Kedar Neupane - -
Religion is a personal faith and individual’s conviction that cannot be imposed by a law in any modern democracy in a free world. All humans should have freedom to profess and practice whatever religion or faith one subscribes to, and this should be protected and respected by state laws without prejudice and discrimination. This is civilization.
Lord Ram was born in India. India has the largest Hindu population in the world, but it is constitutionally a secular with all faiths practiced within its territory. Hinduism’s identity and its universal significance are not lost in India as a secular state. On the contrary, Hinduism is shining in Hindustan. The Prime Minister of India is a true practitioner of Hindu faith. Nepal is not the “Aryavart” of ancient Hindu dominance. Historically, Nepal and Nepalis were not the crusader of Hindu religion.
Nepal’s national and international identity was not established by religion, and it is not going to be defined by Hindu religion in this century. Nepal’s identity is otherwise popularly linked to the “Gorkhali” gallantry and valour strongly associated at the time of British India, Mount Everest, and Princess Bhrikuti, and Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha was born in Nepal as Prince Siddhartha and, by birth, he is a Nepali. Why does Nepal’s elite not want to pronounce Buddhism also is Nepal’s popular religion¿ Isn’t Buddhism an integral part of our tradition and civilization¿ If not, what will be the status of Lord Buddha and his universal message of peace and harmony within Nepal?
We should stop being reactionary if some others start popularizing Buddha’s image and influence, its teachings and philosophy in its name where Siddhartha acquired knowledge, enlightenment, and worldly wisdom of Buddhism. It is our collective failure to recognize this virtue. Nepal could have appropriately adopted its foreign policy of “Boudhitwa” tenets of international peace and global harmony as its soft power for strategic cooperation with all peace-loving nations at a time of disorderly multipolar world. Unfortunately, Nepal has failed to recognize its natural strength.
The Context and Probable Fallout
Most political leaderships and elites are silent on the issue of personal faith when some dissatisfied groups, elites and political parties are calling for Hinduism and ethnically based provincial mini states. This is unhealthy. It will only contribute to rise in communal tensions, hatred and breed social and religious disharmony in society. Consequently, it will serve only the interests of ruling political parties and government elites who simply want to cling on to seat of power, authority and position, no matter what happens to people and nation, especially in the absence of concerted voices from responsible citizens on issues relating to other important elements linked to the illusion of people’s tangible prosperity in the name of liberal democracy and republicanism. The disproportional focus on faith and creation of ethno-religion-base mini-states has somewhat derailed wholesome national debate on inter-generational poverty, creative thinking, innovation, socio-economic inequality, and people’s prosperity. This is counterproductive to nation-building process and national security.
We should not generate environment conducive for negative fallouts affecting national development priority issues of the time and for future generation as we live in an inter-connected globe; not like in a complete isolation of the past century. Nearly one third of Nepali population currently live and work around the world in different communities with Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and others. We must remain conscious of the fact that our short-sighted rhetoric must not give any rise to future backlash for virtual Nepali everywhere. The truth is, we do not live in the irreversible past but in present, protecting future generation.
Let us assume for the sake of argument, Nepal is declared a Hindu State by constitutional revision. Then the protection of our faith will fall on the President of Nepal (i.e., Bidhya Bhandari or who next¿) or Prime Minister since king is overthrown by the people’s popular movement. This may mean, in future, we would have to accept one among Deuba, Oli, Prachanda, Nepal, Gautam (as the future aspirants of PM post). As per long-standing tradition, one of them will then become the protector of Hindu religion and traditions in Nepal. Is this what we want¿ Kings were regarded, by many believers in Nepal, as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Propagating this old belief for so long kings ruled Nepal for centuries.
What a great nation Nepal would be if we elevate demagogue communists and/or socialists into a replica of Hindu God¿ I do not know if, and otherwise, there is a plan to plant a king or appoint another religious bigot as protector of Hinduism in Nepal! In that case, surely, we will have a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for it could be one of the eighth wonders of modern world. Wonders do happen in Nepal, after all!
Having lived and worked for years in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran I observed that followers of minority faiths (other than Islam) are generally discriminated and become disadvantageous in society. Put it simply, minority faith groups are generally deprived of socio-economic opportunities and exercising personal faiths in countries if dominated by religious hardliners and fanatics and, minorities live in constant fear of religious persecution. The wind in Nepal gives me the impression that we may be heading towards similar trajectory. In Nepal’s history, we never had national disunity and religious disharmony. But in the name of political power and superior ethnic identity (to culturally build a non-existent consensus-yielding anathema among us), under an illusionary liberal democracy, filled with rampant social injustice, poverty, and inequality it will solidify and deepen our system of patronage and feudal mind-sets. These elements will only expedite disintegration of communities, socio-cultural divide and nation building process will collapse. It will further sow the seeds of sectarian divide, disharmony, national disunity, and communal hatred. What kind of political transformation and social advancement is this in an interconnected globalized world environment¿ In the homeland of Lord Buddha, we should not create a situation whereby followers of other faiths are further marginalized and disrespected. All citizens should be equally protected by the state laws without prejudice and discrimination of individual’s faith.
We should try to learn from Muslim majority Indonesia, which follows largely Hindu and Buddhist traditions and cultural practices for years and it continues to remain so to this day without religious disharmony. Near ninety percent of Indonesia’s population follow Islam and has a national ideology of ‘Panchasila (although Javanese) which has its origin in Sanskrit. Panchasila includes five principles; believe in one GOD, humanity, unity of (nation) Indonesia, democracy, and social justice. It is not a Muslim country by law, although demand is growing in recent years with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. With religious freedom it recognizes six important faiths: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucian.
Hinduism and Buddhism represents less than 3% of over three hundred million people but culture and traditions are influenced by these minority faiths. One of the biggest Hindu temples in the world is in Yogyakarta. Name Yogyakarta represents Ayodhya, Lord Ram’s birthplace. Over seven hundred languages/dialects are spoken throughout the archipelago by over three hundred ethnic groups. Muslim majority country Indonesia is a republic and constitutionally it is not a Muslim country but religious, cultural, and ethnic harmony (which is Hindu) is largely intact. Should not we learn from this and promote social harmony in Nepal and not fuel religious tensions and divide community?
Buddhist majority Thailand also largely follows Hindu tradition and cultural practices. People live in social and religious harmony. The former king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadje, known as King Rama IX as his predecessor kings of Chakra dynasty. His great-great-grand-father assumed name as king Rama (symbolizing Lord Vishnu), as a caretaker of the people of the kingdom, and the tradition continues to this day although king himself is a Buddhist. Hinduism’s influence in Thai tradition is everywhere even though prayers are offered to Lord Buddha. Isn’t there something to learn from this nation on tolerance, peace, and harmony¿ Likewise, in Buddhist majority Sri Lanka, Hindu and Christian traditions are also observed, along with Buddhist practices, without disharmony.
The author, Kedar Neupane, is a board member of Nepal Policy Institute, an independent international think-tank, and a retiree United Nations staff. The theme of this revised piece was initially published in August 2015 in an international web publication. Observations, views, and comments expressed in this piece are author’s personal. (Neupanek1950@gmail.com)