Vitality of language and religion among the Newars in the Kathmandu Valley
RESEARCH QUESTIONS AND HYPOTHESIS
Questions: Is Newar language (Nepalbhasa) decreasing and why? Is Buddhism decreasing among Newars and why? Is there an interdependence between these two processes?
Hypothesis: Newar language is decreasing, due to State language policy; Vajrayana Buddhism is decreasing, due to lack of competencies of its proponents, and is thus rivaled by Theravada Buddhism. The interaction between language and religion in this case is that Newar language and Buddhism have suffered and resisted together the oppression from the State policy of Nepal throughout the 20th century, and this solidarity continues today.
To evaluate the vitality and interdependence of language vitality and religion vitality, I have built up questionnaires and conducted interviews for field work on the basis of the approaches of three researchers:
EDWARDS, J. 1992, « Sociopolitical aspects of language maintenance and loss: towards a typology of minority language situation » in FASE, W., JASPAERT, K., KRONE, S. (éd.), 1992, Maintenance and loss of minority languages, John Benjamins, Amsterdam
FISHMAN, J., 2006, “A Decalogue of Basic Theoretical Perspectives for a Sociology of Language and Religion”, in OMONIYI, T., FISHMAN, J. (eds.), 2006, Exploration in the Sociology of Language and Religion, pp.13-25.
PANDHARIPANDE, R., 2006, “Ideology, authority and language choice – language and religion in Southa Asia”, in OMONIYI, T., FISHMAN, J. (éds), 2006, Explorations in the Sociology of Language and Religion, Amsterdam, Philadelphia, J. Benjamins, chap.11
As for the understanding of the Newar cultural field itself, the obvious sources are Gerard TOFFIN and David GELLNER.
Introduction: research questions and hypothesis; methodology.
The vitality of Newar language (Nepalbhasa) in the Valley.
The vitality of Buddhism among Newars.
Awareness and reactions: where language and religion meet.
Perspectives for research, and perspectives for Newar policies of language and religion.
Newari, the indigenous language of the Kathmandu valley, is considered by the UNESCO as an endangered language, and anthropologists like David Gellner observe the decline of the religious tradition professed by the Buddhist part of that people. These facts prompt us to wonder why and to which extent both the mother tongue and Buddhism are decreasing among Newars, and what, if any, is the causal relationship linking the evolution of these two cultural features. Our hypotheses are that the State policies are to be held responsible of the situation, and that revitalization actions in language and religion build on each other. For the purpose of our research, we have adopted the theoretical frame of what Omoniyi and Fishman wish to become a Sociology of language and religion, and we have resorted to typologies of minority languages, applying them to the religious domain as well. In order to verify these hypotheses, qualitative and quantitative data have been collected through questionnaires and field investigations, targeting a sample of speakers, believers, and actors of language and religion revitalization of the Buddhist Newar community.
It has been thus been confirmed that Newari language has suffered from the State former language policies. The generalization of the official language, Nepali, as the general language of education, has much contributed to the decrease of proficiency in Newari as a mother tongue among the three currently observable generations. On the other hand, the recent change in the political regime allows the manifestation of the interest in the transmission of mother languages, especially among Newars. As for Buddhism, it has entered a mutation process. Traditional Newar Buddhism has to operate its own mutation in order to synchronize with the changes of society and thus survive, but the process is slowed down by the weight of traditions. By contrast, since a century the Theravada Buddhist tradition from South-East Asia is taking roots in Nepal, and above all among Newars. Far from being seen as an exotic product, it fulfills a wish to get back to a Buddhist practice accessible to all and a philosophy taught indiscriminately, and to revive the long lost monastic institution. Moreover, Newari language and Buddhism having been prosecuted together during the first half of the 20th century, the memory of this shared fate is kept alive and sustains solidarity until today. Field investigations have revealed that most of Newari language promoters are Buddhists; reciprocally, among Newars the Buddhists are more concerned by the endangered situation of Newari, more willing to improve it, and to actually take action to that aim.
This comparison of language and religion vitalities in the Buddhist Newar group reveals the solidarity uniting these two phenomenons. This contributes to documenting the research on relations between language and religion. At the same time, it shows that it is relevant to apply evaluation tools of language vitality to the evaluation of religious vitality. Furthermore, it confirms the necessity we are facing to explore and conceptualize more the links between language and the social dynamics it often sustains but also depends on.
Keywords: Nepal, Newar, Newari, Buddhism, minority languages, revitalization.