Separating religious belief from cultural tradition. In real world it's no easy journalistic task

Is it possible to separate out religious influences from centuries-old societal customs? And if so, just how does a journalist go about doing this?

This is not an easy task. That goes double for journalists -- perhaps most journalists -- with little exposure to the principles of group dynamics or the psychology of institutional religion.

This may sound like hubris on my part, but I believe that the wide experience gained on the religion beat prepares journalists to better understand humanity’s complex social and psychological formulations -- allowing religion writers and editors to (potentially) better parse the differences.

This recent New York Times story on the semi-isolation of menstruating women in remote western Nepal, causing the death of some, provides a platform for exploring the question.

But first, a quick return to Brazil.

You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted here on the custom of some indigenous Brazilian tribes to murder unwanted children. I tried to explain how from their tribal perspective the practice made sense.

I noted that in their rain forest environment, where food is surprisingly difficult to come by, the children -- fatherless or physically impaired -- were in the tribes’ view being sacrificed for a greater good. That's because they could not contribute to the group's food supply, which tribal leaders deemed an unacceptable burden that threatened the entire group's survival.

I also noted how outrageously obscene the practice seems when considered from a Western mindset rooted in the Abrahamic religious traditions. My point was to illustrate how difficult it is for journalists to put aside their deepest values when covering groups with a vastly different belief set.

The late Huston Smith, the renowned scholar of comparative religion, once wrote, I’m paraphrasing now, that every civilization -- and by every civilization he even included small, semi-nomadic jungle tribes -- is influenced by some spiritual vision of how life is best lived.

I take that to mean that in the Brazilian case, the tribes were following some inner sense of their own notion of right and wrong, even if they did not articulate it in spiritual or religious terms. In this case, religion is defined as a group codification of insights into life's most complex questions. They did so solely from a practical, materialistic perspective.

Physical survival, is, after all, one of life's most complex questions.

The practice spotlighted in the Nepal story, however, has a qualitative difference from the Brazil situation. Here, the religious component is somewhat clearer -- as is the writer’s (presumably unconscious) Western bias. This, despite the story’s incomplete investigation of the practice’s origins.

The lede takes us right to the heart of the story. This is long, but essential:

TURMAKHAND, Nepal -- Not long ago, in rural western Nepal, Gauri Kumari Bayak was the spark of her village. Her strong voice echoed across the fields as she husked corn. When she walked down the road at a brisk clip, off to lead classes on birth control, many admired her self-confidence.
But last January, Ms. Bayak’s lifeless body was carried up the hill, a stream of mourners bawling behind her. Her remains were burned, her dresses given away. The little hut where she was pressured to sequester herself during her menstrual period -- and where she died -- was smashed apart, erasing the last mark of another young life lost to a deadly superstition.
“I still can’t believe she’s not alive,” said Dambar Budha, her father-in-law, full of regret, sitting on a rock, staring off into the hills.
In this corner of Nepal, deep in the Himalayas, women are banished from their homes every month when they get their period. They are considered polluted, even toxic, and an oppressive regime has evolved around this taboo, including the construction of a separate hut for menstruating women to sleep in. Some of the spaces are as tiny as a closet, walls made of mud or rock, basically menstruation foxholes. Ms. Bayak died from smoke inhalation in hers as she tried to keep warm by a small fire in the bitter Himalayan winter.

Notice the word “superstition”?

I’d call that an unnecessary editorial intrusion; the writer expressed his own Western values. Better to simply describe the situation than judge it.

As I said, it’s exceedingly difficult to shed one’s deeply ingrained values when trying to explain another belief system, whether reporting from Nepal or Brazil, and even when the writer is, as in this case, a highly experienced foreign correspondent who previously covered sub-Sahara Africa for The Times.

Further down in this Times piece, we come to the religion angle at play.

Many religions observe rules around menstruation, and Hinduism places a special emphasis on purity and pollution. Still, scholars are not sure why the menstruation taboo is so strong in western Nepal, where countless villages, across an area comprising hundreds of miles, still practice it.
It may be because this region of Nepal is poor, relatively homogeneous, overwhelmingly Hindu and remote, and the houses tend to be small. (In other Hindu subcultures, menstruating women can be secluded to some degree within their homes.)

I think a lot more could have been said about how Hinduism is practiced.

For example, rather than just speculating about why the practice endures in this part of Nepal -- a stunningly beautiful nation that I've visited -- the reporter might have noted that Hinduism is a catch-all term imposed by British colonialists to group together India’s highly varied, indigenous spiritual traditions.

As such, Hindu traditions and beliefs are exceptionally varied. Journalists are supposed to care about these kinds of fine details.

In other words, what one group of Hindus believe can be utterly rejected by another. Or to put it somewhat differently, Hinduism is polycentric, meaning it has no binding hierarchy, has diverse power centers and is as culturally diffuse as it is religiously confusing to outsiders.

Which brings us full circle to my question posed at the top of this post.

Is the semi-isolation of menstruating females in portions of western Nepal still rooted in  religious belief? Or have its Hindu roots been entirely lost across the centuries, and does the practice persist only because, well that’s just the way things are -- and always have been? When those who practice this custom describe it, do they do so in religious language?

Again, my point is that with ancient traditions, its often near impossible to separate the spiritual or religious from the mysterious life patterns, what might be called folk beliefs, that give humans comfort -- even if they don't really know why, and even if from an outsider’s viewpoint they appear cruel  and self-defeating.

Yes, it's a tough call, perhaps an impossible one.

Still, for me, trying to unravel this Gordian Knot is one of religion journalism’s great learning experiences. The goal is to listen carefully.

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