Controversy courts the Karmapa - The Statesman

Vepa Rao| 28 August, 2015

Three white cranes offered a bowl of yoghurt to his mother in a dream. Birds sang. A rainbow appeared on the family tent and sounds from conch shells rippled across the valley along with those from various musical instruments. These “auspicious omens” in Lhatok of East Tibet on 26 June 1985 marked the birth of an extraordinary boy initially called “Apo Gaga” (happy brother). At the age of seven, he was recognized as Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa and the head of the powerful Karma Kagyu School, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

He eventually escaped to India through Nepal at the age of 14 in dramatic and mysterious circumstances and now at the age of 30 lives in Gyuto monastery near Dharamshala, worshipped by scores of followers all over the world.

Ever since the 16th Karmapa died in 1981, a controversy arose about who the 17th Karmapa should be. The claimants are Ogyen Dorje, Trenley Thaye Dorje (who lives near Kalingpong in West Bengal) and Dava Sangpo Dorjee (in Nepal). Earlier, one member of the search team looking for the 17th Karmapa had identified Ogyen and another member Dava Dorje as the real successor. This caused a split and controversy in the Kagyu Sect.

The Dalai Lama who belongs to the “Gelug” (“Yellow Hats”) had been the temporal as well as spiritual head of the Tibetan exiles till four years ago when he devolved his political powers to the elected members. When the institution of the Dalai Lama seizes to continue (as often hinted by the present Dalai Lama), the Karmapa may become the next religious head of the Tibetans - since the 11th Panchen Lama is allegedly in the detention of China and replaced by Gyaincain Norbu who is not accepted by most Tibetans.

Ogyen Trenley Dorje living near Dharamshala is constantly under the watchful eye of Indian intelligence agencies. His movements are also restricted. However, in 2011, the Himachal police raided the office of Karma Garchen Trust backed by him and seized unaccounted money estimated over Rs. 6 crore in currencies of 25 countries including Chinese Yuan. This was preceded by an earlier seizure of Rs. 1 crore from a Jeep by Una police; the money was allegedly meant for purchase of land by the Karmapa’s trust.

The Karmapa’s office explained that the foreign currency was “offerings from his Holiness’s devotees” and the accounts of the trust were operated by its employees where as he was only a chairman and had no knowledge of these details. The Judicial Magistrate (First Class) of Una accepted this prayer and allowed the assistant public prosecutor to withdraw Karmapa’s name from the prosecution list. This gave him a temporary relief at that time.

However, last month responding to a petition filed by a Sikkim-based organization, the Himachal Pradesh High Court quashed and set aside the lower court’s orders (passed in 2012) to drop criminal prosecution against the Karmapa and ordered the state government to proceed against him in accordance with the law. “The entire episode reeks of money laundering”, the High Court observed.

The land was reportedly being bought without seeking permission under section 118 of H P Tenancy and Land Reforms Act - mandatory for non-agriculturists in the state. “The prime position of the Karmapa occupying the chairmanship of the Trust cannot absolve him from the attribution of an inculpatory role merely on the ground that he was neither a signatory to the relevant documents nor the receiver of the tainted money….The fact that he had a discreet role gains legal foothold not by direct evidence but by indirect evidence”.

However, on appeal, the Supreme Court has a few days ago passed an order staying the High Court order – giving major relief to the Karmapa at least for the time being.

The controversy on who the real Karmapa is seems to be unending. Even the Union Ministry of Home Affairs had reportedly written to the Himachal Chief Secretary asking the state government not to address Ogyen Trenley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa stating that the Indian government had not recognised him as such. It also fuelled the controversy about his succeeding the Dalai Lama as “they are two separate institutions and the Karmapa is not a successor to the Dalai Lama”.

The recent High Court order was seen at that time as a great setback to the Karmapa and one that would hurt his image. However, support for him has been pouring in from various quarters. Ardent followers of the 30-year old “spiritual guru” feel he would “come out clean” and the Indian government should take “the initiative to resolve the issue to avoid alienating the Buddhists residing in the strategic border areas”.

The followers have also blamed a rival group linked to another claimant to the title for trying to involve Ogyen in the issue. There is overwhelming support from the Buddhist communities of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladhak region of Jammu and Kashmir etc. They all have reverential tones and expect the government to help the spiritual guru. Many interesting and debatable developments seem to be in the offing.

The writer is The Statesman's correspondent in Shimla.



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