Living with Newar Buddhists: Some Personal Reflections
Dr. David N. Gellner, Brunel University
In April 1982 I set off from England for Nepal to carry out two years of fieldwork on Buddhism among the Newars. I flew to Delhi and then went by train to Allahabad to visit a friend who had studied in Oxford. I had been to Nepal twice before, and had even taken some Nepali lessons in 1976 before spending 2-3 months trekking around the middle hills in a year between school and university. But I knew no Newari, and, though I had visited Bhaktapur as a tourist more than once, I had never crossed the Bagmati river from Kathmandu to Lalitpur, where I now planned to live.
However, I was not arriving in total ignorance of the people I would be living among. I already knew a fair amount from what previous scholars had written. On Buddhism there were Father John Locke’s book, Karunamaya, Sylvain Lévi’s book, Le Népal, which by then was already three quarters of a century old, two articles by an anthropologist called Stephen Greenwold, and one article and the book on the Kumari cult, by the anthropologist Michael Allen. On Newar culture and society there were the works of Gérard Toffin, Hiroshi Ishii, Anne Vergati and others. From what they had written, I knew already that I would have to come to an understanding of the Newars’ special social and religious organizations, called guthi, and of the bahals (viharas) to which all Sakya and Vajracarya men (the Buddhist ‘clergy’) had to belong. Mary Slusser’s great work, Nepal Mandala: A Cultural History of the Kathmandu Valley had just appeared. Although it cost over £100, even at the suicidally high exchange to which Margaret Thatcher’s hands-off monetary policy had driven the pound sterling, I knew I had to have it with me in the field. However, I was sure that close acquaintance with the Sakyas and Vajracaryas of today would enable me to provide a more sympathetic and less judgemental account of their religious practice than either Slusser or Lévi, with their long historical perspective and their focus on past glories, had given.
In practical matters I was helped enormously by the fact that my friend and colleague, Declan Quigley, preceded me into the field. Declan was virtually at the end of his fieldwork in the town of Dhulikhel, beyond the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley, when I arrived in Nepal. Thanks to his assistance and foresight, I managed to obtain my research visa in the record time of one week from arrival in Nepal. And I was able to stay with him in Dhulikhel on the last leg of his research, watch him collect genealogies, and observe with him how Dhulikhel Sresthas worshipped their lineage deities. Declan introduced me to Rajendra Pradhan, who was at that time in the middle of his fieldwork on the domestic rituals and ‘cosmic’ (i.e. city-wide) festivals of Kathmandu for a doctorate at Delhi University. Rajendra took me with him on numerous occasions, for instance to observe ‘Father’s Day’ at Gokarna, and he introduced me to the family of Lok Darshan Vajracharya, who rented me a self-contained bed sitting room for two months while I took Newari lessons and searched for a field site. My Newari teacher, who had also taught Declan and many other students of Newar society before and since, was Subarna Man Tuladhar, a wonderfully sensitive teacher and interpreter of his own society.
I knew from Father Locke’s book that Kwa Bahal in Lalitpur was the largest of the Newar Buddhist monasteries. I thought that I might as well go there, where there would be the most ritual activity, so I went with Rajendra to Nag Bahal to see if there was a possibility of renting a room or a house. I was keen to live with Sakyas and Vajracaryas in order to participate in and observe, as far as possible, their way of life. Rajendra made enquiries on my behalf and we were shown a house in Ila Nani; we also went to the shop of Hera Kaji Sujikar, and he said, ‘Wait a minute’. He crossed the way to the house of Kuber Muni and Jog Maya Sakya, while we sat among the sewing machines and Theravada pamphlets. He came back and reported that I could take two rooms with them for 250 rupees a month (at that time equivalent to about £12, and well within my student grant). This seemed preferable to being in a house on my own, and it was agreed that I would come back in a few weeks time after I had gone on a trek around Annapurna. I remember wondering to myself if I would ever be able to understand Jog Maya’s Newari.
