Recently, while browsing in a bookstore in McLeod Ganj, India, I came across a small Tibetan-language comic book. The store I was in was also small – more kiosk than shop, it’s manned by a single old Tibetan clerk and has barely enough room for three customers to stand inside at one time. That said, it’s a major purveyor of secular and religious Tibetan-medium educational literature in McLeod Ganj, the Himachali mountain town that today serves as the home-in-exile for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, a great many Tibetan refugees, and the Central Tibetan Administration (the CTA, or Tibetan government-in-exile). The comic, like many of the books in the kiosk, was compiled and published by the Sherig Lekhung (shes rig las khungs), or the CTA’s Department of Education. Published in 2005, the comic’s title explained that it was the first installment of an in-total twelve-part series of comics dealing with the genealogies of Tibet’s early kings (bod kyi btsan po’i rgyal rabs mu ‘brel brnyan deb dang po). This initial comic was about ‘King Nyatri’ (gnya’ khri btsan po), Tibet’s first mythic king.
Paging through the comic I observed that rather than opening with King Nyatri’s birth, the book’s authors had started their account instead with the beginning of all life on earth. They had also decided to describe the creation of the Tibetan people in general before they attended to the circumstances of Nyatri’s birth specifically. Glancing at this sequence I noticed something interesting. I was familiar with the traditional Tibetan account of how the early ancestors of the Tibetan people had emerged from the union of a wise and compassionate monkey and a blood-thirsty, cthonic Tibetan demoness, a story which technically speaking, the comic reproduced. What struck me, though, was how through its pictures and descriptions the comic had reworked earlier versions of this origin myth so as to align the tale with science, or with what at least on the surface looked like science and contemporary theories of evolution. Here are the first nine pages of the comic, with my rough translation:
(1) A long, long time ago, this land of Tibet of ours was covered by a great ocean and even Mount Everest was but a small hill beneath it.
(2) After many millions of years had passed, this land gradually bulged outwards and oceans and rivers drained out in all four directions. Then later, the land developed a hot climate and became a center in which all sorts of animals and plants could live.
(3) At a certain time, a kind of ‘man-bear’-like creature called a draksin or ‘Rock Ogress’ appeared. This ferocious creature lived in the rocky mountains of the Yarlung region, loved to fight and was devoted to eating blood and meat. Having taken possession of the Yarlung forest she lived as she pleased.
(4) Within the upper reaches of the thick Yarlung forest there were a great many kinds of monkeys who depended on fruits and vegetation as their food. From among these, there was an intelligent and gentle monkey who treated everyone with loving-kindness who all the monkeys made their leader.
(5) One day, the chief-monkey and the rock ogress felt desire for one another and from their intercourse at Tsethang (rtsed thang – ‘the field of play’) in the land of Yarlung, many kinds of monkey-ogress hybrid progeny emerged. These later gradually became the human race and the ancestors of Tibetan people.
(6) From among the monkey-children (beings of) diverse natures emerged. Some of the children were red-faced like the monkey but had flat feet, no tails and little fur. Some were black-faced like the rock ogress, but lacked claws.
(7) Able to get up from their parents and go about and do many jobs with their hands, the monkey children walked standing upright, and were dextrous, intelligent, powerful, and ferocious. They all made use of fruit as well as blood and meat as food.
(8) Gradually the children got big and by having sex with one another became even more sharp of mind and skilled of hand. Their descendants multiplied and bit by bit invaded the areas of the other monkeys in the forest.
(9) After many thousands of years of eking out a living, these creatures came, by stages, to possess the bodily form of what are known as ‘human beings’. They learned how to say many things by sign language and falteringly with words, as well as how to wear leaves as clothes and how to make huts from plants”
What jumps out here is the way in which the origin myth’s key characters have been brought down to earth, have been ‘naturalized’ or stripped of their overt religious affiliations. One earlier version of the tale appears in the Mani Kabum (maNi bka’ ‘bum), a compilation of stories and rituals that were revealed by various twelth century Tibetan Buddhist visionary-saints (gter ston). In the Mani Kabum’s version of events, the monkey appears as a magical emanation (sprul pa) of Chenresig (spyan ras gzig), a deity that embodies the Buddhist ideal of totally selfless, omniscient compassion. Likewise, the Mani Kabum’s ogress is identified as an emanation of Chenresig’s divine consort Drolma (sgrol ma), the Tibetan Buddhist Mother-Saviour goddess. The ancestral couple’s identification with these deities is central to the Mani Kabums’ overarching narrative in which Chenresig is positioned as the primary progenitor and patron of Tibet, Tibetans and Buddhism in Tibet. By doing this, and by reframing the early Tibetan kings as emanations of Chenresig as well, the Mani Kabum lent an air of predestination to Tibet’s Buddhicization, and promoted the indigenization of Indian religious culture and the mythologization of the imperial period (7th-9th century) in the Tibetan imagination.
