Are Tharus Hindus or Buddhists?

Sunday 25 October, 2015   |   Socio-cultural Identity

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Are Tharus Hindus or Buddhists?


 

The Tharuhat movement is at its peak. One of the assertions of this movement is that Tharus want a secular nation and are against restoration of a Hindu state. But in 2011 when the latest census was conducted, nearly 90 per cent of Tharus identified themselves as Hindus. At a national conference just three years before the 2011 census, Tharu Kalyankarini Sabha (TKS), an umbrella association of Tharus, had concluded that indigenous Tharus were Buddhists but forcibly turned into Hindus.

So, a question has arisen: are Tharus Buddhists or Hindus? Or do they have other religion than Buddhism and Hinduism?
Adivasi Janajati Utthan Pratisthan has maintained that those who are not within the Hindu hierarchy are indigenous people. In his book 'Sabai Jaatko Fulbari' (the garden of all flowers), eminent sociologist Dor Bahadur Bista says Tharus are Nepal's oldest ethnic tribe. 

In 1970s, the TKS started publishing its mouthpiece 'Tharu Culture'. The then Attorney General Ramananda Prasad Singh was the editor of Tharu Culture. He translated Geeta, a Hindu religious text, in Tharu language and published it in a series in Tharu Culture. He later published Geeta as a book in Tharu language, too. But when he wrote a book 'The real story of Tharus', he said the lord Buddha's mother was a Tharu woman and all Tharus are hence Buddhists. Tej Narayan Panjiyar and other Tharu intellectuals supported Singh's arguments.

Panjiyar translated books on Buddha's life and deeds in Tharu language. Hridaya Narayan Chaudhary, who was a central committee member of the TKS, translated more books about Buddha in Tharu language.

Panjiyar translated books on Buddha's life and deeds in Tharu language. Hridaya Narayan Chaudhary, who was a central committee member of the TKS, translated more books about Buddha in Tharu language.

Nearly a decade ago, I had reached Champaran in the Indian state of Bihar to do a research on Tharus' religion and culture. Dr Sarada Prasad,  a college professor in Champaran, told me about a local temple bearing testimony to Tharus' historic relation with Buddhism. I and my fellow researchers traced the temple. But it looked like a Hindu temple. It had paintings of Durga and Ganesh on its walls. But there were idols of Buddha, his wife and son. But the temple had Tharu priests. Champaran is in the area where Buddha was enlightened. And this area has a huge population of Tharus. These are some facts based on which it can be claimed that Tharus have some historic connections with Buddha and Buddhism.

But Tharu literature is devoid of myths that show connection between Tharu community and Buddism. Instead, Tharu myths, legends, songs and folk tales are full of references to Hindu gods and goddesses.

 They have close affinities with the nature. All these are indications that Tharus are in fact worshippers of the nature. If they have any religion, it is a religion to celebrate and worship the nature.

So it is difficult to ascertain whether Tharus are Hindus or Buddhists. Buddha was born 2500 years ago. But Tharus were living in Nepal's southern plains and India's northern plains long before Buddha's birth. Buddha may belong to the Tharu clan, which is definitely a matter of pride for the Tharu community. But it cannot be claimed that Tharus are Buddhists. The fact that Tharus were in existence before Buddha's birth suggests that this community had been practicing some religion even before. But it is equally difficult to say that Tharus are Hindus. It is true that idols of Hindu gods and goddesses can be seen in Tharu's houses and temples. But it is possible that Tharus were influenced by an overpowering Hindu religion.

In Nepal's western plains, Tharus boast of Ram Bihagra (Lok Ramayan) and Barkimar (Mahabharat), which are full of heroic tales of Hindu gods and goddesses. But they are different from Hindus' Ramayan and Mahabharat. Tharus make idols from wood or clay. I have never seen a bronze or copper idol in any Tharu's house. Tharus perform rituals trying to appease the rain god. They do not eat before offering the first grains of harvest to the nature. They prefer to live near jungles or rivers. They have close affinities with the nature. All these are indications that Tharus are in fact worshippers of the nature. If they have any religion, it is a religion to celebrate and worship the nature.


 


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