Superhuman: King Gesar of Ling
by jaimie l. elliott
Mythology in modern times seems relegated to video games and
cartoons. Even in literature, which owes a great deal to myths
for their powerful themes, the topic is often dismissed as juvenile, an
allegorical exercise into formulaic fantasy. Fertile for
Hollywood summertime blockbusters but not for serious thought.
is vast. It touches everything. Its vastness may, however,
be exceeded by the ignorance of its vastness. Ask an
English-speaking person to describe mythology. What do you expect
as a response? Most likely a vague reference about Hercules and
Zeus. Perhaps a comment concerning the Norse gods. Maybe,
on rare occasion, the mentioning of the Egyptian pantheon or even the
archaic Gilgamesh. Now question him or her on the longest epic
poem in the world and, if the question was even understood, you might
get a mumbled rejoinder about the Iliad or the Odyssey.
He or she would be wrong. The correct answer is, of course, up
to debate. But a good candidate would be the Epic of King Gesar (also known as Gessar, Gesar Khan, Gesser, or Kesar), a Tibetan oral
ballad that is still performed by singers today. It is, by some
estimations, over 20 million words long. As with other oral
traditions, the orator memorizes the verses, related from one
generation to the next. And you thought IRS tax forms were
Intrigued, I rummaged around for an English version of the Epic of
King Gesar. Most books cited were out of print or in other
languages. In the end, I decided upon The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling,
by Alexandra David-Neel and the Lama Yongden. I knew the epic to
be 25 to 50 times longer than the Iliad. Imagine my shock when I
received a relatively skinny, red book with a meager 271 pages between
its worn covers.
It is difficult to criticize Ms. David-Neel, however, since there is
no authoritative version of the Epic of King Gesar. There are
countless variations depending on localities and singers. To
her credit, she went straight to the source, traveling to Tibet and
Lhasa during a time when women simply did not do such things (circa
1920's, a fascinating adventure in itself). Furthermore, what
scant reviews I found of her work stated that it was accurate, if
somewhat tailored toward the casual reader.
King of Ling
Thubpa Gawa is a reluctant hero. Before he is reborn to the
realm of mortals to combat the plague of demons that threaten the
Religion, he extracts numerous, and often selfish, concessions from the
other gods. They acquiesce and the superhuman savior
arrives unto the world as the infant of a virgin nagi. After
living a feral existence with his mother, he becomes the King of Ling
by winning a horse race at the age of twelve. He is renamed
Gesar. Armed with celestial weapons and riding a mystical
charger, he goes on to conquer the four demonic kingdoms to the north,
south, east, and west. He then subdues King Tazig for good
measure. Along the way, he deals with his evil yet comical uncle
Todong and his unfaithful wife Dugmo. Finally, at an old age, he
and his closest followers meditate one last time and ascend to
Rooted in Tibetian Buddhism, many of the concepts in the epic are
foreign to Western readers. Although a powerful warrior, he is
often a trickster. There is a bit of Odysseus in him. He
readily changes shape, a trait he shares with another Buddhist hero,
the monkey Sun Wukong. He is not above soliciting the assistance
of the gods or employing an indirect approach to overcome an
enemy. Some of his actions, from our vantage point, would be
construed as unethical or even immoral. For example, as a
consequence of Dugmo's infidelity, she bore a demonic son. She
extracts from a devious Gesar a promise not to slay her child.
Instead of harming the boy directly, the gods raise a pillar and Gesar
places him underneath. The gods then lower the pillar back into
place, crushing the child to death. Another case in point is the
incident with King Tazig. Todong steals Tazig's fabled blue
horses. When Tazig takes revenge and apprehends Todong, Gesar
sees this as an excuse to assault and pillage Tazig's kingdom.
Gesar's soldiers, however, view this as unjust and rebuff their
king. The evil Todong, by stealing the horses, deserves
retribution. The gods intervene and give blessing to Gesar's
endeavor. The soldiers, inspired by greed and the divine, relent
and agree to the cause. Gesar slays Tazig, captures his queen,
and conquers his kingdom.
One of the fascinating aspects of studying mythology is that the
myths and legends are reflective of the society or societies that
created them. We struggle when we see something alien to our
mindset, to our culture. With the two instances above, individual
actions cede to a greater purpose. If the demonic son had grown
to adulthood, he would have threatened the Religion. Tazig,
although at peace with Gesar, was a selfish and evil ruler and destined
by the gods to be defeated. Gesar’s responsibility is neither to
Dugmo nor Tazig but to the world. This is Dharma. It is
reminiscent of Arjuna’s struggle to slay his kin, where Krishna, the
avatar of Vishnu, explains to Arjuna the purpose of being (this
conversation is known as the Bhagavad Gita).
Suddenly, Gesar’s actions are no longer simplistic and cruel.
They become a complex philosophical discussion of right and wrong, of
the macro and the micro, of the dualistic nature of one’s individuality
and one’s place in society.
Mythology’s supposed superficiality arises from a perception on our
part, a choice not to spelunk into the dark recesses of the collective
consciousness. However, despite our refusal, we live it everyday,
and through us, it continues to evolve.
Spelunking the Mythology
The following are good sources to delve deeper into the legend of Gesar:
Lama Yongden, Alexandra David-Neel; The Superhuman Life Of Gesar Of Ling, 1959, Rider & Company
http://zt.tibet.cn/tibetzt/gesaer_en/doc/1000.htm [includes articles on modern singers]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandra_David-Neel [the life of Alexandra David-Neel]
© 2007 Jaimie L. Elliot
Elliott currently resides in Marietta, Georgia, with a wife and
step-daughter, where he spends much of his time working as a project
manager for IBM. His first love is fantasy, although he dabbles in
poetry and literary fiction as well. He won first prize in the short
fiction category in the Georgia Writers Association yearly contest and
has been published in Aphelion and Swords Edge. He's currently looking
for an agent for his novel Vicious Moon Cats.
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