Signs of religion are everywhere in Nepal— along my path to work alone, I pass numerous shrines, temples, and images of gods and goddesses. Religious symbols and images abound—in shop windows and market stalls, painted on public buildings and on the back of buses.
I am fascinated by the apparent devotion I witness in my superficial interactions and observations on the streets of Kathmandu. Every morning as I leave home to begin my work day, I pass a shrine right in the middle of the street where I live. Because of its location, it serves as a kind of roundabout for traffic, but it’s also a place for people to gather to make offerings and say prayers. As I pass the shrine and continue my walk, every other doorway or gate has a small platter of rice, vermillion, and barley placed there as an offering for the gods.
I have had other opportunities to be a casual observer of Nepalese religiosity, such as the time my taxi driver said a prayer after caressing a cow in the street, or the time another taxi driver took my fare and reverently touched the money alternatively on his forehead and the meter, as he prayed indistinctly under his breath. (Of course, I later realized he had overcharged me by a dollar, not a small sum in Nepal, so this could have contributed to his sudden enthusiasm). Not to mention the time I passed by a pharmacy on my way to work as the man inside paced around his small stall ringing a bell, swirling incense and chanting some sort of mantra. Was he trying to ward off bad luck or welcome a god to enter? Anything is possible and this feeling of observing something indecipherable is something I’ve gotten quite used to in Nepal. (In this case, my colleague later explained to me that the man was saying a prayer for his business to prosper).
All of these manifestations of the Hindu religion are quite fascinating and completely foreign to me. Viewing things through the lens of my own culture, everything is extraordinarily complex, incomprehensible and, well, slightly odd. My basic knowledge of Hinduism is certainly not enough to decipher the multitude of religious acts and signs that surround me.
Accompanying my benevolent fascination, however, is my struggle to connect the religiosity of Nepalis with the negative impact of the caste system, which is religiously based. The caste system consigns those of lower castes to carry out the most demeaning tasks and jobs and is the source of numerous human rights abuses and acts of violence. Discrimination on the basis of caste is common here, and it is not unusual for Dalit to be prevented from entering temples, drinking from public water wells, or accessing basic services such as education.
Working at an organization fighting for Dalit equality and hearing so many stories of human rights violations casts a shadow over all the fascinating manifestations of Hinduism I see, putting a damper on my enthusiasm and curiosity. It is phenomenally difficult, if not morally reprehensible, to ignore the darker side of Hindu traditions, yet I hesitate to judge something I do not fully understand. Thus, the question remains—how can the positive and negative aspects of Hinduism be reconciled?
Posted By Stacey Spivey (Nepal)
Posted Jun 20th, 2006