Kingship and Religion in Tibet

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Memories of Kings Abstracts

Daniel Berounsky, Charles University, Prague

“Memories of Kingship in the Post-imperial Chronicle of Bon”

The historical literature of Bon often presents views on history that contrast with those to be found in the so called “Buddhist sources.” If the doctrinal literature and rituals of Bon often resemble those of other “Buddhist” schools of Tibet, it is mainly the perception of history that distinguishes the Bon pos from them. The paper will introduce the views on the role and status of Tibetan emperors as they appear in the post-imperial Bonpo chronicle bsGrags pa gling grags, dated approximately to the 12th century. This chronicle is by no means an independent record of historical events. It must be seen in the context of the polemics with the “Buddhist” versions of history. Not surprisingly, the Bonpo chronicles emphasize the role of the ritual specialists of gshens and Bon pos. The emperor is seen primarily as dependent on their ritual activities.


Johannes Bronkhorst, University of Lausanne

“Brahmanism and Kingship”

Brahmanism and kingship have interacted from an early date onward. Brahmanism, where successful, provided an image that rulers had to live up to. This paper will analyze the ways in which rulers in non-brahmanized areas came under the influence of brahmanical notions, and how these notions, once accepted, contributed to the success of the rulers concerned, and therefore to the spread of Brahmanism.


Isabelle Charleux, French National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris

“Chinggis Khan in Mongol Buddhist Art: Cakravartin, Dharmapāla or Territorial Deity?”

This paper aims at understanding how Buddhism, known for its hijacking of indigenous deities at the bottom of its pantheon, reshaped the visual image of Chinggis Khan and developed new narratives to support it, from the 17th to the 21stcentury. Buddhist painting, sometimes painted by high-ranking reincarnate lamas, alternately depicted the great ancestor as a fierce protector of the dharma emanating from Vajrapāṇi, as a peaceful cakravartin ruler dressed in white, and as an oath-bound martial equestrian deity. Chinggis Khan’s descendants who perpetuated the cult of their great ancestor also borrowed from the visual language of Tibetan Buddhism to create new images. The various manipulations of the portrait of Chinggis Khan reflect how the symbolic territories of Buddhism, ancestor worship, and state cult overlapped in the past and are still overlapping in their modern appropriation.


Olaf Czaja, Universität Leipzig

“Between Past and Present—Memory and Realpolitik during the Phag mo gru pa Rule in Tibet”

This presentation intends to address some aspects how the Tibetan imperial period was seen when the Phag mo gru pa ruled Tibet. Some personalities such as Dpal gyi seng ge said to be active during this early period will be discussed, together with an evaluation of the Rlangs personality said to be a member of the famous group of first Tibetan monks ordained by Śāntarakṣita during the reign of Khri Srong lde btsan (reigned 756–c. 800). Speaking of this king, one also has to refer to the celebrated Rlangs Byang chub ’dre bkol and the king Gesar, who is said to be an emanation (sprul) of this very Khri Srong lde btsan in the Rlangs kyi po ti bse ru, the genealogy of this aristocratic house. Finally, an attempt will be made to shed some light how the Phag mo gru pa under Byang chub rgyal mtshan (1302-1364) and his successors might have seen this early time of the Tibetan kings.


Erika Forte, Ruhr Universität Bochum

“‘Propaganda Posters’ from Ancient Khotan: Royal Religious Agency in Pictures”

The coming into being of the kingdom of Khotan was, without doubt, an entirely Buddhist matter—according to extant ancient narratives. Legends circulated in Khotan (preserved mostly in Chinese and Tibetan literary sources) in which Śākyamuni himself predicted that a Buddhist kingdom would be established in the oasis. Further, Śākyamuni appointed a number of distinct deities for its protection. Other accounts depict Vaiśravaṇa as ensuring the royal lineage with a divine child who became the king of Khotan, the wise and courageous ancestor to an uninterrupted genealogy of kings. Archaeological evidence confirms, indeed, that Khotan was a flourishing Buddhist kingdom during most of the first millennium CE. The archaeological panorama well reflects Xuanzang’s account, according to which there existed “more than a hundred monasteries” in Khotan, and many of these were royal foundations. This paper will focus on the visual transpositions of ancient local narratives, which emphasize the connection of the Khotanese kingship to Buddhism. As a result, the paper will present a close analysis of the use of these images as a medium of “propaganda” in a context in which Buddhist and royal establishments searched for mutual legitimation.

Emmanuel Francis, French National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris

“Contrasted Memories of Kings: The Pallavas of South India in their Inscriptions and in Hagiography”

I propose to contrast two different points of views on the Pallavas of South India, who ruled mostly in present-day Tamil Nadu in the second half of the first millennium. The first point of view is that of the Pallava kings themselves as we know it from the Sanskrit inscriptions (on stone and copper) and temples they commissioned. In these durable documents, dated mostly to the 7th to 9th centuries, the Pallavas articulated their own past (in genealogies) and projected their glorious self-image for posterity. The second and contrasting point of view is that of the Periyapurāṇam, a hagiography of the Śaiva saints of Tamil Nadu composed in Tamil in the 12th century. There we encounter unnamed kings described under the generic name of Pallavas (or synonyms) and representing, according to the devotional agenda of the text, personae of antique kings. I will focus on one narrative in which the pompous and rich devotion of a Pallava king is contrasted with the simple but more sincere one of a poor saint. Comparing how the Pallavas wanted to be remembered and how they actually were in a Śaiva hagiography, I will elaborate on the view already suggested by other scholars that, in Tamil devotional poetry (and hagiography), the real king is the god.


