Religious belief in a Buddhist merchant community, Nepal
Todd T. Lewis
Asian Folklore Studies
Vol.55 No.2 (Oct 1996)
COPYRIGHT 1996 Asian Folklore Studies (Japan)
Scholars of religion have used the questionnaire and opinion poll to
render richly nuanced portraits of religious belief in
Judeo-Christian societies. Few attempts have been made, however, to
apply these tools in studies of Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu
contexts.(1) This curious and regrettable oversight has led to
idealized or overly textual representations of these faiths, and to
the neglect of an important field of information for scholars
interested in the comparative study of religious belief.
Buddhism, as a refuge of intellectual freedom, has nurtured and
enriched the civilizations of Asia. Over the centuries its teachers
have articulated myriad traditions of practice and doctrinal
analysis based on the Buddha's dharma (teachings). Both scholar and
Buddhist believer are challenged by the sheer diversity of these
doctrinal lineages as well as by the paradoxical attempt to extract
systematic thought from a tradition that holds the ultimate to be
beyond conception. Yet, though early texts recount the Buddha's
dismay over those who intellectualize his spiritual path, it is
nevertheless true that organized reasoning has its place in Buddhist
history: right views are included in the Eightfold Path, doctrinal
formulae abound, and royal court patronage debates required the
mastery of doctrinal elucidation and argumentation. Compared to
their Christian counterparts, Buddhist thinkers were rarely
suppressed and the "inspired texts" became a vast literature.
Few connections have been made between the various disciplines that
address the subject of Buddhist belief. The work of historians of
religion has been dominated by the discourse of monastic
intellectuals, while sociological discussions have focused on the
debate about Buddhism's alleged "atheism" and its place in
definitions of religion.(2) The few anthropological descriptions
have been confined to small-scale village studies. The issue of
syncretism is one of the few common themes that has been treated by
all three groups, using different sources (e.g., MUS 1964, PYE 1971,
BERLING 1980, BECHERT 1978, CLEARY 1991). The present essay will
illustrate why the issue of syncretism is central to a treatment of
Buddhist belief patterns.
THE BUDDHIST TRADITIONS OF MODERN NEPAL
"Nepal" originally referred to the Kathmandu Valley alone, but in
1769 it was made the name of a much larger modern Hindu country by
the mid-montane Himalayan peoples under the Shah dynasty from
Gorkha, who conquered the city-states of the Newar people. From 1846
until 1951 the despotic Rana family sought to undermine both
Buddhism and Newar culture through legal sanctions, land seizures,
and persecutions (Lewis 1997). The Shahs and Ranas did keep the
state independent from the British empire and (after 1947) from
India, virtually closing off Nepal from outsiders until 1951, when
the Shah dynasty regained power (ROSE 1970).
The Newars have survived, though their culture was suppressed by the
Gorkhali state and their valley inundated by ethnic migrations to
the dynasty's capital (GALLAGHER 1992). Although the Newars speak a
Tibeto-Burman language, their distinctive urban society is ordered
according to Indic caste principles and cultural traditions in art,
music, literature, and religion (LIENHARD 1984). Numbering
approximately a half of the Kathmandu Valley's total population of
roughly one million, Newars are about equally split in their
allegiance to Hinduism and Buddhism. With adherence to Buddhism
forming a group boundary marker, Buddhist high castes remain defined
by their separate endogamous patrilineages.
The number of discrete Theravada and Mahayana traditions preserved
in the Newar Buddhist community defies simple summary; the
interested reader should consult recent publications documenting the
myriad temples, monasteries, rituals, festivals, and community
organizations.(3) I present here only the details necessary for our
study of belief in the merchant sector; of especial importance is
the diversity of Buddhist traditions that have shaped the views of
Unique to the modern Buddhist world is the Newar monastic community
(samgha), defined by an endogamous caste that forms a Mahayana
counterpart to the Hindu Brahmans. Like a Brahman caste, the Newar
samgha has for centuries married, making the entire Buddhist
community one of householders (LOCKE 1975; GELLNER 1992). A
two-section, endogamous caste with the surnames Vajracarya and
Sakya, its members maintain the monastic ritual traditions and often
still inhabit the residential compounds referred to by the classical
term vihara, "monastery" (over three hundred vihara exist in the
Valley today [LOCKE 1985]). The vajracaryas, who act as priests for
all other Buddhists, have developed a highly evolved and intricately
ritualized Mahayana lifestyle for their community (Lewis 1994a).
Most Newar Buddhists, including all lower castes, participate
exclusively in the exoteric level of Mahayana devotionalism. They
direct their devotions to the Buddhist shrines (caitya) that dot the
urban landscape, and especially to the great hilltop complex of
monasteries and stupas just outside the city called Svayambhu. Most
also make regular offerings at temples dedicated to the celestial
bodhisattvas, especially Avalokitesvara (Chinese: Kuanyin), whose
temples are found throughout the town (Lewis 1995a). All Buddhist
householders mark their major life-cycle events from birth to
mourning with rituals performed by traditional vajracarya priests.
Indigenous Newar Buddhism also has a Vajrayana (or "tantric") elite;
only high-caste Vajracaryas, Sakyas, Uray (merchants), and select
artisans are eligible for the initiations (diksas) that direct
meditation and ritual to the esoteric deities.
In addition to the already described "indigenous Newar" monastic
lineages there are two other distinctive (and in some ways
competing) Buddhist traditions in the Kathmandu Valley. The older is
Tibetan Buddhism, which has been present in Nepal for at least a
half-millennium and is centered upon celibate monastic schools.
Tibetan monasteries cluster around regional sacred sites that for
many centuries have been patronized by Tibetan immigrants and the
Newar merchants who traded in the Himalayan highlands (some Newars
even became Tibetan monks). Although not aggressive in missionizing
the local society, the resident lamas have offered alternative
festival, ritual, and meditation practices to the Newar laity.(4)
The influx of refugees from the highlands after the Dalai Lama's
escape in 1959 has increased the number of Tibetan immigrants and
monastic establishments in the Newar context.
A more recent introduction is the Theravada school. Its origins in
Nepal are connected to Sri Lanka in the last century, where a
Buddhist revival occurred in the context of the Sinhalese
anti-Christian and anticolonialist struggle (MALALGODA 1976). As a
result of early encounters with confrontational Christian
missionaries, Buddhist reform leaders adopted similar proselytizing
tactics and emphasized a return to the early (Pali) texts, education
through printed materials, a simplified canon of belief, regular
preaching by monks, communal services, and a key role for laymen. As
a result a new form of "export Theravada Buddhism" emerged, stripped
of superstition and presented as compatible with science. Its
leaders, drawn from the new urban middle class, directed the
movement toward Buddhists of similar standing abroad. The movement
reached Nepal by the 1920s through urban Newars disaffected with
their own Buddhist tradition. Despite Rana persecutions, some Newars
became monks and nuns (KLOPPENBERG 1977) and many others provided
financial support; by 1952 proper Theravada monasteries were
established at Svayambhu and, by 1980, across the Kathmandu Valley.
These continue to attract modest numbers of Newars (BECHERT and
HARTMANN 1988). Monks and nuns from these establishments have
energetically inserted their own agenda of ritual, festival,
publication, and public sermonizing into the Newar setting. Not all
Newar Buddhists appreciate these innovations, however, especially
the early polemics directed against the Newar Mahayana path (Lewis
Despite the anomaly of a caste-delimited, noncelibate samgha, and
because of the diversity of traditions in their midst, Newar
Buddhists follow practices that closely resemble those of
coreligionists in other countries: they support the local samghas
and perform rituals at stupas and shrines to gain worldly and
spiritual benefits (merit, punya). Believers have also underwritten
a resurgence in the publication of devotional literature, including
translations of classical Mahayana and Theravada texts, popular
story narratives, pilgrimage and ritual guidebooks, and discussions
of scholastic philosophy.
Modern Newar culture in the Kathmandu Valley has been an important
topic of research since it comprises the sole frontier area where
one still finds Indic Buddhism, a tradition that declined in its
hearth region by 1200 CE (SNELLGROVE 1987; SLUSSER 1982; Levi
1905-1908). Studies of Newar rituals, festivals, shrines,
socio-religious accommodations, Buddhist pluralism, etc., must now
be integrated into the scholarly discourse on Buddhist history and
the sociology of religions.(5) This article is intended as a
contribution to both disciplines.
