Sunday, December 09, 2007

Myths That Deserve To Be ‘Flattened’

The maelstrom created by Maoist supremo Prachanda’s call to include royalists in a new Nepal makes it easy to miss the significance of another story relating to the monarchy.
The Times of India carried a piece on a new book that “demolishes the popular myth that the kings of Nepal are reincarnations of Hindu god Vishnu and even the belief that they are descendants of the ruling Rajputs of India.”
Under the stimulating headline “Book flattens Nepal king’s divine myth,” the reporter covered Subodh Singh’s work tracing the ancestry of the Shah dynasty to Magars and Tharus. Both, the reporter pointedly reminded readers, are “low in Nepal’s social hierarchy.”
Without having read the book, it would be difficult for one to address the specific revelations in The Return of the Mauryans. Evidently, the author provided enough material to allow the newspaper to carry that storyline with sufficient credibility.
For purposes here, therefore, the Times text is the focus.
The issue of divinity is something the monarchy’s adversaries have long used against the institution and for their own narrow purposes. Rana prime ministers perpetuated this deification primarily to confine successive kings within palace walls.
For modern mainstream politicians, divinity morphed into constitutionalism. Specifically, elected politicians after the 1990 change sought to curtail the king’s space to just enough to prevent asphyxiation.
Admittedly, the monarchy has benefited from this aura of divinity. Yet, in all fairness, no monarch has ever claimed such a status. After his accession in 1972, King Birendra addressed the issue in interviews with western journalists. In a conversation with a Newsweek reporter, he described the popular perception of his being an incarnation of Lord Vishnu as something influenced by tradition.
King Gyanendra has been more categorical. When a reporter for TIME magazine brought up the subject in early 2004, the monarch sounded palpably ecstatic. Expressing delight that his role had been spelled out in terms of “the preserver of all things,” King Gyanendra added emphatically: “But I’m a pragmatic and practical person. I’ve never said I’m God.”
Far louder have been the actions of the two kings. Undiluted divinity would have precluded King Birendra from making that high-profile pilgrimage to Sai Baba and wearing that locket until his tragic end. The fact that King Gyanendra was so demonized for his abiding belief in higher powers absolves him from charges of harboring divine aspirations.
The perception persists also because it serves some value. Amid the global convulsions precipitated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, how might Nepal have garnered the sustained attention of western news editors but for the Vishnu verisimilitude palmed off by their color-starved reporters? Fast forward 16 years and the secularization of the world’s only Hindu state made the greatest sense in the context of the humbling of its monarch.
The book helps debunk a second myth. If the Shahs’ roots are really among Magars and Tharus, wouldn’t that make them, contrary to some detractors’ claims, among the original inhabitants of the country?