Lévi, Sylvain

views updated


LÉVI, SYLVAIN (18631935), French Sanskritist, Orientalist, and cultural historian. "Sylvain wasalways and from the very firstmy second uncle," Marcel Mauss declared, recalling his fateful introduction to Sylvain Lévi in 1895; "I owe to Sylvain the new directions of my career." Many other scholars, European and Asian, owed Sylvain Lévi similar debts, and twentieth-century studies of South and East Asia's cultural and religious legacy owe numerous insights and new directions to Lévi's scholarship and personal example.

Just as Marcel Mauss was indebted to Sylvain Lévi for crucial advice, so Lévi owed a similar debt to Ernest Renan, who urged that he sit in Abel Henri Joseph Bergaigne's Sanskrit course at the École des Hautes Études in 1882. Born in Paris, March 28, 1863, Lévi was nineteen when he took Renan's advice, and his career was set after the first hour with Bergaigne. Three years later, in 1885, he was appointed to the second Sanskrit post at the École, and the following year he also took up a lectureship in the newly established section on sciences religieuses. In 1889, the year after Bergaigne's death, he became head of Sanskrit instruction at the École. He resigned that post to become professor of Sanskrit language and literature at the Collège de France in 1894, a position he held until his death, October 30, 1935.

Initially fascinated by the possible impact of Greek culture on ancient India, Lévi remained captivated by the nature and extent of cross-cultural influences in Asia. The extensive domain of his own scholarship on primary sources ranged from the first systematic study of Sanskrit drama to Buddhist studies, in which he was, in effect, the successor of Eugène Burnouf. In pursuit of these latter studies, he learned Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese, and also mastered the Tocharian dialects of Central Asia. Broad and imaginative in his scholarly vision and speculation, Lévi remained a versatile specialist who insisted that the discovery of a single text, the confirmation of a single historical fact, the decipherment of a single stanza, was more significant than any theoretical construct.

Having become a close friend of two young Japanese while still a student, Lévi always sought to strengthen living cross-cultural associations and to recover dimensions of cultural heritage for the benefit of all. These humanistic concerns were evident not only in his scholarship but in his numerous activities as an unofficial cultural ambassador. Instrumental in establishing the École Française d'Extrême Orient, the Institut de Civilisation Indienne, and the Musée Guimet, Lévi founded the Maison Franco-Japonaise and was its first director. His close friendship with the ruling family of Nepal resulted in his classic three-volume work, Le Népal. As a friend and adviser of such Indians as Rabindranath Tagore and as a teacher of students, such as Takakusu Junjirō, who came to him from Japan, India, and other Asian countries, Lévi internationalized Asian religious studies and was perhaps Europe's first "postcolonial" Orientalist.

An important element in Lévi's background as a scholar was his abiding interest in Judaism of the Diaspora. The son of Alsatian Jewish immigrants, he worked tirelessly on behalf of world Jewry, becoming the president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle. In the last years of his life, efforts on behalf of Jewish refugees from Germany consumed much of his energy. Clearly, he saw parallels between the adventure of Buddhism in Asia and the impact of Jewish life and thought in Europe. The one historical verity reinforced the other; together the two helped shape and direct a career that changed European Orientalism and inaugurated an epoch in scholarship and in the human interaction between Europe and Asia. Lévi was, as one of his admirers put it, more than an Orientalist: he was a humanist.


Lévi's writings remain untranslated from the French. A fairly complete bibliography concludes Victor Goloubew's tribute, "Sylvain Lévi et l'Indochine," Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême Orient 35 (1935): 551574. The volume Mémorial Sylvain Lévi, edited by Louis Renou (Paris, 1937), contains forty-two articles by Lévi that eloquently illustrate the nature and range of his interests and scholarship. Renou's preface to this collection, "Sylvain Lévi et son œuvre scientifique" (first published in the Journal asiatique ), is an informative and affectionate evaluation of the scholar and the man. Ivan Strenski continues his useful exploration of Levi's influence on Émile Durkheim and his school in Durkheim and the Jews of France (Chicago, 1997).

The essays (including an address in English) published as L'Inde et le monde (Paris, 1925) may be the most accessible introduction to Lévi's thought. Of his longer works, three are indisputable classics: Le théâtre indien, 2 vols. in 1 (Paris, 1890), La doctrine du sacrifice dans les Brāhmaas (Paris, 1898), and Le Népal: Étude historique d'un royaume hindou, 3 vols. (Paris, 19051908). Among his numerous editions, translations, and studies, two that remain especially important are Asanga: Mahayana-sutralamkara; Exposé de la doctrine du Grand Véhicule selon le système Yogacara, 2 vols. (Paris, 19071911), and Un système de philosophie bouddhique: Matériaux pour l'étude du système Vijñaptimātra (Paris, 1932).

G. R. Welbon (1987 and 2005)