The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa (Columbia University Press 2013, South Asia Across the Disciplines Series) is a literary history of the biographical tradition surrounding Tibet’s acclaimed eleventh-century poet and saint Milarepa. Initial accounts of Milarepa’s life story, composed shortly after his death, include examples of Tibet’s earliest biographical literature. The standard version of the life, completed in 1488 by the infamous “Madman of Tsang,” transformed both the religious and literary landscapes of the Tibetan Buddhist world—Milarepa would become the paradigm for virtuosic Buddhist practice throughout the Himalayan world and his biography, a model for Tibetan life writing. The Madman’s version also profoundly affected how Tibetan Buddhism and its religious literature have been studied and interpreted in the West.
The book examines the relationships between texts, narratives, and representations over some four centuries of Tibetan biographical writing about Milarepa, culminating in a detailed account of the Madman’s own fascinating life and literary production. It imagines Milarepa’s literary corpus as a kind of physical body, a literary relic supplanting the yogin’s corporeal relics that mysteriously disappeared after his passing. Milarepa’s death brought with it a biographic birth, and soon the life story was repeated and re-written. As authors began suturing together the narrative threads of his biography, an image of the yogin came into view; first skeletal, later incorporating more complex literary structures as sinews binding the body together. Comprehensive accounts later added layers of flesh, forming an increasingly lifelike representation until late in the fifteenth century Milarepa’s portrait embodied in the Madman’s creation was brought to life, both literarily and literally. The new biography (styled as an autobiography) was an elegant and sophisticated literary work, but its author also literally identified himself as the living reembodiment of his own biographical subject, recounting the events of a former life.
The book thus examines a wide range of previously unstudied sources, including numerous rare manuscripts never available before, through the dual lenses of literary and historical analysis. By emphasizing the interplay of these texts and the narrative representations they record, it illuminates the various forms in which the yogin’s life story has been re-imagined and re-written together with the broader historical and religious conditions that allowed for such forms of literary production.