Nepal Reads 2020 started off online back in April with Prawin Adhikari’s Folk Gods: Stories From Kailas, Tise and Kang Rinpoche. The Book Bus team lead discussions with participants, exploring themes of bravery, wisdom, power, compassion and mortality. Instructor Bishal Yonjan writes about the theme of clemency in these Folk Tales, and how it has shaped our beliefs.
Victory over evil is one among the many themes and teachings of folk stories. Over hundreds of years, people remember and retell stories about victorious figures defeating monstrous personas. Evils are crushed to death, and that is how our stories get their happy endings. But some folk tales tell us about legends that destroy only the villainous intent, turning these monsters into gods. A powerful and benevolent deity steps in, giving the villain another shot at life, encouraging good deeds to be sown into the mud for blue lotuses to bloom.
The Hungry Ogre is one of such stories from Humla. It is one of the tales in Folk Gods, a collection of folk tales retold by Prawin Adhikari. It is about the sage Padhmasambhava, who stopped the terrors of Shabdag, a malevolent ogre in Humla. Shabdag the ogre had been terrorizing the people of Barkhyang, Nyiondrang and Drangshod in Humla. With his magical powers, Shabdag cursed the villagers, made them suffer by stopping the rains or raining down hailstorms, and worst of all, he demanded that they sacrifice their children to keep him happy and well-fed.
After thousands of years of torture, the sage Padhmasambhava traveled to Humla to protect the villagers and bring an end to the drought caused by Shabdag. Following the trail of hair that the ogre used to strangle villagers and enslave them, Padhmasambhava tracked down Shabdag and confronted him. Upon the encounter, Shabdag swallowed Padhmasambhava, thinking him an ordinary sage. But Padhmasambhava was unharmed and climbed through Shabdag’s cave-like insides using a powerful dagger, crushing Shabdag’s organs.
Furious and in a lot of pain, Shabdag drank out of the widest lakes and swallowed forests and rocks whole to crush his enemy inside his body. But Padhmasambhava set the forest on fire, intensifying the pain.
After a long struggle, when Shabdag could no longer endure the pain, he surrendered. Padmasambhava then made a deal with Shabdag to release villagers and bless them with rain and crops. In return, the villagers promised to offer food and worship Shabdag as their protector. Ever since then, Shabdag the ogre has been worshiped as Zhibdag Rinpoche.
Padhmansambhava is a historical figure, also known as Guru Rinpoche. He is believed to have introduced Tantrism in Tibet around the 8th century, and is considered to be a fierce and powerful deity in Buddhism. Though he uses his fierceness to subdue evil monsters, he also allows them to ask for forgiveness and change their lives.
Tales of Guru Rinpoche’s clemency are also found in other places. Inside Boudha Stupa, people worship Ajhima Mumthan, an old witch who was once believed to be feared by the whole village. She would especially haunt young kids, make them sick and eventually consume them. After Guru Rinpoche arrived in Boudha, he defeated Ajhima Mumthan with his tantric powers and made a deal with her. He built her a temple and said that she would be worshiped as a God if she behaved like a protector instead of tormenting the village. To make sure she did as she was asked to, a huge sculpture of Guru Rinpoche was installed inside the monastery, facing the Mumthan. Ever since, Ajhima Mumthan has been worshiped as a God, and even now, people bring offerings to her when their children fall sick.
The story of Shabdag and Mumthan are very similar to the stories of other evil personas who were changed by Guru Rinpoche. Whether he really did travel around fighting and curing evil or not is not certain, but Guru Rinpoche has placed a hope among the believers that even the most terrorizing evils can be shaped into a kind force that cares for humanity. With proper guidance and mentorship, the same energy that threatens can also become a powerful shield that protects.
Bishal Yonjan is an artist and an instructor with the U.S. Embassy’s Book Bus. Find his work on Instagram @bishalhigh
Find out more from the author, Prawin Adhikari, from his conversation on Folk Gods, the Kailas region, and their folk tales, available here!