This Turbulent Priest: Contesting Religious Rights and the State in the Tibetan Shugden Controversy¹

Martin A. Mills
Dept. of Religious Studies
University of Aberdeen

In 1996, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala, India was rocked by accusations leveled against the Dalai Lama that he had infringed the right to religious freedom amongst Tibetans by restricting the worship of the controversial protector-deity Dorje Shugden. This paper will examine some of the causes for the signal failure of those claims, despite relatively strong evidence for the widespread persecution of Shugden worshippers within the Tibetan diaspora context. More broadly, it will examine the degree to which the notion of human rights assumes the context of a particular kind of state ideology – centered around the modern nation-state – and the difficulties that attend articulating the notion of human rights (and their abuse) in the context of transnational theocratic rule.


Between 1996-8, the International Secretariat at Amnesty International received, by a variety of routes, a considerable quantity of material alleging human rights abuses by the Exiled Government of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (henceforth referred to as the Central Tibetan Administration, or CTA). The source of the vast majority of the material was, respectively the London-based Shugden Supporters Community (SSC) and the Delhi-based Dorje Shugden Devotees Charitable and Religious Society (DSDCRS). The substance of the allegations was that, by banning the worship of the Tibetan deity Dorje Shugden, His Holiness and his government had infringed the rights to religious freedom of Tibetan worshippers of the deity, and had persecuted a religious minority. In particular, the SSC and DSDCRS alleged the banning of Shugden worship by the CTA Chamber of Tibetan Peoples’ Deputies, the withdrawal of democratic legal rights within the Tibetan refugee structure, the purging of CTA institutions and the instigation of forced signature campaigns denouncing Shugden worship within Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, house-to-house searches and assault against Shugden worshippers and their families, the withholding of welfare privileges from Shugden worshippers and their families by CTA organisations, the expulsion of monks and nuns from exile monasteries, and the desecration and destruction of Shugden statues and shrines.

In effect, the claim was that Shugden worshippers were being forcibly purged from the ranks of the Tibetan exiled polity (an expulsion which, given the legal statelessness of Tibetan refugees within the Indian polity, and the importance of mutual support networks within the exiled community, would be individually devastating). A considerable amount of documentary material was provided in support of these allegations, including paperwork allegedly circulated by, amongst others, the CTA Department of Health, the Tibetan Youth Congress, the Guchusum Movement, and the Tibetan Women’s Association, largely centred on the three-month period following His Holiness’ denunciation of Shugden worship at a series of public tantric initiations given on March 21, 1996. In this regard, organisations such as the Shugden Supporters Community sought in particular to lay blame for these events at the door of His Holiness, and engaged in a high-profile campaign to denounce him, both through the international press and human rights organisations, and by picketing his visits to Europe throughout that year.

The vast majority of these allegations were quickly denied by His Holiness’ government, via a statement from the CTA’s Department of Information and International Relations (5 July 1996). However, the CTA acceded to the existence of ‘restrictions’ on Shugden worship and of moves to eradicate its practice, both within the CTA structure and within Gelukpa order monasteries²; this, they regarded as within the right of organisations to constitute themselves as they wish.³ The CTA’s full response to the allegations, presented in the Department of Religion and Culture’s booklet, The Worship of Shugden: Documents Related to a Tibetan Controversy, repudiated in particular claims that any expulsions from CTA organisations, children’s homes or schools had occurred, and that efforts by His Holiness and the CTA to bring Shugden worship to an end had been solely in terms of education and advice; conversely, they accused certain Shugden worshippers of persistently threatening (and eventually committing) murderous violence against those who preached against Shugden, asserted that Shugden worshippers were receiving support from, and had acted in support of, the Chinese authorities, and argued that Shugden worship was itself a tradition whose overt sectarianism had acted against Tibetan welfare since its origins in the 17th century, was opposed to Buddhist precepts, and that it undermined the cause of Tibet, the national unity of Tibetans, and the religious pluralism of the Tibetan religious environment. At the same time, the vast majority of media, political and academic opinion within Europe proved far from sympathetic to the SSC’s position, regarding it as a self-serving attack on a recognised champion of peace and human rights by an extremist cult holding arcane and potentially violent beliefs.


