Newar

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The Newar are the people of the Kathmandu valley. Newar, also known as Nepal Bhasa (नेपाल भाषा), is spoken as a native language by the Newar people.[1] Rather than a group defined by ethnicity or race, the Newar are people from diverse ethnic, social and geographical origins who have all come, over the course of time, to share the same language, culture and homeland, the Kathmandu Valley. They have been famous for their craftsmanship. Their religions are Hinduism and Buddhism which have coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years.

Newar Buddhism is a specific form of Vajrayana, different from Tibetan Buddhism, or tantric Japanese practices. Buddhism in the valley evolved from Hinayana and Mahayana to Vajrayana; at the end of the first millennium, and during the early part of the last millennium, Newar Buddhism became completely dominated by the Tantrayana teachings. In terms of social structure the society was dominated by the Hindu community. The impact of the bihas and the Buddhist devotees was such that monks got married and the monastic lineage and tradition died out, while the sangha became a patrilineal descent group. The biha became the hereditary property of a caste known as Bare or Shakyas. Some of their members take the initiation to become Vajracharyas, the Newar Buddhist priests.

The role of the permanently celibate monk or nun is open neither to the Shakyas and Vajracharyas nor to any other Newar. In the past those with a vocation for it joined the Tibetan monastic order. Nowadays there is also the increasingly popular option of Theravada Buddhism. But the traditional institutions of Newar Buddhism provide for no such role. Newar Buddhists are aware of this lack and their muth are apologetic about the absence of monks, ascribing this to forced laicization by the Hindu reformer, Shankara Acharya in the 14th century.

During the 17th century, Buddhism became very weak, and continued to wane. Nowadays, because of the sharp decline in scholasticism, Buddhist families go to the biha to ask the Vajracharya caste members to perform rituals such as ablution, recitation and so on, much in the same way as is done in Hinduism. Newar Buddhism takes on many of the forms of Hinduism. In the Golden Temple in Patan for example, Buddhists are asked not to walk through the main courtyard with leather shoes, as in many Hindu temples where one is not allowed to enter wearing leather, since cows are considered sacred.

Further Reading

  • Gellner, David N. Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and Its Hierarchy of Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Lo Bue, Erberto. “The Role of Newar Scholars in Transmitting the Indian Buddhist Heritage to Tibet.” In Les habitants du toit du monde. Hommage ά Alexander W. Macdonald, ed. Karmay, et Sagant. Nanterre: Société d’ ethnologie, 1997: 629-658.
  • Lo Bue, Erberto. “The Role of the Scholars of the Nepal Valley in the Transmission of the Indian Buddhist Heritage to Tibet with particular reference to the 13th and 14th Centuries.” In Renato Arena, Maria Patrizia Bologna, Maria Luisa Mayer Modena, Alessandro Passi (eds.) Bandhu: Scritti in onore di Carlo Della Casa. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 1997, 191-205.
  • Locke J. K. Buddhist Monasteries of Nepal: A Survey of the Bahas and Bahis of the Kathmandu Valley. Kathmandu: Sahayogi, 1985.
  • Locke J. K. "The Unique Features of Newar Buddhism." In T. Skorupski (ed.) The Buddhist Heritage. Tring, The Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1989: 71-116.
  • Todd T. Lewis, Popular Buddhist Texts from Nepal Narratives and Rituals of Newar Buddhism. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000.

Notes

  1. Because Newar is a Tibet-Burman language, and not an Indo-Aryan one, it does not follow the pattern of other subcontinental languages which end in “-i”. Same for the people. Newar, not Newari. (Although Nepalis and many foreigners use the latter, it is a solecism.)