Nepal and Switzerland – Two Different Trains, Two Different Bird Cages

Given that these two countries have similar physical and human resource features, what might be the causes of their widely divergent levels of development?

In order to compare “prison-house” societies and “pleasant-house” societies, I suggest an examination of Switzerland and Nepal. By comparing Nepal and Switzerland, the 500-years history lesson becomes clearer. Also, Phule’s thoughts about Manu cultures and Baliraja cultures can be evaluated more deeply.

I am not aware that this case study has been previously conducted. But I have personally found it interesting and full of productive questions.

Switzerland and Nepal are two landlocked, mountainous countries one in Europe and the other in Asia. They have striking similarities and differences in geography, economics, people, and religion/ worldviews.

Nepal may have some natural advantages over Switzerland. For example, Nepal proportionately has more water, fewer people to feed per square kilometre (5.3K/sq km to 5.6K/sq km), and two times the arable land, than Switzerland.

Until 2006, Nepal was the only official Hindu state in the world. Switzerland, however, is a secular Protestant Judeo-Christian worldview nation. The worldview ratios of Nepal are 86 per cent Hindu, 8 per cent Buddhist, 4 per cent Muslim and 2 per cent other.

In an almost mirror image, Switzerland’s ratios are 86 per cent Christian, 9 per cent None/Secular and 5 per cent other. Thus their populations’ diversities by percentages in worldviews are remarkably similar.

The World Factbook describes Switzerland, with a GDP of $231 billion: “Switzerland is a peaceful, prosperous, and stable modern market economy with low unemployment, a highly skilled labour force, and a per capita GDP larger than that of the big Western European economies.” It further describes Nepal, with a GDP of $35.6 billion: “Nepal is among the poorest and least developed countries in the world with 40% of its population living below the poverty line.”

The progress-resistant impact of a pervasive animistic-shamanistic worldview in South Asia is well documented by the research of Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University sociologist, Don Dor Bahadur Bista in Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization; specialists J. Hitchcock and R. Jones in Spirit Possession in the Nepal Himalayas; Oxford University anthropologist D. N. Gellner in Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and its Hierarchy of Ritual; and London School of Economics and Political Science anthropologist C. J. Fuller’s The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India.

Given that these two countries have similar physical and human resource features, what might be the causes of their widely divergent levels of development? Many would suggest that the most important difference affecting developmental levels between these countries is their contrasting worldviews that cause one to be progress-prone (Switzerland) and the other one to be progress-resistant (Nepal).

Harvard University historian Steven Ozment documented that for Switzerland and Northern Europe, the Judeo-Christian worldview has shaped their value systems over the last 500 years. This worldview is one that rejects empty ritual while favouring individual religious conviction, hard work and social reform. “To all peoples of all nationalities the first Protestants” – whom Phule would call “those followers of Baliraja in the West” – “bequeathed…a heritage of spiritual freedom and equality, the consequences of which are still working themselves out in the world today.”

Bista analysed the brahmanic Hindu worldview. It was the worldview that continued to shape values in Nepal and South Asia during the same 500-years timeframe referenced by Ozment.

Bista’s delineation of the Brahmin intellectual framework draws colours of sharp contrast:

  • absolute belief in fatalism
  • appeasement of spirits
  • a hierarchic and immutable caste system, with caste-determined work assignments
  • the non-validity of social change agendas.

For those familiar with the life conditions in South Asia, a case study of Switzerland and Nepal sheds blinding light on the dilemma of Peyrefitte’s Trains-and-the-Train-Station parable. Phule was one of the rare Indian intellectuals who so clearly and so far in advance of others, grasped the 500-year history lesson: If a culture is willing to switch tracks, cultural transformation is certainly possible.

No other event has had a greater effect on Switzerland in the last 500 years than the Reformation’s evangelical worldview transformation. And yet, according to Ozment, “no other great event in Western history is more ignored by historians and the general public than the Protestant Reformation.” And thus his provocative question: “Why are we more comfortable with the other revolutions [the secular French and the communist Russian revolutions] that have shaped our world than we are with the great religious one?”

Ozment summarized the religious origins and social consequences of Northern Europe “switching tracks”. Those trains on different tracks, birds who escaped the prison cage, consistently

  • reject empty ritual
  • favour individual religious conviction
  • approve hard work
  • and nurture social reform.

And what Ozment said about 16th-century Europe, Phule knew about 19th-century India: “Find a people who believe that they have been invaded heart and hearth, tricked with matters of conscience and taken advantage of materially as well, and one has found a people ready for reform and revolution.”

The Baliraja Proposal of Mahatma Jotirao Phule

Thus the Baliraja Proposal of Mahatma Jotirao Phule was a radical call for change. Phule’s call was a call for India’s leaders to switch tracks, for the people to board a different train, for the birds to fly free.

But Phule was under no delusion that the trip would be easy. Nevertheless he was unchangeable in his conclusion. Phule knew that for India’s cultural transformation to be profound, India must switch tracks: she must adopt a different cultural mentor.

Essentially, Phule’s thinking provides a 19th-century case study for the 20th century’s University of California anthropologist Elvin Hatch’s weighty observations.

Hatch explains that everywhere people make generally agreed-on moral judgements. That there is a “ubiquity of moral evaluation of behaviour” across cultural boundaries. Four points are generally agreed on:

  1. There are “unsuccessful” societies. Some societies caught in a cycle of wrong, hurt, and injustice; and from generation to generation, they hardly change at all.
  2. There is a generally approved set of normative human principles, a “humanistic standard” for humane conduct. Most people agree to integrity, dignity, and justice.
  3. A “considerable portion” of humanity agrees to this basic moral standard.
  4. And finally, there is the “improvement” question – if a culture is deficient in delivering decent living to its people, are there concepts and conducts in other cultures that offer an “improvement” to the proposals and solutions of its own society?

Phule clearly understood that transformation politically, economically, socially and spiritually was certainly possible. But he had concluded unequivocally that for India to continue under Manu, spiritual, social, economic and political transformation was not equally likely. With Baliraja, however, Phule was convinced that change – serious, sustained, and systemic change – for total life betterment was definitely possible.

In short, India, did not need to be left-to herself. India needed to be lifted-from herself.

India, to Phule’s thinking, needed a new cultural mentor. As a result, Phule recommended India to quit Manu and follow after Baliraja. Northern Europe and North America had done it. India could do it.

From his study of the progress historically achieved and retained by other nations, Phule was confident that the same experience was possible for his own country. That was at the heart of Phule’s Baliraja proposal.

Switzerland and Nepal can serve as 500-year case studies. One train left the station. One stayed in the station. One bird cage gained an open door, and the birds flew free. The other cage stay locked tight, and the birds still moan.

More about that next time.

Published in the January 2012 issue of the Forward Press magazine


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