Nepalis take part in a candlelight vigil, a month after the April 25 earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal May 25, 2015. Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

Competitive religious philanthropy in the wake of the Nepali earthquake

Nepalis take part in a candlelight vigil, a month after the April 25 earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal May 25, 2015. Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

Nepalis take part in a candlelight vigil, a month after the April 25 earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal May 25, 2015. Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

By Nalika Gajaweera
Religion Dispatches

Editor’s note: The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. Read more at

The death toll in Nepal has surpassed 8,500, Reuters reported this week, making it the country’s deadliest earthquake on record. In the aftermath of the disaster, aid has come in many forms, although not nearly enough. As Cathleen Falsani reported here in RD, faith groups of all kinds were quick to arrive in the devastated capital.

But do religious groups engage seamlessly in humanitarianism in these contexts?
In the direct aftermath of the quake, for example, the Hindu American Foundation sent out an email encouraging individuals seeking to support relief efforts to channel their donations to Hindu charities in particular.

These organizations, the group claimed, are motivated by a Hindu sense of seva, or “selfless service for the benefit of all.” Other faith-based groups, in contrast, are “not always selfless,” having “ulterior motives, including evangelizing and church-planting,” the email argued.

Faith-based giving is widely accepted today as important aspect of the international community’s response to emergencies. Less understood, however, is the role that intra- and inter-religious dynamics play in our desires to help. While the impulse to give may be moved by a purity of intention, it is important to understand the ways that religion itself becomes entangled in these places of intervention.

In many parts of South Asia, controversy over religious conversion has intensified in recent decades, particularly as a result of the rise of Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity and new forms of evangelism. Christian charitable groups increasingly are viewed with suspicion as carrying proselytizing intentions. The statement by the diaspora-based Hindu American Foundation is grounded in these sub-continental concerns.

In studying Buddhist NGOs doing relief work after the Tsunami and the civil war in Sri Lanka, I found Buddhist groups mobilizing in “competitive philanthropy,” as I called it in my dissertation. These groups delivered medical, educational and welfare development programs to the rural poor in predominantly Buddhist areas that they saw as targeted by proselytism.

Similar competitive philanthropic impulses could be said to be shaping the Hindu American Foundation’s worldwide humanitarian appeal to aid Nepalese victims. I don’t mean to suggest that the impulse to do good here is purely self-serving. Still, this example of competitive philanthropy highlights the power of existing religious tensions and ties to shape religiously inspired humanitarian giving in the wake of a disaster.

These forces influence not only charitable institutions, but also bilateral aid between governments. Take, for instance, the swift response of the government of Sri Lanka to pledge medical aid assistance, military personnel and engineers to Nepal. Although Sri Lanka is most often on the receiving end of international humanitarian assistance, it stepped up to be one of the first three countries to send relief to Nepal, deploying military troops outside of its sovereign territory for the first time in Sri Lanka’s history.

The gesture could easily be chalked up to a diplomatic gesture from one small South Asian nation to another, but the humanitarian gesture is rooted in the long-running transcultural exchange between Sri Lanka and Nepal as major historical sites of Buddhism.

“It is indeed our duty to help Nepal in this crisis,” a prominent Buddhist clergyman said. “It is a Hindu state with a considerable number of Buddhists living there. It is the place where the Bodhisattva Siddhartha was born.”

The Sri Lankan prime minster reiterated those sentiments when he spoke to his parliament after the disaster. Because Sri Lanka is the center of the Theravada Buddhism, he said, it is the country’s responsibility to aid the birthplace of the Buddha.

During the early 20th century, Sri Lankan Buddhist reformers advocated for establishing Bodhigaya in India and Lumbini in Nepal as the Buddhist holy lands. As the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, Lumbini draws millions of pilgrims from around the world. Although none of the major holy sites in Lumbini were affected by the disaster, Sri Lanka’s generosity to Nepal could be understood as a means for Sri Lankan Buddhists to reasserts their own identity as the custodians and caregivers of the imagined Theravada Buddhist community.

Religious communities have had a long history of responding to people in need and in a world of catastrophe, both man-made and natural, they play a critical role. Still, even the purest faith-inspired impulse to give cannot escape the religious dynamics of the landscape in which they intervene.


