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date: 29 March 2023

Tibetan Buddhism and the Gesar Epicfree

Tibetan Buddhism and the Gesar Epicfree

  • Solomon George FitzHerbertSolomon George FitzHerbertUniversity of Oxford


In both eastern Tibet and in Mongolia, the Buddhist cult surrounding the figure of Ling Gesar (Gling ge sar) or Geser Khan in Mongolian versions is an outgrowth of Gesar’s standing as the eponymous hero of an elaborate oral epic tradition. Today, the epic and the Buddhist cult exist side by side in a relationship of symbiosis. Gesar’s sanctification as an enlightened being—as the combined manifestation of the Three Bodhisattva Lords and as an “emissary” or “manifestation” of Padmasambhava—whose tricksterism is enacted on behalf of the forces of goodness, justice, and the White Side in its perennial battle against the forces of evil, injustice, and the Dark Side—is both an outgrowth but also a source of nourishment for the epic tradition as it has continued to adapt and develop up to our own times.

The Gesar/Geser epic, in all the three main regions in which it survives (eastern Tibet and its neighboring regions, the Mongolic regions as far west as Kalmykia, and Ladakh and neighboring regions), is a living and mobile tradition of oral recitation and improvisation. The available textual corpus of this epic is very large, though none of it is very old (the oldest available epic texts in Tibetan are from the 17th century and in Mongolian are from 18th century). Thanks in part to sustained state patronage in the PRC, there are now over 200 published volumes of non-duplicating Gesar epic narrative and song, mostly from eastern Tibet. A lot of this material is of a directly oral provenance. Many modern volumes are the direct transcriptions (with some editing) of the oral repertoires of contemporary bards, some of which have been very lengthy. To take one example, the recorded repertoire of the bard Samdrup (Bsam grub) (1922–2011) was over 3,000 hours long, much of which has now been published. As for literary versions, the authors of Gesar epic texts often make explicit the debt that their tellings owe to oral renditions that they have heard. The mid-18th-century author of the famous Horling Yülgyé (Hor gling g.yul ’gyed), for example, mentions that he based his telling on the oral repertoires of “some twenty bards,” several of whom he cites by name. Due to the heterogeneity and sheer volume of this available textual corpus, it is hard to make categorical assertions about the relationship between Buddhism and the epic tradition, since that relationship varies from version to version. However, some general observations may be offered. In the ritual cult devoted to Gesar that evolved from the epic tradition, matters are somewhat clearer. In the ritual texts devoted to Gesar—which are mostly offering texts—the unruly polyphony of the epic (many bards, many characters, many perspectives) is replaced with a neater integrated vision, in which the hero is praised as a totalizing culture hero and enlightened lord—a hero in every register, both worldly and spiritual, both chivalric and shamanistic.


  • Myth and Legend
  • Buddhism

Buddhism and the Epic

Much of the Gesar/Geser epic’s milieu and ethos suggests a pastoralist/warrior culture in which institutional/monastic Buddhism is not well established. The extent to which Buddhism is central to the epic’s style, orientation, theatre, and ideological pieties varies across tellings. In general one can say that the outlying Buryat and Ladakhi traditions display less overt Buddhist influence, while the eastern Tibetan tradition, where Gesar has been embraced within certain sections of institutional Vajrayāna Buddhism (especially since the late 19th century), is most imbued with explicitly Buddhist pieties. This observation suggests that the Buddhism of the epic represents a relatively late interpretative layer, while the archaic core of the epic lies in a secular folkloric orientation only lightly touched by Buddhist influence. The question of the epic’s origins, however, remains uncertain. Based on the mentions of Gesar and his warriors in the Tibetan mytho-historical text known as Lang kyi poti séru (Rlangs kyi po ti bse ru),1 which probably underwent its final redaction in the 15th century), Tibetan and Mongolian scholars tend to consider the epic’s origins lying in far northeastern Tibet and the inner Asian trade routes during the 11th and 12th centuries, which was a period of intense competition between rival nomadic confederacies for control over the lucrative horse trade between China and inner Asia. How the tradition spread, and why it became particularly embedded in Buryatia (far to the north) and Ladakh (far to the west), remain, however, poorly understood, and the subject of speculation. Clearly the epic in its various regional traditions is a bricolage of different mythic, legendary, folkloric, and religious elements. To search for a unitary origin would therefore be misguided.

One striking feature that one finds in all tellings of the Gesar/Geser epic, whether oral or literary, and from all the regions of the epic’s dissemination, is a core black/white dualism. The epic is presented as a continuation in the human chivalric realm of the perennial cosmic battle between the forces of the White Side or karchok (dkar phyogs) and the Dark Side or nakchok (nag phyogs). This feature is particularly notable in the far western Ladakhi and Burushaski oral traditions, the far eastern oral traditions among the Monguor and Gyalrong peoples, and the northern traditions of Buryatia. But it is also found prominently in the more elaborated, overtly Buddhist, and literarily influenced eastern Tibetan traditions. One often finds this motif most elaborated in the episodes of the epic dealing with the divine mission and birth of the epic hero. Here the hero is sent by the gods of the White Side to defeat the demonic forces of the Dark Side who have come to dominate the middle land of humans. This black/white dualism is a very common trope in Tibetan Buddhist conversion legends. The White Side represents the virtuous and liberating Buddha dharma, while the Dark Side represents the demonic forces of ignorance and obstruction. So whether this dualism comes into the epic’s “pool of tradition”2 as a Tibetan Buddhist motif, or whether it represents part of an older religiously indeterminate Eurasian mythic strata (seen not only in Indian Vedic religion but also in Zoroastrian and Manicheian religions and in the shamanically tinted epic traditions of the Turkic peoples of central Asia and the Siberian steppe, as well as in the dualist mythology of Tibetan Bon), shall perhaps never be known with any certainty. Certainly in contemporary eastern Tibetan culture, the struggle between karchok and nagchok is interpreted by most tellers (oral and literary) as a Buddhist paradigm. There the central mission of the divinely sent hero is interpreted as an explicitly Buddhist mission—the conversion of the demonically influenced tribes and leaders to the liberating righteousness of Buddhism.

However, though Gesar in this broad sense is portrayed as a Buddhist hero and Ling as a Buddhist society, the cultural milieu of the epic, even in the eastern Tibetan tradition, is one in which institutional/monastic Buddhism is not well established. The individual clans and tribes in the epic are generally depicted as having their own ritualists, amchö (a mchod) or lama (bla ma), and the heroes regularly perform rites of sang (bsang) smoke purification and defer major decisions to the prognostications of divination or mo (mo). But mentions of monastic communities are markedly absent, even within the model “home” society of the (avowedly Buddhist) Lingpas.

