MADRAS, India — Buddha taught peace to mankind, but his followers in India appear to have embarked on a path of violence. In the northern Indian town of Dharamshala, the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile, posters now threaten to kill the Dalai Lama.

The religious and political head of the Tibetans, Dalai Lama fled his home in 1959 following annexation and atrocities by China, taking refuge in Dharamshala. Over the years, his stance toward Beijing has softened to the extent that he is now willing to settle for greater autonomy rather than full-fledged independence. But not all of his people agree.

A Tibetan cult, Shugden, is suspected of spearheading what could become a violent movement against the Dalai Lama. The posters may well be the handiwork of this sect. The writings on the walls of Dharamshala say the Dalai Lama and his followers will be assassinated if they do not leave India.

Relations with the New Kadampa Tradition branch of the Shugdens, established by Kelsang Gyatso in 1991 (with headquarters in Britain), have been strained for some time now. And not without reason. The faction worships a 350-year-old Tibetan deity, Dorje Shugden (fearsome in appearance with four fangs and a necklace of severed human heads), and although its followers claim to guard Tibetan Buddhism, they have often been described as the Taliban of Buddhism.

If Dorje Shugden appears as a sword-wielding warrior riding a snow lion through a sea of boiling blood, his believers seem equally ferocious. Their death threats against the Dalai Lama illustrate this.

Essentially unhappy with Dalai Lama’s new approach to the Tibetan question, the Dorje Shugdens also allege that he has been discriminating against them by denying them job opportunities in India and a share of Western aid.

The Dalai Lama has not gone beyond urging his people to ignore this cult, which is believed to be acting at the behest of Chinese intelligence. Beijing has used this opportunity to create disharmony in Dharamshala and alienate the Dalai Lama from his people.

China, though, may not have to make any great effort to push Tibetans out of the Dalai Lama’s fold: Even outside the Shugden group, there has, of late, been an open, often hostile, expression of dissent against the spiritual leader.

The discord has grown recently in the face of what some see as an exercise of autocratic authority on the part of the Dalai Lama. They say it is as bad as the kind seen in Tibet, where the perpetrator is Beijing. They cite the example of the teenage Karmapa, who escaped in a dramatic manner from Lhasa about two years ago. Described by many as a virtual prisoner at Dharamshala, the 17th Karmapa, the religious head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, has been pleading with the Dalai Lama that he be allowed to visit Rumtek, his seat in exile in the northeastern Indian State of Sikkim. (Rumtek is the headquarters of the Karmapa in India, and the monastery there contains Kagyu’s holy relics.)

Since a letter to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee from the Karmapa with a similar request elicited no positive answer, the political game plan now looks clearer than it did a few years ago. New Delhi, preoccupied with Pakistan over Kashmir, is hardly inclined to rub Beijing the wrong way. Besides, India hopes that its longstanding border and recent trade dispute with its mighty Asian neighbor will be resolved soon. China’s occupation of parts of Indian territory following the 1962 border war as well as China’s flooding of Indian markets with cheap goods are irritants to New Delhi-Beijing ties.

New Delhi may well support any stand that Beijing takes on Tibet. China’s leaders have more or less convinced the Dalai Lama to give up his demand for Tibet’s independence, and the aging Lama really has no choice but to do so in the face of China’s astounding military power and phenomenal market potential. With very few supporters for his “Free Tibet” call, the man is coming to grips with settling for what is clearly the second best choice.

Of course, those Tibetans who foresee either a homeless existence or submission to ruthless Chinese authority are not entirely happy with the Dalai Lama’s changing attitude toward an essential aggressor. The Shugdens’ anger is understandable; their means of ridding themselves of the influence of the Dalai Lama and his friends is not.

The sect appears to have chosen a path that is blatantly against the tenets of what the Buddha taught. Will the Tibetans in general be willing to go along with the Shugdens?

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