Gayanmala Bhajan
Gyan Mata Sita
Man Murkha
Buddha Au

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Gyanmala Bhajan (Devotional songs)

The modern style of hymns, known as bhajan, accompanied by the harmonium, was introduced to Nepal in the 1880s. At first the songs were entirely in Hindi and were Hindu in affiliation. In the early 1920s Prem Bahadur Khyahju Shrestha (1901-1979) was asked to compose some Buddhist hymns by his friend Dalchini Manandhar. In order to help him do so, Manandhar gave him a copy of Pandit Nisthananda Vajracharya’s Nepal Bhasha version of the Lalitavistara, the life of the Buddha, which Nisthananda had had printed in Calcutta in 1911. Prem Bahadur composed the hymns, and they quickly became very popular (they were in Hindi as was still customary). As a result of reading the Lalitavistara, Prem Bahadur, who had been raised a Hindu, became a Buddhist.

In 1925 the Tibetan Nyingma renouncer, Kyangtse Lama, came to Kathmandu, having prostrated all the way from Kham, taking two and a half years. He was welcomed as a great Buddhist teacher and looked after by Dharma Narayan Tuladhar (1861-1937), usually known as ‘Dhama Sahu’, a rich merchant who restored the Swayambhu stupa and supported Buddhist causes. Many people came to hear Kyangtse Lama’s religious discourses, which were based on Patrul Rimpoche’s commentary on the Longchen Nyingtig of Jigme Lingpa. His Tibetan was translated into Nepal Bhasha by Bekha Ratna Tamrakar, and then rephrased in more religious terms by Pandit Buddhi Raj Vajracharya (some say this last step was necessitated by the fact that Bekha Ratna had a very soft voice).

Swayed by the force of Kyangtse Lama’s teachings, Prem Bahadur and four others became Buddhist monks under the tutelage of another Tibetan lama, Tsering Norbu. Prem Bahadur became Mahapragya, his friend Dalchini Manandhar became Mahavirya, and their three other companions took similar monastic names (Mahagyana, Mahachandra, and Mahakshanti). When the Ranas came to hear of this (informed, it it said, by Vajracharya priests who were jealous of the success of Kyangtse Lama and annoyed at the loss of patronage from their rich Uday patrons), they decided to send the monks, as well as their preceptor Tsering Norbu, into exile, on the grounds that they had encouraged a Hindu to change from his traditional religion. Expelled to India, the monks went to Sarnath, where they met a Theravada monk, and to Calcutta where they were taken in by Dharmaditya Dharmacharyya (Jagat Man Vaidya, 1902-1963), a Buddhist modernist and the first Newar cultural nationalist. Although they did not convert to Theravada Buddhism immediately, this explusion from Nepal to India laid the seed of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal, a paradoxical result quite the opposite of what the Ranas intended.

When the Theravada movement gathered steam in the 1930s Theravada monks started to encourage the singing of Buddhist hymns in the vernacular (i.e. in Nepal Bhasha). The earliest song book, printed in India by Bhikshu Pragyabhivamsha,was called ‘Bhajanmala’ (Garland of Hymns). It had no name on the frontespiece in order to avoid troubles with the Ranas’ censors. It was brought to Kathmandu by Bhiksu Dhammalok and the first performances were held in Swayambhu in 1937. Two years later a similar group was formed in Kwa Baha, Lalitpur, and it named itself the Taremam Sangha. Within several years half a dozen other groups had sprung up in Lalitpur and Kathmandu, as well as outside the Valley in Tansen and Butwol.
Bhikshu Amritananda argued that the hymns should not propagate a purely devotional attitude, but impart Buddhist wisdom. So both the hymn books and the hymn groups became known by the generic term ‘Gyanmala’ (Garland of Wisdom) from 1943. Buddhist monks are forbidden by the Vinaya, or monastic code, to observe or participate in hymn singing. But they have been among the most prolific of composers of hymns. And it can be argued that many of the hymns that the monks composed encouraged a more sharply Buddhist, attitude, and often a more Theravada attitude as well, on the part of those who sang them.

Towards the end of the Rana regime Gyanmala hymn singers were involved in several oppositional incidents. Shortly after eight Theravada monks were expelled by the Ranas in 1944 (this time the charge was that they were encouraging women to renounce and were thereby undermining family life), a Gyanmala group, singing lustily, led a procession from Swayambhu to Jana Baha in the centre of Kathmandu. When they reached Jana Baha the group was surrounded by the police, who seized as many copies of the hymn books as they could. A court case followed, in which the singers were accused of encouraging conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism and ridiculing Nepali, the national language. The case was heard by Padma Shamsher, the Rana Prime Minister, who decided to reject all the charges. In 1948 in Lalitpur the Taremam Sangha joined with Hindu singers organized by Tulsi Meher to sing Buddhist songs and “Hare Ram” around the city of Lalitpur as a protest against the political repression of the Ranas. The police arrested about 150 people on that occasion.

Of the three hymns translated here two are by monks, though of course Mahapragya stopped being a monk and lived in Kalimpong as a layman, earning his living as a photographer, for many years, before renouncing again and passing the rest of his life with an orange robe and long beard as a ‘Buddhist sage’ (Bauddha Rishi) in Kathmandu. This particular hymn is considered to be highly poetic and very moving by many Newars. The second hymn is another popular hymn by Bhikshu Subodhanand, one of the most prolific composers of bhajan. The last hymn is a very recent composition, from Pokhara, and written in Nepali. It is not credited to anyone in the booklet in my possession (Jñanmala mye muna – tãsa 1), but members of the Taremam Sangha, with whom I sang the song in May this year told me it was written by Biswa Shakya. It seems to me to represent a deeply heartfelt response to the tragic and brutal war which has consumed rural Nepal in recent years.

(This was written by Dr. David N. Gellner, University of Oxford and first published as Three Buddhist Hymns from Nepal in Pasa Puchah Guthi (UK)’s souvenir journal of 2004)

Bibliography

Dhammalok, Bh. and Bh. Amritananda 1984 [NS 1105]. Jñanmala. Swayambhu: Gyanmala Bhajan Khala. (First edition 1937.) Grandin, I. 1989. Music and Media in Local Life: Music Practice in a Newar Neighbourhood in Nepal. Linköping: Linköping University, Sweden. Jñanmala mye muna – tãsa 1 [Collected Gyanmala songs, vol. 1] 2004 [NS 1124]. Lalitpur: Kwa Baha Taremam Sangha. Pradhan, Bhuvan Lal 1997. ‘Jñanamala Bhajan Khalah: A Movement for Building up the Newar Society.’ Newah Vijñana 1(1): 1-5. (First published in Gyanmala Smarika 1996.)

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