attitude towards other religions and cultures is sensitized. You see many points of view. And do not necessarily want to push yours. Indeed, if the Maoist problem had not arisen (and we do not yet know the outcome), I would have liked to retire there, just as one of my colleagues, who has just built a house in northern Thailand and now lives there. Not that I want to retire soon. But, a location, say in one of the small side valleys near to Kathmandu, still is an alluring prospect, and I hope the political situation in Nepal will allow me to prepare for my journey, gradually, over the next years.
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STAFF Sandeep Rao
Samir V. Rao
Ravi B. Parikh
Neel M. Butala
FACULTY LIAISON Rabi N. Mishra
FACULTY ADVISORS Parimal G. Patil
Diana L. Eck
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COPYRIGHT ((c)) 2006 (ISSN 1931-0471) SWADHARMA
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Volume I May 2006
HARVARD'S HINDUISM JOURNAL
Swadharma is a semi-annual publication dedicated to the presentation of Hinduism and Indian philosophy. Swadharma seeks to broaden the knowledge and understanding of Hinduism by serving as a medium of intellectual exchange between scholars, academics, and the global community. Blending scholarly articles, interviews, academic research, and editorials, the journal broadly examines views and perspectives on modern Hinduism with the goal to create better awareness and understanding of the tradition by Hindus and non-Hindus alike.
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Table of Contents
Letter from the Editors 4
Swami Vivekananda's Address to the Parliament of World Religions,
5Dimensions of Dharma: Interpretations of a Central Theme in Hinduism
Swami Tyagananda, Director, Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Boston
Flowing Rivers, Not Stagnant Waters: Evolving Roles of Hindu Women
Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, Professor, Department of Religion, Wellesley College
Edison's Navaratri: Evolving Hinduism in America
Vivodh Z. J. Anand, Affiliate, Harvard Pluralism Project and Chair, CORNSTALK
For the Sake of Our Children: Approaches to Hinduism for a New Generation
Swami Tadatmananda, Director, Arsha Bodha Center
Memories of a Hindu Nepal: Accounts of a Personal Journey
Michael J. Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit, Harvard University
India's Economic Growth: Leafing Through Its Ancient Culture and Epics as
Recipes for its Revival
Rabi N. Mishra, Visiting Fellow, Economics Department, Harvard University
The Case Against Spiritual Bondage: A Hindu Perspective on Genetic Enhancement
Om L. Lala, Student, Harvard University
The Role of the Hindu Diaspora in Bringing India's Traditions to the World
Balram Singh, Director, Center for Indic Studies, University of Massachusetts, Darthmouth
A New Chapter in the California Textbook Debate
Shantanu K. Gaur, Student, Harvard University
The One Being the Wise Call by Many Names: The Implications of a Vedic
Text for Relationships between Hinduism and Other Religions
Anantanand Rambachan, Professor of Religion and Philosophy, St. Olaf College
For Swadharma: Supporting Discourse on Hinduism
Francis X. Clooney, Parkman Professor of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School