In Satyajit Ray's film Ganashatru, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's play Enemy of the People, a doctor discovers that leaking sewers are contaminating a 'holy' water source which attracts a large numbers of pilgrims. The doctor tries to warn the townspeople of this danger. But the mayor and others with a vested interest in the pilgrimage site attack the doctor for what they see as his anti-Hindu views. Soon, demagogic rabble-rousing tactics turn the entire town against him. For the few Tibetans who fancy themselves rational and progressive, and further suffer from the need to express such views, life in the exiled Tibetan community of Dharamshala in India often takes on much of the absurdities, frustrations and hazards as those faced by Ray's doctor-hero. Even on such a basic issue as public health, it is easy to put oneself in an impossible position merely by doing the sensible thing.

In 1983 there was a nasty outbreak of rabies in Dharamshala. At the Tibetan Children's Village over a dozen children were bitten by rabid dogs and two boys died. I was director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) at the time and, despite opposition, had all the dogs around the area moved far away. In spite of my efforts, a woman whose husband worked at TIPA was bitten by a stray. I wanted her to get rabies shots immediately but her husband insisted on her being treated by a shaman.

There was little I could do except rail against the futility of shamans and oracles. The woman died, and it was a horrible lingering death. But that in no way seemed to convince the husband, or his friends and relatives, that they had done anything wrong. All it did was add to my reputation as an 'unbeliever', which eventually got me into the kind of hot water that scalded Ray's doctor.

I am no absolute advocate of Victorian-style rationality and progress, and I certainly do not see myself as shepherding the ignorant masses out of their superstitious darkness onto the sunlit path of empirical facts. Yet in the exile Tibetan world in which I have lived most of my life, even a moderately progressive position runs up against not only the conservatism of the older generation and the church, but often against the whimsies of western dharma-types, enamoured with everything 'traditional' or 'mystical' in Tibet.

The advantage for westerners in love with shamans and spiritual healing is that they can, if things go wrong, fall back on the technology, wealth and security of the western world.

There is a tendency these days among many of our more admiring western friends to ascribe to the Tibetan people extraordinary qualities, not only of serenity and peacefulness, but even a special wisdom, not merely traditional but proto-scientific a characterisation which is so flattering and advantageous that quite a few of our leaders and lamas are avidly endorsing and promoting this view. I do not intend to deny or belittle the more admirable qualities of the Tibetan people and our civilisation, and there are many, but perhaps the appeal of these have to some extent concealed the more backward and unhealthy aspects of our culture.

We are frankly, a people still in thrall to ignorance and superstition, which far from declining with the years seems to be gaining new life and impetus with foreign sponsorship and encouragement.

Among the elite, especially among lamas who have centres in the west, there is an appearance of modernism that never fails to impress their western disciples and friends. Terms from quantum physics, cognitive science and pop psychology flow easily in their conversation, but genuine interest in science is absent. More crucially, the scientific outlook is non-existent.

Tibetan lamas view science from a skewed, self-interested perspective. All they are looking for in science are possible similarities or parallels in Buddhist philosophy, essentially, it seems, to prove to themselves and their followers that they are as modern as is necessary and do not need to change.

There is, furthermore, a proclivity to seeing modern knowledge as primarily utilitarian ' as techniques that could be grafted on to traditional values and institutions, which could then remain immutable. China at the end of the 19th century had reacted in much the same way to the challenges of the modern world, with Confucian bureaucrats espousing zhong xue wei ti, xi xue wei yong (Chinese learning for essence, western learning for utility). Which is what the communist mandarins in Beijing are espousing right now.

Many older Tibetans, especially geshes (doctors of divinity) ' like Hindu fundamentalists who go around saying that atom bombs and aeroplanes were invented by ancient Indians in Vedic times ' are not shy of informing you that the sacred texts such as the Kangyur and Tengyur contain the secrets to the making of nuclear weapons, or that in the apocalyptic war of Shambala, tanks and nuclear weapons will be used. The Dalai Lama himself, in an interview in an Italian journal, declared that he did not regard the account of Shambala as symbolic or legendary and believed that the apocalyptic events prophesied would actually come to pass.

One would expect that in Tibet itself, after so many year of communist occupation, some modern ideas, no matter how distorted, would have taken root. It has happened with a minority of the youth, but with the larger section of society the years of living under communism seems to have driven people ever more backwards to their old beliefs and ways. Because nearly everything to do with communist Chinese ideology and rule in Tibet is so permeated with lies and half-truths, Tibetans view even basic information provided in Chinese educational material with suspicion and hostility.

An historian friend of mine, interviewing an old monk who had been imprisoned for many years, told me that the monk refused to accept that the world was round, because he had been given this information by the Chinese.

