Prof. Dr. Martin Gaenszle 

Satyahangma Dharma: a new religion in the Singalila borderland (India/ Nepal)

16 January 2023 to 15 May 2023

Research description:

The project deals with an invented ethnic religion which resulted from a socio-religious reform movement that started in the 1920s among the Kirati in Nepal and has since spread to other areas in the Singalila borderland (eastern Nepal/Sikkim/Darjeeling) and beyond. While the followers of this religion, propagated by a “Mahaguru” called Phalgunanda and known as Satyahangma Dharma, are mainly from the more wealthy urban families in the middle class, the large majority of Kirati in the villages are still practicing the unreformed tradition which included animal sacrifice and the consumption of sanctified alcoholic beverages. But not only is there increasing tension between the reformed practitioners and the tradition-minded villagers, but also within the followers of the founding guru there are increasing conflicts between “lines” of tradition. Thus the study of these communities and their history provides interesting insights into the formation of a new middle class religiosity among upward mobile Janajati/ Adivasi groups. Normative transformations take place on various levels: they manifest in new ideas about moral values in human-animal relationships, the value of education, gender equality, marriage practice and also political affiliations. However, these transformations have taken different paths on the Nepal and on the Indian side of the border. So a closer look at these developments can also contribute to an understanding of the impact of national boundaries and statehood on the process of religious reform and identity formations. The changes have been further influenced and accelerated by the recent poltical changes in Nepal (e.g., ethnic politics, secularisation) and India (e.g., the fight for Scheduled Tribe status).

The ethnic umbrella term “Kirati” (or variants of this) refers to various indigenous groups, mainly Limbu and Rai. Though their languages are related and form a linguistic unit (part of Tibeto-Burman), they have only recently begun to stress their common heritage. Over the last centuries these rather autonomous and localized groups have been subjugated by processes of state formation and they experienced strong pressures, economically, politically and culturally. But in recent years the Kirati groups have increasingly reasserted their status of indigeneity and their ancestral culture and religion. This has led to expressions of ethnic pride in a wider public arena and included a revision of traditions: the former oral tradition, known as Mundhum, was partly transformed into a scriptural tradition. Thus the project pursues comparative reflections on multiple issues of current normative tranformations, such as processes of scripturalisation, canonisation, ethnic inclusion and competing approaches to the representation of a new identity.


Martin Gaenszle is Professor (i.R.) in Cultural and Intellectual History of Modern South Asia at the University of Vienna, Austria and has been Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Documentation of Inner and South Asian Cultural History (CIRDIS) from 2015-2022. His scholarly interests include religious pluralism, ethnicity, local history and oral traditions in South Asia, in particular the Himalayan region. He has done field research in Eastern Nepal and North India and published books on Rai oral traditions, ritual speech, and concepts of space in Banaras.

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