Templeman, David. Becoming Indian: a study of the life of the 16-17th century Tibetan Lama, Tāranātha. Thesis (Ph.D.). Monash University, 2009 (revised manuscript 2014).
A Review of Becoming Indian: a study of the life of the 16-17th century Tibetan Lama, Tāranātha
In this six-chapter book, David Templeman provides a critical account of the life and work of Tāranātha, a Tibetan Buddhist lama of the Jonang school who lived between 1575 and 1634 in the Ü-Tsang region of Tibet. Chapter one establishes what Templeman terms the ‘Tāranātha industry,’ or the vast and largely uncritical reliance on Tāranātha’s historical writings on the part of early 20th century European historians of modern Tibet (11). The chapter also examines Tāranātha’s own approach to the study of Indian Buddhist history. Chapter two examines the conflict-ridden political landscape in which Tāranātha lived, and how such uncertainty informed Tāranātha’s long-standing relationship with his key patrons, the Tsang rulers. Chapter three examines how Tāranātha harnessed his connections with his Indian master, Buddhaguptanātha and Buddhaguptanātha’s guru, Sāntigupta, to strengthen the legitimacy of his own ties to India and its revered Buddhist teachings. Templeman argues that in doing so, Tāranātha was able to consolidate his own (contested) religious authority. Chapter four traces the life of Buddhaguptanātha, with a view to further analyzing how Tāranātha constructed his biography of Buddhaguptanātha. Chapter five examines Tāranātha’s fascination with India and how he was able to wield his Indian connections to give himself unique status within the Tsang region. Chapter six looks at how Tāranātha came to view himself within the lineage of his past and future incarnations. Templeman concludes by arguing that the study of Tāranātha’s own writings reveals him to be a complex and imperfect individual far more interesting than Tāranātha, ‘the icon’ (241).
Drawing primarily from Tāranātha’s own writings, in addition to a biography of his early childhood compiled by a disciple, Templeman seeks to provide a nuanced account of Tāranātha’s life beyond dominant understandings of Tāranātha as an icon primarily famed for his own writings traversing a wide range of topics in Buddhist history, and of significance to both Tibetans and those who study Tibetan history. Templeman instead seeks to depict Tāranātha as a complicated and strategic individual whose life course was shaped and even constrained by the turbulent political times in which he lived. Templeman resists giving a strictly chronological account of Tāranātha’s life, and as Templeman himself acknowledges, his study includes richer contextual analysis than is standard for Tibetan biographies. Templeman’s detailed account and his refusal to conform to a linear narrative of Tāranātha’s life – and indeed Templeman is critical of Tāranātha’s own studies of Buddhist history for manipulating events so that they form neat sequences – allows for a nuanced picture to emerge of Tāranātha as a lama, a writer of history (but not necessarily a historian), an Indophile, and as someone never able to fully pursue or realize his internal hopes.
Chapter one traces what Templeman aptly refers to as the rise of the ‘Tāranātha industry’ (11) and shows how Tāranātha’s own cleanly cut depictions of Buddhist history, allowed many historians working in the 19th and first half of the 20th century to become reliant of Tāranātha’s writings, such as Origins of the Dharma in India and Harmonious Melody. Templeman asserts that previous gaps in the knowledge of Buddhist history and Indian Buddhist history in particular, meant that many European historians subsequently harnessed Tāranātha’s writings as historical source material, and in doing so, accepted his accounts largely uncritically. As a result, Tāranātha himself came to be considered a historian. Templeman pushes against understandings of Tāranātha as a historian, and argues that Tāranātha was not solely interested in recording Buddhist history, but also sought to write himself into it. Templeman argues that Tāranātha did this through embellishing the importance of his Indian mentors in his accounts of them and by asserting his identity as the reincarnation of various figures present at certain key events within Indian Buddhist history. Thus, while Tāranātha did indeed record historical events, when his work is looked at as a whole, it becomes apparent that writing such histories served a wider purpose. It is here that Templeman first alludes to the challenges Tāranātha faced in claiming his prestigious incarnation lineage.
