(The following is adapted from Professor Kamal Prakash Malla’s article “The Intellectual in Nepalese Society”, originally carried by Vasudha magazine in March 1970, and subsequently included in Malla’s collection The Road to Nowhere (Sajha Prakashan 1979). The essay is included here, with permission, both for its continuing relevance to the Nepali society, and to remind that the best Nepali writings in English appeared in the journals and magazines of the 1960s and early 1970s. Editors.)
This is an essay on the poverty of intellect in Nepal. Such an enquiry has become somewhat urgent, because ´intellectual´ is one of the most over-worked words in recent Nepali writing. Before putting the vogue word under the microscope, I, however, feel tempted to make a few commonplace observations about the Nepali society of which contemporary intelligentsia are art offspring and in which they were brought up.
For the emergence of intelligentsia as a class nothing is more important than the growth of cities and a pre-existing literate population sharing a culture of accessible language. It is only in the Valley of Kathmandu, with its unbroken historical continuity, where one can see a microcosm of the culture-formula, though already in a fossilised state. It is only the Valley which seems to have a cultural continuity with the present, consistently based on a broader literate population than elsewhere in the kingdom. In the culture of the Valley, more important than either the settlement pattern or the linguistic diversity is the stranglehold of religions and of their priesthood. Under the caste structure the Sanskritised Hindu or Buddhist priesthood constituted a class of intelligentsia in their own right. This class has been in existence around the Nepali courts at least as early as the Licchavis.
Though understandably and consistently tolerant towards the co-religions of Buddhism, Bonpo or Shamanism, the power-elite in Nepal has been zealously Hinduist. No wonder that in Nepal only those sections of the population who have assimilated the Sanskrit language (eg. the Nepali-speaking Brahmins, the Newari-speaking Brahmins, the Joshis, Maithili or Bhojpuri-speaking Brahmins—so powerful as court-ideologues in the Malla courts) constituted the traditional intelligentsia.
Traditional Nepali scholarship was mainly the output of Sanskritised priesthood in Nepal, and it had left its imprint in India, Tibet and China. In the lOth-llth century Magadha (North India) Nepali scholars like Ratnakirti, Virochana, Kanakshree were said to be great names in Vikramshila Mahavihara (University). In 11th century Nepal the scholarly achievements must have been high to entertain someone like Bageswarkirti, who later became a Dwarapundit (Head of Department) at Vikramshila. His disciples there included scholars like Niropali Sen (Bengal) and Marpa (founder of Kagyu sect in Tibet).
At any rate, in the cities of Kathmandu Valley (mostly Kathmandu and Patan) there still exist several bahals (vernacular for vihara) or civic settlement which were, once upon a time, centres—not only of traditional learning of Buddhism, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Grammar, Medicine, Occult, Sanskrit language and Literature—but also centres of apprenticeship in painting, casting, jewellery, and other ancestral arts and crafts. In the wake of the Muslim invasion of North India, Pundit Buddshashree, an outstanding Nepali Dean of Mahasanghik Sangha at Vikramshila, came back to Nepal with a great many of his books and disciples. It was a moment in Nepali history which naturally reminds us of the Renaissance in Europe.
While in these baha is the Vajracharyas and Shakyas (the Newar Buddhist priests) were the main tutors, in the Vamashram system of Hindu education the tutors were mainly Brahmins— Newar Brahmins, the Joshis and Acharyas, then the Mai thil sand Parbaitya Brahmins. Morally and intellectually, the rest of the Sanskritised Nepali society had been, more or less, in their grip, which for a long time to come was the grip of tradition.
For, prior to the advent of modern education of Western inspiration, the most influential and articulate section of the society had been either the direct heirs to the traditional priesthood or the sections who had felt their presence and had accepted it as a part of the eternal scheme of creation.
At the bottom, the nature of traditional Nepali scholarship is derivative. The aesthetics of the manuscript, illustrations and scripts apart, much of it is exegesis, gloss, commentary and annotation on the authoritative texts. The tradition here is the tradition of transmission of the sacred text, the tradition of conservation of ritualistic continuity rather than of creativity, non-conformism, questioning and criticism. The preponderance of the textual over the critical, of the spiritual over the material, of the abstract over the concrete, of the magical over the empirical, of the didactic over the creative—more than anything else, characterises the traditional scholarship.
