‘His Weight in Gold’: Women of Power in Game of Thrones and Tibetan Buddhism (*SPOILERS!)

melisandre

FOR THE INTERNET IS DARK AND FULL OF SPOILERS! GAME OF THRONES AND TIBETAN BUDDDHIST SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT WATCHED THE MOST RECENT EPISODE OF THE SERIES OR HAVE NOT ACHIEVED ENLIGHTENMENT!

Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, the second in this current season, saw fans’ questions about whether we’d be seeing more of a moving version of the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch Jon Snow put to rest.

In addition to a colder, stiller version of Jon, the first episode of the season presented us with a distinctly crestfallen Melisandre, ‘The Red Witch’. Once filled with fierce confidence in the inevitability of the visions of the future she saw in the flames, the season has opened with a Melisandre who is now a smoldering ember of her former, dick-blood-leech sex magic I-burn-children-and-take-semen-and-turn-it-into-assassin-shadow-demons-for-the-glory-of-the-one-true-god self. With her prophechies unrealized, her champion defeated, and now Jon Snow dead, Melisandre has experienced a crisis of faith and purpose. Yet as we learned through episode one’s unsurprisingly lingering pans on those magical hangy-orang utan-ies, Melisandre, nonetheless still possesses more than one secret up her sleeve (when she’s actually even wearing clothes, that is).

Carice-van-Houten-Topless-5

(HBO-Home Boobs Office)

In last Sunday’s episode Sir Davos confronts a depressed and tired Melisandre, and urges her to try to use her magic to bring Jon Snow back to life. While she admits that such power exists, and that she has even seen its results (which are vaguely explained as being kind of dubious), she protests that she has lost faith in her God, and can do nothing. Sir Davos isn’t having it, and urges her to say ‘fuck’em’ to the God of Light and all other deities. The magical feats that he witnessed directly before, and which got him believing in the possibility of miracles, were hers entirely, were a result of her own skill as a woman of singular power. Encouraged if still hesitant, Melisandre assents, and in the final moments of the episode we watch as she ritually bathes Jon’s corpse, trims his hair and beard, and burns these parts in a brazier, all while chanting incantations in High Valyrian. (Incidentally, since the show uses professional linguists to invent ‘authentic’ grammars, syntaxes and lexicons for all of its languages, and thanks to people on the internet, we actually know what Melisandre said during her resurrection ritual. The English language broadcast did not include subtitles for Melisandre’s prayers, but apparently these were included for broadcasts subtitled in other languages)

melisandre ritual
Melisandre’s ritual appears to fail, and the cohort leave the room defeated, only for us viewers to be left alone with Jon and to hear him gasp and see his eyes snap open and stare widely and wildly as the screen cuts to the closing credits.

Melisandre, along with her ritual, are reminiscent of a number of religious themes. Her bathing of Jon’s body, coupled with her more general ‘sacred whore’ behaviour in the show,  recalls the exploits of (the composite) Mary Magdalene, who is associated directly and indirectly with Christ’s resurrection, and with tending to and anointing his body. More generally, as a scorned yet powerful and seductive ‘Red Woman’ who uses sex as a key part of magic, Melisandre would seem to owe something as well to the practices of influential ritual magician Aleister Crowley. Crowley played a vital role in the history of what in Western esoteric contexts has come to be known as sex magic, and in Crowley’s spiritual system of Thelema the ‘Scarlet Woman’ (sound familiar?) appears as a living embodiment and priestess of the Goddess Babalon, who is a central part of Crowley’s cosmology and is modelled on, although distinct from the Great Whore Babylon who appears in St John of Patmos’ Revelation.

William_Blake_whore_babylon

(William Blake’s Whore of Babylon)

While reflecting on last week’s episode, though, even more than these examples, I was reminded of the life-story of the Great Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal (‘The Victorious Ocean of Wisdom’, also sometimes translated as the ‘Lake Queen of Wisdom’). Yeshe Tsogyal was an 8th century Tibetan princess who became the physical sexual consort and disciple of the tantric Buddhist saint Padmasambhava, who secured the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet, and who is regarded by Tibetans as a ‘Second Buddha’. Yeshe Tsogyal practiced with Padmasambhava, revealed new teachings with him, and worked as his secretary to write these down. She mastered the practices of tantric Buddhism, performed numerous miracles, and subsequently became enlightened in a single lifetime. Regardless of the fact that we have next to no concrete contemporaneous evidence to prove her existence, Yeshe Tsogyal is the  model for the possibility of achieving Buddhahood in a female body in one lifetime, and is the quintessential Tibetan example of female tantric sainthood.