Chapter two situates Tāranātha within a distinct historical political context and outlines the complex dynamics between Tāranātha and his patrons. In considering the historical political context, Templeman acknowledges that he has gone beyond the scope of a ‘typical’ Tibetan Buddhist biography, however in doing so Templeman is able to provide a more nuanced understanding of Tāranātha. Born in 1575 in in the Ü-Tsang region of Tibet where political order had broken down and fighting between groups vying for political control remained rife, Templeman argues that Tāranātha was both a manipulator and, at least in part, a victim of his relationship with his patrons, the Tsang rulers. As a result of this context, Tāranātha was at times in a compromised position which required him to tread carefully. Templeman depicts Tāranātha as being frequently required by his powerful patrons to carry out rituals pertaining to Tsang success in the violent civil war. Templeman asserts that while Tāranātha was careful not to depict the Tsang rulers negatively in any way, it becomes clear that a tension existed between what Tāranātha’s patrons demanded of him, his own private desire for meditative solitude and to preside over his treasured Takten Puntsokling monastery. Templeman notes that while Tāranātha strategically refrained from overtly criticizing his ruling patrons in his writings, his writings do suggest that he fundamentally disagreed with the Tsang rulers’ expansionist objectives. As a result, Tāranātha is shown as often having to act in a way that is counter to his own beliefs and opinions. While Templeman takes pains to stress the political context which shaped Tāranātha’s perceived choices, Tāranātha’s sense of compromised choices are confined largely to chapter two and as a result, the reader is left with the impression that such a seemingly important aspect of Tāranātha’s character and life course is not fully expanded upon.
Due to their central importance to Tāranātha’s own work and life, Templeman devotes chapters three and four to outlining the travels and teachings of Tāranātha’s Indian master, Buddhaguptanātha and Buddhaguptanātha own guru, Sāntigupta, the latter of whom Tāranātha never met. Templeman illustrates that in Tāranātha’s embellished accounts of Buddhaguptanātha and Sāntigupta as masters of the last truly ‘authentic’ Buddhist doctrines and teachings from India, Tāranātha was able to consolidate his own legitimacy as an authority on Indian Buddhism in Tibet (32). Tāranātha’s unique position enabled him to obtain a great degree of respect and uniqueness among his contemporaries. Templeman provides a charitable assessment of Tāranātha’s emphasis on his possibly exaggerated lineage, noting that it was not uncommon for those in positions of religious authority to stress somewhat doubtful links for their own advantage. Moreover, Templeman highlights that Tāranātha met his teacher, Buddhaguptanātha, in 1590 at the impressionable age of just fifteen. Analyzing Buddhaguptanātha’s biography written by Tāranātha in 1602, Templeman argues that it is likely that Tāranātha unquestionably accepted much of what Buddhaguptanātha taught him because of his naivete when he first encountered Buddhaguptanātha. Templeman also notes that it is doubtful that Buddhaguptanātha’s teachings can really be considered purely Buddhist (although Templeman does not provide a definition of ‘pure’ Buddhism) and points out that Tāranātha appears to have taken sizable lengths to prove that Buddhaguptanātha was truly Buddhist. Templeman argues that Tāranātha likely devoted so much space to defending his master’s truly Buddhist credentials because his was vital in preserving Tāranātha’s own religious authority and point of difference as a ‘virtual Indian’ despite never having gone to India (195).
Chapter five examines the origins of Tāranātha’s fascination with India through the lens of Edward Said’s conceptualization of Orientalism. Tāranātha’s intellectual obsession with India is shown as having been apparent since Tāranātha was a young child. Tāranātha recalls seeing a group of ‘Indian ācāyras’ an infant in 1576. The group is depicted as gesturing at Tāranātha, an indication of the importance of Tāranātha’s numerous past and future connections to India. A similar encounter is shown as occurring a short while later, where Tāranātha as a two-year-old sees another group of traveling Indian ācāyras. This encounter is shown as sparking a ‘boundless sense of joy’ within Tāranātha and triggering his vision of Bodhgāya, which Templeman notes is the most significant site in Buddhist India and thereby creates clear ties between Tāranātha and the very development of Indian Buddhism (169). Similar occurrences appear throughout the chapter in instances where Tāranātha is shown receiving visiting Indian yogis, further testament to Tāranātha’s status as possessing a special connection with India and its Buddhist teachings.
