Reclaiming the Sleshmantak

- Deepak Shimkhada

Feb 13, 2011-

Had it not been for Kantipur Television’s report, the use of the Sleshmantak Forest near Pashupatinath temple for the burial of the dead by Nepali Christians wouldn’t have come to the attention of the nation. All Nepali citizens, regardless of what religion they follow, should be given equal right to dispose of their dead as they see fit. However, it is wrong for Christians to use the Sleshmantak Forest to dispose of their dead. I am not against the equal right of Christians, as equal citizens of the land, to dispose of their dead according to their own tradition (Although I might argue that cremation is scientifically more advanced than burial.) But the holy grounds of the Sleshmantak Forest must not be used by any other religious group. Tracing passages from the holy Puranas and even from our own Swasthani Vrata Katha, the Sleshmantak Forest is a holy spot where gods like Shiva, Parvati and others once roamed. It has a long history and great significance; much of it is sacred.

According to Hindu tradition, any yogis who have achieved enlightenment or those who belong to the Natha Panthis (Kanpathas, Giris, Puris and Bharatis who have taken sanyas by hearing the jogi mantras) are entitled to bury their material bodies after they have left their prana (last breath). While the followers of a few famous babas have erected shrines on their burial grounds to mark the spots sacred, the burial spots of most sanyasis bear no shrine. This is in keeping with the sanyas tradition—after all, they have given up everything, including their name and family, so why should they leave behind anything that would attach their names to their bodies? Leaving nothing behind seems an appropriate act for the order of the sanyasi. Unfortunately, followers with a limited concept of their beliefs and precepts build shrines to glorify their favourite baba or sadhu. It’s simple—refraining from marking burials allows many more to take place. After decomposition, the material body becomes part of the earth—and the panchattavas (the five elemental matters) return to the earth from which they originally came.

Tombstones, on the other hand, are typically associated with Christian burials. Additionally, a Christian burial takes at least six feet of land, if not more, whereas the body of a yogi, buried in a standing or sitting position (depending on whether the yogi died in a Samadhi or supine position), takes only a few feet. According to a Nepali Christian authority interviewed by Kantipur Television, there are one million Christians in Nepal, a large number of whom live in Kathmandu. If Christians were allowed to use the Sleshmantak Forest (which is relatively small in area), the entire space would be filled in no time; leaving no room for the genuine yogis, sanyasis, babas and sadhus whose bodies have been buried there for centuries. The new government should designate an area away from Kathmandu for the burial of Christians.

The Minister of Culture, Minendra Rijal, stated in an interview that Christians have illegally used the holy ground of the Sleshmantak Forest to bury their dead without express permission from the government. To preserve the authenticity of the Sleshmantak Forest, I propose that Christians either exhume the bodies of their brethren from the Sleshmantak Forest, or remove the tombstones that are occupying so much precious space.

In regards to exhumation, Christians elsewhere have relocated their dead where burial ground is scarce. For example, in Athens, Greece, there is just not enough land to bury new bodies. To solve this problem, Athenians temporarily bury their dead in Athens and then relocate them to some place in Eastern Europe where land still is available. Removing the tombstones does not mean that they be desecrated. All dead must receive a proper funeral rite regardless of what religion they follow.

The government should immediately ban further exploitation of the holy ground by any group. The ground should be used only for the burial of genuine yogis without physical shrines or signs. Building shrines over the bodies of yogis violates the belief on which they renounced the world. Renunciation must continue after this life has ended, and into the hereafter as well.

Shimkhada is a professor of religious studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California

Published: 13-02-2011 09:06

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