John Vincent Bellezza
Diverging Views, the Seminar on Tibetan History
Recently, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, hosted a two day academic conference, the Seminar on Tibetan History. A scholar from the Bon monastery in Dolanji and I were graciously invited to chair a round panel discussion on Zhang Zhung history. The participation and attendance of Bon scholars was in itself a welcome development. The Seminar on Tibetan History proved to be an event marked by a very lively exchange of views. As in any society buffeted my modern economic and social changes, a plethora of perspectives on history have emerged in exile. These disparate views on Tibet’s past will continue to engender much debate for a long time to come.
The seminar was opened by a number of Tibetan dignitaries, the foremost of which was His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama encouraged the attendees to search for and articulate historical truth accurately and in ways that will have the widest benefits. His Holiness closed by saying that the study of Tibetan history is of much value, not least of all to himself personally. The first day of the seminar was dominated by discussions on historiography. A major theme was the place of Buddhist prophecy in the historical discourse. There were some in attendance who believe that prophecy holds the key to understanding the development of Tibetan history over the centuries. Their arguments were countered by those who noted that prophecy, while being part of the integral truth of Scripture, may not prove valid from a modern perspective. These modernist scholars see empirically derived evidence as the ultimate arbiter of truth, not necessarily prophecy and religious transmission.
The ethnogenesis of the Tibetans was described from various angles. One lecture robustly defended traditional Buddhist sources that trace the origins of the Tibetan nation to the union between a Bodhisattva ape (Chenresik) and a female demoness (Tara). Historiography for this particular individual is simply a matter of quoting prestigious sources, the more the better. But the question remained for some panelists: are such accounts historical facts or fairytales? Tibetan Buddhist teachings as the bedrock of Tibetan historiography remained a powerful launching pad for debate at the seminar. There are those who believe that knowledge as traditionally set down transcends time, social change and the physical environment. They see historical and religious truth as something perennial and largely beyond the bounds of question and revision. I was reminded of the Age of Enlightenment in the West when the religious orthodoxy and the new thinkers who espoused reason and experimentation as the ultimate means for garnering truth contended with one another.
Another lecture championed modern methods of scholarship and alluded to inherent contradictions between the traditionalist and modernist approaches. This raised irksome questions among the participants: what was the purpose of any particular historical discourse, why was it written and how is it to be applied to an understanding the past? Sectarian differences also crept into the dialogue. I got the impression that for some clerics the fist priority is to make certain that any version of history furthers the interests of their own sect and its set course of truth. In my opinion, this parochialism obscures vital historical issues. For example, Bon historical concepts may not get the airing they deserve because they are the ‘other’. The Bonpo in attendance however, were also highly adept in the art of debate and vigorously defended the antiquity and legitimacy of their religious traditions. But for those who maintain that India and Buddhism are the wellspring of Tibetan civilization, the Bon historical position cannot be seriously entertained.
The particularly contentious issue of the relationship between religion and politics also arose. For those scholars who uphold the superiority of the traditional chösid system, no amount of argument persuaded them that the unlinking of church and state might have certain merits.
I spoke about the wealth of pre-Buddhist archaeological sites in Upper Tibet, stating them to be of a different order from those found in other regions of ancient Tibet. Was I therefore saying that Zhang Zhung and Tibet were different countries? Could one day the people of Upper Tibet hypothetically rise up and say they want their basic human rights to be Zhang Zhung nationals and not Tibetans? I and a couple of others countered that Zhang Zhung as a separate cultural and political entity existed before Tibet’s imperial period and its amalgamation into the Bodic cultural entity that subsequently developed. That does not make Zhang Zhung or any other ancient region of the Tibetan Plateau any less Tibetan today. Let me cite the example of England. This country is made up of Stone Age Britons, Bronze Age Celts, Iron Age Anglo-Saxons, and medieval Danes, Vikings and Normans, but England is no less English for its diverse ethnic and cultural background. Is there really any large nation that can claim a unitary ethnic source? I think probably not. Yet, this line of reasoning sidesteps the question of what actually constitutes a nation? Is this to be defined in traditional religious or cultural terms or are economic and political processes to be brought into the equation? These are the types of questions that Tibetan intellectuals are grappling with and to which there are no ready or easy answers on the horizon.
One of the major implications of my archaeological findings is that Upper Tibet was in possession of a highly sophisticated civilization before the dominance of Buddhism. This civilization did not rely on Buddhism for its intellectual and technological wherewithal but rather drew its inspiration from indigenous and Inner Asian cultural sources. How can such a perspective be accommodated to Buddhist notions of Tibet as engulfed in darkness and savagery before its civilizing light shone in Tibet? My intent here is not to be polemical but to issue a clarion call for the emerging models of Tibetan history to take into account what the archaeological record is increasingly telling us about the pre-Buddhist Plateau.
From my Journals
March 16, 1993: Majathal, Himachal Pradesh; in search of Shivalik jungles.
Dr. Sharma’s information was correct: the left bank or northern slope of the [Sutlej] valley is far more jungly. Tougher going but well worth the trouble. I wonder how many foreigners have come in this direction in the last 50 years. I expect very few at most. This morning we packed our gear. We wanted to make it to a distant naula (side valley) and set up camp there the rest of the day. The trail left a bench and ascended the slopes. In an hour or so we came to a naula with some terraced fields and a couple of huts in it. There was no one there however. It looked as though nearby there was another naula so we decided to hike there. Enroute we came to a Gujer encampment. A young woman tended her four buffalos and four young children. She is the wife of Malvi Bashir, and was kind enough to give us a little fresh koya (dried milk).
To our disappointment and consternation we learned that we had passed through all there was to Majathal. At most there is a ten mile stretch on this side of the river that is uninhabited. It is not much and if this truly the largest subtropical jungle left in Himachal Pradesh, it is a sad statement. We expected much more untrammeled terrain. It is clear [now] all that is left of the subtropical forests are a few remnants. The days of impenetrable jungles that stopped powerful armies from reaching the temperate Himalayan valleys are long gone. The way that Paharis we met earlier energetically warned us to be careful of the jungle turned out to be an unhappy joke. It is amusing how they were concerned about us traveling in an uninhabited jungle. It is really not much more than a park. From Kyari to Jinloi is a distance of not more than a day, and much less for a lightly laden person. Is this all that is left of the wilderness? And it can only shrink further. Grazing, agriculture and resource extraction pressures will continue and probably increase along with the rising population. The death knell will be the [Indian] government’s misguided attempt to develop it. Is a road, railroad, dam, etc. really needed? Is progress only measured in terms of the miles of roads, numbers of buildings and the size of incomes? Is the government oblivious to the environmental and cultural degradation? Can’t anyone see the value of preserving the last small pockets of jungle left?