The Epic of King Gesar is the central epic poem of Tibet and much of Central Asia. It is prized as one of the few living epics, performed by about 140 Gesar ballad singers surviving today (including singers of Tibetan, Mongolian, Buryat and Tu ethnicities). The epic, believed to be approximately 1,000 years old, concerns the fearless king Gesar (Geser), who was sent down from Heaven to conquer the many negative spirits and demons that dominated Tibet, and ruled the legendary Kingdom of Ling. The narrative has been transmitted orally through a tradition of spiritually-anointed Gesar performers who are able to recite from memory for hours on end.
The epic is considered the longest literary work in the world. Although there is no one definitive compilation, if completed it would fill some 120 volumes, containing over 20 million words in more than one million verses. It is a valuable historical treasure, preserving ancient Tibetan proverbs, songs, and poems; and serves as a literary record of the development of Tibetan Buddhism. Today, the Institute of Ethnic Literature of the Republic of China, and the Tibet Autonomous Regional Academy of Social Sciences are engaged in a project to record, compile, and publish the Epic of King Gesar.
The Epic of King Gesar is considered the longest literary work in the world, containing over 20 million words in more than one million verses, longer than the world’s other five great epics combined: The ancient Babylonian Gilgamesh (3,000 verses), the Greek Iliad (over 15,000 verses ) and Odyssey (12,000 verses), and the Indian Ramayana (18,000 odes with two verses each) and Mahabharata (more than 100,000 odes comprising over 200,000 verses).
A valuable historical source, the Epic of King Gesar, reflects two important periods in Tibetan social development, and includes depictions of almost 100 tribes, kingdoms, and regions. The epic is distinctly Tibetan in style, although the story includes early elements taken from Indian tantricism. It contains countless references to religion, ideology, and local customs, and incorporates many fairy tales, legends, poems, and proverbs from traditional Tibetan folk literature. Some Tibetan proverbs are in their original form; others have been polished and adapted.
If seeds are not sown in spring,
No corn will be harvested in autumn
If cows are not fed in winter,
There will be no milk in the spring.
If fine horses are not well bred,
They will not gallop into the face of your enemies.
The epic also preserves a number of ancient songs of praise, such as Ode to Wine, Ode to the Mountains, Ode to Tea, Ode to Horses, Ode to Swords and Knives, Ode to Dress, and Ode to Armor. The famous Ode to Wine begins:
The bowl of wine in my hand has a long history.
The sky is blue like jade.
The blue-jade dragon roars in the sky.
The lightning flashes red,
And drizzle falls like sweet dew.
By using the clean sweet dew,
Heavenly nectar can be brewed in the human world.
The epic incorporates both prose, and poems in a circular style from the Tubo period, with multiple paragraphs ending in the same sound. The six-word stanzas of Tubo songs and poems were replaced with eight-word stanzas, a form which has remained relatively unchanged since the 11th century, and which is widely used in Tibetan folk songs, narrative poems, lyrical poetry, and drama, as well as in the works of scholars and poets.
The epic is made up of three parts: The birth of Gesar; his expeditions against his enemies; and his return to heaven. The stories of his battles and exploits contain the most detail and shed the most light on Tibetan history and culture. The second part includes four subsections: Defeating Demons in the North, Battles Between Hor and Ling, Defense of the Salt Sea, and Battles Between Mon and Ling; as well as battles to conquer 54 zongs (minor kingdoms).
The epic concerns Gesar, the superhuman warrior ruler of the Kingdom of Ling, who waged war with the nearby Kingdom of Hor. Various elements of the epic began to evolve between the third and sixth centuries, and were consolidated after the establishment of the Tubo Kingdom (mid seventh century–842). During the time of the second transmission of Buddhism to Tibet (marked by the formation of the Kadampa, Kagyu and Sakya schools), Tibetan Buddhist monks, particularly those of the Nyingma (Red) Sect, began to participate in efforts to compile and popularize the story of the Life of King Gesar. The oral tradition of this epic is most prominent in the two remote areas associated with the ancient Bönpo (Ladakh and Zanskar in the far west of Tibet, and Kham and Amdo regions of eastern Tibet), strongly suggesting that the story has Bön roots.
