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Saturday, July 6, 2024

The Interwoven Histories and Cultures of Tibet and India

Tibet and India share a tapestry of cultural, religious, and linguistic connections that span centuries. This intricate relationship has been shaped by the spread of Buddhism, historical exchanges, and the enduring bonds formed through pilgrimage and exile. Buddhism, originating in India, has profoundly influenced Tibet, where it evolved into a distinctive form known as Tibetan Buddhism. While Tibetan Buddhism developed its unique characteristics, it still retains significant similarities with its Indian roots. The history of Tibet extends beyond its recorded beginnings with Nyatri Tsenpo in 127 B.C., revealing a rich cultural heritage rooted in the pre-Buddhist civilization of the Kingdom of Shangshung. Located in Western Tibet, near Mount Kailash (known as Mt Tise), Shangshung flourished with a sophisticated culture linked to the indigenous Bon tradition. The cultural and spiritual ties between India and Tibet, especially through Buddhism, are profound and enduring. Despite political changes and challenges, these connections have shaped the religious and cultural landscapes of both regions, highlighting the Himalayas as a bridge rather than a barrier between them. The ongoing cultural relations between Tibet and India exemplify a unique historical and spiritual bond that continues to thrive. The historical relations between India and Tibet are deeply intertwined with legends and significant events that shaped Tibetan culture and identity.

From early times, Tibetans revered India as the ‘Land of the Gods’, highlighting the profound cultural and spiritual connections between the two regions. The recorded history of Tibet begins with the Yarlung Dynasty, ruling from the 5th to the 9th century CE. A notable legend dates back to 127 B.C. when Nyatri Tsenpo was enthroned as the first king of Tibet in the Yarlung Valley. According to myth, Nyatri Tsenpo descended from the sky using a ‘sky-rope’ and was believed to have originated from India, hailing from a royal family connected to the Buddha’s lineage. This mythic narrative underscores the mythological ties and divine origins attributed to early Tibetan rulers.

Buddhism formally arrived in Tibet during the reign of Thori Nyatsen in the 5th century A.D. Legend has it that a casket containing the Mantra of Avalokiteshvara fell from the sky onto Yubulakhang, the royal palace, marking the auspicious introduction of Buddhism. Although the king couldn’t decipher the scripts within, he preserved them as sacred relics for future generations, symbolizing the divine transmission of Buddhist teachings to Tibet. Moreover, the Tibetan Empire, succeeding the Yarlung Dynasty from the 7th to mid-9th century, solidified Buddhism’s role. Indian Buddhist masters like Bhiksu Santaraksita, Kamalasila and Padmasambhava were pivotal, bringing Indian practices such as Sanskrit usage and the creation of intricate mandalas to Tibet. This period saw the fusion of Tibetan Buddhism with indigenous traditions like Bon and shamanism, forming a distinctive spiritual path emphasizing compassion and wisdom.

Furthermore, known as the ‘Bodhisattva Kings’, the Yarlung rulers, notably Songtsen Gampo (618-650 CE), the 33rd king of the Yarlung Dynasty unified Tibet and expanded its borders. He strategically married princesses from China and Nepal. These alliances were instrumental in the adoption and spread of Buddhism within Tibet. Despite initial reservations by the Chinese and Nepalese rulers about Songtsen Gampo’s status, these marriages facilitated cultural exchanges that profoundly influenced Tibetan politics and religion. Under Songtsen Gampo’s leadership, Tibet expanded into a formidable empire, stretching from Chang’an (modern Xian) in the East to the Pamirs and Samarkand in the West, with the Himalayas marking its southern border. This period marked Tibet’s zenith as a military and cultural power in Central Asia.  Moreover, under his reign, Tibet embraced Indian cultural elements like Buddhism, Sanskrit and literature. Songtsen Gampo sponsored the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan and built iconic temples such as the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