In a sense, a living contact with even this tradition had broken after the rise of Gorkhali power. What continued was more a routine contact with the past rather than a creative renewal of the tradition to suit the altered contents of Nepali life after 1769, when Prithvi Narayan Shah defeated the warring Malla kings of the Valley and annexed it to his extended kingdom.
Culturally, the 190-year British presence in the Indian sub¬continent did not affect Nepal very much. In fact, Nepal has nothing for which she should be grateful to the British. In India, the British left an infra-structure for the modernisation of culture—-both material and non-material. They left India with the Indian Civil Service, the universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, with a framework of modem academic pursuits and aspirations; they left India with the largest literate population of Asia and Africa outside of Japan; they left India with the longest journalistic experience of any country outside the West. The British left India after awakening her into literary, social and cultural consciousness of her own greatness (the Bengal Renaissance, for instance). English has been an agent of the cultural and psychological metamorphosis of many an Indian mind.
Nepal has remained almost totally unaffected by, and deprived of, all these cultural impacts of the British in India. The actual reason was not merely the British unconcern, but the deliberate and unenlightened policy of Jang Bahadur and his successors. Under the stewardship of the British, he pursued a policy of absolute concentration of power in the family and of total abstinence from political-cultural contacts with the rest of the world. The most ineradicable single blot on the cultural history of Nepal is this dark night of the Nepali soul, a century of family rule when the common man was denied even civic rights. The above account is, of course, about the past which is oppressively present as a backdrop of the history just behind the post-1950 decades. It is an account at once revealing and relevant to understanding the contemporary intellectual situation and the claims, at times absurd and megalomaniac, of the Nepali intelligentsia. The commonplaces of our geography, ecology, history, culture, evolution of power and the inhibited growth of other institutions like modern education and streamlined public administration are the burden of the past—a truly burdensome inheritance to which the Nepali intelligentsia today are an inescapable heir.
The story is sad because, among other things, the Nepali intelligentsia are not only an inhibited phenomenon—whose growth is as late and fresh as the growth of an overnight fungus. They are also a displaced stratum of society, because by their training and education (as against their upbringing and origins) they have suddenly been compelled to live in the latter half of the twentieth century without due ceremony. They woke up one fine morning from the sleep of the Middle Ages and found themselves exposed to the neon lights of an electronic age.
The post-1950 decade in Nepal is characterised, in the first place, by a sense of release and emancipation of the intellect from a century-old political and priestly yoke, and in the second place, by an unprecedented expansion of intellectual and culturalopportunities. It was a decade of explosion of all manner of ideas, activities and organised efforts. It was a decade when the pre-existing narrow stratum of the intelligentsia was frantically active and vocal—socially, culturally and, most important of all, politically.
The decade also thoroughly exposed the social attitudes and the political immaturity of the Nepali intelligentsia, and the fluctuation—till the end of the decade—seemed to be more and more to the left. By and large, they were critical of the existing order, institutions, traditions and value systems. In fact, the up-and-coming among them professed Marxism, Frogressivism, Humanism or Liberal Democratic ideals in broad daylight. In these multifarious activities, they brandished their particular shade of ideology with very little inhibition. Numerous social, literary and cultural organisations like the student unions and federations, the youth organisations, the peace committees, study circles, debating societies, literary associations, art societies, journalist unions, writers unions, cultural associations, etc. came rapidly into being one after the other (or one against the other).
The picture of the 1950s will remain incomplete if no mention is made of the rapid swelling of the rank and file of the Nepali intelligentsia. Prior to 1950, Nepal had only one college, six high schools, and about 200 primary schools. But with the opening of the decade., the schools and colleges began to multiply, so that by the end of the decade there was already a sizeable literate population in Nepal. Although not all of them were members of the intelligentsia they certainly formed a broad base and reliable audience for potential intellectuals. For one great prerequisite for the emergence of the intellectuals as a class is the broad base of a literate audience—a sort of consuming intelligentsia, as it were.
