kingship and religion in tibet research plan - lmu and religion in tibet ... approach to the bon...

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    The period when kings held sway over Tibet is known as the Tibetan Empire (c.600850 CE), and is viewed as Tibets great golden age. At this time Tibet controlled a massive area, and colonized neighboring kingdoms while competing with Tang China for control over the Silk Road, essentially the heart of the Central Eurasian economy. Scholars have approached Tibetan kingship from a variety of angles, but rarely have they treated it as a topic unto itself such that it can be brought into dialogue with the study of sacred kingship cross-culturally. As a result, most of the work is descriptive and tends to lack any explicit methodology. This is surprising given that Tibetology began mostly as an outgrowth of Indology, which enjoys a long tradition of engagement with the topic of kingship both in India and Southeast Asia. The origins of Tibetology in the early twentieth century and its blossoming in the middle of the century were also contemporaneous with a strong current of comparative anthropological studies of sacred kingship by such theorists as Sir James Frazer, A.M. Hocart, Ernst Kantorowicz, and their successors. Likewise, there is large body of work on kingship in Central Asia and China that has never been fully brought to bear on the topic of Tibetan kingship.

    Amid all of these models, the institution of Tibetan kingship remained largely ignored up until the middle of the twentieth century. The watershed moment was Giuseppe Tuccis 1955 paper, The sacral character of the kings of ancient Tibet, presented at the 8th International Congress for the History of Religions, held in Rome with the theme The Sacral Kingship/ La Regalit Sacra. The congress played host to scholars approaching the institution of sacred kingship from different methodological angles, ranging from anthropological to psychoanalytical, and Tuccis colleague, David Snellgrove, also presented a paper on the concept of divine kingship in tantric Buddhism. Judging from Tuccis article, published in the proceedings and also in the journal East and West, he digested many of the theoretical concerns raised by others at the congress, and demonstrated a familiarity with the work of Sir James Frazer, whose shadow, as one reviewer of the proceedings quipped, hung over the congress in Rome.1 Tucci assimilated such theory silently, however, without acknowledging the influence of any theorists on his own, ostensibly descriptive, account of the features of Tibetan sacred kingship.

    Although qualifying his work as provisional and preliminary, Tucci wrote with authority, outlining what he saw to be the principles of the Tibetan kingship, in particular the magical, divine, and life-giving qualities of the king himself. Tucci argued that the Tibetan king was ancestralized, such that each incumbent was the avatar of the ancestral spirit, and therefore reigned simultaneously on both the celestial and terrestrial planes. Further, he claimed that the ancestral spirits presence in the son occurred at the age of 13, signifying maturity, fertility, and eternal youth, and that this coincided with the removal of the father, in whom the spirit ceased to be present. Tucci held that this removal was achieved through ritualized regicide, a practice that he perceived behind the many assassinations that occurred during the imperial period (Tucci 1955: 199200). Tucci also described the king as guaranteeing

    1 A. Caquot, Compte Rendu, The Sacral Kingship. La regalit sacra. Studies in the History of Religions. Revue de lhistoire des religions 157.1 (1960): 81.

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    and transmitting four powers: the religious law (chos); majesty (mnga thang); government or temporal power (chab srid); and his helmet (dbu rmog), which was the visible emblem of the magic power of the king (Tucci 1955: 199200). Of these four, the religious law was entrusted to the sacerdotal class, and temporal power to the ministerial class, creating what Tucci described as the triumvirate of king, the head shaman, and the chief minister. Although at the apex of this triumvirate, the king was, according to Tucci, viewed only as a primus inter pares by his ministerial aristocracy, and was essentially a sacred but inert symbol (Tucci 1955: 197).

    Taking a highly Frazerian line, Tucci pointed out passages in a variety of Tibetan sources in which the king is likened to rain and is a symbol of fertility. He summarized the kings role as that of keeping off epidemics, causing the rain to fall, assuring fertility, in other words that of maintaining the cosmic and social order intact and in due working order (Tucci 1955: 200). Anticipating some of the preoccupations of those who would take up and refine his researches, Tucci also noted the titles and epithets of the kings, such as sprul, which he took to mean magic power, btsan po, which he related to power mainly of a chtonian [sic] character, and lha sras and lde sras, both meaning divine son or son of gods.

