A Summary of Becoming Indian: A Study of the Life of the 16-17th Century Tibetan Lama, Taranatha by David Templeman
Yuchen Zhao
Taranatha (1575-1634), also known by his Tibetan name Kunga Nyingpo (Tib. Kun dga’ snying po), was a reincarnation of Kunga Drolchog (Tib. Kun dga’ grol chog) of the Jonang school, who spent his life in Tsang (Tib. gTsang), Tibet. David Templeman consults both the “open” autobiography of Taranatha, Liberation Accounts of the Wanderer, Taranatha, and the secret biography titled Secret Liberation Accounts. For Taranatha’s teachers, Templeman consults Taranatha’s writings such as the Biography of Buddhaguptanatha and The Seven Instruction Lineages. Templeman focuses on Taranatha as an Indophile and explains what Taranatha’s vision of his Indian connection say about him and the Tibet that he lived in. More importantly, Templeman locates Taranatha in his historical time and space, and focuses on his relationships with his patrons, Indian teachers and Indian acaryas. Based on the Taranatha’s vision and imagination of himself, Templeman attempts to present to his readers a fuller image of the man Taranatha.

Taranatha is a well-known figure in Tibetan history. He was a Jonang scholar and teacher, and a proponent of non-sectarianism, predating the later rime (Tib. ris-med) movement. In his book, Becoming Indian: A Study of the Life of the 16-17th Century Tibetan Lama, Taranatha, David Templeman takes a refreshing look at Taranatha. Through Taranatha's connection to India, self-proclaimed and otherwise, Templeman presents Taranatha not as an esoteric tantric master, but as a historical man, who was concerned about his relationship with patrons, his authenticity and legitimacy, his image, and his legacy.
The “Industry” of Taranatha
In the first chapter, Templeman points out that Taranatha’s writing on the history of Indian Buddhism was heavily employed for the colonial project in British India. Colonial propagators would often cite Taranatha’s writings, such as Origins of the Dharma in India written in 1608. By “locating” India’s authentic and glorious Buddhist past, the colonialists claim that only India’s British colonial present can restore India’s present. Templeman questions such a narrative, as most colonialists who used Taranatha’s work did not understand historical writing in the Tibetan context or were not proficient in classical Tibetan. More importantly, Templeman argues that in order to fully grasp Taranatha’s accounts, one has to also investigate who Taranatha was and what his concerns and ambitions might have been, which was integral to the underlining meaning of his works.
The Loyal Priest
In the second chapter, Templeman argues that Taranatha was deeply involved in the cho-yon (Tib. mchod yon) relationship. More importantly, Templeman points out that Taranatha was not only a manipulator and benefactor of his relations with powerful patrons such as the Tsang rulers, he was also a “partial victim” (Ch. 2) of such relationships. More specifically, although Taranatha benefited financially from the patronage of the Tsang rulers, he had to reconcile with their military practices that resulted in the deaths of many. In his biographies, Taranatha does not mention his patrons as frequently as he could have.
Taranatha had to cope with violence and death that were contradictory to his training as a Buddhist monk. According to Templeman, the Tsang rulers were expansive and conquered territories as far as Ngari (Tib. mnga’ ris). Taranatha lived through the civil war between the ages of 28 and 43 years old. As a prominent Buddhist figure, Taranatha was troubled by the destruction caused by his Tsang patrons, and since he was constrained by his priest-patron relationship with the Tsang rulers, he did not openly criticize them. It is most noteworthy that Taranatha was building his monastery, Takten Phuntsokling (Tib. rTag brtan phun tshok gling) Monastery, which required resources and protection from the Tsang rulers. In his autobiographies, instead of directly criticizing their actions, Taranatha discusses the “moral duties of good leaders” and offers “soft opposition” (Ch. 2) to Tsang rulers’ military campaigns.
The True Holder of Indian Buddhist Knowledge
Consequently, in the third chapter, Templeman points out that Suptigupta, the teacher of Taranatha’s Indian teacher, Buddhaguptatha, served as the model of patronage for Taranatha. Taranatha believed that the Bhagela Rajas were responsible for revitalizing Buddhism in India and attracted Buddhist monks from South India, Indonesia and Burma to its court. However, as Templeman points out, the influence of Bhagela Rajas and the extent of their support for Buddhism were not historically founded. Taranatha posits himself in a great Indian lineage in which the priest serves the patron, and the patron supports the priest and Buddhism.
Moreover, in the third and fourth chapter, Templeman continues to discuss how Taranatha uses his self-proclaimed Indian connections and knowledge to grant himself legitimacy and hence to secure his position and privilege amid the turbulent times of political uncertainty and armed conflicts. Among Taranatha’s teachers was Buddhaguptanatha, who was a student of Santigupta. Taranatha affords both of these two teachers ample attention. He describes and pays tribute to Buddhaguptanatha in the Biography of Buddhaguptanatha written in 1601 and Santigupta in The Seven Lineage Instructions in 1602. Although Templeman acknowledges that such works might not contain conventional historical data, he stresses that these writings are critical in understanding how Taranantha presented and envisioned himself, especially to the Tsang rulers (Ch. 3). Meanwhile, by describing Santigupta’s travels, Taranatha engages in detailed description of Indian geography. In the same manner, Buddhaguptanatha’s travels and the initiation and teachings that he received in different locations in India also serves as a device for Taranatha to claim legitimacy from archaic Indian wisdom.