Also, King Songtsen Gampo’s legacy includes a pivotal contribution to Tibetan culture through the introduction of a script and the translation of Buddhist scriptures. His minister, Thonmi Sambhota, journeyed to India with sixteen students to study Buddhism and Sanskrit. Upon their return, they devised the Tibetan script, still in use today, drawing from North Indian Nagari and Central Indian Sharda scripts. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama mentioned during his 1956 visit to India that Thonmi Sambhota developed the script based on Nagari and Sharda scripts. Beyond the script, Thonmi Sambhota imported Sanskrit grammar used in Indian viharas, facilitating precise translations of Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan. This adaptation ensured the accurate rendering of the sacred sutras, including the Kanjur, a collection of Buddha’s teachings spanning 108 volumes. Moreover, under King Songtsen Gampo’s rule, significant Buddhist texts were translated, with the king himself actively engaging in scholarship. For the first time, Buddhist precepts became part of Tibetan law, underscoring the integration of Buddhism into Tibetan governance and culture.

Additionally, the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion during Songtsen Gampo’s reign was a watershed moment in Tibetan history, cementing cultural ties with India and laying the foundation for centuries of religious and philosophical exchange. The shift of the capital from Yarlung to Lhasa and the construction of structures like the Potala Palace symbolized Tibet’s evolving identity and its deepening spiritual ties with Indian Buddhist traditions. The historical interactions between India and Tibet, spanning from mythological origins to religious transformations, underscore the enduring cultural and spiritual bond that has shaped the histories of both. Thus, King Songtsen Gampo’s reign marked a crucial era in Tibetan history, characterized by cultural exchange with India and the foundational development of Tibetan Buddhism.

Himalayas as a connecting point, not a barrier
The great Himalayan range has always been a cultural continuum, porous not only to trade but also to religious, political, and cultural exchanges. India has always regarded these mountains as profoundly special. The earliest reference to the Himalayas is in the Rig Veda, written around 1500 B.C., which states that the Himalayas symbolize all mountains. The Kena Upanishad, written around 1000 B.C., speaks of Uma, the daughter of the Himalayas – Umam haimavatim. According to mythology, Uma revealed the mystic idealism of the Upanishads to the gods, an imaginative expression of the historical fact that the thoughts of the Upanishads were developed by those dwelling in the forests and citadels of the Himalayas. It is essential to recognize that the Himalayan range is a geographical and cultural entity, though one side is India and the other side is Tibet. The great Himalayan range also holds profound significance for Tibet beyond its geographical presence. For Tibetans, the Himalayas are not just a physical barrier but a spiritual and cultural lifeline, deeply intertwined with their religious beliefs, traditions, and way of life.

Mount Kailash and the lakes of Manasarovar and Raksas, located in Western Tibet, culturally belong to both India and Tibet. The lakes of Manasarovar and Raksas, nestled in the Himalayan heights, are considered holy in Tibetan Buddhism, symbolizing purity and enlightenment. Manasarovar, in particular, is believed to be the highest freshwater lake in the world and holds significance as a place where great teachers have meditated and gained enlightenment. They are ardently revered by Buddhists in Tibet as the sacred Kang Rinpoche as well as by the hundreds of millions of Hindus for whom it is the abode of God Shiva. It holds immense spiritual importance as a pilgrimage site, drawing devotees from both faiths who undertake difficult journeys to circumambulate the mountain in acts of devotion.

Beyond its religious significance, the Himalayas have shaped Tibet’s historical and cultural identity. The region’s unique architecture, art, and monastic traditions have evolved in harmony with the rugged terrain and the spiritual resonance of the mountains. Tibetan culture, with its emphasis on spiritual practices, meditation, and the pursuit of wisdom, has been profoundly influenced by the Himalayan landscape, which has provided a natural sanctuary for contemplation and spiritual growth. The Himalayas are not merely a geographical feature for Tibetans; they embody a sacred realm where spiritual aspirations meet the rugged beauty of nature. The mountains are integral to Tibetan identity, providing both physical protection and a spiritual landscape that has shaped their cultural heritage and continues to inspire reverence and devotion.

