19 MIN READ
Less than seven years since Nepal did away with the Hindu character of the state via the new constitution, anti-secularism voices have been on the rise. Sporadic rallies and protests demanding a return of the monarchy and the Hindu state have taken place in recent years, supported by multiple political forces with significant public support.
Much of the opposition to secularism appears to be fueled by the constitution's failure to define the form to which Nepal has committed itself. Whereas anti-secularists have long been demanding the use of the term ‘religious freedom’ (dharmik swatantrata) over ‘secularism’ (dharma nirapekshata), pro-secularists in Nepal on the other hand have found it difficult to reconcile the secularism with the constitution’s conspicuous preference for Hinduism. The 2015 constitution states that Nepal is a ‘secular’ state before going on to clarify that secular refers to “religious, cultural freedoms, including protection of religion, culture handed down from the time immemorial.”
As secularism appears to be at a critical juncture, Nepal needs to assess the forces that led to this development, which include royalist sycophancy, a decline in Hindu supremacy, and increased religious conversion. The rise of Hindutva in Nepal portends a dismal future with unforeseen and undesired consequences, especially for Nepal’s religious minorities, and eventually, Hinduism itself.
The demand for Nepal as a Hindu state is based on two propositions: that Nepal is the ‘origin’ of Hinduism, or at least, ‘Asali Hindustan’, and that it is home to a majority of Hindus. Archaeological evidence and historical records are clear that, spatially, Northwest India (Kuru-Panchala) and Northeast India (Gosala-Videha) were the two regions that proved potent for the origin and growth of fledgling Indic religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. These religions gradually diffused throughout the Indian subcontinent. The dominating theory orchestrated in relation to ‘original religion’ is debunked and invalidated by the fact that Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism entered Nepal ‘early’ as a result of migration. Technically, some religions are convincingly ancient, but there is no evidence that these religions originated in Nepal itself.
An undrawn nuanced distinction between terminologies — early migrated religion and original religion — is the underlying factor in dividing religions into foreign and native. Technically, all religions in Nepal are foreign with entries separated by the ancient and modern periods. Both religions (Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism) and people (Gopals, Kirats, Lichavvis, Mallas, Shahs) came from ‘outside’. Claiming that Hinduism originated in Nepal would be similar to saying that Christianity began in the United States or Islam in Pakistan. It's time to dispense with the dogmatic myth about original religions that has been drummed into people.
A great misconception regarding the term ‘Sanatana Dharma’ has also gained currency in recent times. The tendency to translate ‘Sanatana’ as ‘eternal’ has led to the conflation of the historical with the transcendent. Primarily, the term ‘Sanatana Dharma’, as it pertains to Hinduism, refers to the ‘eternal’ or absolute set of duties or religiously ordained practices incumbent upon all Hindus, irrespective of class, caste, or sect. Therefore, Hinduism is transcendentally eternal, not historically eternal.
Historically, the genealogy of Hinduism as a form of religion, ritual, and practice invariably takes us back to the Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan) in 2000-2500 BC. But in the context of Nepal, Hinduism has a concrete beginning and the constitution’s “time immemorial” should simply be read as ‘3,000-4,000 years old’. The constitution’s phrase “sanatan dekhi chali aayeko” essentially means ‘ancient’, so it would be wrong to equate ‘sanatana’ with historically eternal. Unfortunately, this persistent error has been trumpeted rhetorically, resulting in a deluded conviction that Hinduism has historically existed or originated in Nepal since its beginning.
In the Constitution of Nepal (2015), “secular” is defined as the “ protection of religion and culture practised since ancient times”. Nepal needs to concede that the protection of ancient religions is at odds with secularism, as Islam and Christianity are excluded. Analogically, for Nepal, ancient religions are her biological children while so-called foreign religions are her stepchildren, so the principle of equal treatment suffers when emotions and rationality conflict. The fear prevails that stepchildren will outnumber biological children, to the extent of gobbling up their privileges.
Hindu kingdom nostalgia
Nobody should rob the Shah dynasty of its historic unification campaign, whatever its intention may have been. With military superiority and perspicacity, the dynasty superseded innumerable small kingdoms. The year 2006 marked the beginning of a completely new era — the ‘people’s will’ (the dynasty of the people) defeated and supplanted the monarchy. Power shifted, and so did ownership of the country. Abandoning ephemeral nostalgia for the past or the monarchy, it's time for the significance of the shift in power dynamics — from a king-centered system to a people-centered system — to be soberly acknowledged and internalized. The end of the monarchy heralded freedom from long-held chains, allowing an existence and identity independent of a king for the first time.
