In the 1760s, Prithvi Narayan Shah raised one rupee from each household and travelled down to Banaras to buy weapons for his military conquests. While there, he saw that the Hinduism practiced even in the holiest place in India was different from what he was used to in the mountains of Gorkha.
He felt that 250 years of Mughal rule and two centuries of British colonialism had ‘contaminated’ the faith. It was nowhere like the ‘Sanatan Dharma’ way of life that he was used to back home, and said as much in his Dibyopadesh text in which he called Nepal ‘Asal Hindustana’ (The Real Hindustan).
Moghul invaders tried to uproot Hinduism and Buddhism by razing temples, shrines and monasteries in the subcontinent. They burnt religious texts, and forced priests, monks and sages to flee. Most of them escaped into the remote Himalayan fastness of what is now Nepal.
They brought with them their scriptures and religious books, and passed down the holy mantra and chants from one generation to the next, thus preserving them in their pure form for posterity.
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But that was not the only reason this land was deemed to be the ‘genuine Hindustan’. Most sacred sites of Hinduism and Buddhism, the holiest pilgrimage places were located in the original Gorkha Empire. Even after 1816, many of these shrines like Pashupati, Muktinath, Gosainkunda, Damodar Kunda and Lumbini were within modern day Nepal’s boundaries.
Even among Hindus in India, there was a feeling that perhaps Hinduism in its untainted form existed in Nepal, the dwelling of Lord Shiva and the place of meditation for the sages, explains cultural historian Govinda Tandon, the former head of the Pashupati Area Development Trust.
“When I myself go to India on pilgrimage and meet holy personages, they ask me why I travel to India when Nepal is such a special place where the real Hinduism has been preserved,” Tandon adds.
The other aspect of Hinduism in Nepal is its Tantric element. A thousand years ago the Pal and Sen dynasties of Bengal fled to what is now Nepal to escape invaders together with their priests, holy texts and their esoteric Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The assimilation of these practices evolved into the syncretic blend of Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal, and especially Kathmandu Valley, giving the culture its unique character.
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In fact, the same Hindu gods and goddesses in India and Nepal are worshipped differently. In Maharastra, there are no sacrifices to Lord Ganesh as there are in Nepal. Similarly, animals are sacrificed to goddess Kali in Nepal, but not in Bengal during the Navaratri festival. Dasain and Dushhera are not similar. Tihar and Diwali are observed differently. Janai Purnima and Raksha Bandhan are unlike each other in Nepal and India. Nepali and Hindi may use the Devnagari script, but the languages are distinct. Hinduism as practiced in Nepal and India are therefore different, despite what many like to think.
The Hindu nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar while being imprisoned by the British in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1922 wrote a declaration titled ‘Essentials of Hindutva’ in which he defined Hindutva as a political ideology, and different from the Hindu religion. If Hindutva was the trunk of a tree, Hinduism was its branch. India was not a nation but a race. He wrote: ‘We are all Hindus of one nation because it is the blood of Indian heritage that flows in our veins.’
Savarkar’s Hindutva has now been adopted by the RSS and its political wing, the BJP, in India. And with the wind of this ideology blowing across India, Nepal is also feeling the breeze. It is tempting for some political parties to try to also cash in on this wave in a majority Hindu country that used to have the world’s only Hindu monarch.
But Hinduism in Nepal has a relatively more tolerant tradition, and whether Nepal should revert to being a Hindu state or not should depend entirely on Nepalis themselves, and not on who is in power in New Delhi. In fact, Nepal should be a country where there is a freedom of religion and followers of all faiths are free to practice their culture and tradition. And that is the essence of what Prithvi Narayan Shah understood as ‘Asal Hindustan’.
Either during the Malla period or later under Shah rule, there were no strictures against conversion, but forced proselytisation was banned. Through the centuries, Nepal’s Muslims were accepted into the fold. Why import the seeds of intolerance now? India itself is a vast nation with a rich diversity of cultures and faiths, all protected under its Constitution.
The New Delhi establishment looks at Nepal not through a religious lens, but a security one. It is therefore unlikely that, although some Nepali politicians may be tempted to whip up a religious vote bank, it will happen just because some entities in India back them. The Hindutva ideology is quite different from the liberal Sanatan way of life and tradition that exists in Nepal.
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Translated from the original in Nepali in Himal, Poush 2078