David N Gellner
The Buddha was born in what is now the state of Nepal. Only about 10% of Nepal’s population is Buddhist, but many more feel an affinity for the religion and are outraged when outsiders claim that the Buddha was an Indian. Inside Nepal, however, the question of who has the right to speak for Buddhism is contested. Nepali Buddhists often see themselves as a discriminated minority; internally, they are divided by tradition, caste, region, and language.
Nepal, as Nepalis never tire of reminding the world and each other, was where the Buddha was born. But did Nepal exist 2,500 years ago? Does the fact that the Buddha was born in what is today Nepal mean that the modern nation state of Nepal can claim special ownership of his memory, when the other three significant events in the Buddha’s life—attainment of enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, first sermon at Sarnath, and entry into full nirvana at Kushinagar—all took place in what is now India? Even the very act of asking these questions will irritate some of my Nepali friends, for whom the two most fundamental facts about their country are that it is home to the world’s highest mountain and that it claims the birthplace of the Buddha.
Mount (Mt) Everest has to be shared with China—that is not debated—but most attempts on the summit now start from the Nepali side and it is the Nepali Sherpas who are the world-recognised experts on getting there. By default, most people think of Mt Everest as being in Nepal, and Nepalis are unlikely to contradict them. On the other hand, the Buddha’s birthplace—Nepalis firmly believe—is theirs and theirs alone. However, the issue has become particularly sensitive in recent years as claims have surfaced in India that in fact the Buddha’s home town, Kapilvastu, is to be found on the Indian side of the border. Indians sometimes claim, in all innocence and ignorance, that the Buddha was born in India. There are still attributions in Western museums of the Buddha or Buddhist statuary to India, when it should be labelled as Nepal or Nepali. And, understandably, this too attracts the ire of Nepalis.
Lumbini, where the Buddha was born—as definitively established by Emperor Ashoka’s pillar dated 249 BCE (Before the Common Era) giving tax privileges to the village—is indeed not far from the border with India (nowhere in the Nepalese Tarai1 is far from India). Kapilvastu, his home town, is even closer. It seems now fairly conclusively established, thanks to UNESCO-funded archaeological investigations led by Robin Coningham (2014) of Durham University, that Kapilvastu is to be identified with Tilaurakot, in Nepal. The settlements of Ganwaria and Piprahawa—on the other side of the border in India—and still claimed to be Kapilvastu by some—were an outlying part of ancient Kapilvastu where, some hundreds of years after the time of the Buddha, there was a Buddhist monastery. Still, it cannot be denied that there are Buddhist sites on the Indian side of the border, that part of ancient Kapilvastu lies in what is the modern state of India, and that the Uttar Pradesh Tourism board has an obvious interest in increasing Buddhist pilgrimage from wealthy countries such as Japan and South Korea to their sites.
The campaign to have the world recognise and acknowledge that the Buddha was born in Nepal has captured the imagination of many ordinary Nepalis (Dennis 2017). There are T-shirts, websites, slogans on buses, books and pamphlets, campaign meetings, and even a pop song by Dhiraj Rai, all pushing the message (Rai 2013). Predictably, Rai’s song also highlights the conquest of Mt Everest by Hillary and Tenzing Norgay; with somewhat more dissonance—at least for those primed to see the Buddha as the world’s foremost “ambassador of peace”—it also includes the lines “Gurkha was born in Nepal.” In another attempt to globalise the message, there was a talk show designed to get an entry in the Guinness World Records; hosted by Rabi Lamichhane on Nepal’s Channel 24 in April 2013, guests talked for 62 hours non-stop on the theme of the Buddha being born in Nepal (BBC 2013). There have been demonstrations in several Nepali towns, led by monks and nuns, chanting “The Buddha Was Born in Nepal.” Finally, in 2016 Ramit Dhungana produced a whole feature film called Buddha Born in Nepal in which a Nepali student in the United States (US) discovers that people there believe the Buddha was born in India; he returns to his home country to start a political campaign on the issue.
To the foreigner who never doubted that the Buddha was born in Nepal, it can all be a bit perplexing. To make sense of it, one must remember the overall geostrategic situation of South Asia, dominated as it is by a single regional hegemon. Nepal–India relations are often fraught and always overshadowed by India’s “big brotherly” attitude, as exemplified, most Nepalis believe, in the blockade of October–December 2015, as well as in the experiences of condescension and discrimination that ordinary Nepalis frequently experience when travelling to or working in India. Many Nepalis harbour deeply felt fears about the continued independence of their country, especially in the light of the absorption of Sikkim into the Indian Union in 1975.
