Sunday, June 27, 2010

Shambhalan Inputs


The urge for renewal is not unusual for any culture. This craving lives on, for example, in the Hindu or Buddhist idea of reincarnation, the Muslim tajdid, or the Christian resurrection. Even the material plane is subject to renewals, of seasons, desires and ideals. The spring harvest rituals have been around since antiquity. In today’s media-saturated societies, ever after novelty and improved updates, the pursuit of renewal is constant.

Institutionally, now, in the federally-orientated Nepal, this primordial desire for renewal reflects in our efforts to completely break away from our past. At the same time, it manifests partly in our yearning for a return to the many pre-Nepal identities that floated across the Himalayas before the political conquests of the 18th century and the subsequent social assimilations.

Politically, we cannot hide our many aversions to our past, almost considering all establishment history an anathema. And yet, culturally, as an ancient civilization, we treasure many old glories and experiences. Our imagined, manufactured or real oneness as a national community is anchored in our collective pride derived from our master symbols, for example, Shiva, the Buddha, the Gurkhas, Bhrikuti, Sita, Janak, Tenzing, etc as well as the bordered formations like Mechi-Mahakali, Teesta-Kangada, Himal-Tarai, and over 300 million different (Hindu) gods and goddesses, and now many competing political demigods and nouveau celebrities. As much as these symbols affirm our collective esteem, they could, together with many images of global politics and trade, obscure a clear view of a future that is free of any prejudices.

We can never completely walk away from our past. Today, more than ever, a delicate balancing act is required of us to retain our desirable past attributes even as we try to acquire new ones for our future that we envision.

However, our selective memory eschews the many good virtues in our culture. We tend to focus too much on everything that has gone wrong in our history: Political intrigues, repression, adversity, poverty, suffering, hopelessness, etc. Our cannot-do/will-not-work attitude, so apparent in our inability to reach consensus, or write the new constitution, for example, persists in our current efforts at political renewal.

What happened to our positive, optimistic values of harmony, cooperation, or peaceful coexistence? The self-renewing process of democracy is distinguished in its respect for sane traditions and trusteeship of good values even as we question outdated and superstitious practices and embrace forward-looking alternatives. If we are perceived historically as a war-like tribe and if we are obsessed with the Mahabharat-like politics, it is also true that our culture is not lacking in the myths and visions needed for a peaceful, self-sustaining and –governing society.

One such instance is the wisdom of Shambhala, popularly called Shangri-La. There is more to it than just the rarified, exoticized utopian image we gather from the media depictions. Some of its virtues could inspire us to re-imagine a nation truly unique in her characteristics. It can offer a sense of continuity to our collective aspiration for a peaceful, just and happy society and may serve as the basis of our new “imagined community” of a federated state, to borrow the phrase by the American scholar Benedict Anderson.

Nicholas Roerich, Song of Shambhala: Thang-La (1943).

What is interesting about Shambhala, a compound of the Sanskrit Swayam (self) and bhala (beneficence) or bala (power) is that the term offers a refreshing approach to our present ordeal, and some specific conditions for the realization of self-governance. The word sounds homonymous with the Nepali for “to restrain” or “to preserve/protect.” The mythic kingdom of Shambhala described in pre-Buddhist and Buddhist literature and lore is not merely a spiritual mirage; it does suggest some tangible advice on the mundane of material and political life. Besides its linguistic affinity with us, Shamabhala almost rhymes with Nepal, and it is, in fact, a geographic and physical entity imagined somewhere within the Himalayan expanses. It is a grand indigenous vision long waiting to be considered in everyday life.

We may contrast Shambhala with another of the ancient political visions developed in Athens in 360 BC. The idea of “republic” was not less of a dream when it was envisioned by Plato. It signified both eutopos (good place) and outopos (out of place). In his book Republic, the Greek philosopher proposes a three-fold hierarchy of philosopher kings, executive agents, and ordinary workers and artisans. He elevates public over private life, sanctions pervasive control and regulation of daily life, legislates communism of property, wives and children, and enables equality between sexes in matters of government and even military positions, and proposes rigorous training and education for the would-be rulers. Viewed today, it is an ideology overtly left-leaning.

Morally, Plato envisages wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice as the chief ingredients for his ideal state. He, however, states that as desires dominate reason, the ideal state becomes corrupt and is ruled by a dictator.

Shambhala echoes some of these platonic ideals. Joanna Macy, a Buddhist scholar, wrote that wisdom and compassion form the two weapons that will be used by Sambhala warriors when they fight with the forces of destruction. Then, according to prophecy, under an enlightened future king, the world will become, at last, a place of peace and plenty. Substitute the king for a representative leader, and the evils of society for the forces of destruction, and you get a modern picture. Only that we are in want of more weapons of mass enlightenment and compassion.

A close reading of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933), inspired by Shambhala, reveals many parallels in Plato’s Republic. It covers geography, family and community life, education, politics and bureaucracy, economy, and religion of the ideal society. The secluded valley of Shambhala is an agricultural community, with an abundance of minerals, but no sense of personal wealth. It imports all kinds of things, such as Western bath. It is inhabited by sparse number of people, where no social or status distinctions prevail, where divorce is discouraged, and chastity, moderation and good taste are upheld.

Education in Shambhala is a life-long pursuit, like in the Republic. Since people can prolong the prime of their lives, they have enough time for extensive learning. Some can speak more than 10 languages. Unlike the aristocratic Republic, it is an ideal theocracy, where the High Lama serves as religious and political leader. There seems to be no need for law enforcement because behavior in all things is in moderation. One striking feature of Shambhala is its involvement with the outside world, despite its remoteness. It is seriously involved in collecting all the great books, works of art, music, and ideas of the world so as to preserve them for posterity. It is tolerant of other faiths, Buddhist temples stand side by side with shrines of other faiths. The people there are so happy that outsiders think there has to be something wrong when everyone seems to be content.

We may sigh over discrepancies Shambhala reveals, for example, in our present crumbling rule of law, political discord, conspicuous consumerism, tainted environment, and mass discontent. And we may certainly dismiss today the monastic, authoritarian tendencies of Shambhala, such as theocracy, austerity, communal ownership of property. But the eternal themes of beauty, justice, moderation, equality and compassion as well as the industrial virtues of reason, engagement, creativity, education, health, and devotion to work ring true to our current needs. The Shambhalan ethics underlying religious, and by extension, racial or ethnic harmony, is perhaps the single most constructive force for today.

As we try to renew our polity, we should set our priorities straight in our pursuit of peace, happiness and well-being. It’s the middle path, without the extremes of authoritarianism or individualism.

Published in Republica, June 26, 2010.