Buddhism, National Security and Place of Violence

Keshar Bahadur Bhandari, PhD



The practice of national security in vary many forms existed since the time the concept of nation has come into being. The issue of security of a nation was there in Buddha’s time and even before to that; but, the nature of threats to national security that exist today did not exist then in Buddha’s time. While dealing with the issues of national security from Buddha’s perspective one need to analyze the issues based on time relativity of those period. Hence, the security events of those days and the way they had been addressed then need to be viewed not from present days’ context but from the lens of that period. In this article, an attempt is made to draw Buddhist approach to deal with the Terrorism and Violence in order to reduce the terrorism and violence in the world.


Key words

Peace, Violence, Non-Violence, Tolerance, Terrorism



The national security is a subject of comprehensive security which also includes the ‘cultural security’, that entails the security of culture and tradition of the nation. Therefore, the cultural security becomes an important agenda of ‘national security policy’ of the nation concerned. Buddhism, in various forms makes the core of the religion and culture of many countries and society; thus, protecting and preserving the same become an important part of ‘national security policy’ of those countries.

Siddartha Gautama a prince and heir apparent of King Suddhodana of the Shakya dynasty belonged to the Kshatriya clan, the warrior caste of Nepal. So, it is but logical to assume prince Siddartha was trained in the statecrafts and military skills which entails diplomacy, war and violence. But, he denounced all the luxury and privileges of the state, and left palace at the age of 29 to find the ways and means to end the suffering of mankind. He ultimately was enlightened after finding the ‘middle path’ at the age of 35, and the enlightened Siddartha Gautama became the Buddha, the “Awakened One”, or the Tathagata. He spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism the ‘Dhamma’, or ‘Truth’ until his death at the age of 80[1]. As per the Parinibbana Sutta, Buddha had identified four places of future pilgrimage as Lumbini, the sites of his birth; Bodh Gaya, the sites of his enlightenment, Saranatha, the sites of his first discourse, and Kushinagara the sites of his death.

Tolerance and Peace Versus Violence

Buddhism, among the religious traditions is seen as a religion least associated with the violence. The principle of non-violence, tolerance and peace is arguably more central to Buddhism and Buddhist teachings than any other major religions. Since, the principle of non-violence is at the center, all the moral precepts instilled in Buddhist monks, the promise not to kill comes first. Buddha himself was a pragmatic peace maker which has been exemplified by his role in preventing wars on several incidents such as, an eminent war between Shakyas and Koliyas by intervening the battle field with convincing logic and teaching, intervening king Vidudabha three times on his way to Kapilavathu to wage war against the Sakyans, and convincing the king Ajatasattu of Magadha from waging deadly war against the Vajjis. While doing all these, Buddha also knew and was convinced that all wars cannot be averted in every instance, and fate of the parties involved is decided by their ‘Karma’ of the past.

Buddhism, though is regarded as a peaceful religion but, also has other side of it. In the history of Buddhism there have been acts of violence directed, fomented or inspired by Buddhists. On multiple occasions over the past fifteen centuries, Buddhist leaders have sanctioned violence, and even war. Buddhist monks in the early sixth-century China, led revolts to defend Buddhism; and the Buddhist soldiers were given the illustrious status of Bodhisattva after killing their adversaries. The Buddhist organizations have used religious images and rhetoric to support military conquest throughout the history; Japanese fighter planes carried images of the Buddhist embodiment of compassion, Avalokiteshvara; and the Zen and Pure Land Buddhist monks stood firm to justify the Second World War, in order to preserve ‘true’ Buddhism.

There are historical accounts in Tibet, Korea, Japan and China where Monks in various time-period have participated in war. Since, most Buddhist states have waged war at one time or other including wars of conquest and are still involved in conflicts; and in most cases, state religion has been and is being used to justify the war. In this regard, it would not be otherwise to exercise this practice by nations having Buddhism as state religion. Though, Buddhism teaches the bad karmic consequences of violence but, at times Buddhists justify and legitimize some violence and killing as necessary for just cause.

