Print Edition - 2015-03-15  |  Free the Words

Samskaras down under

  • While traditional rituals reinforce Nepali identity among migrants in Australia, they are losing value
- Khagendra N Sharma
Samskaras down under

Mar 14, 2015-

In the span of two and a half months of my stay in Sydney, I witnessed four Nepali rituals performed in traditional ways: annaprasan (rice feeding), bratabandha (holy-thread ceremony) and two marriages. All the rituals were performed by traditional purohits in a traditional manner, followed by lavish feasting the next day. As in Nepal, the gatherings were large and loved drinking and dancing. On the outset, these celebrations are not extraordinary, but I could not stop wondering about the social, economic and religious aspects of the activities.

Shared identity

Observing rituals in a foreign land help to strengthen Nepali identity. In some areas of Sydney, the concentration of Nepalis is so high that Nepali is declared the second language of the city councils, for example in Penrith Council. Nepalis in one such area call themselves the Nepali Community of Western Sydney, a loose social organisation without any legal authority, but a centre for community action. Nepalis living in this area are, and want to remain, connected to this organisation, as it is reinforces their shared identity and fosters strong bonds.

Almost all Nepalis currently in Australia are first-generation migrants, residing either as permanent residents or as professionals who entered the country first as students. For most, even after receiving Australian citizenships, the Nepali identity remains intact. They cannot speak English with the Australian accent and do not understand the local slang. In contrast, children who were brought young to the country or were born there are more in touch with their neighbourhood. They pick up Australian English, local slang and other nuances as naturally as a native. They speak Nepali only with their parents. Some of these Nepali men and women date and marry Australians. Some of them owe heavy sums of money to the Australian Government, which they had taken as education loan. For these second-generation Nepali-Australians, their loyalty to the Nepali community might not be as strong as to the Australian government. Nepali rituals might be one of the few ways they feel connected to Nepal.

Imitation game

The economic impact of the rituals is the same in Australia as it is in Nepal. In Nepal, the middle class tries to imitate the pompousness and lavishness evident in the functions of the upper class and runs into lifelong indebtedness. But, people feel compelled to do so to ‘save prestige’. In Australia it is not all that different. Every employed Nepali can be called a part of the middle class and each has a strong sense of competition that forces them to imitate others. Every Nepali has a house or other mortgages to settle. A mortgage is based on the calculation of the creditworthiness (sustained income from the salary of the spouses or other sources) the recovery of which continues until the retirement of the person. Every extravaganza, therefore, adds to financial woes. There may come a time when Nepalis in Australia will think about the negative impacts and weigh them against the benefits of social gatherings. The next generation Nepalis might be driven by rationale.

Dying values

Hinduism prescribes 16 samskaras in one’s life cycle, from the stage of pre-birth till death. Those prescriptions were made in the Vedic period when people lived in joint families in simpler societies. Today, many of these samskaras have become obsolete and some are in the process of being discarded. Still preserved are nwaran (christening), annaprasan (solid-food feeding ceremony), bratabandha (coming of age), vibaha (marriage) and antim kriya (death rites). All these rituals require one or more Brahmin priests. The process of migration to Australia is based on the educational merit and work-related experience of an individual. This often restricts the migration of purohits, except when these priests have other credentials.

Until a few years ago, the number of purohits was very limited in Sydney. The figure soared when the Australian government decided to take in 3,000 Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal and waived the prerequisites for migration. The refugees included a horde of purohits and pundits, who could narrate scriptures like Srimad Bhagawat and other Puranas. The problem of the dearth of purohits is solved for this generation.

But the rituals, although celebrated, have lost their original purpose and value. Naming the baby on the 11th day has no value because the baby needs to be registered with a name right at the time of birth at the hospital. Bratabandha has become the most useless because the whole value system has changed. The boy who sits through bratabandha is supposed to live a lifestyle that is no longer realistic. Bratabandha is called the second birth for a boy, but it attaches a series of attributes and functions that he cannot perform in modern society. The death rituals have also come under scrutiny. Many assumptions about life and death, like rebirth, have been questioned, as the scriptures fail to provide satisfactory answers.

As the old value system is being challenged, new ones are emerging both in Nepal and Australia. In Nepal, some reforms are being experimented with at different levels. For instance, people are increasingly opting for group bratabandha. Court marriage is becoming popular and people are debating whether the duration of death rituals could be shortened. These measures could help mitigate the financial burden that comes with having to conduct pompous ceremonies.

Sharma is a freelance political analyst

Published: 15-03-2015 08:47

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