References to the Epic of King Gesar in the Rlangs kyi po ti bse ru, a centuries-old Tibetan text, show that the narrative was in something similar to its present form by the fifteenth century at the latest. The oldest extant text of the epic is a Mongolian woodblock print commissioned by the Qing Emperor Kangxi in 1716. None of the surviving Tibetan texts date from earlier than the eighteenth century, though they are likely based on older texts. In the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, a woodblock edition of the story was compiled by a scholar-monk from Lingtsang (a small kingdom north-east of sDe dge) with inspiration from the prolific Tibetan philosopher Ju Mipham Gyatso.
Tales of King Gesar are also popular in Mongolia, the Tu and Yugu regions, and the Tibetan-inhabited areas in China, and have traveled as far west as the Caspian Sea, reaching Europe with the Kalmyk people, who also profess Tibetan Buddhism as their religion. The Second King of Bhutan (r. 1926–1952) retained a Gesar singer as a full-time entertainer for the royal court, and recitals of the Epic of Gesar were said to be the king's favorite edification.
A large number of variants of the oral tradition of the Epic of King Gesar have always existed, and no canonical text can be written. Each Gesar performer is familiar only with his regional version. Weeks are required to complete a full recitation of the Epic of King Gesar.
Unlike other folk artists, performers of the Gesar epic do not pass their legacy from master to apprentice, or from father to son. Most Gesar narrators are illiterate and rely entirely on memory. They believe the skill of performances depends on the inspiration of the gods, not on inheritance or study, and attribute the emergence of an artist with the reincarnation of a figure related to King Gesar. It is reported that ballad singers in Tibet and surrounding regions often begin their career by experiencing a strange dream during sleep, after which they mysteriously and inexplicably gain the ability to recite large sections of the huge epic, sometimes for several hours without stopping. Occasionally, even young children gain this ability to suddenly and profoundly recall the poem. Before a performance, the narrator usually holds a ceremony, such as burning incense and worshiping gods, or singing in front of a mirror. Gesar singers wear hats decorated with bird feathers and carry tambourines or musical instruments made of ox horn. At the Shoton (Sour Milk Drinking) Festival, in August 1984, Lhasa hosted 40 Gesar artists from seven provinces and municipalities.
One of the best-known modern Gesar performers was Sangzhub, born to a family of farmer in northern Tibet in 1922. As a small child, he listened to his grandfather sing portions of the Epic of King Gesar. When his grandfather died, Sangzhub became mute until, at the age of 11, he began to have dreams of King Gesar. Soon afterwards, he began to travel from one monastery and village to another, performing the Epic for Buddhist audiences. In 1979, at the request of the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences, he began to make recordings of his narrative, often spending entire days singing, often in a cave for better sound quality. He recorded 2,500 hours of singing, the equivalent of 41 volumes. In 2000, the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences and the Ethnic Minority Literature Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences began to compile and publish a written version of Sangzhub’s performance.
Versions of the story often begin with the creation of the world and a compacted prehistory of Tibet. This is followed by a brief traditional account of how Tibet was converted from barbarity to Buddhism under the three great Dharma Rajas (Tibetan: Chos rgyal) of the Tibetan Imperial Period (seventh-ninth centuries C.E.), in particular by the great magician and founder of Tibetan religion, Padmasambhava (Tibetan: Padma 'byung gnas), who subdued Tibet's violent native spirits and bound them by oath. It is then explained how, later on, the world in general, and Tibet in particular, fell into a state of anarchy because the many negative spirits and demons of Tibet had not been fully conquered. As a result, the world came under the dominion of hordes of flesh-eating and human-eating demons and goblins, led by the malignant and greedy kings of many kingdoms.
