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August 23, 1997

Impact of Bon religion on Gilgit-Baltistan

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By Syed Shamsuddin  


A new book titled “A History of Bon Philosophy” - on the origin, evolution and impact of Bon religion in Tibet, Ladakh and Baltistan authored by Ghulam Hussain Lobsang launched recently is a veritable trouvaille on the Bon studies ever undertaken by a native. Hopefully a very heartening reception would be accorded to it not regionally but globally in due course of time by those keen in the Bon studies.

The subject matter of dissertation of the present writer quite luminously unfolds certain things which remained heretofore quite unresearched hence unearthed for long despite persistent spadework underway by numerous by numerous enthusiasts of Bon Po in the Tibetan territory. The writer is, indeed, the only person among the local people who undoubtedly seems to have endeavoured to bring out this valuable and prodigious material inspite of pecuniary impediments. Had he not been a native, it would definitely not have been possible for an ordinary researcher to materialize the subject without a painstaking research into the prehistoric period and so on in such a minute and irrefutably analytical manner.

The writer deserves immense praise for the marvelous work done by him in a short span of time to gather the very useful and informative material. In fact, he has been devoted to literary work in one way or the other, from the beginning when he used to bring out articles during his student period. His flair for research work and the fruitful achievement will certainly elicit general approbation for the salient features and the intrinsic worth and value which it brought out so successfully. His present book on the Bon Philosophy comprises Bon-mat, Kaesarism, Yookpon school of thought and Suomaliksm where up the former hinges squarely.

In thes prefacial brief discussion, the author narrates with all possible brevity the historical background of Baltistan, advent of Bon religion, its evolution in that region until its assumed the form of Buddhism. He chronicles adeptly the simultaneous dawning of Lamaism in the Tibetan territory. As to coming into being of Lamaism, he writes that Islamisation of Baltistan did not completely weed out the superstitious beliefs of the people formerly professing Bon Po creed as it left quite indelible marks on their minds which not easily be done away with. What he feels as a horrific result is that of permeation from within yet another neo-cultistic emergence of beliefs along side the Bon Po effects ingrained in them.

In short, his proved o bring forth a strange admixture that created belief always preserving the erstwhile beliefs. In western Tibet however, Ladakh had been an exception in the sense that Buddhism in its original form remained intact. Contrary to that, Poreek and Baltistan seemed ostensibly Buddhist but were factually under the constant spell of Bon po creed. Eventually the people of these areas were subject to a sort of acute vacillation in the context of bipolar beliefs of Buddhism-Bon religion that ultimately shook them to the extent of their swift proselytisation to Islam easily. The caravan of Muslim preachers first entered into Kashmir from Iran then onwards to Baltistan in 1373. It is because of their preaching that the entire belt of Baltistan embraced Islam (page.17).

The writer focuses further on Bon religion from its origin to evolutionary process it underwent also portraying its dogmas. He halves out the cultists of Bon religion into those of professing natural and supernatural characteristics. Those of the latent and otherwise, denolting them as Hela and Halo. Alongside this, the writer has thrown ample light on all aspects of the said doctrine while the latter chapter deals extensively with Kaesarism. Kaesar, he describes as an indeterminate hence powerful ruler before the historic period enjoying indefinite powers. The founder of this very reign was Helafo Kaesar, he says. Religious scholars however, term such a ruler and the rule as a mere fiction or legend while the writer has in detail, culled all possible informative material that makes a saga of the Kaesarian rule hence it appears to be an absolutely independent, dispassionate and objective disquisition based on facts gathered from the area under study and as such the effort is praiseworthy.

In the recent publication of the Bon philosophy, the subject matter of dissertation pertaining to the historic and prehistoric periods, is centered chiefly on ancient legends attributable to Soumaliksm which, the writer has successfully dealt with in consonance with the fundamental philosophical terms in conjunction with three other doctrinal impacts commented on the everlasting effects both covert and overt that remained perennially ingrained among the inhabitants of this specific territory, He has, however, resorted to various examples which he aims at making the study all the more understandable for the readers. These discussions encompass all the present day superstitious beliefs in a mythological order that go on plaguing the people on having been adapted from the erstwhile creeds contained in the book even after they were proselytized to Islam wholly on the western stretch i.e Great Bolor (Baltistan) while partially eastward on the Tibetan territory.

In short, the readers of the book together with the distinctive ‘Balti grammer’ reach safely to the conclusion that the Tibetan territory stretching westward to Baltistan remained to be exclusively inhabited by a distinct people equally speaking distinct a language with specific attributes in the cultural context. The chief distinguishing characteristic being that of the Bon philosophy, quite distinguishable from the Chinese Confucius, Persian Zoroastrian and Indian Vedic Philosophy. What however, has been noticed is that a mere modicum is lacking viz that the writer has refrained from broadening his sphere of dissertation to the still far western side i.e to what was then called Bru-sa in ancient times (present Gilgit). An account of Bon religion in Gilgit however, surfaces in the writings of Helmut HR Hoffmann and the said specific article is well dedicated to the memory of Sir Frederick William Thomas, the scholar in Sanskirt and Tibetan studies. As discussed at page 142 ibid, Bru-sa, the area of actual Gilgit agency also called the Little Bolor as opposed to the Great Bolor standing for Baltistan, remained under the grip of Bon religion as reproduced below to facilitate the readers:

“The chapter of the bsTanbyun translated above furnishes us with some interesting material about the history of Bon religion in Bru-sa. That Bru-sa is the area of the actual Gilgit Agency, now Pakistan, has been generally accepted. In Chinese sources, it is called Hsiao Po-lu, that means “Little Bolor” in order to distinguish it from “Great Bolor” which is the actual Baltistan (Tib. sBal-ti). The popular etymology about the creation of the name of the country cannot be autochthonous, but has been invented by the Tibetans, since it connected with the story of the coming of the divine teacher Bru-sa gnam-gsns (c. supra p.141). Because the teacher emanated (brulsprul) from the sky, we gain the syllable Bru, and because he is a worthy (gsa) child of the gods, we get the second syllable sa: altogether Bru-sa. It seems not to be far-fetched to assume a connection of the word Bru-sa with Brusho people, the speakers of Brushaski, who in earlier times might have been not restricted to the Hunza valley. But the name of the Bru-sa king, to whom the savior Bru-sa gnam gsas comes down from the highest heaven via the realm of the “ Thirty three Gods” (Trayyastrimsat), can, by no means, be taken from Brushaski, but with all certainty is given in Zan-Zun language: Sad-wer means “king” (wer) of the gods (sad) and equivalent of a Sanskrit devaraja. We do not know whether Bru-sa which often is mentioned in Bon-po books was a tributary state of the vast Zan-zun empire, before it was conquered by the Tibetans during the eighth century. The role which the Bon religion played in Bru-sa as well as in Zan-zun would be in favour of this assumption.”

The foregoing makes it crystally clear that Bon religion existed in Gilgit (Little Bolor) hen ce it did not remain merely constricted to “Great Bolor” and Tibet. Now when fruitful researches stand accomplished by Mr Lobsang, a good deal of yet another spadework is yet required to be undertaken in the areas of ancient “Litrtle Bolor” in order to give a finishing stroke to the subject matter.

Impact of Bon religion on NAs, originally published in The Muslim dated August 22, 1997
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Blog is dedicated to the articles written by Syed Shamsuddin published in past and to be published in future on different newspapers of Pakistan. To contact us send an email

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