A visit to the Vihar

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The Gorkhali community in Burma has been living there since the Second World War. Some migrated during the early part of the 20th century, when food was scarce and starving Nepalese made their way to Calcutta and from there to Rangoon. In my previous visits, I had already met the Gorkhalis in Yangon, Mandalay, Pwe Oo Lin (formerly Maymo) and Lashio. So I knew they were woven into the fabric of modern-day Myanmar, and that they retained an exquisite command of the Nepali language, a great reverence for the Hindu and Buddhist religions, and a community support network which surpassed those that exist in present day Nepal.

Bijayji, the taxi-driver I met at the airport, was a jolly, easy-going man. Immediately, as in my previous visit to Burma, I was reassured by him that I had nothing to worry about, and that he would take care of everything. This is the feeling of security I carried with me all throughout my Burma trip—that no matter where I was, a magical welcome committee appeared in all sorts of strange places, to put me on buses and to help me out with my travel requests and to take me to visit temples and festivals.  

I had a sense, looking at Bijayji’s genial face, that I was going to pay dearly for his services. This was unusual for Gorkhalis, who had shown me lavish and voluntary hospitality from Yangon to Mandalay. Bijayji, however, was a professional driver, not a volunteer social worker like the folks who’d accompanied me in Yangon. In the ambiguity of the moment in which people are half compatriots and half service folks, it is difficult to negotiate a price. I resigned myself to being surprised at the large price tag at the end. True to my suspicion, Bijayji’s services did have a hefty price tag.  But he did give me was a sense of security and a sense that I would get my work done.

Bijayji wasted no time in telling me that two Nepali media crews had already made it up to Myitkyina a month or two ago. He had guided them around as they did quick stories and left. I suppressed my annoyance. I had been writing articles in the Kathmandu Post about my trips to Burma. The mainstream media in Kathmandu, which had never shown any interest in Burma, was suddenly all over the place, trying to get the scoop before everyone. Not that I had a scoop to share—what I did want was a thorough and well-investigated, or at the very least well written, account of the Gorkhali community in Burma. I detested the idea of a quick and sloppy story. From the sound of it, the media crew that showed up had a much larger budget than I could ever dream of. And like much of media, they had flown-by-night, gathered the scoop and vanished. It was in moments like this that I wanted to erase the “Journalist” from my passport and replace it with: “writer.”

When I asked Bijayji if it was possible to cross the river and go to the other side, where the conflict was raging, he told me tactfully that there was checking on the bridge, and this wasn’t possible. Security was checking passports and we would be nabbed. But of course I was free to go everywhere else, he said, making it appear as if the conflict, and the security check, was a minor beureaucratic obstacle. He gave me a list of villages I had already heard about before, villages with euphonous names like Rampur, Sitapur and Radhapur. Later, I wondered if he wasn’t acting too cautious, and if I should have tried to cross the river with another companion. A young man I met later appeared to think this crossing was possible, and he was happy to accompany me to the small Nepali villages I could see on the other side. Due to the warning Bijayji had given me on my first day, however, I never did attempt the river crossing. There were too many documented human rights violations from the Burmese army for me to take this little trip lightly.

On my first day in Myitkyina, after observing the elections at the Mahayani gomba, we made it to the Akhil Myanmari Gorkhali Hindu Dharmic Sangh at 5pm. The Sangh is a network of Hindu and Mahayani Buddhists started by Gorkhalis. The men, sitting around the table, have been waiting for over an hour, they tell me. I apologize as I realize they have been waiting for me—all those phone calls Bijayji had made while I was chatting with the people in the Mahayani Gomba was to retain these folks to stay in to meet the visitor.

In a rather formal manner, the men introduce themselves and their posts. They share with me the work going on with the Sangh—the deep love of Nepali love and literature that led the people to set up this institution, the way in which they work in a united manner, the way the Myanmar government has always treated the Gorkhalis with love and respect, how they had no problems or complaints, and how they lived in respectful harmony with the Burmese.

I ask for, and they give me, a brief history of Gorkhalis in Myitkyina—many of their ancestors came as soldiers during the Second World War, and many chose to remain behind after the war was over, they said. One man told me this story: when it became imminently clear that the Japanese would invade Burma, a great exodus of Nepalis decided to leave Myitkyina through the Ledo Road, which they had built for the British. Of those who left on this long march, one fourth of them died of diahorrea and exhaustion. Those who did not fear, and remained behind, survived. The Japanese did not kill any of the Gorkhalis, the man explains, laughing a little. He laughs dryly as he tells me this story: clearly it’s a parable of bravery. Those who brave the unknown come through unscathed. Those who fear are killed by fear.

