WARNING: Contains what may be considered graphic images.
In my observation, Hindus adhere to tradition more rigidly than many global cultures. You can see this in the parenting styles of (Hindu) Indian families, including immigrant families (“this is just how it is done”), and in the time-old handicrafts and trades that have remained un-automated and passed down in families for many generations. It’s what makes the fine gold embroidery on saris still internationally sought-after, Indian festivals so reliably rich and vibrant, intergenerational cultural clashes so cataclysmic, and the national fabric too intricate to comprehend in one lifetime.
For Hinduism, this adherence to tradition has also perpetuated the survival of a mythology deeply steeped in ritualism. However, as I realized after visits to traditional Hindu temples, this ritualization has led to an unfortunate deterioration of the religion’s fundamental underpinnings. Ancient myths have morphed through generations of oral tradition and the development of various sects, leading to blindly specific yet unflinchingly devoted chants, prayers, and rituals in the name of roughly 330,000,000 gods. While the words and gestures remain, the astrophysics, cosmology, and philosophy taught in the Vedic texts hardly underlie these practices. Nepal, once lauded as the world’s only Hindu Kingdom, is no exception.
After practically sitting on two women’s laps on a local “microtaxi” to get to Pashupatinath Temple—a renowned Hindu pilgrimage site and cultural landmark—I disembarked the half-hour $0.15 journey, excited to understand the allure of the temple and feel its 5th century air. Journal in hand, I envisioned meditating on the back steps of the temple and having warm, meaningful conversations with the sages who lived there.
taking a local microtaxi (shot on iPhone)
My ideals were put in check right at the dusty, hectic entrance: the shoe removal line was full of people yelling, cutting, and pushing. The main temple was even worse.The central attraction, an old lingam, was to be open to viewers at exactly 2:00 PM and a swarm of pilgrims were already jostling one another to be near the door.
I asked a priest nearby where I could get a small piece of prasad (blessed food) for my grandmother. He told me to get in line first to see the lingam and then to find him at his small temple on the grounds, where he lived. I obediently stood in line and as soon as the doors opened, was carried by the crowd of people pushing to enter the space. Shocked by the aggressiveness of fellow templegoers, I kept my limbs tucked in and watched in horror as an elderly man with a cane was directly pushed by a young woman bearing a fat red bindi, a hot pink salwaar, and a bundle of offerings for the statue. I helped the man with the cane and inserted myself between him and the pink salwaar lady.
I caught one glimpse of the unimpressive statue and the unsmiling pony-tailed priests surrounding it, decided that was enough, then promptly exited in search of the priest I had met. I told him more about my grandmother and how she had been to numerous temples all over India, but had never made it to Pashupatinath in Nepal. As she is grappling with illness and old age, I wanted something to take back to her.
While we spoke, a man (I will refer to him as quasi-priest from here onwards) came up and started doing chants and asking me questions. I didn’t respond to him, but he continued chanting, shoving a banana into my hands and pulling out a sketchy looking jar of some kind of dairy product. The other priest motioned him away, and we moved to a different temple within the complex where there was chanting and prayer going on. I watched as people came and bathed a small statue with water and offered rice, then took some sort of paste from it and handed small bills of rupees to the priest.
Frankly, I had no idea what was going on. And, to make matters worse, the chanting quasi-priest had followed me and was now attempting to tie string around my wrist even as I vehemently told him I did not want his services and would not pay him in both English and Hindi. He continued wrapping string around my wrist as I jerked my arm away. I turned my back to him and tried to focus on the ongoing chanting, only to feel water drops being sprayed on my scalp. He was still there, ever quasi-priest-like and chanting in what I believe was Sanskrit, using a wet leaf to douse me with one hand and wildly waggling the refused banana with the other. Even in my confused discomfort, I had to acknowledge the comedy of the situation.
In turn, I went up to the small statuette and poured whatever liquid I was handed over it. The first priest guided me through what to do, giving me a mala along with some beige paste from the statue to take to my grandmother, just as he had for the other pilgrims. I thanked him, made a small courtesy donation, and left with quasi-priest (now repeatedly asking me my birthdate) still hot on my trail. Finally, after some peaceless wandering, witnessing an actual smokey, marigold-filled cremation, and visibly sweating through my t-shirt, I went to the backside of the temple to meet the sages who live there.
paste given to me in a leaf and meditation beads (shot on iPhone)
Rather than meditating, having conversations, or reading/writing or whatever it is sages who live in tiny structures on temple grounds are supposed to do, the ash-covered mostly naked men were soliciting photos with tourists for money, rolling up cigarettes/spliffs, and yelling angrily into cell phones. One even emitted a hollow “om” while patting my head and pretending to bless me. At this point, I decided to approach one pot-bellied man wearing a hardly sufficient loincloth.
men who reside at Pashupatinath (taken by me on iPhone)
“Do you want photo, miss?” he said eerily.
“No, thank you. Aapko savaal puchni hein.” (I want to ask you a question). He chortled. (Sidenote: apologies for my undoubtedly flawed Hinglish.)
