Statistics and DemographicsAccording to the Nepal Government's 2001 census, Nepal is 80.6% Hindu, 10.7% Buddhist, 4.2% Muslim, 3.4% Kirat (an indigenous Nepali religion, sometimes spelled ‘Kirant’) and 0.4% Christian, with roughly 0.6% of the population not belonging to a particular religious tradition. In addition to these religions, there are small groups of Jains, Sikhs and Baha'is, which combined amount to less than 0.1% of the population. The accuracy of these statistics is somewhat debatable, however, particularly in the relative proportions of Hindus and Buddhists. In the Nepalese context, many of the beliefs and practices of these religions overlap, to the extent that many people worship both Hindu and Buddhist deities. It is not unusual to find someone who claims to be Buddhist worshipping at a Hindu temple, and vice-versa. Classifying such people presents obvious difficulties. Some Nepalese Buddhists have claimed that the predominately Hindu government has tried to downplay the role of Buddhism in the country by encouraging many such people to count themselves as Hindu in the census. Precise percentages aside, Nepal is primarily Hindu, with significant Buddhist communities. Together, these two religions account for more than 91% of the population, and are the overwhelming religious forces influencing Nepalese culture. Nepal's Muslim population is located primarily in parts of the Terai (the southern plains) and Kathmandu, while the Kirat population is located primarily in the eastern portions of the country. Other religious groups, while not figuring prominently in the country's overall statistics, may be locally influential, constituting large percentages of the population in some areas.
Religious HistoryNepal has played a role in Hindu religiosity since the mythical past, where it figures in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, dated to at least the sixth century BCE, and possibly earlier. In this text Yalamber, the ruler of what is now Nepal, sides with the Kauravas against the Pandavas. During the struggle, however, the god Krishna, who had taken the side of the Pandavas, kills Yalamber. Despite this somewhat inauspicious beginning, the tradition now known as Hinduism played a significant role in Nepali history from that time forward. According to traditional accounts, Siddartha Gautama, the man who was to become the Buddha, was born in what is now Nepal in the year 563 BC. Although the Buddha delivered most of his sermons in India, the Buddhist tradition maintains that he traveled to the land of his birth in order to teach his family members. A few centuries later, the great Indian Buddhist King Asoka is said to have visited Nepal in order to establish religious shrines. Although many scholars doubt the historicity of these accounts, it is clear that both Hinduism and Buddhism were established in Nepal at a very early date. At the same time as Buddhism and Hinduism were establishing themselves, local shamanistic traditions were also maintained. These traditions often lacked written texts, and so depended on the oral transmission of their scriptures for survival. This strategy has proven to be remarkably effective, and several shamanistic traditions are still alive and vibrant in remote regions of the country. In particular, the Kirat tradition has managed to maintain an unbroken lineage of followers, and remains the primary religious tradition for several ethnic groups in eastern Nepal. In the centuries that followed their establishment in Nepal, both Buddhism and Hinduism continued to flourish. By the eleventh century, the Kathmandu Valley had become an important center for the study and practice of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. This importance was largely due to the valley’s location between India and Tibet, a location that made it a logical meeting point for Indian Buddhist masters heading north and Tibetan students heading south. Many famous scholars of the day, such as Marpa the translator, stayed in Kathmandu during this period. After Buddhism faded in India in the thirteenth century, Kathmandu began to lose its importance as a center of Buddhist scholarship. Buddhism was maintained among the Newar communities in Kathmandu, but it no longer played the prominent role it once had. As its international importance waned, Buddhism began to cede influence to Hinduism. By the seventeenth century, the Hindu kings of Nepal had commanded that Buddhism conform to the prevailing religious norms by adopting the caste system. Accordingly, the Buddhist priesthood became hereditary, with different castes performing different religious functions. This unique form of Buddhism is still widely practiced in Kathmandu today. Islam first arrived in Nepal with Kashmiri traders in the eighteenth century. These merchants set up a community in Kathmandu, with a mosque and schools. Beginning in the 1960s, several communities of Muslim immigrants from India also established themselves in the Terai region of Nepal. These communities are active and vibrant, and have a long tradition of living in harmony with their neighbors. That tradition was violated in September 2004, however, when mobs of protestors, angry at the execution of 12 Nepali workers by insurgents in Iraq, attacked the Muslim community. Kathmandu’s mosque was attacked and partly burned, along with other Muslim-owned businesses. These events are discussed more fully below. For much of the last thousand years, Nepal consisted of a collection of independent principalities. These principalities were finally united in the latter half of the eighteenth century by Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of the Gorkha ethnic group. The dynasty he founded was devoutly Hindu, and asserted that their kings were incarnations of Hindu deities. This official support of Hindusim was enshrined in the constitutions of 