When a group of about six Maoist insurgents aimed their guns at Pundit Narayan Prasad Pokharel on May 6, they probably thought that it would just be another murder in the war-torn Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. They failed to gauge the wrath the murder would draw from all quarters.

As the news spread like wildfire, the people of Nepal responded with complete disbelief. But televised images of Pundit Pokharel's body gave stark testimony to the truth of the horrifying news. All of Nepal mourned the death of the most fascinating Hindu spiritual leader of the only Hindu kingdom in the world.

The 50-year-old Pokharel was gunned down in Rampur Bazaar in Rupandehi district, about 350 kilometers southwest of the capital, Kathmandu, just after dawn. He was in the town to perform a weeklong Mahayagya, a Hindu spiritual ceremony, and it was his sixth day there. He died instantly after the assailants sprayed him with at least a dozen bullets.

The next day's newspapers in Kathmandu ran the report prominently. "Glorious Pundit assassinated," read the front-page headline in Kantipur, Nepal's largest-selling Nepali daily, which carried six stories on the slain Pundit reporting the assassination and chronicling his life and accomplishments. The English daily The Kathmandu Post, reported that at the time of his death, Pokharel had been reciting the Bhagavata Purana, a Hindu holy book, to raise money for social causes.

Pundit Narayan Prasad Pokharel was born in 1955 in the remote village of Baguwa in Gorkha district in central Nepal. He was born to a Brahmin family and spent his childhood in the village, where he learned the basics of the Bhagavata Purana from his elders. He also received a formal education, during which he was a classmate of Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, now one of the Maoist leaders of Nepal's Communist Party. At the age of 19, Pokharel started reciting the Bhagavata Purana.

It was little more than a decade ago when Pokharel started his social activism. Throughout Nepal, in India, and elsewhere in Nepali and Indian diaspora communities, he became famous for his modern and reformist approaches to the Hindu religion. He contributed significantly toward eradicating caste-based discrimination, an age-old social evil in Nepal and India. In many religious ceremonies he conducted, dalits or the so-called untouchables were guests of honor.

Pokharel's exemplary oratory skills, especially in reciting the purana (Vedic wisdom in story form) and interpreting Hindu sacred texts, enthralled his thousands of devotees. They were moved to contribute generously at the Mahayagyas the pundit conducted. He used the money-Nepali rupees 1.93 billion (US$27 million)-collected from such Mahayagyas to build hospitals, schools, drinking water facilities, temples, homes for the elderly, and bridges, according to the Nepal chapter of the World Hindu Federation, which Pokharel chaired.

Impressed with his exceptional oratory skills, Nepal's late King Birendra conferred upon him the title of Bachan Shiromani (jewel on the crown of oratory) in 2001.

The Maoist rebels, who have been waging a bloody insurgency to uproot the 260-year-old monarchy for 10 years, said they targeted Pokharel for "indulging in various crimes in the disguise of religion and working to safeguard the monarchy." Pokharel's World Hindu Federation, headquartered in India, had declared Nepal's King Gyanendra the "World Hindu Emperor."

BBC Radio's Nepali Service quoted a Maoist leader on May 6 saying that Dalit Mukti Morcha or Dalit Liberation Front, an affiliate of the Maoist organization, had carried out the murder.

Nepalnews.com, a news portal, reported that killing a person first and accusing him of wrongdoing later has been "the preferred modus operandi of the Maoists." The report concluded, "Unfortunately, Pokharel is no longer alive to respond to Maoist accusations."

Pokharel's funeral was held in the popular Hindu shrine of Lord Pashupatinath in Kathmandu on the day he was killed. He is survived by two wives, four sons, and two daughters.
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