Kathmandu has long been compared to a well where frogs lived in illusion, that walls ensured their freedom. In the analogy of pond, which the Valley indeed was once upon a time, lotuses bloom in the mud, bigger fishes feast upon smaller ones and all creatures stay alive in Darwinian harmony until a Manjushri comes along with a divine thunderbolt to drain away placid waters.
The fertile bed of an emptied lake is even more conducive for grander displays of survival instincts of the species.
Hunting animals stalk upper reaches. Antelopes run helter-skelter along the banks in fear. Snakes slither in the marshes. Leaping amphibians jump around with insects still on their tongues. Buffaloes wallow in mud. Fishermen angle in ditches. Farmers dig drier soil to plant seeds for future. The stage is set for the emergence of a class that considers itself the interpreter of all existence.
Warrior chieftains often reigned, but the real rulers have always been priests, preceptors and pundits who claimed that they could please divinities, pacify evil spirits, bring rains, drive away epidemics, make cows give more milk, and ensure bumper crops.
The main utility of the priestly class, however, was their ability and willingness to dupe the populace. The laity is taught to value virtues. Nobility has to shoulder the burden of obligations. With its ability to sanctify, the clergy is liberated from all concerns of committing sins. That could be the reason why Brahmans have been considered unfit to be rulers. Since they have “true knowledge” of heaven and hell, they feel free to do as they please in this life.
Leaders of the Big Three parties are thus true to their type: Even if they wished, they couldn’t do things differently and show some sincerity towards commitments made in the past. Girija Prasad Koirala was an exception. The rest of the lot tries their best to trick each other to the best of their abilities.
The twice-born elite
As long as rulers emerged from the masses, whether through tests of endurance like the Liglig Race in Gorkha or trials of physical strengths that produced Malla chieftains in more settled societies, the obligation towards the ruled remained the main motivating force of governance.
Negotiators of terms of trade and arbitrators of violations of agreements made during business transactions too realized that their power emanated from the consent of the governed even when it was not explicitly spelt out. All such assumptions fell at the feet of caste system once the twice-born Dwijs—Brahmans and those that they anointed as Kshetriyas—began to legislate customs in the name of god, religion and traditions.
When Kautilya, also known as Vishnugupta and Chanakya, was born with a complete set of teeth, a sign that the Brahman boy was destined to be king, his father was alarmed. An insightful scholar, Acharya Chanakya the Senior was aware of risks associated with amoral reigns of unfettered souls.
When spiritual and temporal authorities were unified in one person, an arrogant Ravana was born. One by one, every tooth of the Acharya child was plucked out. But the venerable pundit could only alter destiny to a certain extent. For all his scholarship, the father could not change the fate of his son.
Kautilya grew up to be a guru who ruled ruthlessly through his disciple Chandragupta. The pundit, priest and preceptor all rolled into one, the cunning Chanakya—the word has since become a synonym of craftiness—is reputed to have been an upright but completely compassionless person. His economic policies helped Magadh gather surpluses from all over the Maurya Empire into the capital city of Pataliputra.
Over time, the city crumbled under its own weight and the empire withered away.
Wily Chanakya, however, lives in legends of scholarship, stubbornness, uprightness and callousness, traits that contribute to the hypothesis that power and prosperity go neither to the strongest nor to the most adaptable but to the craftiest and the most ruthless. Howsoever transient its gains may be, the effectiveness of deception has tricked ambitious individuals down generations into pursuing authority at the cost of morality. Charity often acted as a necessary corrective that saved the ruling classes from the rage of the masses.
In the formulation of evolutionary psychologists, no charity is truly altruistic. The first form of altruism is kinship—nepotism in everyday word—that helps survival chances of genes. The second driving factor is plain old notion of reciprocity where every gesture is an investment made in the hope of future returns. The worldly-wise agree to scratch each other’s back for mutual benefits. Believers build stairways to heaven through philanthropy. The pious buy better prospects in other lives. There are no free lunches, and every offering is merely an investment.
The third reason that prompts the act of giving is mere vanity. In that sense, selfishness and self-indulgence are similar attributes. This line of logic is sometimes extended to theorize that charity is intended to attract possible mates. According to researchers behind “mating mind” hypothesis, the stereotype that the brave wins the lady and the kind gets the gentleman are mere variations of the generosity as selfishness theme.
In the fourth explanation, charity works as a defensive strategy. Donations buy immunity from prosecution. Charity helps establish the credibility of a person who may have used all possible ways to amass a fortune. Robber barons of yore redeemed their reputations through benefactions.
The exact cause is difficult to identify, but none of these factors seems to work in what was once the only Hindu kingdom of the world. For some strange reasons, Nepal is one of the least “Giving Countries” of the world. In the World Giving Index – 2011, the country has improved its ranking from abysmal 100 in 2010 to still lowly 84 in 2011.
That progress merely confirms the initial impression that better placed Nepalis do extremely little to alleviate the sufferings of their less fortunate countrymen. Solace can perhaps be had from the fact that India ranks even lower on the WGI ranking. But that is perhaps natural, as an average Indian has even more faith in the benevolence of Pashupatinath than common Nepalis.
Like the magnificence of Rome and opulence of Pataliputra, the grandeur of Kathmandu hasn’t been built in a day. People of distant lands down the ages have paid for the splendors of the Nepal Valley. Himalayan highlands sent its best herbs and softest wool. Packs of animal came down from the mountains bringing in much-needed labor force.
Humans and mules hauled timber, cotton, grains and metals from down in the plains. Their amalgamation produced one of the most vibrant cultures of South Asia. And then the twice-born bearers of the “sacred thread” took over. The rest is a history of warring Malla princes, feuding court nobles, scheming priests, rapacious traders, and reveling peasants who failed to withstand ceaseless Gorkhali onslaughts, and the Valley became the capital of Asali Hindusthana—true land of the Hindus.
The World Giving Index uses a very broad criterion to assess charity. Respondents are asked whether they donated money, volunteered time, or helped a needy stranger. Contributions made to political parties, community organizations and religious endeavors are taken into account. Nepal fared worse than Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka on all counts.
Perhaps it appeared better than India to WGI assessors due to widespread “NGO-ing”—an activity that resembles volunteering but is actually one of the most lucrative career choices for the upwardly mobile youngsters of twice-born castes.
The lack of giving instinct in Nepali culture is exemplified by the behavior of poet-ancient Bhanubhakta Acharya. The grandson of a noted priest and son of a government employee was amazed by the determination of an aged grass cutter who wanted to channel her earning for the construction of a public well. It inspired the young Brahmin not to donate for the construction of a tank befitting his status but to write a beautiful poem. Ever since, penning poems and shouting slogans have remained two main pastime of Nepal’s aware citizenry.
Rulers routinely deceive. Instruments of government are habitually ruthless. The nobility demands its dues without showing the willingness to shoulder social responsibilities. The haves do not give to the less fortunate.
The Valley is back to being a Darwinian domain. Denizens may not openly admit it, but everybody seems to be expecting deliverance through a miracle. When a society gets mired in such inactivity and all-pervasive sense of helplessness, the time is ripe for the arrival of a savior on horseback brandishing a whiplash.
Lal contributes to The Week with his biweekly column Reflections. He is one of the widely read political analyst in Nepal.