In Buddhism, ‘just war’ is one of the buzz-word or phrase today, but question is, do all actually follow the academic norms of just war? Just war theory is a doctrine and is also referred to as a tradition of military ethics. The purpose of the doctrine is to ensure the war is morally justifiable through a series of criteria, all of which must be met for a war to be considered a just war. The criteria are: “right to go to war”, which keeps concern on the morality of going to war, and “right conduct in war”, keeps concern to the moral conduct within war[2]. Just War theory also postulates that, war though terrible, is not always a worst option; this may also prevent undesirable outcomes and atrocities and help to meet important state responsibilities.

Buddhism does not deny the use of force either when necessary for the protection of their country; in other word, a country should have army for her defense. His Holiness prince Vajiranana, as mentioned in the ‘Ratthabhipalanopaya’ – the Policy of Governance, has accepted the ‘Defense against external foes’ as one of the important policy of governance in Buddhism. It is interesting to observe that the Buddhist country like Siam (present Thailand) had prepared their population to become warrior for the defense of their country.

The Buddhist text, the ‘Ummagga Jataka- the story of Tunnel’, gives many insights on the military science of defensive warfare and national security. In ‘Ummagga Jataka’, there are many accounts of defensive war skills demonstrated by the royal Pandit Mahausadh Kumar of Mithila kingdom. Such defensive war skills had been narrated in the war story between Mithila kingdom and Uttarpanchal of Kapil state.

In the Buddhist ideal expressions, the Rule of Law and Good Governance have been manifested from the Dasa Raja Dharma (the 10 Royal Virtues) – the trade mark of Good Governanace, and the Cakkavatti-vatta or Duties of a Great Ruler. All the above principles are considered to be the base of Good Governance at all levels; hence, the leaders, governors and administrators are to practice these principles to lead their organization, companies, religion, society and the nation as whole to achieve the objectives for the benefits of the majority.

Violence in Buddhism – A Paradox: Cases of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand

Buddhism and the associated violence is a paradox. Violence in Buddhism refers to acts of violence and aggression committed by Buddhist from religious, political, and socio-cultural motivations, including the act of self-inflicted violence during asceticism for religious purposes[3]. It is found that the act of self-immolation is an extreme form self-inflicted violence of political and religious expression.

The Modern Theravada Buddhist monks rely on the Abhidhamma of the Pali Canon that emphasizes on intention. They even advocate killings with compassion and carries a believe that such killings with compassion entails no karmic consequence. Buddhism, emphasis on karma and samsara and the act of killing carries less the focus than the ‘intention’ behind the killing. In the Buddhist Vinaya (monastic guidelines), suicide per se is considered violence, and encouraging another person to commit suicide also considered a sin. But, there is also a long tradition of self-inflicted violence and death in Buddhism, in a form of asceticism and protest[4]. This has been exemplified by the use of fires and burns to show determinations among Chinese monks. But, the case of self-immolations by the monk Thích Quảng Đức during the Vietnam war, and self-immolation by Tibetans are guided more by political intent than the religious intent.

A few academic works, such as Buddhism and Violence (2006) and Buddhist Warfare (2009), have revealed the recent history of violence and military cultures of Asian Buddhist, mainly across Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. In the predominantly Buddhist countries of South and South-East Asia, protection of Buddhism, Buddhist nation and Buddhist community from non-believers is considered an important responsibility of the Buddhist; hence, justify war or violence in the protection of the same. But, how just cause could they be? and these are something to be justified from humanitarian perspective as well.

The recent military actions in Buddhist countries – Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand show that the allegedly pacifist religious traditions are also susceptible to the violent tendencies of human. The military actions in these countries draw an ethical controversy between the Buddhist norms of non-violence and the prohibition of the killing of sentient beings, and acts of state violence. There is dichotomy on civil violence and involvement of Buddhist monks, which are seen during the civil unrest in Sri Lank and Myanmar, where the Buddhist community (sangha) including the monks have participated in support of the violence. The ‘Or Ror Bor’, the Buddhist militia under the patronage of Queen Sirikit was established for the protection of the Buddhist communities in Muslim dominated provinces of southern Thailand is another example. The extreme right-wing views of Buddhist monk, Phra Kittiwutthi of the Phra Chittipalwon College in Thailand shows that not all Buddhists follow the non-violent path. Therefore, the Buddhist states, while attempting to preserve the principles and values of Buddhism have simultaneously brought the popular forms of Buddhist nationalism and fundamentalism; and they often have meshed the nationalism with Buddhism. It is also found that the countries where Buddhism is part of the ideology of statecraft, there exist a broader tendency for Buddhists to sanction state violence.

