“What is your religion?”

My reflective journal when I was in Nepal.

“What is your religion? Do you have any religion?” My supervisor, Bijen asked this question over our first formal traditional Nepali dinner. A simple question yet with uncanny familiarity. This is similar to my previous experience in Ghana last summer. I was asked the same question when I first arrived there. “Yes, I am a Buddhist,” I replied with some hesitant.

Stepping into the religious country Nepal, at the birthplace of Buddha triggered me to ponder. Before this, I do not feel incongruent with my own religion before this as they are not challenged, and no one questioned my religion or took interests in. Nonetheless, everything is more ritualistic rather than spiritualistic for me, as I know nothing about the teachings in the Buddhism sutras. Most importantly, is religion even important for my core identity or life?

Over the conversation about religion, Bijen once said, “I’m not too sure about you but if you don’t have a religion, I don’t know who you will seek advice and comfort when you face difficulties in life.” His comment reminds me of one of my previous readings in my personality psychology course in the university. Erik Fromm (1956) once mentioned the use of religion for people who are unwilling to confront their existential feeling of separateness. In many religions, people commonly conduct ritualistic prayers to an object of worship. These masochistic behaviors are deemed by Fromm as a way to escapes from the feeling of separateness and isolation by surrendering one to the higher power. This passive form of symbiotic union with “the power of the one whom one submits to is inflated” (Fromm, 1957, p.23); is not a productive activity. So is what Fromm said is true, or religion is more than that? Feeling dissatisfied, incongruent and shameful with my ignorance about my religion, I decided to learn the truth. By reading more about Buddhism and religion through the books I bought at the local secondhand bookstore enhanced my comprehension of Buddhism and religion. Meanwhile, talking to the local people helps too, as they are always willing to share and exchange their religion and local cultural views with me.

I have found that for Nepali, irreligion is almost unheard of. From the long history of traditional Hindu Kingdom to the current communist-led federal republic of Nepal, religion is still the cornerstone of Nepali life. It is said that the expression of a nation’s spirit can be seen through the national language (Humboldt, 1988).The religious influence even extends to the national language of Nepal. The Nepali’s daily greeting “Namaste” means “I salute the god in you”. Clearly, strong religious spirits is reflected in the Nepali language. In addition, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that language has the role in shaping the interpretations of our reality (Hoijer, 1954). As such, the use of the word “Namaste” in daily interaction implies the deeply ingrained Nepali’s belief in the divinity in all the materials and living organisms in the environment.

Meanwhile, Hindu culture dominates the Nepali culture as up to 81.3% of Nepali people are Hindu (Nepal Census Report, 2011). As such, Hinduism as the dominant religion has contributed to the system of hierarchy in the society, segregating the Nepali into caste groups. This cultural concept does not limit to the Hindus but devotees of all other religions as well. Although the caste system has been rule out in the constitution, most of the Nepali still practice such culture, or at least at subliminal level. Such strict hierarchical system dictates one’s status, rank, life chances, career prospects and even their life partner. Above all, Nepal has a syncretic blend of Hinduism and Buddhism with little struggle and tension between religions and ethnicities. As such, one’s sense of social and cultural identity in Nepal largely shaped by the prevailing and dominating Hindu culture. Nonetheless, religion for Nepali is more than just a belief; it essentially shapes the core of Nepali’s identity.

Upon more in-depth reflections, I realized that religious identity has been somewhat irrelevant or non-essential to my self-concept. I found that religion has been playing a more menial role in today’s modern society, as people focus more on the worldly matters. In the countries like Malaysia and Hong Kong, the societies have been more or less undergoes secularization. As such, people are more concerning about the development of science and technology. Frankly speaking, religion tends to be out of place in many modern and developed countries.

On the other hand, my national identity is often questioned. I am the third generation of Malaysia-born Chinese, since my great grandfather migrated to from China to Malaysia in search for better life about 80 years ago. Meanwhile, most of the people could not understand why I called myself as a Malaysian Chinese but not a Malay. I noticed the confusion in others, while it is the case that Malay is entirely distinct ethnicity from Chinese. However, with the word “Chinese” sounds odd, inconsistent and redundant to some others. As for Indonesian Chinese, they always refer themselves as Indonesian but not Indonesian Chinese. By omitting the word ‘Chinese’, are we risking away our heritage, our ethnic identity as a Chinese in pursue for national identity? This has been a constant debate with my identity. Nonetheless, I felt that it is more linguistically appropriate to be address as a Malaysian. Similarly, during the first few days of internship, my Hong Kong friends faced some difficulties in explaining that Hong Kong is not China but an autonomous special administrative region under Chinese government. Thereby they are from Hong Kong but not from China. In this incident, I noticed a strong sense of Hong Kong national identity in my friends.

In most of the developed countries today, the role of religion degrades as the constitutions and rule of law replaced religion as the official governing doctrine. Although Nepal has been declared as a secular state since 18 May 2006 (CNN, 2007), the non-material culture such as Hindu norms and traditional beliefs remains strong and prevails in today’s society. This is because non-material cultures are more impermeable and less permutable as compared to material cultures within a certain time frame. Therefore, unknowingly the secularization of Nepal is possible as time goes by.

In my opinion, it is not true that religion is not important in our lives. In every society, religion has a niche as a moral government that governs the people’s behaviors, and maintains the peace and order. In the early days where rule of law does not exist in a country, religion significantly acts as a governing authority to the society. Nonetheless, religion and faith should not be the weapon of violence towards other religions in modern day context. One should also questions the dogmas of the religion that deemed irrelevant, and be parsimonious to the teaching of a religion. On the other hand, being irreligion or atheist does not mean no religion, as no religion can be a religion or faith itself. Nonetheless, the golden rule of religion should be encouraging and promoting world peace and compassion in mankind.

Within a few weeks here, I have significantly developed my knowledge of Buddhism. For me, religion is never part of my self-concept. Although my father is a devoted Buddhist, he never pressures me to practice Buddhism. Besides, rather than treating Buddhism as a religion, it is better fitted as a philosophy or a way of life. It is beyond a belief and ritualistic prayers, as blind faith is not encouraged. Instead, it promotes free enquiry and understanding on the teaching of Buddhism.

Before this, I have been imposing my idea of religion as merely an instrument, as a mean to escape from one’s existential loneliness through ritualistic behavior. In my culture, very often people only seek solace and comfort in religion in desperate times. Upon learning more about what is religion, I have learned that religion is more than just a system of healing. It is a cultural institution with expressions of values that transforms the culture in which the religion involved. As such, religion experiences changes as according to geographical boundaries and ethnicities. As in Nepal, religion is essential to one’s identity and self-concept.

I have to admit that it is inevitable to bring one’s particular cultural perspectives when learning other’s culture. In fact, one should be equipped with their cultural baggage as to give rise to cultural relativism. In the midst of understanding other cultures, one should essentially aware of their presuppositions on other cultures. One should not be ethnocentric, rather being self-reflexive and remains open-minded to new possibilities. Although it is the case that I am against the idea of caste system that causes the unequal treatments to the lower caste and women, I learnt to respect the unique local culture. Nonetheless, with my cultural baggage, I yearn to promote woman empowerment and status in Nepal.

Reference

CNN. (2007). Nepal Votes to End Monarchy. Retrieved from

http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/asiapcf/12/28/nepal.monarchy/index.html?iref=mpstoryview

Fromm, E. (1956). The Art of Loving. Harper & Row.

Hoijer, H. (1954). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Language in culture, 92-105.

Humboldt, Wilhelm (1988). On Language: The Diversity of Human

Language-Structure and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind. Cambridge University Press.

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