Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Much Do You Know About Nepali Christian Traditions?

This is the last post in a series concerning the Nepali Church, helping me work through some information I’ve been gathering primarily about music and song practices, but other aspects of Nepali Christian culture and traditions. Enjoy!

Nepali Christians don’t take tika. They insist that the Lord’s Supper is NOT Prasad—Nepali Christians don’t eat Prasad, or meat sacrificed to Hindu deities. Christmas means “karol keldai.” Nepali Christian wedding invitations say “pavitra bibaha” instead of “subha bibaha.” The Lord’s Prayer is NOT a mantra. Nepali Christians bury their dead; they don’t burn them.

While all of the above are not specific to only Nepali Christian practices, there are specific Nepali understandings of these things. Test your knowledge of Nepali Christian traditions, or cultural customs, with the quiz below!

  1. Why don’t Nepali Christians take tika?
    1. Because it’s a tradition filled with Hindu philosophical meaning
    2. In order to visibly mark themselves as not Hindu
    3. Both A and B  
  2. What is the significance of baptism for a Nepali Christian?
    1. It can mean up to six years in jail
    2. It’s a “no turning back” declaration of the decision to follow Christ
    3. It’s the ritual to become a Christian
    4. A and B only  
  3. Which answer best represents the difference between Prasad and the Lord’s Supper?
    1. No difference at all: eating Prasad is partaking of the blessed leftovers from the deity, eating the Lord’s Supper is partaking of the blessed leftovers of Christ’s body
    2. The Lord’s Supper is a tool to remember Christ’s suffering; unlike Prasad, your not made inherently holy by partaking of the Lord’s Supper
    3. Taking Prasad is a “ke pani hoina” (makes no difference) issue; the Lord’s Supper has much more gravity to it
  4. True or False: Nepali Christians are intolerant and insensitive to Hindu traditions because they do not eat meat sacrificed to Hindu deities, and they don’t take Prasad.
    1. True
    2. False
  5. Why do Nepali Christians prefer to bury, instead of cremate, their dead?
    1. Because there is explicit injunctions in the Bible to bury the dead, not cremate them
    2. Because Christians are different than Hindus and burying the dead asserts that difference
    3. Because there is too much ritual significance inherent in Hindu cremation
    4. B and C only
  6. “Karol Keldai” is—
    1. The Nepali Christian alternative to Deusi Bhailo
    2. Evangelically-oriented singing sessions of Christmas carols
    3. An excuse for Nepali Christians to get together to disturb and offend their Hindu neighbors by loudly singing songs about Christ’s birth
    4. A and B only
  7. Why do Christians tout their weddings as “pabitra bibaha” rather than “subha bibaha”?
    1. Its another assertion of difference 
    2. Its a way to emphasize a Christian understanding of matrimony
    3. A and B
  8. True or False: The Lord’s Prayer is a mantra
    1. True
    2. False
  9. Why do Nepali Christians have large rallies on Easter Sunday?
    1. To make their large presence known
    2. To celebrate Christ’s resurrection together
    3. Both A and B

Here are the answers:

