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Gompas in Traditional Tibetan Society

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Item Code: IDD281
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Author: M.N. Rajesh
Language: English
Edition: 2002
ISBN: 8186921214
Pages: 231 (1 Map)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9" X 6"
Weight 530 gm
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Book Description
From the Jacket:

The importance of the gompa or the Buddhist monastery in Tibetan history cannot be overemphasized: it was the institution that enabled continuity of Buddhism in Tibetan history by performing multifarious functions and institutionalizing the theory of Buddhism so that it could transcend time and space. Here, a scholar in religious studies, Dr. M. N. Rajesh examines the gompas of Tibet from a holistic perspective, focusing largely on its organizational and functional aspects.

The book begins with a survey of the gompas' Indian origins, viewing the mahaviharas as a prototype of the gompas, and studies contextualization of the gompas in Tibet wherein is described its relation with the superstructure – the society. Consulting many old works and some rare manuscripts, the work analyzes the working of the monasteries – their hierarchy, rules and rituals, role of the lamas, office of the abbot and other positions of authority, and recruitment and initiation of novices. It also elaborates the contributions of the gompas at different levels – socio-economic and political – which helped pre-modern Tibet to achieve a high degree of development over the centuries. It takes up for detailed scrutiny services rendered by the gompas in the field of Indic Studies – astronomy, astrology and medicine, and in education and art & architecture.

The book, with an elaborate index and a glossary of Indic terms, will be valuable reference work for scholars and researchers, in Buddhist studies and those interested in Tibetan history.

Dr. M. N. Rajesh is a young scholar who is devoted to studying social contexts in which religious institutions and traditions function and flourish particularly with respect to Hinduism and Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent. He is presently lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh).


The gompas were one of the central institutions in pre-modern Tibet which in san extensive area of study in terms of time and space. The time period extends from roughly the seventh century AD to AD 1959 and the geographical area too is equally immense comprising all of Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, parts of India, China, Nepal and Central Asia. Buddhism is an institutionalized religion and the gompa was the institution which led to the continuance of Buddhism throughout the major part of Tibetan history. Earlier trends in the study of gompas focused mainly on the architectural and artistic aspects without taking into account the social context and the institutional aspect of the gompa

This study tries to look at the gompa from a holistic view focusing mainly on the organizational and functional aspects. The major areas of enquiry are the Indian antecedents of the samgha, its evolution into the famed multi-functional mahaviharas of northern and eastern India which formed the prototype for the Tibetan gompa. The subsequent proliferation of gompas in Tibet in the favourable ecozones, with a brief description of the material base of the gompa and its relation with the superstructure, i.e., the society. The material base would also help in classifying the gompas from a typological point of view. The second diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet saw the proliferation of gompas and the emergence of large-scale monasticism. This is a grey area with very little research being done and some aspects of the spread of monasticism during this period are being looked into.

Functionally the services rendered by the gompa to the people, viz., education, medicine, astrology and astronomy form another area of enquiry. Here the emphasis is on the socio-economic linkages with the community. Earlier works had emphasized heavily on the Indian antecedents leading one to conclude that Indic sciences were just translations of Indian works. An attempt at delineating the local contributions which suitably modified these sciences and 'Tibetanised' them to suit the needs and specifities of the times have been touched in this chapter. Further Western travelers had arrived at conclusions that the system of education was a mystic and esoteric kind, giving a pircture that Tibetan monastic sciences served to this end. The practical role of medicine, astrology and astronomy in every day life has been discussed here.

Further, Gelugpa monasteries and their system of education have been the subject of many works and here an attempt is made to show the different types of education in other Orders.

Closely linked to monastic education was the internal organization of the monastery. Here also a typological classification has been attempted giving a description of the working of the great monasteries with thousands of lamas and their roles in the rituals, the hierarchy, regulations and rules, right form the recruitment and initiation of the novice, to the office of the abbot, covering the entire gamut of positions of authority.