A man covers a candle as the wind blows during a candle light vigil to remember victimso of last week's earthquake in Kathmandu

Religious fatalism amid Nepal’s shattered shrines

Vishal Arora
and Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service

A man covers a candle as the wind blows during a candle light vigil to remember victimso of last week's earthquake in Kathmandu

KATHMANDU, Nepal—When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake roared through this Himalayan nation last Saturday (April 25), leaving an estimated 5,500 dead and more than 11,000 injured, shrines and temples were sent crashing to the ground, many of them centuries old and irreplaceable cultural treasures.

According to the United Nations, 600,000 houses have been destroyed or damaged, and 2 million Nepalese will need tents, water, food and medicine. Many here say they will also need God, regardless of what happened to the temples, shrines and churches.

That is, if people believe God is still around.

“This is going to further strengthen people’s faith in God, and they will be trusting the Almighty for bringing things back in order,” said Ankit Adhikari, a Kathmandu-based singer and former journalist.

The fifth-century Pashu-patinath Temple, situated on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, is one of the most sacred Hindu temples of Nepal. The temple, which is a UNESCO cultural heritage site and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, has been a scene of mass cremations since the earthquake.

“I can’t actually say if God made all this happen,” said Adhikari, noting the fact that Pashupatinath remains standing “is something that points to the presence of God.”

About 80 percent of Nepalese are Hindu, making Nepal the second-largest Hindu nation outside of India, with about 2 percent of the global total. Most Hindus believe in a kind of fatalism, and many here seemed unrattled by the quake as a test of faith, even as their temples and shrines were flattened.

“God had predestined it. He knew about it,” said Suresh Shrestha, a Hindu and a hotel owner. His house was partially damaged and he is living in a tent on the Tundikhel ground in Kathmandu.
Akriti Mahajan, a young girl who was standing outside her family’s tent nearby, suspects that man-made climate change had something to do with it. “Humans are behind it,” she said. “If God had a role, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Further along the encampment, Nir Bahadur Lama, a Buddhist and student playing games on his phone in the next tent, said it’s about laws of nature and life. “As a Buddhist, I’m not sure if there’s a God, the way Hindus and others understand him.”

Despite Nepal’s overwhelming Hindu majority, the small, mountainous country is also the birthplace of the Buddha, and the quake did not discriminate in its destruction of sacred sites.
West of Kathmandu, just outside the Indian border, the city of Lumbini is sometimes called the “Buddhist Bethlehem” because it is the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian nobleman who became the Buddha, in 623 B.C.

While the Lumbini complex survived with minimal damage, according to officials, the fifth-century Swayambhunath temple complex outside Kathmandu was punctuated with piles of debris from the monuments that stood adjacent to the stupa (or shrine) of Swayambhu, the oldest Buddhist monument in Kathmandu Valley.

Swayambhunath is also called the “monkey temple” for a community of sacred monkeys that live on the site. The temple, built around the oldest stupa, or Buddhist monument, in the Kathmandu Valley, marks the spot where Buddhists believe that Manjushri, an enlightened being associated with wisdom, had a vision of a giant lotus growing in the water-filled valley.

Lama Jimba, a monk from a monastery inside the massive complex, said an earthquake couldn’t be explained in religious terms. “We don’t know why this happened,” he said.

Muslims make up about 4 percent of Nepal’s 28 million people, and some mosques suffered partial damage, including the Kashmiri Takiya Jame mosque in Kathmandu. Ataulla Khan, a dealer of a local mobile SIM card company and a Muslim, said God sent the earthquake to warn nonbelievers about the end of the world.

“According to the Quran, the creator of the universe has said again and again that he will bring an end to the creation,” he said.

Christians are a tiny minority — just 2 percent — in Nepal, and many churches hold worship services on Saturdays instead of Sundays, when many people work. So when the quake struck in the late morning, many worshippers were trapped inside, or worse.

Kanan Church in the Sukedhara area of Kathmandu crumbled during its worship service. At least 26 Christians, including the pastor and his wife, were killed.

The Baton of Salvation Church, another independent church, in the Buddha Park area, also collapsed during the worship service. Rescuers have pulled out 15 bodies from the rubble; the pastor and one of his two sons were among the victims.

Bishop Narayan Sharma of the Believers Church in Kathmandu said epic disasters are “just a natural process of life and nature,” adding, “It should not be taken as punishment from God for humanity.”

