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Date(s) - 26/04/2021
3:00 pm - 7:00 pm

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Importance of Himalayan Buddhism & Geopolitics

P. Stobdan

The concept of Himalayan Buddhism is as old as Buddhism itself. In fact, the Himalayas and Buddhism are synonymous, for the Buddha himself was born in the foothills of the Himalayas. There are references to Buddhist missionaries sent by Emperor Asoka to the region. Early Indian Buddhist Sutras probably arrived in the Himalayas when Buddhism was spreading into China and Central Asia in the 2nd century. In the 4th and 5th centuries onwards the Mahayana tradition was introduced by Acarya Vasubandhu and others in places like Nepal. There was further transmission during the Amshuvanna period (576-620), apart from the Mahasanghika Buddhist missionaries who made their presence felt thereafter. However, the real impact came when the famous logician Acarya Santarakshita (705-762), a product of Nalanda Monastery, passed through the Great Himalayas. He also visited Tibet in the year 743. But it was later in the 8th century that the legendary Indian Tantric Guru Padmasambhava profoundly sowed the seeds of the Indian Vajrayana form of Buddhism in the Himalayas. Padmasambhava (lotus-born) is popularly thought to have been born in Oḍḍiyāna (modern-day Swat Valley of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) – then a hub of Northern Buddhism. However, another legend has it that Oḍḍiyāna referred to ancient Odisha or Odra, Odivisa, Utkala and Kalinga. Most historiographers suggest it was Odisha that actually gave birth to the Tantrayana form of Buddhism in the 1st century AD and continued to flourish up to 7 – 8th century. Padmasambhava’s legacy with emphasis on mantra rituals and exorcism is the mainstay of the Himalayan Buddhism

Historian Bimaiendu Mohanty says that the Tantrayana form of Buddhism developed in Odisha included Buddha-kapala-tantra propounded by Saraha, Hevajratantra propounded by Kambalapada and Padmavajra, Samputatilaka propounded by Luipa and Sahajayana propounded by King Indrabhuti’s sister Laxmikara. It is said that Padmasambhava was an adopted son of Indrabhuti, the King of Sambala (Sambalpur), who had synergized all these forms of Tantrayana Buddhism into Vajrayana. Indrabhuti’s sister Laxmikara is said to have founded Sahajayana. Padmasambhava married Princes Mandarava of Jahore (Keonjhar) who helped the former attain Maha-Siddhi in Sahajayana. The type of Tantrayana Padmasambhava practiced was esoteric and wrathful. The Mahayana Buddhists give a primordial status to Padmasambhava, even considering him to be the Second Buddha.

Padmasambhava’s cult practice was termed ‘Nyingmapa’ (the oldest one) in the Himalayas, which actually is the mother of all other esoteric tradition that developed later in the region. He spent a long period in the Himalayas where he performed several miraculous acts and revealed sacred treasures. In fact, religious histories of Himalayan regions (Bhutan, Sikkin, Ladakh, Nepal, and Monyul) are associated with his legendary acts and Tantric miracles. Padmasambhava’s legacy remains the religious foundation of the people of the entire Himalayan range. Padmasambhava also travelled across the Himalayas into Tibet at the invitation of his brother-in-law, Shantirakshita, who had gone there earlier. Padmasambhava established the first Tantric centre “Samye” in Tibet after subduing evil spirits as well as the local Bonpo (animistic) followers. Padmasambhava’s 25 major disciples worked to disseminate his tradition across the Himalayas. Later the Nyingma School faced persecution in Tibet, but it continued to thrive in the Himalayas.

In Nepal, Padmasambhava is known as Oḍḍiyāna-acharya, and elsewhere in the Himalayas, he is known as Guru Rinpoche. Later, more Vajrayana Tantric teachings of Indian Mahamudra were introduced in the upper Himalayan regions by two Buddhist masters – Marpa (1012–1097) and Milarepa (1052-1123). They traced their practices to the teachings of Bengali saints Tilopa (988-1089) and Naropa (1016–1100). Their teachings lineages came to be known as Kagyu (oral transmission) which took deep roots in the region. In fact, the sacredness of many places and mountains in the Himalayas are associated with Marpa and Milarepa. The Kagyu lineage was further developed by their disciples into four major and eight minor tradition holders and spread all over the Himalayan belt. Among the main schools of Kagyu lineage were Karma Kagyu, Drukpa Kagyu and Drikung Kagyu. Their approach in practice differs slightly from one another but they follow the main teachings of the Indian adepts, Tilopa and Naropa. Each of these Kagyu sects has its own spiritual leaders. The Gyalwang Karmapa is the head of the Karma Kagyu School, Gyalwang Drukpa is the head of Drukpa Kagyu, and Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche is the head of Drikung Kagu. By the 11th century, other Indian masters such as Atisha Dipamkara of Vikramashila also reached Tibet and introduced a more refined version of Buddhism. Atisha emphasized monastic values and “mind training” as per the Sutras. His famous treatise Bodhipathapradeepa became popular in Tibet for it strongly prohibited the monks from practicing Tantra. Later his disciple Dromton established the Kadampa sect in Tibet which followed Atisha’s teachings of Lojong (mind training) and Lamrim (stages of path). The Kadampa tradition continued for three hundred years until a Tibetan master Tsong Khapa (1357–1419) from Amdo (Qinghai) established the Gelugpa sect in the 14th century.

