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Conflict of common and divine faith: Studying the mi chos versus lha chos practices in Spiti Valley

Pranshu Samdrashi, University of Delhi, Delhi Siddharth Iyanger, IISER, Pune

The cultural resources provided by aboriginal pre-Buddhist beliefs and cults to the Buddhist faith have been mostly ignored by researchers. We are prone to forget that a place where literacy is rare, only a very few could read texts to learn the refined dharma; most have to learn it through experiencing the traditional ritualistic system and the accounts passed on by elders. In Himalayan Buddhism it is common to observe undocumented set of religious beliefs of the pre-Buddhist era which are interlocked with the basic needs and demands of the common people. In Tibetan terminology it is called mi chos, peoples religion while Buddhism is regarded as lha chos, divine religion. Highlighting the pragmatic ritual repertoire of existing religious life of Himalayan Buddhists, this research paper tries to articulate how the preservation of older cults and belief system have helped them in carrying their unique religious identity. These practices have facilitated the community in keeping alive the facet of exotic Buddhism which is not so sophisticated and full of rituals, myths and devotional rites. This paper describes and examines the role of such beliefs in contrast to the literary tantric Buddhism practiced in Himalayan region of India. The place chosen for this case study is Spiti, a remote valley in the western Himalayas of northwestern Himachal Pradesh. About twelve thousand people of mostly Tibetan origin and Buddhist faith live there in approximately a dozen villages. In this region, Buddhism even after its disappearance from main land has been in continuous practice for last thousand years. These theological explorations and their theoretical ramifications of these conflicting believes and practices were observed in Spiti during our stay in the valley in July-August 2012. This paper analyses few ethnographic cases of popular religious cults practiced by the villagers of Spiti valley. The practices discussed include the institution of oracle (Devata), the cult of spirit worship and worshiping of village deity (Gram Devata), not included in Buddhist pantheon. These practices are not supported by the local Buddhist monasteries and the abbots do not recognize them as a part of Buddhism. These practices are also prevalent in Ladakh and upper Kinnaur region which happens to be part of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. When the reporting about these religious practices and cults obtained from the villagers and learned monks are reworded making it intelligible to modern people, the situation appears as a clash between folk religion versus classical religion. However this juxtaposition and opposition in belief systems exist only in the context of an academic interpretation of the facts and is not sensed by the people who are involved in these practices.