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NEPAL | Monday, 11 November 2013 | Views [1777]


 Pashupatinath is the most famous Hindu site in Nepal.  It is also the central cremation ground lying directly on the sacred Bagmati River that winds its way through the capital city.  The main temple is only open to Hindus, but one can see it from the banks across the river amid the hundreds of shrines and idols that cover the hillside; some say there are almost 500 sacred statuary and thousands of linga on the grounds. During the monarchy, only the royal family was cremated directly below the temple.  There still are assigned cremation places in relation to the distance from the temple based on caste. Smoke from the burning flesh covers the site.  There is a hospital nearby and a hospice house next door to the temple, making it easy for the bodies to be transported to their final earthly site.  The bodies are burned on a wooden pyre and the ashes sent down the River.

There are monkeys everywhere and sadhus who still live in the meditation caves lining the sides of the hills.  One of the most famous sadhus, Milk Baba, was no longer there when I went this time and his ‘room’ was locked up.  He was famous because he had lived only on milk for over twenty years when I was here the first time in 2000.  He was well-loved by Westerners and even lectured at Berkeley. Other sadhus in the region were, and are, not so well educated in either a text-based or experiential tradition and many are what I consider false prophets, those who wear the garments but don’t have the spirit of the garments in their hearts or minds.

Those that do are versed in many of the legends of the history of Pashupati, the Protector Lord of the Universe according to Hindu tradition. The pamphlet “Heritage of the Kathmandu Valley” relates the following myth about the creation of this sacred site:

… Lord Shiva very much favored the Shleshmantak forest and frequented the dense forest along with his consort Parvati in the form of deer.  During one of such sojourns Lord Shiva remained absent for too long disturbing the normal functioning of the universe.  Considering the gravity of the situation, other principle deities Lord Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra set off to look for Lord Shiva.  At last they found Lord Shiva in the Sleshmantak forest roaming around in the form of a majestic stag with a single horn and three eyes.  The gods recognized Lord Shiva and caught him by his horn but the horn broke apart during the scuffle and each of the gods was left with a piece of the horn.  They established each of the broken pieces of the horn around the Pashupatinath area as a Shiva Lingam while Lord Shiva took a form of a Jyotirling (Pillar of Light) that was established at the western bank of the Bagmati River as Lord Pashupatinath.  The landscape changed with the passage of time and the dense forest gave way to fertile plains and was later settled by people who grazed their cattle around the site. Suddenly one of their most productive cows stopped giving mild and the surprised cowherds decided to follow the cow to find out the reason.  They were amazed that the cow would arrive at a specific place every day and released her milk there.  The herders dug at the site and discovered the Divine Shiva Lingam where they established a temple and started worshipping.  It is thus believed that the Lingam situated at the western bank of the Bagmati River, besides the idol of Biruapaksha is the original deity of the Pashupatinath Temple. (28)

Other perhaps more historical accounts say that the Shiva Lingum was established during the reign of the Licchavi ruler King Supushpadev.  One truth about the site is that it is highly revered by the Hindu community in Nepal and elsewhere.  Like in Varanasi, it is considered very auspicious to be cremated here.  One has direct access to Lord Shiva and therefore a better chance to obtain a good rebirth.

 Yet for all its sacredness, the site and the River are pigstys.  Workers sweep up trash and remains from the platforms by the cremated bodies, but  it is all thrown in the River.  As this is not a very deep river, it’s more like a stream when it isn’t monsoon season, stinking garbage is everywhere.  This may be good for the monkeys, but isn’t good for people’s physical health. India is beginning to recognize and address the need for good sanitation, starting with picking up the trash, but that notion hasn’t taken hold at any of the ‘sacred’ sites around Nepal, other than at the Tibetan sites which have been influenced by Western attitudes.  The spirit of the site is about the cycle of life and death, but it is also about respecting and honoring the sacred.  Dirt and trash may be forms of illusion in Ultimate Reality, but in this world they lead to unnecessary diseases. And in a country without good health care and no universal health insurance, it is the faithful poor who are the most affected. One can only hope that their next lives will be better.


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