Buddhist Monks and Rana Rulers: A History of Persecution

Angela Dietrich

Buddhist Himalaya: A Journal of Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods

Vol. VII No. I & II  (1996)


Copyright 1996 by Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods



The Rana regime in Nepal witnessed an entire century of persecution of Nepalese who became Buddhist monks, from med-1800s to the mid-1900s. The first to have been victimized were Nepalese converts to Mahayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, followed closely by converts to Theravada Buddhism, In His "History of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal", the venerable monk Amritananda request the leading monks there to pressurize the ruling Rana oligarchy to stop their discriminatory practices.


The paradoxical question arising in this connection is how an ext4remely small number of monds could have aroused the ire of the Nepalese monarchy at a time when the latter was still firmly entrenched in power? Besides sending the monks into exile, it is said that the Ranas even went to the extent of destroying Buddhist scripture along with tantric texts , for example, thimi, located between Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, In order to carry out this odious task they were said to have recruited the Vajracharya (high caste Newer Buddhist) priests, presumably against their own will, The Ranas are reported to have, in addition destroyed some important Buddhist shrines like one located near the present Bir Hospital. Though terse allegations have still to be conclusively verified, still, they may be seen to be reflection of the reputation gained by the Rana monarchy responsible for the persecution and expulsion of the first Nepali monks from their country.


The monk considered the leader of the group of only five who were initially exiled was the venerable Mahapragyan, He had recorded the dramatic events in his "Autobiougraphy of a Buddhist Yogi" (Published in Kathamandu in Newari, in 1983). Originally a member of the  Hindu Newar caste of Shresths, he was particularly singled out for victimisartion by the Prime Minister Juddha Shumshere, due to his links with the royal priest, the Nani Kaji Guruju, Through his account, it is possible to gain an insight into the possible motivation factors behind the repression of Buddhist monks in Nepal.


Mahapragyan vividly describes their arrest by the authorities, which was triggered off by the latter's objection to their rounds of begging in the streets of Kathmandu, the chief of police at that time was the king's relative (his wife's broptyher), Nara Narayan Shah, who had initially gigen the order to arrest the group of five monks who were beginning, along with their guru, Tsering Norburinpoche. They , in fact, tried to implicate the guru who was a Tibetan, as having been solely responsible for their conversion, thereby placing the bleomn a "foreign hand', which the monks strenuously denied. Having been put under arest, the monks were charged with having violated the law stipulating that "Shivaites were not permitted conversion to Buddhism or to any other 4religion in the Kingdom of Nepal". For this offence, they were told, they could be fined, imprisoned for an entire year and forced to renounce their adopted faith, The one held responsible for their original conversion could, in addition, be imprisoned for full three years under the ordinance. the interrogation is recorded by Mahapragyan as follows:


Police office: "Who performed your ordination?"


Mahapragyan: "First we proceeded to the Nepali-Tibet border, then went to Lhasa and requested a Rinpoche at a monastery there for ordination as monks. (Repeating a verse form the Gyan Mala:) 'With great compassion for suffering humanity we seek out guru regarding him as the very embodiment of he Lord Buddha, and humbly request teachings from him".


Thereby Mahapragyan sought to absolve his guru from responsibility of their conversion, as he attempted to prove the police officers that it was their won initiative involved leading to thei9r decision to become monks. The officer, however, was not convinced; in fact, he brought a whip and threatened to beat them if they continued to refuse to implicate their guru. to this, they replied:


"Go ahead, beat us if you wish; we practice dharma with our minds, not without bodies, so we needn't worry. If you can also beat out minds, only then will you whip be effective. We became monks only for liberation from early bonds, we have never harmed anyone else in the process. If you punish us, you will in reality, only succeed in harming yourself. since you will eventually be forced to reap the fruit of your action."


Infuriated, the police plac34ed the monks into lock-up and sent a Brahmin Thane Subba, a high-ranking police official, to interrogate them and threaten them with the whip. In response, instead of showing fear and bowing to the threat, Mahapragyan decided to give the Brahmin, the teachings of the ten non-virtuous actions, which include not to kill, harm or maim, not to steal, lie, etc. The Brahmin, rather than carry out the order to persecute the monks, instead proceeded tonote down the precepts, he was so impressed by their universality, saying: "How can we Brahmins dare to criticize these teachings? What kind of government is this, which can accept falsehood (in the form of persecuting monks) and reject truth?" With these words, he abruptly resigned from his post in protest against the treatment meted out to the monks, and even embraced Buddhism himself. The chief of police, the said N.N. Shah, was so astonished to hear of 6this development, that he reported the news to the palace.


