The Newsletter 89 Summer 2021

IIAS Fellow in the spotlight: Joel Bordeaux

Joel Bordeaux

“Without going out the door, know the world”

IIAS Research Clusters: Asian Heritages; Global Asia
1 Nov 2020 – 31 Oct 2021

The country was already under partial lockdown when I arrived in November, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The university was basically closed, too, but if one must studiously avoid the office and public transport, Leiden is a lovely place to do so. Here I have at least been given the opportunity to migrate a not-insignificant portion of the library’s impressive South Asia collections to my apartment!

In fact, considering my own largely speculative sense of what life at the IIAS is normally like, it seems fitting to settle into a project about imaginary journeys and lost locations here. My research, you see, concerns representations of ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’ ritual in Hindu sources, but I have come to suspect that the majority of the premodern Indian authors I have been reading were likely also ‘working from home.’ It is doubtful whether many of them ever left the subcontinent, or for that matter, whether they share a consistent understanding of the geography of the places they refer to in Sanskrit as Cīna (China) or Mahācīna (‘Greater China’) other than locating them beyond the Himalayas.

What they do generally agree on is that the esoteric, so-called Chinese form of ritual taught by the Buddha in this foreign land ignores many of the regulations around purity and auspicious timing that typically structure Hindu rites – and indeed, there is evidence in the earliest sources of ‘pious plagiarism’ from early 2nd-millennium Indian Buddhist tantras that do just that. Presently, I am looking at how some early modern commentators (known to have travelled to Nepal at least, where they may well have encountered living Buddhist traditions long since extinct in India) attempted to assimilate or indigenize these supposedly imported practices. My hope is that this will yield clues as to what was considered essentially ‘Chinese’ about them.

During the last several months, I have enjoyed many productive conversations with Leiden University faculty, library staff, and graduate students; mostly via webcam but occasionally out of doors, too, as the weather has grown more accommodating. I’ve been particularly fortunate to read Sanskrit – including an otherwise impenetrable manuscript by a terribly absentminded scribe – with Peter Bisschop and to discuss my project with Péter-Dániel Szántó, who often engages related matters in his own scholarship. Happily, I have also received a steady stream of useful feedback from across the globe in response to my online lecture (‘The goddess Tara, Buddhism, and ‘Chinese’ ritual in Hindu tantra’), and invitations to present additional work both in Leiden and at the University of Amsterdam. All told, I am very much looking forward to continuing my research here.