The cult of gter: Remapping the political identity of Tibetans in India

Somraj Basu

gter literary tradition, figuring in Tibetan religious schools of thought is becoming relevant again. Giving fresh vent to conceive new ways of acquiring citizenship in India, gters appear – as a) geopolitical sites b) literary works as well as c) mental states of awareness[i].

As a living space (in a particularly strong manner within the Nyingma Buddhist Tradition), their routes of realization are permanently closed to Tibetans with the occupation of Tibet. This has caused the bodily misconfiguration through the spread of unlikely health problems among the Tibetans like Tuberculosis and immediately to open the scope for discussions on gter sites as offering possible cure regimes. gter documents as well as sites are traditionally offered as solutions to seeking minds for resolving and taking care of stressful questions and situations. The answers offered are permanent and immediatebut timing is most important for its revelation. Seeking the right kind of question only can lead to the appropriate answer. Contingent on environmental, economical, political or religious contexts, this specific determining function makes it likely for gters to be considered as ‘crisis heterotopias’.

gter 1

[Tuberculosis affected Tibetans in India. Photo: Author]

A specific quality of gter is its requirement of translation. Being not easy to determine under whose authorship a particular gter document is to be read, deciphered or revealed as gter site, it is recommended that gter revealers are to be determined through a cyclical nature of authorship. Documents like autobiographies of Nyingma spiritual masters come to be considered as self written treatises through previous reincarnations. This cyclical authorship gives gter a truth value, almost generic in nature. Its cyclicity also reveals the predictability of the documents, which is traced from the original writer. Apart from political expediency, the religious calling for revealing the suitable documents to suitable audiences has long hung in the Tibetan collective memory. gter’s emergent character has always been  present as a suggestion.

As an esoteric tradition, one particular difference has to be made between gter revelations that propose a solution to the problems of exile and prophecies around the hardships of exile. Such solutions can easily be confused with prophecies, both esoteric in nature. As an example of prophecy, the statements made by 13th Dalai Lama (1876 – 1933) are often popularly used to understand the struggles and hardships faced by the Tibetan refugees following exile. A popular reference is his statement that ‘the Tibetan people would be dispersed around the world like ants strewn from a broken ant hill’.[ii] The statement’s appropriateness with the events that followed under Chinese occupation has been historically significant, as Tibetans spread out around the world, living up to the prophesized hardships ever since.

gter2

[Poster awareness campaign about TB medicine course completion. Photo: Author]

Such epochal moments of cultural and political crises, also brings the promises brought over by gters, when bodily meanings transform as much as geo-political contours. Historical placement of gters in a geographic territory as well as the mind scape brings to attention the discussions on an alternative time space alignment, which could open the routes of realization of gter. Having a politically disputed border with China, gives scope to the Tibetans living in India to dwell on gters as a source of solution for the bodily mis-configuration caused by the spread of unlikely health problems among the Tibetans like Tuberculosis. Even mainstream Tibetan medical institutions often give vent to the cult of gter among the Tibetans living in India, as offering cures to new infectious disease varieties, plaguing this particular population group in S. Asia, where Tuberculosis is found to be as much a medical challenge as a dogmatic one.

Denial of assess to possible sites of cure, where such documents well kept and preserved and are deemed fit to be revealed in times of crisis as posed by Tuberculosis, also throws open a political tinderbox. Geographically, the access to such sites which could be seen as offering any remedy is limited. This is so because most gter sites are typically located inside pilgrimage circuits of South Tibet, adjoining the north eastern border of India. Locations such as Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim offer us scope to appreciate these sites as zones of sensitivity, and as soon as the Tibetans arrived in droves following their exodus, they activated these sites and its associated memories, to recreate their life in exile. Such states of sensitivity, also offer a new way of acquiring citizenship in India. India as a potential gter territory helps to resolve the ambiguity posed by the question of returning to Tibet and keeps the channels of communication open.

gter3

[Tawang Monastery in Sikkim, adjoining the international border with China.Photo: Author]

This imaginary conception has been central to the creation of the Tibetan state. Posing of India as a visionary landscape itself, makes it inviting enough for the Tibetans to come here to seek shelter. Looking forward to residing in the hidden land, promised as a shelter in distress, gter becomes an easily assessable site.  From this standpoint, gters should not be taken as a priori system of meaning. The location of certain gter sites in Tibet, which makes medicine for certain infectious diseases like tuberculosis unavailable has served as much metaphoric purpose as the posing of certain sites in north eastern India, like Sikkim, as gter sites. Accepting the gter thesis in interview sessions happen in such an a-naturalistic state. Therefore it becomes possible to assert that the conditions of the social world make such kind of experiencing vividly possible.

The political appeal for gter appears from this possibility of reterritorialization[iii] in the displaced land. In the absence of such resources, the alienation of medical meaning making mechanisms could have been a burden to bear. By keeping open the possibility of return, gters seek out new ways to orient selves. The out of placeness of Tibetans in India, orients them both towards India as well as Tibet. For Tibetans living in India, keeping such hidden and inaccessible spaces open while preparing to reach out has not only been important but critical in keeping alive their political dispute. Migration thus achieves for Tibetans double purpose of disorientation as well as re-orientation. The process of keeping open the disjunctures is essential to return back and accommodate oneself in a country like India, which does not traditionally give recognition to refugees.

The domain of gter, thus significantly lead to new ways of acquiring citizenship in India. India as a potential gter site – offering shelter and succor in times of danger and difficulty and posing itself as a solution to the imposing political crisis – helps sustain the ambiguity posed by the question of returning to Tibet by keeping the questions on the access to gter sources and sites alive. The political appeal for gter appears from this possibility of reterritorialization in the displaced land. In the absence of such resources, the alienation of medical meaning making for Tuberculosis, for which there is no long standing and established convention of cure is available, could have been a burden to bear for Tibetans. By keeping open the possibility of return to possible medical sources which could be used for cure regimes, gter literary tradition seek out new cultural routes to orient bodies and minds and prepare it to bypass the geo-political boundaries.

[i] Kaplan, Caren 1987 “Deterritorializations: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist Discourse”. Cultural Critique 6:187-198.

[ii] The notion of ‘dispersal’ is very strong in many religious traditions and finds reverberations in the Old Testament  as well as in the Jewish exile and stands as a metaphor for the ‘new age’ and ‘new human condition’. While in the Biblical sense, the conceptual category of ‘dispersal’ had a strong case for justifying colonialism, occupation of foreign lands and slavery (Harrison, Paul (2005). “Fill the Earth and Subdue it”: Biblical Warrants for Colonization in Seventeenth Century England’ in Journal of Religious History, Vol. 29, No. 1), in the Jewish tradition, dispersal accounts for movement of population and diasporas. For more, see A Companion to diaspora and transnationalism, Quayson and Daswani (2013).

[iii] For more, see  Apparitions of the self: The secret autobiographies of a Tibetan visionary, Janet Gyatso (1998).

[Somraj Basu is a Ph D candidate at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. He can be reached at b.somraj@gmail.com]

 

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