The object of the controversy – the deity Dorje Shugden, also named Dholgyal by opponents of its worship – had been a point of controversy between the various orders of Tibetan Buddhism since its emergence onto the Tibetan scene in the late 17th century, and was strongly associated with the interests of the ruling Gelukpa order. Supposedly the spirit of a murdered Gelukpa lama who had opposed the Fifth Dalai Lama both in debate and in politics, Shugden is said to have laid waste to Central Tibet until, according to one account, his power forced the Tibetan Government of the Fifth Dalai Lama to seek reconciliation, and accept him as one of the protector deities (Tib. choskyong) of the Gelukpa order (see Nebesky-Wojkowitz 1993: 134-144). Despite this, the deity retained a controversial quality, being seen as strongly sectarian in character, especially against the ancient Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism: the deity was seen as wreaking supernatural vengeance upon any Gelukpa monk or nun who ‘polluted’ his or her religious practice with that of other schools, most particularly those of the Nyingmapa. This placed the deity’s worship at odds with the role of the Dalai Lama, who not only headed the Gelukpa order but, as head of state, maintained strong ritual relationships with the other schools of Buddhism in Tibet, particularly the Nyingmapa (see Dreyfus 1999). The deity thus became the symbolic focus of power struggles, both within the Gelukpa order and between it and other Buddhist schools.

This conflict continued after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, and the Dalai Lama’s subsequent flight into exile in 1959. Indeed, the present Dalai Lama himself practised Shugden worship in his younger years, but he renounced it during the 1970s following the publication by a prominent Gelukpa lama of a devotional text to Shugden which, in defence of the deity’s efficacy as a protector, named 23 government officials and high lamas that had been assassinated using the deity’s powers. In 1978, His Holiness spoke out publicly against the use of the deity as an institutional protector, although maintaining that individuals should decide for themselves in terms of private practice. It was not until Spring 1996 that the Dalai Lama decided to move more forcefully on the issue. Responding to growing pressure – particularly from other schools of Tibetan Buddhism such as the Nyingmapa, who threatened withdrawal of their support in the Exiled Government project – he announced during a Buddhist tantric initiation that Shugden was “an evil spirit” whose actions were detrimental to the “cause of Tibet”, and that henceforth he would not be giving tantric initiations to worshippers of the deity (who should therefore stay away), since the unbridgable divergence of their respective positions would inevitably undermine the sacred guru-student relationship, and thus compromise his role as a teacher (and by extension his health). The events alleged by the SSC and DSDCRS refer to the period following this announcement.


In the wake of all of these events, pressure grew for Amnesty to make come up with some kind of assessment. Cognisant in particular of the considerable attention that the issue had received, and of the fact that the issue was clearly open to manipulation by Chinese authorities opposed to the Dalai Lama and his exiled government, Amnesty’s reaction was a cautious one. For the purposes of this paper, it’s worth quoting their assessment in full.

Amnesty International (AI) has received and studied a large amount of material alleging human rights abuses against worshippers of the Tibetan Buddhist deity Dorje Shugden. These alleged abuses are reported to have happened largely in Tibetan settlements in India. None of the material AI has received contains evidence of abuses which fall within Al's mandate for action — such as grave violations of fundamental human rights including torture, the death penalty, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detention or imprisonment, or unfair trials. While recognising that spiritual debate can be contentious, Amnesty International cannot become involved in debate on spiritual issues. AI campaigns on the grave violations of human rights in Tibet, as well as the rest of the People’s Republic of China. In 1997 a widespread crackdown on Tibetan nationalists and religious groups continued. At least 96 Tibetans, most of them Buddhist monks and nuns, were reported to have been detained during the year for peacefully exercising fundamental freedoms. A continuing “patriotic re-education campaign” in monasteries and nunneries has led to expulsions and arrests. Prison conditions remain harsh in Tibet and prisoners are often ill-treated for minor infringements of prison regulations. (Al Index: ASA 17/14/98 June 1998)

In making this declaration, Amnesty were clearly taking a particular perspective on the nature of ‘substantial’ human rights abuses and the question of legitimate religious rights – a position which was simultaneously different from that of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and, moreover, that section of the pro-Shugden campaign which emerged in Europe (itself somewhat at odds with the position of Shugden worshippers in South Asia). What constituted a religious right – particularly in relationship to notions of law and the state – became a contested issue. Below, I would like to look at each of these various perspectives in turn, and examine the thinking behind them.

Amnesty International: Human Rights and the State

Worded as it is, Amnesty’s statement clearly treads a fine line, neither asserting nor denying the validity of the allegations laid against the CTA, nor finding either side culpable in the dispute. Rather, it ruled the entire issue ‘out of court’, both in terms of severity and nature. Whilst, on a realpolitik level, the statement clearly avoided taking any position which muddied the waters on what they (rightly) perceived to be more important human rights issues within the Sino-Tibetan crucible, it is also apparent that their strategy involved a variety of assumptions about the nature of human rights abuses and their treatment. Specifically, that:

  • Central to the constitution of a ‘human rights abuse’ is the existence of nation-state interventions that are at odds with accepted legal process. Thus, its principal objects of concern are the kind of illegitimate and violating acts that are generally carried out by states: “torture, the death penalty, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detention or imprisonment, or unfair trials”.
  • ‘Spiritual issues’ are not in and of themselves human rights issues, unless they are supplemented by questions of state intervention.
  • Following on from the previous two, there is an implicit separation between those acts of religious intolerance that are backed by the state, and those that are not, a separation which informs the distinction between issues of criminal and civil law on the one hand, and human rights law on the other.