The monarchy in Nepal legitimized its hereditary prerogatives by elevating the monarch to the pedestal of Lord Vishnu, exploiting people’s gullibility and religiosity. But no ‘larger-than-life’ monarch ever came close to being the archetypical Lord Vishnu. Yet, a longing for the return of the Hindu monarch has resurfaced. Such demands for the restoration of the retrograde monarchy can seem unfathomable and questionable. Are the citizens of Nepal so accustomed to chains that freedom tortures or suffocates them?
Let it be reminded that a monarchy is a hereditary system of antiquity, rather anachronistic and virtually incompatible with democratic values. Incompetent the current democratic and republican leaders may have turned out to be, but we share an equal human-human equation with our representatives, unlike the erstwhile unequal god-human equation.
Hindus and Hinduism
Known for his ingenuity and his harsh criticism of organized Christianity, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche encapsulated the 1,900-year-long history of Christianity in a simple maxim: “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” This characterization was based on the observation of developments that accompanied Christianity — the failure of Christians to live up to the expectations of Jesus Christ. The maxim may be applicable to other religions and their followers.
The results of Chiara Letizia's (professor at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal) empirical research on secularism in Nepal, published in 2016, consist of typical remarks from anti-secularism voices: “Hinduism is inherently flexible, liberal, secular, never rigid, respectful of all other religions, neither dogmatic nor proselytizing, tolerant, inclusive, and allows religious freedom. Declaration of secularism in this country was unnecessary.” This could be a largely accurate characterization, but it broaches a critical question — what about a Hindu state or a Hindu kingdom?
Such a depiction of Hinduism as replete with great principles is at odds with how the Hindu kingdom and state treated other religions. It is one thing for Hindu apologists to rhetorically reference Hinduism’s teachings, but quite another for an entire state to abide by them. Nor do all Hindus live by the magnificent Vasudaihva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) and other philosophies preached by the Hindu scriptures. Because people, on a personal and societal level, struggle to live up to such principles, secularism is required to ensure moral imperatives constitutionally.
Hinduism is certainly a repository of great teachings and scriptures but it also contains a few pernicious cultural components. For instance, the Bhagavad Gita’s non-hierarchical varna system was morphed into a grotesque caste hierarchy over time. It is a great misfortune that rulers like Jung Bahadur Rana and King Mahendra, perhaps deliberately, attached more importance to such oppressive elements while totally turning a blind eye to virtuous ones.
Moreover, just as Mao and Stalin twisted Marxism, Hinduism’s reputation suffered greatly because of Jung Bahadur’s institutionalization of the caste system and Mahendra’s forced homogenization or Hinduization. The state and its rulers normalized inhumane and discriminatory practices that were part and parcel of the less-desirable side of Hinduism.
Under a Hindu state, preventing a travestied Hinduism featuring Hindutva, Hindu supremacy, and religious imposition will be insurmountable. The Hindu state or kingdom can hardly prove itself a bastion of authentic Hinduism if it cannot avoid resorting to discriminatory laws and policies.
Reportedly, a PEW global research on freedom of religion from 2017 and 2018 found that Nepal witnessed a sharp rise in social hostilities towards religious minorities, from moderate levels in 2014 to high levels in 2015 and 2016. When religious minorities in a ‘secular’ country face such adversities, potential hostilities in a religiously dominant Hindu state leave one apprehensive.
Intriguingly, the land that birthed Hinduism, India, graciously embraced secularism a long time ago. Meanwhile, Nepal’s futile stubbornness to revert to a Hindu state or Hindu kingdom leaves eyebrows raised. There is a general consensus that the ultra-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, custodian of Hindutva, has an interest in restoring Nepal to a Hindu state. In a 2015 letter to the then Nepali prime minister, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath expressed his hope that Nepal be a Hindu state. The most succinct response to such entreaties would be: after you. After all, it is fitting that the land where Hinduism originated should take the lead. If a religious majority is a prerequisite then India has a 78 percent Hindu population (slightly less than Nepal’s 81.3 percent).
Seemingly emboldened, some Nepali Congress leaders believe a referendum is the right way to decide between a secular and a Hindu state. No doubt, they are emboldened by the hope of getting a landslide victory in favor of a Hindu state. But in an indirect democracy, deciding on issues like secularism via a referendum would be objectionable and contentious.
