Interview

National Spirit Advisor

Speaking to the centuries-old, wrathful oracle who advises the Dalai Lama on policy.

Over the last two years, a sense of hopelessness has led more than a hundred Tibetans to set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. This has put Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the government-in-exile in an awkward position: while they don't encourage the self-immolations, they lack alternative methods to affect Chinese policy. At the same time, the process by which the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan leaders consult and take policy positions is shrouded in mystery. The Dalai Lama and other exile leaders, for example, often get advice from oracles: powerful spirits channeled by a human medium, or kuten.

The chief state oracle is Nechung, Tibet's wrathful protector spirit. According to the Dalai Lama's 1990 autobiography, Freedom in Exile, the Nechung medium has participated in some of the key turning points in Tibetan history. During the 1959 Tibetan uprising, for instance, when it seemed that Chinese forces were on the verge of detaining the then 23-year-old Dalai Lama, the oracle told him, "Go! Go! Tonight!" The medium also wrote down the precise route the Dalai Lama should take to evade Chinese forces on his way to the Indian border.

The current, or 17th, medium for the Nechung spirit is the 55-year-old Thupten Ngodup. Born in Tibet in 1958, Ngodup experienced the early period of Communist Chinese rule and escaped with his family in 1966, the year Chairman Mao Zedong's disastrous Cultural Revolution began. He joined the exiled wing of the Nechung monastery in Dharamsala, India, in 1971.

"Dealing with Nechung is by no means easy," the Dalai Lama wrote in his autobiography. "It takes time and patience during each encounter before he will open up. He is very reserved and austere, just as you would imagine a grand old man of ancient times to be."

Nechung's current medium, a crimson-robed monk with a shaved head and an easy smile, is engaging and relaxed. But he's also politically attuned to the crisis in Tibet: when we met in February, he was preparing space for a billboard outside his residence to commemorate the Tibetans who have self-immolated. We sat together at Ngodup's home, located on the circumambulation route around the Dalai Lama's residence and temple, where servants brought us tea and sweets. The interview, conducted through a translator, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Foreign Policy: Can you tell me about the first time you were possessed by the Nechung spirit?

Thupten Ngodup: You get this feeling that the oracle is inside you. A sudden feeling. In 1984, the previous medium passed away. For three years, during which I worked as chief of rituals for the monastery, offering incense and tea, we didn't have a Nechung medium. On March 31, 1987, I was spreading incense, and I felt an electric shock through my body: I was in a total trance, and couldn't remember anything.

FP: Did you need specific qualifications?   

TN: My predecessors all came from different backgrounds: some were very high officials, some were lamas, and some were lay people. At that point [when I went into a trance], Nechung had made a choice. Two days later, His Holiness [The Dalai Lama] had a special audience for me and asked me what happened. Whatever dreams or signs I had, I told His Holiness. And His Holiness asked me, 'If you become the medium, are you okay with that? Would there be any difficulty for you?' Sometimes when you become the medium, it's difficult for your physical body. You get sickness. I told His Holiness, 'If my becoming the medium helps Tibetans and all sentient beings, then of course I am ready.' 

FP: Did they have to conduct certain tests to ensure that the spirit that entered you was not a malevolent imposter?

TN: His Holiness tested me while I was in trance. It was through rigorous testing that I became the Nechung medium.

FP: The Nechung spirit is described as wrathful. Buddhism is associated with non-violence and compassion, yet here we have this deity who is full of wrath.

TN: All of the oracles are in wrathful form.

FP: Why?

TN: A useful comparison is the family: If the children don't listen to the compassionate mother, the father sometimes has to be fierce so the children will listen. The motive, which is compassionate, is for the children to listen to good advice from their parents. Likewise, we have well-behaved human beings, and not-well-behaved human beings. The oracles are in wrathful form so people will actually listen to them. [Laughs.]

FP: I believe the Oracle was consulted very recently. What were you asked and what were the prophecies?

TN: [Laughs.] His Holiness, members of the government, and high lamas were there. But I don't know what I said, because I was in trance.  

FP: How many times are you consulted in a year?