In exile these days, the more fanatical and reactionary Tibetans can usually be found among new-arrivals from Tibet, but even Tibetans born and raised in the west do not seem to be entirely free of conservative traditional thinking. In their case the influence probably comes in a roundabout way from new age Buddhist influences.

Looking at some of the Internet chat-sites and email discussion groups frequented by young Tibetans one is struck by the number of communications that are signed off with a 'Peace and Love' and 'Om Mani Padme Hum'. More significantly, there appears to be a near-complete absence of any critical examination of Tibetan beliefs, spiritual or political, among these young people.

This is unsettling, bearing in mind that even back in medieval Tibet, people were not blind to the drawbacks and limitations of oracles and prophecies. The Great 13th Dalai Lama issued a directive to district officials nationwide, to investigate oracles and fortune-tellers, and make sure that they did not exploit the common people. In the Tibetan opera Sukyi Nima, there is a satirical scene of a drunken state oracle, repeatedly beating his long-suffering hunchback secretary, in between delivering such brainless prophecies as: 'It will snow in winter' and 'It will rain in summer.'

Stories of fake oracles and rigged prophecies are not unusual in Tibetan folklore. One of the popular folk heroes of central Tibet is Lama Methon Phangbo, a merry con-man who delights in hoodwinking the pious and gullible. On a more sinister note there is the story of Shagdun Sangye (Seven Day Buddha) of Ghungthang, a religious charlatan and mass murderer who promised people who undertook a seven-day retreat under his guidance a complete dissolution of their corporeal self and a direct entry into nirvana. He accomplished this by dropping them into a bottomless pit normally covered by the retractable floor of his meditation cave. He was eventually exposed by the 'divine madman' Drukpa Kunleg, who arranged for him to receive a poetic sort of justice.

In fact such popular Tibetan saints as Drukpa Kunleg, Agu (Uncle) Tompa and Milarepa essentially taught people to disregard appearances, ritual, superstition and even conventional thinking and to seek spiritual (and sometimes worldly) truths through good sense, direct experience and their own efforts. Our forebears may have often been superstitious and credulous, but they did not lack common sense. And better-educated people in the past were constantly given to railing against superstition, namthok, as being against the spirit of Buddhism.

A former resistance fighter and CIA agent, Lithang Athar Norbu (who died last year in New York) told me this story: Shortly after the outbreak of the fighting in eastern Tibet in 1956, a local resistance group laid siege to a Chinese garrison. The Khampa fighters did everything they could to crack its defences but failed. During deliberations among the fighters on a fresh course of action, one of their number went into a spontaneous trance, what Tibetans call thonbe, and announced that he was the local protective deity and that he would personally lead the charge to wipe out the 'Red Chinese enemies of the Dharma'.

Everyone was excited, and morale, which had dropped in the last few days, soared again. Next day at dawn, the fighters got ready for the attack. The medium, now in full godly regalia (borrowed from a nearby monastery) and armed with a sword, trembled and shook as monks performed the chendre or invocatory rites. As soon as the deity took possession of the medium, he rose from his seat, snarling and hissing, and climbed up on the rampart brandishing his sword in the air.

'A single shot rang out ' tak-ka!' Athar told me, 'and the oracle fell over backwards on the ground. Right on his forehead, dead centre, was a hole. And that was that. No, he wasn't a fake. None of us there had any doubts about the genuineness of the oracle. Perhaps it's just that their days are over, and it's another sort of world now.'

But the institution of oracles persisted even in exile, though perhaps with some modifications.

In 1964 an actor at TIPA was possessed by a spirit. The possession seems to have been genuine enough. Three separate eyewitnesses gave me identical accounts of how the possessed man ran himself through with a long dagger (one even remembered seeing the tip of the blade sticking out from the man's back). He was not only unharmed by this performance, but was not marked by even a small scar.

After his somewhat dramatic prelude with the dagger, the possessed man proclaimed that he was the mountain god Nyechenthangla, and blessed all those present. He finally came out of his trance and fell into a dead faint. The matter was reported to the religious department of the exile government and presumably to the Dalai Lama as well.

Some days later the medium of one of the state oracles came to TIPA accompanied by his monk servitors. The monks performed the invocatory rituals and the medium went into a trance, at which moment the Nyechentangla deity spontaneously possessed the actor again. The state oracle greeted his fellow deity by touching foreheads, and from what I was informed, passed on to him instructions from the Dalai Lama. These were that since Tibet was on its way to becoming a modern country, the business of gods and spirits possessing human mediums could not be permitted anymore ' or words to that effect. (The two state oracles were, of course, exempt from the decree.)

Striving for modernity, democracy and independence, Tibetans are still caught in a strange half-world where the supernatural not only intrudes into the real and the material, but sometimes displaces them.