In the period between the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1682) and the assumption of political power of the Thirteen Dalai Lama (1895) a number of military conflicts were fought in Tibetan territory. Some of these were internal, including a civil war and attempts to quell rebellious chieftains at the periphery of the plateau. Others, instead, were clashes with foreign powers that had attempted to encroach upon territories the dGa’ ldan pho brang considered in its political sphere.
This presentation aims to offer an overview of the military engagements that occurred in this period, and particularly to examine in which way religious hierarchs of the dGa’ ldan pho brang became involved with these military affairs. Several sources, including the lives (rnam mthar) and autobiographies (rang rnam) of religious hierarchs, as well as the life stories of laymen, such as the biography of Pho lha nas bSod nams stobs rgyal (1689-1747), and the autobiography of rDo ring bsTan ’dzin dpal ’byor (b. 1760), can be used to trace the role of some of the dGe lugs pa hierarchs with respect to the employment of armed forces. In addition, the multiple viewpoints shown in these sources also allow the investigation of more general questions concerning the army of the dGa’ ldan pho brang, such as when it originated, how it operated, and how it developed and was shaped by contemporary historical events.
The existence of a military apparatus within the ecclesiastical government of the dGa’ ldan pho brang, controlled by religious hierarchs, reveals a dichotomy between an administration in theory committed to Buddhist values but in practice often pressed by concerns of realpolitik. In fact, on several occasions in its three-hundred year history, the government of the Dalai Lamas and the dGe lugs pa hierarchy have had to contend with adverse situations that spurred them to utilize, support or otherwise involve the Tibetan army. While the XIII Dalai Lama (1876-1933) may be the ecclesiastical figure whose support for the army is universally recognized, other hierarchs who preceded him also found ways to reconcile their religious beliefs with the necessity to solve impelling practical questions. This talk aims at illustrating some of the historical situations that required the involvement in military matters of dGe lugs pa hierarchs, and the conceptual discourses employed by them to justify and promote the use of the army.
It has been long acknowledged that state violence and military activity were a part of Tibetan history. Indeed, popular perceptions aside, the evidence for this has been easily available. In this talk some of it will be reviewed, to clarify both the idea that violence was justifiable and the fact that military organization was part of Tibetan politics and society – weaponry, soldiers, support units, etc. – all a part of functioning of authority in Tibet. The history of 17th and 18th century Tibet provides enough examples of the ways in which armed force war trained and deployed to allow us to make useful observations about the Tibetan military.
Pr. Elliot Sperling is a Numata Visiting Professor in South Asian, Buddhist, and Tibetan Studies at the University of Vienna. His writing and research has concentrated on Tibetan history, with a specific focus on Tibet’s historical and modern relations with China.