TN: There's no fixed number. Whenever His Holiness needs, he asks me to go into a trance. And the Tibetan government consults with me two times, once in summer and once in winter.

FP: How many times did His Holiness request you last year?

TN: Around seven or eight times.

FP: And you never know what you're asked and what answers you give?

TN: Many people ask that question. I tell them it's like last night, you had a dream or many different dreams, and in the morning you can't remember them clearly. It's that kind of feeling. The first time I saw myself on video, I thought: That's not me.

FP: So you wouldn't know, for instance, if you had been consulted about the wave of self-immolations inside Tibet?

TN: I don't know. But let me make this clear: They don't simply rely on the prophecies of the Nechung Oracle. We follow a democratic process in exile. Everything is discussed in the parliament and the cabinet, and if they are not clear, or want to hear the opinions or prophecies of the Oracle, they will consult. Ultimately, the decision depends on them, not the Oracle.

FP: Have you been asked recently about the Middle Way, the policy favoring "meaningful autonomy" for Tibet, versus a policy seeking independence [which young activists increasingly favor]?

TN: Even last year, they asked this question. When I'm in a trance, I don't know what I'm asked, but later I have seen it written in government files that the Oracle made a clear statement that there is no better policy than the Middle Way -- at the moment.  

FP: What are your thoughts on the self-immolations, which number over 100 now?

TN: They are self-immolating because they want to draw international attention to what is really happening inside Tibet: that there are no human rights, no freedom of religion... I feel that this form of sacrifice that Tibetans are doing is a form of nonviolence. You have the right over your own body, and they are sacrificing their bodies for the sake of others. If you look at where they are self-immolating, they are not doing it in a [crowded public space] where they could hurt others. They are doing it in a place where they hurt themselves and nobody else. 

Jeffrey Bartholet

Democracy Lab

'Widows Are the Invisible People'

It's high time to end the daily injustices committed against the world's 115 million widows living in poverty.

Outraged over India's widow burnings? Thought so. But widow burnings are rare compared with the cruelty widows young and old put up with every day. They're exploited, discriminated against, sexually abused, and denied their legal rights. Perplexingly, there's little or no international outrage over their fate. That has to change, says U.N. Women's acting head, Lakshmi Puri, who has made widows' rights one of her priorities. If widows don't have the same rights as everyone else, society can't move forward, she tells Foreign Policy.

Why, when there are so many other pressing issues on the agenda, should countries focus more on widows?

Yes, there are many priorities, but countries can't progress when one part of their society is literally left out in the cold. There are more widows than ever before due to armed conflicts, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the age difference between partners, with many girls being married off to much older men. In too many countries, women are vulnerable after their husbands' death: They face discrimination, are disinherited from property, and have very little access to resources and opportunities, including land, decent work, and an income.

In many cases, widows are also victims of exclusion, exploitation, violence, and stigmatization because they're not only widows but also live in poverty or in remote or rural areas. Widows are bearing the brunt of conflicts, natural disasters, displacement, harmful traditional practices, and HIV/AIDS. An estimated 115 million widows currently live in poverty, and 81 million have suffered physical abuse, some from members of their own family. Many of them are young widows who were child brides.

What's the worst place in the world to be a widow today?

It's clear that widows are most affected in places where there's an intersection of poverty, remoteness, and culture and tradition being misinterpreted. That results in multiple discriminations against women. All over the world, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, widows are the invisible people. For many women, the loss of a husband is only the starting point, the first of many traumas.

I grew up in India, a country that has seen much progress. Yet, in India alone there are an estimated 44 million widows. And I've seen firsthand the devastating effects of discrimination against widows, of life-threatening and traumatic mourning and burial rites. I've seen how widows are forced into poverty, evicted from their homes, denied their rights, and often rendered invisible and voiceless.

Across the world, the poverty they suffer is often made worse by little or no access to credit or other economic resources, and by illiteracy or lack of education. And in many countries, but particularly across Africa and Asia, widows find themselves the victims of physical and mental violence -- including sexual abuse -- related to inheritance, land and property disputes. In sub-Saharan Africa there's the additional problem of HIV/AIDS: Widows are blamed for their husbands' death from AIDS, and widows living with HIV are extremely vulnerable.