“Puchiye.” (Ask away).
“Aap such me rishi ho? Ya siraf photo keliye yah betthe ho?” (Are you truly a saint? Or do you just sit here for photos?) He lost his smile immediately. My question was bad for business. His Hindi was a little faster than I could fully comprehend, but his response was along the lines of “What a stupid question. How can you ask me that? There is a sage in everyone and everything. It is up to you to decide whether you see it. Your question is garbage.” By this time, a crowd had gathered to watch. Apparently people didn’t really challenge the “mystics” that sat there often. It’s not like I had anything to lose by doing so, though, so I prodded onwards.
“Yes, but how can we definitively know? Is there anything you can say or do that would help this belief?”
He spat out another vague response and again told me my question was garbage and that I was both dumb and shameless for asking. I realized his loss of temper quite publicly undermined his image as a compassionate, self-realized, meditative soul.
Even more people were watching, some laughing, others in shock. I don’t enjoy leaving on bad terms, so I thanked him for his time, and gently explained I had simply sought a kind conversation and did not mean to upset him. Then I exited.
As I was leaving, I saw a tour guide with a group of all white people naturally wearing big khaki bucket hats and sunglasses. He was gesturing towards the “sages” I had just left.
“These wise men are mystical practitioners of Hinduism,” he said, lowering his voice to a deferent whisper. “You can take photos with them but do not disturb their meditation. They are very holy people.” The tourists looked mesmerized and synchronously ruffled for cameras and cell phones. I could see their Instagram posts already. “Got blessed by a Hindu holy man today!!! #travel #hinduism #nepal.” The photo would be of these men covered in grey ash with long beards, some holding joints, others dangling strings of prayer beads, all having perfected that beady-eyed stare into the camera to evoke a sense of mystique. And with a whole tour group of blissfully unaware Westerners tipping, they would make a killing, too.
While collecting my shoes, my disillusionment came full circle. The priest who told me he lived there and had done small services for so many people walked briskly past me wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and an expensive watch while clutching a wad of cash. I didn’t want to know. For the next few hours, I pondered how an historic cultural landmark could become a pushing, shoving tourist-trap infected by falsehoods under an embellished shroud of mysticism.
The next day, I went to Bhaktapur and the famous Changu Narayan Hindu Temple, about an hour away from Kathmandu. As I walked into the temple area, little drops of red blood dotted the stone floor. Someone must’ve had a nosebleed, I thought. The trail of drops, however, led to a fully-grown black goat tied to a pole by rope to a smaller temple dedicated to a form of the goddess Kali. I walked around the main temple area. The goat was gone by the time I completed the circle, a pool of blood buzzing with flies and curious stray dogs where it once stood.
Now, a smaller, white goat was tied to a different pole, dripping blood from a sharp stab wound. This time I stayed to watch, biting back tears and determined to piece together an explanation. This white goat was led into the temple where, with a curved blade, it was beheaded. Its head remained in the dark temple and its headless body was cast just outside, beckoning the usual insect and canine cleanup crew. The body would later be cut up for meat.
a beheaded goat, a dog licking up the previous goat's blood, and the infertile women (taken by me on iPhone)
Two plump women stared back at me from the temple, squinting from the dazzling sunlight reflecting off of the ruby red puddle of fresh blood.
I asked the purpose of this practice to a local man standing next to me. The goats sacrificed were to help these women become fertile.
My own blood was curdling. I had always been taught that Hinduism was a peaceful religion, practicing love and compassion for all living beings (hence widespread vegetarianism among Hindus), and under no circumstances dictating animal sacrifice. It also made no sense to me. How was stabbing, beheading, and consuming two innocent creatures in any way a fair exchange for a human fetus?
Apparently, this particular form of the goddess Kali accepted meat as a form of worship and this practice had been going on for many, many years. I wondered if it ever worked or if a series of coincidences and that blind, dogged perseverance had maintained the belief over time.
Certainly, I am aware of my judgmental tone. However, the fact that goats being beheaded is described as “Hindu” and is taking place in a “Hindu temple” is utterly preposterous to me. Just like the “mystical Hindu sages” and the pushing and shoving at Pashupatinath, this practice represents one of the many ways in which Hinduism has degenerated and been mistranslated over time—a multi-century game of telephone.
While Hinduism isn’t the only religion that has experienced and is currently experiencing the effects of tourism and misinterpretation, the reality versus my expectations (and wish to learn about my heritage) certainly hits home. Thankfully, the deeper philosophy of Hinduism remains alive through the practice of yoga, which integrates the ancient universal notions of cosmic energy, unity, karma, compassion, and enlightenment, and does away with idolatry and bloody rituals.
Hinduism as it is practiced today is highly complex and shifts drastically depending on where you live and how you were raised. I do not claim to be a scholar or expert; however, from my own reading and months of travel to some of the holiest sites in Hindu culture, I have found that Hinduism is more often than not practiced at a far, desperate cry from its fundamental teachings.
Special thanks to the bearded, beer barrel-making Owen Akeley for editing this post.