PRZYLUSKI, JEAN . Of Polish ancestry and French nationality, Jean Przyluski (1885–1944) was a linguist, Buddhologist, and historian of religions His wide-ranging interests led him to publish prolifically on topics as varied as the structure of the Vietnamese language, the development of Buddhist myths and legends, and Indo-European folk traditions (e.g., werewolf cults), and to theorize about the general evolution of human religiosity.
Przyluski began his career as a colonial civil servant in Indochina, where he perfected his competency in Vietnamese, as well as Chinese and Sanskrit, and became a correspondent for the École Française d'Extrême-Orient. In 1913 he returned to France where he soon took a post as professor of Annamese at the École des Hautes Études. He was eventually elected as an officer of the first Congress of Linguists and was chosen to write the entries on virtually all the languages of Southeast Asia in the first edition of Antoine Meillet's encyclopedic Les Langues du Monde (1934).
But Przyluski's most important and lasting contribution was to the field of Buddhist studies. His book-length presentations of traditions associated with the parinirvāṇa and funeral of the Buddha, with the first Buddhist Council, with the legend of King Aśoka, and with the expansion of Buddhism to Northwest India, remain landmark contributions to our understanding of the development of Buddhism in India. Przyluski was also influential as editor of the series Buddhica (begun in 1925) and of the periodically published Bibliographie bouddhique (1928–1958).
Przyluski has sometimes been criticized for his tendency to view changes in the Buddhist tradition as the result of influences coming from other religious traditions, often outside India. For example, he looked to Iranian and even Babylonian sources to explain the development of the cults of the cakravartin king, of the bodhisattva Maitreya, and of the buddha Amitābha. But he was also likely to trace certain traditions (e.g., the cult of the arhat Gavāṃpati and certain features of the Buddha's funeral) to indigenous Indian or "austro-asiatic" traditions, often invoking etymological connections to make his points. At the same time, he sought to identify different stages in the evolution of traditions (e.g., in the legend of King Aśoka) by identifying cycles of stories that he associated with different geographic locales and hypothetical stages in the development of Buddhism. Przyluski's often speculative and always forcefully made interpretations are not generally followed by Buddhologists today, but his insights remain interesting and stimulating, and the many translations he made—especially of Chinese Buddhist sources—are still valued and used.
More short-lived was the influence of the trilogy of works of a general philosophical nature that he wrote during the war—Participation (1940), L'évolution humaine (1943), and Créer (1943)—as well as his posthumously published La grande déesse: Introduction à l'étude comparative des religions (Paris, 1950). In the latter, Przyluski presents his own grand evolutionary scheme tracing humanity's development through economic, social, and spiritual stages, which he associates with belief in mana, magical ritualism, and the emergence of dogma, three phases that he claims also parallel a general evolution from the worship of a mother goddess ("mistress of animals") to the cult of a father god. Such a scheme, reminiscent of an earlier generation of scholars, was dismissed by reviewers almost as soon as it appeared.
On Przyluski's life and work, see Charles Picard, "Jean Przyluski (1885–1944)," Revue archéologique 35 (1950): 101–102; and A. W. Macdonald and Marcelle Lalou, L'oeuvre de Jean Przyluski (Paris, 1970). Among his nearly fifty substantive publications, special mention should be made of the following: "Le Nord-ouest de l'Inde dans le Vinaya des Mūlasarvā-stivādin et les textes apparentés," Journal asiatique 4 (1914): 493–568; Le parinirvāṇa et les funérailles du Buddha (Paris, 1920); La légende de l'empereur Açoka (Açokāvadāna) dans les textes indiens et chinois (Paris, 1923); "La princesse à l'odeur de poisson et la nāgī dans les traditions de l'Asie orientale," Études asiatiques 2 (1925): 265–284; Le concile de Rājagṛha (Paris, 1926); and "La ville du cakravartin: Influences babyloniennes sur la civilisation de l'Inde," Rocznik Orjentalistyczny 5 (1927): 165–185.
John S. Strong (2005)
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