In these respects (and particularly the first) Amnesty was working within an accepted Western tradition of thought on human rights, that sought to render accountable the actions of states.

Egregious acts between human beings have always been the object of some kind of legal gaze. The primary act of that legal gaze has always been to ascribe positions of right and responsibility linking involved parties (whether individual citizens, family groups, owner and slave, man and wife, parent and child, or citizen and officer of the state) in (usually unequal) dynamics of legitimacy in terms of the use of force or violence. Criminal law, in particular, tends to attribute legitimacy to violence enacted in order to constitute, maintain and defend the state of which individuals are parts, and of which state law is an instrument; indeed, as Weber himself noted, this relationship constitutes our primary understanding of statehood. In most pre-modern cases, this has placed the state itself (and its representatives) beyond legal redress with reference to activities vis-à-vis its own citizens.

The rise of international human rights law presented a challenge to this perceived impunity. Particularly in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials, states (and the individuals that ‘run’ them) have increasingly been deemed legally responsible for their own acts, and therefore held accountable on the international stage. In this sense, human rights law is perceived to be both universal (in the sense of applying across borders) and fundamental (in the sense of appealing to moral norms which do not vary according to individuals’ relationship with state power). Indeed, implicit within the very notion of human rights is the sense that it is a ‘dialogue against power’, something which lends it considerable moral strength.

Nonetheless, this fundamental and universal nature can only be read so far. Indeed, its very strength as a check to the abuse of state power is a weakness in other regards. By rendering human rights in this way, liberal human rights theorists often accede to a very particular portrait of the state – specifically, that of the territorially-bounded, command-based nation-state – that is arguably the product of a particular history of European political development and subsequent global colonisation (Anderson 1983; Steiner & Aston 1996: 73-75), and which therefore may not always be applicable.

This limited conception of the state presents particularly acute problems when it comes to questions of jurisdiction and accountability. Pre-modern states, for example, maintained diffuse relationships with territory which cannot necessarily fit into existing ideas of state jurisdiction (indeed, the very idea of diplomatic immunity and embassy exclusion speak volumes about the limits of territorial notions of statehood even in the modern context). Similarly, the assumption that the institutions and officers of the state are to be fully or dependently identified with it – that they are ‘arms’ or ‘organs’ of the state, under the command of its ‘head’– presents complex problems even in the classical nation-state context (Ratner & Abrams 1997: 118-120).

This reading of the state is particularly problematic when looking at the Central Tibetan Administration’s relationship with exiled Tibetans in India. Firstly and most obviously, it is difficult to ascribe nation-state status to such a structure. The Tibetan exiled community is spread out in a series of internally-administered camps across the subcontinent, run by a series of elected camp administrators, who continue the running of camps as individual entities whilst maintaining allegiance to the Central Tibetan Administration at Dharamsala. Whilst the camps maintain the de facto right to administer limited internal law according to established Tibetan legal systems, and are partially protected from external tourist, business and population incursions, they have no police forces of their own and must defer to local Indian state police; similarly, whilst the Indian government has since the days of Nehru given the camps internal self-governance, the CTA as a whole remains technically and legally something akin to a private NGO under the patronage of the Dalai Lama, linked to a series of nominally independent organisations such as the Tibetan Youth Congress.

Within this set-up, two problems arise. Firstly, the CTA and Tibetan exiled communities clearly do not constitute a nation-state, either in principle or in fact: their boundaries are neither impermeable (for Tibetans), nor are they dominated by legalised notions of citizenship. Secondly, identification of a ‘command structure’ to act as the basis of accountability is particularly difficult. As mentioned above, many pre-modern – or, more accurately in the Asian context, pre-colonial – state systems lacked the kind of infrastructural powers associated with modern European states: in particular, their economies lacked the kind of surplus production required to support large state structures (in particular legal and military bureacracies) given over to the close regulation of subjects’ affairs. In such situations, the forced maintenance of, for example, legal or religious homogeneity was simply beyond the capacities of pre-modern states.