Between 1979 and 1982 I first conducted research to describe and
analyze the Buddhist traditions observed in a community of
high-caste merchants in the markets of Kathmandu.(6) The name of the
caste, Uray, is thought to derive from the Buddhist term upasaka,
meaning "devout lay follower." The community, composed of about
1,100 households, is divided into eight named subcastes (GREENWOLD
1974). The Uray are almost universally literate and are clearly
regarded as an educational, economic, and political elite in modern
Nepal. My decision to study merchants was based upon the special
affinity between Buddhism and merchants that has existed since the
time of the Buddha (Lewis 1993b) and upon the Newar merchants'
"maximal expression" of devotion.
This ethnographic project began with demographic, kinship, and caste
inquiries (LEWIS 1995a), proceeded to the mapping of the urban
religious geography, then continued with the documentation of the
extensive ritual practices and festival observances that define the
Newar Buddhist identity. It was also necessary to survey the
competing array of local Hindu practices as well as the other
Buddhist traditions in the Kathmandu Valley. Specific inquiries on
Buddhist belief were made at the end of a two-year fieldwork period,
when the task of ethnographic documentation was in its last stages.
To investigate the merchant community's understanding of their
religious observances and beliefs, I administered two
questionnaires. Following the methodology of John Collier (COLLIER
and COLLIER 1986), the first research design employed
black-and-white photographs. The sampling of photographs comprised
over 114 important visual images from my files under seven
categories: life-cycle rites (12 photographs), rituals (15),
festivals (15), religious officiants (14), deities (35), cultural
media (11), and miscellaneous subjects (12). I also formulated key
questions to accompany the pictures presented. This large group of
photographs was pretested, then shown to a representative sample of
the Newar laity comprising thirty-five respondents, both male and
female, aged nine to sixty-eight.(7) This provided the data for the
thematic presentation given later in this article.
The second source of information was a standard interview
questionnaire centering on thirty-eight topics explored in more
open-ended discussions. This was administered as part of an in-depth
survey of twenty merchant households and was designed to touch upon
areas not amenable to the pictorial study. The individuals featured
as representative case studies below, in the section "Portraits in
individual belief," were interviewed using both questionnaires, with
some revisited for follow-up discussions.(8)
THE NATURE OF BUDDHIST "RELIGIOUS BELIEF" IN CONTEXT
Before considering belief patterns among Newar merchants, it is
important to clarify the nature and context of Buddhist belief.
First, a simple definition: by "religious belief" is meant a set of
intellectual tenets that individuals articulate, identify with, and
act upon. A tenet here is an idea that orders and interprets
experience. As Martin SOUTHWOLD noted, "The tension between the
normative interpretations of Buddhist doctrines and the symbolic
meanings they bear in the context of actual life is...an important
dynamic in Buddhist societies. ... We should not be surprised that
religious tenets... sustain a variety of meanings" (1979, 640). This
paper explores the Newar field of understanding, delving especially
into the question of how individuals have integrated competing
classical Buddhist tenets with non-Buddhist modern ideologies.
The discussion of "Buddhist belief" must be framed by several
specific points pertinent to Buddhism. The first concerns the
significance of belief and the way in which belief is acquired for a
typical devotee. For householders, belief in formal doctrines is not
at the center of "being a good Buddhist," and there is no tradition
of "professing faith," public or private, beyond the universal
taking of refuge in the Buddha, his teachings, and the monastic
community. The Newar tradition, like Buddhism elsewhere, emphasizes
ritual and festival performances within kin or caste groups, and
these are carried out without any overt articulation of religious
tenets (BEYER 1973, xii; GELLNER 1988, 753-54; 1992, 134). Beyond
whatever insight may be derived from family rituals, individual
Newars generally acquire knowledge of Buddhist doctrine on their
own: from informal family discussions, from shrine artwork, from
reading modern printed religious publications, and from public
storytelling by vajracarya pandits, who usually recite and explain
stories from the narrative literature (jatakas, avadanas) (Lewis
A second set of problems concerns Buddhist doctrine and its relation
with the social scientific assumption of a self: Can we agree upon
what the "individual" is that "adheres to" a belief? Or how to be
faithful to the intellectual Buddhist's view that the human mind's
experience is always evolving and inherently impermanent? Or how,
even, to define a standard of orthodoxy given the tradition's
acceptance of a hierarchy of legitimate, sometimes contradictory,
doctrinal viewpoints? This is a problem addressed by the
second-century Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna, who specifically
speaks of relative truths that can be constructed in the mind's
discursive language even as he posits an absolute truth that lies
beyond all such ego-constructed and assumption-dependent statements.
His view, accepted as normative by later Mahayana traditions
(including those that dominated Newar and Tibetan interpretation),
is that the highest truth can only be experienced in meditation. To
communicate it in language is impossible, though it can be pointed
to by using silence or by labeling all semantic constructions with
the term sunya (empty) (WAYMAN 1984; JACKSON 1989). Given that this
doctrine is known in local intellectual culture and readily
articulated by savant Newar priests and lay intelligentsia (see
below), one can see how problematic such an inquiry is, both for the
Buddhists queried and for the researcher.
Related to this is the issue of skepticism. During the research it
was often clear that most Buddhist merchants regarded religious
stories, explanations, and philosophical theories with some degree
of personal detachment. When pressed, many respondents placed some
distance between their own professions of belief and the
pronouncements of tradition.(9) Such skepticism also seems to
explain the range of ostensibly paradoxical or inconsistent beliefs
- ancient, Buddhist, and modern - that individuals voiced.
A final complication in any analysis of Buddhist belief is the
problem of individual differences in intellectual inclination.
Western academics carrying out inquiries of this kind often
overestimate the importance of philosophical and intellectual
concerns in the life of the average person. Most Newar laity venture
no farther into Buddhist philosophy than the basic notions relating
to cultic offerings, mantra recitations, and merit-making. In common
with Buddhists elsewhere, Newar householders are primarily concerned
with making the punya necessary to affect their destiny positively
in this life and in future rebirths, something that involves a
relatively simple body of beliefs and practices. Only few
individuals, especially those involved with Vajrayana or the
Theravadin movement, have grander vistas. And the Buddhist texts
consistently remind even these "virtuosi" that the Buddhist
spiritual path should culminate in meditation practice and personal
transformation, not mere intellectualism.
Modern patterns of belief among Newar Buddhists can be presented in
terms of two variables: competing cultural traditions and varying
modern ideologies. As Peter BERGER (1980) has observed, modernity
imposes an ever-expanding menu of choices upon individuals;
conveying this pluralism in modern Nepal is the central challenge
taken on in this paper.
To illustrate the landscape of belief, I have constructed the
following two-dimensional grid to portray the intersection between
the Buddhist traditions and the most important modern ideologies.
Along the horizontal axis are the Buddhist traditions present in
modern Kathmandu. Note that this schema does not imply a strict
exclusivity toward one tradition that rejects the others as
false.(10) The location of an individual on this axis is based upon
a composite determination of two factors: the "most strongly held
opinions" as expressed in the interviews, and the distinctive
devotional behavior as determined by the history of rituals
performed, patronage choices made, and initiations taken. While Uray
merchants see themselves as uncompromisingly Buddhist, they do not
necessarily restrict themselves to any one of the three Buddhist
lineages. It is therefore not uncommon for families to have rituals
performed by their vajracarya priest, a favorite monk, and a notable
lama over the course of a year (in some cases, affluent Uray may
even call upon them all on the same day). Newar laypeople thus view
all of these people as within a single field of Buddhist specialists
who meet their needs for puja, merit-making, and doctrinal teaching.
Beyond the vajracarya dominance in life-cycle and festival
ritualism, all of these groups - vajracarya, Tibetan lama, and
modernist Theravadin monks - compete today for merchant patronage.
The vertical axis represents new directions of intellectual
orientation. This influence is a product of contact with the outside
world, predominantly India but also the countries of Southeast Asia
and such distant states as China, Japan, the Soviet Union, Britain,
and the United States. On this axis there are two recurrent and, in
this case, opposing orientations. The first, pluralism, extends the
realm of possible religious affirmation by admitting the truths of
Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc. This ecumenism was most commonly
expressed in the neo-Vedantin terms of modern Hinduism. The opposite
standpoint is one embracing recent ideologies that could be labeled
as "secular" (BERGER 1969, 107) and entertaining skepticism toward
all traditional claims of sacred revelation. This includes such
ideologies as materialism, positivism, and Marxism.(11) The vertical
zero point, then, is one that places Buddhism at the center of truth
and subjects modern thought to the Buddhist standard.
