José Ignacio Cabezón: "Buddha or Demoness? Gilgit’s Kargah Image"
Department of Religious Studies
Tibetans believe that before Buddhism could take hold in Tibet, the land, seen as coequal with the body of a giant demoness, first had to be “tamed.” Demon-taming myths also exist in the Gilgit region of northern Pakistan, a region that had a history of contact with Tibet from the 7th to the 11th century. The Tibetan demoness is said to have been tamed by building Buddhist temples on her body. In Gilgit, however, demons and demonesses are tamed by the rituals of shamans. This lecture explores such demon-taming myths by focussing on a large image of a standing Buddha found near Gilgit, in the village of Kargah. But is this a Buddha? The people of Kargah tell a very different story, claiming that it is actually a “yacheni” (yakṣiṇī) or demoness who was frozen in place by a mighty local shaman. The lecture compares the two competing origin tales of the Kargah image to explore how narrative functions to endow a religious artefact with meaning, even when its original significance has long been forgotten.
José I. Cabezón is Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, and XIVth Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has published nineteen books and many dozen articles on Buddhism, Tibetan culture, and the academic study of religion. His most recent publications include Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism (2017), and Sera Monastery (2019, with Penpa Dorjee). His current research focuses on the “synoptic” literature of late Indian Buddhism. The recipient of fellowships from ACLS, Humboldt, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller fellowships, Cabezón was Tsadra Foundation Distinguished Research Scholar from 2021 to 2022. He was elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019 and served as president of the American Academy of Religion in 2020. Between 2018 and 2019 he made three trips to explore some of the ancient Buddhist sites of Pakistan.