The charade of the Golden Urn
By Madhuri Santanam Sondhi
The Enlightenment in Europe heralded secularism or the separation of Church and State, an integral aspect of modern politics which has spread across the globe. The State representing a citizenry entitled to human rights was freed of ecclesiastical tutelage and influence while the Church remained independent in its religious, institutional and normative domain. (The major exception to this mutual accommodation came when the Anglican Church in England withdrew its religious allegiance to the Pope of Rome to transfer it to the English monarch, legitimising a certain political interest in high Church appointees.) However there remained a latent contradiction between the new definition of society as an association of free individuals and the traditional community of believers, and with the increasing assertion of freedom and individualism the new humanism sought to bend religious tradition to its own values – demanding from the Catholic Church for example, the right of priests to marry, for women to abort and legitimation of same sex marriages.
This interlocution between civil society and institutional religion was fairly characteristic of the liberal democratic Enlightenment societies. In India there has been an ongoing debate over the meaning of secularism, from the separation of religion and state, to equi-distance from or even-handedness by the state in dealing with all religions, to demand for positive encouragement of religious/moral values by the state, or for state legislation on temple affairs—a continuing contestation especially between the secular elites and Hinduism.
Within the totalitarian branch of the Enlightenment, however, the fight against religion was total: the aim was not simply to sever connections between religion and state but to physically and spiritually uproot it. When in time the totalitarian regimes found that religion refused to go away, they arrived at various types of modus vivendi with the latter, largely following in the footsteps of the democratic societies’ version of secularity with a revival of civil society.
China’s experiments with democracy in the early 20th century were overtaken by modern totalitarianism or communism. From 1949 Mao replicated Stalin’s total assault on religion and tradition, suppressing and destroying to the extent possible Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity in all their manifestations. Post-Mao despite a certain economic liberalisation, Communist China did not adopt the liberal socio-political values of the other Enlightenment; ie, it rejected glasnost, democracy and secularism as separation of religion and state, maintaining the primacy of the Communist Party in all matters. Given its own historical narrative and as a centralised authoritarian state China is paranoid about foreign ideological subversion and ultra-sensitive about perceived dangers from trans-national religions like Christianity and Islam (Confucianism and Taoism are indigenous, Chinese Buddhism civilizationally well integrated) which it seeks to manage through institutional and thought controls. Despite differences in threat perceptions from the various religions a common thread is fear of subversion of the motherland and/or the Communist Party, be it the Falungong, (a native twenty-year old meditation cum Tai-chi movement, a potential threat to the Party with its claimed 70 million Chinese followers); Roman Catholics (whose higher clergy were till the other day appointed from Rome), other Christians representing diverse western churches, or Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighurs with overseas connections, especially with Turkey.
Tibetan Buddhism is also high on the suspect list although functionally as indigenous as Chinese Buddhism. Forcible occupation drove the Dalai Lama to India, and created a community of exiles which raises the spectre of outside interference. Whereas perhaps only 6 million Tibetans live on the plateau, Tibet’s geographical area constitutes almost one-third of China’s territory, and is a rich source of minerals, timber (whatever remains after intensive logging) and water, apart from lebensraum for the Hans and a nuclear-cum-conventional security shield. Buddhism’s hold did not weaken despite large-scale destruction of monasteries and persecution of practitioners, so post-Mao the Chinese state came to terms with it; monasteries were rebuilt and rendered functional, but the State/Communist Party (which also tries to control churches in China) arrogated to itself the right to make inroads into their organisation and curricula.