Tsong Khapa probably synergized the key teachings of Kadampa with that of the Sakaya Tantric teachings. He emphasized monasticism, celibacy, scholarship and adherence to Vinaya (monastic discipline). Tsong Khapa’s philosophical elucidation of “the Stages of the Path” (Lam Rim Chenmo) is key to Gelug tradition.

The Gelugpa sect grew phenomenally in Tibet after three monasteries – Ganden (1409), Drepung (1416) and Sera (1419) – were set up as great centres of learning.

From the 17th century, the Gelugpa sect became more popular after Gushi Khan of Qusot Mongol helped the 5th Dalai Lama institute the Ganden Phodrang Tibetan regime in 1642. Later, the Qing rulers also promoted the Dalai Lama as the political and religious head of Tibet. Thereafter, both the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama remained valued intermediaries or tools for the Qing Empire’s expansion, from 1720 until 1912.

The Qing rulers expanded the geographical reach of the Gelugpa not only within Tibet but also in Mongolia, Buryatia, Manchuria, China proper, Yunnan and Northern Burma. Thus, Gelug history is largely based on the history of the Qing Empire’s expansion. The Panchen Lama who is in Tibet believes that Tibetan Buddhism itself is a product of the sinicization of Buddhism. Recently, he said “In the new era, we must better adapt to the socialist society with Chinese characteristics and guide the broad masses of Tibetan Buddhists and religious believers to love the party, the country, the people, and the religion from the bottom of their hearts.”

However, the Gelug authority that spread from Tibet in the North (perhaps due to political reasons) had historically failed to exert influence on the people of the Himalayan region with the exception of some pockets where it was established by the use of political and military force during the Mongol-Manchu role of Tibet. After 1960, this situation has changed when the Indian government also took a strategic decision to let the Gelugpa sect to flourish along the Himalayas.

Padmasambhava’s Buddhist teachings that laid emphasis on mantra rituals and exorcism continued to be the mainstay of the Himalayan religious tradition. Apart from Nyingma, the Kagyu tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism comprising the Karma Kagyu, Drukpa Kagyu and Drikung Kagyu schools, have been traditionally patronised and followed by the rulers of Monyul, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Ladakh.

A sprinkling of the Sakya Order (gray earth) is present in the Himalayan belt. It was founded in 1073 by a member of the aristocratic Khon family and was based on the teachings of the great Virupa. The Sakyas were known for great scholarship. They thrived on trade as they were also patronised by local rulers in Tibet. The great Sakya Pandita known for his expertise in magic rituals was invited to the Mongol court in the 12th century. The outline of the Himalayan landscape revolves around the legend of the original Nyingmapa tradition, established by Guru Padmasambhava, and its subsequent offshoot Kagyu lineages. The actual mapping of Buddhism in the Himalayas is a complex process, but in general, it comprises two major streams of practice. In the Southern/Lower (Tarai) Himalayas and Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, the Newar form of Vajrayana Buddhism based on the Siddha tradition of Nalanda and Vikramashila has been popularly practiced by the Shakyas and Vajracharyas. This tradition is gradually being allowed to die and efforts are not being made to sustain the Indian Buddhist tradition in the Himalayas.

In the Northern/Higher Himalayas, the original Nyingmapa tradition established by Guru Padmasambhava and its subsequent offshoot – the Kagyu lineage – are still kept alive by Sherpas, Manangis, Limbus, Bhutias, Lepchas, Drukpas, Monpas, Karjapas and Ladakhpas.

Ladakh has been an old bastion of Indian Buddhism since the days of Kushanas (2nd-3rd Century BC). However, from the 10th-11thcentury onwards, Tibetan-style Lamaism began to strongly influence Ladakh, which continues to remain strong, especially in the central and eastern parts of Ladakh. Yet, there is a strong and distinct traditional and sectarian difference between Ladakh (Western Himalayan) Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism along with political undertones.

Unfortunately, Western and illiterate Indian scholars studying Tibetan Buddhism have tended to lump together the entire Buddhist landscape in one semantic “Tibetan Buddhism.” This lack of distinction and identification has served to confuse than clarify the issues that have phenomenal geopolitical implications. Now that we have started talking about Himalayan Buddhism in place of Tibetan Buddhism, this itself would bring India-oriented Buddhist sects to the forefront.The Himalayas, Buddhism and Geopolitics. The Himalayas have been a theatre of competition by proxy between India and China for over half a century now. The two countries have been locked in a long-standing unresolved border dispute in this extensive mountain range that stretches from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. It has witnessed dramatic military standoffs such that have turned even bloody last year in Galwan Valley.

The military dimension of the Chinese threats to the Himalayas has remained a part of India’s security discourse for decades. But, very little is known about the pattern of other shadowy wars launched by China in the Himalayas that are non-military in nature, not easily discernible, but which have an equally powerful impact on the shaky balance of Himalayan security.

