Nepali Times
Bands of believers


With tourist arrivals during Shivaratri having fallen woefully short of expectations, the despondency that has descended on the hospitality industry is bound to deepen. If a cleaner Bagmati, pre-festival road shows in India and seven festival sub-committees couldn't draw too many devotees, it means we can't afford to sit on that list of tour operators the Chinese have been reminding us to send.

There was encouraging news, though, in one category of pilgrims. Hermits converged on the Pashupati area in hordes, by up to three times the usual assemblage, according to one estimate. Legions of half-naked fakirs have always been an integral part of Shivaratri festivities. But you have to consider this year's arrivals in the context of the run-up to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's soil-sanctification ceremony in Ayodhya. It would be safe to believe that the hype surrounding the Ram temple ceremony held back many Shiva followers already on their way to Kathmandu.

In the relative sparseness of the Pashupati premises last week, the bareness of the nanga babas was particularly conspicuous. This led some locals to suggest imposing quantitative restrictions on this band of believers from next year. Those still complaining about the concessions Nepal had to make in the new trade treaty with India may be tempted to slap retaliatory quotas immediately. But prudence dictates against punishing devotees who probably don't know where their zinc oxide and acrylic yarn come from.

To be sure, the surge in the number of sages didn't mean much for the likes of Deopatan's rudraksha sellers. Instead of eyeing the details of retail receipts and the central bank's Indian currency reserves, however, we should try to remain focused on the broader picture. What inspired so many saints to come marching in when staying away from Nepal has become the best travel decision of the year? Having severed their ties with the world as we know it, those sages that followed the news weren't deterred by the tight security arrangements or the prospect of a diminished circulation of loose change. No crisis can stop followers who really want to see their sweet lord. The 1970s Bollywood number, "Let's go to Kathmandu, where we'll meet Shambu", remains the Shivaratri anthem for many across the southern border.

These hermits may have abandoned their families and friends in the pursuit of the eternal truth, but they are worldly enough to understand the futility of trying to convert the godless. If the Maoists and their fellow travellers consider religion to be the opiate of the masses, our sages have long convinced themselves that bhang and ganja are the surest road to spiritual fulfilment. The Bankali monkeys, too, had a better taste of the tipsiness their human cousins were revelling in. (Personally, I can't help wondering where we would be today if some of our alienated lads and lasses had turned to grass instead of grenades.) With that kind of realisation comes rapture. Life is a momentary manifestation between two non-manifestations. Resignation to your ephemeral existence eases the respiratory system all the way until your last breath. On the Day of Judgement, the bourgeoisie and proletariat stand on the same side counting their karma points and concluding whether they qualified for paradise or perdition.

That's a lesson perplexed Nepalis could profit from. Sitting loosely on the saddle of life keeps you half-prepared for the fall. Ask not what your politicians can do for you, ask what you can do to help them feel more comfortable in their seats. If they believe they have a secure tenure, they just might start doing nice things to accumulate good deeds. Even if they don't, it's no big deal. It's not as if we'll be around forever to regret our moments of compassion.

To rekindle a nation-wide spirit of otherworldly existence, religion should be able to leave its footprints in all walks of life. A gentleman's recent suggestion that Nepal promote dope tourism as an economic stimulant may have been way ahead of its time. But isn't such sagacity what statesmanship is all about? Our tourism officials could work on bringing out a concept paper in time for the 12th Plan. We should, however, grant fast-track approval to faith-based links abroad in order to elevate the quality of governance. One former vice-chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy has proposed banishing our feuding Kangresi patriarchs to the contemplative climes of Kashi as a way of cleansing the body politic. With Girija Prasad Koirala and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai out of the way, the torch can be passed to the third generation of Congress leaders. That could inspire the young and restless in the other parties to bear the burden of leadership. By returning to the Durga and Dasasumedh ghats of their younger days,

Koirala and Bhattarai would also be restoring a glorious tradition. Every Rana prime minister who didn't die in office went on to seek solace on Indian soil. (In fact, one prime minister of the staunchly swadeshi Panchayat days broke his self-imposed vow of political silence in Bangalore late last year to explain why Nepal's caves and crannies were more combustible than Afghanistan's.)

Admittedly, it would require supernatural determination to live eternally in the spiritual realm amid all the acts of commission and omission around you. Rest assured, though, a desire to have the best of both worlds has ceased to be a symptom of a serious personality disorder. The next time you're at Pashupati, ask the first sage you see how long he thinks the prime minister would continue in office. If the recluse refuses to give you anything more than a sanctified stare, just look around. You'll find enough lay people in the hallowed premises ready to offer their homily.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)