Buddha was Born in (Secular) Nepal: Claims and Counter-Claims of Nepali National Identity
The slogan “Buddha was Born in Nepal” can be seen on taxis and t-shirts throughout the streets of Kathmandu and is pervasive in popular discourses of Nepali national pride. In the formerly Hindu, newly secular state of Nepal, why does it matter so much where Buddha was born? Who makes this claim, and for what purposes? In this paper, based on research conducted during 18 months of anthropological fieldwork, I will investigate the ambivalent tensions surrounding the claim that Buddha was born in Nepal through discursive analysis of personal conversations and observations, along with media artifacts and unfolding events.
On the one hand, the claim is frequently deployed as an assertion of a unified and proud Nepali national identity. Nepal’s ownership of Buddha’s birthplace gives it a unique status among the nations of the world, and thus serves as a source of symbolic capital, akin to Nepal’s possession of Mt. Everest. In particular, the Buddha claim is often linked to descriptions of Nepal as a land of peace and religious harmony. Moreover, it illuminates an important facet of Nepal’s complicated diplomatic relationship with India, as it is often used to offer a display of resistance against perceived cultural domination and potential territorial encroachment by India.
On the other hand, the claim that Buddha was born in Nepal has also been used to disrupt and subvert hegemonic notions of Nepal as a peaceful land of religious harmony and social inclusion. In one type of this subversive usage, the claim highlights and calls into question the dominance of the Hindu majority over members of marginalized religious and ethnic groups, thus permitting those groups to argue for greater social inclusion or other political goals. Regional activists such as Dr. CK Raut have also used the rhetoric of Buddha’s birthplace to draw attention to the oppression of Madheshis and even to challenge the territorial integrity of the Nepali state itself.
All of these dynamics exist in tandem with ongoing discussions of Nepal’s newly-adopted state secularism and with campaigns by various groups to return Nepal to its discarded status as a Hindu state. Some opponents of secularism argue that it is irrelevant and unnecessary, since, in their view, Nepali society has historically been characterized by its peacefulness and tolerance toward people of all faiths. However, not all citizens agree with this rosy account of Nepal’s past and present treatment of religious and other minorities. By focusing on the claim that “Buddha was born in Nepal” and analyzing the multiple ways in which it is leveraged for divergent political purposes, I will shed light on the larger debates over secularism and Nepali national identity.