I moved into Kuber Muni and Jog Maya’s house a few days before Dasain (Mohani). On normal days they lived alone in quite a large house, while the rest of the family -- their son, Mangal Ratna (Jetha), his wife, their one daughter and three sons, the oldest of whom, Bijay, was already married -- stayed in the new house in Pya Pukhu, ten minutes walk away at the other end of the city. However, the family cloth shop was just outside the entrance to Nag Bahal and somebody came to visit every day. On all festival days the whole family moved back and held celebrations and rituals together in the old house. For three days during Dasain we ate nothing but beaten rice and buffalo meat. I had been a vegetarian for two years, but the difficulty of refusing meat when I had no specific religious rationale for doing so and a strong anthropological compulsion to fit in with Newar life, put an end to that... Within a week of living with a Newar family I had acquired a taste for buffalo meat, and discovered the unsettling effects of beaten rice on a stomach that isn’t used to it.
At this stage my grasp of Newari was still fairly rudimentary. Every week I would return to Subarna Man with a long list of words and phrases that I had not fully grasped and which had not been satisfactorily explained to me. Unlike today, there was at that time no dictionary of Newari and no user-friendly account of the grammar. I attended festivals and rituals whenever I could, I talked with whoever was willing to talk, I read Asha Kaji Vajracharya’s Bungadyo Nepale Hahgu Khan (the story of the bringing of Karunamaya/Bungadyo to Nepal). During all this time I was talking with Jog Maya every day and I discovered that indeed I could understand her. More than that, she came to be concerned for me like a mother. She taught me a very large part of what I know of what Buddhism means for Sakyas of her generation. Many years later, when it was finally completed, I decided to dedicate my book to her since it contained many of her observations.
I also needed to learn the technical details of the rituals of Newar Buddhism, since they are so important a part of the traditional religion. For this, I eventually decided to go to Asha Kaji Vajracharya. Some foreigners had warned me against him, but I found him always genial and helpful. With his guidance I began to understand the logic of the Vajracaryas’ rituals. No other Vajracarya would have been willing to give me private tutorials in this way, to explain word by word whatever ritual text I asked for. In fact, other priests feared that he might be explaining secret Tantric matters to me, and indeed I thought it essential to study those, since it is impossible to understand Newar Buddhism without some grasp of what they are about. I left the decision to him: he was happy to teach me about them, quoting a Sanskrit verse to the effect that to the stupid even secret knowledge is noxious, whereas the wise may learn anything. It was a matter of great satisfaction to me that I was able to present him with a copy of my book -- which contained numerous references to him and his books -- in the autumn of 1992, the year before he died. He had wanted me to acknowledge the information I received from him, and I had gladly done so.
A third close friend was Tirtha Lal Maharjan. I met him by chance while wandering near I Bahi on the northern edge of the old city of Lalitpur. He made sure that we remained in contact and he gradually became my main informant on matters to do with the all-important Jyapu or Maharjan farming caste. His father and grandfather were illiterate peasants. Poverty had forced Tirtha to leave school before completing his SLC. But he had an amazing capacity to forge lasting friendship across all barriers of class, caste, and ethnicity. His brick-making business was just beginning to get off the ground in 1983. Several false starts had been caused by dishonest partners, but each time he raised further loans from his vast network of friends and acquaintances.
As today Buddhism among the Newars was of three main kinds in the early 1980s. There was traditional Newar Buddhism, as found in the rituals of the Vajracaryas and the daily devotions of Kwa Bahal and Karunamaya. There was the attachment of many pious Newar Buddhists to Tibetan Buddhism, expressed in prayer flags and prayer wheels, and the conversion of parts of Kwa Bahal and Uku Bahal to Lamaistic gompas. And there was the relatively new Theravada movement which was active in organizing meetings, publishing magazines, leading pilgrimages, and teaching meditation. There were, as Jog Maya remarked one day, enough different forms of religion for everyone to choose, just like vegetables in the bazaar. Of course, I saw it as my task to study principally the traditional form of Newar Buddhism, since it was clear that this was in greatest danger of decline. But it was also true that it still provided the ritual and social framework of life for most of those who could be classified as Buddhists in one way or another.