Monastic art was not for art's sake only and keeping this paradigm in mind the religious and surrogate uses of art have been discussed. Various styles of art and the rise of a national style (like the coalescence of various schools of medicine into a national school) have been traced in a linear fashion. Further the uses of art and the gompa as a repository of art and architecture perpetuating a pan-Tibetan great tradition performing the vital role of integration have been detailed.

Large-scale monasticism with the socio-economic linkages forms another chapter and merits a discussion. So the role of gompa in the socio-economic process has been examined describing briefly the assets of the gompa/labrang, their incomes, surplus and reinvestment of surplus in various fields.

The concept of merit and the social context that prompted the laity to donate to gompa are also touched upon. The redistributive role of the gompa is also shown.

Monastic input into polity is a major theme on which Tibetologists are working on now. Here the early polity of Tibet, the Sakya polity and the rise of Gelugpas are traced. The contentious Yon-chod relationship and the factors leading to the rise of the theory of reincarnation are also dealt with. A brief description of the system of the Dalai Lama's government is also given. Contributions of the monastery in infusing and later implementing a polity based on the Buddhist concept of ahimsa leading to the elimination of use of force as a matter of policy is also touched upon.

A brief survey of literature
The primary sources for this study are the Vinaya Texts and the Blue Annals. For tracing the Indian antecedents particularly in reference to the origin of the samgha, Indic sciences and monastic education, the Vinaya Texts are helpful. The Blue Annals are particularly used in tracing the developments in Tibet to supplement the secondary works. It has been pointed out by many scholars that only the Blue Annals and Bu-Ston Rinpoche's, History of Tibet stand out as relatively fair portrayals of historical events as they do not tend to gloss over or use hyperboles in abundance, which was a trend among the Asian works of that age. Moreover, the dates and events mentioned in the Blue Annals correspond to conclusions arrived out of later independent research.

Among the secondary works, some books like R. S. Sharma's Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India give a clear picture of the material milieu of early Buddhism following the model of the base and super-structure. Sukumar Dutt's book Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India is a fairly exhaustive work describing the organizational features of the great Indian mahaviharas and also throwing light on Indo-Tibetan contacts. O. C. Handa's Buddhist Monasteries of Himachal Pradesh also is in the same vein tracing a teleological link between the Indian monasteries and the monasteries of Himachal Pradesh up to this day, dwelling upon all aspects of monasticism, very similar to this work is Romi Khosla's Buddhist Monasteries in the Western Himalayas which introduces us to the geographical terrain of the western Himalayas and the rest of the book is concerned with the architectural aspects of the monasteries. Janet Rizvi's book Ladakh Cross Roads of High Asia can be said to supplement this book but with a more diverse range of subjects concerned with Ladakhi society and its historical moorings.

The contributions of travelers, administrators and early Tibetologists like Charles Bell whose People of Tibet; Religion of Tibet and Tibet Past and Present along with Tucci's Tibet Land of Snows, Sir Thomas Holdich's Tibet the Mysterious acquaint the reader with an introductory knowledge of Tibet and its customs, myth and folklore. Ancient Tibet (Tibetan History Series, V) gives exhaustive details about early Tibetan history, topography and natural resources.

Regarding Indic sciences, Raoul Birnbaum's The Healing Buddha and Kenneth Zysk's Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India give a theoretical overview about the connection with Buddhist monasticism and healing, both authors stress upon the organizational role of the early samgha. Lady Dr. Lobsang Dolma Khangkar's Lectures on Tibetan Medicine; Fundamentals of Tibetan Medicine published by Men Tsee Khang help to get a knowledge of the basis of Tibetan medicine. Dr. Lobsang Rabgay's articles and Dr. Pasang Yonten's articles along with a few others in Tibetan medicine help in tracing the history of Tibetan medicine along with the myths and their modifications. Dr. Jan Barmark's article, 'Tibetan Buddhist medicine from the perspective of Anthropology of knowledge', gives a clear picture of the orientation of the Tibetan mind and the role of after life, it also touches briefly on the training of a doctor. Craig R. Janes's article and Sirish Jain's article give information about the medical practices in Lhasa (Chakpori) and among the Bodhs of Spiti.