In the pre-modern Tibetan case, this led to forms of law and taxation which were primarily built not on the regulatory use of coercion, but on the maintenance of passive authority built around Lhasa and the Dalai Lama as sacred centres (Goldstein 1971); sacral authority was maintained by its ‘mirroring’ at local level, through monastic and legal rites through which individuals, households and villages demonstrated their loyalty to the faraway, and in most cases unseen authority of Lhasa. This had two effects: firstly, the exercise of real power within the Central Tibetan state was highly localised, and separated from the authority of the centre, which anyway lacked the infrastructural capacity to effect people’s lives in any direct way. Because sacred authority was functionally separate from the local exercise of power, moreover, that authority was rarely if ever compromised by the abuses of power that did occur.

As a result, the maintainance of state authority beyond Lhasa itself was only partially guaranteed by the exercise of centralised coercive power; instead, a much more diffuse structure was maintained by the exercise of ritualised loyalty at the local level. On the whole, loyalty is not regarded as an indispensable facet of state action in Western political theory, being ascribed more substantially to charismatic movements, ethnic struggles, and religious organisations. In many respects, we regard it as only a structural feature of sub-state social organisation. This has led certain Tibetologists, using the modern European state as a framework, to argue that old Tibet was a ‘stateless society’ (Samuel 1982; see also Goldstein 1971, Mills forthcoming).

The Central Tibetan Administration: The Right to State Constitution

In many respects, this kind of system, with its notions of authority and ritualised loyalty, has extended into the modern exiled period. In other respects, this ‘pre-modern’ mode of Tibetan state authority has actually developed within the modern exile context. Within pre-1950 Tibet, for example, whilst most Tibetans regarded Lhasa and the Dalai Lama as representing a super-ordinate authority, that ascendancy was usually vague and, for those who pledged primary religious allegiance to local non-Gelukpa schools, monasteries and teachers, held in slight tension. Direct religious relationships with the Dalai Lama – particularly of the importance that all adult Tibetan Buddhists ascribed to their tantric ‘root-guru’ (Tib. tsawa’i lama) – were by no means even common. The last thirty years, however – during which the Dalai Lama has sought to build links with the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism existing in exile – has witnessed the growing ascendancy, both in exile and within Tibet, of the Dalai Lama as either the direct root-guru of all loyal those firmly interested in Tibetan independence (often through the numerous mass Kalacakra empowerments he has given since 1959) or, more commonly, the indirect apex of an increasingly unified pyramid of lamaic (guru-disciple) relationships – many of which transcend the sectarian divides which became entrenched within Tibetan Buddhism during the centuries following the 5th Dalai Lama’s establishment of centralised Gelukpa rule in Central Tibet. As can be seen from the events of 1996 described above, the Dalai Lama’s request that Shugden worshippers not receive tantric initiations – the foundation of the ‘root-guru’ relationship – from him, effectively placed them outside the fold of the exiled Tibetan polity.

This question of loyalty as the basis of Tibetan systems of state action illuminates some apparently contradictory elements of the CTA’s approach to Shugden. Whilst it is clearly the case that the numerous denials of any kind of ban on Shugden worship, produced at various points during the 1996-8 period, were in all probability simply disingenuous, there is cause to reflect on what such a ban might look like in this kind of context. Indeed, the moves to eradicate Shugden worship within Tibetan Buddhist regions that I myself witnessed in the years since 1996 were of two kinds: firstly, a sense amongst those that did not worship Shugden that they should endeavour to eradicate its practice amongst their peers, neighbours and co-workers as an act of loyalty to the Dalai Lama; and, amongst those that had a history of worshipping the deity, a complex and ambivalent combination of acknowledging that getting rid of the deity may be the ‘best thing’ to do (because his Holiness had said it was) and wishing that the ban did not have to apply to them (something which led to a considerable quantity of invisibility and reluctant foot-dragging, Scott’s famed ‘weapons of the weak’). This was not, therefore, a hierarchical command process, but rather the constant re-iteration of acts of loyalty all the way down a lengthy and disarticulated ladder of authority, a system of orthopraxy consistent with passive modes of governance.


This important religious dimension to the exile polity again presents problems for liberal human rights theory, which conceives the relationship between religion and state in particular ways. As we saw in the Amnesty statement, ‘spiritual issues’ are seen to be peripheral to human rights concerns unless they are in some sense linked to state action. This is perhaps most clearly spelt out in Amnesty’s inclusion of the expulsion of monks from Tibetan monasteries by Chinese officials as an example of the ‘grave violation of human rights’ in the region; similar events in exile, where the influence of ‘state power’ was (for reasons outlined above) harder to locate, are deemed less grave, despite their identical consequences. As with so much of human rights theory, what matters is the juncture with state power.