Such a calamity “brings our soul closer to the Creator,” he added, “and to our fellow human beings too.”


Houstonian Corner (V12-I19)

Picture AAF
South Asian Chamber of Commerce Organized Higher Education Seminar…

Salute to South Asian Chamber of Commerce for Organizing Higher Education Seminar

The South Asian Chamber of Commerce (SACC) organizes every week (Free) Chai Exchange Programs, where over a cup of tea and some refreshments in a relaxed environment, topics relevant to the business community of the South Asian are discussed. This past Wednesday’s Chai Exchange at Westin Oaks Galleria “Roof” (top floor) was quite innovative and unique and for that all the members of Board of Directors and Executive Committee need to be highly applauded.

One important thing almost all South Asians have is zeal to provide good opportunities of education to their children. If you ask an Asian Businessperson why he is involved in commerce, one of his answers will be for his children higher level learning. Keeping this in mind, SACC organized a Seminar on Education during the past Chai Exchange event.

Idea was to help parents within the community to navigate educational opportunities for all ages. Senior officials from Higher Education institutions were present like:  Awty International School (Erika Benavente); HISD Magnet School Programs (Dr. David Simmons); Rice University (Amy Longfield); University of Houston (Linda Patlan); UT Medical School (Nancy Murphy); UT Dental School (Phil Pierpont, DDS); and South Texas College of Law (Bruce McGovern).

Houston Public Library was there for people to sign you up for a library card. Test Masters and Sylvan were present there to explain how they can assist in preparation of college and graduate school entrance exams, as well as enhance writing, reading, math and other such skills. Also present were members of the joint project called “Hearts” of the Memorial Hermann Hospital and University of Texas Medical School at Houston, where they study about various heart ailments and their cures.

Jeffrey Wallace, Executive Director of SACC started the meeting. Introducing the theme of the evening, immediate past President Mustafa Tameez informed about the various topics of the evening, which included the Competitive Edges that can help get child into Ivy League Undergraduate, Top Tier Law and Medical School. Dr. Asif Ali asked various questions which attendees wrote on cards, while Asif Dakari conveyed the vote of thanks & gave recognition certificates all the speakers.

The esteemed panel answering pre-prepared question of Mustafa Tameez and Dr. Asif Ali’s questions of the participants of the seminar, generally informed that a qualified students needs to have a good balance of high academic achievement; good effort to participate in some positive & healthy extra-curricular activities; good references from someone under whom student had done some shadowing volunteer work; and a well written essay telling from the heart why the student pursuing any particular field of study and reflecting the true character of the student. They emphasized that the essay the student should write should be reviewed by three to five persons for suggestions. Also they informed that students, who plan to stay on campus away from home in other cities, should know about themselves very well; meaning they should know how they are feeling, if stressed, can they control to be not over stressed, etc. All of them said competition is going up and for instance University of Houston is soon going t tighten its standard by needing higher scores in SAT and so on.

Events sponsors included Aisha Zakaria of Lone Star Petroleum; Dr. Shahina Ali, MD of Baytown Family Practice; Gayatri Parikh of Testmasters; while Exhibitors included Zaira Ali of Sylvan Learning Centers; Marcia Chapman of Central C.O.R.E. Service, Houston Public Library; Shami Gill of World Languages Center; and  Gayatri Parikh of Testmasters.

For details on future Chai Exchange Programs (free) and membership to this most active community organization, please call 832-660-2952 or E-Mail Jeffrey Wallace, Executive Director of SACC at  Jeff@SACCHouston.Com

About South Asian Chamber of Commerce Mission

The South Asian Chamber of Commerce (SACC) is a non-profit organization with the mission of providing leadership that will help create regional economic prosperity and success for its members, primarily in Houston.

The Chamber’s mission has expanded to include supporting the business relationships between South Asian entrepreneurs and professionals with the broader Houston community, and to close the cultural gap by promoting the best use of talent and capital within the communities.

The Chamber was founded in 1994, by and with the dedicated patronage of multinational entrepreneurs and professionals, representing the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Today, the SACC is comprised of members of South Asian-American heritage which include professionals and entrepreneurs from small to mid-sized businesses to large multinational corporations partnering with those in the broader local community interested in fostering relationships with South Asian-American businesses and professional enterprises.


