Jack Tiwari, president of the America Nepal Society, begins most mornings with a short prayer to the dozen or so Hindu deities who sit atop the altar at his home in Northern Virginia. He thanks the gods for giving him another day, offers them some sweets and asks for good health and happiness.
On Saturday, though, Tiwari was awoken at 5 a.m. by news that a massive earthquake had devastated his Himalayan homeland. For the next several hours, he frantically tried to reach his parents and extended family, who still live in Nepal, and pored through pictures on Facebook and other social media searching for hints about their fate.
Fortunately, Tiwari said, his immediate family is safe. But like thousands of Nepalese-Americans, he’s still concerned about the many close friends and loved ones he left behind when he moved to the United States in 2005. As they gather funds and supplies to send abroad to the earthquake’s victims, many Hindus and Buddhists, the predominant faiths in Nepal, are also turning to ancient rituals and prayers, consulting monks and temple elders and invoking divine aid to salve the vast and sharp suffering.
More than 3,000 people have died in Nepal alone this weekend, casualties claimed by a magnitude-7.8 earthquake and several powerful aftershocks. Nearly 100 people in Tibet and India were also killed by the quake.
Tall towers and pagodas, monuments to Nepal’s deep Hindu and Buddhist roots, were toppled and reduced to rubble. The majestic temple devoted to Shiva, the Hindu deity and its twin, the Narayan temple pagoda, which drew centuries of pilgrims to Kathmandu, are now in ruins.
An isolated, but diverse, land
Todd Lewis, an expert on Asian religious at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, says that Nepal’s religious history has been shaped by its geographic isolation, its cultural diversity and its many ethnic groups. More than 80% of the population is Hindu, with smaller numbers of Buddhists (9%), Muslims (4.4%), Christians (about 1%) and practitioners of animist religions.
As news of the earthquake spread, religious leaders from Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama offered their prayers and condolences. In the United States, several Nepalese-American groups held candlelight vigils on Sunday night, and a number of Hindu temples will be offering special services for the earthquake’s victims, said Season Shrestha, head of the Newah Organization of America. (Newahs are an indigenous people within Nepal.) Many services may focus on Brahma, the creator deity, Tiwari theorized. “He is the person who created the world, and so we hope he can save lives as well.”
But unlike Abrahamic traditions, in which a single God is thought to be omniscient and all-powerful — and thus, in theory, responsible for allowing natural disasters — Buddhists and Hindus have another way of looking at tragic events, Lewis explained.
Some place the blame at the feet of karma — human actions that result in future consequences. But many others just see earthquakes and tsunamis as amoral events, neither caused by angry deities nor visited on deserving sinners.
“Buddhist and Hindu texts make it clear that there are all kinds of causal contingencies that just happen,” with no cosmic rhyme or reason, Lewis said. In one famous Buddhist book, “The Questions of King Milinda,” the Buddha teaches that the majority of things that happen to people, good or bad, are not related to karma at all. To put it very simply: Stuff happens.
Springing into action
Still, Buddhists and Hindus are not fatalists, sitting idly by while the world spins toward an apocalyptic end. Many members of both faiths have sprung into action as news of the earthquake has spread.
On Facebook, for example, a number of followers of Tibetan Buddhism are sending aid and prayers to several monasteries from that tradition in Nepal. One phrase comes up again and again: Om mane padme hum, which can be translated several ways, most commonly as “jewel in the lotus.”
Known as the “heart mantra,” the phrase invokes avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. (Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who forgo nirvana in order to help others.) When the mantra is chanted, Buddhists, particularly in Nepal, believe avalokiteshvara appears and helps people in need, Lewis explained. The earthquake struck as Nepal was holding a centuries-old ceremony dedicated to avalokiteshvara, the scholar said.
Now, instead of wheeling around the bodhisattva’s chariot, Nepalese victims are building funeral pyres to burn their dead. The practice may seem strange, even gruesome to Westerners, who dress their dead in fine clothing and bury them in boxes.
But in Nepal, a country with no graveyards, Lewis said funeral pyres are seen as the most compassionate way to treat the dead, for both Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation, that we cycle through not one life but many. When we die, our corpses may lie lifeless but our spirit — Hindus call it a soul; Buddhists call it consciousness — lives on, and looks for another body to inhabit.
If the corpse is not destroyed quickly after death, the soul lingers and get trapped between realms, forced to wander Earth as an agitated ghost. When the skull bursts open on the funeral pyre, that means the soul has left the body, Lewis said. The ashes are then tossed in the Bagmati River, holy to Hindus and Buddhists, and born downstream.
“The body is gone,” Tiwari said, “but the soul will be alive.”