The Epic of King Gesar (Tibetan: གླིང་གེ་སར།, Wylie: gling ge sar), spelled Geser (especially in Mongolian contexts) or Kesar, is a work of epic literature of Tibet and greater Central Asia. The epic originally developed around 200 BCE or 300 BCE and about 600 CE. Following this, folk balladeers continued to pass on the story orally; this enriched the plot and embellished the language. The story reached its final form and height of popularity in the early 12th Century.
The Epic relates the heroic deeds of the culture hero Gesar, the fearless lord of the legendary kingdom of Ling. It is recorded variously in poetry and prose, through oral poetry performance, and is sung widely throughout Central Asia and North East of South Asia. Its classic version is to be found in central Tibet.
Some 100 bards of this epic are still active today in the Gesar belt of China. Tibetan, Mongolian, Buryat, Balti, Ladakhi and Monguor singers maintain the oral tradition and the epic has attracted intense scholarly curiosity as one of the few oral epic traditions to survive as a performing art. Besides stories conserved by such Chinese minorities as the Bai, Naxi, the Pumi (Boemi or Tibetans), Lisu, Yugur and Salar, versions of the epic are also recorded among the Balti of Baltistan, the Burusho people of Hunza and Gilgit and the Kalmyk and Ladakhi peoples, in Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and among various Tibeto-Burmese, Turkic, and Tungus tribes. The first printed version was a Mongolian text published in Beijing in 1716.
There exists a very large body of versions, each with many variants, and is reputed by some to be the longest in the world. Although there is no one definitive text, the Chinese compilation of its Tibetan versions so far has filled some 120 volumes, more than one million verses, divided into 29 "chapters". Western calculations speak of more than 50 different books edited so far in China, India and Tibet.
A Tibetan scholar has written:
Like the outstanding Greek epics, Indian epics and Kalevala, King Gesar is a brilliant pearl in the world's cultural treasure and is an important contribution made by our country to human civilization.
In Tibet, the existence of Gesar as a historical figure is rarely questioned. ((Samuel 1993, p. 365); (Lǐ Liánróng 2001, p. 334) Some scholars there argued he was born in 1027, on the basis of a note in a 19th-century chronicle, the Mdo smad chos 'byung by Brag dgon pa dkon mchog bstan pa rab.
Tibetan versions differ very greatly in details. Often Buddhist motifs are woven through the story, with episodes on the creation of the world and Tibet's cosmic origins. In other variants, Gautama Buddha is never mentioned, or a certain secular irony is voiced against the national religion. According to Samten Karmay, Gesar arose as the hero of a society still thinly permeated by Buddhism and the earlier myths associate him with pre-Buddhist beliefs like the mountain cult. In most episodes, Gesar fights against the enemies of dharma, an old warrior ethos, where physical power, courage, a combative spirit, and things like cunning and deceit prevail.
Cosmic prelude and Tibet's early history: One motif explains how the world collapsed into anarchy; numerous demon kings had avoided subjection. As a result, hordes of cannibalistic demons and goblins, led by malignant and greedy rulers of many kingdoms, wreak havoc. Tibet's conversion from barbarity to Buddhism under the three great Dharma Kings often features. Episodes relate how Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) subdued Tibet's violent native spirits. Gesar's miraculous or mundane birth: In one account, he was fatherless, like Padmasambhava, who assists his celestial creation by creating a nāginī who then serves the king of Ling, and is impregnated by drinking a magic potion, and is born from his mother's head, like Athena in Greek mythology. In another version he is conceived by his mother after she drinks water impressed with his image. Alternatively, he is born from the union of a father, who is simultaneously skygod and holy mountain, and of a mother who is a goddess of the watery underworld, or he is born, Chori, in the lineage of Ling in the Dza Valley, to the king Singlen Gyalpo and his spouse Lhakar Drönma of Gog.
- His early years: Gesar's mission as a divine emissary is to vanquish powerful demons on earth. Until his adolescence he is depicted as black, ugly, nasty, and troublesome. His paternal uncle, or the king's brother Todong, banishes both son and mother to the rMa plateau, where he grows up living a feral life, with the child clothed in animal skins and wearing a hat with antelope horns.
- Old age: When Gesar reaches his eighties, he briefly descends to Hell as a last episode before he leaves the land of men and ascends once more to his celestial paradise.
In the occult system of Nicholas Roerich, Gesar is presented as a hero who is believed to accept his physicality in Shambhala. It's told that he would appear with an invincible army to set general justice. Thunderous arrows will be its weapon. Gesar also has a number of magic attributes: white horse, saddle, horseshoe, sword and lock.