IT is amazing how a book can sell millions of copies just by the title. That is the story of the book “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” by Walter Evans-Wentz. According to Donald S Lopez, Jr it is not Tibetan, it is not a book and definitely not of the dead. Writing the biography of the book, which was published in 1927, Lopez tells the fascinating story of the book. How an innocuous Buddhist text, one among thousands, nothing distinct, landed in the hands of an Englishman who translated it with help from a monk and sold it and hit a fortune.
Evans-Wentz is the hero of Lopez’s book The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography. Evans-Wentz’s timing was right and his luck immense. He knew no Tibetan and had never visited the mountain nation. At the time when he published the book, Tibet was a remote nation, full of men of wisdom, protected by the pristine mountains as if by the gods themselves.
Evans-Wentz got a copy of this text during his travel in the Himalayas, probably in Sikkim. He got it translated by an English teacher of the Maharaja’s Boarding School for boys in Gangtok, Sikkim. According to Lopez, “The Tibetan work that was given this name by Evans-Wentz is one of many Buddhist texts known by the title Bardo Tödöl (in transliterated Tibetan, Bar do thos grol, literally, “Liberation in the Intermediate State through hearing”). It belongs to the genre of Tibetan literature called terma (gter ma) or “treasure.” It is said to have been composed by the great Indian tantric master Padmasambhava, who visited Tibet in the eighth century.” The story gets interesting. Padmasambhava, “knowing his teachings would be needed in the distant future, dictated books to his consort and scribe (the queen of Tibet) and buried them – sometimes in a cave, sometimes in a lake, sometimes in a pillar, sometimes in the heart of a disciple yet unborn – to await discovery when the time was ripe for their contents to be revealed to the world.”
Padmasambhava wrote thousands of works and the book called Bardo Tödöl was unearthed in 14th century. Evans-Wentz, who ‘unearthed’ it again gave it the title the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And hence the book is not Tibetan, it is not of the dead and it is not a book at all. Since its publication in 1927, millions have read it in the West and used it “to do what Freud (Sigmund) deemed impossible: imagine their own deaths.”
The timing of the book was wonderful. Suffering from recession, the population was soothed by the spiritual content of the book. The East has always been a mystery. But after the conquest of India and China by the West, rather easily, the mystery and awe about the Eastern knowledge was attached to Tibet which was as yet an unexplored terrain. The book has seven major “incarnations” and several minor ones.
Lopez says that the three major reasons why the book succeeded the way it was: “The first is the human obsession with death. The second is the Western romance of Tibet. The third is Evans-Wentz’s way of making the Tibetan text into something that is somehow American.”
The biography of the book is absolutely fascinating. How the drama unfolds, as if by a divine intervention. Lopez, a professor in Buddhist and Tibetan studies in the University of Michigan takes us through the story without belittling any of the dramatis personae. This book is part of the new series ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’ by Princeton University Press. The short volumes in the series will recount the histories of religious texts from world over. Lopez’s lucid style makes the reading an additional pleasure, to the already delightful ‘plot.’
(Princeton University Press, William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)