These nascent beginnings made in the fifties show that, not only higher education and training in the modem academic milieux, but also academic pursuits on the modern lines of research and scholarship, are very recent phenomena in Nepal with hardly any precedence in our history. It may be worth remembering that Tribhuvan University was incorporated by law only as recently as 1959. By that time India´s modern universities had already celebrated their first centenary. The ´modernised´ academics of Nepal have hardly any history, except of non-achievement.
In the growth of the institutional complex which helped the recent numerical flowering of Nepali intelligentsia it is not just the growth of the educational institutions which deserve mention. Nepal´s literary and journalistic elite, her administrators, lawyers, diplomatic artists, unaffiliated scholars, archaeologists, historians also saw a slow and steady growth in their numbers and institutional affiliations.
Outside the free-floating literary profession, outside teaching, journalism and management, it is government service that absorbs many of Nepal´s highly gifted and educated Nepalis. This huge establishment swallows a great assortment of Nepal´s literate output. Some of Nepal´s most brilliant men belonging to two or three different generations-all enmeshed in the daily rounds of the Singha Durbar bureaucracy, are attracted by the magnetism of power into its field of operation. Yet by and large, in relation to the rest of society (as against the State), the huge institution of public administration in Nepal is nearly inarticulate. The decision-makers in Nepal may be creative; they may generate ideas, and once they are generated the decision-makers may translate them into reality. Yet institutionally a civil servant qua civil servant is less intellectually independent than a non-civil servant as citizen. When he has to choose between the security often are and articulate consdence, a civil servant is likely to find his conscience an expensive thing, and presumably would prefer not to have it at all.
The primary prerequisite for the emergence of a truly independent intellectual class is not just the growth of cities with university, colleges, libraries, journals, theatres, cinemas, radios etc., but also a sufficient degree of economic independence, so that the intellectuals can live up to their ideals and convictions without fearing social and economic persecution. One plain, but primary, reason for the poverty of intellect in Nepal is the poverty of the intellectual. The intellectual, as well as the non-intellectual, has to scrape a living. The intellectual may not live by bread alone, but he has to live, like others, supporting a family with a host of dependents and economic liabilities. Except for a few self-supporting intellectuals like Mahesh Chandra Regmi or erstwhile politicians like D.R. Regmi or ´affluent aristocrats´ like Surya Prasad Upadhyaya or Rishikesh Shaha, nearly every one of the established names in the creative and influential fieldsare in the full-time service of the Establishment, which normally settles their attitude towards society in general.
Thus, the most conspicuous single feature of the intellectual life in Nepal in the 1960s is its neutralisation, its introversion and identification with an in-built nationalist ideology and aggressively pro-Establishment attitude. After 1960, not only did the writing of an articulate section of the Nepali intelligentsia become visibly uncritical of the Government but also a large number of them were recruited to popularise the Panchayat system. It is here that in Nepal one sees a situation almost parallel to what Julien Bendain France has called la trahisondes clerics, the betrayal of the intellectuals. Here I see the need to be explicit about the basic role and function of the intellectuals in a traditional society like ours.
The primary function of the intellectual class is to serve as a kind of permanent opposition in society by its radical criticism of actual institutions, values, behaviour and attihides, including outworn traditions. The intellectuals, unlike the rest of their society, are qualified to withdraw themselves and meditate and evaluate the actual in terms of the ideal. The role of the intellectuals is primarily to evaluate the realities of their society. In Nepal this is where, because of the economic poverty and bondage of intellectuals, they seem to have failed society and betrayed their ´class obligations´—if they feel they have any.
An intellectual is not just a latter-day variation of the ancient Brahmin priest: his function in society is not ritualistic. Though a great many of his species do occupy high posts as experts, technicians, planners, advisers, ideologues and functionaries in the service of the Establishment, modern intellectuals, unlike the proverbial philosophers who have merely interpreted the world in several ways, must help society to change, not to stagnate. What we have in Nepal, however, is not an articulate class of intellectuals who are willing to fill in the critical-evaluative role; what we have is only a class of white-collared proletariat who work, not for wages, but for salaries of different scales.
