The Hindu Kingdom of Nepal, despite the religious signifier, actually has very little ‘Hinduism’ in its state structure even though the king is Hindu.
Nepal is said to be the only remaining Hindu kingdom in the world. When a Nepali travels to the Hindi belt of India, he is applauded for being a subject of the one remaining Hindu rastra (nation). Yet, the Hindu-ness so boldly inserted in the Constitution of Nepal (1990) is elusive at best, for it is impossible to delineate the Hindu character of Nepal, aside from the fact that an overwhelming majority of the population happens to be ´Hindu´—in the loose sense of the term.
Just as to be a truly Islamic state, the Khalif should govern on the basis of the Shariat, to be a proper Hindu kingdom, the king must rule on the basis of the dharmashastras, the religious texts. Up until 1963, formally at least, the Nepali state did uphold Hindu jurisprudence. But that was dropped with the promulgation of the new civil code in 1964. Today, the law that is meted out is not Hindu law but common law derived in the main from local customs.
The most distinctive Hindu practice—caste—is conspicuous by its absence in the Nepali legal system. Therefore, the Hindu-ness of the Nepali state today, is like an Islamic state without the Shariat—essentially a window-dressing that has been retained for political reasons. In the absence of the legal backing of the caste system, the modern Nepali state has sought to project its Hindu character by imposing a ban on cow slaughter, sponsoring broadcast of religious programmes in the state radio and TV, declaring a few Hindu festivals as national holidays, and clamping down on proselytisation. In reality, however, Nepal is a secular state, with the most genuine Hindu institution of state being the monarchy.
Formally, the genesis of ´Hindu´ as an added attribute of the Nepali state lies in the Constitution of 1962, wherein it was inserted to give Nepal a distinct political identity vis-a-vis India, and to legitimise the active role of the monarchy in the aftermath of the dissolution of the popularly elected government of Prime Minister B.P. Koirala. This move also tapped into the sentiments of those in India who saw the fulfillment in Nepal of their own cherished desire to see India as a Hindu state.
Informally, the roots of the state´s Hindu character go back to the thirteenth century. Muslim conquest of northern India undermined the twin pillars of Hindu rule—the role of Kshatriya kingship and Brahmins as advisers to the king. That very nexus between the king and the priest was then consolidated in the Nepali hills. This relationship worked in unison to isolate Nepal from Muslim and, later, Christian influences permeating from the south.
Thus, by the eighteenth century, when the foundations of modem Nepal were laid, rulers could confidently claim that Nepal was the “asli Hindu Stan”—the last remaining bastion of Hindu purity. Cultural isolationism from India meant that Nepal was also shielded from influence of the nineteenth-century Hindu renaissance. Furthermore, within the territorial bounds of the nation-state, this policy meant aggressive Sanskritisation and cultural integration of hill ethnic communities based on an orthodox Hindu framework.
In the pantheon of the Nepali state, the cow is the national animal, and cow slaughter is a crime punishable with life imprisonment. However, this is a hollow achievement in a country where the species receives scant respect. Barren cows and unwanted oxen roam the streets and bazaars, and it is perfectly normal to order beef steak in an upmarket hotel.
The populace— Hindu and non-Hindu— cope with the stricture by slaughtering the cow´s immediate cousin, the sad-eyed water buffalo. Another bovine, the hardy yak is thought to be outside the law´s protection, perhaps because it roams the Tibetan-speaking northern rimland. Buffaloes are so much in demand in the Hindu kingdom that there is a thriving illegal trade involving the import of the animals from India and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, cows from the Hindu kingdom trudge across the tarai border to slaughterhouses in Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh.
Nepal´s state television and radio both air early morning half-hour religious programmes, which comprise of prabachans (discourses) and bhajans (devotional songs). The programming is organised into a weekly cycle so that each deity has his/her day: Sunday is for Ram, Monday for Shiva, Tuesday for Ganesh, Wednesday for Buddha, Thursday for Krishna, Friday for a medley of these, and Saturday for one goddess or another. Although the on-air sermons deal with a variety of issues including the significance of specific festivals and rituals, the importance of fasting, the philosophy of the Bhagwad Gita, and so on, the underlying message is one of conformist Hindu orthodoxy. Interestingly, though, even though the powerful medium of radio has been propagating the dharma in far (non-Hindu) corners for the last four decades, there is no indication that the population is today any more Hindu than it was before.
Nepal abounds in holidays, many of which are Hindu festivals. Among the 22 national holidays that crop up during a year, 17 are religious in character. Among the Hindu festivals, those observed by hill Hindus have the status of national holidays, while those of the tarai Hindus are merely local holidays. Thus, Dasain (Dusshera) receives more importance than the Diwali (Tihar) or Holi festivals.
The Hindu kingdom does not officially recognise the religious holidays of the minority Muslims and Christians, nor the many festivals that are important to individual hill tribes. However, the case of Buddhism, a minority religion, is different. Not only is the Sakyamuni Buddha´s birth anniversary celebrated as an official holiday, some Hindus even assert that Buddhism is part of Hinduism.
Under the Constitution, it is a state offence to be involved in the conversion of faith. While it is virtually impossible to convert a person into Hinduism, someone may be converted out of it. This injunction works in favour of the orthodoxy, due to the fact that Hinduism itself is not a proselytising religion and also because there is then little incentive to reform Hinduism. In spite of this official stricture, however, conversion to Christianity is progressing at an ever-increasing pace, particularly among the less-Hinduised ethnic communities and the Dalits.