As noted in the work on the Gesar epic by Samten Karmay,3 the eastern Tibetan epic’s pool of tradition suggests a cultural milieu that owes considerably to the traditions of Tibetan Bon. For example, a central role is played in the epic by Gesar’s female protectress or “aunt” Ané Gungmen Gyelmo (A ne dgung sman rgyal mo) or Manene, a figure with considerable resonance in Bon as a primordial female deity linked to the mythical origins of the sang (bsang) smoke-purification rite,4 which is a mainstay of Tibetan popular religion. The epic tradition also gives prominence to the drala (dgra bla/sgra bla/dgra lha) and werma (wer ma) classes of warrior spirits who empower weaponry and armor, making swords unnaturally sharp and arrows unnaturally swift and so on. These Tibetan spirit categories have no obvious Indic or Buddhist antecedents, but are prominently represented in the Bon tradition. The eastern Tibetan epic tradition also has a central emphasis on the three-tiered spirit world of lha (lha) gods of the sky above, lu (klu) netherworld spirits below, and nyen (gnyan) mountain-dwelling divinities in the middle, all three of whom unite behind the hero and are his main spirit-world supports. Also, the rhapsodic style of invocation in which the chantefable epic is performed has much in common—in both style and content—with Tibetan traditions of spirit invocation used by diviners (mo ma) and mediums (lha pa). All of these features suggest that the epic tradition is grounded first and foremost in what R. A. Stein dubbed Tibet’s “nameless religion” preserved not by Buddhist institutionalism, but by the folk beliefs and practices of the laity. Naturally, however, in the predominantly Buddhist societies in which the epic has flourished, this folkloric orientation has also absorbed many explicitly Buddhist pieties. So in most modern tellings, for example, the gods of the upper realm who send the hero on his divine mission are assimilated to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of Mahāyāna Buddhism. But in general one can say that the Buddhism of the epic appears to be just a part of the epic’s pool of tradition, rather than its primary source or inspiration. The suggestion that the epic has pre-Buddhist roots was also made by the early Tibetologist A. H Francke, who collected oral versions of the epic in Ladakh in the early 20th century and published them as A Lower Ladakhi Version of the Kesar Saga.5 These versions, he observed, make no explicit reference to Buddhism, though they do depict the hero representing the White Side in its eternal battle with the Dark Side.

Buddhism in the epic is therefore primarily a Buddhism of aspiration, rather than one of descriptive or concrete institutional reality. A recurrent theme in the eastern Tibetan epic is the hero retiring into periods of meditative absorption, and then being roused once again to action by the dream-visitation-exhortations of his protecting goddess Manene. But it is very unusual for the hero’s Buddhist practice to be described with any specificity. As such, the Buddhism of the epic is free from institutional, sectarian, or historical bias. The deities evoked by the heroes and heroines of Ling in their songs, for example, do not tend to be protectors associated with particular specific lineages or teachings, but are more often deities shared across Tibetan Buddhist traditions. And it is very rare to find explicit mentions within the epic of specific historical or religious figures drawn from Tibet’s rich store legend and myth. The main exception to this absence of “historical” figures from the epic narrative is that in modern times—and especially since the 19th century—Padmasambhava has increasingly come to occupy a central role in the epic plot in many tellings, not only as the architect of the hero’s divine mission, but also as the hero’s main personal guide. This development continues to gather momentum today. The seminal textual version of the epic that gives pride of place to Padmasambhava in its narrative is the so-called Lingtsang Xylograph.6 This text was composed in the early 20th century by a Nyingmapa monk under the patronage of the religious king of the eastern Tibetan principality of Lingtsang. This three-volume version integrates local oral and literary traditions concerning Gesar with the hero’s Buddhist apotheosis, which had been greatly elaborated in late 19th century by the dozens of Gesar ritual texts authored by the highly influential and prolific lama Ju Mipham Namgyel Gyatso (’Ju mi pham rnam rgyal rgya mtsho; 1846–1912). The Lingtsang Xylograph version also gives a prominent place in the narrative to the 15th-century sage Thangthong Gyalpo (Thang mthong rgyal po). The idiosyncracy of this cameo appearance is probably connected to the important role played by Thangthong Gyalpo in the religious history of the neighboring eastern Tibetan kingdoms of Lingtsang and Derge. It also hints at the possibility that Thangtong Gyalpo, well known as a pioneer of the Tibetan opera ache lhamo (a lce lha mo) art form, may also have played a role in the development and popularization of the epic as a performative tradition. There is, however, no further corroborating evidence of this.

In general, therefore, one can say that the predominant ethos of the eastern Tibetan epic tradition is explicitly Buddhist, but not sectarian. The victory of the tribe of Ling over its adversaries is the victory of the White Buddha dharma—along with its civil law (khrims) based on the ten virtues—over the heresies of its opponents, namely the tribes of Hor (hor), Düyül (bdud yul), Takzik (stag gzig), Khache (kha che), and so on, who are generally depicted in a variety of idiosyncratic and fanciful ways as Bonpos or other kinds of non-Buddhists.

The model of conflict one finds in the epic is also a blend of overtly Buddhist paradigms and those of less clearly Buddhist origin. In many tellings, especially in those epic texts authored by Buddhist monks, the Buddhist paradigm of demon taming is often evoked. Gesar is often depicted as bearing the “wrathful gaze for taming Rudra,” the archetypal demon of Tibetan Vajrayāna, and his enemies, when killed, are often said to be “liberated.” However, the model of conflict also gives pride of place to the Tibetan concept of la (bla), sometimes translated as “soul,” which again finds elaborate expression in Bon tradition, but is not a Buddhist concept. In order to defeat an enemy, the epic hero must first weaken the opponent by separating him from the “supports” of his la, which can be portable shrines, boxes, stones, or wild and domesticated animals. By killing the opponent’s soul-supporting animals, and tricking him into desecrating or destroying his own soul-supporting shrines and objects, the hero weakens the enemy’s power and charisma and renders him an object of ridicule, thus making him susceptible to defeat and his followers open to conversion to Ling and the forces of the White Side. This emphasis on la in the context of battle and conflict resonates strongly with myths and legends of early pre-Buddhist Tibet, in particular with the myth of Drigum Tsenpo (Dri gum btsan po), an early figure in the lineage of the Yarlung Pugyal dynasty who ruled Tibet during its imperial period.

In his conflicts with foes, the hero is also aided by warrior spirits known as drala and werma mentioned earlier, which are also often the objects of propitiation when the warriors of Ling perform their sang rituals of smoke purification. These warrior spirits, which are often associated through their names with carnivorous wild animals, are not categories with Buddhist origins but are prominent in Bon tradition. They are, however, also incorporated to some degree within Nyingmapa tantric traditions, which include, for example, the “five deities of the head” (’go ba’i lha lnga), of whom the drala are often counted as one, in the entourages of certain wrathful Buddhist tantric divinities.

Where the Buddhism of the epic is most evident is in the invocations made by the heroes in their songs. Gesaric songs follow a formulaic pattern in which the character first calls upon his or her own favored divinities to “bear witness” (mkhyen), then introduces him- or herself followed by the place of action, before continuing into the main import of the song. While the opponents of Ling typically invoke an idiosyncratic panoply of hybrid “worldly” spirits such as the tsen (btsan), lu (klu), te’u rang (the’u rang), and so on, the heroes of Ling, and especially Gesar himself, invoke the Buddhas and Boddhisattvas as well as the paternal lords of the three-tiered spirit world of lha, lu, and nyen. Particularly prominent among the Buddhist deities invoked by the hero in many tellings are the Buddhas of the Five Families (rigs lnga) and particularly the “three bodies” (sku gsum) triad of the Padma family of Compassionate Buddhas, namely Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara, and Padamasambhava, who have a particular resonance in Tibet’s wider Buddhist conversion mythology, as reflected in the Tibetan chö jung (chos ’byung) genre of religio-mythic historiography.

