Philippe-Édouard Foucaux in the margins

Philippe-Édouard Foucaux had a habit of coming in second place. Although he is described as the “first teacher of Tibetan in the Western world”, the way in which that “first” is qualified belies the fact that he was not the first Westerner to master the Tibetan language. That achievement is credited to the Transylvanian scholar Sándor Csoma de Kőrös (1784-1842), who travelled to Tibet, studied with a lama, and produced a grammar and dictionary of Tibetan in English, which is widely considered to be a foundational work in Tibetology. Csoma de Kőrös was so influential that there is a monument to him in Darjeeling — where he died — as well as in Tokyo, Japan, where he was declared a bodhisattva.


Plaque en hommage à Ph. Ed. Foucaux. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Plaque en hommage à Ph. Ed. Foucaux. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Foucaux, himself an armchair philologist who does not seem to have ever left Europe, studied Tibetan vicariously through the works of Csoma de Kőrös, which had made their way to Paris. Unusually, even the commemorative plaque dedicated to Foucaux, in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, is shared with Csoma de Kőrös, a man he never met.

Foucaux’s influence has waned in the century since his death, eclipsed both by his teacher — Eugène Burnouf, whose shadow looms large — and his students — such as Léon Feer, who edited the entirety of the Pali Saṃyutta Nikāya in 5 volumes. Little remains of Foucaux’s output, and even less has been written about him — apart from his obituary, there are a series of articles by Bernard le Calloc’h, who has described Foucaux as “un Angevin oublié“. At the BnF, however, there are a handful of overlooked manuscripts from his collection from which we can tease out a few more details about what he thought and who he was.

Although he is remembered now as a Tibetanist, Foucaux began his career studying Sanskrit with Burnouf, and it seems he was also interested in other Asian languages. In 1869, on the 27th of February, he sold a total of four manuscripts to the BnF:1

  • A Sanskrit manuscript of the Bālaṃbhaṭṭī, a commentary on the Mitākṣarā, itself a commentary on the Yājñavalkyasmṛti, a treatise on law, copied in 1866 from a manuscript at Fort William, Calcutta (200 francs);
  • A Sanskrit manuscript of the Subodhinī, another commentary on the Mitākṣarā, sent to him in 1867 by Georg Bühler from Bombay, in exchange for some books (50 francs);
  • A printed edition of a topical dictionary in Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Chinese, titled 四體合璧清文鑑, which he rendered as the Miroir de quatre langues (40 francs);
  • A manuscript containing a Tibetan translation of the Meghadūta (Nuage messager) of Kālidāsa (7 francs).


Mandchou 89, volume 1, page 119. Courtesy of the BnF.

Mandchou 89 Duin hacin-i hergen kamciha buleku bithe (quadrilingual dictionary), volume 1, page 119. Courtesy of the BnF. The entry for “chicken breast” ( བྱ་བྲང་ / 胸 ) can be seen near the bottom left. Other entries include: “two year old ox”, “three year old ox”, “four year old ox”, “red ox”, “black ox”, “white ox”, “black-headed red ox”, “a moss-covered rock surrounded by water”, “the sound of a grasshopper taking flight”.


It is not clear why, at that point in his life, he would sell off four manuscripts for a total of 297 francs. He had a stable job, having been appointed as a professor at the Collège de France  (here, again, he was the second choice; his colleague Theodore Pavie had been chosen to succeed Burnouf after his death in 1852, but Pavie, being a royalist, resigned only a few years later).


Sanscrit 814 Bālaṃbhaṭṭī & Sanscrit 841 Subodhinī


Whatever the reason for the sale, the Sanskrit manuscripts from Foucaux’s collection give us a rare glimpse of his engagement with dharmaśāstra (law) texts. Sanscrit 814 Bālaṃbhaṭṭī and Sanscrit 841 Subodhinī, both commentaries on the Mitākṣarā, provide excellent samples of Foucaux’s elegant, French handwriting, as seen on their title pages as well as in some prefatory notes introducing each text.


Sanscrit 841 Subodhinī, unnumbered folio. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 841 Subodhinī, unnumbered folio. Courtesy of the BnF.


But more importantly, they also feature Foucaux’s marginal annotations throughout, in grey and red pencil, sometimes written in Devanagari script. Occasionally, he corrects the Sanskrit text based on testimonia elsewhere (he had complained of taking great pains to acquire Sanskrit manuscripts, only to discover that they were incomplete and faulty; he preferred to work with neatly-printed Tibetan xylographs instead). He seems to have studied both texts fairly seriously, even though his published output bears no trace of this effort.


Sanscrit 814 Bālaṃbhaṭṭī, folio 98, verso. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 814 Bālaṃbhaṭṭī, folio 98, verso. Courtesy of the BnF.


