Thesis Title

Of Pawos and Bodhisattvas: The Poltico-Religious Language of Tibetan Self-Immolation

Department or Program

Religious Studies


Since 1998, 169 Tibetans have set themselves aflame in protest against the PRC. As an act of sacrifice for an imagined future, self-immolation stands as a platform for debate, discussion, and understanding of the evolving relationships between a Tibetan sovereign, its close linkage with Buddhism, and its diasporic inhabitants. This thesis employs peace researcher Ahild Kolas‘s approach of political language to uncover self-immolation’s reflections on the dialectical relationship between an evolving state and a shifting religion. In the first chapter, I discuss the state ends of both the Tibetan exile government and the PRC. I suggest that self-immolation serves as a platform for a competition for political legitimacy. In the second chapter, I discuss the limitations of Buddhism as an analytical adjudicator for self-immolation. In doing so, I survey variant frameworks of justification, and uncover the lay employment of Buddhism and the monastic employment of politics to justify self-immolation. I detail self-immolation’s catalysis of political mourning on the plateau and argue that self-immolation does not preside along a secular/soteriological distinction, but rather operates within the more ambiguous realm of sociocultural Buddhism. In the final chapter, I discuss the political circumstances that drive the Dalai Lama’s neutrality, a subject of considerable contention in China and in the west. I then move to discuss self-immolation’s role in a democratized Dharamsala, uncovering autocremation’s function as an arbiter of an imagined Tibetan future, an arbitration that Tibetans in exile utilize along partisan lines. I conclude with a discussion of individual agency and collective intention and suggest that not only is the task ahead for Dharamsala to save the living and honor the dead but to retain the political language of past and present to ensure a Tibetan future.

Level of Access

Restricted: Archival Copy [No Access]

First Advisor

Melnick, Alison

Date of Graduation


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Number of Pages


Components of Thesis

1 PDF file

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