THE MURDER MYSTERY SEEMS TOO earthly for the monastic palace of the God King of Tibet. But one night last February, three members of the Dalai Lama's inner circle were brutally killed in a bedroom just a few hundred yards from his residence in the northern Indian city of Dharmsala. The victims were the Dalai Lama's close friend and confidant, 70-year-old Lobsang Gyatso, and two younger monks. Each had been stabbed 15 to 20 times, leaving the walls of their small chamber splattered with blood. Police believe there were five to eight attackers. Robbery was ruled out as a motive; cash and gilded Buddhist statues had been left at the scene. What kind of criminals would commit such carnage in a sanctuary of the world's gentlest religion?
The savagery of the attack had police looking for fanatics of some kind. So did the death threats that followed against 14 more members of the Dalai Lama's entourage. Now Indian police believe the murders were committed by an obscure Buddhist sect that takes its name and inspiration from a minor but ferocious Tibetan deity: the Dorje Shugden. The god's followers, known as Shugdens, consider themselves guardians of Tibetan Buddhism. Harshly doctrinaire, they have branded the Dalai Lama a traitor for reaching out to other branches of Buddhism. In the past year, the Dalai Lama, who met last week with Jewish leaders and Bill Clinton in Washington, has denounced the Shugden sect as a hostile faction and a crass, commercial cult--providing what police suspect may be the motive for murder.
Investigators have formally questioned at least five Shugden followers. "I think there's no doubt that Shugden was behind the killings," says Robert Thurman, America's foremost Buddhist scholar and an old friend of the Dalai Lama's (as well as the father of actress Uma Thurman). "The three were stabbed repeatedly and cut up in a way that was like an exorcism." The Shugdens worship a sword-wielding god who is often depicted wearing necklaces of human heads--symbols of conquered vices and transgressions. As one of the minor Dharmapala, or protectors of the faith, Dorje Shugden has for centuries had an underground following among Tibetans obsessed with doctrinal purity. "It would not be unfair to call Shugdens the Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism," says Thurman, referring to the Muslim fighters in Afghanistan, who believe in swift and brutal justice.
About 15 years ago, the Dalai Lama began to voice concern that the sect was gaining strength and sowing discord. Then, in 1991, a senior monk named Kelsang Gyatso established a new Dorje Shugden order based in England, calling it the New Kadampa Tradition. The NKT flourished by promising spiritual rewards for cash--an unholy sales pitch that helped trigger confrontation with the Dalai Lama's circle. Through a spokesman, Kelsang insisted that his followers had nothing to do with the murders in Dharmsala and that their idol's "wrathful aspect" is only symbolic: "Even if my best friend did the murders, I would condemn it," he said.
But the NKT accuses the Dalai Lama of selling out Tibet by promoting its "autonomy" within China rather than outright "independence." Since the Dharmsala murders, security has been tightened around the Dalai Lama. In a recent interview with NEWSWEEK, he expressed his worries about the Dorje Shugden. "That cult is actually destroying the freedom of religious thought," he said.
Death threats: The dispute heated up early last year, when the Dalai Lama urged Tibetan Buddhists to avoid the Shugdens. Soon after, the NKT claimed his remarks had led to harassment of Shugden followers in India. Then the threats began. A letter to the Tibetan Women's Association in Dharmsala warned that "there will be bloodshed in the monasteries."
Police say the five Shugden followers they questioned last winter are not suspected killers but might be witnesses to a well-organized murder plot. The leader of the Dorje Shugden devotees, Geshe Dragpa Gyaltsan, said his followers are innocent. "We are supposed to have a hit list of 14 men," he said. "We don't have a hit list, and it would be completely against the advice and guidance of Dorje Shugden if we did." The mystery of the Dharmsala murders is far from solved. No one saw the attackers slip in or out of the monastery chamber. So for now, there's no proof that the Shugdens are behind the killings. But there also are few alternative theories that can explain this unholy crime.