In 1922, when he was thirty-one years old, Osip Mandelstam published “The Nineteenth Century,” an essay in which he deplored what he saw as widespread Buddhist influence on European culture then and called for a return to the robust intellectual rationality of the eighteenth-century French Encyclopedists.
This may sound odd now. For most Europeans knew little of Buddhism in the nineteenth century, and had known almost nothing at all in the preceding centuries, when much of Asia had remained closed to European traders, missionaries, and imperialists. It was in the early nineteenth century that scholars based in Europe began to collate the religious practices European visitors claimed to have seen in China, Korea, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries. Around 1800, they invented the word “Buddhism” in an attempt to categorize what seemed to be widespread reverence for a figure called the Buddha (“the enlightened one”).
It was not until 1844 that Eugène Burnouf, an academic at the Collège de France, published Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme Indien, the first comprehensive explanation of the Buddha’s teachings available in the West. The book was excerpted the same year in The Dial, the journal of the New England Transcendentalists, and went on to inspire, among others, Arthur Schopenhauer, whose deeply pessimistic and largely misleading take on the Buddha influenced in turn Nietzsche and helped to associate Buddhism with such vaguely ominous words as “nothingness, “void,” and “extinction.”
These words appear to have worked upon a devoted reader of Schopenhauer, the young Jorge Luis Borges. In 1922—the same year Mandelstam wrote about Buddhism—Borges published an essay called “The Nothingness of Personality” in which he attacked the “romantic ego-worship” that he claimed nineteenth-century Europe specialized in and quoted approvingly a German book on Buddhism to support his repeated assertion that “there is no whole self.”
Borges later disowned his precocious essay. It may be that Buddhism to both Borges and Mandelstam was a useful prop in their youthfully ambitious polemic—much in the same way it served Nietzsche, who in his last writings rarely lost an opportunity to compare Christianity unfavorably with Buddhism. Certainly, their notions of Buddhism as a nihilistic religion will strike most Buddhists as limited, if not wrong. But then Mandelstam and Borges are unlikely to have met many Buddhists in the 1920s.
There were a few Zen Buddhists from Japan in America. But there were in the West hardly any monks and teachers from the Tibetan diaspora disseminating, as happens now, to large middle-class audiences a subtler sense of what the Buddha first spoke of near Benares two and half millennia ago: how neither the individual self nor the world is stable, how our desire for things innately impermanent makes for frustration, turning life into an experience of perpetual discontentment, and how human beings could achieve liberation, or nirvana, not by plunging into some unspecified “void,” but by freeing themselves from greed, hatred, and delusion.
The word “Buddhism” made the Buddha seem the founder of a monotheistic faith like Christianity and Islam. In fact, the Buddha had offered not an exclusive new god or theory of creation, but an overview of ordinary human experience: how an elusive individual self, ever-shifting desires, and a fast-changing world add up to considerable frustration and unhappiness. He claimed that individuals could avoid suffering through a personal awareness, heightened by meditation, of the self as fundamentally unstable, primarily made up of and kept on the boil by perpetually renewed desires, disappointments, fears, and resentments.
The Buddha asserted that what individuals take to be their identity is artificial and incoherent, and a source of delusion. This modern-seeming idea may explain why he has been admired by figures as disparate as the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the Romanian phi-losopher E.M. Cioran, and the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, or why many largely agnostic middle-class men and women in the West look to Buddhist meditation as a substitute for psychotherapy, as a way of examining and controlling, if not transcending altogether, a desire-infested self.
The Buddha’s ideas, which came free of complicated theology, and which were addressed to lay persons as well as to monks, similarly adapted themselves to local needs in the many Asian countries they traveled to. Reaching China in the first centuries after Christ, they even blended with the folk Taoist, and un-Buddhistic, belief in the eternal soul. In the fifth century, they were reintroduced to a literate elite by a series of resourceful Indian and Chinese translators and scholars—a ninth-century Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra, an Indian Buddhist text that emphasized the deceptive nature of rational-seeming phenomena, is the oldest-known printed book in the world.