    For Tucci, the royal adoption of Buddhism had to do primarily with the re-politicization of the kingship:

    The power of the Kings was limited by the control of the shamans and by the jealous intervention of the feudal nobility, subject to the yoke of customs which, while exalting as we shall see their sacred majesty, reduced in practice their authority. The king therefore saw in Buddhism a powerful auxiliary in the attempt to reorganise royalty on a new unitarian basis. Buddhism, by glorifying the king as the Dharmrja, the representative of the Law [Buddhist teachings] on earth, increased his prestige, raising him above the conflicting currents and thus justifying the demand for a rigid monarchical system. (Tucci 1955: 197).

    Tuccis article was, and continues to be, extremely influential as a standard

    source of information on Tibetan sacred kingship. One of those who it influenced directly was Tuccis disciple, Erik Haarh. In his only major work, The Yarlu Dynasty, published in 1969, Haarh ratified Tuccis Frazerian description of the Tibetan sovereign as a king whose health and well-being ensure the success of the realm, but who therefore must be ritually killed in the event of illness, bodily defect, or old age. Haarh also put forward some of his own ideas about the Tibetan kingship, and offered detailed readings of many Tibetan sources, including the first chapter of the Old Tibetan Chronicle, and an important Old Tibetan funerary text. In his treatment of the royal foundation myth of Dri gum btsan po as indicating a paradigm shift in the nature of Tibetan religion, and in his more or less unexamined (or, rather, overly emic) approach to the Bon religion as pre-Buddhist and shamanic, Haarh took Tuccis article as almost a blueprint for his detailed study.

    Erik Haarhs monograph was transitional in this respect, since subsequent works on Tibetan kingship increasingly favored Old Tibetan sources over later Buddhist histories, and thus included fewer, or at least different, assumptions about the cultural and spiritual milieu of the Tibetan Empire. This latter research promoted close study of the pillar edicts of the Tibetan kings, and careful readings of relevant Tibetan documents preserved in the cave library at Dunhuang, dating from the 8th to 11th centuries CE. This is particularly true of Ariane Macdonalds masterwork,

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    published in Etudes Lalou in 1971. Here Macdonald made a detailed study of the Old Tibetan Chronicle and related documents, including funerary texts, divination manuals, and administrative records. Combining philological rigor with impeccably chosen source material, and working with a highly qualified Tibetan informant, Yonten Gyatso, Macdonald presented a coherent picture of the beliefs of the early Tibetan monarchy and also of early Tibetan society in general. Macdonalds minute details drawn from the earliest available sources contrasted sharply with the categorical statements found in the works of Tucci and Haarh, which relied mostly on Tibetan histories written at least four centuries after the fall of the Tibetan Empire.

    Macdonalds work continues to be a high watermark in the field, by which later contributions are inevitably judged. It is not without its critics, however, notably R.A. Stein, considered by many to be the greatest Tibetologist of his generation. Like Macdonald, Stein worked almost exclusively from Old Tibetan texts in his treatment of the beliefs surrounding the Tibetan kingship. He confirmed Macdonalds observations that the king was presented as an ordering principle that created cosmic harmony, and functioned as a link connecting the ways of gods and the ways of men. Both scholars emphasized the similarity of such beliefs to those found in Chinese kingship, and pointed out many of the overlapping metaphors used in both cultures to describe the sacred kingship. Stein also investigated the epithets that describe the Tibetan kings, such as phrul, by considering the Chinese terms used to translate them, and in this way further refined our understanding. Stein disagreed with Macdonald, however, over the somewhat surprising conclusion to her work, namely, that the royal religion of the Tibetan Empire was called gtsug lag, and that this was a Tibetan form of Confucianism. Employing his characteristic academic precision to the meaning of the term gtsug lag, Stein demonstrated Macdonalds conclusion to be wrong on both counts. At the same time, Stein was complimentary of the bulk of Macdonalds work, and confirmed or advanced many of her findings.

    Since Steins article in 1985, there have been several works relevant to Tibetan sacred kingship, with perhaps the most significant among them being a recent article by Charles