In 1934 Gendun Chopel, a former Tibetan monk, arrived in India in the company of an Indian scholar, Rahul Sankrityayan, just after giving up his monastic vows. He would remain there for some time before returning home in 1945 and getting himself arrested on a (probably) trumped-up charge of forging banknotes. While in India, he lived in penury as he wandered around from place to place, gathering material for what would eventually become The Passion Book, a work completed in 1939 which started circulating in manuscript form and was eventually published in 1967, sixteen years after its author’s death.
There are various translations of the Life of Milarepa available, but since Garma C Chang issued his translation of the Hundred Thousand Songs in 1962, there has been a gap of more than fifty years, and Tibetan Buddhist scholarship has made a great deal of progress over that time, which makes 2017 an ideal year for a new translation of this work.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once observed that “seekers for gold dig much earth, but find little gold.”
When the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, presented himself before the Chinese emperor Qianlong in 1793, he exhibited, along with his Chinese hosts, the classic “disconnect” between the two cultures which Michael Keevak discusses in his excellent study of embassies to China. “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance,” Qianlong told Macartney, “therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products.”
“Once you have decided to have your photograph taken,” Matsuzaki Shinji wrote in 1886, “you should clean your entire person, comb your hair, shave your face (while those with long beards should wash them thoroughly), and take care that no dirt is attached to the face or the rest of your body.” He followed this up with twenty-five more “dos and don’ts” for the customer.
Arabia Felix: Happy Arabia. Who wouldn’t want to go there and find out why it was such a happy place? In fact, in 1761 not that many Europeans were going there, which left an opening for the culturally and scientifically minded king of Denmark, Frederik V, to make a name for himself and his country by supporting a Danish expedition to that fortunate land. New scientific discoveries could be there for the making and new accurate maps drawn, as well as a chance to prove some of the stories told about Moses and the Israelites; could they have left inscriptions as they fled from Egyptian persecution, writings which might be transcribed by a competent philologist?
It might be thought that all that can be said about earlier European contacts with India has been said, and that no further interesting approach to the study of those contacts could be developed. Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500-1800 proves how wrong such a supposition might be.