To remedy this situation, various gods-on-high, including Brahma (Tibetan: Tshangs pa dkar po) and Indra (Tibetan: Brgya byin) in concert with celestial Buddhist figures such as Padmasambhava, and both cosmic and abstract tantric deities such as Amitabha (Tibetan: 'Od dpag med) and Samantabhadra (Tibetan: Kun tu bzang po), as well as the spirits below the earth or nagas (Tibetan: Klu), decide that a divine hero must be sent from the heavens to conquer these evil sovereigns. The decision is made to send the youngest son of Tshangs pa or brgya byin (the Gesar texts tend to conflate Brahma and Indra). He is known by various names in different versions, sometimes thos pa dga,' sometimes bu tog dkar po, but perhaps the most universally used is don grub. This god-child is not very keen on his mission, and tries to evade it, but eventually agrees.
With various celestial companions, he is then born, after singing to his mother from the womb and asking the way out, as the son of Gog bza (in some versions, a beautiful naga princess captured from a neighboring tribe, and in other versions, an old woman) and Seng blon, one of the respected elders of the Kingdom of Ling. In most Tibetan versions, Ling is located in eastern Tibet (Tibetan: Mdo khams), often between the 'Bri (Yangtze) and rDza (Yalong) rivers, which is where the historical kingdom of Lingtsang (Tibetan: Gling tshang) existed until the twentieth century.
The hero’s older half-brother, rGya tsha, is a brave warrior and important figure in the epic. He is sometimes said to have been the grandson of the emperor (Tibetan: Mi chen, literally: "Big man") of China, and is killed in a battle with the great enemy of Ling, Hor (often identified by Tibetans with Mongolia). This struggle between Ling and Hor is central to the epic.
The young hero has two uncles. One, the wise and very aged elder of Ling, known as the "old hawk," sPyi dPon rong tsha, supports the child and has received divine prophecies indicating his importance. The other uncle, Khro thung, is a cowardly and greedy rascal, who sees the child as a threat and tries to do him ill. Khro thung is normally a comic character in the epic, and an instigator of many incidents.
The precocious child grows rapidly and vanquishes a number of foes. His behavior is wild and fearsome, and soon he and his mother are banished from Ling. They go to the deserted lands of the land of rMa (the upper Yellow River) where they live in the wilderness, and the child is clothed in animal skins and wears a hat with antelope horns.
When the child is twelve, a horse race is held to determine who will become the King of Ling and marry the beautiful daughter, Brug mo, of a neighboring chieftain. The hero-child, who in many versions is known as Joru during his youth, returns to Ling, wins the race, marries Brug mo, and ascends the golden throne, assuming the title "Gesar."
His first major campaign as king is against the man-eating demon of the north, Klu bTsan. After defeating the demon, Gesar is put under a spell by the demon’s wife, and loses his memory for six years. While he is away, his beautiful wife is kidnapped by Gur dKar (literally: "White tent"), the King of Hor. Gesar eventually returns, uses his magic to enter the king of Hor's palace, kills him, and retrieves his wife.
Sechan Dugmo, queen and wife,
Remorse at what each of us has done,
Anger at what each of us has seen the other do,
Sorrow that true love has proved so fragile,
Sadness that passing love has been compelling and disastrous,
Doubt that even genuine love can be restored,
Fear that neither decency nor joy has a place
In such deceitful and dangerous terrain,
All these things, O dear companion of my heart,
Seem to separate us so, and yet,
We share them utterly.
Words spoken by Gesar to his wife, who during his absence has fallen in love with his enemy Gur dKar, and borne him a son
These episodes are the first two of four great campaigns against "the four enemies of the four directions." The next two campaigns are against King Sa dam of 'Jang (sometimes located in Yunnan), and King Shing khri of Mon (sometimes located in the southern Himalayan region). Gesar then goes on to defeat the "eighteen great forts," which are listed differently in each version, but nearly always include sTag gZig (Tajik), and Kha che (Muslim) adversaries. Many (some versions say 40) other "forts" (Tibetan: Rdzong) are also vanquished.