The heroines of Ling, especially Gesar’s queen Drukmo (’Brug mo), also regularly invoke the female Bodhisattva Tārā as their main divinity. It is rare, however, to find the heroes of Ling invoking specific tantric deities beyond these. A major exception to this is Gesar’s villainous uncle Trothung (Khro thung), who in many tellings invokes the wrathful form of Tamdrin/Hayagriva (Rta mgrin) as his tutelary deity in his songs. In fact, Throthung is often the character most explicitly portrayed in the epic as a tantrist. But he is a vainglorious and fickle figure, whose loyalties are also often portrayed as Bonpo. On account of his practices, Throthung has considerable magical power, but his exercise of magic regularly backfires, landing him in all sorts of sticky and humiliating situations. So while Gesar represents the genuinely enlightened lord, Trothung as his foil represents the vain egotistical tantrist, with all the confusions that incorrect and unscrupulous tantric practice can entail.

The Palimsest of Gesar’s Buddhist Apotheosis

In general terms, one might suggest that Gesar’s divinity in the epic is a heroic palimpsest. In the first place he is a tribal warrior-hero with a band (or comitatus) of loyal knights embedded in a clan social structure. The formal setting in which this role is most clearly expressed is the tribal assembly, which is a recurrent theme in the epic’s pool of tradition. Typically the assembly is convened by the blowing of the “white conch of the law” and the beating of the “drum of the law” and the sending out of messages of summons far and wide. At the assembly all the people of Ling (including the “father-uncles,” “mother-aunts,” lamas and diviners, elders, and children), as well as all the leaders of the tribes and clans that have joined the ever-swelling ranks of Ling, are seated according to rank and status on animal-hide seats suitable to their station. Gesar himself is seated at their center on a golden throne. But Gesar’s role in the epic as a tribal lord is not a straightforward one. For his chivalric station in the epic is mirrored by what might be called his “shamanic” station as the lord and tamer of the unruly spirit world. This might also be called his “tantric” station, since tantrism in Tibetan Buddhism is centrally involved with taming the spirit world and the forces of nature. And sometimes Gesar is even depicted wearing the tantrist’s initiation crown. But since he does not tend to be explicitly tied to specific tantric practices, cycles, or lineages, and since his spirit-taming adventures are performed through heroic solo missions and magical shape-shifting journeys, rather than through magical ritual, the term “shamanic” might be a more suitable than “tantric” in this context.

As a chivalric-shamanic lord historicized as an ancestral hero of the Dong (ldong) tribal lineage in large parts of eastern Tibet, especially the regions around the Upper Yellow (Rma chu), Upper Yalong (Rdza chu), and Upper Yangtze (’Bri chu) Rivers, Gesar also came to be venerated as a kind of local ancestral protector deity (srung ma) in a manner akin to other worldly local gods of place know as yul-lha (yul lha) or zhidak (zhi bdag). In keeping with his status as culture-hero, his position as a protector tends to have a political note—he is a protector not so much of the dharma, but of the place: the people, clan, family, livestock, and horses. His support is particularly supplicated in times of competition, travel, trade, gambling, conflict, and sickness. He is even, as befits the merging of the figures of Gesar and Guandi (the Chinese general-turned- imperial-protector deity) during the Qing dynasty, considered a protector of the nation, however that might be construed (Tibetan nation, Buryat nation, Mongolian nation, Manchu Imperium, etc.).

As a protector he is propitiated in a manner akin to mountain deities, primarily by means of the sang offering rite of purifying smoke, which can also be combined with offerings of alcohol, food, and sometimes also meat. However, unlike most zhidak or yul-lha, Gesar is not associated with any specific mountain, though he is held to have a special relationship with the mightiest of the yul-lha of northeastern Tibet, Magyal Pomra (Rma rgyal spom ra). It is from this mountain deity, according to some tellings of the epic, that he obtains his magical weapons and armor.

Gesar’s further sanctification as an enlightened being or Buddha follows a similar (though not identical) trajectory to the parallel sanctification of other “worldly” protectors in Tibetan Buddhism. However, unlike typical narratives concerning the apotheoisis of the Tibetan dam-chen (dam can) “oath-bound” deities that are propitiated across the Tibetan cultural world as protectors of the Buddhist dharma, Gesar was never “bound by oath,” nor converted from a pre-Buddhist to Buddhist form. Instead his divinity is primordial: it derives from his status in the epic tradition as a son of the “gods above” (gong ma’i lha). In a Buddhist register, the sky gods of the upper realm are merged and assimilated, to varying degrees, with the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas of Mahāyāna Buddhism.7 As a prince of the upper realm sent to the middle world of humans to bring order and justice there, Gesar thus comes to be considered an enlightened being from the outset, who requires no binding by oath nor conversion to be a protector of the faith. Instead the tropes of conversion and binding by oath that one finds in the Gesar epic are not in his being bound by oath by Padmasambhava (as with so many other narratives of native Tibetan protective divinities) but rather are tropes used of Gesar’s own enlightened activities: it is he who binds by oath and (more often) “liberates” (the Buddhist euphemism for righteous killing) his demonic and non-Buddhist tribal foes. In this way Gesar is unusual as a native Tibetan protective divinity. And his role thus becomes parallel to that of Tibetan Buddhist civilization’s archetypal tamer of demons and converter of the native spirit world, namely Padmasambhava himself. So Gesar is not a subject of Padmasmabhava, but rather a place holder for him. And by being Padmasambhava’s emissary or manifestation, Gesar is also thereby tied to the wider Buddhist national mythology concerning the conversion and salvation of the barbarous snowlands of Tibet by means of the repeated interventions of its patron Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, of whom Padmasambhava (and thence Gesar) is but one incarnation.

This unusual position renders Gesar’s role and status as a Buddhist protector rather fluid. Unlike a typical yul-lha or zhidak, he is not tied to any specific locality or community. And unlike a dam-chen, he has not been bound by oath by any outside or superior force. Being unrestricted in terms of locality makes Gesar suitable as the “destined deity for all the black-haired highlanders of Tibet.” He is also described as an enemy-vanquishing warrior deity or drala as per the modern Nyingmapa usage of this term, which is somewhat distinct from the more archaic and Bonpo-esque use of the term within the epic. Gesar is also sometimes described as a “wealth god” (nor lha) of both Tibet and China. This latter status is likely connected to the association nurtured during the Manchu Qing dynasty between Gesar and the Chinese martial deity Guandi.8

However, in contemporary eastern Tibetan epic tradition, Gesar’s primary sanctity is undoubtedly furnished by his association with Padmasambhava. It is this close association—whereby Sengchen Norbu Drandul (Seng chen nor bu dgra ’dul, as Gesar is often known) effectively becomes a folkloric place holder for Padmasambhava, whose violent activities are assimilated to the tantric demon taming of Vajrayāna Buddhism—which in recent times has come to subsume other facets of Gesar’s heroic identity. Early texts suggest that in earlier religious interpretations of Ling Gesar’s “place” in Tibetan civilizational discourse, he was initially more often identified as a place holder for the 8th-century Tibetan king Trisong Deutsen (Khri srong lde’u btsan), Padmasambhava’s secular patron. But gradually this association came to be subsumed by a more direct association between Gesar and Padmasambhava himself.

