Tibetan Buddhism, rather than secular nationalist ideology, provides vital idioms for the political discourse on Tibetan independence. This article deals with the interrelations between Tibetan politics and religion within Tibet and in Tibetan settlements in India. It is argued that within and outside Tibet, popular expressions of Tibetan identity rely on religious symbolism. In Tibet, religious idioms are reappearing in completely new contexts, as political expressions of opposition to Chinese rule. In India, Tibetan refugee elites reinterpret these idioms in their own terms while redefining Tibetan identity and culture for the outside world and for refugees themselves. The educated, English-speaking sections of the refugee population are also the main producers of nationalist rhetoric in the secular sense. This is particularly true of those who are based in Dharamsala, the Indian headquarters of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. After examining the 'culture' of Tibetan politics, the questions raised are how and why secular nationalist arguments, rather than arguments based on religion, become a part of political discourse. The choice of arguments is found to reflect the notions of legitimacy and rhetoric of the different audiences addressed. Power relations surface in every aspect of politics, including the use of political languages and definition of the boundaries and contents of 'the political'.