Articles by Dr. Sonam Wangdi and Dr. Philip along with the collection of articles in Tibetan Astronomy and Astrology – A Brief Inroduction more than suffice the need for a description an Indic sciences.

'The Geshe Degree', Daniel Perdue's Debate in Tibetan Buddhist Education, Michael Franz's Rule by Incarnation, Austine Waddell's Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism. T. L. Shen and S. C. Liu's The Tibetans give a good overview of monastic education and organization, stressing on the organizational hierarchy, process of recruitment, maintenance of discipline, etc. 'The structure of the Gelug Monastic Order' an article by Sherpa Tulku et al. also does justice to its title. Kunchok Sithar's article takes us down on a journey through time to compare monastic life in the past and present.

Regarding art and architecture there are a plethora of books and articles, some like Romi Khosla's and O.C Handa's work being region specific, i.e., Western Himalayas. Pema Dorji's, book Stupa and its Technology goes into a brief discussion on the origin and symbolism of the stupa, as Robert. E Fisher's Buddhist Art and Architecture. William Semple's article on 'Symbolism and Ritual in Tibetan Architecture' along with Thubten Legshay Gyatsho's Gateway to the Temple explain in detail the techniques and ritual procedures of construction, the latter book also gives the meaning of myth and iconographic canons. Pratapaditya Pal's Tibetan Paintings goes into detail about the stylistic changes in Thanka painting articles edited by Pratapaditya Pal in Marg also do justice by dealing with each aspect of Tibetan art ranging from Jane Casey Singer's description of Thankas, and Valrae Reynold's article on fabric images that stresses the role of fabric images in Tibetan society. Detlef Ingo Lauf's Tibetan Sacred Art deals with the concept of mandala, and tantric motifs elaborately. Ven Melpittiye's, doctoral thesis is useful in analyzing the shifts in symbolism from Theravada to Mahayana Buddhism. Krishna Ghosh's doctoral thesis titled 'Few Tibetan Dieties' goes in great detail to trace the origin of certain selected deities always emphasizing their historical and functional context.

On the socio-economic front, the overview given by Charles Bell et al. can be expanded by David Snellgrove's A Cultural History of Tibet, R.A. Stein's Tibetan Civilisation which stress on the cultural aspects and bears the imprint of the 1960s when cultural studies came to the fore. Robert James Miller's Monasteries and Culture Change in Inner Mongolia also belongs to this genre following a descriptive and narrative theme. Namkhai Norbu's book The Necklace of Gzi: A Cultural History of Tibet, though not bulky gives an interesting reinterpretation of Tibetan myths and culture stressing the 'Bonpo' roots of Tibetan culture Paljor Tsarong's doctoral thesis on the labrang examines the economics of a monastic estate in Ladakh using the Marxist analysis of modes of production. Ugen Gombo's articles on traditional Tibetan economy introduces us to the various facets of production and consumption in old Tibet. Leonard R. Chapela's article and Thomas Wiley's articles on economics take the same subject to much deeper lengths. Melvyn Goldstein's article 'On Reexamining Choice Dependency and Command in the Tibetan Social System' discusses about the role of miser and serf in the Tibetan production system.

On polity, Franz Michael gives a description of the Tibetan political system from a Weberian Point of view. Ram Rahul's works, Dalai Lama The Institution, and Government and Politics of Tibet go into full detail about the working of the government of the Dalai Lama. Geoffrey Samuel's Civilized Shamans examines Tibetan Buddhism and polity using the categories of clerical and Shamanic practices as bipolar opposites. Tsepon W.D. Shakahpa's book Tibet: A Political History chronicles the history of Tibet from earliest times making good use of original sources with a lengthy discussion on the Yon-chod relationship. Reginald Ray's article, 'Some aspects of the Tulku tradition in Tibet', takes off from this point to trace the development of the institution of Tulku and rise of the institution of Dalai Lama and the functions of the Tulku. Dawa Norbu's Tibet The Road Ahead has an annexure, 'Transformation of a Warrior Nation' which explains the shifts in political ideology and the role of Buddhism in shaping Tibetan polity.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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