The rich cultural heritage of the Nepal has evolved over centuries. This multi-dimensional cultural heritage encompasses within itself the cultural diversities of various ethnic, tribal, and social groups inhabiting different altitudes, and it manifests in various forms, such as music, and dance, art, and craft, folklores and folktales, languages and literature, philosophy and religion, festivals and celebrations, and foods and drinks.
Religions are an integral and deep-rooted part of Nepalese life. Temples, images, carved paintings are to be seen everywhere. Majority of the people are Hindu in Nepal, nevertheless, Buddhism has also important place in this country. Hinduism and Buddhism are closely connected through out Nepal’s history.
The 2001 census identified 80.6% of the population as Hindu and Buddhism was practiced by about 11% of the population (although many people labelled Hindu or Buddhist often practice a syncretic blend of Hinduism, Buddhism and/or animist traditions). About 4.2% of the population is Muslim and 3.6% of the population follows the indigenous Kirant religion. Christianity is practiced officially by less than 0.5% of the population.
Hindu and Buddhist traditions in Nepal go back to more than two millennia. In Lumbini, Buddha was born, and Pashupatinath temple, Kathamandu, is an old and famous Shiva temple of Hindus. Nepal has several other temples and Buddhist monasteries as well as places of worship of other religious groups. Traditionally, Nepalese philosophical thoughts are ingrained with the Hindu and Buddhist philosophical ethos and traditions, which include elements of Kashmir Shaivism, Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, works of Karmacharyas of Bhaktapur, and a variety of tantric traditions. Tantric traditions are deep rooted in Nepal, including the practice of animal sacrifices. Five types of animals, always male, are considered acceptable for sacrifice: water buffalo, goats, sheep, chickens, and ducks.
With a multiplicity of groups, Nepal has several cults, and gods and goddesses, which co-exist with the major religions. In its long cultural history, Nepal has always remained a land of religious harmony.
Hinduism has a basic trinity of three gods; Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. Most Hindus, while revering Brahma, do not usually include his worship in religious ceremonies. Vishnu and Shiva, however, are very important to all the Nepalese Hindus.
Vishnu, whose primary duty is to assure the preservation of the world and all living forms, is believed to have visited the earth ten times as “avatars” or incarnations. He is also believed to have come to the earth as a Varaha, as Prince Rama, as the god Krishna and as Lord Gautam Buddha.
Shiva, the Destroyer, is believed to have three forms-Natraj the god of artistic skill, an anthropomorphic form and the Lingam form, the latter being the most famous Lingam is situated in the north-west of Katmandu. In front of any Shiva temple, one usually sees a statue of Nandi, the divine bull that serves as Shiva’s vehicle. In anthropomorphic form, Shiva is depicted with his consort Parbati and usually holds a trident and a small drum. Another popular form of Shiva is terrifying Bhairav, who himself has a number of different forms.
Another widely venerated god is Ganesh, one of the sons of Shiva. Ganesh is revered in Nepal as the god of wisdom and the deity responsible for deciding between success and failure.
In practice, the Nepalese Hindus may choose one particular god as a favorite deity to be worshipped daily, or more likely will give due deference to all the above-mentioned gods and goddesses, along with many other incarnations and deities. Nepal’s many Hindu festivals are dedicated to dozens of different deities and celebrated by all Hindus, as well as Buddhists.
Two of Vishnu’s other incarnations- Rama and Krishna-are especially important to the Hindus. Rama and Krishna are the heroes of the classic Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharat respectively.
Beliefs and practices of Buddhism in Nepal date back to the time of its founder, Prince Siddhartha Gautam who was born in Lumbini in the southern Terai region of the country in about 543 B.C. Up to the age of twenty-nine, the young prince led a very sheltered life in the royal palace of his father, completely unaware of the problems and suffering of everyday life outside of the palace walls.
One day, he convinced his charioteer to take him outside the palace and was shocked at the sight of an old man, a cripple and a corpse. The realization that there was much misery and unhappiness in the world persuaded the prince to abandon his luxurious life in the royal palace in order to search for enlightenment and the real meaning of life.
For many years, Gautam wandered from place to place looking for a solution to the problems he saw all around him. Finally, while meditating under a Pine tree, he became spiritually enlightened. Henceforth known as Lord Buddha or the “the enlightened one”. He began to preach the “Four Noble Truths” to all who would listen. According to this doctrine, people suffer because of their attachment to things and the root of all the problems is desire. These desires and consequently, all problems and sufferings, can be totally eliminated by following the “eightfold path”-right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort right mindfulness an right meditation.
Buddha journeyed from place to place, teaching and converting hundreds of followers and died at the age of eighty. However, his many disciples continued spreading his teachings. At the same time Buddhism splitted into two main schools of thought: Hinayana and Mahayana. The Followers of Hinayana do not worship idols of Buddha as the enlightened prince taught against idolatory. Very few other Nepalese Buddhists have adopted the Hinayana school of thought, choosing rather to follow Mahayana teachings. One of the central beliefs of Mahayanists is that one can achieve nirvana by following the example of Bodhisattvas, Bodhi meaning enlightenment and Sattva meaning essence.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal have been strongly influenced by the beliefs and practices of Tantrism. “Tantra” is a Sanskrit word referring to the basic warp of threads in weaving. Difficult to define due to its varying types and forms, Trantrism is a religion of moral percepts, meditation, yoga, mantras and a philosophy that believes in interwovenness of all things.
Tantrism has greatly influenced Nepalese Buddhism by creating the path of Vajrayana, the Path of the Thunderbolt. The main object used in Vajrayana Buddhist rituals is a small thunderbolt-like sceptre that is said to represent the infinite in three dimensions. A large thunderbolt or Vajra as it is commonly referred to, can be seen at the entrance of Swayambhu temple at Katmandu on the top of a long flight steps.
There are basically two types of Tantric gods and goddesses: Dharmapalas and Yidams. The former is often depicted with flaming red hair, several arms, legs or heads and three eyes. Yidams are tutelary deities often found depicted in thangkas; like their Dharmapala counterparts, they are ferocious deities with many hands and fearsome weapons.