Young Hindu boys and girls have a rich cultural heritage which they must try to understand as they prepare for life. In this article, an American friend who has lived and worked in Nepal´s hills and tarai plains for a very long time describes how modernisation has changed even rural lifestyles. He thinks that religion´s role in society has suffered. This Young SouthAsian column deals with Hindus, who make up a large proportion of South Asia´s population. In future, we plan to carry similar articles on other faiths such as Buddhism and Islam. Meanwhile, we encourage young readers to write in with your comments and suggestions, as Grishma Bista has done from Mussorie, in the hills of Garhwal, India (see the mail section at the front of the magazine).
WHEN, AS A PEACE Corps volunteer, I first came to Nepal, nearly 30 years ago, to work with young people in agricultural development, I was astonished to discover a living culture with roots so deep it seemed at times that I was participating in the living reenactment of events that had happened long ago. When a young village Brahmin friend would read and translate for me stories from the Ramayana, I could visualise the action taking place around me. Young people were so very sure of who they were, and of what they were born to do.
Every activity of daily life began and ended with symbolic acts of praise and thanksgiving; they poured water to quench the thirst of Surya the Sun before bathing, they circled their plates with drops of water and offered a pinch of rice to the gods before eating, they touched the feet of their parents before entering the house, and spoke to their elders and respected persons with honorific pronouns. They were careful to do nothing that would infringe on the rights of other occupational castes and even more careful to avoid eating or doing anything to lower their own ritual and social status. Arranged marriages were not only accepted but staunchly defended on the grounds that their parents would make the best choice for them.
The Hindi cinema was an occasional foray to the district centre, and a lassi at the local restaurant was the drink of choice. In the village, the young and the old entertained each other. A little boy would come many mornings to sit at the foot of my bed and play a small drum and sing for me. The students would spend weeks rehearsing and several days presenting the Ramayana at the time of Durga Puja. Our local blacksmith would recite for evenings on end the great heroic epic of North Bihar, Allah Rudal, with bells on his wrists and fantastic drumming on the dholak. Boys and men would circle dance with fighting sticks, girls would sing in groups at night around the wells with baskets filled with oil lamps and, at weddings, would harass the bridegroom with bawdy songs.
Many village boys played the flute and on hot summer nights a song would be picked up and carried from rooftop to rooftop across the village. Life seemed to be an endless cycle of festivals and trips to local melas (fairs) where everyone seemed to have a different version of the story of what the god or goddess had done to warrant so much attention. I would often join the young men at evening time in chanting at the village temple and if a wandering sadhu was present we would engage him in intense debates often lasting into the night. It was a way of life steeped in Hindu customs and traditions.
Hindi Cinema or Hindu Culture?
When today, I survey the cultural landscape, if I hadn´t photographed and taperecorded what I saw and heard 30 years ago, I would swear I had just imagined it all. On a recent trip to videotape girls dancing and singing “Sama”, a village tale of two love birds, I was greeted by an all-male troupe, half-dressed as girls, who had been hired by the village girls to perform well choreographed songs and dances from the Hindi cinema. When I wanted to tape flute music under the dome of a once-magnificent but now crumbling temple, no one could be found in the village to play for me. Hindi cinema music blaring from giant megaphone speakers now drowns out what little remains of village folk songs at weddings and festivals. Where dancers and dramas once entertained guests at weddings and crowds at fairs, VCRs and TVs are set up and I don´t have to tell you what they are seeing.
Only women and children and old people remain in the villages. The young men have deserted their native places and their traditional occupations and left for the cities in search of more lucrative jobs. Everyone fantasises a “love marriage” and when they return to the village to marry, it is a Nepali version of “disco dancing” that leads the procession. People who would have thrown up at the thought of eating an egg now eat meat regularly, and few, even among the Brahmins, try anymore to hide the fact that they enjoy alcohol.
Contemporary Hindu society is facing all the social problems besetting every “developing” and “developed” society; alcohol and drugs, sexual promiscuity, hooliganism and vandalism, declining educational standards, unemployment, overcrowding, and a widening gap between rich and poor, just to mention a few. The generation gap in a joint family between grandparents steeped in orthodoxy and their grandchildren in black leather jackets and out riding around on motorcycles is mind-boggling. The new generation of educated professionals with the husband and wife both holding well-paying jobs leaves little time for raising children. Children sent off to boarding school and college see little of their parents, look to massmedia personalities for role models and are increasingly subject to peer pressure.