Thou shall not proselytize
Religion conversion in Nepal has always attracted denunciation but in recent times, it is being increasingly perceived as a massive existential threat. Hindus are reportedly converting to Christianity in a dramatic and unprecedented rise. Inevitably, its adherents, estimated between 1.4 percent, have evoked resentment and hatred. The typical accusations regard enticing the gullible and poor people with cash and other incentives, brainwashing Nepalis, and acting as secret agents of the West. Through such allegations, society deceptively and imperceptibly discourages converts whilst the state’s subtle tactics manifest in the form of a ban on religious conversion.
Noticeably, the ban on proselytization in 2018 in response to the rise of religious conversion reveals Nepal’s latent desire to maintain the numeric domination of Hindus. No state in its right mind can think of religious conversion as intrinsically a crime, but the projection of possible implications has triggered a protectionist approach. The scar of olden times, when the conversion of local elites from various indigenous nationalities to Hinduism was incentivized, gives rise to questions as to why some religions were openly allowed to do so while others are not spared today.
It is reasonable that forced conversion may be subjected to punishment. But people willingly convert of their own accord too, so the ban on religious conversion is largely inconsistent with secularism. And who draws the line between a voluntary religious conversion and a forced one? Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist, writes, "Isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?" As children are inducted, unbeknownst, into a particular faith, can it be constituted as a forced conversion or not? Technically, Hindu parents convert their children to Hinduism, and this applies to all religions.
Those who disparagingly dismiss secularism as a "foreign ideology/import” and thus incompatible with Nepal should take care to scrupulously scrutinize the historical background of the political and economic systems currently active in the country. Socialism, communism, Maoism, liberalism, democracy, Marxism-Leninism, Juche ideology, Xi Jinping Thought, none of them sprouted from Nepal. No institution or ideology belongs to this country; ideological appropriation is universal and inevitable. Why single out reversion to the ‘old/original’ religion-derived system of the Hindu state and leave out others?
It’s debatable whether foreign powers are behind religious conversion but no amount of surreptitiousness can conceal the fact that foreign players are certainly involved in the Hindu state agenda in Nepal. The India-based Hindu group, Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, has campaigned online, providing support for the restoration of the Hindu state. Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh Nepal, and the Hindu Jagaran Samaj reportedly provided financial support to anti-secular protests in Nepal. Hypocritically, these activities remain unaccosted, neither slandered nor labeled as the ‘foreign involvement’ of bideshi dalals.
Among the many models of secularism available to Nepal are the Laicite model of one-sided exclusion (French), principled distance (Indian), communal harmony (Indian), and mutual exclusion (American). Primarily, these are distinct based on the degree of separation between religion and the state. Given Nepal’s unique socio-religious landscape, it can, in the spirit of Goldilocks, settle with the principled distance model propounded by Rajeev Bhargava, an Indian political theorist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. In this model, the state supports religions through subsidies but also intervenes to reform harmful elements. This model is virtually different from the French model (strict separation of religion and state) in that it mandates congeniality with all religions in terms of equal recognition, religious freedom, and religious equality.
Nepal’s left-leaning political parties, especially the Maoists, interpreted secularism along the lines of the French model, leading to the Baburam Bhattarai-Indra Jatra controversy in 2008 and the priest issue that enmeshed Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Those at the vanguard of the pro-Hindu state movement seem to be cherrypicking the French model’s (active disrespect for religion) interpretations and magnifying them, leaving Hindus riled up, terrorized, and indignant. Meanwhile, friendly features associated with other models of secularism at play in Nepal do not make the rounds.
The constitution’s rationality in having declared Nepal a secular state is undermined because of its undetailed formulation in relation to the term ‘secular’. Consequently, as in the blind men and the elephant story, the elephant (Nepal’s secularism) has been understood from separate sides, resulting in divergent interpretations. Equating political secularism with atheism, humanism, secularization, and anti-religion is downright misleading.
In general, the connection and disconnection between a state and religion are at three levels—ends, institutions, and law. A theocratic state presupposes a connection at all three levels while a connection at just one particular level to the exclusion of others suffices a religious state. A Hindu state would thus entail the official religion being Hinduism (ends), the presence of Hindu religious personnel in the structures of the state (institutions), and legitimization of Hindu-oriented policies (law).