The association between Gesar and Padmasambhava dates back certainly as far as the mid-17th century (when Gesar epic texts start to appear in Tibetan), and perhaps earlier. Clearly, it was greatly bolstered by the epic’s literary tradition, since like all forms of Tibetan literature, written versions of the Gesar epic are tend to be the work of monk-authors. Today the association between Gesar and Padmasambhava thoroughly suffuses the oral epic tradition of eastern Tibet. Early Gesar texts that appear to promote the association include, for example, the Takzik Norgyé (Stag gzig nor ’gyed, a text attributed to Dzogtrül Pema Rigzin; Rdzogs sprul Padma rig ’dzin; 1625–1697),9 which is currently our oldest datable Gesar epic text. Its setting is an assembly at which Gesar is distributing the wealth and tribute accrued from his victory over Takzik, to the assembled throngs of Ling and its many other incorporated subjects of the four directions. When Gesar addresses this assembly, his first appeal (in the invocatory section of his song) is to Pema Jungné (Padma ’byung gnas/Padmasambhava). Then, when introducing himself (as per the epic’s performative conventions) he declares,

As for me, if you know me not, In the early part of life, known as the vagrant child Joru, I was the terror (lit: “tiger-demon”) of the pika of Lower Ma In the middle part [of life], known as the military-commander Drandul, I was the annihilator of the demon Hor In the latter part of life, known as a Buddha of the Three Times, I am one who sets beings on the path to liberation. I am the king of Tibet and the World, I am the lama who guides departed souls I am the inner counsel of worldly chiefs I am the drala (enemy-defeating god) of men!10

Later in the same song, when praising the many treasures he has accrued, he declares that among them are those which had been concealed by Orgyan Pema (Padmasambhava), which only he has been able to “bring out,” since he, the Great Lion King, is “a trulku [bodily manifestation] of the great master of Orgyan,” and the “summation of the Three Bodhisattva Lords.”11

In another relatively early literary Gesar text (probably dating from the 18th century) known as Tsawa’i Namthar,12 Gesar’s association with Padmasambhava and his apotheosis as a buddha (as an incarnation of the Three Bodhisattva Lords) is also celebrated. Its opening verse of praise describes the hero thus:

By morning a slaying slaughterman, By evening a lama who guides [departed souls]. A buddha who has gone beyond the earth. Pillar of the pristine blue sky, Peg that holds fast the earth’s foundation. Executioner who tames Rudra, Neck-yoke of Yellow Hor, Bludgeon of Black Demons, Destined god of Tibet and the World. In the holy dharma, he is Śakyamuni In the secret mantrayāna, he is Padmasambhava. With perfect wisdom and method, he is Jamyang (Manjuśrī) With loving-kindness and compassion, he is Chenrézik (Avalokiteśvara) With magical power, he is Chaknadorjé (Vajrapāṇi). Son of the magically-manifesting primordial werma Son of the swift primordial drala. Master of enjoyment, he is a prince of the lu [water spirits below] Master of magic, he is son of king of lha [gods above] Summation of heroic skill, he is son of king of nyen [mountain divinities in the middle].13

In the Horling Yülgyé, a seminal Gesar epic text from Kham that dates from the 1730s (though it comes down to us only in a version further edited in the early 1960s),14 the association between Gesar and Padmasambhava is not at all prominent, perhaps reflecting the source of this version in the early 18th-century oral recitations of “some twenty bards” that the author took as his base. However, the same Buddhist associations do also appear in this text, albeit rather late (half way through the second volume). Here, Gesar is presented as an “emissary” (pho nya) of Padmasambhava, but also as a “manifestation” (sprul pa) of his secular patron, the Tibetan emperor Trisong Deutsen:

Gesar, King of the World, Sengchen Norbu Drandul, Manifestation of the Three Bodhisattva Lords (rigs gsum mgon po rnam sprul) Emissary of Lopön Padma, Manifestation of Trisong Deutsen, Lord of the World Drala of the Tibetan Snowlands Protective Guardian of the White Side Subduing Slayer of the Dark Side Chief who advances righteousness and snuffs out evil, Military commander who smashes enemies and promotes his kin And so on.15

The Epic of Gesar and the Cult of Gesar

Ritual texts of smoke purification (bsang) propitiating Gesar as a protective deity and as an enlightened being start to appear in Tibetan as early as our earliest epic texts. It is safe to assert that this ritual cult was an outgrowth of an existing oral epic tradition that was already well developed. Because the early epic texts we have tend to be the work of monastic authors, it is sometimes hard to draw a clear line between the epic, on the one hand, and the verses of praise to Gesar used in a ritual context, on the other. Given the symbiotic relationship between the epic and the cult, one way of understanding the relationship is that the cult replaces the polyphony of the epic—many bards, many heroes, many characters, many consorts, many deities, and many demons—with the univocal, authoritatively “realized” (mostly as “pure vision” or “mind treasure”) verses of praise and invocation. As such in the cult of Gesar we only ever really encounter the hero himself and his entourage. His enemies are largely absent, as is his villainous uncle Trotung, who is a central character and protagonist in the epic. Instead, in the cult, we are presented with the univocal praise of the single deified hero: Gesar as an icon.

There are a number of “cross-over” texts that, while presenting themselves as narrative epic texts, have more the character of ritual background myths. One example is the “pure vision” (dag snang) text by the fifth Lelung incarnation Zhépé Dorjé (Sle lung lnga pa Bzhad pa’i rdo rje; 1697–1740).16 This text provides a mythic backstory for the two texts of ritual propitiation of Gesar by the same author. The vision apparently came to Lelung in 1729 and presents a theogony of Gesar as the son of a primordial goddess after her sexual union with a nyen mountain divinity. This text is particularly interesting in light of Ju Mipham’s later development of a Buddhist cult of Gesar as a yidam (yi dam) tutelary deity, because the name that Lelung uses for Gesar is Gesar Dorjé Tsegyal (Rdo rje rtshe rgyal), the same name later used by Ju Mipham in his liturgical elaborations of the ritual cult of Gesar. Lelung’s text seems to be our earliest textual attestation of this name or “form” of Gesar.

Another “cross-over” text that bridges the epic tradition and the Buddhist cult is the Nyaling dzogpa chenpo (Dmyal gling rdzogs pa chen po),17 a self-proclaimed terma (gter ma) or “treasure” text, in which Gesar goes to the hell realms (dmyal gling) to liberate tormented beings there. Both stylistically and in content, this text owes more to its Nyingmapa religious “pool of tradition” than it does to the Gesar epic’s warrior-heroic “pool of tradition.”18 It is said that in some communities in Amdo, this text is recited ritually in a manner akin to the Bardo Tödröl (Bar do thos sgrol) or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, for guiding the wandering souls of the recently deceased. The original author of this text is said to have been be the “lama of Den” Chökyi Wangchuk (Chos kyi dbang phyugs), and it was then rediscovered in Golok in the late 18th or early 19th century by a “descendent of Ling” named Rigdzin Draktsel Dorjé (Rig ’dzin grags rtsal rdo rje).

As stated earlier, the ritual cult of Gesar is best considered an outgrowth from the epic tradition, but the ritual cult (see below) has also nourished and determined the directions in which the mobile oral and literary epic tradition has developed, especially in eastern Tibet. A good example of an influential (near canonical) epic text that explicitly cites a ritual/liturgical text as its chief source and inspiration is the Ta-gyu norbu chadün (Rta rgyugs nor bu cha bdun), which is the third volume (the “horse race”) of the Lingtsang Xylograph. The author of this text, who was the abbot of the small Nyingmapa monastery adjoining the palace of the Lingtsang king (rgyal po) in the early 20th century, states explicitly both in his prologue and in the colophon, that his inspiration in writing the volume was to elucidate the Mipham-authored prayer to Gesar known as the The Symbolic Secret Jewel (Brda gsang nor bu).