  1. Both A and B: I recently had a conversation with a girlhood friend of mine on this subject. “Sangita” is second generation Christian, and I asked her why Christians don’t take tika? She said that, while tika does have a meaning within Hinduism, she doesn’t actually know what that meaning is because she grew up Christian. She feels however that, more than its meaning within Hinduism, Christians don’t take tika in order to distinguish themselves as not Hindu. She commented that within Hinduism, there are several different kinds of tika, depending on what ritual you participated in, which deity you worshipped, which guru you sit under, etc. All of these are visible manifestations of religious devotion, and declare your devotional leanings. Sangita’s conclusion was that Christians not taking tika was a marker of difference, setting themselves apart from the predominant Hindu culture in Nepal.
  2. A and B only: While you cannot be thrown in jail for being baptized now, up through the Panchayat era (till 1992), it was illegal to change your religion in Nepal, even of one’s own consciousness/choosing (this was still technically on the books until 2006, when Nepal became a secular state, though during the 1990s, things were a little more lax). One could get one year in prison for being baptized, up to three years in prison if caught evangelizing or sharing one’s faith, and up to six years in prison if performing the baptizing. The Nepali government cracked down on baptism because they believed that was the ritual that made you a Christian. One pastor I interviewed clarified that people are baptized because they are already Christians—they have already put their faith in Christ and baptism is a public declaration of their decision; however, the government’s misunderstanding that baptism is the ritual that makes you a Christian has caused it to become the “no turning back” landmark for Nepali Christians.
  3. B: “Prasad” is a devotional offering of food to a Hindu deity, which is later distributed to all devotees to partake. The idea is, by eating the food blessed by the deity, one is made holy. For all practical purposes, the Lord’s Supper—or “Prabhu Bhoj” (the Lord’s Feast) as it is called in Nepali—looks very much like Prasad. Many of the Nepali pastors I have interviewed have relayed how they have had to spend time teaching new Christians that the Lord’s Supper is a time to remember Christ’s sufferings on the cross, and confess sin; no one is forgiven or made holy by the act of simply eating the Lord’s Supper elements.
  4. False: while Hindu neighbors and family members may make an argument otherwise, Nepali Christians do not partake of meat sacrificed to Hindu deities or Prasad based on their readings of 1 Corinthians 8 and 10:23-32, not because they are “intolerant.” This is most significant for death feasts, where meat is cut in the name of the dead, so Christians do not partake of the meal. My church’s children’s fellowship teacher explained that as Christians, they may help carry items to the temple, and they will go console the surviving family members, but understanding family members will not be offended that they cannot eat the meat prepared for the death feast, and will bring food cooked from a “hotel” or local tea shop for those Christians they’ve invited to their death feasts.
  5. B and C only: cremation is necessary for Hindus—it’s the way the spirit is released to be reincarnated, and having a son to light the funeral pyre insures conveyance to that next life cycle. Christians in Nepal prefer to bury their dead because of the beliefs inherent in Hindu cremation. However, it has become another marker of Christian identity in Nepal, and in “split families” (those made up of Hindus and Christians), it becomes a sore case of contention: a Christian son may refuse to light his Hindu father’s funeral pyre, the Christian son insists on burying a his Christian mother while the Hindu son’s family really wants to cremate his mother instead, and a community may not want a Christian graveyard near them for fear of lingering spirits and ghosts. And the conflicts go on, despite the fact that there are other methods of disposing of the dead, including burial, practiced in other communities (for example, the Tharu traditionally bury their dead). Many Nepali Christians seem convinced that burial is the injunction outlined in the Bible, but many Nepali church leaders, recognizing that’s not true, and understanding the conflict that burial can cause in communities, are calling for the creation of a theology of cremation for Nepali churches.
  6. B: Each church has a different way of actually going Christmas caroling—some will go to church members’ houses successive nights before Christmas to sing, dance and have food; others will go to neighboring village chowks [cross roads] where they will sing, dance, share the Gospel message and hand out tracts—but each session is specifically oriented to share and celebrate the Good News that Jesus Christ has come into the world to save sinners. So while some Christian leaders do tell their young people to “go ‘karol keldai’ not ‘dheusi bhailo,’” [which they describe as “Hindu caroling” during Tihar/Deepwali, and in outward form looks very similar] I have never heard Hindu neighbors complain about the sometimes noisy and rambunctious singing of songs about Jesus’ birth—usually they come over to see what all the fun and ruckus is all about!
  7. B: While “pavitra bibaha” (holy matrimony) rather than “subha bibaha” (blessed matrimony) certainly asserts difference—during wedding season, its rather easy to distinguish a Christian wedding party because they will have a banner on the side or front of the rented bus with “pavitra bibaha” written on it rather than “subha bibaha”—many Nepali Christian pastors see it as a distinguishing a different understanding of marriage than Hindus. All Christian weddings I have attended in Nepal will have at least two sermons on the Christian meaning of marriage (pulled from Genesis 1, 2 and Ephesians 5), and at least one pastor will tout the “marriage is to make you holy, not happy,” line (although I sure hope the couple goes on to be happy!). This understanding of marriage as instituted by God to picture the relationship between Christ and his Church, where both men and women are full inheritors of God’s grace, differs from the understanding of Hindu marriages, where marriage for a woman is attached to her full acceptance as an adult/person (getting married, then having a son), and keeping a patrilineal line going (with male heirs).
  8. False: One of the older pastors I talked to said that at one time, they did not teach the Lord’s Prayer for fear that people would take it as a mantra. However, now, it’s used more prevalently in churches. In my own church, we sing it together to end the weekly service. However, within Hinduism and the many varieties of Buddhism in Nepal, all prayers are mantras—formulaic sayings that are repeated to gain merit. One of my Tharu interlocutors’ mother-in-law is Christian, thus she now has more interactions with Christians, and she commented to me that one of her new friends “says a mantra” over her food each time before she eats! I laughed and had to explain that it wasn’t a mantra—the same words said over and over again—but an offering of thanksgiving for what God had provided, which often consisted of different combinations of words.  
  9. Both A and B:  How these rallies actually got started I’m not sure, but historically, Gyaneshwar church and all of its branches used to have a rally at Ratna Park—the military parade grounds in Kathmandu—but when other churches began to participate this got to be so big that it became unwieldy (not the mention that getting the permit to march was often stalled because the government didn’t want a show of Christians), and the Patan churches now do their rally separately from Kathmandu. I participated in the rally in 2011, and as ubiquitous as rallies (especially political ones and cultural ones) are in Nepal, I haven’t seen one quite as big as that one since! One of my church friends commented that she had a really good time because, while celebrating with your own church family is fun, it was exhilarating for her to SEE how many Christians are in our city! Churches in other parts of Nepal have begun to hold their own rallies as well. This year (2013), I participated in an Easter rally in Tikapur, which churches of the Tikapur Ekata Samaj (Tikapur Unity Society, the society of all area churches) organized, and I was told that there was also motorcycle rally from the Kailali Bridge at Chisapani to Mahendranagar on Nepal’s Western border.