A key fact underlying the closeness of the two countries is that the border between India and Nepal is “open”; in other words, there is free movement of people (but not goods) across it (Gellner 2013). Most people in the Tarai live their lives for most of the time as if the border did not exist: they routinely shop, go to school and hospital, work, and marry across the border. Even Nepalis who live in the hills frequently travel to India for education, to go to hospitals, or to work. There are many Nepalis who have lived in India for generations; but even if we consider only those who are temporary migrants, there are many millions of Nepalis in India at any one time. The international boundary does not, therefore, mark a sharp cultural or linguistic frontier. In the light of these continuities (and given that “India” as a designation historically applied to the whole of what is now called South Asia or the Indian subcontinent), the confusion of outsiders over what is India and what is Nepal is perhaps somewhat more understandable. At the same time, there is often, on the part of foreigners who know even less about Nepal, an opposite and incompatible confusion that identifies Nepal with the Tibetan plateau and imagines it as consisting of nothing but high-mountain monasteries, yaks, and butter tea.
The international politics of Buddhism do not stop at the borders of South Asia. The struggle for control over the “soft power” that Buddhism represents implicates Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, South Korea, and Japan. Within China, there is competition between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as well as between those Tibetan Buddhist leaders who work closely with the government of the PRC and those, like the Dalai Lama, who do not. Participants in movements, such as those who argue for having female Buddhist ascetics ordained as full nuns (bhikkhuni) and not just as “ten precept mothers” (dasa sil mata, anagarika), find themselves caught up in these competitive and conflicting currents (LeVine and Gellner 2005: Ch 7).
Who Are Nepal’s Buddhists?
Nepal has another reason for wanting to claim the Buddha: it has a sizeable Buddhist minority, about 9% of the population (nearly 2.4 million people) according to the 2011 Census. This fell from 10.7%, or 46,421 people in absolute terms, from the 2001 Census. This may have to do with emigration, as well as with some former Buddhists reassigning themselves to the newly introduced categories of “Bon” and “nature worshipper.”
Buddhism died out in India between the 11th and 13th centuries CE (Common Era), surviving only in Sri Lanka and to the east of India, in Burma. North India had been a powerhouse of Buddhism in the late first millennium CE. There were so many monasteries that the very name of the Indian state of Bihar means “monastery.” It was to these great seats of learning that the famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Faxian (Fa Hsien), Xuanzang (Hsüan Tsang), and Yijing (I Tsing) came in order to see the land of the Buddha’s origin and to study the Buddhist scriptures. The Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism that was developed there was exported to Tibet, China, Mongolia, Japan, and Korea. In all these places the scriptures were translated—one of the most amazing feats of sustained intellectual transfer in the history of the premodern world—either into Chinese or Tibetan.
In the Kathmandu Valley, high up in the Himalayan foothills, South Asian Buddhism survived and was neither destroyed by Islamic invaders (though they came once in 1349 CE) nor absorbed by Hinduism. In the famous words of Sylvain Lévi, “Nepal is India in the making” (1905 I: 29). By this he meant that the Kathmandu Valley was a kind of time machine: one could (at least in Lévi’s day, and until the whole Kathmandu Valley was covered in tarmac and concrete) see something of the way in which Hinduism and Buddhism coexisted in north India before the Islamic invasions. Among the Newars, the traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, a sizeable minority are strongly Buddhist and many others have a partial link to it (Gellner 1992).
In addition, there are Buddhists among many minority populations, principally the Tamangs, but also many Gurungs, and the Thakalis of Thak Khola, as well as the many people of Tibetan language and culture along Nepal’s northern fringes, including the famous Sherpas. Most are adherents of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism (Holmberg 1989; Mumford 1989).
In the 1930s, some Newars started a reform movement “to reintroduce true Buddhism to Nepal.” By this they meant the practice of celibacy and the teaching of basic Buddhist teachings to the laity in a more explicit and didactic form than existed in the highly ritualised teachings of traditional Newar Buddhism (LeVine and Gellner 2005). They became Theravada monks and nuns who travelled to Burma in order to study and then returned to reintroduce a new way of practising their old tradition. This new Theravada movement had reached out and started making converts among Magars and Tharus who now, for reasons of ethnic assertion, wish to disassociate themselves from Hinduism and the domination of Bahuns and Chhetris (Letizia 2012).
