Religion, Secularism, and Ethnicity in Contemporary Nepal

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David N. Gellner, Sondra L. Hausner, Chiara Letizia
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     482 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the introduction to Religion, Secularism, and Ethnicity in Contemporary Nepal, two of the editors—David N. Gellner and Chiara Letizia—note that the goal of this book is to use ethnography to answer the question of whether Nepal is becoming more secular. Ultimately however, the volume goes beyond secularism to address “how, in recent times, Nepalis have altered, adapted, and negotiated religious practices and ideas” (2), in addition to how they have understood and negotiated ideas of secularism.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section is described in the introduction as covering modernization and secularization in Nepalis’ everyday lives. Letizia offers a chapter on different understandings of the notion of secularism while Axel Michales writes on the changes in practices related to blood sacrifice. Both chapters fit well within this theme of secularism, demonstrating how the meaning of “secular” is still being negotiated in Nepal, and how the practice of animal sacrifice may be prohibited by the state in the future, if not for religious reasons then for hygiene and modernization. Other chapters in this section depart from the theme of secularism and discuss religious changes in Nepal as they relate to the country’s social and political changes. Gérard Toffin’s chapter on new religious movements gives a broad overview of the new religious movements found in Nepal and their common teachings and practices, before noting that participating in NRMs may be a means for Nepalis who lack access to psychotherapy to cope with personal problems and difficulties related to modernization. Also related to modernization is the chapter by Gellner and Krishna Adhikari addressing the fate of worship of clan deities as internal migration within Nepal that has led to people increasingly not living within their clan’s village. The remaining two chapters in this section, by Ina Zharkevich and Pustak Ghimire, discuss religious changes in relation to Nepal’s Maoist movement. Zharkevich discusses how a village modified its religious practices in order to continue them during the conflict, and notes that the villagers developed a belief that the gods, as well as people, migrated away from conflict zones. She makes the important theoretical point that changes in religious practices may not always indicate a prior change in religious beliefs or consciousness; changes in practice may be made for practical reasons with changes in belief coming afterwards. Similarly, the chapter by Ghimire describes a loosely organized cult of divine possession by the goddess Bhagavati, and how this phenomenon may be linked to the violence against women that occurred during the conflict, and to male violence against women in general.

The second section of the book engages with issues of religion and ethnicity. Astrid Zotter offers a chapter on how state religious rituals involving the king are being modified now that Nepal is no longer a monarchy, as well as three chapters focusing on the Tamang ethnic group and one on ethnic groups who practice the indigenous Kirant religion. The chapter on state religious rituals explains how they were reworked throughout Nepal’s history as smaller kingdoms were conquered and unified into one state, before exploring the current issue of how these rituals are being adapted again in the absence of a king. While many of these state rituals come from the Newars, the ethnic group that has historically inhabited the Kathmandu valley, this chapter could have also been located within the previous section, as its major points seem to be about political change instead of ethnicity. The three chapters on the Tamang—by David Holmberg, Brigitte Steinmann, and Ben Campbell—cover a broad range of issues related to this group. Holmberg’s chapter examines how Nepal’s recognition of the Tamang new year as an official state holiday has spurred a renewal and reinterpretation of this holiday, how this is related to the production of a pan-Tamang identity, and the demand for a Tamang autonomous federal province as Nepal’s administrative districts are being reconfigured. The chapters by Steinmann and Campbell engage with religion more explicitly. Steinmann examines generational differences in how Tamangs engage with the Maoist movement and how this engagement relates to their Buddhist beliefs. Campbell also looks at Tamang generational differences, and at conversion to Christianity, noting that Christianity is perceived as modern and as a way for the younger generation to differentiate itself. Martin Gaenszle’s chapter on Kiranti religion also examines religious change, exploring how the Kirant religious tradition has homogenized and simplified as it has moved from an oral tradition into one that is recorded in writing and translated into the Nepali language. Gaenszle points out that while local variations are erased, this homogenization aids in the creation of a pan-Kiranti identity for the different religious groups who follow the Kirant traditions. While this section will be useful for scholars of Nepal, it is unfortunate that it does not include a broader range of ethnic groups, particularly something addressing the Madhesi movement in Nepal’s southern Terai region. Beginning in 2007, demands by Madhesis for an ethnically-based administrative district have led to sometimes violent protests, and to an Indian economic blockade. As this was a major ethnic-based event impacting the lives of many Nepalis, it seems remiss not to address it in this volume.

This volume will likely be more useful to readers who are already somewhat familiar with Nepal’s political history, ethnic diversity, and religious traditions as opposed to readers beginning their initial exploration of these topics. The introduction contains a brief history of “religion” as a category of classification in Nepal, and a yet briefer history of religion and ethnicity as connected to the Nepali state; this section also introduces Nepal’s major caste and ethnic groups. While this background is useful, many chapters assume the reader has more knowledge of Nepal than is provided within the book. Overall, the chapters within this volume advance the study of religion in Nepal while also making a more general contribution to our understanding of secularism as it develops in different global contexts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily McKendry-Smith is assistant professor of sociology at the Unversity of West Georgia.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Gellner is Professor of Social Anthropology and Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford

Sondra L. Hausner is Professor of Theology, St. Peter's College, University of Oxford

Chiara Letizia is Professor of South Asian Religions, Department of Religious Studies, University of Quebec in Montreal


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