Dynamics of Religion and Nationalism in Tibet

20 Jul, 1999    ·   229

Rahul Arun reckons that the current ferment of Tibetan ethno-nationalism should serve as a model for traditional societies engaged in nation-building processes

Tibet , the name conjures up visions of spirituality, exotica and mysticism. But beneath it ethno-nationalism is fermenting in Tibet which should serve as a model for traditional societies engaged in nation-building processes. The uniqueness of the Tibetan experiment consists in the spiritual-temporal interplay prevailing there.



Nationalism is a modern phenomenon among Tibetans, an outcome of their recent experience with the Chinese Communist State . Religion and nationalism have a mutual interplay in Tibet in the sense that religion is conditioned by the development of a nationalist political consciousness.



To elaborate further, the Dalai Lama is the quintessential expression of the Tibetan concept of 'Chos-Srid Zung' or politics and religion combined. There is no contradiction between a Dalai Lama engaged in the world of politics and Buddhist religious goals because they are not seen as being opposed in Buddhist cosmology. One gets a fair idea of the transformation wrought by the Dalai Lama since it converted the Tibetans and the Mongols from fierce fighters into extreme pacifists.



Monks and Nuns have played a leading role as organisers of demonstrations, drawing on Buddhist religious ideas and politics to oppose the power of the Chinese State .



But what merits our attention here is the fact that the politically active Buddhism developed by young Monks and Nuns in Tibet does not represent a retreat into religious orthodoxy. Apart from the institution of the Dalai Lama, Monks and Nuns, several religious rituals, ceremonies and temples serve as religious manifestation of Tibetan national identity. Paul Concretion once observed that the performance of ritual provides the basis for collective social memory and identity. For example, the ceremony of Khorra is universally practiced around Tibetan temples and other holy sites and is a means of accumulating merit for lay Tibetans. Merit is transposed into the arena of political action by combining Khorra with symbols of Tibetan nationhood — the Dalai Lama, the flag etc.



Similarly, the Jokhang temple evokes a multi-layered symbolism of Tibetan nationhood, which has resisted Chinese efforts to represent Tibetan national history as ancillary to the power of the Chinese State . As an evocative symbol for Tibetan nationhood the Jokhang temple has three terms — nation, state and religion.



Even religious food used extensively in rituals called Tsampa, has acquired a political significance. The Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya notes that in 1959, at the height of the Tibetan resistance to the Chinese occupation, Tsampa was considered as the basic element which united the Tibetan speaking world.



These factors besides also act as a conduit for political protests. Bruce Kapferer argues that like other ethnic ideologies, nationalism lays claim to symbols and meanings from cultural contexts which have great importance for people as these symbols represent the nation state. The importance of this symbolism in mass politics can be judged from the fact that during the period leading up to the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the US was depicted as an adulterous infidel who raped and mistreated Iran , which was depicted as a woman.



What differentiates the Tibetan case from others is that Tibetan nationalist protest while drawing its strength from religious passions remains morally and politically "rational," committed to universalistic values, and appealing for human rights and democracy.



As the political crisis in Tibet has unfolded over the past few years-the Chinese have come to realize that virtually every expression of religion carries a message of political protests. Tibetans have been able to overcome their powerlessness by drawing the Chinese into a symbolic competition on terms where the Tibetans control the meaning of symbols.



The significance of the Tibetan experiment of spiritual-temporal interplay lies in its questioning the 'stereotypical, Eurocentric' notions of nationalism, where nationalism is considered to be a purely modern, secular phenomenon. The Tibetan case demonstrates that in the case of traditional societies, steeped in religion, nationalism is a blend of traditional (such as race, language, literature, tradition, territoriality) and modern components (secularism, egalitarianism, universalize, etc.) As argued by the Tibetologist Dawa Norbu, the social potency and mass appeal of nationalism resides in this unique combination of two contrasting idea systems. Traditional culture provides the emotional power that mystifies the rational mind: egalitarian ideology provides a rational framework for the resolution of social problems.