Yeshe-Tsogyal-1-Samye_lzn_w

The Sanskrit ‘Dakini’, which is rendered as khandroma in Tibetan (mkha’ ‘dro ma – the woman who travels through space/the sky’) is a complex concept. On one level, it can refer to a particular quality or activity of enlightened awareness, to the creative, dynamic and metaphorically feminine dimensions of innate wisdom-consciousness. On another level, it can mean a particular class of spiritual beings, tantric goddesses who can take forms both fair and foul, and who function as celestial messengers, helpers, and consorts (See here for an excellent cross-cultural treatment by scholar of Hindu tantra David Gordon White of the early history of dakinis in India, and their ancient prototype in specific forms of Indian demonesses). On yet another level, the word can refer to human women who are understood as the physical embodiment of such beings and their qualities. While ‘khandro’ or ‘khandroma’ as a title may also be given to celibate female religious practitioners who have mastered tantric Buddhist practices and have thereby attained great spiritual power, the paradigmatic khandro appears, like Yeshe Tsogyal, in non-celibate form. The wives of male Tibetan tantric specialists are typically and honorifically referred to as ‘khandro’, since they are by default the consort of their male partners. Although Yeshe Tsogyal is remembered as being one of the consorts of Padmasambhava, she also stands as an accomplished practitioner in her own right.

yeshetsogyalconsort

(Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal as co-pilots of Great Bliss, here depicted as each other’s mutual consorts in ecstatic union or yab-yum, father-mother/lord-lady pose)

Yeshe Tsogyal’s life-story makes it clear that being a female tantric practitioner is far from easy. The Tibetan female hagiographical tradition shows the extent to which female practitioners have struggled to navigate and assert their own agency in the midst of patriarchal worlds and institutions. Yeshe Tsogyal herself undergoes various hardships that are specifically tied to her gendered experience (in one particularly gruesome episode she is set upon by a group of men and gang raped, but ends up, through her power and compassion, using the opportunity to bring these male aggressors onto the Buddhist path). Indeed, at one point, Yeshe Tsogyal lists to her guru Padmasambhava a litany of difficulties that she faces as a female practitioner, and demands to know how under such circumstances a woman can possibly become accomplished in the Dharma when it’s hard enough just to survive in the world as a woman. Like the Great Dakini, contemporary khandroma also wrestle with gendered expectations, obligations and structural inequalities, yet they, like her, also find ways to triumph and retain their agency as independent spiritual virtuosi (for some wonderful ethnographic accounts of contemporary female religious practitioners in Tibet, the Himalayas, and Mongolia, do yourself a favour and check out this fantastic special edition of essays from Revue D’Etudes Tibetaines that came out recently).
At one point in Yeshe Tsogyal’s story, Guru Padmasambhava instructs her to locate a seventeen year old Indian boy by the name of Sale who the Master in his clairvoyance has seen will allow Yeshe Tsogyal to attain swift realizations if she takes him as her sexual consort in the practice of the Secret Mantra, or Buddhist tantra . The Dakini locates the boy, who has been sold into slavery in Nepal, and attempts to buy him from the family who owns him. To her dismay, however, she discovers that the gold for ransom that she has brought with her is insufficient to buy the boy’s freedom. Events conspire, however, to bring her to the home of another wealthy Nepali family whose only son has died. In exchange for raising their son from the dead, she receives the gold she needs to free Sale, and he becomes her companion.
GoT now exists as both a book series, the brain-child of a single author, and a major network television series, involving the contributions of scores of writers and other creatives. The universe of a Song of Ice and Fire too is the stomping ground of millions of fans, and the internet teems with fan theories and fictions that have expanded upon Martin’s original vision. As with GoT, the story of Yeshe Tsogyal has been narrated in multiple forms and at multiple levels – as part of ‘official’ printed hagiographies, and as a part of the private visions of generations of practitioners who have imagined her life, followed her example, directly met her as a result of their own spiritual activities, or have been recognized as later re-incarnations or emanations of her (see this short piece where Holly Gayley explores some of these dynamics). Below are two different versions of the hagiographical account of Yeshe Tsogyal’s resurrection ritual. The first is my own rough translation, from a version of her life-story published by the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India. The book is part of a saintly biography series whose original model was a text that was published in 1962 by the offices of the Chief officer of Gangtok, Sikkim. The Library, concerned that copies of Tibetan language biographies of beings like Yeshe Tsogyal had become scare, decided to republish a new version of such life-stories to benefit readers.

