To connect with Nepalis about earthquake hazards, scientists must understand religious beliefs regarding the source of shaking, gleaned from ancient Hindu epics.
By Shiba Subedi, Institute of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Geosciences and Environment, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland (@SubediShiba1)
Citation: Subedi, S., 2021, Hindu texts help scientists communicate earthquake hazards in Nepal, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.193
Hidden within Hinduism’s epic tales, multiple stories about earthquakes abound, though of course they’re not called that. Earthquake scientists are working to understand these stories and entrenched beliefs to connect with Nepali citizens, and help them prepare for future earthquakes.
Once upon a time, in the city of Ayodhya (located in the modern-day state of Uttar Pradesh, India), a prince named Ram married a beautiful princess named Sita. Although they loved each other and their people were happy, Ram’s jealous stepmother wished for her own son — Ram’s half-brother — to become king. She and her maid hatched a nefarious plan, and Ram was banished to the forest for 14 years, accompanied by Sita and another half-brother, Laxman. Though their spartan existence living in the forest was initially tranquil, trouble eventually found them. Sita’s uncommon beauty caught the eye of Ravana, the evil king of Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka). Ravana kidnapped Sita, spiriting her away to his island home where she remained in the royal garden, awaiting rescue. To find her, Ram, Laxman and an army of monkeys began to search. One of these monkeys, Hanuman, had great powers, and he tracked Sita to Lanka, jumping from the southernmost tip of India to the island in one great leap. The earth shook as he found her, and Ravana’s soldiers, tasked with guarding Sita, quaked in fear. The earth shook again as Hanuman warned that fighting Ram would bring Ravana’s downfall. With Sita’s whereabouts discovered, Ram and his monkey army attacked Lanka, and Ram eventually prevailed, killing Ravana and liberating Sita. Or so the story goes, as detailed in the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu epic dated to around 500-100 BCE.
In this fascinating religious text, Ram is presented as an earthly incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god responsible for maintaining the world as we know it. Hindu people use the Ramayana to not only model how to be a good person, but also to judge the goodness of others. As such, the Ramayana is the most popular Hindu epic among Nepali communities, frequently appearing in discourses by nationally influential spiritual speakers.
However, the explanations provided by numerous ancient Hindu epics about natural phenomena, including earthquakes as detailed in the story above, contribute significantly to how Hindus understand Earth. Such religious beliefs, particularly in earthquake-prone Nepal, place modern science behind supernatural explanations for how earthquakes occur. This raises the question of how scientists can best connect with people steeped in religious lore to help them understand seismic hazards to protect themselves when the next earthquake strikes. To address this issue in Nepal, my co-author, György Hetényi, and I, chose to explore these ancient stories with the goal of understanding the original text, context, and application of religious narration of earthquakes in different sources of Hindu literature.
Seismology at School
Beginning in late 2017, we began developing an educational seismology program — Seismology at School in Nepal. Our goal was to educate a broad swath of Nepal’s population early in their lives, before the age of 18.
First, we installed seismometers in 30 schools in both urban and rural parts of Central Nepal. These sensors record earthquakes as students watch the wiggles and allow various learning-by-doing classroom activities. In parallel, we provided earthquake-related activities in classrooms, along with training for teachers to help them communicate the science behind seismology.
As a result of our program, students know more about earthquakes and have changed their behavior to both prepare for and adapt to forthcoming events, according to surveys we’ve used to assess program impacts. In addition, the students take this knowledge and spread it throughout their communities through social learning processes (see program impact results). This is encouraging as we continue to expand our efforts across Nepal, for which we recently launched a crowdfunding campaign. The Seismology at School program has also developed the Earthquake Awareness Song, which has already been seen by more than 100,000 visitors online.
Reaching the greater public
However, modern seismological information has not reached the majority of people in Nepal. Some local populations still believe religious explanations and stories about earthquakes that have existed in these communities for many hundreds, if not thousands of years. Hinduism, which is practiced by more than 80 percent of the total population in Nepal, today includes about 1 billion followers across the Indian subcontinent and beyond and is the third-largest religion after Christianity and Islam. It is the oldest major religion in the world, with traditions and customs originating likely more than 5,000 years ago in India, according to religious scholars.
From our field experience of communicating with local people of different ages, social statuses, depth of religious beliefs, regions of origin, and cultures, we realized that although explaining modern earthquake science is important, collecting and discussing religious aspects of earthquakes is crucial. Hindus believe in the concept of karma — that is, people’s current and past actions and thoughts determine their current and future conditions for this life and beyond. This is true at a societal scale as well. In other words, Hindus generally believe that the vice of humanity causes disasters and the virtue of humanity causes happiness. Understanding this perspective will help earthquake scientists facilitate dialog, which should result in better acceptance of practical advice for earthquake preparation.
Another ancient story that includes earthquakes is that of the churning of the ocean, wherein the gods borrowed a snake that lives twined around the neck of Lord Shiva, the destroyer. The gods wrapped the snake around a mountain in the ocean and churned the waters, rotating the peak to extract a nectar of immortality from the sea. The force of the churning shook the mountain; Earth’s movements feature multiple times throughout the story.
In another text called the Puranas, the whole of Earth sits atop the head of the famous Sheshnaag, king of the serpents. When Sheshnaag moves his head, there is an earthquake.
Such stories are deeply woven into the fabric of Nepali communities, such that the majority of people strongly believe these religious explanations. In fact, one ancient source recommends staying outside of buildings during an earthquake, which is solid advice even today if one is on the ground floor of a building that is not earthquake-proof — often the case in Nepal.
Nevertheless, that piece of advice alone is insufficient to protect communities from earthquake hazards. For us to reach those who live in more remote parts of Nepal where earthquake education is unavailable, and where religious beliefs are more widespread, we must be aware of earthquake information in Hindu literature. With this awareness, we must apply our knowledge of earthquakes in Hinduism in order to connect with devout people, so we can help them prepare for future earthquakes, which are certainly coming. Communicating seismic hazards against the backdrop of earthquakes in Hinduism shouldn’t result in a debate about religion versus science, but instead should serve as a base upon which to build a relationship that includes sound science for protecting against seismic hazards.
Subedi, S., & Hetényi, G. (2021). The representation of earthquakes in Hindu religion: a literature review to improve educational communications in Nepal. Front. Commun. 6: 668086. doi: 10.3389/fcomm.
Subedi, S., Hetényi, G., Denton, P., & Sauron, A. (2020). Seismology at school in Nepal: a program for educational and citizen seismology through a low-cost seismic network. Frontiers in Earth Science, 8, 73.
Subedi, S., Hetényi, G., & Shackleton, R. (2020). Impact of an educational program on earthquake awareness and preparedness in Nepal. Geoscience Communication, 3(2), 279-290.
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