Whose job is it to ensure that widows get a more humane situation? 

As a society, we can't move forward if widows don't have the same rights as everyone else. We -- national authorities, the United Nations, civil society, NGOs, and the public -- must ensure that widows of all ages and their children are treated as equal human beings. We know that widows are more than victims: They're mothers, farmers, caregivers, heads of households, and part of the labor force. They're contributors to family, society, and economy.

We at U.N. Women promote programs and policies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to end violence against widows and their children, alleviate their poverty, and educate widows of all ages. Empowering them through access to adequate health care, education, decent work, full participation in decision-making, and lives free of violence and abuse would give them a chance to build a secure life after bereavement. In India, where young girls become widows -- largely due to the huge age gap between husband and wife -- we're working with partners to advance the rights of widows by providing skills training and livelihood support so that widows can take care of a business and their lives. And in Guatemala, we're working to advance the rights of widows, mostly from the indigenous community, who lost their husbands in internal armed conflict. We support organized widows to address conflict-related sexual violence and strengthen political dialogue to rebuild peace and the rule of law and to receive reparations.

Many countries are moving toward democracy. Do better laws mean more rights for widows? 

Yes, because true democracy and women's rights are interlinked. Women's empowerment and the protection of women's rights are our greatest weapon to prevent discrimination and violence against women and girls. When women and girls who're widowed have the full protection of the law, they can claim their rights to land and property. When they have equal status in their families and their husbands' families and society, they're treated as equal human beings, not as an object of derision, shame, suspicion, or pity.

More generally, gender equality and women's empowerment are usually seen as soft issues, but you see a strong link with foreign policy. Where's the connection?

Gender equality is already a key aspect of the foreign policy of many Western democracies and also increasingly among countries that want to play on the world stage and want to contribute to peace and security, economic growth, social development, and environmental sustainability. In each of these areas, women's empowerment has a critical role to play. If a country wants to make an impact through its foreign policy, it's in its own interest to promote women's empowerment. Many countries have already adopted this strategy and are seeing women's empowerment as instrumental to success in these international areas and domestically as well.

You mentioned widows' situation in your home country of India. Widows apart, India has been seen as the poster child of liberal democracy in the developing world. Now we're suddenly seeing a string of atrocious rapes. Do these rapes point to a more disturbing reality?

Yes, these cases have shaken India, and they have focused global attention on violence against women and girls in India. Violence against women in India takes different forms: acid attacks, rapes, domestic violence, workplace harassment. At the heart of it lie sexism and negative attitudes towards women. The public outrage over these rapes prompted the government to set up a special commission that quickly set up new recommendations on ending violence against women. This, in turn, led to a public debate about the issue, including how to train the police to be gender-sensitive, but equally about prevention, for example addressing gender stereotypes and cultural norms in Indian society. Respect for women is deeply rooted in Indian culture and traditions. For example, three female gods are central in Hinduism. At the same time, sexist behavior and discrimination against women has become rooted over time. So, the rapes have rekindled the gender-equality debate in India like never before.

So, as horrendous as the rapes were, it was good for India to have that wake-up call?

Absolutely. India has had a female prime minister and female chief ministers of some of the largest states, and thanks to quotas 40 percent of our 1.5 million village and district councilors are women. But there's been a conspiracy of silence around crimes against women. A big part of the problem is poverty; poorer women and women in rural areas are more vulnerable. Women are even trafficked.

From negative to positive, from widows to women in general: Which developing country is the best country in which to be a woman today?

We're not in the business of grading countries, but the important thing to know is that awareness in developing countries about gender equality has never been higher. It's no longer a soft issue of human rights but an issue that matters for economic growth. That's a great leap. Countries are realizing that when you invest in women, you invest in communities and entire nations. Women are the highest-return investment you can have. That's why they shouldn't just get microcredit but proper bank loans. But every change begins with awakening and accountability, and many countries are now very advanced in this area, for example Brazil, India, South Africa.

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images