Organizer and Chair: Heather Hindman, University of Chicago
Discussant: David Gellner, Brunel University
Nepal is often described, by travelers and scholars alike, to be a country of diverse religious practices and a site of Shangri-La. Buddhism is believed to be born in the Himalayan foothills. People travel from afar as pilgrims and as religious scholars to experience Nepal as the cradle of Buddhist history. Yet, the country's legal constitution proclaims it to be a solely Hindu nation. This panel addresses some of the ways in which Buddhists and those interested in Buddhism strive to explore the Buddhist identities of Nepal.
Laura Kunreuther discusses the first scholarly research of Buddhism in Nepal, conducted by a British Resident, Brian Hodgeson, as a major influence in the writing of a Western-style history of Nepal. Lauren Leve discusses a recent movement among some wealthy Newar Buddhists, who are (re)inventing a Buddhist history and identity. Heather Hindman explores one particularly contentious site for Buddhist identity, the birthplace of the Buddha, and how this site is implicated within regional political conflicts and international Buddhist conversations. Peter Moran likewise focuses on a single site, a large stupa in the Kathmandu Valley and its relation to local and global pilgrimage discourses.
Each presenter undertakes a significant issue confronting Buddhism in Nepal in its historical context. While addressing disparate topics, by examining the historical construction of the Hindu-Buddhist relationship in Nepal and confronting the issue of Buddhism in Hindu Nepal the panel hopes to shed light on the many practices which sculpt ideas of national and religious authenticity.
Secret Sources: B. H. Hodgson's Collections and the Making of Nepalese History
Laura Kunreuther, University of Michigan
When Brian Hodgson arrived in Nepal in 1821 to begin his imperial tenure as British Resident, he was also in search of scientific facts. Living high above Katmandu in a forested abode, the Resident was expected to remain a distant but friendly spectator, whose duties were restricted to reporting the main events and tendencies in Nepal. As a privileged observer, the Resident had the opportunity to unveil Nepal to curious Westerners, long barred from the country. Hodgson began to collect, categorize and classify his newfound facts, distributing them around the world. Nepal's grandest secret was Northern Buddhism, which became the focus of Hodgson's attention. He employed several native scholars, who transcribed, cataloged, and translated the manuscripts that had been secreted away in Buddhist monasteries.
The intimate and secluded relationship between Hodgson and his pandits, based on the elucidation of sacred texts, gave his research the status of a revealed historical truth about the religion and political past of Nepal. On the eve of political crisis, the British Governor-General removed Hodgson from the country. But as he stated later in a letter to his wife, he had most wanted to fulfill his "long-cherished ambition of writing that History of Nepal for which I have been collecting materials during half my life." This work of collecting cultural data, carried out by an officially apolitical representative, was itself politics of a high order. Hodgson's collections about Nepali Buddhism became the very stuff as later histories of Nepal were made of. This paper is about the role of Hodgson's scholarship in the creation of Nepali history, both by the diplomats who succeeded him and by the Newaris with whom he worked.
Buddhist Identity in a Hindu Nation: The Struggle Over Secularism in Post-1990
Lauren Leve, Department of State, Washington DC
Religious identity has taken on new significance in the contested nation of Nepal. By examining contemporary Buddhist resistance to Nepal's national Hindu identity and the corresponding bid to constitutionally redefine Nepal as a secular state, this paper will explore Buddhism as an oppositional identity in 20th century Nepal, the political, material and symbolic stakes of Hindu nationalism, and the ambiguities of identity-as-lived for Nepali Buddhists today.
Nepal has been a Hindu kingdom from the time of its 18th century creation. Since the popular uprising in 1990 which brought down the reigning political system, however, the legal-religious identity of the nation has become a topic of debate. Buddhists, led by a group of Theravada monks and Kathmandu Valley Newars, have organized marches, public meetings, and a host of publications to promote state secularism. But Buddhism has not traditionally been an opositional identity in the Nepalese context and many involved in the movement admit private ambivalence. The same people who agree that the Hindu kingdom is a violation of Buddhist rights also feel attached to a religious national identity and to the idea of the Hindu King as the symbolic head of the nation.
This politics of contradiction speaks to how identity is manipulated, negotiated and experienced in contemporary Nepal, where people move through spheres of action that carry different, and often incommensurable, discourses. A look at Buddhist efforts and apprehensions surrounding identity and secularism reveals a struggle of identities, histories, and power that makes up nation-making in modern Nepal.
Touring Lumbini: On Buddhist Centers and National Margins
Heather Hindman, University of Chicago
Nepal has long been a site of religious mystery and interest for scholars from the West. In the past century, Nepal has sought to turn its image as Shangri-La into economic success. National claims to Hindu statehood, a desire for the western tourist and beliefs about the nature of knowledge all meet and conflict in discussion about where Gautama Buddha was born.
The location of the sage's birth lies in the ancient land ruled by the father of Siddhartha, which probably crosses the current border of Nepal and India. Yet, in the present era in which a major tourist site can dramatically alter the economy of a small country like Nepal, the two nations find it vital to fix the location of the birth on one side of the border or the other.
The continuing conflict between India and Nepal is played out in this debate. Nepal uses claims to scientific proof and archaeological discourse to fix the location where the garden of Lumbini is currently located. Tourism literature, science and national politics all play a role in contestations at the locations of the birth site. Thus, the attempt is made to promote Lumbini as a site of world Buddhism, with Nepal reaping the economic benefits, while still maintaining Nepal's legal status as a Hindu nation. Yet this geographical conflict brings to the fore more general issues about the growing importance of trans-national Buddhist organizations and economic imbalances that are pertinent to many situations.
"Not a Tourist": Space and Identity at a Buddhist Pilgrimage Site in
Peter Moran, University of Washington
Centered around the Stupa from which it takes its name, the community of Bodhanath has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. Once a very small agricultural village on the outskirts of Kathmandu, primarily inhabited by Tamang people, it has since become a Tibetan "boom town" marked by an abundance of Buddhist monasteries, carpet factories, and shops selling Tibetan curios. The Stupa itself has long been-and continues to be-a pilgrimage site for Himalayan Buddhists; at the same time, Bodhanath has become the locus of larger transnational movements: Western Buddhists come here on pilgrimage; Tibetan lamas depart for teaching tours to Hong Kong, Taiwan and California; and Kathmandu tour buses deliver camera and dollar laden tourists to the Stupa.
This paper explores how Bodhanath has become a space in which Tibetans are representing themselves in part through the commodities they sell to Westerners in search of different experiences of Tibetan authenticity. This search arises from the Western conception of Tibetans as an essentially religious people. Building upon Appadurai's notion of the global ethnoscape and McCannell's critique of the tourist gaze, I argue that questions of representation, visibility and desire are central to the encounter between Tibetans and Western travelers. Dichotomies such as "tourist" and "pilgrim," "East" and "West," "authentic" and "fabricated" are both replicated and subverted by the constitution of Bodhanath as a site for local representations and global consumption.