Dev Raj Dahal
The telos defines civil society and its functions. The animating values of classical civil society are freedom, justice, solidarity and peace which are also championed by the moderns. The wisdom of ancients espoused the liberating values to ease a transition from the state of nature to civil society. Character building of citizens and leaders through Vedic cultivation of life in a duplex world-internal and external, sought to keep integrated view of existence in balance, surpass inhuman determinism of education, power and wealth and enable citizens to adapt to changing order of society.
The Vedas’ zeitgeist defends existence, freedom and truth-seeking character of individual’s longing for undying, eternal atman (soul). It cannot be reduced to class, gender, ethnicity and age groups as it merges with universal, unearthly essence. The Upanishads underline the necessity of self-control, charity and compassion to others as the bases of ethical and civic life. In no way by cramming of the lessons of Vedas and Upanishads can one attain the peace of Nirvana unless one synthesises their lessons and experiences, translates into practical wisdom and performs punya karma (virtuous action).
The open-ended shastrartha (critical discourse) of sages in the palace of Rajarshi Janak aimed to liberate knowledge from the intoxicating nature of power, its male profession and establish its universal, timeless, bodily - transcending sovereignty, Videha, a sovereignty which is essentially created by the discursive public sphere of free space, not controlled by the state and material bondage or influenced by power, business, interests, ideology or theory. The teaching of Karamic effects enabled one to grasp the idea of rich sociability, acculturation and maturation in thinking, acting and judging. Nepal’s educational practices had reconciled both spiritual and rational ends. The deviation of this sane rational tradition and its replacement by dogmatic rituals marked its decline.
The sovereignty of knowledge was thus replaced by the thrill of race to seize power and authority. As a result, rigid institutions were created to justify status quo ensuing social and gender discrimination, immobility of lower castes and muted conversation about their upliftment. It is the onset of the erosion of propensity for full progress towards civility and opening of the crisis of proper socialisation of children and youth into active citizenship able to cultivate proper cognitive development, harness the nation’s intellectual tradition and assume social, economic and political responsibility for social empowerment and norm-governed order. These are vital traits for Nepali civil society to harness and alley the growing fears of systemic crisis.
“Know thyself,” in Plato’s dialogue revealed the essence of atma gyan to self-discover inner vigilance to achieve what Gautam Buddha calls Appa Dipo Bhava, self-illumination. It is vital to build public-spirited, duty-based civic character beyond the doctrine of rights, laws, contract, efficiency and competition in the outer world. Astavakra, while teaching King Janak, unveils the rules of right reasoning, reflection, reason, morality and courage to achieve enlightenment, Videh. Socrates taught Plato “virtue is knowledge”. This means what is vital is inner self. The Platonic improvement and transformation of soul from vegetative (plant), locomotive (animal) to sensitive human one is, therefore, essential to shake the appetite of acquisition for the creation of what Buddha calls a “mindful society”.
Aristotle, like Buddha, discovered the right feeling and reason for rational reflection and action in the middle path and avoid the cause of evil. But like Epicureans, he detested fatalism, superstition and structural injustice to build peace in an unsettled world, a peace arising out of good deed for blessed life of citizens. Obviously, science and social science are only tools to explain external world, not the improvement of the soul which requires as Leibniz says the reconciliation of faith and reason. The notion of change is well outlined by Nepal’s ancient thinkers who said that self, social division of labour and statecraft have to adjust with sanatan dharma, the cosmological order.
Sovereignty in the will of Janata Janardan, the citizens, in no way made them absolutely free to pursue their selfish interests separated from their responsibility to other species, community, nationality and shared humanity but work for the reforms of the unfairness of society. It means being able to live a fully dignified life and freedom of choice under the rule of higher order dharma beyond lower order of modern jurisprudence.
The Vedic version of cosmic view of human life does not treat human as an end in itself. Its focus on the spiritualisation of human life means finding what system scientist Fritzof Capra calls revealing the virtues of “hidden connection” of human’s inner and outer life and discover links with other species for their own enduring survival and progress. Yet, modern individuals are tormented without knowing this hidden connection and pursue absolute aspiration of domination of all and renewed failure to do so thus touching off emotional imbalance, stress and turmoil.