These two scales imply an interaction of viewpoints between Buddhist
preferences and the choices offered by modernity, with the crossing
point of the scales indicating someone who embraces the Newar
Mahayana tradition as the superior form of Buddhism and the dominant
TERMS OF CONSENSUS IN BUDDHIST BELIEF
The intellectual diversity and freedom of doctrinal expression seen
throughout Asian Buddhist history is evident in the modern Newar
community as well. My inquiries revealed that advanced age
correlates with ready, detailed knowledge of the Buddhist teachings;
that women know a great deal of the folklore but show less formal
doctrinal knowledge; literacy correlates with a higher awareness and
understanding of the teachings; and family traditions of activism
and study can reverse other tendencies. We now summarize the chief
tenets utilized in discussions with Buddhist merchants.(12)
While intellectuals often hold the philosophical view that all
doctrinal statements have merit as expressions of relative truth,
most Newar Buddhists content themselves with a simple faith in
karman-rebirth doctrine. This core doctrine considers all
individuals to possess karmically determined capacities for
spiritual understanding and practice. It thereby underlies the
Buddhist acceptance of a pluralism of beliefs, describing the dharma
both metaphorically and practically as having different "medicines"
to cure a host of different "illnesses" (greed, lust, anger,
delusion) that afflict humanity.
Every informant in our study expressed a belief in karman as a force
that conditions individual destiny. Newar laypeople view karman as a
physical presence, written on the forehead (and, some add, on the
palm of the hand) and deposited in the atman (soul) situated in the
human heart.(13) This atman centers and energizes individual
consciousness, forms the repository for karman, and after death
leaves the body through one of the bodily orifices and becomes the
vehicle that endures to the subsequent rebirth. Most Newar Buddhists
are vaguely aware of these mechanics and believe that the atman may
hover around the house for a number of days after death, and so
during the mourning period put out offerings to satisfy it (LEWIS
For the Newar laity the most important fact about karman is that one
cannot know what one's own "karmic deposit" is. The ethos that
follows is that life must be lived with a commitment to make as much
punya and as little pap (demerit) as possible. This is an
orientation common to Buddhist lay-men across Asia and also one
shared with Hindus (e.g., KOLENDA 1964, SHARMA 1973).
Although one cannot know one's karman with certainty, there are
indices by which one can discern its general condition. The most
important of these are the attributes one is born with. In Newar
society the caste into which one is born is a prime indicator.
Although Newar merchants differed on the details of how the castes
in Asan should be ranked,(14) they were clear that they were near
the top of the nonpriestly rankings in the caste system and that
untouchables were far below. Other indicators of a person's karmic
state are wealth, length of life, proclivity to sickness, and
circumstances at death. Merchants were well aware that individuals
could fall quickly from states of high karmic standing because of
For the Newar laity, the belief that life is conditioned by karman
does not lead to a fatalistic attitude. Life is regarded as an
ongoing, changeable phenomenon, with karmic influences usually
remaining a subliminal presence. Newar laity understand that punya
can result in favorable effects both within the present life and in
future incarnations. About one-third of the informants stated that
most children make much pap in their youth that could, if not
countered by punya, gravely affect their lives as adults.
Karman is not, in the common view, the sole factor conditioning an
individual's existence: chance, "luck," and the influence of
deities, planets, and physical laws may also act independently of
karmic law. (Karman may also block the effects of these.) Belief in
astrology remains especially strong among merchants. Traditional
charts made at birth are consulted throughout life by the
specialist, the jyotis. These individuals designate the correct
moment (seit) for auspicious events such as birth ceremonies and
marriages, and use astrological analysis to seek resolutions to
crisis situations (LEWIS 1984, 151-53). Yet, because karman theory
can subsume astrology and all other systems of causal explanation,
it remains the ultimate explanatory framework. Karmic influence is
felt to be "contagious," or better, socially transmittable: one
person's karman may affect others. Family members, for example, may
suffer or prosper due to an elder's karman. This effect is
especially recognized between husbands and wives (Lewis 1994b).
Thus a large part of Newar Buddhist religious life is directed
towards the improvement of karman through punya-making. Pujas
(rituals) and offerings to religious figures are made with punya
clearly in mind. Unlike early modern Chinese Buddhists (GREENBLATT
1975), Newar laity do not keep punya account books, but they are
aware of the need to make as much punya as possible given their
economic means. Newar tradition specifies that individuals acquire
vast stores of punya when they sponsor the great patronage rituals
(Samyak, Pancadana, All-Monastery Pilgrimage, etc. [GELLNER 1992]),
and the interviews made it clear that those who sponsor these events
are primarily motivated by the desire to acquire punya and its
The Newar laity is also very aware of the need to avoid making bad
karman. The pancasala (five moral principles: not to kill, steal,
lie, indulge in sexual misconduct, or take intoxicants) are known by
almost all adults. The first four rules are significant guidelines
for individuals; the last is not regarded as absolute in the popular
view since alcohol is essential to the householders'
Two of the moral precepts with quite salient effects on karman
deserve special comment. The precept against violence has made the
Newars known in their own community and outside for their
nonviolence (LEWIS 1997). This has affected the history of
interpersonal relations and is one of the reasons for Kathmandu's
reputation as a peaceful city. The Buddhist merchants themselves see
their pacifism as a quality that led to the overthrow of their
independent state in 1769. Most Newar laity extend their nonviolence
to animals as well. Although this has not led to widespread
vegetarianism, most Buddhists do not sacrifice animals for puja or
kill the rats they trap in their shops (they release them every
morning outside the town boundaries).
The precept not to lie, say many Newar laypeople, is impossible to
observe. To do business in present-day Nepal and bargain effectively
require, they say, makugu kharn (untrue statements). About a third
disagreed, however, saying that this view is a recent one and is
untrue according to the Buddhist teachings. "Business pap," one
articulate young layman noted, can be seen in the same way that
Buddhist farmers view their tilling of the soil (and consequent
killing of insects): a necessity that requires making punya in other
activities to offset the negative karmic burden.
Beyond the belief in this ongoing cause-and-effect karman
relationship, I found no single pattern in the way individuals
understand how karman "adds up." Most had no deep convictions, and
were content with the assurance that making punya and avoiding pap
were the proper religious activities for them.
Newar laypeople differ over the relationship between punya and puja.
Merchants view offerings to deities as punya-producing, and most
felt that the same karmic benefit derived from worshiping the Hindu
deity Siva as from worshipping the celestial bodhisattva
Avalokitesvara. The laity's faith in the latter's ability to confer
karmic benefits on individuals is considered in the next sections.
Only slightly less ubiquitous than the acceptance of the doctrine of
karman is the belief in the existence of deities. Most Newars adhere
to a view of a divine hierarchy in which Buddhas are above
bodhisattvas, and bodhisattvas preside over all cosmic and regional
deities. These include the Hindu deities, a view expressed
iconographically in the image of Sristikantha Avalokitesvara, which
has all deities emerging from its body. (This image was used in the
questionnaire.) All who receive puja offerings - the Hindu deities
Ganesa or Krsna, the bodhisattva Padmapani, even stupas - are
referred to colloquially as dyah (deity).
Most of the older laity view the world as everywhere populated by
deities of various sorts. Newar laypeople vary considerably in their
degree of devotional involvement with the vast pantheon of deities
in their tradition, but there is still widespread belief in their
ontological reality. Although a certain undercurrent of skepticism
does exist among the young, even the doubtful believe in spirits
called khyah.(16) The deities, like the bodhisattvas (see below) are
regarded as present in this world, as available for puja offerings,
and as embodying personalities that can affect the world according
to their divine desires. Both deities and spirits are believed to
possess people and speak through them; this is vividly conveyed by
the mediums (dyah va:mha) that practice healing in the Newar
communities (GELLNER and SHRESTHA 1993).
Bodhisattvas are ideal beings who pursue their own enlightenment
while working for the spiritual benefit of all (WAYMAN 1971, 398).
In the Mahayana tradition advanced bodhisattvas may assume either a
human form or the form of a celestial deity (BASHAM 1981; ROBINSON
1966).(17) The most revered celestial bodhisattva is Avalokitesvara.
