Religion is the lifeblood of the Nepalese, defining art, culture, social position and the ritual of daily life. Religion in Nepal comprises a net of magical, mystical and spiritual beliefs with a multitude of gods reflecting the diverse facets of Nepalese life.
Officially Nepal is a Hindu country, but in practice religion is a complex and unique interweaving of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs with a pantheon of Tantric deities tagged on, all against a background of ancient animist traditions. In very broad terms lowlanders are Hindu, highlanders are Buddhist and the middle hills are a mixture of both. The greatest intermingling is in the Kathmandu Valley where there is hardly a 'pure' temple to be found and everyone joins in the major celebrations and worships the most popular deities. For about 95% of people these deities are not a matter of faith, but living beings to be pleased or appeased by devotees.
Hinduism's routes go back over 2000 years to the time when the Aryan invaders met India's Indus Valley civilization. Belief in natural forces, fertility and mother goddesses joined the caste system and the sacred book of the Vedas to form the foundation of Hindu beliefs, as much a social system as a religion.
The ultimate goal for Hindus is to break the cycle of endless rebirths. Whilst working towards that worship can improve ones condition in this life and in subsequent rebirth. The ultimate source of creation is the supreme and formless Brahman who manifests in infinite forms. The three main aspects, depicting three main forces of the universe, are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the transformer and destroyer. Each of these has innumerable manifestations; there are as many gods as there are facets of human nature, which is, in fact, what they represent.
Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan was born in Lumbini in southern Nepal about 543BC. Leaving his wealth and family he set out to find ultimate understanding. Years of rigorous asceticism brought him no closer to his goal and he settled on a 'middle way' between extremes and after meditating beneath a bodhi tree he attained enlightenment or awakening. The Buddha is the archetype of the enlightened consciousness who, by attaining his own awakening as the historical Buddha Sakyamuni, proved that enlightenment bodhi was possible for all sentient beings. In brief, Buddhism teaches that all life is essentially suffering, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth that can only be broken by attaining Nirvana. This can only be achieved by loosing desire for all things of the world. Nirvana means cessation or to extinguish - liberation from the cycle of rebirth and should not be equated with a western 'heaven' concept. An essential concept is the interconnectedness of all things; the Buddha concept of the universe is often depicted as a net of jewels: each jewel endlessly reflecting the totality of reality.
The Buddhism of the Kathmandu Valley is the last living remnant of medieval Indian Buddhism and scholars speculate that it was the original religion until Indian kings introduced Hinduism in the 4th century. It began as Mahayana with an emphasis on monkhood, scholarship and meditation - large complexes served as places of worship and study. With the 14th century destruction of the great Indian monasteries Buddhists in the Kathmandu Valley were cut off from their main source of inspiration and guidance. Today Newari Buddhism is in the process of disappearing as increasing numbers convert to Hinduism.
The Bhotia peoples of northern Nepal are essentially Tibetan Buddhist. This branch of the Mahayana tradition incorporates strong trantric influences and traces of the indigenous Himalayan Bon tradition. This is a vast and complex belief system in which esoteric teachings include complex visualization practices and a highly developed understanding of the human mind. There are also many Tibetan refugees in Nepal, including the Kathmandu Valley, keeping this tradition strong.
Muslims comprise a small section of the population, mainly found along the Indian border and in a few isolated villages. There are a few Christians. Some ethnic groups including the Tharus and Rais follow their own shamanist and animist traditions, although their practices incorporate many Buddhist and Hindu influences.