Karmapa in India- Implications for the Tibetan Movement

25 Jan, 2000    ·   312

Sonika Gupta analyses the impact of the Karmapa Lama's arrival in India on the Tibetan movement

The Karmapa Lama’s arrival in India has generated debate on Sino-Indian relations. However, the impact of his continued presence in India on the Tibetan movement has been ignored. Tibet has been a contentious issue in Sino-Indian relations. And for all practical purposes, it is unsolvable without altering the nature of Sino-Indian relations. However, his arrival does not pose a major problem for the Indian government, as it require no change in the Indian stand on Tibet , India recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in 1950 and considers Tibet to be an autonomous region of China . The Dalai Lama has been a political refugee in India for decades but has scrupulously avoided causing any embarrassment to the Indian government. The Karmapa Lama's flight from Tibet to India was not arranged by India ; it could be attributed to religious repression in Tibet . Now that he is in India , it is the Indian government's prerogative to grant asylum or not. Therefore this incident should not impinge on Sino-Indian relations. 



There are other facets of the Karmapa Lama's presence in India that require attention. The seat of the Karma Kagyu sect headed by him is the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim , which is presently under the protection of Sikkim police following clashes between rival factions within the Karma Kagyu sect. If the Ugyen Thinley Dorjee is to cement his claim to be the 17th Karmapa, he has to occupy the seat of the 16th Karmapa, and secure the sacred black hat, which is at the Rumtek monastery. His presence in Rumtek is something that the Indian government may well be wary of. It may not be a coincidence that China does not recognise Sikkim as a part of India . Sikkim is not shown as a part of India in its maps. The government has taken the right step in not allowing the Karmapa into Sikkim . It is essential for India to ascertain the political leanings of the Karmapa before taking further action on the asylum issue. 



Apart from Indian concerns, Karmapa Lama’s arrival in India has greater implications for the movement for Tibetan autonomy based in India . Before the Chinese take-over of Tibet , the various Tibetan Buddhist sects functioned as political parties engaged in a struggle to capture power to rule Tibet . Tibetan Buddhism is divided into four major sects that are characterized by their different philosophical interpretation of the Buddhist doctrines and diverse monastic organization. Of the four the Gelugpa sect, headed by the Dalai Lama and the Karma Kagyu sect, headed by the Karmapa Lama, follow the tradition of reincarnation of the sect leader.  The present controversy is a succession struggle within the Karma Kagyu sect, with different high lamas pushing their own candidates as the real reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa Lama who died in 1981. Traditionally, the Dalai Lama played no role in selecting the Karmapa Lama. Higher lamas of the Karma Kagyu sect earnestly searched for the reincarnated lama. However, given the international prominence of The Dalai Lama, seeking his approval for the 14- year old boy Ugyen Thinley Dorjee, as the real Karmapa has  become significant in this succession struggle. 



Following the Karmapa’s arrival in India , the differences within the Karma Kagyu sect as well as between the other Tibetan Buddhist sects have been highlighted by the media. This  extends now to the Dalai Lama as his religious and political  approval is being sought for the Karmapa Lama. Moreover, Ugyen Thinley Dorjee’s political credentials have yet to be clearly established.  It is a difficult to imagine that the 14-year-old Karmapa managed to escape the tight security in Tsurphu monastery and  make the 900 kilometres long journey  across the Himalayas in the month of January, without the Chinese being aware of it.  



However, the Karmapa Lama's arrival in India could strengthen the Tibetan movement. Of all the Buddhist sects the Karma Kagyu sect is the most popular in the US which is the major source of financial support for the movement. Further, the Himalayan region, has a large number of Karma Kagyu followers. If the Karmapa Lama is granted asylum in India , then this large Tibetan diaspora in US will greatly strengthen the Tibetan movement.  The situation that may unfold would either be in favour of the movement or it might suffer dissension following a power struggle between the different Tibetan Buddhist sects. A third possibility is that, the movement might be seriously compromised if the Karmapa does in any way owe loyalty to the Chinese. Whatever be the eventual outcome of the Karmapa Lama's presence in India , his flight from Tibet has once again focussed attention on China 's dubious record for religious repression and, the Tibetan movement stands to gain from this in the international arena.