Politics of Buddhism within Nepal
Given the international importance of Lumbini as one of Nepal’s four UNESCO-recognised World Heritage Sites2 and the resources that have and are expected to flow into Nepal as a consequence, it is not surprising that the question of who represents Buddhism in Nepal is not a simple or uncontested one. Add to this the fact that Nepali Buddhists are divided between three main groups: the Newar Buddhists, who have a sense of cultural entitlement but no large-scale learned monastic establishments; the new Theravada movement, which is still young and, now that it is past the first flush of enthusiasm, relatively lacking in charismatic leaders; and the Tibetan Buddhists who are also divided by sect and ethnicity, and focused more on global networks than on Nepali politics (which, on the whole, they tend to avoid).
All political parties in Nepal are keen to cultivate religious leaders in the hope of winning the votes of their followers. They therefore accept invitations to be “chief guests” at important Buddhist events and speak in favour of the Buddha as a messenger of peace and the relevance of his teachings to the present day. Some monks have been nominated to the national legislature by political parties; for example, Bhikkhu Ashwaghosh has been nominated by the United Marxist–Leninist (UML) party, while the Maoists have nominated Bhikkhu Ananda and Lharkyal Lama.
There are internationally renowned Buddhist sacred sites attracting pilgrims and visitors from around the world: at Lumbini and other ancient sacred places nearby (Kapilvastu, Ramagrama, and so on), and within and around the Kathmandu Valley (Swayambhu, Bauddha, Namo Buddha), not to mention the many Tibetan Buddhist gompas in the north of the country. There have been initiatives on the side of the Nepali state to make use of Buddhism, such as King Birendra’s initiative in the 1980s to have Nepal recognised as a “Zone of Peace.” More recently, after many years of campaigning by Buddhists, the government has established the Lumbini Buddhist University, which has begun to offer Masters-level courses. From time to time the government sponsors international conferences at Lumbini in an attempt to shore up Buddhist support. The most famous Buddhist conference, held in Kathmandu and attended by Ambedkar among others, was in 1956 to mark 2,500 years since the Buddha’s parinirvana according to the most widely accepted chronology.
Early moves to unite all Buddhists of Nepal in order to lobby the government for recognition focused on the Dharmodaya Sabha, founded by Bhikkhu Amritananda and others in exile in India in November 1944. It still exists, but is not as active these days; nor is it as unifying as it once aspired to be. None of the other Buddhist organisations, such as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, managed to step up and take on the role of providing a national voice to all Buddhists.
Many Janajati activists wish to make use 00of Buddhism as a theme, and the Buddha as a symbol, around which to unify all those who are opposed to the domination of Hindus in Nepal. But demographics and history do not make this an easy proposition. In fact, many diaspora Nepalis, especially Gurungs, would prefer to have a dual religious identity (“Hindu and Buddhist”) if they were allowed to do so (Gellner and Hausner 2013).
Some important Janajati groups, however, have no significant links with Buddhist tradition and do not seem to be interested in establishing any relationship with Buddhism; the Rais and Limbus of east Nepal are the prime cases here. As noted above, two other large groups—the Tharus and the Magars—have primarily political reasons for becoming Buddhists. Though some ordinary Tharus and Magars are willing to follow their activist leaders and make the switch to Buddhism, the majority are still comfortable with the Hindu identity, even if they are not inclined to campaign politically for it. Again, some Janajati activists wish to identify themselves as “nature worshippers” (prakritivad), others wish to be seen as “animists” (jivavada), and yet others as “Bon” (the name for the old pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet). In addition, many Janajati people have converted to Christianity and some even to Islam. What all Janajati activists agree on—in defiance of the actual practice of many Janajatis themselves—is that Janajatis are not (or should not be) Hindus. The denial of Hinduism is a political move, inspired by the wish to contest Brahmin leadership and the disproportionate Brahmin domination in positions of power in the Nepali establishment.
Within one important Janajati group—the Gurungs (or Tamu, as they call themselves)—the battle over Buddhism is a mirror image of its position in the country as a whole. While Janajati activists seek to define themselves as “not Hindu” by whatever means they can, there is an important section of the Gurung population that seeks to define itself as “not Buddhist” in order to contest the former dominance of certain clans who are more likely to claim a Buddhist identity. Instead, they seek to define themselves as followers of the Bon religion. They claim that Buddhism, just like Hinduism, is a foreign import to Gurung society. Their organisational vehicle is the Tamu Pye Lhu Sangh or Tamu Religious and Cultural Organisation; their leader, Paju Yarjung Kromchain Tamu, has devoted his life to preserving, propagating and writing down the shamanic chants.