The second version is longer and more detailed – unlike the Library’s summary, it comes from the Padmakara translation group’s English translation of the complete, secret biography of Yeshe Tsogyal said to have been written by Namkhai Nyingpo in the 8th/9th century and which was subsequently revealed by the terton, or the treasure-revealer or visionary saint Taksham Samten Lingpa in the 17th century.

1.
“At that time there was in that place a rich family, who had a single son who had died suddenly from misfortune and sickness. The Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal heard a great clamor of lament and many resounding cries of anguish. She was strongly moved with great compassion. “What ought I to do? Once I go inside, is there any way at all I can bring benefit?” Having said this to herself, she arrived (at the house) and was invited inside. She looked at the dead boy’s corpse and said, “If the power exists to raise this dead corpse, I will give whatever consideration to it I can.” Hearing this, the father (of the family) said: “This family’s wealth is without measure. With our only son dead, who now can take ownership of it? Thus, if you can do the impossible and can indeed raise our dead son, do it quickly, and I will give you whatever riches you desire! Swear it properly!” The father then inquired, “And so if you do this, what gift do you desire for raising our son?” The Dakini replied: “I want the boy’s weight in gold.”

“If you can restore our son, I’ll give you the gold equivalent to him that you ask, and then some!” the father of the family said. Gripping the Dakini’s feet, he cried, “Raise him! Quickly!”

The Dakini said: “Ok then. I have prayed to the guru. Be at ease.”

Entering into meditative absorption, she pervaded (her awareness) through the bar do or intermeditary state and summoned (the boy’s) consciousness ( that was wandering there). Glistening dew-like sweat and steam came out and diffused from the corpse, as it moved. After a little while, it took breath, its eyes fluttered and then opened, and stared fixedly and piercingly directly ahead. “Mother! Father!” it cried. The Dakini placed her hand on the boy’s head and blessed him, and conferred the long-life empowerment upon him.
All the residents of the area in which the parents were in charge cried out and were filled with laughter and wonder. News of the praiseworthy (event) spread through all of Nepal. The family offered the Great Dakini all manner of desirable things and enjoyments, and whatever gold she might desire and requested her to accept these. But she didn’t take these – “Anything that isn’t gold, I don’t need.” she said.”

(No author), 2010, mkha’ ‘dro ye shes mtsho rgyal dang be ro tsa na’i rnam thar, (No Author), Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 19-21.

2.

“Now, it happened that in that city there lived a merchant called Dhana Ayu, a man of great wealth. His son, Nagani, a youth of twenty years, had been slain in the war that at that time was troubling the country. The parents had brought his body home most tenderly, and so great was their sorrow that they cried out, saying that they would kill themselves at his funeral. The Lady Tsogyal was moved with unbearable pity and went to them.

“There is no need for you to grieve,” she said. “Give me some gold with which to ransom the young Sale and I will bring your own son back to life.”

The man and his wife were beside themselves with joy and exclaimed, “What is gold to us? If you bring our son back to life again, we will give you enough wealth to buy a prince, letalone an Indian boy.” So Yeshe Tsogyal promised to raise their son to life again, and they in return promised to give her all the gold and whatever else she needed.
And so she placed the body of the youth on a large piece of white silk, folded in four, and sang this song:

Om Ah Hung Guru Sarva Hril
Samantabhadra is the ground,
Primal purity without delusion.
The path is but the sixfold state
Of beings, mirage-forms, whose
Lives of happiness and sorrow
Are cause and fruit, the karmic law expressed.
What is there to do, then, knowing this is so?
I, yogini, skilled in Secret Mantra,
Held in the compassion of the Lotus-Born, my father,
Have no dread of dying or of being born.
I crush at once the sorrows and adversities of others.
Let us pray for blessings—sure to come.