Contentious as it may sound, all religions are not equal, as a particular religion may be more appealing in terms of theology, metaphysics, ethics, liturgy, and history. Arguably, Hinduism, featuring innumerable great scriptures, can be hardly challenged in that regard. However, not everybody prefers to subscribe to such ideas or beliefs, no matter how insightful or profound. When it comes to religion, one size doesn’t fit all.
In Islamic states, for instance, Sharia law based on Islamic holy scriptures largely governs law or policy. A huge shortcoming here is that laws or policies influenced by the dominant religion come at the expense of minorities. With such institutionalized religious domination, everyone will be expected to play by Hindu rules and be a fitting cogwheel in the Hindu-state machine, and non-conformism could yield harsh treatment.
Secularism, Hinduism, and Hindutva
The antithesis to “secularism is a Christian conspiracy” is that it has long been sought by Theravada Buddhists, Kirats, Janajatis, and other minority religions. Secularism has proved to be a positive-sum game for Hindus in Nepal. While it has certainly benefited minorities by preventing religious domination, Hinduism is hardly in a disadvantageous position. In fact, despite secularism, it turns out the largest religion is ‘more equal’ than others. The president intimately attends important Hindu festivals, there are cow slaughter and religious conversion bans, and more holidays on Hindu festivals.
Instead of being preoccupied with an unreasonable aspiration to be the only Hindu state in the world at the expense of religious minorities, Nepal should be at ease and optimistic that its identity — a Hindu majority country — will remain unassailed. Secularism does not interfere with the brighter side of Hinduism, but it pits itself against caste discrimination and other oppressive Hindu practices. In fact, as Bhargava points out, secularism has allowed reforms in Hinduism itself — something less likely to happen in a conservative Hindu state.
Nothing is as detrimental as hate-based Hindutva, perilous for the raison d'être of all religions in Nepal, including Hinduism itself. Before this fire of Hindutva exacerbates into a wildfire, it’s better doused out or nipped in the embryonic state. Those at the forefront of Hinduism, concerned about the promotion of Hindu culture and Hindu identity, are barking up the wrong tree, ignoring more serious problems. Right now, the biggest risk for Hindus and Hinduism in Nepal comes from Hindutva rather than from religious conversion and secularism. Authentic Hinduism and Hindutva are dichotomous and hence irreconcilable, in contrast to the compatibility between Hinduism and secularism.
Indian Congress leader Shashi Tharoor argues that Hindutva reduces Hinduism to a badge of identity. To him, “In the form propagated by the right-wing organizations, Hindutva violates democratic principles and Satya (truth).” His book, Why I am a Hindu, extensively explicates that bigotry and intolerance are inherent in Hindutva. The arguments of the entire book boil down to a few words: Hinduism has nothing to do with Hindutva.
Rather than being disconcerted by a secular country, Nepal’s Hindu enthusiasts should endeavor to retain Hinduism’s declining glory. The energy for concerted campaigns demanding a Hindu state or kingdom would be better directed toward reinventing Hinduism along the lines of the Upanishads, Vedas, and other profound teachings. The question of what it truly means to be a Hindu has far more significance than issues regarding the protection of Hindu identity and a preoccupation with Hindu state political agendas.
In addition, reinvigorating Hinduism entails uprooting oppressive elements that are not in affinity with human rights and human freedom. Caste discrimination or caste-based marginalization, feudalistic tendencies, and patriarchal customs must be dispensed with. Such elements have been cancerous and have eaten the spirit of Hinduism. Who knows, perhaps Hinduism, which has lost followers due to religious conversion, may see a voluntary re-conversion someday.
Most importantly, in Nepal, the adoption of a secularism congruent with all religions must take precedence over the insistence to revert to a Hindu kingdom or state. To that end, the objective terminological formulation of secularism, accompanied by a total commitment to it, will be crucial. Lawmakers must also outline the form of secularism adopted by Nepal to prevent conflicting ideas among the public.
At present, Nepal is minimally secular, and what lies ahead of us — whether we become thickly secular or fall under the spell of a Hindu state again — depends on how wisely the people and politicians respond to the rising tide of anti-secularism.
Krishnaman Rai Krishnaman Rai is an Associate Faculty at National College (KU), involved in teaching Philosophy and Religion since 2020. His major academic interests include Western philosophy, Existentialism, Friedrich Nietzsche, Vedanta (Adi Sankaracharya), Indian philosophy, logic & reasoning, secularism, scriptures, Eastern religions, and Abrahamic religions.
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