Avalokitesvara, who resides in the local temples, is described in
local stories as a powerful being who acts on petitioners' prayers,
brings the rains, subdues lesser deities, and assists human beings
in reaching Amitabha's paradise, Sukhavati, where attaining
enlightenment is guaranteed. (This, as discussed below, is not
regarded as a plausible rebirth destiny for many individuals today.)
Newars may also see themselves as bodhisattvas if they work to
fulfill the perfections (paramitas; Wayman 1971, 409) after taking a
vow to aim for an enlightened mind (bodhicitta) and help all beings
achieve that goal. In every Vajrayana ritual sponsored by a Newar
individual, the vajracarya priest generates bodhicitta and repeats
(albeit in Sanskrit) the bodhisattva vow (Stablein 1976; GELLNER
We have noted that Avalokitesvara is by far the most popular
celestial divinity among Kathmandu Valley Buddhists. Interestingly,
only half of the laity recognized Avalokitesvara as a bodhisattva,
but all knew that the deity is distinctively Buddhist. Most were
aware of the fact that Avalokitesvara is both male and female, with
some citing as evidence the dual gender rituals performed yearly in
the temple image's restoration (Locke 1980, 208-21). Some say that
their last hope for avoiding hell is the intervention of this deity;
all laypeople are especially aware of Avalokitesvara's capacity of
acting out of compassion for and granting assistance to suffering
humanity, as its familiar name Karunamaya, "The Compassionate,"
suggests. But the textual ideal of sharing merit with devotees was
articulated by only several respondents.
Few Newar laity know the identity of Vajrapini, the bodhisattva who
protects all Buddhist shrines in the Kathmandu Valley. Fewer still
know the name Maitreya, the bodhisattva who is supposed to be reborn
in the future as the next human Buddha.
Most merchants know the basic teachings on the bodhisattva ideal,
with the popular image of this figure being that of someone who
works unselfishly for the good of others. Today a person suffering
ill-treatment with patience may be referred to, half-jokingly, as a
bodhisattva. At present, though, most people do not think of
bodhisattvahood as a relevant ideal for human beings, nor do they
feel that human bodhisattvas are common in today's world.
Svarga and Narak (Heaven and Hell)
The Buddhist merchants strongly believe in spheres of rebirth
outside of the human realm and outside of "this earth." Visnu's
paradise Vaikuntha is recognized by most. Sukhavati, the
above-mentioned Mahayana paradise ruled by Amitabha, is also widely
recognized; most informants know of it only as a Buddhist paradise
and are not aware of the textual doctrine that Avalokitesvara is one
of its reigning bodhisattvas. Because one needs vast quantities of
punya to be reborn there, most merchants did not think of it as a
serious possibility for themselves. Several said that even the
possibility of rebirth in Sukhavati required the performance of
special rituals (vrata(18)); others mentioned tantric initiation as
a prerequisite (LEWIS 1996).
Most Newar laypeople, however, believe that rebirth in narak (hell)
is a definite possibility for them. Almost half of my informants
mentioned that to them narak would be rebirth as a sweeper, a
butcher, or a fisherman.
Newar merchants understand nirvana as a state to be reached in a
distant rebirth after many lifetimes devoted to attaining spiritual
perfection. Most identified nirvana as an attribute of a Buddha.
Given the exalted manner in which the Newar laity views the
celestial bodhisattvas and Buddhas, it is perhaps not surprising
that only one man (out of thirty-five informants) regarded the
attainment of nirvana as his own immediate pursuit. Those informants
who inclined toward the Theravada movement said that such attainment
was a common subject of the monks' and nuns' sermons. Most, however,
recognized nirvana was the ultimate goal of all Buddhists, something
that made them different from Hindus; the latter's highest goal,
they said, was merely svarga (heaven). Newar laypeople who made this
distinction knew that Buddhism regards heaven as merely another
realm for rebirth.
An operational definition of reaching nirvana was also commonly
given: one attains nirvana when Yama Raja, the Lord of Death, does
not see one immediately after death because there is no karman left.
Almost every merchant stated that of the contemporary religious in
their midst, whether monk, lama, vajracarya, Brahman, or Hindu
renunciant, none seemed capable of reaching nirvana.
Other Topics in Buddhist Philosophy
A topic analysis of the terminology used by questionnaire
respondents revealed a number of other concepts that are especially
emphasized in modern Nepali religious discourse.
Ayur is the life force necessary for existence. One has at birth an
endowment of ayur based upon one's karman. When one's ayur is
finished one's time has come, and only divine intervention can
Karuna is a quality of compassion associated with celestial
bodhisattva Padmapani Avalokitesvara, a fact encoded in this deity's
epithet of Karunamaya. Many spoke of this quality as an ideal they
should cultivate as followers of the Buddha dharma.
Paramita is a term that about half the informants knew as a quality
of the bodhisattva. Several could name the "six paramitas," the six
perfections: dana (generosity), sila (discipline), ksanti
(patience), virya (energy or exertion), dhyana (meditation), prajna
Bodhicitta was defined in several ways: as a vow to reach
enlightenment, as the thought of enlightenment, and as the
Ekacitta is a term commonly used to describe the ideal state reached
through meditation. Most Newar laypeople say that the different
methods prescribed by Theravadin vipassana, Newar Mahayana
meditations, and Tibetan practices, if properly practiced, all lead
to ekacitta. To reach nirvana, they say, it is necessary to realize
Questions about the core Mahayana philosophic term sunya led to a
range of responses. The word is known by almost everyone, for it is
used to designate "zero." About one-third of the adults knew that as
a Buddhist term sunya is used to indicate the ultimate
"no-thing-ness" that marks all phenomenal existence. As such,
explained the most learned informants (three of thirty-five), it is
the basis for the classical Mahayana teaching that nirvana and
samsara (the cycle of birth and death) are the same. Several stated
that sunya is the source from which the myriad Buddhas,
bodhisattvas, and deities are manifested. As one middle-aged woman
said, "There is only one deity and his name is sunya."
As a final note, it should be mentioned that the Buddhist merchants
have little knowledge of the Vajrayana symbols that pervade the
religious geography and are employed in the rituals. Most could not
offer any symbolic explanation for their vajracarya priests' vajra
(ritual thunderbolt) or ghanta (bell). Few made any Buddhist
association with the Srt Devi yantra (mystic diagram); almost
everyone (thirty-one of thirty-five) said it was "Sarasvati's
heart." The omnipresent eyes that mark the harmika (the cube above
the mound on virtually all Newar stupas, shown in almost every Nepal
tourist brochure) were likewise not widely understood, and few could
speak about the Mahayana theory of cosmic Buddha emanations that
Attitudes on Their Own Traditions, Past and Present
Most Buddhist merchants still view their traditions as something
unique and valuable. This is partially due to their great antiquity:
according to the Svayambhu Purana, the authoritative text that
describes the Kathmandu Valley's origins, Newar Mahayana tradition
predates even Sakyamuni Buddha. According to the same source, the
Kathmandu Valley was a special site where the forces of the Buddhist
cosmos were uniquely manifested; the Newars' proximity to the
hilltop stupa called Svayambhu, the relic of that revelation, is
regarded as a special blessing. This legendary scenario is widely
known, as it is often summarized in modern Mahayana publications.
All respondents mentioned the decline of traditional observances.
Many traced the beginning of Newar Buddhism's decline to the loss of
monasticism and the imposition of caste order, both of which are
dated in popular opinion to the reign of King Jaya Sthiti Malla (r.
1382-95). The decline of the priests' competence as teachers and
ritualists is the subject of many family conversations. In the right
mood almost everyone could be cynical about the religious
practitioners in their midst. Newar Buddhists see these developments
as part of the general decline of civilization in the kali yuga
(final age) that is predicted in their texts and in pan-Indic
tradition. A few said that only with the coming of Maitreya, after
millennia, will this decline be reversed.
