“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” Hebrews 12.14
In a country where 95% of the population is Hindu, we live in an environment where almost all our Nepali neighbours, colleagues and friends are Hindu. This weekend was Holi, one of the multiple Hindu festivals that punctuate the calendar here on an almost weekly basis. Like many such festivals, its origins vary greatly, but in Nepal it is associated with the god Krishna who is known for his playfulness and his charm with women.
The festival, appropriately known as the festival of colours, is celebrated by showering friends and family with water and coloured powders. Excitement builds as brightly coloured water pistols of different sizes appear in the shops. Many find it hard to wait for the day itself, and for up to 2 weeks beforehand children and teenagers will delight to throw water balloons at unsuspecting passers-by. Our boys were thrilled when visitors left a gift of two water pistols for them. We were less thrilled at having to face the issue as to whether or not they should be allowed play Holi, even as several other missionary families from school planned water parties for the day.
These festivals however raise serious questions for many Nepali Christians. Their frequency and their interwoven-ness with social life here are a significant challenge to separating oneself from Hindu religious practice and ritual, something the church feels is essential to its identity. Hinduism is a religion that embraces multiple deities, religious teachings and practices, and many Hindus are happy to include Jesus Christ in their pantheon of gurus and leaders. The church feels it is important to take a stand that clearly reflects their faithfulness to Christ as their one and only Saviour, without the confusion of practices that may have Hindu origins.
Weddings are an example of an occasion that is steeped in Hindu rituals, and thus it is that Christians not only marry in a church ceremony, but that the brides also generally wear a Western style pink or white gown. The fear is that the traditional red and gold wedding sari may carry some significance for Hindu observers and prevent them from clearly distinguishing the Christian faith. Dashai is the largest Hindu festival in Nepal, lasting several days and involving much animal sacrifice and the exchange of Hindu tikka between family members. Associated with long holidays and much socializing, non-Christians tend to liken it to our Christmas (we beg to differ!). But for many Nepali Christians, it is a time of real conflict, feeling isolated from their community and being torn between their family and their faith. To borrow the allegory, imagine if you as an individual had to choose not to participate in any aspect of the Christmas festivities your friends and family enjoy: the parties, decorations, meals, gifts, let alone the religious ceremonies. The church is aware of the immense pressure and sense of isolation that many feel at this time, and so usually organises several days of events at churches for Christians to attend and enjoy together, including meals served with meat (butchered, not sacrificed) as a treat.
Some outsiders criticise what they see as the church’s inability to distinguish between cultural and religious practice, and its failure to explore a truly Nepali expression of Christianity. They fear that this attitude only reinforces the concept that Christianity is a foreign religion and that Nepali Christians are not truly Nepali, an accusation frequently made by Hindu fundamentalists. But I am not sure that any of us non-Nepalis can fully understand their experience as a minority (at times, persecuted) faith in this country, nor their struggle for recognition in a land where the ‘secular’ government provides massive subsidies for Hindu sites and festivals. Many Nepali Christians report that even in this day when Nepal is supposed to have freedom of religion, some Christians experience being cut out of their inheritance, denied land that is rightfully theirs, or being thrown out of their families because they have converted. It is not an easy or light choice that people make, and they usually endure far more than we ever will for their faithfulness to Christ.
So what to do about our boys valid hopes to try out their new water pistols, and join in the water fights and fun outside our apartment for Holi? At church, we referred the matter to our Nepali pastor, who gently but unwaveringly stated that none of the other children from the church would be playing Holi. After the service, the church showed a film and provided snacks for the congregation as alternative entertainment for the afternoon. Our family instead braved the streets again and went home for our ‘traditional’ sabbath nap. When the boys woke up, the children next door were already out on the empty lot waiting for Mark to start a game of baseball. Grabbing mitts and bat, the boys headed out, water pistols left lying in our storeroom, waiting for another day.
This blog is an edited version of an article by Deirdre Zimmerman, a long-term development worker in Nepal, where she lives with her husband Mark and two sons. To read the full version, follow this link.