Prithvi Thought-I Respect All Faiths & Cultures
Ritu Raj Subedi
Prithvi Narayan Shah was the founder of Nepali nation state. Hailing from a tiny state of Gorkha in west of Kathmandu, he started the great unification campaign immediately after ascending the throne at the age of 20. It took a full twenty-five years (1744 to 1769) to complete his mission that looked impossible given that his enemy states were mightier than Gorkha in terms of size of territory, and military and financial strength. With sheer courage, indomitable spirit, strong leadership, military skill and visionary thinking, he unified a large territory of Greater Nepal at a time when the British Empire was swallowing states one after another in the Indian subcontinent. The unification of small states into a monolithic one was perhaps the biggest event of modern Nepal with wider geopolitical ramifications in the region.
The unification was a historic necessity for the evolution of an independent sovereign nation between the two giant neighbours. Many western writers tend to interpret it merely in biological sense and undermined the view that P N Shah had defended and promoted certain values and principles that transcend the power-seeking and expansionist ambition. P N Shah was inspired by the Vedic philosophy and liberal religious values that guided him while reinforcing his rule in newly conquered territories. He had espoused broad political, economic and foreign policy vision to build a strong and prosperous Nepal. Here his enlightened ideas have been identified as Prithvi Narayan Thought or Prithvi Thought for the academic discourse.
P N Shah’s concept of ‘Asali Hindusthan’ (Sacred Hindu State) forms the spiritual basis of Prithvi Thought that respects all faiths, religions and cultural traditions. It stands for vibrant multiculturalism and tolerant society. People may question the very term and link it with fundamentalism and xenophobic attitudes. For P N Shah, Asali Hindustan means the peaceful coexistence of all religions and faith systems. It strongly negates religious conversion and suppression of minorities’ cultures. Upon conquering new states, he did not push for Hinduisation of the people of new lands but took steps to recognise and preserve the local cultures and religions. He ensured state’s protection to non-Hindu cultures such as of Newars in Kathamandu Valley and Kirants and Limbus in east Nepal. He issued an edict: a-aphno kul dharma nachhodnu (Do not abandon religion being practiced by own clans). Thus, Prithvi Thought was based on altruistic thinking: live and let others live. His Asali Hindustan seeks to uphold Sanatan Dharma (original religion) being observed since the time immemorial. It was a garden of all colours and ethnicities.
After assuming kingship of Kathmandu, P N Shah ordered the Rathayatra of Kumari (Chariot procession of Living Goddess), bowed and touched her feet and accepted prasad (oblation) from her. He gave continuity to the tradition maintained by the Malla kings. This clearly demonstrated P N Shah’s cultural policy towards the conquered states. On October 17, 1766, he entered Kirtipur amidst special religious fanfare. He worshipped gods and graced the local dance. It was on the day of Kojagrat Purnima, last day of Dashain. In order to continue the pujas, festivals and rituals annually, P N Shah set up Jamin Guthi (land trust). Majority of people in Kirtipur were/are Buddhist followers. To take them into confidence, he granted land as source of raising income to perform pujas in chaityas and bihars (monasteries) of Kirtipur. In a similar manner, he did not encroach upon the social, economic and property rights of people in the annexed states.
Respect of and recognition to all indigenous faiths defines P N Shah’s cultural policy. This is one key reason that Nepal did not witness religious riots like that of India. Coexistence of all religions fosters social harmony and cooperation essential for lasting peace, order, justice and good governance. P N Shah banished Capuchin priests from Kathmandu because they came here to push for conversion and usurp local resources. Under the cover of religion, they wanted to meet political and economic mission based on the notion of ‘divide and rule’ as adopted by the British East India Company. If P N Shah had allowed the Christian missionaries to conduct their activities freely here, they would have sowed the seed of religious strife, causing social disruption and communal conflict. In his ‘Good Hindustan,’ divisive faiths are not permitted to spread their tentacles. So Prithvi Thought aims at protecting the indigenous faiths and knowledge from the attack of alien religions. It rejects the forceful conversion through monetary inducements and bribery. In British-ruled India, spirit of ‘Asali Hindusthan’ was unlikely to flourish and spread. Divided Indian states were falling into the clutch of Bruisers one after another following centuries’ rule of Moguls. So he wanted to establish an Asali Hinds than on the lap of Himalayas.
P N Shah was a visionary leader and great statesman, and differed from other ordinary kings. Many rulers go on to impose their faith and ideology in their countries after accumulating power in their hands. For example, king Mahendra promoted ‘Hinduisation’ process to create a homogenous society that fit his party-less Panchayat system. In Pakistan, president general Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq enforced Islamisation to develop his country into a ‘global centre for political Islam.’ Some one thousand year ago, Latin Church and popes carried out ruthless religious wars known as Crusades to take back ‘holy land’ from Muslim rule in the Eastern Mediterranean. Altogether eight crusade expeditions were launched, which also targeted European pagans in the Baltic region, forcing them to Christianity.
As P N Shah firmly stood in defence of Sanatan Dharma, the Western imperialists saw a sworn enemy in him. In a similar manner, P N Shah identified conflict with them as major contradiction in his unification campaign. He applied all military genius, tactics and resources to repel the invading British company, thereby sealing the unification of Nepal. Capuchins served as ‘political army’ in the guise of Christian missionary. So he expelled them to Betiya by providing logistic support and saved new Nepal from turning into a battle ground for the ‘clash of eastern and western civilisations.’ Even if Nepal’s new constitution declared the country as secular, it is committed to safeguarding Sanatan Dharma and religious freedom. Secularism does not mean religious conversion. But there have been diabolic attempt to misinterpret this provision in favour of certain religion and faith.
Gem of ideas
If one tries to comprehend Prithvi Thought through a postmodern lens, s/he plunges into academic pitfalls and loses the right perspective. It should be viewed based on political consciousness and geopolitical reality of that time when it was propounded. It was a gem of ideas that are relevant in today’s context. It is an inclusive patriotic ideology that shuns all parochial ethno-centric politics hell-bent on deconstructing common identity and democratic nation-building initiative.
(Prithvi Thought–II will
come out next week)