This conceptual separation of religion and state runs through a large quantity of modern writings on religious human rights. In a recent article on religious freedom (Durham 1996), Durham argues that religious freedom is best maintained in ‘accomodationist’ regimes, in which the state maintains a studied indifference to religious groups, neither in favour of any particular tradition (as in the case in the case of theocracies and established churches), nor opposed to religion (as in avowedly atheist states such as certain communist regimes). In the case of theocracy – which Durham (rather revealingly) sees as the most primitive form of the religion/politics interface – religious freedom is restricted because state power is marshalled in favour of a particular set of religious beliefs – and, by extension, against others – the intention being to eradicate alternative beliefs and pursue national homogeneity of belief. State action divest of positive or negative religious preference (assuming that such a thing is truly possible) is thus an ideal for the human rights situation generally, and for religious rights in particular.

Whilst this is an issue which requires a much deeper treatment, it’s worth looking briefly at the problems with this perspective. Firstly, and in line with some of the issues raised above, many pre-modern states may have been theocracies, but that does not mean that they have the infrastructural capacity to maintain uniformity of belief or ideology (whose pursuit is more characteristic of nationalist modernity); instead (and this is true of many Islamic states as much as it was of Tibet), they sought instead to maintain particular hierarchies between religious groups, hierarchies which were most usually maintained by relations of symbolic tribute.

Secondly, it assumes as universal the conceptual separation of church and state that emerged within the political ideologies of post-Reformation Europe and America, and therefore that theocratic systems are characterised by the linking of two fundamentally different institutional structures – religion and politics – the former of which is most essentially characterised by a set of beliefs (Needham 1972: 20; Tooker 1992), and the latter of which is characterised by the practical organisation and control of populations through law and taxes. This historical separation of church and state is not a feature of Tibetan history, which instead regarded there as being a hierarchy between religious and worldly, in which the religious is the model of the worldly. As we have seen above, political loyalty in the modern Tibetan diaspora is most commonly manifest in the assertion of the disciple/root-guru relationship. This is more than a simple piece of political legitimisation: as an icon of rule, the notion of the root-guru stood behind most conceptions of religious governance (Tib. chos-srid-gnyis-ldan – ‘the religious and worldly combined’) in traditional Tibetan polities. The root-guru was seen as more than an ordinary teacher, because the faithful’s relationship with him was in principle mediated by tantric initiation. This had three relevant dimensions: Firstly, it was a relationship bound by a series of religious vows. Secondly, Tibetan Buddhist ideas of morality and religious striving concentrate very strongly on the assertion that serving the root-guru unswervingly – by following his every instruction and imitating his actions – was the primary root of morality and means of spiritual liberation (again, this was not a command relationship – a guru had no legal power to command his disciples, who were deemed to obey out of religious fealty). Finally, these ritual relationships, being tantric, came under the specific jurisdiction of Buddhist protector deities (Tib. choskyong), employed to protect, amongst other things, the purity of the guru-student relationship. Here, therefore, religious membership is not so much a question of belief as the construction of a particular (hierarchical) relationship of tutelage with another individual.

The relationship between root-guru and his followers, and the place of choskyong deities, were seen as part of the basic model of religious law, from which state law derived both its example and its structure. People received law not so much as absolute injunctions, but in the manner of religious instruction: thus, for example, as with religious teaching, all state law in old Tibet was verbally transmitted, with the Dalai Lama’s edicts and laws being distributed and read out afresh each year in each of the villagers by a respected monk or village headman (this same mode of instruction was used in the Shugden ban). Adherence to Buddhist state law, whilst deemed to be a question of individual endeavour rather than top-down policing, was also seen to be attended to by the choskyong deities, before whom Tibetan law courts often demanded that plaintiffs made oaths to secure their case (French 1995). In much the same way, Tibetan systems of taxation were built on the foundation of ritual offering (see Mills, forthcoming). Pre-modern Tibetan law and taxation systems, in other words, rather than being notionally separate from religion, were built upon them.

This presents particular difficulties in the case of the deity Dorje Shugden. As we have seen, Shugden was a protector deity – a choskyong – whose historical role served to bolster the symbolic distinction between the ruling Gelukpa order and the influence of other schools of Buddhist institutional thought in Tibet. As a choskyong, however, the deity’s role was more than a question of personal belief: it existed as an element within the functioning structure of state law and practice. As such, the continuity of the deity’s institutional worship within the diaspora supported a state that was institutionally sectarian at a symbolic level. This consequence of continued Shugden practice was so strongly felt, for example, that during the early 1990s, the Nyingmapa school threatened to remove their presence from the Tibetan Assembly of People’s Deputies – they sought to secede from a state structure whose very form and functioning was antagonistic to their presence.