They make no mention of the sectarian conflict that rifts the Gorkhali Burmese community, and which I had observed as far afield as Chaing Mai, Thailand. This sectarian rift I will only find out the day after, when I visit the Gorkhali Vihar.

The Vihar, which serves Gorkhalis newly converted to the Theravadin Buddhist path, is still half-built. Mr. Sharma, the monk in charge, is wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk. He tells me he’s been there for only three months, and he can’t tell me the history of the Vihar in detail. But he tells me a greal deal about Thervada Buddhism, its differences with Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, and how this new group has faced rejection within the Gorkhali community. It becomes clear to me that this newly emerging group of converts are taking an oppositional stance to the older communities of Hindus and Mahayani Buddhists.

Thervada Buddhism, they say, is derived directly from Buddha’s words. Mahayana Buddhists are not real Buddhists—they have been influenced by Hinduism and their gods. Hinduism is full of old superstitions and useless rituals. “For instance, when my father died, I refused to do the rites and rituals. They said I couldn’t eat salt. I ate it. What does salt have to do with mourning?” says Mr. Sharma, rather proud at his rejection of old superstitions.

Bijayji tells me he never disagrees with the newly converted Thervadins—no matter how defamatory they become about Hinduism or Hare Krishnaites, he says he merely listens and thinks about it as something that Krishna has willed at that precise moment. I found this to be a rather good strategy as the evening unfolded and the Thervadins did indeed find major flaws in all the other religious systems. They did seem to think their path was the most progressive of all. They complained the Hindu Sangh rejected them and would not give them ID cards stating their Thervadin affiliation. They said they were not allowed to enter into villages when they went to give their teachings.

I wondered aloud to Mr. Sherbahadur Khadgi, an active member of the Vihar’s organizational committee, if trying to set up their own Theravada organization would make more sense, rather than trying to change an established Hindu network. Wouldn’t it make more sense, I said, to continue to do your work for the community, rather than trying to change the ideas of people who are clearly set on one path? “Why blow up the one small room that’s been set up?” I asked. “It may be best if you also set up and add your own room, thereby making a strong foundation on which a future secular and overarching Gorkhali organization can grow.” Mr. Khadgi immediately agreed that he didn’t want to destroy anything. He said, however, that a separate network was not feasible because he wanted to be part of the same Gorkhali community. Nepali identity and Nepali language would be their primary identification. And they would continue to play Bhailo and Deusi, which was cultural rather than religious events, in order to remain part of the larger whole.

Sherbahadur Khagdi emphasized how Thervadin Buddhism was part of Myanmar, and the religion of the state. “All the Gorkhalis are now accepting and coming into this Buddha sashan,” he says, using the word for “rule” in lieu of dharma or religion. The word “sashan” surprised me. Buddha gave up his kingdom so he wouldn’t have to rule. He went on to get enlightened, and then merely instructed and guided, rather than ruled, his disciples. But this distinction seems lost on the newly converted Thervadins, who use the word “rule” with great frequency to refer to the Dharma. He said their numbers were growing by leaps and bounds while the Hindus were getting less in numbers. He claimed there were double the number of Buddhists in the Gorkhali community. He said that most people were biding their time, and they were just waiting to turn into Buddhists once they realized this was the religion of the majority.

Listening to him, I felt that he lacked the doctrinal and experiential elegance which Thervada practitioners in Thailand exude with such grace. For the Thai monks, control of anger and other negative emotions, control of negative speech, as well as a deep belief in the precepts comes as second nature—most appear to live by it. For these lay followers in Myanmar who were trying to make what appeared to me a new religious group based less on deep doctrinal understanding and practice, and more a reformist strain that was trying to break from Hinduism and Mahayana, the very deep tolerance of Buddha Dharma was missing.

Later, a prosperous businessman who owned a dry food store in the Myitkyina bazzar told me why the Thervadins don’t get acknowledged by the Hindu Sangh. “The Thervadins consider themselves to be the best religion of all. They have become professors while they think we are still in class 10,” he said, dryly. “When we set up the Akhil Myamar Hindu Sangh, the state gave us permission to set up an organization for Gorkhalis who were Hindus and Mahayani Buddhists. We are a minority religion in this country, so we need government sanction to start an organization. They are Thervadins, they are part of the state religion. They don’t need to be part of this Hindu network because their religion is already sanctioned by the state. It would be absurd for them to get identification from here—it would mean they were the religion of the majority trying to get a stamp of approval from a smaller minority, which doesn’t make sense. But they refuse to understand this point.”