In the Western Himalayas, China has been standing by Pakistan to destabilise the Kashmir Valley through proxy sponsoring of terrorist activities. In the Eastern Himalayas, China has been playing the religious card to claim Tawang region from India. The Chinese have also openly supported various insurgent groups including the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). In the Central Himalayas, China supported the Maoist insurgency during the civil war in Nepal during 1996 -2006. It continues to influence the people of Nepal to undercut their natural affinity with India. According to conventional wisdom, the Indian Buddhist Himalayan region is at least peaceful, for the freedom of religion and democracy here has ensured relative stability. This sadly is no longer the case. The entire Indian Buddhist Himalayan belt, from Tawang to Ladakh has been subject to a string of incendiary events which are threatening to pitchfork the region into crisis. The Indian Buddhist Himalayan complexity is fast changing and could be a source of considerable concern for India’s security. In part, this seems to be arising from an excessive and prolonged presence of Tibetan refugees in the Himalayas who are gradually taking over the Indian Buddhist institutions of the Himalayas. Worryingly, more parallel sectarian network and infrastructure from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh are being set up along with their intrinsic political affiliations, differences and discords that could potentially destabilise the Indian Himalayas to China’s advantage. The long-term presence of Tibetan refugees in India and the future of the institution of the Dalai Lama have created a sense of uncertainty. Given the Tibetan track record of ensnaring India, one might expect an attempt made to find the present Dalai Lama’s reincarnation reborn in India. Even for the main stakeholder, the US, to play Tibet politics, requires controlling the Tibetan leader’s next reincarnation. Not surprisingly, the Dalai Lama has already hinted that he expects his reincarnation to be born in India. No one knows what it would mean but such recurring issues would inevitably spark a string of pent-up sectarian and inter-ethnic strife to convert the Himalayas into an even bigger tinderbox. India’s own Buddhist institutions are speedily undermined to the detriment of India’s interest. This is where China would try to win both the Tibetan and the Himalayan Buddhist game.

The Buddhist Himalayas will continue to remain a contested geo-cultural landscape between the competing narratives of India and China. However, in the current scenario, India’s interests in the Buddhist Himalayas remain even more compromised than during the colonial period, when British strategists were able to play the Himalayan game more perceptively. The British could understand the dynamic interplay between the Tibetans vis-à-vis Himalayan Buddhism especially the devotional power of various sectarian groups within Lamaism to achieve the results they desired. They created ‘buffer zones’, ‘Inner and Outer’ defence line for protecting its Himalayan frontiers.

However, in the current situation, India seems to lacks sufficient wherewithal to understand the critical interplay between Buddhism and the Himalayas and it has weighed heavily on the minds of the Tibetans exiled in India whose ultimate destiny and objective remains unclear. The geopolitics of the Himalayas has become more obscured ever since the mantle of India’s Tibet/China policy has fallen into the hands of the Americans. The Tibet issue has already overshadowed the Himalayan identity that has served to further blur the Indian frontier outlook. In contrast, the Chinese may have been thinking about playing the reverse strategic depth policy by leveraging on the critical interplay between Buddhism and the Himalayas for a long time. After consolidating its hold over Tibet in the 1960s, the Chinese seemingly worked on the pastel of Southern Himalayas, what it called ‘Southern Tibet’. Unlike India, China never viewed the Himalayan ranges as a barrier but a bridge to create additional spheres of influence. Here, Beijing is still operating on the Qing Dynasty order to use the Tibetan Lamaism as a useful vehicle and a tool for enlarging China’s new empire. There are already direct and visible pointers of the Chinese beginning to harness Tibetan resources for steering the Himalayan game in their favour. Despite all the rumblings, the Chinese seem quite at ease with the silent movement launched by the easy-going Tibetan Lamas with their demeanour. It is rather both low in intensity and cost but high in geopolitical returns. Beijing will find it even more essential to reflect these in its policy thinking in the future once the Dalai Lama is no more. In fact, the 2017 Doklam crisis brought into focus what will be one of the most difficult issues in the Himalayas in future – the tensions rising from conflicting territorial claims by both India and China in the Himalayan region over history, culture and trade.

All these are unfolding at a time when the Western romance with Tibetan Buddhism is gradually fading even as India is forced to watch the ensuing developments in askance. More seriously, India’s ability to deal with the Buddhis. Himalayas vis-à-vis China only through the prism of military power is unlikely to be sufficient. The complexities of the Buddhist Himalayas – the interplay between religion and politics, the sectarian divides, the historical turning/rift points, and the Himalayan linkages with Tibet has a deep geopolitical underpinning. The overriding power of conflicting cultural interests here is closely linked to the geopolitical interests of both China and India. At the same time, Buddhism could become a potential source for re-cultivating awareness towards an India-China congruity in the aftermath of the eventual collapse of the Chinese Communist Party in China. Now that we have started talking about Himalayan Buddhism, it should be considered as a subject of utmost importance to counter any Sino-centric cultural foray into the Himalayas or India loses the battle of soft-power in its own ground.