The allegation has been laid against the CTA (specifically, the 12th Session of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies) that they changed Article 63 of the Tibetan Democratic Constitution such that the presiding judge of the Judiciary Commission, along with its two juries, should not be worshippers of Shugden. This specific accusation has not been rejected by the CTA (however, I have yet to confirm it either way), who see it as within their remit to constitute governance as they wish. If true, however, it is indicative of the particular place that the Shugden controversy plays within Tibetan cultural politics: it is a debate about the foundations of the rule of law. In banning Shugden from the institutional echelons of exiled governance, the Dalai Lama is not simply reacting to intolerance of a sectarian minority: he is also acting to remould the exiled Tibetan polity as constitutionally non-sectarian.

Another important consequence came in the form of Tibetans’ relationship with the Dalai Lama: the deity was seen to work against those that mixed Gelukpa and other teachings. Such a ‘mixing’ is (and always has been) a crucial facet of the Dalai Lama’s position as head of state: Firstly, because the present Dalai Lama saw a particular need to unite the various Buddhist and Bon traditions politically within the diaspora context. Secondly, because the Tibetan Buddhist state was, mythically at least, founded in around 641 ad - 750 years before the foundation of the Gelukpa order - many of the rituals of state which the Dalai Lamas inherited in their assumption of power in the 17th century were pre-Gelukpa in form and content: specifically, they were part of the ritual corpus of the Nyingmapa, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist school and object of Shugden’s protective ire (see also Dreyfus 1999).

In a circumstance where the Dalai Lama, as head of the Tibetan political cause, increasingly represented the principal religious centre for all politically inclined Tibetans, therefore, the worship of Shugden became, in terms of Tibetan state logic, symbolically opposed to the ‘Tibetan cause’.

The SSC Position: Religious Rights and Personal Belief

It is difficult to speak conclusively about the position taken by Shugden worshippers on this issue. The views expressed on the international stage were, despite efforts to ‘Tibetify’ them, almost exclusively those of European practitioners of Shugden worship, and particularly those associated with the Cumbria-based New Kadampa Tradition, an almost entirely British group which broke its links with the Dalai Lama and the wider Gelukpa order in the early 1980s. The views of those indigenous Tibetans who maintained the practices associated with Shugden – whether within the Tibetan exiled communities, or within non-refugee Buddhist communities in India, Nepal and Sikkim – have been largely silenced, both by the campaign against Shugden and by their own divided loyalties: seeking on the one hand to act in accordance with the Dalai Lama’s views, but at the same time reluctant to dispose of a powerful (and for many, reliable) protector deity.

Nonetheless, the London-based Shugden Supporters Community’s (initially) pronounced voice within the international arena also speaks to this complex question of the relationship between religious rights and state power. For the SSC, the existence of the CTA as a bona fide state in the modern mould was largely taken for granted. This led to an automatic assumption on the SSC’s part that accountability for egregious and politicised acts within the Tibetan refugee communities could unproblematically be laid at the Dalai Lama’s door. By contrast, the less vocal South Asian protesters in Delhi – aware of the legal difficulties of treating the CTA as anything approaching a state – centred more substantially on the intervention at various points of the Indian government, and specifically the role of the Karnataka state police, who were on two occasions invited by the CTA to protect those CTA officials announcing the ban within the South Indian monastic universities. This, the DSDRCS (and various others in India) argued was an inappropriate use of Indian state power, and at odds with its secular constitution. Interestingly, the DSDRCS’s approach to the Tibetan Government-in-Exile during this period also lacked the confrontational approach of the SSC, all the way to observing traditional Tibetan protocols of assuming the impartiality and benevolence of the Tibetan ruler, whilst alluding to the possibility that his aides had somehow misled him.

The relationship between religiosity and state within the CTA was also a point of some concentration for the SSC, who distributed a paper, entitled “Evidence that the Dalai Lama Bases His Decisions on the Words of Trance-Oracles and Divinations by Lottery”. Of all the considerable quantity of paperwork distributed by the SSC to the world press and human rights organisations, this is perhaps the oddest. Its ostensible intent (clear from the title) was to portray the Dalai Lama as a superstitious and irrational decision-maker, who relies not on ‘democratic decisions’, ‘coherent justifications’ or ‘deliberation’ when making state-level decisions, but on the word of possessed oracles and rituals. That this allegation is in its literal sense true will surprise no-one familiar with Tibetan affairs, and certainly wouldn’t be denied by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. On the other hand, the worship of Shugden, as with most such deities in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, is equally replete with divination and oracular pronouncement (the deity himself regularly possessed two principal oracles, one of whom has key links to the New Kadampa Tradition, and by extension the SSC). What is being asserted here, however, is not the existence of such traditions per se, but the role they play in the political and religious decision-making of a head of state, a role which the SSC deemed illegitimate. Again, the spectre of the church-state divide haunts this viewpoint, essential to the presentation of Shugden worship as a politically neutral, individual and thus harmless religious practice.


