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The Buddha and the Drum

Shamanism and Buddhism in the Himalaya

The research project deals with a specific case of religious encounter: the one between shamanism and Buddhism in the Himalayan valley of Helambu (Nepal), in modern and contemporary times. The outcomes of this prolonged encounter affecting doctrinal and ritual dimensions, cosmological and mythical spheres will be mapped as a way to highlight conceptions related to immanence/transcendence in a given context, with a special focus on relational approaches to the landscape and towards human/non-human ontologies.

In the complex and multi-faceted religious sphere(s) of the inhabitants of the Himalaya, in fact, we face a residual, structural tension which derives from the superimposition of a hegemonic layer of Buddhist-oriented ideology which has absorbed, circumscribed and eventually marginalized a non-Buddhist “shamanic” sub-stratum. This sub-stratum has not been wholly incorporated nor eradicated, and it persists, through the agency of specific religious specialists and their sponsors, as a legitimate religious expression fulfilling relevant spiritual, religious and medical needs of their communities.

Boundaries between the focal areas of these resulting multi-polar religious systems are not clearly demarcated: the components of these systems share consistent portions of their worldviews, pantheons, supernatural agents, ritual repertoires and all of the landscape. As demonstrated by the rich oral folklores of the area, there is a circulation of tropes which involve mutual exchange: The Buddha and bodhisattvas are part of shamanic narratives as much as local pre-Buddhist deities are part of the Buddhist pantheon, and a conspicuous repertoire of stories shows not only competition between archetypal lamas and shamans, but also their intimate relationship (i.e. in most of the cases, very significantly, they are brothers).

Methodologically, the research will combine the analysis of historical documents and ethnography to map dynamics of appropriations, incorporations, negotiations and subversions.