The Class System of Tibet

The Class System of Tibet essay
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Ragyapa houses in Lhasa. Charles Bell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Many of us seem to associate a caste or class system only with Indian culture and history. However, as mentioned in my previous essays on the class systems prevailing in India, Korea, and France, this is not true at all. The class system is not just peculiar to India but is a prominent feature of several other cultures across the world as well.

In this essay, we will take a look at one such culture where the class system was a big part of society. I am referring to Tibetan society, a society not many would associate with such social stratifications given the influence and history of Buddhism in the region.

So let us begin!

Tibetan society in general was divided into three primary social groups – monks (high), the nobility (medium), and the common people (low). The common people were further classified into two categories – peasants, and pastoralists who lived a nomadic existence.

The monks, that is the priestly class, were of course part of the highest class, with only the Dalai Lama being higher than them. This is something identical found in almost all cultures where such social stratifications exist, wherein the priests belong to the highest rung on the social ladder.

The nobility, high-ranking government officials, estate owners, and landholding peasants belonged to the middle class. While the landless peasants and nomadic pastoralists belonged to the lower class.

And the lowest of them all, who formed the bottom rung of the Tibetan class system, were the Ragyabpa. The Ragyabpa population were the untouchables of Tibetan society, who were mostly restricted to occupations that were regarded as impure, unclean, and polluting by Tibetan society, such as performing executions, butchering, tanning, skinning, blacksmithing, fishing, goldsmithing, disposing of corpses, prostitution, etc.

These jobs were considered unclean jobs and were looked down upon. And due to these jobs, the Ragyabpa were considered to be polluted.

It is said that even hermaphrodites and bachelors belonged to the lowest class.

Needless to say, it is generally assumed and accepted that the Dalai Lama was in the highest class possible in Tibetan society.

However, it is difficult to simply classify traditional Tibetan society merely into three broad categories. Unfortunately, things were more muddled up and complex than this.

Over the years, scholars have found that the law codes of the Tsangpa Dynasty and the Ganden Podrang system of government divided society into three main categories – high, medium, and low, with each category further divided into three more categories.

This social structure gave rise to nine classes in total, each adhered to and continued with hereditary. The descendants of one class would be born and would die in that very class, without any opportunities for advancement or climbing the social ladder. This social stratification had legal backing and legal consequences, and any citizen found to be disregarding this structure or its dictates could be punished by law.

In this social structure, the middle class formed the largest part of the Tibetan population, mainly comprising householders, taxpayers, landless and landholding peasants, and government officials.

This elaborate yet intricate structure ensured that the rich remained rich and the poor remained poor forever. The descendants of an untouchable would remain untouchables, the descendants of a farmer would remain farmers, the descendants of a landlord will remain landlords, and so on.

As per this nice-class system, even the nobility, monks, and high-ranking officials formed part of the middle class, with only the Dalai Lama belonging to the highest class. However, they formed the highest position of the middle class.

The high-ranking officials were appointed from members of the aristocracy, who were wealthy families in society just under the nobility. The monk officials were also appointed through hereditary or were second sons of the aristocracy, mostly from the Llama middle class.

These monks were not really monks of pure conduct as one would imagine, but were monks in name only. It is said that just a night in a monastery was enough for them to qualify as monk officials.

Then came the middle division of the middle class which included taxpayers, householders, and landless peasants.

The taxpayers were numerically the smallest group in this middle division, but they had a better social, economic, and political status than the other groups in the middle division and enjoyed a comfortable and high standard of living.

The taxpayers owned large estates, ranging from 20 acres to 300 acres in size, leased from the district authority with land titles. The main civil responsibilities of the taxpayers were to pay taxes and provide unpaid, sometimes forced, human and animal labor for limited periods of time to their district authority.

The householders were basically landholding peasants who held small plots of land that were legally individual possessions. However, the difference between the taxpayers and the householders was that the householders did not own land as a family corporation as the taxpayers did. Another distinguishing factor was that the descendants of householders had no guarantee of inheriting a piece of land, which was not the case for the taxpayers.

However, the householders had fewer duties compared to the taxpayers. They were only expected to provide the district authority with unpaid human labor and had to pay lighter taxes.

The lowest position in the middle division was reserved for the landless peasants, who had no heritable titles or rights to any land whatsoever. The landless peasants usually farmed on lands leased out from the taxpayers in return for working for those taxpayer families.

The landless peasants had the right to purchase relative freedom from their estate owners for an annual fee. This relative freedom allowed them to engage in other crafts and trades, something which the taxpayers and householders could not do.

However, this freedom granted to them depended solely on the discretion of the estate owner, and the owner had the right to not only revoke such freedom but even raise the annual fee of the peasant if he prospered or did well in some other trade. The owner could even ask the peasant to undertake some unpaid labor for a limited duration.

Unfortunately, the descendent of a peasant who had bought his freedom did not inherit that free status. Every descendant had to start all over again and buy their own individual freedom for an annual fee to the estate owner.

This rigid system ensured that the descendants of landless peasants had no opportunities to advance too high in society, and remained landless peasants indebted to their estate owner for life.

And then finally came the lowest division of Tibetan society, the one that included the household servants, untouchables, and slaves.

The household servants too suffered from the hereditary curse, which meant that the descendants of a household servant would also be household servants, with no opportunities for advancement. In short, a servant would remain a servant forever.

Then there were the untouchables of Tibetan society, the Ragyabpa, who were further divided into three categories, the lowest of them comprising executioners and the highest comprising goldsmiths. Other occupations performed by them such as butchering, tanning, skinning, blacksmithing, fishing, disposing of corpses, and prostitution all fell somewhere in between.

Due to the nature of their work, which was considered polluting, unclean, and impure, the Ragyabpa and their descendants were excluded from society.

The lowest division also comprised the slaves. Although slavery was never the most prominent aspect of Tibetan society, few scholars have claimed that slavery did exist in Tibet, though at a minimal level when compared to other societies. Very few Tibetans were believed to be held as slaves, and it is said that the little slavery that did exist was not as harsh and cruel as one would imagine.

To what extent this is true, one cannot say for sure. Contrary to most scholars, British scholar Sir Charles Bell, who was British India’s ambassador to Tibet and acclaimed Tibetologist, claimed that small children, mostly from the tribes that lived between Assam and Tibet, and south-eastern Tibet, were purchased from their poor parents and kept or sold as slaves.

However, other scholars have dismissed Bell’s claim. In fact, accounts of western visitors of Tibet, including some long-term residents such as British diplomat and Tibetologist Hugh Richardson, and Austrian mountaineers Peter Aufschnaiter and Heinrich Harrer, do not mention the practice or existence of slavery in Tibetan society.

These facts have led scholars to suggest that even if slavery did exist in Tibetan society, the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, probably got rid of it during his reforms.

The class system in Tibet has been as good as non-existent since the 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese government, which led to the 14th Dalai Lama fleeing Lhasa to find refuge in India.

Although the Tibetan class system was never as inhumane and cruel as some of its counterparts in other cultures, it was still a terrible social evil that needed to be removed from Tibetan society. Thankfully, it was removed, although the collateral damage was a huge and significant one with the complete loss of Tibetan independence.