In summary, the Shugden dispute represents a battleground of views on what is meant by religious and cultural freedom. Inherent to this calculation is some kind of assessment of the legitimate relationship between religion and state action, a calculation which, in the case of the Shugden dispute, has been approached from (at least) four angles, whose evocation of the state as the basis for the conceptualisation of religious rights can be seen as a rough continuum between a fundamentally sacral polity, and one based on the modern European nation-state. These views mark out some of the respective players in the dispute:

  • The Tibetan Government-in-Exile (CTA): Asserted the functional role of religion within the constitution of a sacral political life centred on the Dalai Lama and held together primarily by acts of ritualised loyalty. Whilst conceding to the existence of a ban, they rejected the notion of a deterministic command-structure or of de facto nation-state status within the Indian context. It was therefore, seen more as a case of shifting the boundaries of a porous organisation in favour of non-sectarian governance.
  • The Delhi-based DSDCRS: Argued that the religious freedom of Shugden worshippers in India had been infringed, but also acceded to the sacral and sub-state nature of the CTA within South Asia. As a result, its primary human rights (as opposed to legal) claim was aimed at the alleged interventions by the Indian nation-state (rather than the CTA) in the controversy.
  • Amnesty International: Regarded ‘spiritual issues’ and state affairs as separate, whilst seeing the command-based nation-state as the fundamental framework for understanding the category of ‘actionable human rights abuses’. Fundamental to this were linked criteria of state accountability and the exercise of state force, neither of which could clearly be identified within the CTA context. Whilst a prima facae case of infringement of religious freedoms within Tibetan refugee communities certainly existed, the absence of definable nation-state command structures precluded the formulation either of accountability or unavoidable jurisdiction essential to the formulation of a ‘human rights violation’.
  • The British-based SSC: Asserted the separation of religion and state as the basis for their understanding of religious freedom, and denied any legitimate functioning role to Buddhism within the constitution of that state. Identified the Dalai Lama as the de facto head of a refugee ‘nation-state’, and thus assumed the existence of a definable command structure within legally demarcated borders.


Whilst there was clearly also a strong issue of the actual ‘facts of the case’, the debate surrounding Shugden was therefore primarily one of differing understandings of the constitution of religious rights as an element of state life, particularly in the context of theocratic rule. As an international dispute, moreover, it crossed the increasingly debated line between theocratic Tibetan and liberal Western interpretations of the political reality of religion as a category. By this, I do not mean to imply that the CTA slipped through a loophole in human rights law. Rather that, by denaturing relationships of religious faith to the extent to which they are merely ‘individually-held beliefs’ and ‘private practices’, western social and legal discourse may have blinded itself to the role that such relationships play in the constitution of states as communal legal entities.

Here, as we have seen, a key element of the human rights modelling of social reality – the concept of accountability – can only reasonably be said to be ‘universal’ to certain kinds of state formation. Indeed, the assumption that all egregious events can be conceptualised or encapsulated in terms of either human-rights or legal-criminal discourse is a peculiarly modernist fantasy, akin in many respects to the assumption that all human value can be conceptualised in monetary terms (see Hastrup 2001): within such assertions, an implicit structure of exchange, positively regulated and homogenised (unsurprisingly, the principal cultural functions of the modern state) becomes hidden and normalised (see Cross 2001, Wilson 1997). This is more than a mere conflict of measurement: like the monetary commodification of value, human rights discourse tends to exclude other idioms of morality and structures of moral action, acting as a ‘universal solvent’ that renders other discussions impossible within particular arenas.¹⁰

This should not, of course, surprise us: anthropologists have long critiqued the universal pretensions of modernist conceptual architectures, and the vast cultural project that is ‘human rights discourse’ is surely no exception.¹¹ As a legal discipline, it constitutes one of a number of dynamics by which people’s lived experiences are appropriated, reconstructed and re-presented within the particular frames of nation-state and ‘international’ legal reality, a process of structured ‘skeletonisation’ (Geertz 1983) which renders void ‘vast areas of moral agency’ (Hastrup 2001). As we have seen, however, different kinds of state have different kinds of skeleton, and modern human rights discourse was designed with only one physiology in mind, searing the flesh and bones of diverse moral and political lifeworlds on to the ribs and scapulae of the modern nation-state. In this kind of context, state systems constituted through acts of ritualised loyalty render the ideological demand for an anatomy of accountability obsolete as a diagnostic tool.  ■


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¹ Much of this work is based on material that was distributed during the 1996-7 period, to the international media and human rights organisations amongst others. Whilst it is therefore public material, this paper could not have existed without the co-operation of a variety of institutions and archives: since this is a sensitive topic, many of them would not wish to be named specifically, but my thanks go to them anyway.