Nationalism is one important term that is found to be embedded in different forms of warfare in Buddhist countries. In Sri Lanka, Buddhism is a faith and Buddhist nationalism/Sinhala nationalism is a believe that defines the Sinhalese society; and this has been the identifying characteristic when they feel threatened. The excessive discriminatory and acts of restriction imposed on the Tamils minority based on the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist agenda radicalized the Tamil youths. This led the militant Tamil group calling for an independent homeland within Sri Lanka; and this possible division of Sri Lanka, a serious threat to national security turned out to be a demand totally against the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The Buddhist revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala, came as the central figure in the formation of modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and politicizing the Buddhism. The existence of very strong Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism played a major role in involving monks in politics, and also gave rise to Buddhist ultranationalist group. The Sri Lankan Army motivated by the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and encouraged by the politicized Buddhism and the monks ultimately annihilated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elem (LTTE) militarily for good. The Buddhist monks who preached the Sri Lankan soldiers may have convincingly explained to deal with (or fail to deal with) the discrepancy between non-violence and war. The concluded civil war in Sri Lanka is an obvious example of “Buddhist” warfare in the modern world.

Buddhism, as a faith famous for its pacifism and tolerance has at times shown the other side of it. As against the Buddhist philosophy – the Buddhist in Myanmar harbor intolerance, hatred and violence towards non-Buddhist community like Muslim (Rohingya); so, do the Sinhalese Buddhist in Sri Lanka towards the Tamils minority and other minority religious groups like Muslim and Christian. The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are the most persecuted people of this century; but, the atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State of Myanmar by the ethnic Buddhists are at times exaggerated by the western media by hiding the good things done by the Buddhists monks, community and the government[5]. The ill feeling against minority religious communities who are being targeted by the Buddhist community has surfaced as a new trend in the post-civil war Sri Lanka. It is a bit puzzling though, because neither country is facing any Islamist militant threat where the Muslims are a small minority and generally a peaceful community. Though, the killing of Muslims is not heard of in Sri Lanka but, the situation in Myanmar is far too serious. In Myanmar, the antagonism is spearheaded by the 969-movement led by a monk Venerable Ashin Wirathu Thera; who has publicly referred himself bizarrely as “the Burmese Bin Laden”. The 969-movement of Myanmar looks an extreme rightist and religious fundamentalist movement.

Here the observation made by Barbara Crossette[6] would be pertinent to quote, “In the West, Buddhism is often understood as a religion of compassion and peace; Buddhism, a faith practiced all over the world, is marked by individualism, equality and concern for the welfare of the earth and all ‘sentient’ creatures. But when it is harnessed to ethnic intolerance and extreme nationalism, it can turn mindlessly violent.” This is what exactly has happened and is happening in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Buddhist View on Terrorism:

The terrorism in modern world has become nuisance and a threat to national security of many countries; hence, the threat of terrorism has become a ‘Global Commons’. The terrorist use violence as a means to achieve their aim; on this the Dalia Lama has said that “It is difficult to deal with terrorism through non-violence.” The Buddhist approach to deal with the terrorism is different from the conventional approach of the modern world. On this, Buddhism advocates that if violence is chosen to counter the violence of terrorism then, a skillful violence ‘upaya’ will be required to put off such violence. Moreover, the retribution to terminate the terrorism will not be a viable option from Buddhist perspective. Any sustainable solution will require a shared realization of interdependence, and this is what the Buddhist philosophy endeavors to promote.

Buddhism in Essence is Non-Violent 

It is not that the Buddhists always resort to the means of violence to achieve the ends; there are examples of peaceful and non-violent means they have resorted to; and one such example is the “Saffron Revolution of 2007” in Myanmar. Buddhist in general are peace loving and peace practicing religious community who avoid violence and killing; and Buddhism is an established religion of peace and compassion. Few cases of violence as exception do not really represent the essence of Buddhism which otherwise is so vast and compassionate that such incidents become stray cases in big positive canvass of Buddhism and are impermanent.