Buddhism as a Cultural Bridge
The most significant cultural tie between Tibet and India is Buddhism. Introduced to Tibet in the 7th century during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo. Buddhism flourished through the efforts of Indian scholars such as Padmasambhava, Shantarakshita, and Atisha Dipamkara. These figures, along with others, played crucial roles in establishing monasteries and translating Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit to Tibetan. This spiritual exchange laid the foundation for the development of Tibetan Buddhism, which incorporates Indian philosophical and meditative traditions.

The spread of Buddhism from India to Tibet resulted in the development of a unique form of Buddhism that, while distinct in many ways, retains deep connections to its Indian roots. The integration of indigenous beliefs, the development of Vajrayana practices, and the establishment of unique monastic institutions gave Tibetan Buddhism its distinctive character. Yet, the core teachings, meditation practices, monastic discipline, and rituals continue to reflect the profound influence of Indian Buddhism. This blend of uniqueness and continuity underscores the rich and dynamic relationship between Tibetan and Indian Buddhism, highlighting their shared spiritual heritage and enduring connections.

One of the unique aspects of Tibetan Buddhism is its integration of indigenous Tibetan beliefs, particularly the Bon religion. This syncretism resulted in a rich tapestry of rituals, deities, and practices that are distinct from Indian Buddhism. For example, the Tibetan practice of invoking protector deities like Mahakala and Palden Lhamo has roots in indigenous Tibetan traditions. Tibetan Buddhism is primarily Vajrayana Buddhism, which emphasises esoteric practices, tantric rituals, and the use of complex visualisations and mantras. While Vajrayana traditions existed in India, Tibetan Buddhism developed these practices into a highly elaborate and distinct system. The use of thangkas (religious paintings), mandalas, and ritual objects like the vajra (ritual sceptre) and bell are central to Tibetan Vajrayana practices.

Moreover, the monastic system in Tibet developed unique features, such as the institution of the Dalai Lama. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, believed to be the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Compassion), became both the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. This leadership structure is unique to Tibetan Buddhism and differs from the monastic hierarchy found in Indian Buddhism. Additionally, Tibetan Buddhism developed distinct sects, such as the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug schools, each with its own practices and lineages. Indian Buddhism also had various schools, like Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, but the sectarian divisions were not as pronounced as in Tibet.

Despite its unique developments, Tibetan Buddhism retains the core teachings and philosophical principles of Indian Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the concepts of karma and rebirth, and the pursuit of enlightenment are fundamental to both traditions. The Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy of Nagarjuna and the Yogacara (Mind-Only) school of Asanga and Vasubandhu are central to Tibetan Buddhist thought. Many rituals and ceremonies in Tibetan Buddhism have their roots in Indian practices. For instance, the ritual use of mantras, mudras (hand gestures), and dharanis (protective spells) are common to both traditions. The recitation of the Heart Sutra and the practice of making offerings to the Buddha and bodhisattvas are also shared practices.

Also, Meditation practices in Tibetan Buddhism, such as shamatha (calm-abiding) and vipassana (insight) meditation, have their origins in Indian Buddhism. These practices are integral to both traditions and emphasize the cultivation of mindfulness, concentration, and insight into the nature of reality.

Furthermore, pilgrimage remains a significant practice in both Tibetan and Indian Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists often visit sacred sites in India, such as Bodh Gaya, where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, is a major pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists, further cementing the cultural and religious ties between the two regions. Other places of sacred importance are Sarnath, Nalanda, Sanchi Stupa, Khushinagar, etc. where Buddhists from around the world come to pay homage to Buddha and the Buddhist masters. These sites serve as enduring links between the two traditions, fostering a sense of shared heritage and spiritual continuity. Similarly, Mount Kailash in Tibet is revered by both Hindus and Buddhists, symbolizing a significant spiritual connection. The movement of monks, scholars, and pilgrims between India and Tibet facilitated a rich exchange of cultural and religious ideas. Indian philosophical schools, meditation practices, and monastic traditions deeply influenced Tibetan Buddhism. In turn, Tibetan interpretations and practices contributed to a broader understanding and preservation of Buddhist teachings.