Buddhism was already the state religion of China by the seventh century AD, when emperors from the T’ang dynasty, although Taoist themselves, began to promote it more vigorously, and an extraordinary Chinese traveler called Huan Tsang brought back rare manuscripts of Buddhist philosophy from India.1
Strangely, the Buddha and his teachings were never so preeminent in India, the country of their origin, and in fact remained almost entirely obscure for much of the last eight centuries. Growing up in North India in the 1970s and 1980s I had come across at both school and home a broad outline of the Buddha’s life. He had been the young scion of a ruling clan in a remote city-state in North India, leading a life of leisure and some luxury, when sudden exposure to old age, sickness, and death led him first to doubt and introspection, and then to the abandoning of his wife and son for a lonely search for wisdom. He had practiced and grown disillusioned with extreme asceticism, before discovering one night “the Middle Way” between self-mortification and the sensual life. He had given his first sermon near Benares, where he had also found his earliest disciples, and set up the sangha, the monastic order. He had then wandered through North India for the rest of his long life, before dying, from food poisoning, in a small insignificant village.
This well-worn story, lacking all specific detail, was one reason why for a long time I, like many, probably most, Hindus in India, thought of the Buddha as a Hindu god, an incarnation, along with Rama and Krishna, of the great Lord Vishnu, rather than as a historical figure who broke radically with the ritual-driven, Brahmin-controlled Hinduism of his time.
In the early 1990s I was living near Simla, not far from some of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas, when I first became interested in learning more about the Buddha. The small bookshop in Simla was well stocked with books on Buddhism in English—in expectation, the owner told me, of the European and American tourists who came looking for books on spiritual figures and themes, and often traveled from Simla to the hill town of Dharamshala, the main home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan community in exile. But the shop had little on the Buddha himself, except legends, which made little or no mention of his historical existence.
This was, as I soon discovered, not the bookseller’s fault. Scholarship on the Buddha had been traditionally limited by the lack of archaeological and textual records from the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the centuries with which the Buddha’s life is supposed to have coincided. What the Buddha taught was transmitted orally, and not written down until probably a couple of centuries after his death. The collection of these texts, called the Tripitaka, or the Canon, offered only a scattered narrative of the Buddha’s life. A Sanskrit poet called Asvaghosha wrote the first popular biography as late as the second century AD. For the earliest Buddhists, the man known originally by his family name of Gautama was only the latest of the endless incarnations of Buddhas; and his teachings were more important than his life or personality, which in any case were inaccessible.
In the newer books on Buddhism that I saw, scholars still wondered whether we could know for sure the Buddha’s year of birth, or whether it was actually him, rather than his disciples, who had said the things attributed to him in the texts compiled long after his death. The books also told me that the Buddha’s austere vision of life as impermanence and discontentment found larger acceptance only two or three centuries after his death; and that, until then, he had been only one of the many new thinkers that emerged in North India in the sixth and fifth centuries BC.
I had known that Buddhism’s first imperial patron was Ashoka, a particularly brutal conqueror in the third century BC who after his successful and bloody invasion of the eastern Indian state of Kalinga embraced Buddhism and then apparently put the resources of his vast empire at its disposal and sent out missionaries to Central Asia and Ceylon. I learned from the books that in the millennium after Christ, the Buddha’s ideas had traveled as far as, and assumed new forms in, China, Siberia, Korea, and Japan, but, for reasons not very clear, had begun to disappear from India long before the twelfth century AD, when Turkish invaders sacked the few Buddhist monasteries remaining in India.
The bookshop also had many reprints of nineteenth-century European accounts of India; they consisted of letters, memoirs, travelogues, and expository essays. Most of them testified to the nineteenth-century British discovery of India, when colonial officials, working largely on their own and in isolated parts of the country, first began to make available to a worldwide audience the art, religions, and philosophies of ancient India. In their old-fashioned fonts and starched prose you could discern the English or Scottish amateur in his solar hat supervising an excavation in the middle of an exposed plain, or poring over, in fading light, an unfamiliar script on the bougainvillea-festooned veranda of a bungalow.
It is this romance of the solitary, dogged Western explorer that Charles Allen, one of the leading popular historians of British India, evokes in The Search for the Buddha. He describes the separate quests of Frenchmen, Germans, a Russian, a Hungarian, and, most improbably, a US Army colonel called Henry Olcott, who in the late nineteenth century attempted a Protestant-style reformation of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He rightly spends more time on India’s British conquerors, who saw India as a country out of touch with its past, and who took it upon themselves to repossess its religions and cultures through what in the nineteenth century were the newly established academic disciplines of history, philology, and archaeology.