Therefore, Templeman points out that Taranatha asserts himself as a disciple of direct Indian knowledge. It is noteworthy that Taranatha, like his contemporary and fellow Indophile, the Third Panchen Lama (1505-1568), never set foot in India. However, as Templeman points out, Taranatha claims that he had various previous lives in which he was born in India, apart from the lineage of Indian masters that he was a part of. Moreover, Santigupta and Buddhaguptanatha both traveled extensively, especially the latter. The description of their travels suggests that Taranatha somehow obtained the geographical knowledge as well. In the end, as Templeman stresses, it is most important that Indian knowledge was transmitted to Taranatha from Santigupta and the other teachers in his lineage through Buddhaguptanatha.
Taranatha’s Indian Connection and His Vision for the Future
In the fifth chapter, Templeman delves deeper into Taranatha’s contacts with individuals from India. Like other Tibetan aristocrats and high-ranking lamas, Taranatha established his authenticity through propagating his lineage. However, unlike other dignitaries of his time, Taranatha did it by emphasizing his Indian heritage. Taranatha had contacts with many Indian personalities throughout his life. As Taranatha records, Indian ascetics started visiting him when he was still an infant (Ch. 5). However, Templeman notices that when Taranatha changed his recollections of whether or not he received teachings from two Indian acaryas at 27 and 58 years old respectively. In addition to suggesting that Taranatha manipulated memory for his own benefit, Templeman argues that it is also possible that the supposed revision reflects Taranatha’s evolving vision of himself. Also, importantly, Taranatha claims to have received new Buddhist knowledge from India. Taranatha’s contemporary, the Third Panchen Lama, who was also fascinated with Buddhism in India, challenged Taranatha’s claim to having an exclusive master and disciple relationship with Buddhagupta. Both the Third Panchen Lama and Taranatha falsely believed that Buddhism was flourishing in India, and they each felt they were becoming the authority in Tibet representing the new Buddhist knowledge from India.
In the sixth and final chapter, Templeman suggests that Taranatha not only describes the past but he also illustrates the possibility of his future. Taranatha wrote his autobiography, the Liberation Account of the Wanderer, Taranatha in 1633 and his secret biography, the Secret Liberation Accounts in 1599. Echoing Janet Gyatso’s Apparition of the Self: the Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary, Templeman mentions that Taranatha writes about himself in a detached manner. In other words, Templeman recognizes that the Buddhist concept of emptiness and a lack of intrinsic “self” affected Taranatha’s presentation of himself in his autobiographies. Moreover, Taranatha engages in frank self-reflection and even self-criticism, supposedly in response to negative opinions about him. In all, as Templeman argues, such self-reflection served to “ensure ongoing patronage from the next generations of Tsang rulers after his death.” (Ch. 6)
Unfortunately, Taranatha’s construction of his future and legacy did not go unopposed. Templeman notes that others who compiled Taranatha’s work, such as Jaya pandita, selected works concentrated on Buddhism in India almost exclusively. As Templeman argues, Jaya pandita did so to re-create Taranatha as a figure that was less of a threat to the hegemonic Gelugpa. Furthermore, the Fifth Dalai Lama (r. 1642-1682)’s Sanskrit tutor, Möndrowa Jamyang Wangyel Dorje (Tib. Smon ‘gro ba ‘jam dbyang dbang rgyal rdo rje) challenged Taranatha’s status as a true reincarnation. Such allegations are not uncommon in Tibetan history. In 1616, Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1616) (Tib. Ngag bdang rnam rgyal) fled from Tsang to Bhutan after his claims to be the reincarnation of Kunkyen Padma Karpo (1527-1592) (Tib. Kun mkhyen pad ma dkar po) was disputed by a Tsang ruler-supported candidate[1]. In response to Möndrowa’s attack, Taranatha posits him in line with others who Taranatha claims to be practitioners of black magic and lack moral compass. As Templeman argues, by doing so, Taranatha proves that he is the true reincartion of Kunga Drolpa, while maintaining a “moral high ground” (Ch. 6).
In the end, the Gelugpa took control of Taranatha’s legacy. Templeman points out that Taranatha’s carefully sketched “illustrious previous lives and exemplary present life” were a prelude to his future life. In fact, Taranatha states that he would be reborn both as a military governor and a scholar. During the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, effectively all Jonang monasteries in Central Tibet were either converted or destroyed. The Fifth Dalai Lama recognized the First Jetsundampa (Tib. Rje btsun dam pa), a Gelukpa lama, among the Khalka Mongols. It is difficult to know for certain how Taranatha would react to being reborn as a Mongol Gelukpa monk, which was what his patrons vehemently opposed. We could nonetheless speculate as to what purpose his vision for his present and future serves. As Templeman concludes in the sixth chapter, “Perhaps the most important [purpose] was that it located him in the rich Indian Buddhist world through a variety of births, some of them of considerable significance in the development of Buddhism itself.” (Ch. 6)
Final Thoughts
As we read Tibetan autobiographies, it is often difficult to discern reality from fantasy. Maybe, in the world of rangnam (Tib. rang rnam), such duality is sometimes irrelevant. As Templeman has demonstrated, Taranatha’s visions of himself served a real purpose and played a significant role of how he envisioned himself during the turbulent time that he lived in. The biography is therefore telling of what a man like Taranatha cared about, such as legitimacy and authenticity, patronage, and his future and legacy.

[1] John Ardussi, “The Rapprochement Between Bhutan and Tibet under the Enlightened Rule of Sde-Srid XIII Shes-Rab-Bdang-Phyug (R.1744-63)”, Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995, Volume 1: Tibetan Studies, Oesterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien 1997, 64-65.