In the Mani Kabum’s account, the rock ogress (brag srin [mo]) embodies the morally ambiguous wildness of Tibet’s pre-Buddhist landscape. A spectre materializing out of Tibet’s endemic mountains (brag = rocky cliff face), this ‘crag-hag’ is an emblem for Tibet’s cthonic, primordial powers. Categorically bloodthirsty and feminine, these forces must be tamed or ‘civilized’ by contrastingly masculine (and initially foregin) agents of Buddhism. In addition to being used to translate the Sanskrit word ‘rakshasi’ into Tibetan (rakshasi are man-eating ogresses in Indian folklore) the word srin refers to a (pre-Buddhist) class of dangerous spirits with a long history of being associated with cthonic, sub-terranean forces (srin can also refer to bugs and various creeping things, and resurfaces in Tibetan neologisms for ‘virus’ and ‘bacterium’) .
In a related mythic narrative, the Chinese bride of the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo discovers that the reason Buddhism is failing to ‘take’ in Tibetan soil is because the whole country of Tibet is in fact one giant srinmo ogress lying on her back. Buddhism finally flourishes when it systematically and forcefully pins down this demoness through a network of Buddhist shrines that are erected on top of her body’s vital-energy points (I use this sexualized language advisedly – a phallic effigy is placed at the point identified with the srinmo’s genitals). While not killed per se, she is, like similar monstrous mothers from other cosmogonies from around the world, repurposed – her energies are suppressed, pacified, and redirected towards Buddhist projects.
In the above Department of Education version, we read nothing about emanations of Chenresig or Drolma. Other versions describe how the ogress bullied the ascetic monkey-saint – who had come to Tibet to meditate in seclusion – into having sex with her, and describe him as assenting to her aggressive advances solely out of a compassionate desire to placate and ultimately ‘tame’ her and her wild unenlightened appetites. Here we have only page five’s matter-of-fact prose and the suggestive positioning in its accompanying image to hint at any kind of gendered power-play. Likewise, the subjugation narrative and pointed demonization of the ogress appear only in a muted or oblique way, when the comic explains that the monkey’s behaviour is ‘tamed’ i.e. ‘gentle’ or ‘civilized’ (spyod pa dul ba) in contrast to the ogress’ vicious anti-socialness. We read about how the pair’s offspring inherited distinct physical, but not moral, traits from each parent (in other versions Tibetans’ ‘wildness’ and less noble qualities are traced directly to the srin mo)
Overall, the rock ogress appears in the comic less as a blood-drinking vampiress and more as a kind of bad-tempered Big Foot. She is described as being ‘a kind of [thing] resembling a man-bear’ (mi dred ‘dra ba’i rigs shig). ‘Man-bear’ here is cognate with ya dred, a regional Tibetan term from which the English yeti derives. Mi dred and similar words for ‘bear’ in Tibetan dialects are somewhat ambiguous. At times they can indicate certain extant (and possibly extant) species of flesh-and-blood bears endemic to Tibet and the Himalayas (see here ongoing research relating to the hunt for the abominable snow man along these lines, for example), and yet can also refer to a whole different category of more ambiguously corporeal, ‘magical’ beasties. While admittedly the line between these two categories can be blurry in Tibetan contexts, the comic’s imagery and descriptions work together to thoroughly naturalize the ogress, and transform her from a cosmological monster into a crypto-zoological one. In a similar vein, the progressive transformation of the monkey and ogress’ offspring into humans is depicted in a way that suggests contemporary theories of human evolution, with multiple lineages of primates and early human ancestors interbreeding and competing for resources. Rather than reading about how Chenresig and Drolma supply their offspring with magical food so they can slowly grow and lose their tails and so on, a sense of autonomous, natural selection over long historical periods of time prevails.
The question arises: why exactly did the Department of Education repackage the story this way? The comic was produced by the department of traditional education (srol rgyun shes yon sde tsan). A supplementary unit internal to the DoE, this department was founded in 2002 (this is the date given in the comic’s foreword, 2003 is listed on the DoE’s website) with the express purpose of ensuring that chief aspects of both oral and literary Tibetan traditional culture do not deteriorate but instead increase among Tibetans in exile. Given this emphasis on preservation, it is noteworthy that the authors saw fit to re-present classic material in this way. While I have not yet had the opportunity to speak with the comic’s authors and artist about their thinking when it came to the comic’s images, text, and design, their book might be seen as pointing to broader developments relating to education, cultural preservation and the separation of church and state in exile.
From the 17th century until just prior to the Chinese invasion, under the Dalai Lama’s government in Central Tibet religious and political affairs were formally hyphenated under a system known as ‘religious-and-temporal (affairs) united’ (chos srid zung ‘brel). Still, formal philosophies of continuity and compromise aside, religious and political authority and interests were just as likely to be at odds with one another than they were to overlap or co-operate. Since coming into exile, finding consensus on the relationship between religious power and worldly, political power on the one hand, and between religious knowledge and scientific understanding has continued to engage Tibetans. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile administration have developed various projects and institutions to bolster secular education and scientific literacy both in exile monasteries and in Tibetan society more generally (not least of which is the Tibetan Children’s Village TCV or standardized exile schooling system geared towards providing Tibetan refugee children with a culturally-rich yet still rounded education.)