Allen’s absorbing narrative includes such characters as William Jones, the judge who confirmed the similarity between Sanskrit and Greek; James Prinsep, who deciphered the ancient Indian script of Brahmi, the ancestor of most Indian scripts, that the British found on pillars and rock faces across South Asia, and threw the first clear light on the first great patron of Buddhism, Ashoka; and Alexander Cunningham, who excavated the site near Benares where the Buddha had preached his first sermon.2
These British explorers of India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries usually weren’t trained scholars. As Allen points out, some of them were philistines and vandals, who did more damage to existing or recently dug-up monuments than had been done by centuries of decay and neglect. Like Jones, Prinsep, and Cunningham, most of them were officials in the British administration, and the best among them were motivated by the possibility that the strange country they had come to rule might once have had a civilization as distinguished as that of Greece and Rome.
But so little was known about ancient India that when they chanced upon monuments and texts, they often lacked the experience or knowledge to make the right connections. When in 1819, a British army captain called Edward Fell discovered the great Buddhist stupa of Sanchi in the jungles of Central India, he wasn’t at first sure which religion it belonged to. It was too old to be Muslim, and was most probably Hindu. Fell’s suspicion that it was Buddhist was not helped by the fact that there were no Buddhists to be seen in India. The British amateur scholars in Calcutta who in 1784 set up the Asiatic Society of Bengal initially thought that the Buddha had been an Egyptian or Ethiopian, or perhaps was another name for the Norse god Woden. They had trouble seeing that the faiths followed in Thailand, Burma, and Ceylon were versions of the same religion. The British also could be stern puritans. The British army captain who uncovered the erotic temples of Khujaraho reported that “the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing.”
There had been much traffic between Europe and India in the centuries after Christ, but compared to such exhaustively curious Arab travelers as al-Beruni and Ibn Battuta, European visitors had advanced knowledge about India little since the fifth century BC when Herodotus wrote confidently about gold-digging Indian ants in his History. It was only after the discovery of the sea route to Asia in 1498 that somewhat more rigorous observers—mostly Jesuit missionaries, traders, and diplomats—traveled to India.
In his Essay on the Manners and Spirits of Nations (1754), Voltaire had relied upon the testimony of two of the greatest French travelers, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and François Bernier, both of whom had attempted ambitious accounts of the last days of the Mughal Empire in India, and given to Europe its first authoritative, if only partly true, image of Asia: as a place of ageless “Oriental Despotism,” where the ruler owned everything in his realm.
Among the several nineteenth-century European visitors to India Allen mentions, the most perceptive appears to have been Victor Jacquemont, a young botanist sent out by the Jardin des Plantes in Paris to investigate the natural history of India. Jacquemont could not but be different from previous travelers. The Orient he traveled to may have been ageless or torpid, but the Europe he was traveling from had changed after the French and the Industrial Revolutions, and was changing more radically and speedily than at any other time in the past two millennia. Jacquemont, the son of an Enlightenment philosopher, was part of the rising bourgeois class, whose aspirations for social and intellectual mobility had powered the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and then Napoleon and his schemes of world conquest.
The two volumes of letters he wrote from India express not just his great intelligence and curiosity but also the supreme confidence he had in himself and the world he came from. Tall, handsome, and impetuous, he resembles the strong-willed young men that you find in the fictions of Stendhal, one of the more distinguished friends Jacquemont had made in the salons of Paris.
In his twenties, he had already had an affair with a famous opera singer, and had traveled to both Haiti and North America. He was not yet thirty when early in 1828 he set off for India, the country that the traditional rivals of the French, the British, had then dominated firmly for over three decades. Arriving in Calcutta, the chief city of British-ruled India, he found elegant riverside mansions full of bored British colonials longing to be entertained by his smart conversation.
Most of these men had left Britain in order to make an easy fortune in the colonies, and hoped to retire to a comfortable house in the English countryside. But Jacquemont found on the whole the “perfidious Albion” better behaved in India than in Europe. “I certainly see,” he reported to Prosper Mérimée, another one of his literary friends, “the English, for the most part, in a more advantageous light than they exhibited themselves to you.”
In Calcutta, he learned Hindustani from a Benares Brahmin. In the late autumn of 1829, he left Calcutta with a retinue of servants and a sheaf of introductions to various British officials across India. He traveled through the North Indian plains, passing through the cities of Benares, Agra, Delhi, and Dehradun, on his way to the Himalayas.
