In a makeshift monastery on the outskirts of the Indian capital, a brass gong summons a group of maroon-robed monks for midday prayers.
The scene could be from any of the hundreds of Buddhist monasteries in India, except that this gathering has been declared illegal by Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
The monks in this converted hostel are worshiping Dorje Shugden - a ferocious-looking, three-eyed "protector" deity who rides a lion wreathed in flames.
Dorje Shugden followers claim that by banning their deity's worship, the Dalai Lama is persecuting them and denying them freedom of religion - a charge that the Tibetan leader denies.
The controversy has spread beyond the borders of Tibet and the 100,000-strong exile community in India. It also threatens to undermine the Dalai Lama's authority as he presses demands that China end its 58-year occupation of Tibet.
Gleefully exploiting the schism for its own political ends is the Chinese government. China is rebuilding Shugden monasteries in Tibet and giving priority to sect members applying for exit permits.
Some of the Dalai Lama's supporters hint that Beijing is secretly funding Dorje Shugden centers in India and abroad.
Today, the fearsome deity is worshiped by the fastest-growing Buddhist sect in the West, the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). Its founder, Kelsang Gyatso, known as the "Third Buddha" to his followers, is a sworn enemy of the Dalai Lama. When the Dalai Lama arrived in New York for a two-week lecture tour earlier this month, more than 100 Shugden supporters demonstrated against his visit.
"This ban is forcing every Tibetan to choose between their conscience and political expediency," says Chime Tsering, secretary of the Dorje Shugden Society in New Delhi. "It has created conflict at every level of Tibetan society."
Unraveling the Shugden controversy involves delving into the intricate palace intrigues of 17th-century feudal Tibet and the complexities of medieval Tibetan Buddhism teeming with deities and demons. According to myth, Dorje Shugden is the spirit of a powerful abbot who was found dead in his palace in Tibet in 1655. Shugden worship was first banned some 350 years ago by the Fifth Dalai Lama, who declared him an evil spirit.
In 1978, the current Dalai Lama warned his followers not to worship Shugden because it was detrimental to his spiritual health and to the cause of the Tibetan people. Eight years later, when he instructed his government-in-exile to ban the deity's worship in state-run monasteries and offices, Shugden followers began complaining of harassment, intimidation, and discrimination.
The Dalai Lama denies allegations of a witch hunt and says his move was driven by the greater good of Tibet. "I took this decision as a matter of principle in the larger interest. There is a danger that the great Tibetan tradition will degenerate into spirit worship," he told the Monitor at his headquarters in Dharmsala before his US tour. "It is my responsibility to make people aware of the consequences of worshiping Dorje Shugden. But whether they listen or not is up to the individual. Right from the beginning that's my position."
For Shugden monk Tsering, however, the Dalai Lama's injunction goes to the core of his faith. "When somebody attacks your faith as demonic, that really hurts," he says. Tensions in the Tibetan community came to a head early last year when three monks, including one of the Dalai Lama's advisers, were murdered in Dharmsala.
Indian police suspect the Shugden sect was behind the killings and several members were briefly detained for questioning. But the perpetrators are believed to have fled to Tibet. Tsering was one of those questioned by police and says he now has to be accompanied by six bodyguards when he ventures outside. "There is extreme social pressure. Here in this house we are relaxed but when we go outside Tibetans don't talk to us. We are completely segregated and excommunicated."
Although Tsering denies China is supporting his group, he admits that his society has links with the NKT, which has been carrying out a smear campaign against the Tibetan leader. For its part, the Tibetan government-in-exile believes the Shugden controversy will lead to more violence as Beijing tries to exploit its potential for damaging the Dalai Lama's image.