The ruling monarch, Chandra Shumshere Rana, tit is written, was initially not adverse to accepting the Brahmin's resignation and even the monk's activities. However, the royal priest, the Rajguru, argued against the king's acquiescence as follows:


"On, king, these conversion, far from being harmless, isolated instances, could in fact, act to undermine the very foundation of the monarchy itself. Though they are few in number, see the influence which they are already exerting on the entire populace, which appears to be in the process of overshadowing out won influence, Let me give you one small example: our government passed and ordinance prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Still, people kept on distilling and drinking and were even prepared to pay the fine for it, as long as they could continue this practice. However, when the monks began preaching aghainst6 alcohol consumption, not less than 4,ooo people stopped it. Doesn't this show that the monk's injunctions are more powerful than those of the monarch's?" Still, Chandra Shumshere was no convinced by his argument and interjected: "Whoever encourages improvement in the country should be praised". However, the BadaGuruju continued his tirade against the monks" "Respect King, the capital, have less respect for the  king and the government that they do for these wretched monks and for Buddhism ads a religion, If this trend is allowed to continue unchecked, then they will eventually end up usurping the government's prerogative to rule over its subjects, since the only authority the people will respect will be that of Buddhism". At this, the king was finally persuaded and ordered the monks to be brought into his presence for futher interrogation. However, as the royal priest did not permit them to answer for themselves in their defense, the king pronounced the sentence of their immanent exile from Nepal, as  the feared that their further persecution and imprisonment would only act to win them more sympathy and support from the populace.


In order to facilitate their expulsion, they requested permission to beg for travel provisions for five days prior to departure. However, the stipulation was that they had to be accompanied by two policemen and were required to sleep in the pole c station at night. When the people learned of the king's order an their subsequent request for provisions, a huge crowed gathered around them and heaped offerings of rice and to here gods on them, so much so that they were unable to carry all of it at once. While begging, they recited the dedication verse: "The Buddha is the sole refuge for all sentient beings. To those not in possession of an enlightened mind (Bodhi-mind), please shower your grace on them so they may develop it and let the others (already in possesseion of a Bodhi-mind) improve even more". The police officers, witnessing all of these activities, were so jealous to reduce the monk's popularity and of all the gifts received, that they decided to reduce the monk's allotted period of begging by one day.


The first stop in their journey into exile was Kalimpong where a prominent Newar trader, Bhaju Rantna Kansakar, whom the Tibetans had christened 'Shmou Kapu' (White cap) as he was one of the leading Newar engaged in the trade between Tibet and Nepal, offered to help the monks. Due to his kind generosity, the monks were enabled to remain a full two months at the monastery he had erected for them, the Tripai Gompa, before continuing their travels. Shortly following their exile, a further eight Theravada monks along with a small numbers of nuns, were similarly expelled from Nepal Mahapragyan himself, at this stage, converted to Teravada Buddhism and ordained another monk who similarly achieved prominence, the revered Amritananda, in 1928. :However, it is said that Mahapragya, in his teachings, integrated both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, which invited the criticism of some Theravada monks, as beings too unorthodox.


Amritananda's visit to Sri Lanka resulo6te din the formation of a good will mission by Narada Thera, a leading Sri Lankan monk, to Nepal. There, he pleaded for clemency towards the exiled monks and for the abolition of the law governing conversion. He pointed out that since Nepal was, after all, the birthplace of the Lord Buddha, his followers should have freedom to practice their faith in the Buddha's home land. This ultimately led to the repeal of that law by King Tribhuvan, especially following the simultaneous introduction of (limited) democracy in Nepal The first international World Fellowship of Buddhist conference was then held in Kathmandu and presided over by the king in 1956. the funds for the conference were donated by King Mahendra, who had succeeded Tribhuvan in the same year.


In closing, it is possible to summarize out argument by emphasizing that it was not the Ranas who were directly responsible for persecuting the Buddhist monks. In fact, t6here are many examples of good will on the part of Rana rulers & members of this aristocracy towards both the Mahayana &Theravada Nepalese monks. Rather them the Ranas, thus, it would rather appear to have been the Brammins in their capacity as priests, with a vested interest in propagating their own faith which encouraged some members of this caste to commit excesses against those professing another especially one which was well on its way towards experiencing a revival in the land of the Buddha's birth.