Getting to know the local lama

Asian Commitment
December 14, 2001

David Snellgrove's first exposure to Asia took place during the second world war. After demobilisation he had looked forward to a career in the Indian civil service, in which a life of practical good works in the Indian subcontinent would be combined with local scholarly researches. The achievement of independence by India and Pakistan put paid to that youthful dream, and Snellgrove, who had already developed "a consuming interest" in Tibetan Buddhism, was faced with the prospect of a life of scholarly research for its own sake. Scholarship, however, proved to be tolerable only when combined with new ventures in foreign lands, and Asian Commitment is the very readable - and lavishly illustrated - record of how, over a period of more than 50 years, the author sought to live simultaneously in the world of scholarship and in the world of travel. Not that any of his experiences during the war years were wasted. During that period, he tells us, he learnt resourcefulness in travel of all kinds and in dealing with superior authorities and difficult bureaucracies. He met for the first time men and women of very different cultural and religious backgrounds, and learnt later, when he lived as one of them, to accept their ways almost as though they had become his own.

Asian Commitment is divided into two parts. Part one covers the period 1943 to 1982, in the course of which the author made ten journeys to India and the surrounding region, including Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Ceylon (he refuses to call it Sri Lanka), besides making a number of journeys to places of Buddhist interest within India itself. The story of these travels is told, to a great extent, through the medium of the often very lengthy letters that Snellgrove wrote to his parents, his sister and academic colleagues. This introduces a directly personal element into a narrative that might otherwise have been a dry account of distances traversed, places visited and ancient manuscripts and paintings discovered.

Thus we learn about his dealings with the School of Oriental and African Studies; about his being snowed up in a 14ft square room in Dolpo, a remote frontier region of Nepal, with the local lama and six other persons; and about his grief when a favourite horse has to be put down. We also learn about the various companions of his travels, especially Pasang, the young Sherpa who became a lifelong friend and who ended his days as a producer of peach brandy in his native Nepal. Asian Commitment has been written in Pasang's memory. Snellgrove evidently is a man with a gift for friendship, so much so that his book, like his life, might be described as being dedicated not only to scholarship and travel but also to friendship.

In 1967, during his seventh visit to India, Snellgrove started to feel a sense of disillusionment with India and Nepal, a sense that was later to take possession of him. "For me everything changes here for the worse," he writes from the Nepal Valley to a friend. "Temples and stupas are in ever greater decay. Even the great Bodnath stupa is filthy and covered with green mold. There are more and more foreigners, and Tibetan books, paintings and objets d'art command such fantastic prices that I am out of the market."

Eleven years later, writing from the same place, he complains that the valley has been rendered even more hideous by "development projects" and even more filthy owing to the increasing population and the absence of sanitation. Nor were these the only changes for the worse. The ending of all cultural relations with Tibet, combined with the pressure of "Nepal-style" education, was gradually undermining what remained of Tibetan civilisation and culture in the northern frontier areas. It seemed that there would be even fewer Tibetan-speaking areas in Nepal where scholars like him could study Tibetan Buddhism, and in 1979-80 and 1982 respectively he made his last two journeys to the subcontinent.

The next five years were spent working on Indo-Tibetan Buddhism , probably his most important book, and it was not until 1987 that he was able to resume his Asian travels. This time they were in Southeast Asia, where between 1987 and 1999 he made 15 journeys. These journeys are chronicled in part two of Asian Commitment , and they took him to the Malay Archipelago and Funan, to the Hindu-Buddhist states of Java, Sumatra and Bali, and to Cambodia, where he bought a house and became the adoptive father of several young Cambodians orphaned by the Khmer Rouge. Like part one, the much shorter part two is rich in information about the history, culture and religion of the areas visited by the author. Monuments are, as usual, described meticulously. Partly because the narrative is not diversified by the inclusion of letters, part two is academically denser than part one, and dealing as it does with a different geographical region could well have been published as a separate book.

The book concludes with an epilogue in which, after a few general observations on religion as both a cohesive and divisive element in human affairs, Snellgrove offers us his reflections on Buddhism and Hinduism, on Christianity, on dualism and the Manichean "heresy", on Islam and on personal religion and experience.

The fruit of a lifetime of study, these reflections - the reflections of a Roman Catholic scholar who does not believe in converting Tibetan Buddhists to Christianity - will be of no less interest to students of comparative religion than the book, as a whole, will be of interest to "Tibetan religion enthusiasts", lovers of the Himalayas, and all devotees of tales of travel and adventure in distant lands.

Urgyen Sangharak****a (D. P. E. Lingwood) is founder, Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

Asian Commitment: Travels and Studies in the Indian Sub-Continent and South-east Asia

Author - David Snellgrove
ISBN - 974 8304 94 9 and 8299 31 7
Publisher - Orchid Press, Bangkok
Price - $55.00 and $48.00
Pages - 587

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