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Mystery of murdered Tibetan guru transcends the merely mortal

A wrathful deity is the main suspect for three murders in Dharamsala, the Himalayan "capital" of Tibet's government-in-exile.

But Chinese-hired assassins or thieves have not been ruled out. Superintendent RK Singh, who is investigating the stabbing of Lopsang Gyatso, director of the Buddhist School of Dialectics, and his two pupils, believes the most likely motive may be a rift between mainstream Tibetan Buddhism and a fundamentalist sect which worships the deity Dorje Shugden. After the Dalai Lama warned his devotees in May against veneration of Shugden, cult followers in Britain and New Delhi launched a campaign against the Tibetan leader. Gyatso, 70, was close to the Dalai Lama, and fulminated against the cult's charges that his pronouncement amounted to religious persecution. Gyatso received death threats over the past nine months, said a spokesman in Dharamsala.

He was found dead on his blood-soaked divan by a student bringing his tea on 4 February. His translators, Lobsang Nagawang and Nagawang Lodoe, sprawled on the floor, were wounded; they died en route to hospital. Bloody footprints led to a ground-floor room, but the six Tibetans questioned there said a drunken brawl had caused the mayhem.

In New Delhi, six other monks were held, interrogated and freed without charge.

Shugden, a minor deity once worshipped by the Dalai Lama, is often invoked for curses, and traditionally brings wealth to believers. Gyatso said that although worship of Shugden "has long been seen to be harmful to the personal safety of His Holiness", the Tibetan establishment could not ban individuals from following their preferred superstition and could only caution against such practices.

Many Tibetans fear the Chinese, apprehensive about Taiwan inviting the Dalai Lama to visit, are exploiting divisions among his followers. Last year three suspected Chinese spies were arrested in Dharamsala. "A hired assassin could have killed the director," said Lobsang Tenphell, an assistant secretary in Dharamsala.

Security for the Dalai Lama has been stepped up following the crime."Security is always quite tight," an aide said. Besides rifle-toting Indian policeman and electronic security gates, the Nobel Peace laureate employs his own armed guards. Bullet-proof cars are being considered for his travel down the mountain.

According to Gareth Sparham, a Canadian scholar, the dispute between the Shugden followers and the Tibetan government-in-exile is as much political as religious.

"Shugden is today a political symbol representing an emerging political party wedded to the idea that the final arbiters of Tibet's destiny should be monks, and that it should champion a fundamentalist version of Tibetan Buddhism as a state religion."

The Dalai Lama must reject Shugden, Dr Sparham said, "in order that his exile government is fair and is seen to be fair amongst the Tibetan population at large."

An Indian travel agent who lives beside the School of Dialectics, where the murders took place, dismissed the various conspiracy theories as Chinese whispers.

"It's all about money. After all, this happened a few days after the director returned from Hong Kong."

Whether the crime was a burglary gone wrong, a politically motivated assassination, or the culmination of a religious feud which spans generations and incarnations, the mountain retreat of Dharamsala is grieving.