One big success of the Janajati movement is that Nepal is no longer a Hindu kingdom. Of course, that success was politically and militarily achieved by the Maoists. But the fall of the monarchy, and the downfall of Hindu ideology that was seen at that time to be intimately connected with it, was also due to stubbornness and lack of political skill of the last monarch. At any rate, Buddhists and Janajatis are foremost among those who favour a secular and republican state and their preferences have won, even though there is now a sense of regret among many who are uncomfortable with the term used to translate “secularism” into Nepali, dharma-nirapeksata (lit. indifference/non-association as to religion) (Gellner et al 2016).
There is yet another wrinkle to competition over ownership of the Buddha in Nepal, due to the location of the Buddha’s birthplace in the Tarai. Over the last year the resistance of Madhesis,3 the inhabitants of the southern plains, to the 2015 Constitution has been drawn-out and intense. Many have died because of it. It has not escaped Madhesi activists that the most ancient sites associated with the Buddha are not in the hills or in Kathmandu, where the majority of Nepal’s Buddhists live, but in the Tarai. The Tharus have long claimed the Buddha as one of their own. In 1988 a leading Tharu, Ramananda Prasad Singh, who had been an attorney general, published a pamphlet called The Real Story of the Tharus; in it he argued that the Buddha had been a Tharu and that the Tharus are the descendants of the Buddha’s Shakya ethnic group (Krauskopff 2003). C K Raut, the controversial Madhesi activist who advocates an independent Tarai–Madhesh, has sought to claim the epithet in his video “Black Buddhas of Nepal,” which argues that the Tarai has been an internal colony of Nepal’s hill elite (Raut 2014).
In short, what Buddhism means and who has the right to speak for it, represent it, and claim its international prestige are far from being straightforward questions. With no history of government recognition, no single unified sangha (as in Myanmar or Thailand), with multiple communities and traditions, and the competing pulls of different outside links, it is not surprising that Nepal’s Buddhists comprise a series of networks, jostling for position, building institutions in parallel, sometimes coming together, but often working at cross purposes, united only in a shared veneration for the symbol of the Buddha himself.
1 The Tarai is the area of flat Gangetic plains that is part of Nepal but adjoins India. Tribal people (Tharus and others) live on both sides of the international border.
2 The other UNESCO-recognised World Heritage Sites in Nepal are the ancient cities of the Kathmandu Valley, Sagarmatha National Park, and Chitwan National Park.
3 Awadhi, Bhojpuri, and Maithili-speaking caste Hindus live both in Nepal and on the Indian side of the border; as citizens of Nepal, they are now known as Madhesis.
BBC (2013): “Nepali Hosts Longest-ever Talk Show,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22140317.
Coningham, Robin (2014): “The Recent Discoveries of Kapilvastu and Lumbini,” lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k2AlJqeUG8.
Dennis, Dannah (2017): “Mediating Claims to Buddha’s Birthplace and Nepali National Identity,” Media as Politics in South Asia, S Udupa and S McDowell (eds), London: Routledge, pp 176–89.
Gellner, David N (1992): Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and Its Hierarchy of Ritual, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
— (2013): Borderland Lives in Northern South Asia, Durham: Duke University Press.
Gellner, David N and Sondra L Hausner (2013): “Multiple versus Unitary Belonging: How Nepalis in the UK Deal with ‘Religion’,” Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular, A Day et al (eds), Farnham; Burlington: Ashgate, pp 75–88.
Gellner, David N et al (eds) (2016): Religion, Secularism, and Ethnicity in Contemporary Nepal, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Holmberg, David (1989): Order in Paradox: Myth, Ritual, and Exchange among Nepal’s Tamang, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Krauskopff, Gisèle (2003): “An ‘Indigenous Minority’ in a Border Area: Tharu Ethnic Associations, NGOs, and the Nepalese State,” Resistance and the State: Nepalese Experiences, David N Gellner (ed), Delhi: Social Science Press, pp 199–243.
Letizia, Chiara (2012): “Buddhist Activism, New Sanghas and the Politics of Belonging among Some Tharu and Magar Communities of Southern Nepal,” Facing Globalization in the Himalayas: Belonging and the Politics of the Self, Gérard Toffin and Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka (eds), Delhi: Sage Publishing, pp 289–325.
Lévi, Sylvain (1905): Le Népal: étude historique d’un royaume hindou, Vol 1, Paris: Leroux (Reissued 1991, Delhi: Asian Educational Services).
LeVine, Sarah and David N Gellner (2005): Rebuilding Buddhism: The Theravada Movement in Twentieth-Century Nepal, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mumford, Stanley R (1989): Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Rai, Dhiraj (2013): “Buddha Was Born in Nepal,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n71WoXgylls.
Raut, C K (2014): “Black Buddhas: The Madheshis of Nepal,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZwrUPLnK5A.
David N Gellner (email@example.com) is at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.