In June 1830, Jacquemont reached Simla, and was struck by the appearance of “abundance, luxury, and riches of European civilization” at more than six thousand feet in the Himalayas. Attended by his generous British hosts in Simla, Jacquemont busily consumed “elegant and recherché breakfasts,” Périgord Truffées and Rhine wine and champagne. He left Simla, “restored,” he wrote to his father, to his “accustomed vigour,” and planning to go up to the borders of Tibet. A few days later, he crossed the Sutlej, on his way to the less inhabited, Buddhist parts of Kinnaur, and to one of the improbable encounters in which the nineteenth century—the age of European exploration—abounded.
“Buddha here,” Jacquemont reported to his father from Kinnaur, “begins to steal the clouds of incense of which Brahma has the exclusive right on the Indian side of the Himalaya.” Jacquemont couldn’t have known then that the Buddha himself had been Indian, with many more historical credentials than the Hindu god Brahma. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, a British naturalist and surveyor called Francis Buchanan had visited Burma, where he met Buddhists who told him that the Buddha was from India. He found evidence for this a few years later, when his work took him to the ancient town of Bodh Gaya in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, where he saw Brahmins in control of a pyramidal temple, and Hindus worshiping statues of the Buddha. The locals told Buchanan of strange pilgrims to the ruins from far-off lands who apparently revered a god called Gautama. Buchanan realized that they meant the Buddha; he also recognized the pilgrims as Burmese. But he still didn’t know that Bodh Gaya was where the Buddha had achieved his enlightenment while sitting under a pipal tree.
Buchanan probably would not have used the word “enlightenment” for the Buddha’s revelation. It had by then different connotations for Europeans, and was associated not so much with religion as its rejection in favor of a rational, scientific outlook. It was this prejudice in favor of the European Enlightenment that led the American Colonel Olcott to scrape off the crust of myth and ritual around Buddhism in Sri Lanka and present it as a rational religion.
The growing British interest in Buddhism was very rarely fed by a sense of wonder or by spiritual restlessness. As Allen describes it, Brain Houghton Hodgson, the British official who helped more than anyone in the Western discovery of Buddhism, ended his days conventionally in Britain as “a country gentleman, riding to hounds.”
Hodgson was barely eighteen when he arrived in India in 1818 to serve as an administrator. Ill health forced him to spend much of his time in the cool climate of the Himalayas. As the sole British representative in Nepal, which was partly Buddhist, Hodgson turned, perhaps out of boredom, to collecting Sanskrit and Tibetan manuscripts and to interpreting them with the help of a Buddhist he met in Kathmandu. He was struck by the fact that Buddhism was still around as a religion and culture; also by the fact that all the place names in the accounts of the Buddha’s life appeared to be Indian. But he couldn’t take his researches very far, partly because he felt contempt for what he found in the texts: what he called the “interminable sheer absurdities of the Bauddha religion or philosophy.”
This is why Hodgson’s importance today lies not in the essays he wrote in the 1820s on Buddhism, but in the manuscripts he collected and sent by the trunkloads to Europe, where they formed the basis of Eugène Burnouf’s book that so influenced Schopenhauer, and later interpretations of the Buddha.
Jacquemont couldn’t but distrust traditional religion; he worshiped the nineteenth-century deities of science and progress. In that sense he was like the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, who argued decisively in a crucial debate in Britain on Indian education that Indian civilization and culture were barbaric, and that the best way forward for Indians was to abandon them and to learn about European literature and science. During his time in India, Jacquemont grew contemptuous of even the halfhearted, and by the 1830s already fading, British attempt to understand India through learning classical Indian languages. “The Sanskrit will lead to nothing but Sanskrit,” he kept insisting in his letters to France. “It has served only for the manufacture of theology, metaphysics, history intermixed with theology and other stuff of the same kind: triple nonsense for the makers and the consumers, and for foreign consumers especially.”
At around the same time Jacquemont was collecting natural history specimens in India, the German philosopher and critic August Wilhelm Schlegel was setting up a Sanskrit printing press in Bonn and publishing translations of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Ramayana. His efforts in Bonn greatly encouraged Sanskrit studies in Europe. Schlegel followed Novalis among the German Romantics who looked toward India for spiritual relief from a Europe that they saw as embracing the bourgeois religion of progress and losing, in the process, its soul. He hoped that the study of classical India would bring about a new Renaissance on the same scale as the one that was based on Roman and Greek antiquity and had lifted much of Western Europe out of the Dark Ages.
Jacquemont was not impressed. “Have not the absurd at Benares and those in Germany a family likeness?” he wrote to a friend in Paris. He thought that most Indians were too busy trying to survive to concern themselves with abstruse philosophy, “which would only make them more wretched, and the very name of which is unknown to the greater number of them.”