Many prominent contemporary tellers and authors of the epic in eastern Tibet have been particularly influenced in their tellings by the recent charismatic lama Khenpo Jikmé Phuntsok (’Jigs med phun tshogs; 1933–2004), who identified himself as an incarnation of one of the lesser heroes from the Gesar epic tradition. In keeping with the traditions cemented by Ju Mipham in the 19th century, Khenpo Jikphun adopted Gesar as both a symbol and an important enlightened protector of the Dzogchen-infused eastern Tibetan ri-mé (ris med) or nonsectarian Buddhist tradition. Contemporary authors of Gesar epic texts such as Guru Gyeltsen (Gu ru rgyal mtshan) from Gabdé (Sga bde), and Tendzin Drakpa (Bstan ’dzin grags pa) from Chikdril (Gcig dril), both in the Golok (’Go log) region, are examples of devout Nyingmapa ngakpas (sngags pa) or lay māntrin practitioners devoted to Khenpo Jikphun who have made careers as authors of new Gesar epic texts, describing them as mind treasures (dgongs gter).

Gesar Rituals

It is hard to say with certainty when Tibetan Gesar ritual texts started to emerge. The earliest texts appear to date from the 17th century.19 However, the main body of Gesar ritual texts date from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and continue to be composed today. The form in which Gesar is often ritually propitiated is Gesar Dorje Tsegyal, “the Vajra Lord of Life.” The earliest attested use of this “tantric” title for Gesar is in the early 18th-century visionary text of the fifth Lelung Rinpoche mentioned earlier. A two-volume compendium of ritual texts devoted to Ling Gesar dating from the 18th and 19th centuries was published in India in 1971 by the eighth Khamtrül Rinpoche as the Ling Gesar Drupkor (Gling ge sar sgrub skor).20 The earliest texts in this collection are visionary texts attributed to Lharik Dechen Yeshe Rölpatsel (Lha rigs bde chen ye shes rol pa rtsal), a Dzogchen practitioner about whom little is known, though he appears to have lived in the 18th–19th centuries. Other authors of texts in this collection include many of the most famous eastern Tibetan lamas associated with the late 19th-century rimé (nonsectarian) revival: the fifth Khamtrül Drupgyü Nyima (Khams sprul lnga pa Sgrub brgyud nyi ma; 1781–1847), Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje (Rdo mkhyen brtse ye shes rdo rje; 1800–1859), Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye (’Jam mgon kong sprul blo gros mtha’ yas; 1813–1899), Nyagla Pema Dündul (Nyag bla Padma bdud ’dul; 1816–1872), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (’Jam dbyang mkhyen brtse dbang po; 1820–1892), Chogyur Lingpa (Mchog gyur gling pa; 1829–1870). But by far the most prominent author in this collection is Ju Mipham Namgyel Gyatso (’Ju mi pham rnam rgyal rgya mtsho; 1846–1912), who authored no fewer than forty-five Gesar ritual texts. These texts span Mipham’s long and prolific career. The earliest was composed when he was only thirteen years old (1859) and the latest when he was around sixty.

Mipham’s Gesar corpus is extensive and wide ranging. As elucidated in recent research by Gregory Forgues (book forthcoming), it covers a range of popular folk rituals in which Gesar is invoked. Mipham also establishes Gesar as a tantric tutelary deity or yidam (yi dam) for the “four activities” (pacifying, enriching, magnetising, and subjugating), and in particular he celebrates Gesar as a vehicle for specifically Dzogchen teachings. Gesar’s position in the “lower vehicles” as a messenger of Padmasambhava and a symbol of efficacy in apotropaic rituals is thus combined with a further symbolism in the “highest vehicle” of Dzogchen, in which he symbolizes the “direct” path to Buddhist realization through bare recognition of the ineffable ground of all phenomena. Devotional practices directed at Gesar, such as recitation of an unattributed terma verse of praise known simply as the Drala Töpa (Dgra lha bstod pa) or “Praise for the drala,” are also sometimes used as preliminary practices for Dzogchen teachings.

As shown by Forgues,21 taking Mipham’s famous prayer known as the Sol-lo Chenmo (full name: Gsol mchod phrin las myur ’grub) as an example, Gesar is depicted as a rigdzin (rig ’dzin), “holder of sheer knowing,” and as a yidam. In the prayer he is described inter alia as the “combined embodiment of the magical manifestation of the peaceful and wrathful deities of the Three Bodhisattva Lords” (line 17) the “face of all the Buddhas” (line 19); the “chief of the guardians and dharma protectors” (line 22); “the precious essence of the ocean of wealth gods” (line 23); the “supreme king of the drala”(line 24); and in many different formulations, as the “slayer of all the spirits of the Dark Side” (eg line 34).22 The range of rituals covered by Mipham’s Gesar texts is impressive. His Gesar rituals include the following:

supplications and offerings (gsol mchod/ gsol ’debs) smoke-purification offerings (bsang mchod) sādhanas (sgrub thabs) guru yogas (bla ma’i rnal ’byor) rituals to summon good fortune (g.yang ’gug/ g.yang sgrub) instructions for improving prāna by preparing and raising prayer flags (rlung rta) rituals for attaining wealth (nor sgrub) rituals for the fulfillment of pledges (bskang gsol) divination rituals (pra chog) rituals for overcoming enemies (dgra ’dul) rituals for attaining the (wish-fulfilling) “whip” (lcag sgrub) “heart-essence” Dzogchen practice texts (snying thig) religious advice/pith instructions/ upadeśa (man ngag), tantric rituals to magnetize (dbang sdud) rituals to restore harmony (yo bcos), rituals of life-force entrustment (srog gtad)

It was also Mipham who established the connection between Gesar and the millenarian Shambhala mythology of the Kālacakra Tantra by identifying Gesar with Kalkin Raudra Cakrin, the future rigden (rigs ldan) king of Shambhala. This identification is found, for example, in Mipham’s Drandul Norbu Nyingtig (Dgra ’dul nor bu snying thig).

Mipham was also influential in shaping the ritual masked dances or cham (’cham) performed in Gesar’s honor at many monasteries. In particular he is said to have designed the masks for the Gesar cham performed annually at Dzogchen monastery in Kham. He is also said to have helped design the statues of Gesar and his companions in the Gesar temple erected at the alleged site of Gesar’s birth at the village of A-shu, which was part of the historic kingdom of Lingtsang, today part of Derge county in the Kandze Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Sichuan province. This temple, founded in the early years of the 20th century, may have been the first temple exclusively devoted to Gesar (rather than to the merged forms of Gesar and Guandi). Since then many further temples have been built, especially in the Golok Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Qinghai province.

In recent decades, the Buddhist cult of Gesar has been continued and further developed by a variety of Tibetan lamas, many of whom come from the “Gesar country” around the Dri, Ma, and Dza Rivers of northern Kham and Golok. Prominent among them in the global dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism since the 1950s have been Chogyam Trungpa, Tarthang Tulku, and Namkha Drimed (who practices Gesar divination). Most influential in the contemporary eastern Tibetan development of the cult has been Khenpo Jikmé Phuntsok, and many others since then.

The Cult of Ling Gesar and the Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

In a devotional/ritual context, Ling Gesar is today considered a predominantly Nyingma deity—a wish-fulfilling yidam in a mounted-warrior drala form with a strong association with Padmasambhava as a tamer of the unruly spirit world. However, the Buddhist cult of Gesar in Tibet has always been primarily a regional phenomenon, rather than one determined by sectarian affiliation. In central Tibet, the cult of Gesar is weak and in many places nonexistent, whereas throughout Kham and Amdo, the cult is particularly strong. In eastern Tibet, Gesar’s apotheosis has been an explicitly ri-mé or “nonsectarian” phenomenon, and there are many Nyingma, Kagyü, and Sakya monasteries that perform Gesar dances and rituals and maintain Gesar shrines in these areas. Among the Kagyüpa an association is nurtured between Gesar and Milarepa. In Mongolia, Geser Khan has also been embraced at various times as a Buddhist protector, mostly by Gelukpas. This is connected in part to the merging of the figures of Gesar, Guandi, and Begtse during the Qing dynasty. The Ladakhi Kesar tradition, in contrast, does not appear to have developed a Buddhist cult in the same way.