When Gesar reaches his eighties, he briefly descends to Hell in the last episode, before falling off his horse and leaving the land of men to ascend once more to his celestial paradise.
The mythological and allegorical elements of the story defy place and time, and several places lay claim to being the former Kingdom of Ling. Both Tibetan and Chinese experts have generally agreed that the most likely birthplace of King Gesar is Axu town on the prairie of Dege County, located in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southwest Sichuan Province, which lies in the historic kingdom of Lingtsang, a significant eastern Tibetan principality from at least the early fifteenth century. Gesar's "soul mountain," would then be the famous snow peak of Golog, Amnye Machen, in modern Qinghai Province.
Though the Epic of Gesar contains elements of ancient Tibetan mythology and Indian tantricism, the narrative became a vehicle for Buddhist teachings during the eleventh century, illustrating a Buddhist world view and evoking self-reflection in its audiences.
Dear friends, when a raindrop falls into a still pond,
It dissolves inseparably in its own nature,
And nothing has occurred.
But when the same raindrop falls into the same pond,
Ripples shine and dance on the water's skin.
From these two ways of seeing one thing
Come the true magic that raises and destroys kingdoms,
That increases joy or misery, brilliance or degradation.
King Gesar teaching the people of Ling
The Epic of King Gesar provided a wealth of material for later Tibetan literature and art. The tunes of some Tibetan folk songs and dances are drawn from performances of the narrative, and popular folk songs praise the love of King Gesar and his wife. Episodes from the life of King Gesar are the subject of fairy tales and folk stories, such as the Story of Seven Brothers, and of carvings, paintings, murals, woodcuts, embroideries, songs, dances, and plays. Statues of King Gesar sometimes serve as temple guardians.
Since the 1950s, the Epic of King Gesar has played a central role in the Republic of China’s efforts to create a national ethnic history and identity. The Institute of Ethnic Literature, an affiliate of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, established in 1980, has undertaken an extensive project to research, compile, and publish the Epic. A project by the Tibet Autonomous Regional Academy of Social Sciences and Tibet University to make recordings of the epic narrated by local folk artists has priority as a “key state project.” Since 1979, a Tibetan research institute specializing in the study of the epic has collected more than 180 different combined song and narration versions of the epic, and 55 woodblock and mimeographed editions; and has recorded 70 performances of the epic.
A Russian translation of the Mongolian Geser texts, which had been printed in Beijing from 1716 onwards, was published by the Moravian missionary Isaak Jakob Schmidt in 1836; a German translation followed in 1839. In the twentieth century, other Mongolian Geser texts were edited by scientists like Nicholas Poppe and Walther Heissig.
The first three volumes of the version known as the Lingtsang-Dege woodblock, which was composed in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, was published with a very faithful, though incomplete, French translation by Professor Rolf Stein in 1956. Stein followed this publication with his 600 page magnum opus on the Tibetan epic entitled, Recherches sur l'Epopee et le Barde au Tibet. This remains the most in-depth study of the Tibetan Gesar tradition.
Another version has been translated into German by Prof. Dr. P. Matthias Hermanns (1965). This translation is based on manuscripts collected by Hermanns in Amdo. This book also contains extensive study by Hermanns explaining the epic as the product of the Heroic Age of the nomads of northeastern Tibet and their interactions with the many other peoples of the Inner Asian steppe. Hermanns believed the epic to pre-date Buddhism in Tibet, and saw in it an expression of the ancient Tibetan archetype of the "heaven-sent king," seen also in the myths of the founders of the Yarlung Dynasty, who established the Tibetan Empire (seventh-ninth centuries C.E.).
A.H. Francke collected and translated a version from Lower Ladakh between 1905 and 1909.
The most accessible rendering of Gesar in English is by Alexandra David-Neel in her Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling, published in French and then English in the 1930s.
All links retrieved August 21, 2017.
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