The nostalgic attraction of Nepalis to a purity of civil society resonates in many literary festivals, ashrams and modern gurukuls set up with ancient ideals to shape the ideal character of learners for human communion, sat sangh which both Gautam Buddha and Alex D. Tocqueville called the art of association beyond tribal confines or modern workshops and seminars. It aimed to nurture a political culture of sharing and caring and liberate human beings from Hobbesian notion of dissembled life which is solitary, isolated and selfish haunted by insecurity and scarcity.
The devout individuals of Nepal’s Terai, valleys and part of hills, imbued with pious feelings, constructed cultural centres, schools, colleges, libraries, public inns, temples, monasteries, health centres, ponds, water spouts, resting places, home for the orphanages and helpless people, Guthis, Paropakars (charity), and spared pasture land animating the ancient spirit of civility of Nepali society. Out of generosity the civil society of Mustang donated Rs. 2.5 million to flood victims of Koshi River while Kamalaris collected food items to send to the people of hills during earthquake. Many civic communities of Kathmandu Valley and other towns provided food to the displaced. In the midst of ferocity of coronavirus, the Nepali workers and diasporas living in various parts of the world offered health kits indicating the reservoir of goodwill, kindness, civility and affinity.
The multiversal social movements in Nepal find their resonance in the spirit of Jayatu Sanskritam, formation of civic groups and interpretation of classical treatise Bhagvad Geeta by Sukra Raj Shastri in defence of a just rule. The motivational basis of civil society thus constituted a harmony of public wills between the tradition of educators and their audience, the public, committing the former to latter’s freedom, health and happiness, form a bond with communicative idioms and a selfless responsibility to those in need, Niskam Karma, which formed the basis of native Nepali civil society.
The concept of giving dan, charity, is common in Nepali society while business was allowed to uphold ethical practice with just price, Shiva Lav, a tag marked in the front gate of each business house symbolising good corporate governance. The domination of politics and business by acquisitive special interest groups now marks an atrophy of this spirit having lethal effects on altruism and charity, the lofty aspiration of civic duty to citizens. In Nepal, any conceptualisation of civil society is expected to capture the spirit of what Immanuel Kant calls “harmony of public wills” that balances constitutional rules and coercive power of the state.
In a state exhausted by chronic political instability where powerful individuals are at liberty to fulfil their undue desire at the cost of welfare of the weak, create the scarcity of public goods and force them to compromise liberty for livelihood. In this context, the role of Nepali civil society presupposes in seeking to mediate competitive powerful interests and regulate their conduct so that all citizens will be able to secure their survival need, foster political coexistence and nurture moral imperative to long for higher order of common humanity.
The shifting roles of civil society from advocacy, relief to building organisation of education, information and enlightenment, enlisting citizens’ engagement in provision and production of essential goods and self-governing polity affirm fulfilling their constitutionally entrenched sovereignty, informing leaders and citizens about their rights and duties and eradicating the vices of Nepali society. Astavakra asserted that if one sees self with the eyes of other, not self-extension of personal interests it can offer common ground for conflict resolution.
Civil society thus appears critical of positivism that animates in outward manifestation of life, not help much in improving character and public morality. They, therefore, need to synthesise local roots of knowledge and universal ideals in the light of reason, faith, feeling and morality, not instrumental calculation of costs and benefits like in business and politics. When civil society are divorced from human sensibility and relent to the glitter of global mobility, like mobile capital, they desert ordinary Nepalis struggling for voice, visibility and representation and hardly serve as a catalyst of social change.
Very soon it marked their flaws as many suffered split, others turned into NGOs, partisan institutions while others were buried in the rubble of their own jargons. Similarly the boundary-crossing of civil society from Niskam Karma to utilitarian political and business sphere, abdication of emancipatory role, co-optation in the materiality of power, reliance on projectised approach and revolt against the normalising functions of the sanity of the nation’s positive tradition, culture and values, focusing more on politics of difference, not citizenship have cut their messianic zeal in uplifting society and keeping politics and market in proper place consistent with the common good.
The public political culture in Nepal can only flourish under constitutional democracy where civil society have to enable citizens and leaders to forge common identity and integrate with the state like parts into the whole without losing freedom of conscience, wellbeing and national identity. This helps civil society to revitalise self from tutelage and fatigue, and foster inclusive range of distributive justice and responsibility to advance cohesive democratic progress.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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