Although the Tibetan Gesar cult is sometimes presented as embracing “Buddhism and Bon without distinction,” there is no evidence of a cult of Ling Gesar in Tibetan Bon religion. It seems that while Buddhists often regard the cult of Gesar as being tinged with Bon elements—in particular with regard to the hero’s “parentage” among primordial sky deities, his connections to the spirits of the Upper Middle and Lower realms, and his association with the archaic warrior spirits the drala and werma—Bonpos for their part consider Gesar an explicitly Buddhist figure, who if anything is hostile to Bon, and they do not take part in his apotheosis. An exception to this are the three volumes of Gesar texts authored by a rimé Bonpo chief named Wangchen Nyima (Dbang chen nyi ma) in the early 20th century.23

There is an abiding impression among scholars that the cult of Gesar is anathema to the Gelukpa school. This, however, seems to be a simplification. It is true that monks in Drepung Monastery, one of the most important seats of the Geluk school, are discouraged from reading or listening to the Gesar epic. It is said that this proscription is connected to the cult of the protector Pehar, who is particularly associated with the Nechung Oracle located right next to Drepung in Lhasa. The protector Pehar is associated by legend with Namte Karpo, an inner Asian deity hostile to Buddhism who was converted into the Buddhist protector Pehar by Padmasambhava. In the Gesar epic, Namte Karpo is the favored deity of several of Gesar’s main adversaries (such as the Horpas). There is a concern that to read or recite Gesar near the Nechung oracle could therefore anger Pehar, and that this could have negative consequences. A less cultic explanation of the proscription is simply that the Gesar epic is to be avoided because it is a waste of time: the epic as the collective product of generations of often illiterate storytellers is considered an ill-informed mess, particularly in its apparent religious pieties, and is therefore not a suitable material subject of distraction for monastics.

Despite this proscription in Drepung, however, it would be misleading to regard the cult of Gesar as having no place in the Geluk world. In Geluk tradition the association between Gesar with the wealth deity and guardian of the north, Vaisravana, is the primary point of reference for whatever sanctity the figure of Gesar enjoys. In Mongolia, where the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism was dominant since the 16th century, the propitiation of Geser as an enlightened protector flourished. In part this appears to be a legacy of the Qing dynasty’s merging of the cults of Gesar with the Chinese imperial protector-deity Guandi. The Guandi temple established in Lhasa in 1793 after the Qing expulsion of the Gorkha invasion, which was curated by the Gelukpa monks of the neighboring Kundeling Monastery, also doubled as a Gesar temple for the Tibetans, at which government ritual observances involving both the Manchu Imperial representatives (known as ambans) and officials of the (Geluk-aligned) Tibetan government took part.

The notion that Gelukpas in general were hostile toward the cult of Gesar as a protector was roundly dismissed by the Mongolian scholar and lama Bâmbyn Rintchen as an “absurd thesis.”24 In favor of Rintchen’s assertions on this point, it is worth observing that we have Gesar thangkas depicting the epic hero surrounded by yellow-hatted (Geluk) lamas. George Roerich in his 1942 article observed,

In Amdo among the followers of the dGe-lugs-pa sect one often hears the unexpected statement that Tsong-kha-pa himself, the Tibetan Reformer, had once been the chaplain (a-mchod) of King Kesar of Ling.25

We also know that the Reting Regent, Gelukpa ruler of Tibet during the minority of the present fourteenth Dalai Lama, was himself very keen on Gesar as a protector figure and even supported a personal Gesar bard, in the person of Champasangta (Byams pa gsang bdag), who would later become the knowledgeable informant of both R. A. Stein and Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, two of the foremost pioneers of western Tibetology. The Reting Regent himself was also involved in the sponsorship of a Gesar text by the third Jamtrul Rinpoche (a relatively minor Nyingmapa Kham lineage) in the 1920s.

So although it would be wrong to assert outright that a Buddhist cult of Gesar is anathema to the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism, it is fair to say that the ethos of the Buddhist cult of Gesar leans toward the Nyingma and Kagyü schools of Tibetan mysticism.

Review of the Literature

The epic of Gesar became an object of study for Tibetan scholars relatively recently. The only premodern Tibetan scholarly treatment of the epic came in the letters of Sumpa Khenpo (Sum pa mkhan po Ye shes dpal ’byor; 1704–1788) to the sixth Panchen Lama (Blo bzang dpal ldan ye shes; 1738–1780).26 However, since the incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, the study of Gesar as a folk hero has been supported by state patronage, and as a result the academic study of the epic has flourished, with scores of Tibetan- and Chinese-language books on various facets of the epic being published. Collection, transcription, and publication of the oral recitations of living bards have also been prioritized by the Gesar research institutes established in all Chinese provinces with Tibetan populations (particularly Tibetan Autonomous Region, Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan). R. A. Stein’s monumental work on the epic, his 1959 Recherches sur l’Épopée et le Barde au Tibet, has also been published in Chinese translation. Despite this tremendous growth in scholarly attention being lavished on the epic, its religious interpretation and the epic’s relationship to Tibetan Buddhism has not been foregrounded.

Western scholarship on the Tibetan Gesar epic began late. In the 19th century there was a limited amount of Russian scholarship focused mainly on Mongolian traditions, and an abridged German translation is the earliest rendition of the epic in any European language.27 This was an abridged translation of the Mongiolian-language version of the epic that had been sponsored by the Kangxi emperor in 1716 entitled Arban ĵü-ün eĵen Geser qagan-u toguji. Schmidt’s German translation was later published in an anonymous and unannotated English translation as Gesar! The Epic Tale of Tibet’s Great Warrior-King.28 Scholarship on the Mongolian Geser tradition is dominated by the German-language work of Walther Heissig. Interesting structuralist ethnographic theories concerning the social function of the Geser epic in Buryatia, and its relationship to hunting and shamanizing, are found in the various works (mostly in French) by Roberte Hamayon.29

The earliest Western scholarship on the Tibetan-language Gesar traditions focused on the Ladakhi versions and was undertaken by A. H. Francke in the early 20th century. Francke was particularly interested in the non-Buddhist character of the recitations he collected, and he considered the epic cycle a nature myth of pre-Buddhist origin. In 1931 a Burushaski version of the epic from the Gilgit region was published by Lorimer, which had much in common with the Ladakhi traditions.30 In the same year, the French mystic Mme David-Neel published her retelling of the entire epic,31 based on a variety of oral and literary sources collected during her sojourns in eastern Tibet. Her version remains unsurpassed as a Western-language literary treatment of the eastern Tibetan Buddhist narrative traditions concerning Ling Gesar. In 1942 George Roerich published an account of the epic and its associated culture based on research undertaken in eastern Tibet.32

The greatest milestone in Western study of the epic came in the 1950s when the epic became the main object of research of the great French Tibetologist R. A. Stein. His magnum opus was the magisterial Recherches sur l’Épopée et le Barde au Tibet published in 1959. It surveyed all the versions and sources on the epic available at that time, utilizing not only Tibetan sources but also Chinese and Mongolian. Stein’s study was studiously literary and explored the many layers of intertextuality found in the epic, giving many insights into the evolution of the Gesar epic as a Tibetan literary genre dominated by monk-authors. He also made an insightful ethnographic study of traditional Gesar bards and their clothes and accoutrements. In 1965 a lengthy study of the epic was published in German by Matthias Hermanns as Das National-Epos der Tibeter gling König Ge sar. The work is rather poorly referenced but contains interesting material, including a translation of a manuscript version of the epic from Guide in Amdo. Hermanns took the view that the epic’s origins were pre-Buddhist and lay in the warrior-pastoralist culture of the ancient inner Asian tribes. A collection of comparative literary studies by Siegbert Hummel of various apparently Indo-European mythical themes and motifs found in the Gesar cycle have been translated into English and published together as Eurasian Mythology in the Tibetan Epic of Ge-sar.