It is in chapter five that Templeman fully expands on Tāranātha being identified as the rebirth of a renowned scholar and Indophile, Künga Drölchok, by one of the scholar’s own disciples. Templeman argues that the rebirth is significant as it confirms Tāranātha’s Indian lineage, with Tāranātha’s incarnations beginning in India as an 11th century siddha named Krsnācārya. This chapter also revisits Tāranātha’s meeting with his master Buddhaguptanātha as a fifteen-year-old in 1590, which Templeman describes at the most important event in Tāranātha’s life. It is here that Templeman also picks up on apparent contradictions in Tāranātha’s own writings around the completeness of the teachings Tāranātha claims Buddhaguptanātha imparted to him. While Tāranātha’s earlier autobiography clearly details that Tāranātha did not receive teachings from Buddhaguptanātha in their entirety, Tāranātha maintains he received full teachings in his writings written several decades later. Templeman argues that this revision is indicative of Tāranātha wishing to preserve the reputation he had spent so long building for posterity. Similarly, Templeman further challenges Tāranātha’s claim that Buddhaguptanātha taught him the newest Indian tantric material, given that Buddhism had long been in decline in India and any new material was thus unlikely to be produced there. Buddhaguptanātha and subsequent visiting yogis are thus likely to have taught a combination of religious material. While Templeman suggests that as Tāranātha matured he is likely to have come to realize the fusion nature of these new doctrines, Tāranātha’s continued to develop his knowledge of India. Templeton notes that the sheer volume of Tāranātha’s writings on India suggest an almost neurotic desire to gain a mastery over ‘Indian knowledge’ (218).
The final chapter of Templeman’s biography of Tāranātha outlines how Tāranātha came to view himself. In particular, the chapter delves into how Tāranātha sought to deal with his critics and those who challenged his status as Künga Drölchok’s reincarnate, and in turn the reincarnate of Indian sidda Krsnācārya, by presenting an alternative candidate. Templeman shows that Tāranātha sought to defend himself from such critics in his autobiographical writings by highlighting his accomplishments and moral superiority vis-à-vis his detractors.
It is in this same chapter that Templeman argues that Tāranātha came to see himself as ‘almost’ Indian. While it is unclear the extent to which Tāranātha took on Indian attire or mannerisms, or indeed if he did at all, Templeman asserts that Tāranātha made persistent and conscious efforts to link himself with all Indian knowledge and texts that he encountered. His lineage connected Tāranātha to pivotal moments in the origins and development of Buddhism and his status as the inheritor of Sāntigupta’s teachings through his Indian master Buddhaguptanātha gave him special status within the Tibetan Buddhist world, of which Tāranātha was well aware and strategically cultivated at times to his own advantage. In doing so, not only did Tāranātha gain knowledge that inspired vast volumes of writing, he also acquired unique status as being Indian in spirit’ (190).
While there are aspects of Tāranātha’s lived experience that Templeman could afford to expand upon further, and Templeman’s deviation from a chronological narrative structure at times makes it difficult to grasp a clear timeline of Tāranātha’s life, Templeman ultimately succeeds in providing a critical and rich account of Tāranātha as a complex and imperfect human being. Templeman’s careful consideration of the context in which Tāranātha lived enables a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Tāranātha’s own works, the motivation behind his auto- and biographical writing, and in turn of Tāranātha himself. While Templeman clearly illustrates Tāranātha’s special status and how he has been perceived throughout Tibetan history, Templeman also manages to impart to his reader an understanding of Tāranātha as a person with a complex inner life who was likely somewhat compromised by the politically tumultuous times in which he lived and his reliance on his wealthy Tsang patrons. While the reader does not question Tāranātha’s genuine fascination with India and Indian Buddhism or his belief in what he views as his rightful place within the world of Indian Buddhism, the reader also comes to understand how Tāranātha was able to wield his Indian expertise and ties to his strategic advantage, and in doing so helped create the image of Tāranātha, the icon. Templeman’s own motivation in providing a critical account of Tāranātha’s life is revealed in his concluding call for other writers to approach biographies of larger-than-life figures in a similarly humanizing way.