World’s Youth Leaders Gather to Address the Challenges of Militarization, Nuclear Weapons and the Misuse of Religion

File:  A busy street in Kathmandu.

(Kathmandu, July 10, 2009)  The International Summit of Religious Youth Leaders on Disarmament for Shared Security was inaugurated by His Excellency the President, Dr. Ram Baran Yadav, in Kathmandu on 10 July 2009.  Organized by the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the world’s largest multi-religious organization accredited with the United Nations and headquartered in New York, the Summit brought together approximately 100 Nepali and 50 international religious and civil society leaders from 25 countries.[1]   Other prominent participants in the Summit included Mr. Kul C. Gautam, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF; Mr. Taijiro Kimura, Director, UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific; Rev. Kyoichi Sugino, Assistant Secretary General, the World Conference of Religions for Peace; and Ms. Stellamaris Mulaeh, International Coordinator, Religions for Peace Global Youth Network.

Globally nearly 1,000 people a day die from various kinds of weapons.  Military spending in 2008 reached a new high of $1.464 trillion, even as the global economy faltered and the majority of the world’s population continued to live in extreme poverty.   Four billion dollars worth of small arms are traded legally each year, while another $1 billion is traded illegally.  The world is confronted with proliferation of nuclear weapons, continued use of cluster munitions, landmines and other conventional weapons, rising military expenditures at the expense of development, and the misuse of religion in support of violence and war.

His Excellency Dr. Ram Baran Yadav, the President of Nepal, stated that “We need to harness the power of the world’s religions to counter violence with the message of peace, love and compassion, especially among the youth of our nations. I want to compliment the Religion and Peace Academy of Nepal (RAPAN) and the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) for convening a very timely ‘International Summit of Religious Youth Leaders on Disarmament for Shared Security’ in Kathmandu.”

Mr. Tadatoshi Akiba, Mayor of Hiroshima, Japan, and president of Mayors for Peace, a global coalition of mayors from 2,926 cities in 134 countries and regions, stated in his message that “The possibility of proliferation and the use of nuclear weapons are growing, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is on the verge of collapse.  Mayors for Peace welcomes the possibility of working with the world’s religious communities and young people through the Religions for Peace global network to promote our 2020 Vision, a program to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2020, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” 

Mr. Kul Gautam, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF noted that “Youth are the soul of the society.  They are essential to transform culture of violence we are seeing at present to culture of peace, which is an intrinsic and inherent part of Nepali culture.  Based on my long association with Religions for Peace, I am confident that this conference will help advance a powerful campaign for peace and non-violence through multi-religious cooperation in Nepal and around the world.” He urged the World Conference of Religions for Peace to support a massive campaign to rollback violence in Nepal as a direct follow-up of this conference in Nepal, and consider similar campaigns in other post-conflict countries in the world.

Rev. Kyoichi Sugino, Assistant Secretary General of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, said, “This Summit intends to further unleash the positive socially transformative power of religion, underline the crucial role of young people in shaping our world, and highlight the added value of multi-religious cooperation and multi-stakeholder approach to disarmament for shared security, development and peace.”

Ms. Stellamaris Mulaeh, International Coordinator, Religions for Peace Global Youth Network said, “This Summit is a great opportunity for religious youth leaders to discuss major challenges to shared security and develop action plans.  Based upon these, Religions for Peace youth leaders from national, regional and global networks will launch a campaign on reducing military expenditures to advance shared security.”

[1] Afghanistan, Argentina, Cambodia, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, France, Georgia, Greece, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the US.  


Muslims of Tibet

Courtesy Hasni Essa, Peace and Pluralism

Masood Butt is a Tibetan, living in India. But, unlike most other Tibetans in exile, who are Buddhists, Butt is a Muslim. However, apart from his faith, there is little else to distinguish Butt from other Tibetans. He follows Tibetan customs, speaks the language fluently and regards the Dalai Lama as his leader. Yet, Butt’s community – the Tibetan Muslims – are little known in India, even though they have shared with their Buddhist brethren, the plight of leaving their homeland. And they have been living in India for the last 50 years. “Like other Tibetans, our community, too has faced tough times and undergone great mental and physical strain,” says Butt, who now works with the Dalai Lama’s office in Dharamsala.