Gananath Obeyesekere, emeritus professor of Anthropology at Princeton University said that “in the Buddhist doctrinal tradition… there is little evidence of intolerance, no justification for violence, no conception even of ‘just wars’ or ‘holy wars.’ … one can make an assertion that Buddhist doctrine is impossible to reconcile logically with an ideology of violence and intolerance”[7]. Michael Jerryson, author of several books on Buddhism, though is heavily critical of Buddhism’s traditional peaceful perceptions; but, nowhere has he mentioned Buddha advocating or justifying violence. None of the authors Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, in their book ‘Buddhism and War’ have quoted Buddha advocating or justifying violence. The sutras and texts they have quoted were composed centuries later by Mahayanist philosophers, who have added and manipulated the old version to suit the requirement of the rulers wanting state violence for the protection of their nation and the religion.

Therefore, the point here is not to argue whether Buddhists are benevolent or violent people, it would rather be a rational decision to accept Buddhists as people who share the same human spectrum of emotions, including depression, struggle, anger and violence. In this way, we can acknowledge that however revered a tradition or culture may be, it is likely to have a darker side as well; and over the centuries, there have been tremendous changes in Buddhism as well. Change indeed is one of the foundational principles in Buddhism i.e. all is impermanent. The Buddhist traditions have transformed with the time which is always changing and there are persistent patterns that keep pace with these changes. The cycle of violence may continue for reason but this again is impermanent, so has to change and come to an end with time.


Buddhism in Nepal

Nepal is a country very rich and famous for its diverse culture and tradition mainly dominated by the Hindu and Buddhist culture and tradition. Nepal, though not a Buddhist country per se but, amongst many culture and tradition prevailing in Nepal, Buddhism has a significant place and is deeply rooted in the culture of Nepalese society. One of the reason for this is lord Buddha was born in Nepal and the Shakya Muni is the son of the soil ‘bhumi-putra’ of Nepal.

Buddhism entered Nepal in Lord Buddha’s time itself. According to historians, king Jayasthiti Malla ruled Nepal during medieval period (around 1382 C.E.); he imposed caste system and put ban on Buddhist culture and tradition. The celibate monks were banned from practicing, giving rise to the de-celibate Newar Buddhism – the ‘Vajrayana’. The Newar Buddhism was developed while the Theravada Buddhism in a way was put to an end; but, the Theravada Buddhism revived again in the beginning of the 20th century[8].

Buddhism is considered the second religion of Nepal. It is the only country and place where both Buddhist and Hindu share many common culture and share same temple of worship; Muktinath temple is one of the glaring example, beside many other shrines and temples. At times the Buddhism and Hinduism are so well blended that it becomes difficult to find a thin line of division. The cordial coexistence of the Hinduism and Buddhism is unique and exemplary in Nepal. Buddhism as a religion, had always enjoyed a good status in the history of Nepal. Prime Minister Junga Bahahdur Rana had availed state fund to Ambors Oldfield to write the second part of the book “Sketches from Nepal”, a book totally dedicated to Buddhism[9]. Commanding General of the West, Kahdga Sumsher Rana contributed in the excavation and exploration of Lumbini and other Buddhist sites. But, there is a sad incident of Banishment of Buddhist monks during the end period of Rana regime; the reason of Banishment though could be debated. In post 1950 period, the Theravada tradition thrived again in Nepal. The king Tribhuvan and his son king Mahendra had supported the movements to revive the Theravada Buddhism. At present, there are 96 Theravada ‘Viharas’ in the country[10]. Late Venerable Amritananda Mahasthavir and Late Venerable Bhikshu Sudharshan deserve special mention in Theravada revival movement in Nepal.

But still, the status-quo of Buddhism is not very encouraging and Buddhism has remained in a low-key, which otherwise should have been a vibrant religion of Nepalese society. Hence, it is not justifiable to keep it in the back-burner any more. There is lack of advocacy and marketing for its rightful and just existence. Buddhism in Nepal is still confined only to a limited section of the Nepalese society such as few sects of Newar community and in the communities of Tamangs, Gurung, Magar, and Sherpa.

