ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Politics of Buddhism in Nepal

The Buddha was born in what is now the state of Nepal. Only about 10% of Nepal’s population is Buddhist, but many more feel an affinity for the religion and are outraged when outsiders claim that the Buddha was an Indian. Inside Nepal, however, the question of who has the right to speak for Buddhism is contested. Nepali Buddhists often see themselves as a discriminated minority; internally, they are divided by tradition, caste, region, and language.

Nepal, as Nepalis never tire of reminding the world and each other, was where the Buddha was born. But did Nepal exist 2,500 years ago? Does the fact that the Buddha was born in what is today Nepal mean that the modern nation state of Nepal can claim special ownership of his memory, when the other three significant events in the Buddha’s life—attainment of enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, first sermon at Sarnath, and entry into full nirvana at Kushinagar—all took place in what is now India? Even the very act of asking these questions will irritate some of my Nepali friends, for whom the two most fundamental facts about their country are that it is home to the world’s highest mountain and that it claims the birthplace of the Buddha.

Mount (Mt) Everest has to be shared with China—that is not debated—but most attempts on the summit now start from the Nepali side and it is the Nepali Sherpas who are the world-recognised experts on getting there. By default, most people think of Mt Everest as being in Nepal, and Nepalis are unlikely to contradict them. On the other hand, the Buddha’s birthplace—Nepalis firmly believe—is theirs and theirs alone. However, the issue has become particularly sensitive in recent years as claims have surfaced in India that in fact the Buddha’s home town, Kapilvastu, is to be found on the Indian side of the border. Indians sometimes claim, in all innocence and ignorance, that the Buddha was born in India. There are still attributions in Western museums of the Buddha or Buddhist statuary to India, when it should be labelled as Nepal or Nepali. And, understandably, this too attracts the ire of Nepalis.

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Updated On : 22nd Jan, 2018

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