Milarepa and Scenes from His Life
- 18th century
- Pigments on cloth
- Catalog Number
- C2006.66.174 (HAR 183)
- Rubin Museum of Art
- Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin
This painting tells a story of the eleventh-century Tibetan poet-yogi Milarepa. In every culture historical figures are often transformed into characters of mythic dimension through stories of their deeds and the power of literature. Although Milarepa’s legendary life story of hardship, strife, magical powers, disillusionment, and perseverance to achieve liberation is known across all Tibetan Buddhist traditions, there is no historical certainty about his birth, activities, and death. His biography is presented in the fifteenth-century writing of Tsangnyon Heruka (1452–1507). Yet Milarepa is better remembered for his impassioned song-poems (The Hundred-Thousand Songs). These texts form the basis of many paintings, such as this one, which simultaneously encompass religious instruction, folk tale, and biography.
At ease in a mountain cave, Milarepa cups his hand to his ear to catch the sound of his songs. Nested into the landscape around him are vignettes telling stories of his life. This painting was once part of a set and is the last in the sequence. The episodes move counterclockwise around Milarepa to culminate in the scene in the clouds at the upper left, where sky-walking deities take away the stupa containing his relics.
Ritual informs the structure of religious life in the Himalayas, defining the daily routine of practitioners and shaping a range of community-based activities.
In Himalayan cultures religious merit is the overarching reason for creating, commissioning, dedicating, and using religious works of art.
Religious rituals and the commissioning of art can serve everyday secular needs, the most common being wealth, health, and long life.
Tantric practitioners strive to transform themselves by using meditative and ritual tools with the ultimate goal of enlightenment or awakening.
Instructive paintings can illustrate religious doctrines, medical and astrological charts, or images of ritual implements and meditative postures.