The Dalai Lama has encouraged dialogue between Tibetan Buddhist experts and foreign scientists, and has championed the idea of Buddhism’s compatibility with science. He has actively supported collaborative clinical studies, conferences (like the now annual Mind and Life meetings that bring together philosophers, Buddhist practitioners, psychologists, and neuroscientists), publishing projects, and pedagogical exchanges between Tibetan Buddhist practitioners and academic researchers. Still, debates about the need for more or less secularity in education and society continue. In the past, authority figures like former prime minister and monk Samdhong Rinpoche have stated that the TCV system would benefit from monastic instructors and from more religiously-orientated material. Equally, while marginalized religious groups within Tibetan society like the Jonang sect have recently protested in a demand for more representation in parliament, many Tibetans are wondering if there should be seats reserved for sectarian representatives in the Tibetan exile parliament at all. Stories of families and individuals in smaller Tibetan refugee settlements in South India being subjected to fines and other punishments for not attending community prayer gatherings and majoritarian political events also circulate and provide important talking points for Tibetans’ discussions about the appropriate role of religion in the public sphere.
So where does our comic, our srin mo-yeti-early-human-ancestor come in? While the comic claims to be concerned with preserving traditional knowledge it gives this knowledge a secular gloss. As stock-images of prehistory, artistic supplements like jelly fish and ferns make of Tibet’s ancient mythological ocean a primordial soup. Given the comic’s pop anthropology style of depicting early human life and evolution, it’s certainly tempting to see the tale of the monkey/srinmo as a compelling case of myth-as-ethno-science, especially given new research on contemporary Tibetans’ ancestors’ sexual encounters with that mysterious species of ancient humans the Denisovans. Indeed, the myth has not only been cited by anthropologists as an exemplary example of ethno-primatology, but it has also appeared repeatedly in novels and alternative histories as evidence for the fact of extra-terrestrials having interbred with early Tibetans and/or humans. This mention of aliens is more than incidental. Jamyang Phuntsok, a Tibetan scholar at Pennsylvania State University, commenting on an earlier Facebook post I made about my initial thoughts on the comic, had this to add about the way the comic had naturalized mythological material:
“I wonder what purpose is served by such ‘naturalization’? It is faithful neither to the original creation myth, which must be preserved and presented as one would a literary work or piece of artwork, nor to the scientific findings (according to which adaptation and settlement of the Tibetan plateau became possible AS A RESULT of introgression with the Denisovans). Isn’t this a kind of revisionism? Kind of like trying to rewrite Sherlock Hollmes stories by taking cues from the latest forensic techniques.”
Is the secular or ‘sciency’ flavour that the comic’s art and descriptions impart to the myth merely gratuitous or cosmetic? How does it serve the cause of furthering either scientific or cultural literacy? Jamphuk’s Sherlock Holmes analogy reminds me of similar processes of (relative) rationalization or updating, what scholar of religious history Mikael Rothstein has referred to as ‘mythological modernization’. Rothstein uses the term to describe how the Tibetan ‘Mahatmas’ or ‘Masters’, those super-beings that were supposed to be the higher powers behind Victorian esoteric movements like Theosophy, were later recast by new new religious movements as visitors from outer space. According to Rothstein, this move brought the ambiguously corporeal (and controversially located) Masters of a previous period up-to-speed with recent developments – it made them seem (relatively) less kitsch and (relatively) more tangible and reasonable too. (In my next post I will explore in more detail the phenomenon of Tibetan aliens, and the roles they have played in interactions between Indo-Tibetan and Western esoteric traditions). This sort of mythological modernization has proven exceedingly popular more recently, as the likes of best-selling conspiracy theorist David Icke and the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens have reframed gods and spirits from the world’s pantheons as (maybe mostly probably) flesh-and-blood aliens to weave their alternative histories.
While the DoE’s comic is probably more understated and subtle than either Icke or Ancient Aliens could ever be, it’s possible that the DoE likewise wanted to present something ancient and mythological as compatible with the (relatively more) secular, rational, and science-y. (It’s certainly a myth that’s good to think with – once, while teaching English names for parts of the mouth and jaw to Tibetan monks, I found myself explaining the existence of ‘canine’ teeth alongside molars by comparing it to the idea of shared human parentage from a fruit-eating monkey and a flesh-devouring demoness). Still, while mythological modernization might bring religious cosmologies more in line with current preferences or assumptions, it is, importantly, still cosmology that is at stake.
Ultimately, the draksin captures much of Tibetans’ ongoing deliberations about the relative moral and political value of different forms of knowledge today, about the relative worth of the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, of culture and science. Suggesting fraught indigeneity and ambiguous inheritance, she is a worthy mascot for Tibetan ‘tradition’: at times the indomitable-and-powerful and at times the slightly-embarrassing grandmother. She and the comic above hint at the way in which secularization is an ambiguous and uneven process in exile. A somewhat awkward hybrid, she alerts us to the uncertainties that remain when it comes to working out how local and indigenous regimes of knowledge should engage with (apparently) universal and transcendent ones.