The story of the Tibetan Muslims is that of a unique community, that has blended different cultural strains to forge a distinct identity, that has been kept alive even in the face of adversity. What is interesting to know is that Islam arrived almost a 1000 years ago in Tibet – a region that has always been synonymous with a monolithic Buddhist culture. How the first Muslim settlers reached Tibet is an interesting tale. Sometime in the 12th century, it is believed, a group of Muslim traders from Kashmir and Ladakh came to Tibet as merchants. Many of these traders settled in Tibet and married Tibetan women, who later converted to the religion of their husbands. Author Thomas Arnold, in his book, The Preaching of Islam says that gradually, marriages and social interactions led to an increase in the Tibetan Muslim population until a sizable community came up around Lhasa, Tibet’s capital.

“The Tibetan government allowed the Muslims freedom to handle their own affairs, without any interference. This enabled the community to retain their identity, while at the same time absorbing traditional Tibetan social and cultural traditions,” says Butt. The Tibetan Muslims followed the occupation of their ancestors and were mainly traders, who owned successful businesses. The community also contributed to Tibetan society and culture in many ways. For instance, the first cinema hall in Tibet was started by a Tibetan Muslim businessman. Also, Nangma – a popular classical music form of Tibet, is believed to have been brought to Tibet by the Muslims. In fact, the word ‘Nangma’ is said to be derived from the Urdu word, ‘Naghma’, which means song. “These high-pitched lilting songs, developed in Tibet around the turn of the century, were a craze in Lhasa, with musical hits by Acha Izzat, Bhai Akbar-la and Oulam Mehdi on the lips of almost everyone,” says Butt.

Many Tibetan scholars have commented on how religions as diverse as Islam and Buddhism could co-exist in peace in a traditional society such as that of Tibet. The credit for this, some feel, goes to religious leaders like the Dalai Lama, who took the lead in fostering this spirit of brotherhood. For instance, a history of the Tibetan Muslim community published some years ago relates how during the 17th century, the fifth Dalai Lama readily agreed to give the Muslims land within Lhasa for building a mosque.

The story goes that when a delegation of Muslims approached the fifth Dalai Lama for space for a mosque and a burial ground for their community, the Dalai Lama shot an arrow, with the promise that the place where the arrow fell would belong to the Muslim community. The place later came to be known as Gyangda Linka or the park of the distant arrow. Tibetan Muslims also enjoyed other special privileges in Tibet. For instance, they were exempted from the ‘no meat rule’ when such a restriction was imposed in the rest of Tibet, during the holy Buddhist months. Besides, their commercial enterprises were exempted from taxation.

All these special privileges, however were withdrawn, soon after the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959. Most of the Tibetan Muslims, consequently, opted to leave rather than live under the Chinese occupation. Those who were able to cross over to India, settled in the border towns of Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Gangtok. Later, the community gradually started moving to Kashmir – the land from where their ancestors had gone to Tibet in the 12th century. In fact, the move to Kashmir was significant, says Butt. Even in Tibet, the Muslims were identified as Kashmiris, since Kashmir was known to Tibetans as Khache Yul and Tibetan Muslims were referred to as Khache. Thus, their status was that of a foreigner, even when they were in Tibet.

On the basis of their Kashmiri ancestry, the Tibetan Muslim families who came back to Kashmir after 1959, were given Indian citizenship. Many of these families are still living in Srinagar, while a few have migrated to Nepal and the Gulf countries. Today, there are around 250 families of Tibetan Muslims in Srinagar, mostly in the Hawal and Idgah areas. A number of these families are engaged in fine embroidery work of Kashmiri carpets, while others have set up their own businesses, says Nasir Qazi of the Tibetan Muslim Youth Federation – a body that works for the welfare of the community. The community remains a close-knit one and, for many of them, Tibet remains an emotive issue. Recently for instance, the Tibetan Muslim Youth Federation took out a peace march in Srinagar to show solidarity with the Dalai Lama’s views on granting of autonomous status to Tibet.

And, in case a solution is found, would they like to go back to Tibet? “Maybe not for settling down, since most of us have been born and brought up in India,” says Qazi. “But once, I would definitely like to go there – to visit the Potala palace, the landscape that we have heard so much about and to see for myself the land where our forefathers lived.”