The Dalai Lama and the pitfalls of cultural misunderstandings – Arvind Sharma

Dalai Lama in Mongolia

Arvind SharmaThe Dalai Lama’s kiss of a boy seems to have been bedevilled by two cultural misperceptions––one relating to the manner in which same-sex social relationships are viewed in India, and the way the protrusion of the tongue is viewed in Tibetan culture. – Prof. Arvind Sharma

The Dalai Lama has been in the news recently for what some would consider the wrong reasons. A young boy was eager to meet him, and when they met, they kissed each other on the lips, and then the Dalai Lama stuck out his tongue at the boy.

This did not go down well with many, especially on social media. Without getting into the controversy as such, I would like to point out that this incident might have involved a dual cultural miscomprehension, especially in the context of the West.

One has to cut through two layers of cultural misunderstandings to get to the bottom of this issue.

The first has to do with the act of kissing itself. Kissing between the opposite sexes in public is common in the West. It is, however, taboo in India, and constitutes a serious violation of social norms.

The point to recognize here is the contrast between living in a segregated society and in an unsegregated one. By and large, social life in India is characterized by the separation of the sexes. I remember a colleague of mine, from the subcontinent, sharing with me this astonishing detail, that, when he met his wife after marriage, he realized that this was the first time in his life when he was alone with a woman, other than a female relative. This may not be the case with all of us, but I think most Indians, as well as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, live in a society in which men mix with men, and women mix with women. What this means is that intimate bonds are formed between members of the same sex––men have male friends and women have female friends. I remember an American colleague of mine sharing his surprise that friends in India often walk hand-in-hand. This, in the West, is associated with homosexuality. I remember friends in India embracing each other to celebrate happy outcomes––which, when done the West, might be associated with being gay. From this point of view, the Dalai Lama and the young boy exchanging a kiss on the lips is not as outrageous as it might appear in a Western context.

I think we can assume that the Tibetan culture shares the Indian orientation, and therefore, the Dalai Lama sharing a chaste kiss with the young boy might be considered a little excessive, but hardly shocking, in the context of the social life of Tibetans and Indians.

This might provide the occasion for more general observation. Every society seems to be involved in a kind of trade-off between the public mixing of the sexes it is prepared to allow and the degree to which it seeks to preserve private sexual morals. I think it stands to reason that the more freely the two sexes are allowed to mix in public, the greater the chances of deviation from private moral norms. The less the culture allows for such mixing, the greater the probability of maintaining such norms. The West and traditional Islamic societies provide us with cases which illuminate two extremes. Western societies have gone, as far as possible, in allowing the free mixing of the sexes in public, to such an extent that it is sometimes even considered promiscuous by those outside it. Small wonder then, that adultery has been decriminalized in the West. Islamic society has gone to the other extreme of preventing the free mixing of the sexes, and therefore, in it, the punishment for adultery is death.

Hindu society in India stands somewhat in the middle, though closer to minimizing the free mixing of the sexes, and not going as far in preventing it as traditional Islamic society. Hence, the social life of most Indians is characterized by close associations with members of their own sex. The more cordial manifestations of affection between them are also found in the relationship among members of the same sex.

This is the first cultural barrier which has to be overcome in understanding the incident involving the Dalai Lama and the young boy. The behaviour of the Dalai Lama towards the young boy may not raise eyebrows in India but could raise a few in the milieu of a Western society, where it may not be considered right or proper.

The second cultural misunderstanding which needs to be avoided relates to the Dalai Lama sticking his tongue out. In the West, sticking one’s tongue out at somebody is a sign of displeasure, if not something stronger. In Tibetan society, however, sticking one’s tongue out is a form of greeting. This changes the complexion of the case completely. The Dalai Lama was expressing his affection towards the boy by doing so.

In this way, the incident seems to have been bedevilled by two cultural misperceptions––one relating to the manner in which same-sex social relationships are viewed in India, and the way the protrusion of the tongue is viewed in Tibetan culture.

I can only conclude with the remark made by Professor Daniel Ingalls of Harvard University, who once stated that one lays oneself open to two pitfalls when it comes to understanding another culture––that one can understand it fully, and that one cannot understand it at all. – Firstpost, 11 may 2023

› Prof. Arvind Sharma, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions.

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