Accepted paper:

The horned skull and the incombustible heart: the cult of relics in contemporary Eastern Tibet


Magdalena Maria Turek (Institute of Oriental and Asian Studies, University of Bonn)

Paper short abstract:

The hermitic movement in contemporary Eastern Tibet utilizes a number of strategies to harness the charisma of its leaders. The paper will look into this economy of charisma, illustrated by the veneration of relics of modern saints.

Paper long abstract:

The transformation of the body into an embodiment of Tantric tradition is one of the most crucial elements triggering the Buddhist revival in Eastern Tibet today. It is important for reaffirming the authority of the religious elite after a 25-year gap in the continuity of Buddhist practice and for activating the support of the laity. Especially the hermitic movement, spreading across Eastern Tibet (Kham) relies on charismatic leadership, legitimized through the leaders' ability to embody tradition. The movement utilizes a number of strategies to skillfully harness the charisma of its leaders. I will especially focus on the veneration of relics of modern saints: icons miraculously appearing in/on their bodies, funerary relics and other signs of saintly death, often displayed in form of public spectacles.  The paper will look into this specific economy of charisma; i.e. ways of its articulation, structuring and popularization, as well as the typology of social and ritual roles engaged in the transactions. The consideration of the entire market of charisma in Kham will also enable us to ask questions on the broader purposes of the movement and its place in the ethno-religious revival. The paper is meant to reopen the discussion on the economies of charisma, the flexibility of the classical Weberian prophetic paradigm, as well as on the role of religion in subaltern societies. In order to trace dis/continuities in the representations of Buddhist relic veneration, I will bring up examples of recent scholarship from other regions of Asia.

panel P71
Anthropologies of Buddhism and Hinduism