Since recent past and especially after the recent political changes, the outstanding religious tolerance and harmony that had existed for long has slowly been affected by other religions. The deprived people of the Nepalese society have become the targets of conversion by other religion. Tamangs are the largest Buddhist community but, socio-economically handicapped population of Nepal; hence, became vulnerable to conversion by other religion. Besides, the Tibetan Buddhist and their huge monasteries believed to be funded by western power for strategic purpose have dominated the indigenous Newar Buddhism in Nepal.

The culture and tradition of the Nepal Army fundamentally is based on Hindu religion; and at the same time, its Buddhist members are comfortably assimilated with the Hindu tradition, and no discrimination exist whatsoever. Regardless of the religious background and believes the members of the army have been performing their soldering duty with utmost sincerity and have contributed for the name and fame of Nepal. But in recent days, the ethnic Buddhist members of the army also became vulnerable to conversion to other religion. Therefore, the recent trend of conversion of Buddhist population to other religion has become a matter of concern of cultural security from national security point of view. Therefore, preservation of Buddhist cultures, tradition, arts and artifacts, literatures, Buddhist stupas and monasteries, and protection of Buddhist population from conversion becomes an important agenda of national security, at present.

Conclusion and Recommendations


Few Buddhist countries in recent days are experiencing profound political and economic changes and struggles. Buddhist rulers and monks for various purpose and interest became stakeholders of these changes. The Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Thailand with modern nationalism have collaborated with state powers to suppress minority traditions in order to strengthen their nations as ‘purely Buddhist’. In this regard, the Buddhist states have often meshed nationalism with Buddhism, and try to justify violence and war on the grounds of protecting Buddhism and Buddhist nationals. The incidents of bloodshed in several countries spanning over centuries to the ongoing events of violence in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka where the monks involved in fighting for their religion have also called their followers for the same action. This may lead to think that, the popular notion of Buddhism being an entirely pacifist, tolerant and non-violent religion is not very convincing, and the Buddhist as an absolutely tolerant society is not always true either. Besides, a social contract (Dīgha Nikāya, the Mahāsammata) that binds Buddhist rulers to a civic obligation, also grants them certain rights to violence. Therefore, the Buddhism as against an established belief is not always devoid of violence and war. Nonetheless, all such negative phenomenon is impermanent and the essence of Buddhism will never be compromised and cannot be compromised; and the essence like non-violence, tolerance and compassion will prevail at the end of the day.

Some of the prominent Buddhist scholars of Nepal[11] have a clear and positive opinion on Buddhism and Buddhist practice world over including the SAARC countries. Some of them considers, ‘Dhamma’ teaches to live an active life, hence, Buddhism cannot be called a passive religion. The religious tolerance is the motto of Buddhism and violence is contrary to Buddhism, except for a totally justified cause; besides, the issue of violence should be case specific for justification and cannot be generalized as such. Violence could be defensive in nature as well. Mahayana Buddhism does not consider the act of killing of few to save large number of sentient, a sinful act; and Buddhist may kill such an evil-minded person or animal. Buddha does not advocate even a compassionate or mere killings; but, sometimes violence become inevitable for wholesome action. Violence is the outcome of Karmic response and is a result of cause and effect i.e. every action has a reaction; and unwholesome acts result bad reaction or rise to violence. Therefore, people should realize the consequence of their Karma and the eventualities that lies in future.

Violence of any form is not acceptable in Buddhism; but, the violence seen in the Buddhist nations are of political nature, because rulers and political leaders may not follow Buddhist teaching. As a general rule, the majority have advantage over the minority and the majority exercise monopoly; this is what has happened in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Moreover, Buddhist cannot and do not impose forceful conditions on other because Buddhism is not an ‘ism’ (vada upadana); so, all Buddhist may not even practice Buddhist teaching. Nevertheless, once people follow morality of Buddhism, nonviolence will prevail and peacefully acquired end result will be everlasting. Buddha’s teaching revolves around making harmonious, peaceful and society devoid of violence; thus, generates tolerance and compassion. Buddhists seek welfare of all by loving, kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity; and advocates for ‘Welfare of many, happiness for many’ (Bahu-jana Hitaya, Bahu-jana Sukhaya).