About nine months after I had come to live in his house Kuber Muni passed away after a distressing few weeks of illness. I shared the family mourning. When at the end of it, the family’s hereditary barber came to shave the hair of all the men of the household and all Kuber Muni’s grandsons, I too had my head shaved. As I was not a Sakya he started to leave a small top-knot, as is customary with all but Sakyas and Vajracaryas (they have it cut off as a sign of their monastic status). The young men all shouted as one, ‘Cut it off! He is one of us!’ It is perhaps noteworthy that the rituals before and after Kuber Muni’s death were carried out by the household’s Vajracarya priest (purohit), by Theravada monks and nuns, and by the brother of Kuber Muni and Jog Maya’s eldest daughter’s husband, who was a Newar monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This combination of all three forms of Buddhism is in fact quite common, and is not seen as contradictory in any way. I did not know it then but the book I eventually wrote was mainly an attempt to explain the ideology of Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism which enabled such apparently different forms of Buddhism to be combined in a complementary and hierarchical structure of thought and ritual action.
Kuber Muni’s demise meant a change to the family’s living arrangements. The rest of the household moved back permanently and rented out the new house. I still had my two rooms but now I was living in a crowded and busy household, in which, as in all such Newar households, privacy is at a premium. But any loss on that score was more than made up for by the extra company and the insight into joint family living that I gained.
As time went on I became ever more busy, carrying out a house-to-house survey, having tutorials with Asha Kaji, collecting inscriptions (alas, as yet barely used), observing rituals, attending meetings, and interviewing all who would talk to me. The fact that I had learned enough Newari to interview unaided (though this never amounted to total comprehension) stood me in good stead. Often, when working in my room, I would feel the need of a break and would go for a walk around the stunningly beautiful old city of Lalitpur, or on its northern and eastern outskirts which at that time were still unbroken, cultivated fields (unlike the ugly suburban sprawl and scrub which has replaced it today). I would invariably encounter some Newar who was so pleased that I spoke his language that he willingly answered all my questions. My spirits would soar with renewed enthusiasm for the task of understanding the fiendish complexities of Newar society, complexities which had seemed beyond solution an hour before.
My focus on traditional Buddhism meant that inevitably I spent more time with older people than young. Someone once called me ‘the friend of old people’, perhaps because Jog Maya had talked of me in this way when visiting her natal home. It was an epithet I was happy to acknowledge. I had no interest in participating in young people’s obsession with the Hindi cinema, for example, though I now accept that this can be a perfectly valid, indeed very interesting, subject to study. Indeed, having taken an MPhil in Indian Religion and done two years of Sanskrit as preparation for my doctorate, to have focused on anything other than traditional religion would have been something of a waste. One highlight was the festival of Samyak which, in Lalitpur, is held in Nag Bahal every five years. I was extremely lucky that it fell two months before my departure from the field. It is a massive and spectacular assembly of larger-than-life cast Dipankara figures from all over the city and beyond which celebrates the Buddhist virtue of charitable giving to the Buddhist monastic community (here symbolized by the Dipankara figures and by Sakyas and Vajracaryas as the Buddhist clergy). The festivities continued throughout the night and the next morning, the only time that I went right through the night without sleeping in the cause of anthropological fieldwork.
I was very impressed by the way in which, in one idiom or another, whether old or young, Newar Buddhists would spend an enormous amount of time and energy on religious activities. They would get up long before dawn, in the cold of winter, and set off for an hour or two’s chanting of the Namasangiti, or to walk to Cobhar. They would commit themselves to performing rituals every day of their life before eating. This commitment to religious activity was not so widely shared by other castes.