In recent decades significant Western-language contributions to the study of Gesar have been made by Samten Karmay,33 Geoffrey Samuel,34 and S. G. FitzHerbert, though material appearing in Tibetan and Chinese now far outstrips that which is available in Western languages. On the Buddhist cult of Gesar, pioneering recent research has been undertaken by Gregory Forgues, whose work includes full translations of several Mipham-authored Gesar ritual texts.35

Further Reading

Translations/Western language versions
  • Anon. Gesar! The Epic Tale of Tibet’s Great Warrior King. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing, 1991.
  • Blondeau, Anne-Marie, and Anne Chayet, trans. L’Épopée Tibétaine de Gesar: Manuscript Bon-po Fonds A. David-Néel du Musée Guimet: Présentation et Traduction. Paris: Editions Findakly, 2014.
  • David-Neel, Alexandra, and Lama Yongden. The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling the Legendary Tibetan Hero, as Sung by the Bards of his Country. London: Rider and Co., 1933.
  • Francke, A. H. A Lower Ladakhi Version of the Kesar Saga. New Delhi. Asian Educational Services, 2000.
  • Guillaume, Jacques, and Chen Zhen. Une Version rGyalrong de l’Épopée de Gesar. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2010.
  • Kornman, Robin, Sangye Khandro, and Lama Chonam, trans. The Epic of Gesar of Ling: Gesar’s Magical Birth, Early Years and Coronation as King. Boston: Shambhala, 2012.
  • Lorimer, D. L. R. “An Oral Version of the Kesar Saga from Hunza.” Folklore 42.2 (1931): 105–140.
  • Penick, Douglas J. The Warrior Song of King Gesar. Boston: Wisdom Books, 1996.
  • Richtsfeld, Bruno. “Geburt und Jugend des Helden im Gesar-Epos der Monguor (VR China, Provinz Qinghai.” Anthropos 101.2 (2006): 473–498.
  • Stein, Rolf A. L’ Épopée Tibetaine de Gesar dans sa Version Lamaïque de Ling. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1956.
Selected Scholarship
  • FitzHerbert, Solomon George. “Constitutional Mythologies and Entangled Cultures in the Tibeto-Mongolian Gesar Epic: The Motif of Gesar’s Celestial Descent.” Journal of American Folklore 129.513 (2016): 297–326.
  • FitzHerbert, Solomon George. “An Early Tibetan Gesar bsang Text.” Archiv Orientální 84 (2016): 1–60.
  • Forgues, Gregory. Journeys to Freedom: A Transdisciplinary and Transcultural History of the Tibetan Gesar Rituals and Practices. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, forthcoming 2017/2018.
  • Gcod pa don ’grub and Snying bo tshe ring. gCod pa don ’grub dang snying bo tshe ring gi ched rtsom phyogs bsgrigs. Xining: mTsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2004.
  • Hummel, Siegbert. Eurasian Mythology in the Tibetan Epic of Ge-sar. Translated by Guido Vogliotti. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1998.
  • Kapstein, Matthew, and Charles Ramble, eds. The Many Faces of Ling Gesar: Homage to Rolf A. Stein. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, forthcoming 2017/2018.
  • Karmay, Samten. “Gesar: the Epic Tradition of the Tibetan People.” Bulletin of the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University 2.3 (1992): 25–30.
  • Karmay, Samten. “The Theoretical Basis of the Tibetan Epic.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 55.2 (1993): 234–246.
  • Karmay, Samten. “The Social Organization of Ling and the Term ‘phu-nu‘in the Gesar Epic.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 55.2 (1995): 303–313.
  • Samuel, Geoffrey. “The Origins and Meaning of the East Tibetan Epic.” In Ihara and Yamaguchi, eds., Proceedings of the 5th IATS Conference (1989). Narita, 1992.
  • Stein, Rolf A. Recherches sur l’Épopée et le Barde au Tibet. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959.
  • Stein, Rolf A. “Introduction to the Gesar Epic.” Tibet Journal 6.1 (1981): 3–14.


  • 1. Rlangs kyi po ti bse ru, Gangs can rig mdzod 1 (Lhasa: Bod rang skyong ljongs spyi tshogs tshan rig khang bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang, 1986).

  • 2. On the concept of “pool of tradition” in the context of oral traditions of epic recital, see Lauri Honko “Text as Process and Practice: The Textualization of Oral Epics,” in Textualization of Oral Epics, ed. Lauri Honko, Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs 128 (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2000), 3–54.

  • 3. Karmay’s collected articles on the Gesar epic are found in Samten Karmay, The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet, vol. 1 (Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point, 1998).

  • 4. Samten Karmay, “The Local Deities and the Juniper Tree: a Ritual for Purification (bsang),” in Karmay, Arrow and Spindle, 380–412.

  • 5. A. H. Francke, A Lower Ladakhi Version of the Kesar Saga (New Delhi: Asian Education Services, 2000).

  • 6. The three volumes of the “Lingtsang Xylograph” were authored by Gyurmé Thubten Jamyang Drakpa (Gyur med Thub brtan ’jam dbyangs grags pa) in the early 20th century. The titles of the three volumes are Lha gling gab tse dgu skor; ’Khrungs gling me tog ra ba; and Rta rgyugs nor bu cha bdun. The Tibetan texts have been republished in many editions, in many countries. For example: R. A. Stein, trans., L’Epopée Tibetaine de Gesar dans sa Version Lamaique de Ling (Paris: Presses Universitaires, 1956); Kunzang Tobgyel and Mani Dorji, eds., The Epic of Gesar,’Dzam gling ge sar rgyal po’i rtogs brjod, vol. 1 (Thimphu, Bhutan: Kunzang Tobgyel, 1979); editions of the individual volumes published by Si kron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, Chengdu, in 1980, 1981, 1999; editions of the individual volumes published by Kan su’u mi rigs dpe skrun khang, Lanzhou, 1981; editions of the individual volumes published by Mtsho sngon zhing chen ge sar zhib ‘jug khang, Xining, 1986. A full English translation of the three volumes is now available as R. Kornman, Sangye Khandro, and Lama Chonam, trans., The Epic of Gesar of Ling: Gesar’s Magical Birth, Early Years and Coronation as King (Boston: Shambhala, 2012).

  • 7. Solomon George FitzHerbert, “Constitutional Mythologies and Entangled Cultures in the Tibeto-Mongolian Gesar Epic: The Motif of Gesar’s Celestial Descent,” Journal of American Folklore 129.513 (Summer 2016): 297–326.