1959 and 1990, which officially declared Nepal to be a Hindu Monarchy. This official sanction was preserved until the aftermath of the second People’s Movement in the spring of 2006. Nepali politics have been particularly turbulent over the last two decades. In 1990, increasing discontent with the political process lead to mass protests against the King, an event known as the People’s Movement (Jana Andolan). The King responded to the protests by allowing a new constitution that placed power in the hands of a popularly elected parliament, but that maintained Nepal’s status as a Hindu monarchy. The mid-nineties saw the emergence of a political party that drew inspiration from the writings of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Officially known as the Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist, this party is more commonly referred to simply as the Maoists. In 1996, the Maoists launched an armed rebellion, seeking to establish a communist government. The Maoist insurrection grew swiftly in the late nineties and early 21st century, with increasingly bold attacks on government facilities. In 2004, the United States Government officially labeled the Maoists a terrorist organization. By 2006, the Maoists were in effective control of large swaths of rural Nepal. High levels of brutality have characterized both the Maoist attacks and the government’s response, and both sides have been accused of significant human rights violations. On February 1st, 2005 King Gyanendra dissolved parliament, accusing it of inadequately responding to the Maoists’ insurrection. In its place, he assumed direct control of the government, and began attempts to defeat the Maoists through military force. The seven major political parties reacted by organizing a series of protests. In November of that year, the seven parties signed an agreement with the Maoists, launching a joint program of protests against the King’s rule. In April 2006, that program precipitated several weeks of intense protests across the country, prompting the King handing power back to parliament, effectively removing himself from the political scene. Hearkening back to the 1990 revolution, this period has become known as the second People’s Movement. On May 18, 2006, the restored parliament declared that Nepal was no longer a Hindu nation, but was a secular state. This was a momentous shift, reversing several centuries of tradition. As will be discussed more fully below, this did not sit well with some of the more conservative elements of society, and Hindu aligned religious groups staged several protests. At the time of writing, the political situation in Nepal remains highly unstable, with both sides in the conflict tenuously observing a cease-fire. The Maoists officially joined the government in the spring of 2007, but left it in September of 2007. Popular elections to form a Constituent Assembly had been scheduled for November 22, 2007, but in October 2007 they were postponed until an undetermined date in 2008. The Constituent Assembly will be charged with re-writing the constitution, and determining the fate of the monarchy. The Pluralism Project's Religious Diversity News contains up to date articles discussing this situation.
Further Historical Resources
Constitution and Religious FreedomThe 2007 US International Religious Freedom Report notes that religious freedom is generally observed in practice. People are allowed to worship as they like. Hindus, Buddhists and other groups are able to perform their religious rites without fear of official sanction. Furthermore, these groups generally get along with each other quite well. Incidents of religious intolerance are relatively rare. Indeed, many Hindus and Buddhists will worship together at joint shrines, without any tension. Within this generally rosy picture, however, there have been some incidents of religious discrimination, both from the government and popular movements.
MaoistsPerhaps the most pressing question hanging over religious diversity in Nepal is the attitude of the Maoists towards religion in general. At the time of writing, the Maoists had recently pulled out of the government, and it was unclear if this would mean a resumption of armed conflict. If armed conflict were to resume, and if the Maoists were to come to power by force, some religious leaders fear that the Maoists might attempt to enforce their secular ideology on the nation. In an interview with the Italian magazine L’Espresso, Maoist supreme leader Prachanda was asked if he was religious. “No, not at all,” he replied, “But in the Peoples Army there are Hindus, Buddhists and others, and we respect all the religious beliefs of the masses, even if our party teaches its officials and cadres a more scientific and secular point of view.” In this and other statements, the Maoists have sought to allay fears that their secular ideology might lead them to persecute religious practitioners. In an interview with the author of this portrait, Mr. Keshab P. Chaulagain, secretary of the Inter-religious Council of Nepal (see below), emphasized the Maoists’ tolerance of religion. Mr. Chaulagain pointed out that Bhichhu Ananda, a Maoist-affiliated Member of Parliament, was a Buddhist. Additionally, Mr. Chaulagain claimed that several high-ranking Maoist intellectuals had assured him that the Maoists had no intention of attacking religion in Nepal. Despite such assurances, some religious practitioners doubt the sincerity of the Maoists when it comes to safeguarding the right to practice religion openly. Maoist ideology, they note, is specifically secular, viewing religious practice as outdated and un-scientific. Such people often cite past instances where the Maoists have broken their promises to show that their concern is justified. The Pluralism Project’s Religious Diversity News contains up to date news articles on this topic.
