The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa (Columbia University Press 2014, South Asia Across the Disciplines Series) is the first extended literary history of the biographical tradition surrounding Tibet’s most famous Buddhist saint, the eleventh-century hermit and poet Milarepa. The book likewise presents the first analysis of an entire Himalayan textual tradition by tracing its historical formation, changing narrative voices, eventual canonical status, and enduring legacy across the region. It surveys a wide range of previously unstudied sources including numerous rare and early manuscripts and prints never available before. Following the approach of European medievalist Patrick Geary to probe hagiographic writing through the “threefold intersection of genre, total textual production, and historical circumstance,” the book examines changing relationships between these texts, their narratives, and representations over some four centuries of Tibetan biographical writing. It thus illuminates the various forms in which the yogin’s life story has been re-imagined and re-written in the context of the broader historical and religious conditions that allowed for such forms of literary production. In doing so it questions how sacred lives are recorded and transmitted, how their structures and functions change over time, and how their changing forms affect the reading of their content.
The book begins with initial fragmentary accounts of Milarepa’s life story composed shortly after his death, which include examples of Tibet’s earliest biographical literature. It next addresses new forms of literary production such as the encyclopedic biographical compendia that form our most comprehensive textual records of the yogin’s life. The book culminates in an extended analysis of Milarepa’s canonical biography, completed in 1488, and its iconoclastic author Tsangnyon Heruka, the infamous “Madman of Tibet.” This text has been called “the single greatest work of Tibetan literature” and would transform both the religious and literary landscapes of the Tibetan Buddhist world—Milarepa would become the paradigm for virtuosic religious practice throughout the Himalaya and his biography, a model for Buddhist 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 Yogin and the Madman 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 narratives of his biography, an image of the yogin came into view; first skeletal, later incorporating more complex literary structures. Comprehensive accounts formed 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, thereby effectively silencing centuries of earlier literary production.