Perhaps the solution lay in having different religious organizations as a foundation, but then having a larger Gorkhali secular network that brought together the Gorkhalis in Myanmar, regardless of religion, I suggested. But the men shook their head, and explained to me with great patience: “The Burmese government allows institutions that are faith-based. They do not allow organizations to operate if they are based on ethnicity (jat.) So therefore, we couldn’t register such a network. This group is bounded together by religion. This is the binding factor, this is what makes us operate as a group.” They pointed out, however, that actual religious rituals was a minor part—most of their work focused on social work. My questions on caste discrimination brought forth replies that seem to indicate caste was no longer a factor in social discrimination. The members of the Sangh pointed out people once considered to be from lower castes got the same education as everyone else, due to the Burmese educational system—and they were often doing better economically. “They are doctors and professionals. They run businesses and are economically well off,” said the leader of the Sangh. “We do not ask for caste or ethnicity when scholarships or services are provided.”

Looking at the group of men as they sat there, patiently telling me about all the work that the organization had done, from scholarships for students to study Nepali language during the summers, to wells dug and crematoriums built, I wondered if indeed all the clamor of democracy, which insisted that all organizations must always include everybody—women, minorities, religious groups, ethnic groups—whether that large sense of inclusivity in itself held its own seeds of discord. These men seem to be operating fine, running their businesses, raising funds, giving donations to build up a prosperous and healthy community.

I wondered too how much the newly converted Thervadins understood, or practiced, the path. Unlike Thailand or Nepal, there was no monks who learnt the doctrines and precepts here from childhood. Mr. Sharma was a new convert. Many of his preachings against Hindu practice seemed more in line with reform and rejection of Brahmanical norms and values rather than Thervada ritual and doctrine, as practiced in Nepal, or Thervadin monastic tolerance, as found in Thailand.

As I rode through the Myitkyina market, with Bijayji telling me passionately that Hindus never offer meat, or pork, or eggs or fish to their gods, it occurred to me that most religious conflicts seem to boil down to meat. How it is killed, how it is consumed, which animal it comes from. Thervadins said killing a goat for a religious sacrifice is wrong, superstitious and backwards. The Hindus (especially the Vaishnavs who follow a strict vegetarian protocol) pointed out that Thervadin monks eat meat, which goes against all of Buddha’s fundamental precept not to kill, and that if they wanted to be vegetarian, their followers would respect that choice and not offer them meat. They point out there are well-known monks in Yangon who are vegetarian, and people respect their choices and do not offer them meat. The Thervadin monks insist they cannot reject anything give by people, and that they are allowed to eat meat since its been killed by someone else and therefore beyond the purview of their responsibility. The meat issue is an insolvable one, cutting the community neatly in half.

It is only upon return to Nepal that I discover my mistake: I had been writing Sherbahadurji’s last name as “Khadga,” a surname associated with high caste Chettris. A perusal of my notes tells me it is “Khadgi.” It occurs to me “Khadgi” is a surname considered low on the Hindu (or more specifically, the Newar) caste hierarchy. Khadgis have traditionally worked as butchers, an occupation considered unclean in the Hindu scheme of pollution and purity—even though butchering continues to be a very profitable occupation.

Were individuals attracted to Theravada those who had traditionally never enjoyed a full sense of ownership over the Hindu religion? Were these new Buddhists, like those who followed Ambedkar, trying to escape the constraints of a closed caste system which did not allow them authority over the rites and rituals of salvation? In Chaing-Mai, I had met angry, newly converted Theravadins who appeared to believe there was no point of commonality between Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism. Was the anger a product of xenophobic monks from Yangon preaching intolerance against other religions, or was there a more deep rooted sense of grievance and exclusion from being relegated to the periphery of the Hindu and Mahayani world?

Or perhaps, both?

(Sushma Joshi was an Asian fellow, through the Asian Scholarship Foundation, in 2010-2011, during which time she traveled to Burma and Thailand to study the Nepali diaspora. A short version of this travel essay appeared in Himal Southasian in November 2011. This is part 2 of a 3 part series.)

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