Amongst the world´s great religions, Hinduism is particularly handicapped in its attempt to respond to these social problems and provide moral guidelines and ethical standards in a rapidly changing social environment. Fragmented into countless sects, Hinduism has no Pope or Synod, no central organisation or moral authority to interpret, re-define and make ancient teaching relevant for a modem age. Hinduism, unlike Judaism, Islam and Christianity, has no weekly service where rabbis, mullahs or priests read from, elaborate upon, and explain the meaning of religious texts and sacred books. Whereas young adults in other major religions undergo often long and rigorous training and religious education before being accepted as adults, the young Hindu boy of the upper castes gets away with a mantra mumbled in his ear and a day of rituals in a language he does not comprehend.
An hereditary priesthood and severe restrictions on access to or even overhearing the most sacred texts of Hinduism has left the vast majority of even the most educated Hindus largely ignorant of the subtle truths and deep philosophic insights contained in the Puranas and even more so in the Upanishads. Most young people have never even heard of the Panchatantra and only know of its delightfully witty and wise tales of animals in the borrowed versions retold in the West in Aesop´s and Fontaine´s Fables.
Today, for every Brahmin who knows a smattering of Sanskrit, a hundred have mastered ´Lotus´ and ´WordPerfect´ computer programmes. The traditional guru has become a jet-setting celebrity catering to a largely Western audience. Those that stay home seem more interested in politics than the puranas. Temples have become tourist attractions, the epics soap operas for television, and religious festivals a time to stay home and watch television.
Young, Hindu, and South Asian
What does being a Hindu mean to young readers of Himal South Asia? Parents of young readers, I have been talking with your children. This is to say, I have been having conversations with the children of well-educated urban professionals whose last names identify them as having been bom Hindu. Recently, I sat down with 8th grade students from one of Nepal´s most progressive private schools. Not surprisingly, they were all Bahun (Brahmin), Chhetri (Kshatriya) or Shrestha Newars, the three groups that have dominated the politics and economy of Nepal for the past several centuries.
I wanted to know their ambitions and goals and more particularly where they turned to for guidance, for advice and for inspiration. I should not have been at all surprised by their answers. The answers were basically the same as those I get when I talk with young people in the United States. Nothing said could be remotely Two Nepali Brahmin boys prepare for Bratabanda sacred thread ceremony interpreted as reflecting a traditional Hindu point of view. Some of the students´ answers were consistent with traditional Hindu values, yet at no time did any student give traditional sources as inspiration.
No scriptures or sacred text was referred to, no guru or priest turned to for advice, no pilgrimages were planned, no temple visited, no puja a part of daily life. When questioned, such traditional aspects of Hindu social order as hereditary professions, arranged marriages, and daughtersin-law staying home to serve their mothers-in-law were firmly rejected. While quick to point out the evils of discrimination and the subservient role of women in Hindu society, these young Nepalis were hard-pressed to come up with any specific aspect of Hinduism they thought should be maintained and preserved.
The students´ optimism, self-confidence and desire to do something to help their country and serve others was so genuine that it hurt. Again and again, students turned to parents, relatives, teachers and friends as their primary sources of guidance. Several mentioned people who suffer and the belief that they could and would be able to help relieve the suffering of others less fortunate than themselves as the inspiration to do and be their best.
When asked who or what would guide them in making difficult moral decisions, the answers included, “I´ll do what I think is best for me,” “What I think is right deep down inside,” “My instincts,” “My want and will,” and “What will benefit me.” None of the young students I interviewed and few, if any of Himal South Asia´s young readers, have yet to have had to make the terrible choices between the lesser of two evils, knowing that whatever one does others must suffer.
The young Hindu students I interviewed all turned to parents, teachers and their peers for guidance. Unfortunately, many of the parents and teachers of our young Hindu readers are themselves the products of English language private boarding schools, where speaking their mother tongue might have been forbidden, local festivals ignored, visits to nearby temples and shrines not part of the social studies curriculum, and excellent English translations of the Hindu classics strangely missing from the school library shelves.
If for our young Hindu readers, being Hindu is going to be anything more than family history, boring rituals and school holidays, parents are going to have to rediscover their own cultural heritage and share the experience with their children. Having a good family library of the best books, tape-recordings, movies and videotapes that Hindu culture has produced would be a good start. Exploring such a treasure-trove a family affair would give added meaning to life for all involved.
Parents must likewise look for educational opportunities for their children that include in the curriculum Hindu literature, cultural experiences and an opportunity to examine and explore their personal beliefs. Our young Hindu readers should be aware that Hinduism offers penetrating insights into human nature and our place in the universe. All they need is someone to guide them, so they can set out on their own along the path to self-discovery.