PORTRAITS IN INDIVIDUAL BELIEF
The religious life histories presented below were selected as a
representative sample of the spectrum of Buddhist belief in the
merchant community. To help visualize this complex matrix and
indicate the full sample's "belief pattern," I have first located
all of my informants on a grid model, below, that arranges the
individuals along two axes, one showing the nature of their
predominant Buddhist belief (Theravada, Mahayana/Vajrayana, or
Tibetan) and the other showing the extent to which they accept
either modern "secular" ideologies or non-Buddhist beliefs.(19)
Born in 1926, Manu Raja has seen the transition from the Rana period
to democratic Nepal (1951). As a manufacturer and merchant of
ready-made clothing he has adapted well to the changing times, and
his large family is quite prosperous. Manu Raja (hereafter MR) grew
up in a family that energetically followed the practices of the
older Newar Mahayana tradition. He has performed all of the major
vratas, attended several years of river confluence rituals (tirtha
puja), and led an all-monastery pilgrimage that was sponsored by his
family. He has learned a great deal of the lore and legend of his
tradition and can refer not only to local texts like the Svayambhu
Purana but also to great pan-Asian texts like the Lalitavistara and
jatakas to discuss his understandings. He is familiar with secret
lore on tantric initiations and much of the oral tradition
associated with recent events. MR still participates actively in
several religious organizations (guthis), does daily meditation, and
calls his family priest for many special pujas and for the daily
reading of the family's Pancaraksa text during the month of Gumla
(LEWIS 1993a). He is dissatisfied with the present generation of
vajracaryas, but still calls them for all major rituals.
MR expresses admiration for the great lamas who still study and
meditate, but he has only called them once, for a naga (snake deity)
puja many years ago. He has seen the Theravada movement develop, but
has, for the most part, kept his distance. He comments, "Although
Guruma [the nun Dhammavati] is persuasive, the monks bicker and
compete with one another," and adds, "The Theravada stories are
good, but sometimes they are not mature enough for me." He did allow
his daughters to spend their premenstrual ritual confinement (LEWIS
1984, 276-80) with the nuns of Dharmakirti vihara. MR refers to the
Theravadins in classical Mahayana terms as sravakas (mere listeners)
and asserts that the bodhisattva ideal is a higher goal and
teaching. He disagrees with the secrecy that the vajracaryas insist
on maintaining for their tantric initiation and teaching. MR sees
this as another destructive aspect of the present situation: "Such
secrecy will result in the death of these teachings in our
tradition." He already knows many aspects of the "inside" Vajrayana
philosophy, which he has picked up in conversations with friends. He
hopes to take the tantric initiation sometime soon if it can be
Although he believes that all meditations lead to the same goal, MR
still insists that there is a firm contrast between Buddha dharma
and Hindu dharma. He is one of those who regards heaven as the
highest goal of Hinduism, an objective much less difficult than the
When Bhima Ratna (BR) was a youth he wanted to study in order to
pursue his interests in music and religion. But his father said that
as the oldest son he had to carry on the family grain business, so
this is the calling BR has followed throughout his sixty-six years.
BR has done many vratas and river confluence pilgrimages (tirtha
jatra). About fifteen years ago he visited all the different
monasteries and other shrines around the Kathmandu Valley in a
two-year program led by a prominent vajracarya, who told stories
from the Newar tradition about each place. From this, BR says, he
learned most of what he knows of his tradition. BR is one of the
regulars in the caste's devotional music group and one of its best
musicians. He has also worked hard to maintain his family's
involvement in seven other religious organizations.
BR does Mahayana meditation daily but has not taken tantric
initiation. The latter does not interest him: "It is too expensive
and the vajracaryas know too little. I am content without it." In
spite of this indifference and a resigned sense of dissatisfaction
with the vajracaryas ("In my youth they were as good as the lamas;
now they are not"), BR has made Buddhist teachings and the details
of religious life his lifelong hobby. He reads many of the books
published by vajracarya pandits and Theravadin authors and always
has his ears open for religious programs in town, be they Theravada
gatherings, events at the school for Vajracarya boys, or Tibetan
ceremonies. BR can recite long devotional verses from memory and
identify many deities using the iconographic verses. He knows the
directional Buddhas, their consorts, and is especially devoted to
the goddess Annapurna.
BR maintains his ties with the traditional Newar Vajrayana rituals
and caste organizations (guthis), but these have not satisfied him.
Although he sometimes attends Tibetan and vajracarya programs, BR
now leans heavily toward the Theravadin movement. From childhood
onward he has attended programs at the first monastery. Having read
their publications and heard many sermons by the monks, BR's
intellectual understanding of Buddhism seems shaped largely by
BR might say that identifying him with the Theravadins is too
strong. He emphasizes the continuities between the different
Buddhist traditions, noting that karman is the chief factor involved
in religious life and that whatever program of meditation is
followed the goal is the same. He hesitates to make a final
commitment to any one approach, although he does not extend this
relativism to the Hindu dharma. Still, he does point out several
differences between Vajrayana and Theravada Buddhism that are
important to him, and that reveal the influence of the Theravadin
critique of Vajrayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism, he says, leads
laymen to seek rebirth in Sukhavati, whereas Theravada teaches that
nirvana is possible in this lifetime. His second criticism is that
the Vajrayanists emphasize worship of the deities far too much:
"Buddha dharma should be first of all concerned with improving an
individual's mind and karman; it should be centered on meditation
and not on worshipping deities."
For the past ten years Sujata Kumari (SK) has been one of the young
women most active in organizing and orchestrating Theravadin
Dharmakirti Vihara activities. Although she married several years
ago (at twenty-five) and moved into her husband's house, she
continues to enjoy the freedom of a full-time job in a government
institute. With an M.A. and a distinguished record of achievement,
she is one of the top young women in the ranks of government service
SK has been interested in Buddhism from early childhood. As a young
woman in her religiously active natal home she spent many mornings
preparing the elaborate offering plates that are part of the daily
household pujas. After years of questioning elders and getting
explanations that never satisfied her intellectual curiosity, SK had
by her early teens come to dismiss Vajrayana as superstition and
Mahayana as blind faith.
When she began going to Dharmakirti she was pleased to find clear
information on Buddhist philosophy. She soon started attending
lectures, joining study groups, and reading Theravadin literature,
and became a close friend of the charismatic nuns. With several
friends she eventually went on religious retreats to remote
Theravada monasteries that emphasized study and vipassana
To SK, the Theravada claim of being "pure Buddhism" is a powerful
truth. The deemphasis of ritual, the straightforward analysis of
life and attachment, and the compatibility she sees between modern
ideas and doctrine all satisfy her educated sensibilities.
Recently, Sujata has come to suspect that her dismissal of Vajrayana
was premature. With the doctrinal framework of the Theravada
tradition as a starting point, she has become curious about
Vajrayana teachings, and is reading some Western authors on the
Mani does not like the Theravada movement because, he says, its
leaders are out to destroy older Newar culture. Unlike his father,
who is a fairly regular supporter, Mani derides the monks as pale
imitations of the classical ideal. Instead of begging for their
alms, says Mani, they live very comfortable lives surrounded by
material comfort. Moreover, they are quarrelsome, proud, and, in the
case of a few leaders, morally suspect.
Although he is only twenty-five, Mani recalls their family's beloved
vajracarya priest, the late Suklananda. Suklananda was able to teach
with clarity and imbue the rituals with special meaning, and, above
all else, was devoted to living in accordance with the Buddha
dharma. Mani severely criticizes the modern vajracaryas, but knows
that their fallen standards do not mean that the Vajrayana tradition
is similarly degraded.
Mani runs a successful new shop that sells clothes and cottage
industry products to tourists. He is well read and aware of the many
"new winds of change" from the outside world. Dissatisfied with the
religious movements around him, he has constructed his own religious
view from many sources. The gods, he says, are all just
manifestations of one superior deity, mere incarnations that act as
"policemen" of the world and enforce the karmic destiny of
individuals. They are all inferior to Buddhas and bodhisattvas,
whose actions can also affect human life.
But on certain days Mani is skeptical of all of the old
philosophical concepts. As he once said to me, "You tell me who ever
came back from the dead to verify these things. All teachings are
only ideas constructed by men. They may all just be stories, for we
cannot really know for sure if they are true." Ultimately, however,
he sides with his tradition: "Or else why would past generations
have developed all of these ideas and the elaborate pujas? There
must be something to them."