  • 8. See R. A. Stein, Recherches sur l’Épopée et le Barde au Tibet (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959).

  • 9. Stag gzig nor ’gyed by rDzogs sprul Padma rig ’dzin (1625–1697). Editions: Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 1980, 2008; in Mnga ris gser rdzong (Chengdu: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang), 177–233. Dzogtrul Pema Rigdzin is best known for having founded Dzogchen Monastery in Kham in the 1650s with patronage from the ruler of Derge, Sanggyé Tenpa (Sangs rgyas brtan pa). The location of this monastery is very close to the historic seat of the royal family of Lingtsang, who claimed descent from Gesar’s nephew in the epic, Drala Tsegyal, and played significant role in the elevating the status of the epic in Tibetan society. Pema Rigzin is also remembered as a chief disciple of Karma Chagmé (Karma chags med) and was himself considered a reincarnation of Lang Pelgi Senge (Rlangs dpal gyi seng ge).

  • 10. Takzik Norgyé, 5–6.

  • 11. Takzik Norgyé, 8.

  • 12. (Tsa wa’i namthar)’Phags pa’i yang sprul mi yi seng ge skyes bu nor bu dgra ’dul gyi mdzad pa las spros pa’i yan lag dor te rtsa ba’i rnam thar. Editions: woodblock print held in British Library (no date); woodblock print in the library of Rai Bahadur T. D. Densapa, Gangtok, Sikkim (no date); published as Tashi Tsering, ed., Gling rje ge sar gyi rtsa ba’i mdzad pa mdor bsdus dang slob dpon chen po’i rnam thar chen mo nas zur phyung snying bsdus ’ga’ zhig (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1981).

  • 13. Tsawa’i Namthar fols. 5–7.

  • 14. Hor gling g.yul ‘gyed (2 vols.); original author (1730s): Derge zhabdrung Ngawang Tenzin Phuntso (Ngag dbang bstan ’dzin phun tshogs); edited 1960–1962 by the Qinghai Province People’s Literature and Art Association; editions: Xining, 1962 (stod cha only); Thimphu, Bhutan, Kunzang, Tobgyel, 1979 (as vols. 3 and 4 of The Epic of Gesar/‘Dzam gling ge sar rgyal po’i rtogs brjod); Xining, Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1979, 1997; Lhasa, Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 1980; and Beijing, Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2000 (as vols. 4 and 5 of the Gling sgrung gces bstus series).

  • 15. Horling Yülgyé, 2.330.

  • 16. The fifth Lelung’s Pure Vision: Dag snang ge sar gyi gtam rgyud le’u ‘o by Sle lung Bzhad pa’i rdo rje, TBRC W22130.

  • 17. Dmyal gling rdzogs pa chen po. Editions: Gling rje ge sar rgyal po’ mdzad sgrungs las dmyal ba’i le’u: An Episode from the Gesar Epic Cycle Recounting the King of Ling’s Conquest of Hell (Himachal: New Thobgyal Monastic Centre, 1973); D. G. Khochen Tulku, ed., Dmyal gling rdzogs pa chen po: The dMyal gling Episode of the Gesar Epic Recounting the Conquest of the Realm of the Dwellers of Hell (Dehra Dun: 1977); and Kunzang Tobgyel and Mani Dorji, eds., Dmyal gling rdzogs pa chen po thos pa rang grol ngan song chos kyi pasakula glu, vol. 31 of The Epic of Gesar,’Dzam gling ge sar rgyal po’i rtogs brjod (Thimphu, Bhutan: Kunzang Tobgyel, 1984); Dmyal gling rdzogs pa chen po (Chengdu: Si kron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1980, 1987, 1994).

  • 18. For Lauri Honko’s concept of “pool of tradition” see note 3 above.

  • 19. Solomon George FitzHerbert, “An Early Tibetan Gesar bsang Text” Archiv Orientální 84 (2016): 1–60.

  • 20. Don brgyud nyi ma, ed., Gling ge sar gyi sgrub skor, 2 vols. (Palampur: Sungrab Nyamso Gyunphel Parkhang, 1971), TBRC W27926.

  • 21. Gregory Forgues, “Materials for the Study of Gesar Practices” (MA diss., University of Vienna, 2011).

  • 22. Lines 17, 19, 22, 23, 24, and (e.g.,) 34.

  • 23. The three volumes by the Bonpo chief Wangchen Nyima text are held in the Alexandra David-Neel Collection at the Musée Guimet in Paris. Although the presentation of the epic here uses Bonpo spellings for the warrior-spirits sgra bla, Gesar is nevertheless depicted in this version as a Buddhist hero. The three volumes have recently been published in facsimile along with a full French translation in Anne-Marie Blondeau and Anne Chayet, trans., L’Épopée Tibétaine de Gesar: Manuscript Bon-po Fonds A. David-Néel du Musée Guimet: Présentation et Traduction (Paris: Editions Findakly, 2014).

  • 24. Bâmbyn Rintchen, “En Marge du Culte de Guesser Khan en Mongolie,” Journal de la Societe Finno-Ougrienne 60 (1958): 7.

  • 25. George N. Roerich, “The Epic of King Kesar of Ling,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 8.7 (1942): 286.

  • 26. This exchange is translated in full in Solomon George FitzHerbert, “On the Tibetan Ge-sar Epic in the Late 18th Century: Sum-pa mkhan-po’s letters to the Sixth Paṇ-chen Bla-ma,” Études Mongoles, Sibériennes, Centralasiatiques & Tibétaines (online journal) 46 (2015). Available at

  • 27. I. J. Schmidt Die Thaten des Vertilgers der Zehn Uebel in den zehn Gegenden, des verdienstvollen Helden Bogda Gesser Chan; eine mongolische Heldensage, nach einem in Peking gedruckten Exemplare aufs neu abgedrukt (St. Petersburg, 1839, re-edition Berlin: Auriga Verlag, 1925).

  • 28. (Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing).

  • 29. Her magnum opus is Roberte Hamayon, La Chasse à l’Âme: Esquisse d’une Theorie du Chamanisme Sibirien (Nanterre: Societe d’Ethnologie, 1992). For an English-language treatment of how the epic fits with her theory of shamanism, see Roberte Hamayon, “The Dynamics of the Epic Genre in Buryat culture: a Grave for Shamanism, a Ground for Messianism,” in Epic Adventures: Heroic Narrative in the Oral Performance Traditions of Four Continents, eds. Jan Jansen and Henk Maier (Utrecht: VockinginVorm LIT Verlag, 2004), 53–65.

  • 30. D. L. R. Lorimer, “An Oral Version of the Kesar Saga from Hunza,” Folklore 42.2 (1931): 105–140.

  • 31. Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden, La Vie Surhumaine de Guésar de Ling, le Héros Thibétain: Racontée par les Bardes de son Pays (Paris: Adyar, 1931). Then translated into English and published as The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling the Legendary Tibetan Hero, as Sung by the Bards of his Country (London: Rider and Co, 1933).

  • 32. George Roerich, “The Epic of King Kesar of Ling,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 8.7 (1942): 277–311.

  • 33. Karmay’s collected essays on the epic are found in Samten Karmay, The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet, vol. 1 (Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point, 1998).

  • 34. Samuel’s most influential contributions on the subject of the Gesar epic are found in Geoffrey Samuel, ed., Tantric Revisionings: New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas. 2005).

  • 35. Forgues’s book on the cult of Gesar is, at the time of writing, forthcoming (Journeys to Freedom, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill). For the thesis on which it is based see note 22 above.