Jacquemont was at least partly right. Whether or not they worried about salvation in this or the next world, most Indians then knew nothing or very little of the hymns, invocations, and liturgical formulas of the four Vedas or the philosophical idealism of the Upanishads that people in Europe took to be the very essence of Indian civilization. These Sanskrit texts had long been monopolized by an elite minority of Brahmins who zealously guarded their knowledge of Sanskrit. Some of these Brahmins educated the British amateur scholars, who studied earnestly the canon of what they supposed to be ancient Indian tradition and managed to remain mostly unaware of the more numerous nontextual, syncretic religious and philosophical traditions of India—for example, the popular devotional cults, Sufi shrines, festivals, rites, and legends that varied across India and formed the worldview of a majority of Indians.
This Brahmin-inflected British interpretation of India’s past hasn’t been without political consequences. Many Westernized upper-caste Indians, including middle-class Hindu nationalists, now believe that Muslim invaders destroyed a pure and glorious Hindu civilization, which a minority of Brahmins then managed to preserve. The rather crude British generalization that Hindus and Muslims constituted mutually exclusive and monolithic religious communities—a view which was formed largely by historians who never visited India, and which was then institutionalized in colonial policies of divide-and-rule—was eventually self-fulfilling, first by the partition of British India, and then by the hostility between India and Pakistan.
In his introduction, Charles Allen passionately defends the British interpreters of India against the charge contained in Edward Said’s Orientalism that much of Western scholarship on the Orient helped, directly or not, Western imperialists. He makes a good case against the academic tendency to assume that any, or all, Western interest in India is tainted with bad faith. But I hope Allen will agree that we ought to reveal and examine the prejudices of previous generations as unsentimentally as future generations are likely to reveal and examine the prejudices that we, in our supposedly greater wisdom, labor under.
Jacquemont’s most extraordinary encounter in India occurred not long after he left Simla for the inner Himalayas. He partly knew what to expect as he approached the Buddhist-dominated parts of the Himalayas. “I shall soon see,” he wrote to his father, “that incredible Hungarian original, M. Alexander de Körös, of whom you have no doubt heard: he has been living for four years under the very modest name of Secunder Beg, that is to say, Alexander the Great, dressed in the Oriental style.”
De Körös’s obsessions belonged as much to the Europe of his time as Jacquemont’s, despite the latter’s Parisian disdain toward the Hungarian. De Körös, whom Allen doesn’t discuss much, was born in 1784 in a small village at the foot of the Hungarian Carpathians, a cold windswept place that was probably not very different from the villages of the inner Himalayas where he spent much of his later life. Popular legend traced his ancestors, the Szekeleys, to the Huns, the still obscure nomadic people who, led by Attila, invaded Europe in the fifth century AD. But the reality of Hungary then mocked this romantic past: the country was subject to the Austrian crown and its educated classes were only just beginning to feel, around the time of de Körös’s birth, the rebellious spirit of nationalism that had fired the French and the American revolutions, and was all set to remake Europe in the nineteenth century.
Some of these Hungarians preferred to think that their ancestors had come from somewhere in Central Asia. This chimed in with de Körös’s own fantasy of being ancestrally linked to Attila the Hun. As an ascetic young scholar, he vowed to dedicate his life to uncovering “the obscure origins of our homeland.” When he finally set out for Asia in late 1819, at the age of thirty-five, his final destination was Yarkand in what is now China’s Xinjiang province.
Three years and many futile wanderings later, he had only reached as far as Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, hundreds of miles south of Yarkand. A few months later, he was still trying to get to Yarkand when he met William Moorcroft, in another one of the auspicious encounters of nineteenth- century India.
Moorcroft was the first qualified veterinarian in England. A disastrous financial speculation had forced him to India, where he managed the British East India Company’s stud farm, and later became the first great explorer of the western Himalayan ranges. At the time he met de Körös, he had spent two years shuttling between Kashmir and Ladakh, trying to get to Yarkand and Bukhara. He claimed that he was concerned about the declining quality of horses in India and wanted to find a superior breed in Central Asia, of the kind he thought Attila the Hun and his army might have used.