The military and police of a country is a legal force authorized to use state violence. Usually during a war and more so during a civil-war, people in general and members of the force suffer from physical injury as well as psychological trauma. This may lead to develop a desensitized hearts and minds on people and can be a worst form of unseen and dormant challenge to national security. Nonetheless, such desensitized hearts and minds of people in post conflict environment could be sensitized by inculcating Buddhist tenets and value in them. Even by simply observing ‘Pancha Seela’ will create peaceful environment. Practice of morality – ‘Pancha Sheela’, ‘four sublime-states’ and Meditation like ‘Vipasana’ will help to sensitize hearts and minds. Following ‘Pancha Sheela’ alone will infuse sense of tolerance, non-violence and compassion in soldiers. This will not require a vast study of Buddhist literature. Simple Buddhist teaching will make mind free from defilements and make soldiers more dutiful, friendly, tolerant and compassionate. Teaching on Buddhist discipline could be a great source of motivation for soldiers to adhere them only to just violence, and not otherwise. The required inner strength could be cultivated by Buddhist practice through Meditation, concentration and purification of mind. This will develop positive attitude on soldiers and a productive and tolerant mind will resist excessive use of force.


Buddhism as such is not a religion but, a way of life for harmonious society. Buddhism teaches people to become good human beings. One does not really need to be a Buddhist for this and can adopt Buddhist principle in dealings, which can help for flourishment of Buddhism. Buddhism can be flourished by teaching the value of Buddhism in Schools and Colleges. Buddhism could be a medium for nationalism, national integrity and development. Buddhism considers the principle of all religions is based on peace and nonviolence, and all religions are good religion. Buddhists do not claim Buddhism to be the best religion but, encourage for mutual co-existence and sharing the best welfare of all, and advocates for the people to be good religious people and teaches only good for human kind. Buddhism does not make unnecessary comment on other religion as well. Hence, there is extreme need for acceptance of each other, and close coordination and cooperation amongst various religious groups for the overall wellbeing of any country.

The path of Buddhism though is simple but strict Buddhism is difficult to follow and adhered to. It needs a lot of personal sacrifice in the materialistic world, which will not come easy for most. But, Buddhism not like other religion, do not has strict commandment and punishment for not abiding by those commandments; rather allows time for realization and correct oneself and follow as one can or when ready. Nevertheless, some applied form of Buddhist teaching compatible and user friendly could be devised and followed as per the requirement. The main aim is to adhere to the essence of Buddhism, in terms of cultivating and harboring tolerance and non-violence and practice compassion; which in turn will make contribution in formulation and practicing a well-balanced and pragmatic national security policy.

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[1]Prepared by Brian White 1993, with thanks to Ven S. Dhammika.

[2] Guthrie, Charles; Quinlan, Michael “III: The Structure of the Tradition”, Just War: The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC., 2007, 11-15.

[3] Ross, Jeffrey Ian, “Buddhism and Violence,” in Religion and Violence: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict from Antiquity to Present, ed. M. E. Ross, Jeffrey Ian; Sharpe ,Routledge, 2015, 120–21.

[4] Ibid, 120-121.

[5] Venerable Phra Dr. Anil Shakya, Wat Bowon, Bangkok, Thailand

[6]American author and journalist was writer on international affairs for New York Times

[7] Bruce; Tully. R. E. Neusner, Jacob; Chilton, Just War in Religion and Politics, America: University Press of, 2013, 181.

[8] Lumbini Nepalese Buddha Dharma Society , “Theravada Buddhism in Modern Nepal,”

[9] Saurav, Ashamati Disagreement, Kathmandu: Orchid Books, 2014.

[10] “No Title,” The Ananda Bhoomi, no. 32, 2003 A.D.

[11] Information received from Venerable Phra Dr. Anil Shakya, Vikshu Dharmagupta Mahasthavir, Dr. Tri Ratna Manandhar; Surendra Man Bajracharya; and Dr. Keshav Man Shakya