Like No Other in the World: Ippolito Desideri on Tibetan Religion

In: Journal of Early Modern History
Robert Trent Pomplun The University of Notre Dame IN USA

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The Jesuit Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733) is commonly thought to have written the first genuinely scientific account of Tibetan culture for European audiences, but the description of Tibetan religion in the Jesuit’s Notizie istoriche de’ Regni del Thibet is notoriously confusing. Although he insists that Tibetan religion was “unlike any other in the world,” Desideri describes Tibetans with the well-worn categories of unbelievers, idolaters, and gentiles. He further complicates matters by describing their beliefs, opinions, laws, and religion as idolatrous, superstitious, perverse, and mythical. The sheer variety of terms gives the distinct impression that Desideri’s description of Tibetan religion has neither rhyme nor reason. But if one traces the evolution of Desideri’s descriptions of Tibetans and their religion through his writings—and reads his vocabulary in light of the scholasticism in which he was trained—order arises from chaos. In point of fact, Desideri’s description of Tibetan religion takes specific stances on important debates in early modern scholastic theology and is a notable exception to contemporary accounts of so-called “Oriental” philosophy.

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