In Nepal, as elsewhere, Hinduism has a structural weakness. It has no “pillars of faith” to uphold because what people believe in or don´t believe in, does not make them Hindu. One can only be bom a Hindu. What a Hindu may choose or not choose to believe may make him an Advaita Vedantist or Dvaitist, a Shaivite or a Vaishnavite, an Arya Samajist or a Sanatanist. While thus a community of believers does exist within Hinduism at the level of mat or doctrine, the divide between the schools of thought is so great that it is simply not possible to construe the essential pillars of faith by identifying the common thread that runs through all of the doctrines.
Given this fundamental difficulty of reconciling the various strands of Hindu thought, it does not come as a surprise that the Nepali state, for its part, has sought to construct Hindu-ness by focusing on such peripheral issues as the cow, festivals and proselytisation.
With regard to the Hindu religiosity of the population at large, how ´Hindu´ they are depends upon where they are located in the folk-classical religious continuum. At one end of the spectrum exists the ideal folk religion of the hill and tarai ethnic communities, while at the other end is the classical Hinduism of the upper caste hill and tarai Hindus. It is not possible to place the bulk of Nepal´s ethnic population in either extreme, as most fall in the grey zone in between.
Among the hill communities, the most Hinduised are, obviously, Bahuns (hill Brahmins) and Chettris (Kshatriyas), followed by the Dalits, whose religious observances, along with classical Hinduism, also include animistic/shamanistic elements. Among these communities, the dominant variant of Hinduism is a mixture of Shaivism and Shaktism (worship of Shiva and Durga). Among the hill ethnic communities, the most Hinduised are the Magar, followed by Rai and Limbu. The Gurung and Tamang retain stronger Tibetan Buddhist elements which have been syncretised with Hinduism and animism. Even within one ethnic group, however, various factors such as geographical location and exposure to the outside world are liable to distinguish rural populations that are more or less Hinduised.
The Newar of Kathmandu Valley form a genre of their own, with Tantric variants of Buddhism (Vajrayana) and Hinduism (Shaktism) both being dominant. The Sherpa and Bhotia populations of the High Himalaya adhere to classical Tibetan Buddhism. Of the tarai communities, among the Tharu, folk religion and animism is as pronounced as Hinduism. Meanwhile, the other tarai castes follow the more classical type of Hinduism also found across the border in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Compared to the hills, Vaishnavism is the more dominant variant of tarai Hinduism.
Until recently, religion was not a matter of contention in national politics, mainly because of the blurred distinction between folk and classical Hinduism. With the state gradually veering towards a new variant of Hinduism— syndicated Hinduism, that variant of Hinduism now ascendant in India and being championed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—the religious issue is gradually coming to the fore. This shift on the part of the state is evidenced in the content of the religious programmes aired by the official media, the introduction of Sanskrit news bulletins over Radio Nepal, and the move to introduce compulsory Sanskrit language curriculum at the higher secondary school level.
The hill-based ethnic communities are increasingly reacting to the imposition of the narrowing definition of Hinduism, by arguing that this brand of Hinduism is foreign to them. Some have gone as far as to reject Hinduism altogether, by pointedly refusing to celebrate the Dashain festival.
Even as the Nepali ´Establishment´ goes in for what it considers ´pure´ Hinduism, the trend towards asserting their own types of ´pure´ religion is also seen among Nepali Buddhists and Muslims. For example, many among the Newar Buddhist, who developed the practice of Vajrayana over the centuries, are now turning to imported Theravada from Sri Lanka and Thailand, supposedly because it is the more authentic form of Buddhism. Similarly, while the religious observances of Nepali Muslims have contained substantial Sufi elements, they are increasingly turning towards puritanical Islam such as Wahabism (made possible through the influx of petrodollars). Sufism is being disowned as un-Islamic.
If ´Hindu´ as an added attribute of the state may have been functional for legitimising the hold of its rulers at some earlier period in history, that very prefix is proving to be dysfunctional today.
Monarchy as an institution has been and continues to remain the most distinctive Hindu feature of the Nepali state. State functions such as coronations, the last being King Birendra´s in 1975, are steeped in arcane religious rituals and reading of ancient texts such as the Vishnudharmotara Purana. The Hindu underpinnings of the Nepali kingship did not change in its transformation into a constitutional monarchy in 1990.
Those who argue for retaining Hindu as the defining character of the Nepali state mention that the terms “Hindu” and “kingdom” are complementary—that neither Hindu republics nor secular kingdoms are conceivable. They also note that the Constitution needs to retain the Hindu label for political reasons: to continue receiving the sympathy of Hindu Indians. This is valuable geopolitical protection which, say some analysts, would be foolish to let go of in order to cater to “pseudo-secular” sentiments.
Whatever the logic behind retaining ´Hindu´ before ´Kingdom´, the fact remains that Nepal is, de facto, a secular country, which happens to have a Hindu monarch. And since the present Constitution already safeguards the position of the Hindu king, by specifying that the latter should be “an adherent of Aryan culture and a follower of Hindu religion”, calling Nepal a Hindu state is essentially an empty provocation for those citizens who do not consider themselves Hindu. Either that, or we agree that the reference to religion in the term “Hindu Kingdom” refers to the monarch being Hindu—and not the country.