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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A Buddhist messiah in Maoist Nepal?

November 19, 2008

By Dhruba Adhikary and Charles McDermid
Asia Times
November 15, 2008

KATHMANDU - Like any deeply revered religious prophet worthy of his
robes, Nepal's "Buddha Boy" has returned from the wilderness to
spread enlightenment to the masses.

The long-lost mystic in question is Ram Bahadur Bamjan, who many
believe is a true-to-life reincarnation of Siddhartha Gautama, who
was born in about 560 BC and later became revered as Lord Buddha, the
Enlightened One.

In Hindu-majority Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism frequently overlap.
Hindus believe in reincarnation, and Buddhists ascribe to the notion
of rebirth - and in Nepal both faiths are often transfixed by
religious wonders, miracles and mysteries. Only some 50% of

Nepal's 25 million population is literate, and illiteracy is
widespread in rural areas.

So it was that Bamjan, looking every bit like a disheveled teenager,
emerged from dense jungle on November 10, and got straight to work -
preaching at a temple about 150 kilometers south of the capital Kathmandu.

He claimed that his soul-searching hiatus began in early 2005, and
his first words were grim. "Incidents of death and destruction are on
the rise because people have become indifferent to religious
teachings," he announced to the 10,000 reported followers who flocked
to the site on the day of his return.

Bamjan, whose age has been placed between 17 and 20, was raised in
Nepal's devoutly Buddhist Taamaang community. He has been worshipped
since 2005, when he was discovered meditating in the lotus position
among the roots of an ancient tree. Local legend has it that he
maintained the position for 10 months without food or water.

On his recent return, however, there was no sitting around. Adorned
in a shimmering white cloth and appearing quite hale for a hermit,
Bamjan kicked off his first sermon by narrating his quest for the
"reason of death". It all began, he explained, when he witnessed a
human cremation at the age of six.

Interestingly, his tale parallels the Buddhist stories in which
Prince Siddhartha, before he reached enlightenment, is said to have
seen deaths, diseases and infirmities associated with old age. Still,
some among the congregation grew skeptical when they saw Bamjan,
sporting long black hair, halt repeatedly during his 45-minute exegesis.

Each time the alleged Buddha paused, an acolyte came forward to
whisper in his ear, seemingly prompting him to encourage his audience
to pay attention if they intended on receiving happiness. Those who
bowed and offered him khaadaa (holy scarves ) received blessings as
he placed an august hand on their heads.

Villagers of Ratanpuri town, Bara district, converged by the
thousands at the Halkhoria forest to observe the "holy man". The
crowd grew larger as a local Buddhist group advertised in newspapers
and on radio networks. Instantly, the story captivated the domestic
media and drew attention from major international news agencies.

No Buddhist organization has endorsed the claims of Ram Bahadur
Bamjan, also known as Palden Dorjee, or his followers. Some have sent
investigators to the area and are awaiting reports. Remarks from
Buddhist scholars thus far indicate divided opinion.

"Bamjan seems to be someone blessed with divine power," Bekha Ratna
Shakya, a devout Buddhist and a former mayor of Lalitpur town, told
Asia Times Online.

Kedar Shakya, a writer and former Lumbini University associate, also
supported Bamjan's holiness and argued that Bamjan should be allowed
to continue to meditate.

The return of Bamjan has prompted many Nepalese to recall an incident
several years ago when the nation was fascinated by rumors that stone
idols of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, had begun to drink milk.

Syncretism Nepal-style
In Nepal, the distinction between Buddhist and Hindu can be nominal.
There are also temples in Nepal where the same stone idol is
worshipped by Hindu and Buddhist priests. The tradition of Kumari is
one striking example: an adolescent girl is selected to be the Hindu
goddess, Kumari, but she must be from a Buddhist family. Kumari
appears in public at least once a year and gives blessings to the
reigning king.

And, after all, Buddha was born as a prince to a Hindu king.

But culture is in an intense transition in Nepal. Since the monarchy
was abolished in May, Kumari now offers her blessings to the elected president.

Considering Nepal's devout and syncretic attitudes, the Bamjan
episode is not without irony. The post-monarchy government is
currently made up of communists who do not support religion. Maoist
leader Prachanda, for example, avoids Hindu ceremonies and festivals.
If he attends any religious function at all, it is perceived as a
public relations exercise with an eye on votes from a particular
community. (Newspapers once pictured him amid Muslims with prayer caps.)

As Nepal transitions from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic,
observers believe it has unwittingly opened itself to proselytizers
of several religious groups. Even as many Maoists identify themselves
as atheists or agnostics, some of their top leaders are said to be
lured by affluent churches such as the Unification Church of the Reverend Moon.

Bamboozled by 'Buddha Boy'
Many of the devotees now surrounding Bamjan have described the
experience in shades of religious adoration. ("It was an amazing
experience to hear and see him. I have no doubt now he is the
reincarnation of Buddha," a woman named Sangeeta Lama told The
Associated Press.)

But others are more dubious, including the government. Government
officials told Asia Times Online that police were investigating a
complaint that a Korean national was orchestrating the entire affair.
Meanwhile, a group of local residents has called the hysteria a
pretext to grab a large tract of lush forest land. They claim that
their religion is being taken advantage of.

Doubts also persist as to why no medical check-up was done to
determine if Bamjan did actually abstain from food or water during
the past months. Others have asked why members of the audience were
warned not to ask any questions regarding Bamjan's methods of meditation.

One report claimed that a French journalist filmed Bamjan "nibbling
on fruit while supposedly midway through a fast". According to the
Australian, "Another correspondent found him asleep while he was
supposed to be meditating."

Media reports also point out that when Bamjan emerged as a divine
presence for the first time three years ago, devotees gave donations
to the tune of 700,000 rupees (US$9,022). At that time, authorities
discovered that Maoist elements were cashing in on the superstition
prevalent in the region. Police later seized the alms.

But Bamjan's emergence - be he holy man or charlatan - is an
important cultural event for a transforming Nepal. The hype and
hyperbole he inspires must be considered along with the happiness he
has brought to true believers.

With democratic atheists in government, and a cautious eye on
religious conflicts in neighboring countries, it is still unclear
what role religion will have in the new Nepal.

A teenager named Ram Bahadur Bamjan may bring some kind of
enlightenment after all.

Dhruba Adhikary, a former head of Nepal Press Institute, is a
Kathmandu-based journalist.

* Charles McDermid is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.
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