Linguistic Connections
The transmission of Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet involved the translation of a vast body of Sanskrit texts into Tibetan. This translation effort preserved many Indian Buddhist scriptures that might have otherwise been lost, ensuring the continuity of Indian Buddhist thought in Tibetan culture.

The linguistic connections between Tibet and India are evident in the translation of Buddhist texts. Many Tibetan Buddhist scriptures are translations of Sanskrit originals. The Tibetan script, developed in the 7th century, was influenced by the Indian Brahmi script, reflecting the deep linguistic exchanges between the two cultures. The Tibetan language has numerous loanwords from Sanskrit, particularly in religious and philosophical contexts. The scholarly exchanges between Indian scholars and Tibetan lamas have enriched the linguistic traditions of both regions, fostering a shared intellectual heritage.

Beyond religious texts, there has been a literary exchange between Tibet and India. Classical Tibetan literature includes stories and poetry that have been influenced by Indian epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. This literary cross-pollination highlights the shared cultural and linguistic heritage.

Even though, Tibetan Buddhism has a rich literary and scholarly tradition, with an extensive body of commentaries, philosophical texts, and biographies of saints and scholars. These writings, while rooted in Indian Buddhist philosophy, have developed a distinct Tibetan character. The Tibetan canon, known as the Kangyur and Tengyur, includes translations of Indian texts as well as original Tibetan works.

Furthermore, traditionally, Tibetan historians asserted that Tibet lacked its own script until 640 A.D., when Songtsen Gampo’s minister, Thonmi Sambhota, developed the Tibetan script based on Indian models. This view marginalized the indigenous cultural contributions predating Buddhism’s arrival, implying that Tibetan cultural identity emerged only with the spread of Buddhism. However, contemporary research, done by scholars like Prof. Namkhai Norbu, challenges this narrative. It highlights that the Bon tradition not only possessed a substantial literary corpus but also its own script, known as the Shangshung script or Mar-Tsugs. This script, characterized by tall letters and short vowels akin to early Tibetan U-med script, demonstrates an independent cultural and intellectual tradition in Tibet prior to the Buddhist era. The discovery of ancient manuscripts in Tibetan monasteries written in Mar-Tsugs further supports this claim, indicating continuity between pre-Buddhist and later Tibetan script forms. While some scholars argue for its derivation from the Brahmi script, the evidence from Bon’s historical records and scholarly investigations underscores the indigenous development and significance of the Shangshung script in shaping early Tibetan cultural identity.

However, after the 7th century, Bon philosophy began interacting with Buddhist philosophy, leading to a complex intertwining of their ideas. Today, it’s challenging to separate their indigenous components, as both traditions have influenced each other significantly. Despite this blending, distinct parallels exist, such as the presence of powerful myths in Bon literature that resemble ancient Indian myths, like the cosmic egg. The concept of the Hiranyagarbha or Cosmic Egg, as described in various ancient Indian texts like the Rig Veda, Vayu Purana, Bhagavata Purana and Brahmanda Purana, symbolizes the primal origin of the universe. It is depicted as a golden womb or embryo floating in a dark void, from which the entire cosmos and its components emerge. This cosmic egg embodies both male and female principles in a state of union, signifying the creative potential and unity underlying the universe’s manifestation according to these ancient myths and cosmological narratives. These similarities underscore the strong and regular cultural exchanges between India and Tibet, dating back to the time of Buddha and even earlier.

In conclusion, the longstanding and intricate relationship between Tibet and India, marked by shared borders and centuries of cultural exchange, highlights a deep connection that transcends political boundaries. From the introduction of Buddhism to mutual influences in art, literature and philosophy, these interactions have shaped both Tibetan and Indian identities in the Himalayas. Despite historical complexities, the enduring cultural ties underscore a resilient bond that continues to foster mutual understanding and influence between Tibet and India, embodying a legacy of shared heritage and relationship across the majestic Himalayan landscape.



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Authored by:
Kritika Rajput,
Research Associate,
Red lantern Analytica

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