For most of his fifty-five years Dharma Ratna (DR) has been a master
carpenter, an occupation not common anymore among the merchant
caste. From his youth DR has been drawn to the Buddha dharma - in
his childhood he participated in such traditional observances as a
year-long vrata and became a member of his caste's music group (he
remained one of Asan's finest senior musicians). His doctrinal
understanding began to mature when at the age of fifteen he took an
initiation from a Tibetan lama into the worship-meditation on the
celestial bodhisattva Amoghapasa Lokesvara. Soon after this
experience he studied the Namasamgiti text with a local vajracarya
teacher and began to read other philosophically oriented works. By
the time he was thirty DR had taken another initiation, to
Aparamita, given by a Tibetan lama living in the town of Patan. He
has worshipped and meditated according to these initiations every
DR has continued his study of Buddhist texts, and can quote from the
Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita and discuss the concept of sunya in the
style of a learned teacher. On his own he learned the priest's
central rite, the guru mandala puja (GELLNER 1991), every verse of
which he can chant; he also knows the longer formulae (dharani) for
the worship of many deities. DR can explain the philosophical
foundations of all of the major Vajrayana rituals and has written on
what he has learned over the years in a collection of commentaries
that now runs to over a thousand pages in three volumes. I am sure
that in other circumstances (e.g., in Tibet), DR would have become a
monastic teacher of the highest caliber.
DR criticizes the Theravadins from the classical standpoint of the
Mahayana: the monks are just sravakas; they don't know sunyata;
their teachings are not sufficient to lead the way to nirvana.
Sakyamuni Buddha, he says, taught less public doctrines and the
Theravadins have only the simplest, least developed of his
About fifteen years ago DR began studying informally with one of the
old vajracarya masters, Jog Muni. Although he did not take a tantric
initiation from him - something he would like to do but cannot
afford - he did study the philosophical-meditative principles of
advanced Vajrayana practice. There are very few other vajracaryas
that DR respects; he invariably falls into disputes with his family
priest because of the latter's sloppiness in ritual performance and
his ignorance of Vajrayana doctrine.
The essence of Buddhism, says DR, is found through meditation
leading to the realization of sunya. For this, "initiation and
teachings" (diksa and siksa) are necessary. Buddhist ethics, he
says, is based on the realization that all beings are related and
should be treated as our mothers and fathers. DR sees the Western
world as a morally bankrupt realm where people become cruder and
less capable of cultivating insight. "Despite all its material
comforts, your country [the United States] moves further away from
santi (inner peace). And so, when our children here learn English,
they lose their inclination towards the dharma."
DR is bitterly critical of his own society and especially of the
rich Newar merchants who claim that they no longer have the time to
meditate and observe the old traditions. "They waste the rare
opportunity of their birth status. They will be reborn again in low
castes or worse," he says. DR is likewise embittered about the turn
away from the Buddha dharma he sees everywhere in the market. "Here,
in our society, our wealth was the dharma, and now it is being
thrown in the rubbish bin." He feels isolated in his knowledge of
the finer points of Mahayana philosophy and Vajrayana practice, and
once complained, "There is really no one left for me to talk to."
When I was leaving Nepal in 1982, DR was very ill with diabetes. He
told me that his main concern in life now was to prepare for dying,
explaining, "If I can maintain, undistracted, my concentration in
sunya and hold steadfast to my mantra at death, then I will not be
Karkot Man (KM) was one of the most loved men in the northeastern
city market called Asan. When he died of cancer in 1980 at the age
of fifty-six, the Uray community was deeply shaken. KM represents a
complex believer who embraced a diverse range of beliefs and did so
with a distinctly modern attitude.
In the mid-1940s KM's father started Kathmandu's first modern
optical business, a lucrative trade that his son excelled at. The
family has also been known for its musical talents since the time
his father organized and directed dramatic musical performances for
the Ranas. He and his brothers all learned the different musical
traditions that their father imported for this endeavor, mostly from
Calcutta. KM learned dance, drama, and singing, but the violin was
the interest that he pursued throughout his life. Although he taught
himself using English-language books on classical Western technique,
KM became a master of the Indian devotional style. KM was known and
loved for showing no egotistic pride in this talent; he would play
for anyone and did not insist on payment or special circumstances.
KM's religious biography began in Benares, where he was sent for a
year to complete his SLC (high school) diploma. After his return his
family noted the change in him regarding spiritual matters. Soon
afterwards he met Sivapuribaba, a Hindu holy man who had gained a
considerable Newar following and organized a small asram (commune)
near the national Hindu temple complex, Pasupati.(20) KM visited him
as frequently as possible, studied his teachings, and made donations
until the saint's death in 1965 (at the age, say his devotees, of
136). Sivapuribaba taught a version of Vedantic Hinduism that values
all religious traditions, East and West, as partial revelations of
the ultimate truth. He also taught vegetarianism, a practice KM
followed the rest of his life.
This attachment to Sivapuribaba did not, however, result in KM
limiting the breadth of his religious activity. He patronized most
religious movements in Kathmandu and was always doing something "for
the dharma." KM was renowned among his friends (and not infrequently
scolded by his family!) for his seemingly limitless energy in these
matters. At home KM insisted that his family adhere to their own
Newar Buddhist traditions: he was active in all the Buddhist musical
groups, had his children take the traditional Mahayana initiations,
and gave special attention to the vajracaryas' ritual performances
at his home. Though never interested in tantric initiation, KM was
very active in the Theravadin movement. He supported the first
monastery from its earliest days and was a leader in introducing
Newar merchants to the reformist school's activities. The Sri Lankan
monk Narada Thera, who visited Nepal intermittently at the time of
the Rana persecution in 1945 (and intermittently thereafter), was
another influential figure throughout KM's life. Right before his
death, KM made a pilgrimage to Burma and Thailand with a Theravadin
Despite this involvement, KM would not abandon Sivapuribaba's
Vedantic position or concede that his ultimate religious identity
was Theravadin. He was not impressed by the local monks but still
supported them. As he said, "They are not enlightened, but they are
respected for they are the mouthpiece for spreading the Buddha's
dharma at this time." Unlike many of his merchant contemporaries who
make invidious comparisons between the Hindu and Buddhist
traditions, KM argued for the spiritual vitality of the Hindu path.
He would always insist to Theravada and Mahayana adherents that they
had not grasped the spirituality of the Hindu dharma. He constantly
made donations to Hindu renunciants who stopped at his shop and even
offered them lodging in his house.
KM's ties to India also remained strong over the years. He was an
avid fan of the Indian cinema and an importer of ayurveda medicines.
In 1973 he traveled all over India for six months on a pilgrimage of
religious sites; living simply, he played his violin for lodging and
traveled with Hindu ascetics. KM subscribed to various Vedantin
publications and disseminated them to friends, and he read every
work of the modern teacher Rajneesh. Just as some Newar merchants
were cultural middlemen for Tibetan traditions, KM linked his
community with the religious movements of modern India.
Given this vast range of interests and activities plus his love for
his own traditional Buddhism, KM would not limit himself to any one
dharma. As he said, "My dharma is not from any one tradition."
From childhood onward Kaji has had an unusual life. He has never
attended school. His mentally disturbed mother died when he was ten,
and his father was unable to support his family adequately. When
Kaji was nineteen his father was struck by typhoid, and Kaji had to
take responsibility for the family himself. He has tried his hand at
various enterprises: sewing cloth shoes, making chupples and kites,
selling used military clothing, and bookselling. Only the last has
proved workable, and until recently the family barely scraped by,
often with the help of generous friends and his wife's modest
As a youth Kaji became involved in Newar political protests against
the government's dissolution of parliamentary democracy in 1961.
This led him into circles interested in Communist thought, so that
he began reading (a self-taught skill) the works of Marx, Mao, and
Lenin in Nepali translation. Kaji recalls how his philosophical
outlook crystallized at that time: "I realized that anything I
cannot see with my eyes and verify I would not believe in. From this
year I refused to bow to any image and refused to do puja, something
I haven't done to this day" (1982). Thus when his father, delirious
with typhoid fever, claimed to be possessed by various gods, Kaji
did not believe it. Kaji's "conversion" followed several years of
active religious interest that touched upon the Bahai faith, and
later, Christianity, both of which had been introduced into the
market by Newar friends with ties to Darjeeling. He ultimately
rejected both and chose politics. In 1965, when the government
banned Newari-language radio broadcasts, Kaji led organized groups
to protest this policy. Risking arrest, he gave speeches all over
the Kathmandu Valley and made friends in many circles. He also
started a bookstore in the small resthouse outside the entrance to
the courtyard where he lives.
Kaji still maintains this business. The majority of his inventory of
over 500 publications is in Newari, but he also carries Chinese,
Russian, Korean, and Cuban selections. Kaji's bookstore is one of
the landmarks of the Asan Tol market and a center for the Newar
intellectuals of Kathmandu, so that hundreds of people stop by to
chat every day. It is the place to glean the latest news and find
out what is really happening. In addition to being a source of
up-to-date information, Kaji lends a sympathetic ear to many people
with problems. During the unrest that swept Nepal in 1979 and after
the 1980/81 reforms that expanded the democratic participation in
elections, Kaji's stall once again became a center of political
organizing and campaigning.
