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Religious authority in Tibetan and Himalayan societies

Based on a combination of ethnographic and textual studies, this research group will investigate how different forms of religious authority manifest in Tibetan and Himalayan societies.

A man with a hat and a munk with a hat in a conversation.
Photo: Astrid Hovden, 2010.

About the group

The Tibetan term dbang is often translated as ‘authority’ and ‘power’, but the term has a broad range of meanings occurring in a variety of compounds and expressions which only partly overlap with the equally multivalent Western concepts. Adopting an actor-oriented processual perspective, the project will seek to understand how religious authority is enacted and variously negotiated, strengthened and/or challenged in different localities in the Himalayas and Tibetan areas of China.

Whereas religious leaders and monasteries in Tibetan and Himalayan societies have been the focus of numerous studies, religious authority has hardly been theorised except for Martin Mills’ (2003) innovative analysis of the status and role of the reincarnated lama in mainstream Gelugpa monasticism.

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are highly hierarchical institutions, with the incarnated lama (Tib. sprul sku) towering on top; there is, however, a broad range of non-institutionalised forms of religious authority in Tibetan societies neglected in Mills’ study.

Tibetan societies display a broad range of religious experts including hermits, treasure revealers (Tib. gter ston), crazy yogins (Tib. smyon pa), oracles, shamans, healers, and astrologers – all featuring different combinations of charismatic, traditional, and legal authority as defined in Max Weber’s (1958) classical study. Moreover, local agents, new religious leaders, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as diaspora populations, may, through access to funding and the use of global media, influence religious authority structures in Tibetan and Himalayan societies.

Through comparative analysis and critical study of how different forms of religious authority are constructed, coexist and conflict in Tibetan and Himalayan societies, the project aims to provide empirical and theoretical contributions to the understanding of production and perception of religious authority in the history of religions and related disciplines. Inspired by recent theoretical discussions of authority, the project will analyse how key elements like texts, material culture, religious practice, actor networks, as well as personal characteristics like charisma are effective in the enactment and production of authority.

The anthropological discussion of scale and social organization defines scale along two dissimilar dimensions: the number of individuals interlinked by organization and extension in social space through communication. This analytical approach will be used as a point of departure for exploring the role of local, regional and central authority production.


  • Mapping of established and emerging forms of religious authority in Tibetan and Himalayan societies and analysis of how these forms change over time.
  • Analysis of how local agents within Tibetan and Himalayan societies perceive and relate to different categories of religious authority.
  • Critical discussion of how ‘religious authority’ relates to broader concepts of ‘power’ and ‘leadership’ in Tibetan and Himalayan societies and beyond.

Cooperation and networks

In addition to the core members of the research group, Tibetan and Himalayan researchers will be affiliated with the project. Institutional cooperation has been established with Tibet University and with the Royal University of Bhutan. The project team has also good connections with colleagues at Tribhuvan University in Nepal.

Published Apr. 6, 2017 10:30 AM - Last modified Sep. 13, 2021 9:07 AM