Nani Kaji Shrestha was an extraordinary character who blazed the trail for the resurgence of Theravada Buddhism in 1920s Nepal. He was a performing artist who became a Tibetan lama, Theravada monk, and Buddhist ascetic, in that order. He incurred the wrath of the Maharaja, and suffered jail and exile for refusing to give up his beliefs. Better known by his dharma name ‘Mahapragya’, he laid the foundation for the comeback of a faith that had disappeared from Nepal centuries ago.
Mahapragya was born in Kathmandu in 1901. Drawn towards music from an early age, he had formed a hymn group with his friends by the time he was a teenager, and was touring the country giving performances. At the beginning of the 1920s, he joined a drama troupe which put on stage shows at the royal palace. Later, Mahapragya began writing and directing plays himself, which he staged in the market squares during the festivals of Gai Jatra and Indra Jatra. He also got married, or more precisely, a series of wives came and went.
With his musical talents, Mahapragya would probably have lived his life as a happy-go-lucky artiste. His shows were in demand at the royal palace, and his few wants were fulfilled by the baksheesh they gave him. But life had other plans for him. A chance meeting with a visiting Tibetan lama would awaken his mind, and set the course of an amazing spiritual journey.
In 1924, a Tibetan monk named Kyangtse Lama arrived in Kathmandu to pay homage to Swayambhu. He came from Kham in eastern Tibet, covering the entire distance by prostrating at each step. The lama gave sermons at various places in the Valley. One day, a friend of Mahapragya dragged him to a ceremony that Kyangtse Lama was conducting. He didn’t like the way the monk looked. His hair was tied in a knot, and he had a thin beard and moustache. Mahapragya only agreed to stay and listen at his friend’s insistence. By the end of the discourse, however, he was completely awed by the way the lama explained things. So impressed, in fact, that he began following him everywhere.
When Kyangtse Lama prepared to return to Tibet, Mahapragya asked to come along. But the lama said no. “You wouldn’t be able to endure the hard life of a monk,” he said. “You can practice the dharma just as well living at home.” And the monk left. Mahapragya remained at home, but his mind was somewhere else. It didn’t help that his wife nagged him about his being perpetually broke, his parents berated him over his bohemian lifestyle, and his neighbours mocked him for his religious slant. Reading the life of the Buddha by Nisthananda Bajracharya intensified the feeling of renunciation. Mahapragya wrote in his autobiography that it was as if an unseen force was trying to drive him to abandon the life of a householder.
Then another Tibetan lama named Kushyo Rimpoche arrived in Kathmandu. He too refused to take Mahapragya with him. But Mahapragya had made up his mind, and nothing was going to stop him. He stepped out of his house, and began striding on the road to Tibet with the intention of catching up with the monk. And he did, to the lama’s astonishment, on the hills of Nuwakot. Trekking over hair-raising trails and snow-covered slopes, Mahapragya accompanied him to the Tibetan town of Kyirong. And there he began a new life. Mahapragya was ordained a lama and given the name Palden Sherab. He then returned to Kathmandu and lived at Nagarjun with four other monks and their guru.
Everything was well until they went into town with their begging bowls. They were mobbed by the townspeople as they had never seen monks in robes before. The
commotion attracted the police who hauled them to the station where Mahapragya was chastised for having left his ancestral faith. The government saw them as a threat to the established order, and they were taken before the prime minister at Singha Durbar who ordered them to leave the country.
This was in 1926. Policemen escorted the monks out followed by their weeping disciples. They first went to Kolkata, and then split in different directions. Mahapragya went to Tibet and wandered around Lhasa and Shigatse before returning to India. He lived in Kalimpong and waited to be allowed to return to Nepal. He probably did not understand the repercussions of his actions, but he had helped to bring back a forgotten tradition into the mainstream. New monks appeared. The years passed. Mahapragya gave up being a monk, got married, and then renounced a second time. In 1962, he returned to Kathmandu and spent the rest of his life as a self-styled Buddhist ascetic.
Posted on: 2012-09-01 10:47