Karmapa, 17th, and India
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As in 2018
India’s Tibet strategy faces a challenge with the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, seen as the most influential Tibetan Buddhist religious leader after the Dalai Lama, conveying to the government his unhappiness over “restraints” on his travel and his disinterest in any political role.
Though the Karmapa — who fled from China to India in dramatic circumstances in 2000 — does not spell it out clearly, his discontent seems linked to his reluctance to return to India from his US visit in May last year. He has pitched camp in New York where he meets followers amid public engagements.
Karmapa’s differences with the Indian government have lingered despite suspicions having ebbed over time that his flight to India was “facilitated” by the Chinese and his stature as a leading religious figure in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, particularly the Kagyu lineage, giving him an international salience.
Though Karmapa said he will be back in India in November, perhaps after attending the world Hindu conference in Chicago next month, a commemoration of the 1893 “parliament of world religions” addressed by Swami Vivekananda, his long absence is beginning to jar on Indian authorities, who seem to be running out of patience with him.
On his part, the Karmapa is understood to have made it clear that he is chafing over being supervised at all times when in India. He needs permissions to address events and travel from his base at a monastery near Dharamshala is closely monitored. He has not been allowed to visit Southeast Asia. His desire that “constraints” be eased indicates he wants India to make up its mind about his loyalty or lack of it.
‘Don’t see a political role for myself’
The Karmapa has said he does not see a political role for himself and that he will be guided by the Dalai Lama.
The 33-year-old Tibetan leader’s presence bolsters India’s claim as a cradle and home of Buddhist thought at a time when China is promoting Buddhism and wooing influential clergy with an eye on the post-Dalai Lama scenario.
Beijing would be keen to see the centre of Tibetan thought, embodied in the Dalai Lama, moves to China to consolidate the spiritual authority its political control lacks. The Karmapa is unable to visit his traditional seat at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim as it is disputed by a rival group.
At the same time, he has emerged as a more confident leader and sees himself as the legitimate successor to the widely respected 16th Karmapa who passed away in the US in 1981.
Looking to counter India’s formidable links to Buddhism, China has promoted a “world Buddhist conference” and offered to develop Lumbini in Nepal, arguing Buddha’s birthplace is the most important marker of his life rather than Bodh Gaya in India where he achieved enlightenment.
It is in this intense, and significant, jockeying for geo-political influence, that Karmapa has a role to play. China’s administrative and military control over Tibet is complete, but the fight for spiritual ascendancy is far from over and remains the only, though not minor, lever in India’s hands.
De-recognition by the Indian government
2018: India derecognises Urgyen Dorje
The already strained ties between Karmapa Ugyen Trinley Dorje and the Indian government seems to have further deteriorated with the government making it clear that it does not recognise him as the legitimate Buddhist religious leader of the influential karma kaygu sect.
The sharp put down, articulated by well-placed sources, makes the status and future of the Karmapa uncertain in India and seems to indicate that India’s impatience with his long absence from India has turned into a colder indifference to the leader’s claim to his “traditional” seat of the Rumtek monastery.
Given its apparent disenchantment with the 17th Karmapa, the government is no longer seeing his decision to acquire a Domincan passport as a problem and is willing to give him a visa. This could mean that India will not accord much importance to the status of his identity certificate, the document commonly issued to Tibetan refugees, which also facilitates travel abroad.
There are legal and political aspects to the development. Since there are competing claims to the Rumtek monstery that are sub judice, India cannot pronounce on the Karmapa’s claim. However, politically, keeping the Karmapa in its zone of influence and supporting his presence here makes India a “guardian” of a religious leader seen to rank next to the Dalai Lama in importance. The government’s stand is at odds with the Dalai Lama, who has recognised Dorje as the legitimate Karmapa.
In recent years, the Indian government had also shed its suspicions about Karmapa’s escape from China along with his older sister and a few followers. But for more than a year after Karmapa went to the US, he has avoided returning and has in fact complained that he finds restrictions on his travel irksome.