² Tibetan Buddhist political and institutional life centres round the activities of its four principal schools – the the Nyingmapa, the Kagyud, the Sakya and the Gelukpa – the last of which was politically dominant in Tibet from the 17th to the 20th Centuries, and had the Dalai Lamas as thir political figureheads.

³ “There is no religious suppression concerning the Shugden Deity issue. There is no coercion on personal freedom of worship. As every organisation, institution, administration and government has certain rules and regulations [sic]. An individual or a group of people who do not subscribe to the established policies of an organization or administration can not remain in it. However, at no stage, the Tibetan Government in exile imposed any restrictions on an individual's right to worship.” (Statement of the Kashag, Dharamsala, May 14, 1996. Reported in World Tibet Network News, 13 May 1996).

Exceptions to this are those cases, such as many Islamic states, where political and legal power are disjunct. See, for example Ahmed, I 1987. The Concept of an Islamic State. London: Frances Pinter; Bannerman, P. 1988. Islam in Perspective. London: Routledge: 60-83.

Of course, states could always be held responsible for the lives of subjects and citizens of other regimes: in such cases - particularly where the victim is a representative of another state – then legal, financial or territorial compensation may be demanded.

Unlike many independence movements acting within the boundaries of ex-colonial territories – where the representation of political legitimacy has all too often adopted the framework of the very colonial rule it sought to overthrow (nationalism, borders, and so forth) – the diffuse nature of the Tibetan diaspora has supported much of the practical efficacy of sacral modes of governance, despite an international political climate that assumes their inevitable obsolescence.

Of course, whether this makes the experience of being on the ‘wrong end’ of the process any less pleasant is another issue. Indeed, evidence from other ‘loyalty-based’ disputes in Tibetan politics – such as the recent acrimony over the competing candidates for the position of Gyalwa Karmapa – suggests that it simply adds to the ferocity of the dispute.

Durham wisely notes the difficulties that some historical theocracies have presented for this view, most notably certain Islamic states, where absolute Islamic theocracy was often allied with structures of limited religious pluralism that in certain respects afforded legal freedoms to religious minorities above and beyond those given by many modern secular states. However, he clearly sees these as exceptions that prove the rule.

In a Guardian interview on the Shugden controversy in 1996, the Bristol-based Buddhist specialist Paul Williams remarked: “The Dalai Lama is trying to modernise the Tibetans’ political vision and trying to undermine the factionalism. He has the dilemma of the liberal: do you tolerate the intolerant?” (Bunting 1996).

¹⁰ It is perhaps for this reason that human rights calculations represent a uniquely successful manner of ‘resolving’ contested issues such as the one at hand. However, the degree to which such a resolution depends on a shared ‘regime of truth’ (Foucault 1980: 131) about legitimate statehood may make the resolution of such issues illusory at best. Whilst Amnesty’s statement was widely accepted in the Tibet-supporting international arena as the ‘last word’ on human rights calculation, it seems clear that, within the Tibetan refugee communities, the issue was also resolved to a limited extent by a wish (even amongst many Shugden woirshippers) not to further threaten the theocratic authority of the Dalai Lama. As a whole, however, the notions of resolution and closure in this issue are probably equally statist fantasies, especially given the present heterogeneity of the Tibetan Buddhist world.

¹¹ One of the questions here is whether human rights theory is a conceptual tool that anthropologists should be thinking about cultures with, or a cultural project that they should be thinking about. The dual nature of anthropology’s ambiguous project – to at once catalogue the possible relevance of alternative social realities to our understanding of the dominant ideological frameworks of our own communal lives, whilst also acting as ‘expert witness’ for the inscription of those self-same ideologies upon the very social realities that we study – makes practitioners of the discipline uniquely vulnerable to this ambiguity.


MARTIN A. MILLS is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen (United Kingdom), and co-Director of the Scottish Centre for Himalayan Research.

He obtained his doctorate in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh in 1997. Among other books, Martin Mills is author of Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Authority in Gelukpa Monasticism (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003). His research interests include: Tibetan monasticism and government, Buddhist ritual and geomancy, and anthropological theories of religion.

Prior to teaching at the University of Aberdeen, Martin Mills taught anthropology at the School of African and Asian Studies at the University of Sussex, and at the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh.

© Martin A. Mills

This article, This Turbulent Priest: Contesting Religious Rights and the State in the Tibetan Shugden Controversy, is the pre-publication draft of an article published in Richard Wilson, Jon P. Mitchell (eds. 2003) Human Rights in Global Perspective: Anthropological Studies of Rights, Claims and Entitlements, Routledge, pp. 54-70.

Offered with kind permission from the author.

Header image: © Michael A. Near Drepung monastery, Mundgod, South India, 2014.