An important aspect of the latter has been the uncompromising attack on the religious role and institutional independence of the Dalai Lama, also of the Panchen, Karmapa and other reincarnating lamas, heads of sects and monasteries. Having failed to break their hold on their followers the Chinese are determined to appropriate the system. If Henry VIII of England usurped the role of the Pope in order to divorce and re-marry (and gain access to the ‘goods’ of the Church), the Chinese are even more anxious to hold on to the material resources and strategic advantages of Tibet and doubly fear the separatist possibilities of ethnicity or identity which are symbiotically connected with Tibetan Buddhism. The comparison cannot be stretched too far however, for whereas the English monarchy is still defined as the upholder of religion, China’s is a self-declared atheistic state committed to undermining it. For example the Tibet Autonomous Region Literary Association recently condemned the famous independent Tibetan writer Woeser as having “… lost her political commitment towards the progressive civilization movement”, of “stepping into the wrong political terrain” and of “praising the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, encouraging belief in religion …”. (italics added)
The Patriotic Education Campaign (PEC) was instituted in the nineties to engage with these problems by indoctrinating the Tibetan people, especially monks who prove the most recalcitrant in their persistent loyalty to the Dalai Lama and attachment to independence. The PEC’s agenda is holistic: it covers history – claiming against known facts that since ancient times Tibet has been part of China; it condemns the idea of Tibetan independence as a foreign invention and the current Dalai Lama’s non-violent demands for autonomy and human rights as ‘splittism’ of the motherland; at the same time it projects Chinese communism in Orwellian newspeak as the real guarantor of human rights. Tibet’s religion is held responsible for the country’s social backwardness, the Chinese Communist Party for introducing modernity. But ironically, in the face of ideological failure and through a naked assertion of power, this same CCP which denies life after death, claims the right of the communist state to recognise or implicitly select important incarnating Tulkus and Lamas, including the Dalai Lama.
This will enable the CCP to subordinate Tibetan Buddhism to the socio-political-linguistic-national-territorial requirements of the Chinese Communist state. The Dalai Lama has all along played a finely nuanced political game with the Chinese government ever since it set its eyes on invading Tibet in 1949. Without international support, not even from India which could only suffer from Chinese expansionism, he has been compelled to make some concessions to the occupying regime. For example, he formulated the policy of the Middle Way that accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibetans, though conditional on genuine autonomy for them within and without the TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region). His declared paramount concern is to preserve Tibetan Buddhist culture from forcible Sinicisation or distortion. He has pressed for interactions between home and exiled Tibetans, sought a civilised dialogue with the Chinese government (which over decades has not advanced beyond procedural formalities), and most recently abdicated his political role. The Chinese response has only been negative. In recent years a usually patient and equable Dalai Lama has openly begun to express a critique of Chinese communism, as in his conversation with Desmond Tutu on his birthday: “In a Communist, totalitarian system, and not only communist but many totalitarian systems, hypocrisy, telling lies, has unfortunately become a part of their lives.” Also: “Censorship is immoral…The Chinese judiciary system must raise themselves up to international law standards”. His press statement of September 24th about the future of the institution of the Dalai Lama rubbishes Chinese claims and presents the Tibetan religious and historical position with clarity and forthrightness.
Specifically he refutes the claims of the Chinese state to control the choice of high incarnate lamas. It was the Manchus or Qings who, after assisting the Tibetans against a Gurkha invasion in the late 19th century, introduced the idea of selecting high incarnate lamas under their auspices by picking lots from a Golden Urn with names of short-listed candidates. Prior to this the first eight Dalai Lamas had been chosen by Tibetan religious rituals alone; subsequently with the choice of the 9th, 10th, 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas the new procedure was ignored: with the 12th it was used symbolically after the religious selection to humour the Manchus. Only the 11th was actually selected by this process. This elaborate refutation ends with a condemnation of Chinese attempts at exercising political control over Buddhism through the recognition and control of reincarnations as “outrageous and disgraceful.” The Dalai Lama has also indicated that he will leave clear instructions as to if and how his reincarnation is to be found after his death (and he has promised to live till at least 90) and warned in no uncertain terms against recognition or acceptance being given to “a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China”.
With this ringing statement the Dalai Lama completes his alternative package to Chinese communism; modernity as multi-party electoral democracy and secularism as independence of religion from the state. In a second historical moment, the Tibetans, who once absorbed Buddhism from India are now engaged in a second borrowing from their southern neighbour of democracy and secularism. Vijayadashimi Day on which India celebrates the victory of light over darkness is an appropriate moment to pledge support to the Tibetan struggle for a multivalent Enlightenment.
(The writer is a respected thinker on strategic affairs.)