The practices and beliefs of Buddhism are quite important to Ladakhis but they do not form the basis of their peacefulness, according to the research of one anthropologist. Fernanda Pirie argues in a recent journal article that the Buddhist villagers she studied in Ladakh fundamentally do not have a cosmological view of their moral universe.
She describes the publications of other scholars who have argued that Buddhist ideals in various Tibetan societies shape their social values. Those values, the scholars argue, date back many centuries to the social structure of central Tibet, when a doctrine of harmony between religion and politics legitimated a medieval regime. Legal codes in Tibet and the Tibetan region thus appear to be based on Buddhist values.
While those conditions may apply in some societies of the broader Tibetan cultural sphere, in the Ladakhi village she studied the author found that people basically have a non-cosmological understanding of morality. They see conflict as a clear threat to their community rather than a possible disturbance of the cosmos. The Buddhist pantheon and the local spirits are not offended by conflicts—the social order is disturbed.
She points out that the Buddhist deities are part of the local cosmology, but they are distant compared to the local deities, who are more immediately present to the people. The village deity, the yul Iha, is physically present in the village shrine. He protects the village, but he also threatens married women, new mothers, and babies. He is propitiated daily. Household gods also need to be treated with respect, and great care is taken with the ghosts and spirits outside the village that might cause accidents and sickness.
The villagers do not really see a divide between the ritual practices involving their local spirits and those regarding the more remote Buddhist pantheon. If the local Buddhist monks will not provide the ritual protection that ensures the success of such practical needs as developing fortune and providing for the fertility of the community, the villagers will turn to the onpos, the astrologers, for assistance. Insisting that there is a great divide between the Buddhist religion and the local spiritual beliefs of the people does not connect with village reality.
Pirie argues that the practical politics of resolving disputes and running the village in a harmonious fashion is a function of the yulpa, the meeting of the adult men which constitutes the final local authority. The yulpa may take ballots on occasion, but normally it will decide by consensus matters such as taxes, rotations of the water resource, and the institution of new rules. While some men are more respected for what they say at the yulpa than others, no one openly acknowledges that such differences exist.
The village headman, the onpo, and the amchi, the Tibetan medicine practitioner, are given respect in the village but they have no special control over local politics. And, most significantly for the author’s argument, the local monks do not take part in discussions in the yulpa. No one appeals to the local monastery for decisions or for the monks to legitimate the decisions made in the village. Pirie describes local politics as a form of “civil rituals,” and the cosmos is peripheral to the political process.
The Iha is apparently indifferent toward conflict situations. He may be part of village life as far as fertility and fortunes are concerned, and villagers frequently provide offerings to appease his considerable power. But he doesn’t get involved in issues that might affect the harmony of social life.
Instead, when conflicts arise—which they do frequently—and quarrels develop, the village reacts with concern. Family members and other villagers will gossip about problems and intervene to try to solve contentious matters. If those approaches fail, they may call on mediators, the headman, or the yulpa itself to solve the matters. Everyone focuses on reconciliation and the importance of restoring good relations, since they view threats to the unity and peacefulness in the village as dangerous.
When the author asked villagers if a dispute or the processes of resolving it might involve the village spirits, they would respond, “no, this does not concern the Iha” (p.179). Pirie gives an example of a dispute that she witnessed in which the livestock of one family was harming the crops of another. The quarrel escalated, but was ultimately resolved under pressure from the yulpa. The woman that the village felt was guilty had refused to apologize for her actions, but she buckled under when faced with the crippling threat by the yulpa of a social boycott. She went through a ceremony in which she offered the headman a white scarf and beer from a brass jar, important symbols of respect in their society. The author emphasizes that the village god, the Iha, is not involved in such ceremonial reconciliations.
The peaceful social order, she argues, is a human social construction in the eyes of the Ladakhi villagers. The peacefulness of the social order is vital to the villagers, even if it is unconnected to the gods and spirits. The villagers are deeply opposed to conflict, quarreling, arguing, and fighting. They disapprove of laziness, selfishness, bad conduct, expressions of anger, and uncooperative behavior.
After the author lived in the village for some months, she began to detect slight hesitations of disapproval by the villagers toward the actions of others. People would express their moral values about the importance of harmony in the village, but their comments did not refer to basic Buddhist values. The monks, in fact, usually did not express their moral values to the village people. When the higher level monks visited the village, they spoke about karmic matters, issues that might affect the future of people’s souls.
The author concludes that the explanations Buddhism offers for misfortunes and the future of the human soul do not provide good enough reasons for the Ladakhi villagers to relax the authority they already have for controlling their lives and for preserving the harmony they cherish in their community.
Pirie, Fernanda. 2006. “Secular Morality, Village Law, and Buddhism in Tibetan Societies.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12: 173-190.