At the same time there was definitely a gap between the generations. The younger generation was much less keen on traditional rituals and very few of them were willing to take Tantric Initiation (diksa) as many of their parents had. Instead they would wax lyrical about the benefits of meditation as taught by Goenke. They would also occasionally dismiss what their parents did completely. During my first year there Pushpa Sakya insisted that I contribute to a Buddha Jayanti magazine he was editing, to be called Pragya Darshan. So I wrote a piece entitled, ‘Is Newar Buddhism corrupt?’ My point was to show that most of the charges made against Newar Buddhism are unfounded; imagine my surprise when I was accosted by a young man, who said to me: ‘I liked your article in Pragya Darshan. You are quite right, Newar Buddhism is corrupt.’ The extremely rapid social change that has occurred in the Kathmandu Valley means that people are unusually alienated from their own traditions, at least as far as religion is concerned. The members of the YMBA, for example, wanted to learn about Mahayana Buddhism, but were not prepared to take instruction in it from the few remaining pundits, such as Asha Kaji, because, being educated in the foreign fashion, they could only respect someone who could teach in English. In this way the old Newar Buddhist tradition is coming to an end, though it would be quite wrong to say that Buddhism itself is showing any sign of dying out, as so many in the last century predicted it would. Open denunciations of traditional Newar Buddhism, though I have heard them, are not common, I am happy to say. On this I concur with Jog Maya who insisted that whatever dharma someone had a mind to do, they should do it, whether it was Mahayanist or even Hindu in form, and one should not criticize others for preferring a different kind of religion.
This general tolerance of religious form, providing one undertakes some dharma, or other has in fact benefited the Theravada movement, since the older generation is happy to see the younger doing dharma, of whatever kind. It is undeniable that today the vast bulk of pious Buddhist activity and pious donations is directed towards Theravada Buddhism; money spent on traditional Newar Buddhism is often a case of heritage preservation rather than pious conviction. Theravada monks have also been extremely adept at raising foreign money for Buddhist projects in Nepal.
Tolerance of different modes of spirituality was also a benefit to the anthropologist. By simply being present on numerous occasions in Kwa Bahal I acquired the reputation of being there every morning (which I certainly was not). By sponsoring a performance of the text-reading ceremony in Kwa Bahal when my parents visited me, eight months or so after I began to live in Lalitpur, I hoped to show my serious intentions in studying Newar Buddhism. Most seemed happy to accept that those intentions were good and nearly everyone cooperated when I began to do a my systematic survey, attempting to establish numbers of people, levels of education, who had taken which kinds of initiation, and religious preferences, for each household in what was then Lalitpur?s ward 15. Frequently I was warmly received and learned much else besides what I wanted for my form. In general, no one insisted that I make any kind of formal profession of faith, or that I define my position exactly.
None of the research that I have carried out and published would have been possible without the cooperation and help of all the people I have mentioned, nor indeed without official permission from HMG and the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies in Tribhuvan University. In particular I must thank the members of Kwa Bahal, and especially of Nag Bahal, which was my home for 19 months. I was especially touched when they organized a farewell ceremony in the school house with speeches and the ritual of sagan biyegu which all Newar travellers go through before their departure. Ratna Kaji Shakya (Bahi nani), Ratna Kaji Shakya (Ananda bahal), and Bhai Ratna Vajracarya (Saraswati nani) went out of their way to help me and I am very grateful for their trust and friendship. Daya Ratna Shakya was an extremely resourceful and proved a gifted fieldworker during the last year of my research. The members of the small monastery-temple of Cikan Bahil also accepted my enquiries with good grace and indeed warmth. My greatest debt is to Jog Maya, Mangal Ratna, and all their family, with whom I stayed for so long.
The festival of Buddha Jayanti is a new one in Nepal. Traditionally the festival of Mataya, some months later, is thought to be a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment; those participants who circulate around all the caityas of Lalitpur dressed as Maras are supposed to be paying homage to the sage whom they have failed to defeat. But Newar Buddhists have accommodated the new tradition of celebrating the enlightenment of the Buddha on Buddha Jayanti without the slightest cognitive dissonance. The very first to celebrate Buddha Jayanti in Nepal was Dharmaditya Dharmacarya. How it was received is not recorded. It was the monks of the Theravada tradition however who made it their principal annual celebration and it was the great achievement of the late Bhikkhu Amritananda to have it accepted as one of Nepal’s national holidays.
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