But Moorcroft was also an intriguer, an early player of what came to be known later as the Great Game, involving Russian, British, Persian, and Ottoman ambitions in Asia. He was particularly obsessed with the possibility that the then-expanding Russian Empire would threaten British control over India. He immediately saw opportunities in the raggedly dressed Hungarian, and invited de Körös to join his entourage. They traveled together for nearly eight months, spending time in both Kashmir and the Buddhist borderlands of Ladakh. Moorcroft encouraged de Körös to give up on his idea of traveling to Central Asia and instead add to his scholarly skills by learning Tibetan in the Indian Himalayan country adjoining Tibet. He told de Körös of the immense favor he could do to Europe by compiling the first accurate dictionary and grammar of the Tibetan language.
Moorcroft doubtless wished to flatter de Körös. He probably also realized that the British needed more than a cursory knowledge of the Tibetan language as a first step toward preventing Tibet from falling into Russian hands. He gave de Körös money to carry out his research, wrote him introductions to Ladakhi and British officials, and also appealed for financial assistance to the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Moorcroft was so effective that de Körös even managed to persuade himself that Tibetan texts might contain something about the origins of the Hungarian peoples. In May 1823, de Körös traveled to a monastery in Zanskar, the most remote part of Ladakh where the cold kept villagers indoors for much of the year. Here, in an unheated cell, de Körös spent sixteen months with the local abbot, Phuntsog, who was an authority on Tibetan Buddhism. Sitting huddled together, de Körös and Phuntsog took turns extending their hands from under sheepskin cloaks and turning the pages of Tibetan manuscripts.
In 1827, after a series of adventures, de Körös traveled with Phuntsog to a village called Kanum, which now lies close to India’s border with Tibet. Working conditions here were better than what he had endured in Zanskar. He had his own cottage. The landscape was less harsh, even tinged a bit with the green of pine forests and apricot trees.
It was at Kanum that Jacquemont met de Körös in the summer of 1830. De Körös showed him around the monastery with the manuscripts, which were part of the large Tibetan canon of Buddhism. Jacquemont reported scornfully on their contents to his father. “There are about twenty chapters on the kind of shoes that lamas should wear….” De Körös himself dismissed some of the literature he came across as “wild metaphysical speculations.” But his nine years of monastic seclusion in the Himalayas weren’t entirely fruitless.
The Buddha’s origins in India were not to be established definitively by Europeans until the late 1830s. But de Körös was able to prove that Tibetan Buddhism, like all other Buddhisms in the world, had originated in India and that much of the Tibetan canon consisted of translations from, and commentaries on, the Sanskrit texts that were lost in India as Buddhism declined. This was a considerable achievement at a time when Tibet was as much of a mystery as the Buddha.3
Two years after meeting de Körös, Jacquemont traveled with his botanical specimens to Bombay in order to catch a ship to France, developed a fever while passing through the warm plains, and died. Moorcroft had earlier disappeared somewhere in Afghanistan. His protégé, de Körös, lived longer. A few months after meeting Jacquemont, he left Kanum, carrying with him boxes full of manuscripts and printed Tibetan texts. He went directly to Calcutta, where for the next eleven years he supervised the production of the first reliable grammar and dictionary of the Tibetan language, learned new languages, and cataloged Tibetan and Sanskrit texts that arrived from the British representative, Hodgson, in Kathmandu, Nepal.
In 1842, when he was fifty-eight, he finally set out again on his original quest that Moorcroft had interrupted two decades earlier. He wanted now to get to Lhasa, Tibet, where he thought the library of the Dalai Lama would reveal something about the origins of the Hungarian peoples. But he caught malarial fever a few hundred miles out of Calcutta and died in the hill town of Darjeeling.
He is unlikely to have found any trace of Hungary in either Lhasa or Yarkand. Scholars in Europe were saying even when de Körös was alive—and they turned out to be right—that the Hungarians were closer linguistically and ethnically to the Finns than to anyone in Central Asia. De Körös was wide off the mark. But his delusions now appear fruitful. A Hungarian searching for the intellectual basis of a hopeful nationalism; an English vet looking for horses and seeking also to advance British imperialist aims; a French botanist collecting specimens on behalf of a new European institution—it was such unlikely men with diverse, not very Buddhistic, motives, and much error and accident, that helped create the first Western views of the Buddha.
June 12, 2003
For an engaging contemporary account of Huan Tsang’s travels see Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey (Knopf, 2001). ↩
See also John Keay, India Discovered: The Achievement of the British Raj (HarperCollins, 1992). ↩
For more on Moorcroft and de Körös see John Keay, Explorers of the Western Himalayas, 1820–1895 (London: John Murray, 1996); and Edward Fox, The Hungarian Who Walked to Heaven: Alexander Csoma de Körös, 1784–1842 (London: Short Books, 2001). ↩