For most of recorded history, political power and religion have been closely interwoven. The establishment of religious authority, the centralization of religious discourse around politically ordained figures, even forced conversion as an aspect of war—these were long seen as vital functions of government.
This was true in most times and places, but truer in some than in others. Until very recently, it was especially true in Tibet, where, as Sam Van Schaik writes, “the ideal government was a union, not a separation, of Church and State.” Since the seventh century, Tibet’s rulers have been considered divine emanations in the world—from the first godlike tsenpos to the many configurations of monks, lamas, and priests who intrigued, waged war, and maintained traditional hierarchies until the fourteenth Dalai Lama fled to India at the end of the 1950s. Even the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party has had trouble severing this link between divine and temporal power in Tibet.
The centrality of political power to the history of Tibetan religion is one of the central themes of the Rubin Museum’s excellent “Faith and Empire” exhibition (on view till July 15). Buddhism arrived in Tibet in waves, gathered from the edges of the empire in Nepal and Kashmir, or sought out by monks and scholars who traveled to India in search of both tantric masters and sacred texts, eventually amassing one of the greatest collections of Buddhist literature in the world. The teachings they received explicitly linked the worlds of religion and politics, treating the ruler as a sacral figure who spread Buddhism through imperial expansion. First with tsenpos and later lamas, Buddhism justified and maintained the stratification of Tibetan society, ensuring a continuity of aristocratic rule.
The same tantric scriptures also elevated wrathful deities like Mahakala to the status of Buddhas, ascribing powers both spiritual—the fearsome clearing of obstacles to enlightenment—and explicitly magical. Many-armed, coupling with their consorts and dancing atop dead bodies, their belts full of severed heads, these demons and spirits gain some of their power from the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, whose everyday spells for growing crops and preventing hail have been part of Tibetan life since before written history. These powers were frequently employed for political or martial gain, poisoning one’s rivals or cursing foreign armies. Few ruled without them.
The Tibetan empire lasted only about 250 years, but many subsequent generations of monks, teachers, and lamas lent their religious authority to the political powers that surrounded them. Tibetan Buddhism had a prominent, even privileged, place at a series of Imperial courts, from the Tanguts to the Mongols to the Qing. While these rulers desired allegiance and tribute, they also relied on Tibetan magic for political success. When Chinggis Khan besieged the Tangut capital in 1210, its imperial preceptor, a Tibetan lama, appealed to Mahakala, who is believed to have flooded the Mongol troops by bursting their dams. This display so impressed Chinggis’s son Qiublai that he later chose to be inducted into the tantric mysteries by a monk named Phakpa, and made Tibetan Buddhism the foremost religion of his empire. Mongol warriors painted their helmets with mantras and powerful deities to protect themselves and destroy their foes, and also marched into battle with banners depicting deities. The later Manchu even used Tibetan beliefs to connect themselves, via reincarnation, with earlier dynasties.
Tibetans in turn used foreign military power to resolve domestic religious disputes. Phakpa returned home with a small army to drive his Kadampa opponents out of power. The Gelug, or yellow-hat, sect—which most people outside of Tibet likely have in mind when they think of Tibetan Buddhism—used a series of civil wars to suppress their Ningma rivals. Even the story of the Dalai Lama is one of repeated foreign intervention.