Kaji's religious views are based on his commitment to positivism and
modern science. He likes to find rational interpretations for what
he considers ostensibly unfounded beliefs. For example, he says
that, "All of the deities, all thirty-three hundred thousand of
them, exist nowhere else but in the body." Kaji does believe in
karmic retribution, and says that the atman is a psychological
assumption necessary to explain the fact of consciousness and the
operation of karman. He remains agnostic on the question of rebirth.
Ethics and social justice in modern Nepal, he feels, are only
possible after the rejection of the hierarchy and discrimination of
the caste system. Kaji wants Newars to modernize their ideas and
improve their material state. He is the dominant person in his
courtyard, not as a religious leader, but as the "local mayor" who
enforces modern standards of hygiene and calls upon all families,
rich and poor, to participate in the yearly round of activities that
are part of their cultural endowment.
Despite his rejection of traditional belief, and in seeming
contradiction to his personal refusal to take up a religious role,
Kaji is fervent in his love of Newar tradition and in his efforts to
preserve Newar language and culture. In 1981, for example, he
organized and assisted in the complete restoration of the main
vihara shrine. His identity as a Newar is very important to him, and
he speaks often about the task of retaining the things that make
Newar culture unique and great. Kaji relates his religious
agnosticism, activism, and Marxism to his notion of the bodhisattva:
"In these times, the good Communist is the greatest bodhisattva."
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Having seen the terms and possibilities of individual belief in an
Indic Buddhist community, let us now summarize our findings and
consider the study's wider significance for a number of fields.
Buddhist Pluralism and Unity of Belief
Confronted with such fundamental diversity, we have to discard any
essentialist conception of Islam. Instead, Islam has to be
understood as the totality of all symbolic forms considered Islamic
by people regarding themselves as Muslims; i.e., as an essentially
unbounded complex of symbols and principles which on most any issue
offer a wide range of possible, even opposing conceptions, meanings,
attitudes, and modes of thought, each formulated with sufficient
fluidity to allow ever more spinoffs, elaborations, and
interpretations. (LOEFFLER 1988, 246-47)
Like Iranian Islam, Newar Buddhism affords a nearly unbounded range
of interpretations to individuals as they adaptively construct their
belief standpoints. Several summary observations can be made on the
nature of contemporary Newar Buddhist belief. First, most of the
community has not drifted substantially from adherence to Buddhism,
and only the very rare individual has been drawn away to other
faiths or secular ideologies. The belief in divine bodhisattvas,
karman, and meditation has not declined significantly. Although
Newar merchants are, to varying degrees, disenchanted with their
vajracarya priests and are moving away from practicing Buddhism
solely through them, every individual asked still insisted that
he/she remained firmly grounded in the Buddha dharma. Almost as
strong is the belief in the existence of divine beings, "Buddhist"
and "Hindu." It is noteworthy that such beliefs remain despite the
recent popularity of Communist political parties (LEWIS 1997).
Second, there has been a general shift among the younger generation
toward the modernist Theravada form of belief and practice. Third,
interest in Tibetan Buddhist devotions has grown only modestly.
Finally, the merchant families still support their vajracarya samgha
out of loyalty to the traditional Vajrayana rituals, but they
increasingly (and, again, generationally) lack an understanding of
the doctrines underlying these practices. The subtleties of the
older Mahayana-Vajrayana tradition, with its abstruse philosophical
critiques, extensive pantheon, and esoteric symbolism, are now clear
to only a very few individuals in Kathmandu. Its "center" has not
held. Despite the erosion of this elite culture, a more rudimentary
"core tradition" of belief endures: just as the ancient religious
geography still provides the focal sites for the community's
devotional practices, so do the most elementary Buddhist teachings
persist as landmarks informing the merchants' understanding of self,
life, death, and spiritual destiny.
Although this study has been concerned primarily with merchants,(21)
it suggests several concluding observations about scholarly
representations of Buddhism, method in the study of religious
belief, and modernization in Buddhist contexts.
The Domestication of Mahayana Relativity Doctrine
In the variations of belief among individual merchants and the
widespread acceptance of many levels of praxis it is plausible to
see a successful domestication of classical Mahayana Buddhist
relativity doctrine. The Mahayana critique of all utterances is
accompanied by the corollary acceptance of varying belief
understandings. Newar Buddhists legitimately formulate spiritual
paths and views differently. The common ethos of intellectual
tentativeness, even among those quite skilled at "discussing the
dharma," supports this conclusion. I suggest that this cultural
orientation and ethos may be characteristic of Buddhist societies
generally. As SOUTHWOLD has concluded from his study of Theravada
Buddhists in Sri Lanka:
The tenets of Buddhism can be broadly ordered along a continuum
ranging from the most basic and indispensable to the most accessory
and optional; as I have remarked, such distinctions are reflected in
the cognitive attitudes of at least some Buddhists. For example, it
is basic to hold that rebirth, determined by karman, is real; that
nirvana is a real state attainable by human beings; that the Buddha
and others have attained it; that the Buddha's teaching provides
efficacious directions for attaining it. But it is optional to hold
that, e.g., participation in rites is conducive to attainment [and]
that the services of Buddhist clergy are essential at funeral and
mortuary ceremonies. (1979, 632)
Community Belief and the Writing of Buddhist History
Religious systems are not texts.... Obvious examples include ritual,
a wide array of non-ritual religious practices, and nearly all
iconography. The insistence on construing all cultural phenomena
along textual lines inevitably blinds inquirers to many of their
non-linguistic features. (LAWSON and MCCAULEY 1993, 214)
Our findings from Nepal undermine any analysis that centers the
historical dynamics of Buddhism on the interplay of philosophical
doctrines within the literary canon. Buddhist pluralism in modern
Nepal, while admittedly complex, probably resembles the state of
Buddhism in North India after the Gupta era (700-1200), when
Theravadin, Mahayana, and Vajrayana lineages were all present. The
Newar case suggests that lay patrons have always sought to support
precept-observing Buddhist monks, ritualists, and scholars living in
their localities. To center an understanding of the tradition either
synchronic or historical - in texts of interest only to the literary
elite is to ignore the wider, more pervasive Buddhist culture of
assimilation. The few intellectuals in our study who did explore
doctrinal possibilities did so unimpeded, and this long-standing
efflorescence of human thought is a historical continuity in Nepal,
as it is elsewhere. Nevertheless, Buddhist communities cohere far
less around philosophy than around the shared ideology and rituals
associated with merit-making. Interpreters of Buddhism should heed
the comparative insights of J. PELIKAN on Christian tradition in
The authentic tradition of orthodoxy was not a matter to be decided
by an intellectually formulated rule of faith set forth by scholars
and theologians, but by the rule of prayer of the thousands of
silent believers who worshipped in the spirit of truth. (1984, 30)
Belief and Nonbelief
The fieldwork for this study, the data analysis involved, and the
experience of teaching world religions for over a decade have all
convinced me of the necessity of investigating disbelief as part of
any exploration of belief. Robert MURPHY's description of this
dialectical process should have special force in framing the
sociological study of belief:
The critical attitude is one that examines what constitutes and lies
beyond the parameters of any series of events that we wish to treat
as facts.... Relatedness always implies a universe of nonrelations,
and membership rules are predicated upon rules of exclusion.
Contained in every opening outward is a tendency toward closure
within, and in every bond, a series of alienations (1971, 154).
Since skepticism toward all assertions is a trait actually
encouraged in certain Buddhist texts,(22) it is sometimes difficult
in Newar research to separate "traditional" doubt from the
skepticism advocated by modern systems of thought. If studies of
belief can identify the content and scope of local traditions of
disbelief, they can give a more precise indication of the depth (or
strength) of belief in the community.(23)
Buddhism and Modernity
Finally, one must acknowledge the clear, ongoing efforts of Newar
devotees to retain their Buddhist beliefs even in the context of the
modern stress on scientific and Marxist thought. Contrary to the
predictions of certain modernity theorists,(24) Newar Buddhists
continue to express firm loyalty to core beliefs, meditate in
increasing numbers, perform time-consuming rituals, and draw upon
Buddhist ethics for guidance even as they absorb new technologies
and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. The Nepalese merchant
case study supports the conclusion that Buddhist doctrinal and
ritual traditions remain an enduring refuge for individuals and
communities in Asia and provide proven resources for those
contending with the chaotic choices, crises, and questions raised by
* I use the terms "Newar laity," "Buddhist merchants," and the caste
name "Uray" synonymously, unless qualified. For an overview of this
community, see my article in GELLNER and QUIGLEY 1995. Technical
terms from Sanskrit or Newari are defined upon first use and
transliterated according to the system specified in this work. The
author would like to express his gratitude for funding from the
Fulbright Fellowship program that supported fieldwork in Nepal from
1979 to 1982, and for a Holy Cross Bachelor-Ford grant that
supported subsequent analysis and writing.
