Tibetan scholar Gedun Choephel was an iconoclast pure and simple. Here is a column I wrote about him which sort of corroborates this.
Any Tibetan who considers himself or herself as being educated, modern-minded, or just “different” will lose no time in swearing by the name of Gedun Choephel. After all, he embodied the dissatisfaction of all Tibetans at the status quo of our system and championed the call for a virtual social revolution in Tibet.
Gedun Choephel’s writings included Gyalrab Debther Karpo (The White Annals), Ludup Gonggyen (Ornament of Nagarjuna’s Thoughts), guide to major pilgrimage sites in India, and Dhoepay Tenchoe (The Art of Love). I was however intrigued by one of his shorter writings called Riwo Himalay Tenchoe (Treatise On the Himalayan Mountains).
In it he dwells on the epitomology of the term Gangchen and the misconception that has led to the creation of a myth in the Tibetan community. The treatise is an attempt to shatter the belief of the existence of the snow lion, an animal that has come to symbolize Tibet in quite some ways, including currently on our national flag.
The treatise says the Tibetan translation of Himalaya is Gangchen (literally “with snow”). However, it is a misnomer to believe, as is popularly done, that anything related to Gangchen should be connected with snow. Himalaya or Gangchen, the scholar says, is the general name for the range of mountains to the north of India that is composed of not just snow, but also forest, and grass-covered mountains. For example, he says when we talk about medicinal plants found on “Gang gi ri” it merely means that such plants were found on the grass and forest covered mountains and not on snow mountains.
Coming to the popular Tibetan Gangseng (snow lion), he says “Gang gi Senge” merely means that the lion came from the Gangchen (Himalayan) range, in the forest part of which lived animals like tigers, lions, rhinoceros and elephants. His conclusion is that the snow lion does not exist. Quoting different scriptures, he says the lion is an animal of the forest and not of snow.
As further evidence of the non-existence of the snow lion, Gedun Choephel says that if we look at the throne section of old Indian and Tibetan statues, the lions sculpted on them are similar in feature to the living lions that we see in many towns. Basically, he says Tibet itself did not have lions and the concept of lion came from India with the very name Senge being derived from the Indian name for the animal (Simha).
As for the snow lion form found in Tibetan arts, Gedun Choephel feels it is basically Chinese influence as the shape resembles those found in the Chinese art forms. He concludes the treatise saying as long as we know that Gangseng is the shortened form of “Gangchen Nag gi Senge” (lion from the forest covered Himalayas) it is alright to keep the term.
Be that as it may, I wonder how much we really know about Gedun Choephel and his work. I grew up learning about Gedun Choepel first through books about him, that too in English, and only subsequently began reading his own writings in Tibetan. I now believe it is better to follow the traditional way of Tibetan scholarship i.e. first read the Tsawa (the root text by the author) and then work towards understanding it better through the different Delpas (commentaries on the text) by others.
In addition to reading Gedun Choephel’s own writings I would suggest looking at some of the publications about him to place his writing in context and to understand the person. One book that I found informative is Kirti Rinpoche’s compilation of recollections by individuals who have been directly or indirectly in touch with Gedun Choephel. Originally published by the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, it has been updated and republished by the Kirti Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies in Dharamsala.
Kirti Rinpoche had visited places in India where Gedun Choephel lived, talked to people or their descendants who hosted the scholar and comes out with interesting discoveries. The book also contains a comprehensive bibliography of books by and about Gedun Choephel as well as samples of sketches revealing his artistic side. There is also a sample of Gedun Choephel’s writing in English (he spells his name as G. Chompel) in the book.
Another book, which is more analytical, is that by Hortsang Jigme. He looks at different aspect of Gedun Choephel’s life and work and touches on controversies surrounding the scholar, including on the issue of sex and drinking. He critiques existing publications on Gedun Choephel although at times his comments are caustic and the rhetoric strong in his criticism of some individuals. Some of his charges may or may not be with basis, but Hortsang Jigme’s book provides much food for thought and is an attempt at literary criticism. Among others, Jigme has given a commentary to Gedun Choephel’s poem on the different governmental systems, which gives us an insight into the scholar’s political views. The poem talks about the democratic system in England and America (Choephel uses the Chinese term for America: Megou); the Communist authoritarianism in the USSR and Germany (East); the oligarchy in Japan; and the virtual servitude system under the Nepalese monarchy. Talking about the governmental system in Tibet, Choephel mentions a culture where everything old is propitiated and attributed to the gods, while everything new is seen as creations of the evil one.
Having read these books I found it strange that there does not seem to be a definitive position in the timing of some of the major aspect of Gedun Choephel’s life, including birth, family background and education. This is ironical for one of the main contributions of Gedun Choephel is the identification of the period of important events in Tibetan history based on historical sources.
In any case, the next time you come across a Gangseng figure take a moment to ponder on the above.