With these words, she placed her forefinger on the dead boy’s heart, and the color of his body slowly began to brighten. She put a drop of spittle into his mouth and into his ears she spoke the words Ayurjnana Drum. With her hand she stroked the deep sword cuts, which were healed and made whole. Little by little, the young man came back to life, and at length he completely recovered. The people were struck with amazement and gladness and made prostrations to the Lady.

Seeing their son restored to life, the parents took him in their arms, weeping for joy. They showered the Lady with gifts and offered an immense ganachakra feast. Sale the Indian boy was bought for a thousand measures of gold and presented to her. The fame of Lady Tsogyal filled the kingdom and the king himself honored her and invited her to reside there as his spiritual guide. But she declined and made her way to the temple of E in Nepal, taking Sale with her.”

Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo, 1999, ‘Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal’, Boston: Shambala Publications, 52-53.

These versions are quite different in style. The Library version is extremely terse, far more terse in fact than my inadequate English translation manages to convey. Yet it is beautiful and moving for this very reason, and reading it I felt a similar rush as the boy’s eyes open and he stares piercingly straight ahead as I did when Jon Snow’s own eyes snapped open on Sunday. In contrast, the second version fleshes out more details – we are provided names and numbers, and we learn that like Jon, the boy’s corpse was also covered in stab wounds.

jon eyes

In 2014, in a short post on the anthropology blog Savage Minds, Alex Golub pointed out how viewers’ willingness to engage with Game of Thrones’ world-building, its convoluted histories and cultural and kinship politics, showed clearly that broader society hardly lacked the basic capacity to grapple with anthropologists’ own scholarly works on these same subjects. At the end of his post, however, Alex wonders whether audiences’

“…interest in the complexities of kinship [can] be kept without tremendous amounts of violence, sex, and magic? It’s a moot question, since pretty much every place we [anthropologists have] studied has a good amount of each. Make no mistake about it: we need to make ethical choices when we write about salacious topics. But when we do, our audience will be ready.”

It should be clear even from the brief descriptions in this post that Yeshe Tsogyal’s life story contains all the violence, sex, and magic GoT fans could hope for. Yet unlike GoT with its often gratuitous gendered violence and sexual objectification of women , Yeshe Tsogyal’s rnam thar or life-story of ‘complete liberation’, exists not merely as lowest-common denominator form of entertainment but as a set of highly refined esoteric instructions, a compelling example of how one woman supposedly applied esoteric spiritual practices to free herself from suffering and the obstacles this unequal world threw at her. Yeshe Tsogyal’s feat of resurrection not only proves her powers and ‘furthers the plot’ but exists as a teaching moment, encapsulates in the most visceral way the fact that if one realizes the view of emptiness and the truth of cause-and-effect one conquers death.

The ability to restore lost life and stave off mortality is one of the greatest and most sought after powers. Melisandre and Yeshe Tsogyal represent two different creative and cultural reflections on femininity’s fraught relationship with the mysteries of life, death, and transcendence. Like Melisandre, Yeshe Tsogyal’s story is that of a gifted and resourceful woman trying to pit her skills towards a higher purpose, surrounded by powerful and dangerous men. Like Melisandre, Yeshe Tsogyal is frequently gripped by doubts and despair, but unlike the Red Woman, the Great Dakini’s faith and confidence in her ‘Lord’ is unwavering.

Many questions remain. How will Melisandre (who in her own weird way embodies something of the Dakini’s ever-youthful and hag-like nature) be repaid for her miracle? Will Jon, another handsome, ‘destined’ boy seen in visions, ever become a different kind of ‘consort’ to Melisandre, especially after he refused her once before? Yeshe Tsogyal’s biographies tell us nothing about what the boy Nagani’s life was like after his resurrection (the time is clearly ripe for Tibetan fan fiction). We can expect though that in future GoT episodes we will learn a lot more about Jon’s life-after-death. The extent to which Melisandre’s life-story will be fleshed out like Yeshe Tsogyal’s has been for others to  reflect upon, remains to be seen, however.

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2 thoughts on “‘His Weight in Gold’: Women of Power in Game of Thrones and Tibetan Buddhism (*SPOILERS!)

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