1. Among the few exceptions are LOEFFLER's study of male Iranians in
a rural village (1988) and the surveys conducted by SPIRO in Burma
(1970) and GOMBRICH in Sri Lanka (1971). Sociologists of religion
attempting to make belief pattern connections with
non-Judeo-Christian faiths have had to rely on early, biased
representations or generalize from the limited information
ethnographers have provided on the subject. This is a problem that
extends from Weber and Durkheim onward (TAMBIAH 1973; GELLNER 1982).
As GEERTZ noted long ago, "Just what does 'belief' mean in a
religious context? Of all the problems surrounding attempts to
conduct anthropological analyses of religion, this is one that has
perhaps been most troublesome and therefore the most often avoided"
(1966, 24-25). LOEFFLER in his important monograph echoes his dismay
at the neglect of this subject (1988, 247), rightly criticizing
Geertz's own practice of bracketing off pluralism and "put[ting]
aside at once the tone of the village atheist and that of the
village preacher" (GEERTZ 1966, 39).
2. Much discussion on Buddhism by sociologists remains flawed by a
lack of understanding of Buddhism's diversity and the assumption
that texts alone can be used to construct a consensus belief pattern
(e.g., ORRU and WANG 1992). This is a point made by scholars on both
sides of the field of Buddhology (e.g., TAMBIAH 1970; SOUTHWOLD
1978; HERBRECHTSMEIER 1993).
3. These include the work of Siegfried Lienhard, Michael Allen,
Gerard Toffin, John Locke, and David Gellner.
4. In other studies I have emphasized Newar-Tibetan relationships as
an element in the history of regional Buddhism (LEWIS and JAMSPAL
1988; LEWIS 1989b, 1993b, and 1993c).
5. Just as the Sanskrit texts found in the Kathmandu Valley in the
nineteenth century were the landmark discovery that informed modern
scholars of the existence of Indie Buddhist texts outside the
boundaries of Southern or Theravada Buddhism (MITRA 1971), so too do
the multitude of Mahayana Vajrayana traditions still observed in the
Valley point to an alternative pattern of Buddhist sociocultural
adaptation once found across India and Central Asia.
6. The first research is presented in a religious ethnography (LEWIS
1984). Subsequent visits were made in 1987, 1991, 1993, and 1994.
7. In a forthcoming article on the uses of photography in the study
of religion (GREENWAY and LEWIS 1997), I outline the methodology in
more detail, presenting photograph and note page examples from this
questionnaire. The 112 pictures proved to be excellent stimuli for
eliciting responses. In some cases the main concern was the
recognition of a photograph's subject matter; for example, a set of
deity pictures used images from local temples, monasteries, and
resthouses to see if an individual could recognize the
Hindu-Buddhist pantheon. In other cases pictures were used in
conjunction with more abstract inquiries to heighten the informant's
awareness of the specific issue being asked about. Thus, instead of
simply asking respondents what they thought of untouchability, I
would show them a picture of untouchable sweepers at work in a local
courtyard. Associated questions could then be keyed to these images,
e.g., "Does karman really determine rebirth in this caste?"
8. Since the questionnaires were administered in 1981-82, the
findings presented in this article are somewhat dated. A
generational shift has occurred (two of the old men and one old
woman have died); modernization has increased in pace and in scope,
ushering in such changes as the revolution of 1990 that established
a multiparty democracy and reduced the king to a constitutional
monarch. I attempt to discuss the impact of these factors briefly in
LEWIS 1995b and 1997.
9. It was very common for individuals to repeat a story or an
explanation heard from a Buddhist teacher in response to an issue I
would raise. When I would then ask if they really believed this
explanation, their response would be "Well, how can I be sure?....
This is what I have heard [or read].... How to know for certain?"
When pressed, or in offhand comments, some would add that all
accounts from ancient tradition were just human ideas and therefore
unproven. This ethos is consistent with my findings on intellectual
culture among the Newar Buddhist merchants: there is no textual
basis nor doctrinal press to reach a common philosophical center. I
return to this issue in the conclusion.
10. For example, almost every Uray family has retained the services
of its vajracarya purohit for performing life-cycle rituals and
yearly festival observances. Only a few staunch Theravadin devotees
view the issue in terms of choosing an exclusive Buddhist identity.
11. Living in the capital city of modern Nepal, the Buddhist
merchants have had contact with many of the world's modern
sociointellectual movements. But it is easy to assume a false depth
to an individual's awareness, since outside intellectual ideas are
known only through foreign languages or often-problematic
translations. Individuals sometimes end up holding incongruous
worldviews, as when modern Communist leaders (and supporters)
continue to perform traditional Hindu or Buddhist rituals.
12. My goal in constructing this cumulative portrait of consensus is
well articulated in the recent essay by LAWSON and MCCAULEY:
Our principal theoretical object is the knowledge that participants
share about both the relevant system of ritual acts and the
accompanying conceptual scheme on the assumption that an account of
this shared system of knowledge will go a long way toward explaining
many of the behaviors of the participants that it inspires. (1993,
13. Those familiar with Buddhism through its scholastic literature
(or through typical college coursework) will find this discussion of
an atman in stark contrast to the classical notion of anatman,
"non-soul." By contrast, scholars familiar with Buddhist practice
across Asia are well aware that the "soul notion" is common
everywhere, as in the Burmese leikpya (butterfly soul; SPIRO 1970,
85), the Thai khwan (spirit; TAMBIAH 1970, 58) or the Chinese
hun/p'o (soul; TEISER 1988). How karman operates without a soul
medium for next-lifetime transmission has been a central issue in
Buddhist scholastic debate from the earliest discourses (e.g. THOMAS
1933, 93-106; SPIRO 1970, 84-91). This may be an indication of how
peripheral philosophers were to the mainstream of popular Buddhist
14. Only 40% of my informants believed that the vajracaryas should
be ranked above the Brahmans; 50% said Brahmans should be considered
first, and 10% said that among Buddhist castes all are equal.
15. The same acceptance of alcohol consumption is reported in Sri
Lanka, though there the tradition is Theravadin (SOUTHWOLD 1979,
16. Some attribute the current lack of spirit sightings to the
introduction of widespread electric lighting, which, it is said, has
caused the khyah to flee the old settlements.
17. Some informants suggested that the "Hindu" deities should really
be considered bodhisattvas. Others, including several learned
scholars, asserted that the Hindu deities like Siva and Krsna merely
controlled their domains, but celestial bodhisattvas actively sought
out those in need of their compassionate service. The lack of
consensus on this fundamental issue indicates the failure of the
Newar samgha to articulate the textual teachings clearly.
18. See LOCKE 1987 and LEWIS 1989a.
19. I have used pseudonyms in this section.
20. This teacher has also gained the interest of Westerners, who
have written on his life (BENNETT 1975).
21. It is important to note that the data utilized is confined to
Kathmandu's merchant caste, the Uray; because of the caste's high
class and caste-group boundaries, the sample is limited to five
percent of Kathmandu Newars. A study of belief patterns in a lower
caste (e.g., among farmers, the largest Newar caste) would doubtless
yield somewhat different results, particularly in terms of greater
Hindu-Buddhist syncretism and an absence of esoteric doctrinal
awareness in community discourse.
22. Faith in the Buddha's path as a way to escape the darkness of
craving and ignorance is encouraged in other texts (DUTT 1940).
23. I would echo the anthropologist's usual critique of "hit-and run
opinion surveys," as these encourage believer-positive responses;
furthermore, this type of research methodology does not dwell long
enough with individuals to sample the ambiguities and expressions of
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by that extent, be less important.... In short, the importance of
religion would be expected to vary inversely with the importance of
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