The basis of all intellectual culture is honesty or the integrity of effort. The tenor of Nepali civic life, however, is such that it is extremely unlikely to promote either of these ethical bases of all intellectual culture. In the post-industrial societies of the West, intellectuals are said to\>e freischwebendemtetligenz, to be socially ´unattached´ or ´free-floating´—free in the sense that they are not guided by any class or caste prejudice; free in the sense that they are guided, not by sentimental slogans or demagoguery, but by clear reasoning. The main prerogatives of the intellectual class are said to be 1. objectivity of outlook, and 2. freedom from allegiance, except to reason and truth, and to the intellect.
In the foreseeable future, intellectuals in Nepal are quite unlikely to fulfil this second role. Intellectuals as well as the broad stratum of the intelligentsia come almost entirely from the upper castes— the Brahmins, Kshtriyas and the upper caste Newars. They constitute more than 80 percent of Nepal´s intellectual and power-elite, and in a profession like teaching there are more than 40 percent Brahmins and Kshtriyas, some33 percent upper caste Newars.
In a society where, however modern the culture of most intellectuals maybe, most of them live their daily lives in “a vital domestic culture of kinship, tribe and religious outlook”, it is impossible to view them as “a class above all classes, a caste above all castes, a community above all communities”—with no prejudices. Few try to overcome the culture of kinship and possibly none succeeds completely.
Finally, by definition the intellectuals should be primarily (but not exclusively) preoccupied with the culture of ideas. He lives by some ideals and convictions. In Nepal, however, the literate section of the population shows, not only a great dearth of idealism, or a universal paucity of effort, application and dedication, but also an endemic infection with the virus of plain materialistic success. Success—measurable material success by hook or by crook—this is the law.
Hemmed in on all sides by the nauveau riche of a developing society, the Nepali intelligentsia is becoming increasingly materialistic in its value-system, and like mercenaries who fight for money they measure success—just as other members of their society do—in terms of cash income, reinforced concrete edifices,cars, foreign liquor, pieces of furniture, advantageous marriages, overseas travel, and so on.
While this is the milieu of contemporary Nepali intelli¬gentsia, paradoxically enough, Nepal is one of the few countries in Asia where literate members of the population are greatly flattered when someone calls them ´intellectual´. They see their own shadows almost invariably larger than lifesize. Compared with their attainments, qualitative or quantitative, the claims of the literate Nepalis to intellectuality sound megalomaniac. Contemporary Nepali intellectual culture is a little too meagre, in fact so meagre that even the few genuine scholars have no special reasons to be self-congratulatory.
Take, for instance, any field of intellectual application. How many readable books and papers have been written by Nepalis in the last 20 years on, say, the economic problems of Nepal? How many books and learned papers are there on such vital, fertile and unexplored fields of Nepali life as Art, Architecture, Religion,Culture, History, Sociology, Anthropology, Geography, Political Evolution, Languages and Literature? Where there are a few, as on History, they are more a monument to personal perseverance than to the originality of approach or an abiding scholarly passion for minutiae, for accuracy of language and exactitude of details. A serious and unsparing self-examination should have left no room for the curious sense of self-importance which nine out of every ten intellectuals in Nepal unfailingly betray.
Whatever be the social origins, the antecedents, the culture, education and profession of contemporary Nepali intelligentsia, they are likely to remain a shadowy and insubstantial phenomenon—merely a band of economically castrated and socially limping angels beating the drums of their respective fads. In the recent past even the few stray intellectuals with us have tended tobeless radical critics of their societies than earlier.
They have tended to be more concerned with solving the kind of short-term, specific problems which arise out of their complete identification with the Establishment. Of the rest, who are not- too-understandably impatient to be admitted into the pantheon, most lack character and distinction, integrity and effort, and their numerical presence, like the presence of monks in medieval monasteries, is merely ritualistic.