ProselytizationDespite Nepal's official shift to secularism, proselytization is still illegal in Nepal, and this regulation has been sporadically enforced. As a result, many Christian organizations limit their activities to those that are not construed as “proselytization.” One way the government of Nepal attempts to limit such activity is to restrict the ability of Christian NGOs to register with the government, a prerequisite for owning land. Many such organizations report that they are unable to register their organization if the title contains words such as “Bible,” “Jesus,” “Christian,” or “Church.” Despite these restrictions, there are many Christian NGOs currently operating in Nepal. Many focus on activities, such as varieties of aid work that are not explicitly religious. Others are overtly religious, but restrict themselves to activities that are considered safe. At the same time, there are several Christian organizations that flaunt the ban and actively try to convert Nepalis. While there have been isolated incidents of such missionaries being arrested or harassed, for the most part, the government seems to look the other way. While the government may look the other way, Christian missionary activities often cause friction with local Hindu and Buddhist religious leaders. In some cases, this has led to active campaigns to re-convert people back to their previous religion. Some Christian organizations also report being threatened by fundamentalist Hindu organizations that oppose the freedom to proselytize. Such conflicts do not seem to be widespread, though they are being fanned by a backlash against secularism by fundamentalist organizations, such as the World Hindu Council and Shiv Sena Nepal. These anti-secular movements will be discussed more fully below. It is still unclear what effect the political upheaval of 2006-2007 will have on restrictions regarding proselytization. Members of religious minority groups generally applauded the decision to make Nepal secular, but there is still considerable uncertainty about how far reaching the changes really are.
Anti-Muslim RiotsOn August 31, 2004, 12 Nepalis who had traveled to Iraq to make money as laborers were murdered there by separatists. This sparked angry demonstrations around Kathmandu, targeting the government, the manpower agencies that arrange for such jobs, and Muslim-affiliated organizations. The main mosque in Kathmandu was broken into and seriously damaged in the rioting. Additionally, Muslim-owned businesses were targeted and several suffered significant damage. These riots shocked most Nepalis, who had been used to an atmosphere of religious tolerance in their society. This was expressed a week after the riots, when a group of over three thousand people staged a peace walk through the heart of Kathmandu. While most of Nepali society disproved of the riots, however, they did reflect an emerging bias against Muslims on the part of some conservative Hindu groups. Such groups had been harboring a growing frustration with the increasing numbers of Muslims living in Nepal, particularly in the southern regions. This frustration was expressed in the riots of early September 2004, marring Nepal’s otherwise impressive record of religious tolerance. In September 2007, sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims broke out again, this time in Kapilavastu District, west of Kathmandu. Reports indicated the riots were sparked by the assassination of an Islamic leader, leading to Muslim reprisals and Hindu counter-reprisals that lasted for two days and claimed several lives.
Anti-Secularism ProtestsFor centuries, Nepal was the only officially Hindu nation in the world. For some traditional Hindus in Nepal, this was a significant point of pride. On May 18, 2006, however, the newly re-instated parliament declared that Nepal was officially secular. This shift has upset some traditional Hindu groups, who felt that Nepal’s status as the world’s only Hindu kingdom was a divine right that needed to be protected. In the summer of 2006, several of these groups organized protests, both in Kathmandu and near the Indian border. In particular, a Hindu nationalist organization known as Shiv Sena Nepal organized several large demonstrations, demanding the return of Hinduism as the state religion. In Kathmandu, these demonstrations led to clashes with Maoist cadres, who strongly support the shift to secularism. By October 2007, armed Hindu guerrillas were threatening to declare an 'underground holy people's war.' Such a move could precipitate a bloody conflict with Maoist soldiers.
Interfaith Centers & OrganizationsInter-Religious Council Nepal
Social ActionMany religious minorities in Nepal have active social aid networks. These range from large, national organizations dedicated to peace to local groups active on a small scale. The examples given below are by no means an exhaustive list of these organizations. Instead, they were selected as representative examples of the kind of social aid work being done by Nepal's various religious groups. Rokpa
Religious Minority Organizations & Research CentersNational Council of Churches of Nepal
Religious Diversity NewsThe political situation in Nepal is changing very rapidly, often having immediate repercussions on religious pluralism in the country. The Pluralism Project's Religious Diversity News provides up to date collections of news articles related to the current political situation, and to religious pluralism in Nepal more generally.
BibliographyBoth online content and personal interviews have been used in the preparation of this report. In both cases, all sources have been cited in the text of the report.