Nepal’s philosopher kings

Published On: February 25, 2018 12:34 AM NPT By: Bimal Pratap Shah

Viewed from the western perspective Prithvi Narayan Shah was a philosopher king, from the Buddhist angle he was a Dhammaraja, a righteous monarch

Albert Camus once said: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” We did just that for some time. We forgot Prithivi Narayan Shah’s contribution for the last 11 years and finally remembered his vision of creating a spiritual enlightened utopia and celebrated his birthday with much fanfare this year. Many, including President Bidya Devi Bhandari paid respect to one of the greatest personalities to have been born in Nepal after Buddha. Even so, his confused haters still think he was a brutal human being who annexed tiny principalities in the region in order to exploit them. 

Many of his supporters passionately feel he was a great military leader who unified the modern day Nepal with the mighty Gorkhali Army (Gurkhas). In a truest sense, I believe he was a philosopher king when viewed from the western perspective and a Dhammaraja when viewed from the Buddhist angle. 

More than 200 years before the birth of Christ, Plato, a Greek philosopher discussed philosopher king in his seminal work The Republic.   He believed the best government is the one with a philosopher king in power because philosophers possess the knowledge required to create ‘Kallipolis’—an ideal political state which is just. Simply put, philosophers are better rulers because of their affinity toward truth-seeking and rational thinking. However, in the time of Plato, it was highly unlikely for a philosopher to become a king so it was more practical for a king to be a philosopher by studying philosophy. 

Ideal rulers 
Drabya Shah, Ram Shah, Prithvi Narayan Shah and Tribhuwan Shah were such kings. At the same time, we cannot forget philosopher leaders like Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala and Mandan Bhandari. All of them believed in freeing the people from the tyranny of dysfunctional governance practices, few misguided religious traditions, and totalitarian discriminatory regimes.  Above all, they knew effective ways of solving the tragedy of the commons.  Maoists also started their movement with a vision of changing Nepal into ‘Kallipolis’, but this goal seems to be lost in transition. 

Drabya Shah was a prince of Lamjung, who saw decadence in the society and so went about creating a better country that was to be just, egalitarian, and powerful. After Ram Shah took the kingship the new kingdom got a solid philosophical foundation necessary for establishing ‘Kallipolis’. Ram Shah created many revolutionary policies to govern the new found state based on the principles of justice, freedom and equality. The policies were so effective that the adage “for knowledge go to Banaras” and “for justice go to Gorkha” quickly became popular in the region attracting many radical thinkers, writers, poets, farmers, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, philosophers, and academicians who were wrongly punished for their progressive viewpoints that did not align with the status quo. Many stayed there permanently and contributed to bringing glory to Gorkha. 

In the 18th century, Prithivi Narayan Shah with the wisdom, courage, and determination decided to spread the ideals of ‘Kallipolis’ outside the border of Gorkha.  The new revolutionary idea instantly gained popularity because caste-based discrimination had become the norm in the region making most of the tiny principalities somewhat dysfunctional. This type of discriminatory practice that stifled the progress of society was not acceptable to the philosopher kings and the people of Gorkha for they had already created an egalitarian society similar to those prescribed by Buddha and Plato.  In fact, the unification was possible and sustainable because people welcomed them in the newly annexed states for their radically different governance viewpoint. 

Glory of Buddha
In 500 BC, Buddha thought the impossible and brought radical changes in the decadent society of that time. Although born a prince, he realized conditioned experiences could not provide lasting happiness or protection from suffering. After a long spiritual quest, he realized the nature of mind and achieved Buddhahood (the state of enlightenment). In the Madhura Sutta of the Majjhima (II 85), he says all four castes set by the Hindu religion are equal. In the Assaldyana Sutta of the Majjhima (II 149) and the Madhura Sutta, Majjhima II 87, Buddha talks about the existence of higher castes, but only on metaphysical grounds.  

According to Buddha, one does not become an outcaste at birth but by deeds or karma and also the law of karma operates impartially, irrespective of the caste of a doer, and that karmic law is not discriminatory like man-made ones. Interestingly, there is no concept of aristocracy in Buddhism except in terms of intellect and morality. 

Buddha also prescribed an effective governance model based on democratic principles like freedom of speech, equal representation of the masses, and solidarity and civility. He came up with the concept of Dhammaraja (righteous monarch) who rules over his subjects justly and equitably. Such kings should possess both virtue (sila) and wisdom (panna) to understand and differentiate between good and evil. They are empowered by five strengths: physical, material, of court officials, of nobility, and wisdom.  More importantly, the king is to use the five strengths to eradicate poverty and maintain righteousness in the worldly spheres. 

It is said that the people of a country ruled by a Dhammaraja are lucky and usually get to live in comparative comfort within existing means and limits. Also, it is the highest duty of Dhammaraja to eradicate poverty in the country so that people do not have to leave the country for employment. 

Prithvi’s wisdom 
Prithivi Narayan Shah was a Dhammaraja. In ‘Dibya Upadesh,’ he has prescribed many great ideals necessary for a country to function properly. Some of which are as follows: Nepal is a garden of “four varnas and 36 sub-castes” meaning from here on everyone is to be treated equally. It is King’s duty to ensure there is no injustice in Nepal. If there is injustice in the country, the king will face the karmic consequences and punishment.  Also, that the biggest enemies of the nation are the people who give and take bribes. Furthermore, he strongly advocated self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and believed in the concepts of sustainability all of which are virtually non-existent at this point of time.  

Now we have K P Sharma Oli as the new Prime Minister. The million dollar question is, “can he be become Plato’s philosopher Prime Minister and save Nepal from dystopian doom?

The author writes about history of Gorkha 

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