Guntram Hazod, Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin

“Kingship and Tomb: Some Observations from the Burial Mound Tradition of Early Tibet”

I would like to present some observations from the burial-mound landscape of Central Tibet—the visible manifestations of the pre-Buddhist form of funeral, with significant parallels or older models in Central Eurasia. Starting from the specific spatial distribution of hundreds of tumulus fields throughout the old districts of Central Tibet—which on an abstract level depicts the structure of kingship (i.e. the king surrounded by aristocratic clans, and potential bride-givers to the royal line)—I am asking who was buried where. This is obviously a question of lineage affiliation and kinship, where the kinship position at the same time seems to be related to the differentiations that we observe within the various burial mound fields: the grave’s positions to each other, their shape, size, and other characteristics. The only textual sources that tell us about “kinship and tomb” relate to the necropolis of the Tibetan kings and emperors, and the question is to what extent this information is also applicable to the tumulus field situations outside the royal necropolis.


Patrice Ladwig, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

“Worshipping Relics and Animating Statues: Transformations of Buddhist Statecraft in Contemporary Laos”

In Laos—one of the few remaining “officially” socialist countries—Buddhism was abolished as a state religion after the revolution in 1975. Likewise, Buddhist kingship was classified as a “feudal tradition” and disappeared. However, since the 1990s the Lao government has been increasingly using its patronage of Buddhism to gain legitimacy. With reference to the divine sources of power in Theravāda Buddhism, this article explores to what extent modern Lao state socialism is still imbued with prerevolutionary patterns of Buddhist kingship and statecraft. The analysis will especially focus on ritual patronage of a Buddhist relic shrine in Vientiane, and on the recent inauguration of statues of deceased kings. With reference to the ritual animation by “opening the eyes” of the statues (netra pinkama), and with regard to theories exploring the agency of objects, the presentation argues that the Lao palladium has to be understood as being made up of “living” entities. These are not mere “material counterparts” of human actors such as kings, but have become the main source of continuity of a powerful imaginary of Buddhist kingship that seems to work without a king.


Christian Luczanits, SOAS, University of London

“Ardent Donors, Ordained Rulers, and Astute Protectors: Remembering Buddhist Kings in Western Himalayan Art”

As is well known, the rich artistic heritage of Buddhism in the Western Himalayas can be attributed to a number of successive more-or-less independent kingdoms. Depictions of their rulers are common, and occasional inscriptions provide insight into the religious aspirations ascribed to the ruler. When analyzed in detail, the message communicated through both visuals and inscriptions are quite diverse, at times even within the same monument. In my contribution I will reflect on this diversity and extract the different roles of the ruler. In addition, in each case it needs to be considered who actually communicates the message.


Azfar Moin, University of Texas at Austin

“Why did Muslim Kings Worship the Sun? Islam and Cosmotheism”

Why did Timurid kings in Sixteenth-Century India make solar veneration a key aspect of their imperial cult? To answer this question is to uncover a significant but forgotten strand of political theology in Islam that drew sustenance from Hermetical cosmologies as opposed to Biblical ones. This history of sacred kingship in Islam provides a constructive parallel to the way a positive memory of Egypt was revived in Renaissance Hermeticism and later in the radical Enlightenment to overcome what Jan Assmann calls the “Mosaic distinction,” the iconoclastic and boundary-making principle at the heart of monotheistic religions. Also, the way this history was “forgotten” (or its memory encrypted) in the modern era also provides an insight on the present state of Islamist politics and its possible futures.


Shen Weirong, Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin

“The Identity of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the mChod yon Relationship between Great Mongol Khans and Tibetan Lamas in Medieval Tibetan Historiography”

This paper examines the view of medieval Tibetan historians on the Mongol rulership of China and the relationship between Mongol Khans and Tibetan Lamas. Through a close reading of the rGya bod yig tshang, a unique contemporaneous Tibetan historical work of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the author tries to show how medieval Tibetan historians identified the Mongol Yuan dynasty in the framework of global history at their time. It further elaborates the historical context of the initial construction of the concept of the mchod yon relationship between Mongol Khans and Tibetan Lamas by medieval Tibetan historians and the late interpretations of the relationship by modern Tibetan historians. It argues that both the initial construction and the late interpretation were not religiously, but politically motivated, though in opposite ways. The former attempted to legitimate and boost the political dominance of Sa skya pas in Tibet by establishing mchod yon relations with the Mongol Khans, while the latter tried to reduce or deny the political significance of the Mongol Yuan’s dominion over Tibet. While the New Yuan History is indeed not entirely new, new insight to Mongol Yuan history can always be gained through a close reading of Mongol Yuan historical sources, especially Tibetan sources in this case.


Elliot Sperling, Indiana University, Bloomington

“Tibetan Buddhists and the Tangut Kingship”

An entry in Jäschke’s Tibetan-English Dictionary (p. 170) misquotes the Rgyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long, purporting to find the following statement in it: “rgyál-sa Bόd-nas Me-nyág-la śor the supreme power passed from Tibet to Tanggút.” This tantalizing sentence, which I noted many years ago, is, alas, not to be found in the cited source, and expectations of an intimate Tangut connection to the Tibetan imperial dynasty are unfounded. But Tibetan Buddhists did have an important role in late Tangut kingship, one which may have contributed to the perception evinced by Jäschke. Moreover the memory of the actual historical moment has resonated elsewhere: the last Tangut dishi (“imperial preceptor”) is held to have finished his days in service to the Mongol emperor Qubilai; the Tibetan role at the Tangut court was clearly the model for the Tibetan role at the Mongol court; and stories of the Tangut royal line were part of the lore preserved in Tibet’s Mi-nyag region. This paper will look at these elements of Tibetan interaction with and support for Tangut kingship. Particular attention will be given to the last Tangut dishi and his shift to a Mongol world.