The year after Foucaux’s death, in 1895, the BnF acquired two more manuscripts in a “Vente Foucaux”  — presumably an estate sale — for the incredible bargain price of 6 francs and 30 cents:

  • Index de tous les commencements de vers du Mânava-dharma-çâstra par Ronel, Sept. 1871 (Index of verse-beginnings of the Mānavadharmaśāstra, by Ronel), and
  • Index fait sur l’édition et la traduction des lois de Manou de Loiseleur Deslongchamps par Ph. Ed. Foucaux, Paris 1867 (Index made from Loiseleur Deslongschamps’ edition and translation of the Law Code of Manu, by P. E. Foucaux).

Sanscrit 812 Index de tous les commencements de vers du Mânava-dharma-çâstra & Sanscrit 813 Index des lois de Manou


Both the index of verse-beginnings (Sanscrit 812) and Foucaux’s own topical index (Sanscrit 813) of the Mānavadhārmaśāstra — or the “Law Code of Manu”, another law text — contain Foucaux’s familiar annotations in grey and red pencil. Notably, he seems to have been editing these two texts for publication; as in the example below, the annotations reflect a process of copy-editing. It is likely that he intended for these indices to appear in a new edition of Deslongchamps’ Lois de Manou, similar to how Alexandre Langlois’ translation of the Ṛgveda was revised and updated with an index analytique by Foucaux.


Sanscrit 812, page 95, detail. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 812 Index de tous les commencements de vers du Mânava-dharma-çâstra, page 95, detail. Courtesy of the BnF.


Again, these two documents are a testament to Foucaux’s deep study of dharmaśāstra. The second item, the topical index, is particularly remarkable — almost 300 pages entirely in Foucaux’s own hand, filled with his comments and musings on the Law Code of Manu, sometimes referring to passages in the Subodhinī and the Bālaṃbhaṭṭī. Interestingly, the year in which he wrote the index, 1867, is also approximately when he acquired the two aforementioned Sanskrit manuscripts. It seems that there was a brief period in his life when Foucaux was immersed in reading Sanskrit law texts.


Sanscrit 813, page 1. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 813 Index des Lois de Manou. page 1. Courtesy of the BnF.


But from his annotations — both in the form of inked footnotes as well as penciled-in notes in the margins — one gathers that Foucaux was not so much interested in dharmaśāstra per se, but rather in the cosmological worldview that was transmitted along with it. At the bottom of page 63, commenting on Mānavadhārmaśāstra 5.40 — which stipulates that plants and animals which are killed for the sake of a sacrifice gain better rebirths — he muses, et les pierres, où une âme peut être aussi renfermée, que deviennent-elles, en cas de destruction ? (“and stones, which could also contain a soul, what happens to them, if they are destroyed?”)


Sanscrit 813, page 63. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 813 Index des Lois de Manou, page 63. Courtesy of the BnF.


In a similar vein, in a deleted footnote on page 67, he wonders about the logistics of the punishments that evil men receive upon death, at which point their bodies are re-formed solely to experience pain. He writes, Mais que fait l’âme, pendant ce temps là ? Anime-t-elle à la fois le corps qu’elle anime dans le monde des vivan[t]s et celui de l’enfer ? (“And what does the soul do, during this time? Does it animate, at the same time, the body that it animates in the world of the living and that of hell?”) Feer, who seems to have shared his interest in the afterlife, would write an article on the Indian conception of hell in 1892.


Sanscrit 813, page 67. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 813 Index des Lois de Manou, page 67, detail. Courtesy of the BnF.


Foucaux was also keen on finding parallels with Buddhist customs, which was the dominant research interest that persisted throughout his career. Next to the index entry on femme, “women”, he pencils in, cryptically, confusion du physique et du moral, “confusion between the physical and the moral”, and retraces it again in ink. This seems to be referring to Mānavadharmaśāstra 5.108, which states that a woman can be purified of shameful thoughts by means of menstrual fluid.


Sanscrit 813 Index des Lois de Manou, page 106, detail. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 813 Index des Lois de Manou, page 106, detail. Courtesy of the BnF.


He mentions this again in an annotation at the beginning of the index, on a flyleaf, and adds a note to compare it to Buddhist legends. It is not clear what legend he is referring to here, but it could be something like the Blood Bowl Sutra in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, although it is more likely that he had a Tibetan tradition in mind.


Sanscrit 813 Index des Lois de Manou, flyleaf, detail. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 813 Index des Lois de Manou, flyleaf, detail. Courtesy of the BnF.


This interest in Buddhist women might stem from the work that his wife, Mary Summer — another long-forgotten scholar —, was doing around this time. In 1973, her book on the tradition of Buddhist nuns was published, for which Foucaux had penned an introduction. In it, he refers to the Law Code of Manu, using it to compare Brahmanism with Buddhism. Like Burnouf, he saw Buddhism as a reformation of Brahmanism, a sort of Protestant movement in reaction to India’s priestly class. But despite the many parallels he draws between Buddhists and Christians, he concludes that they were not as spiritually advanced as the Europeans. This sentiment is echoed by Summer in the closing paragraph of her book:

Pauvres Tibétaines ignorantes, qui vivez dans votre vallée solitaire, tournant le cylindre à prières…. Vous avez vécu dans les ténèbres de la superstition ; mais, au dernier jour, le Seigneur tiendra compte de vos œuvres et de votre foi naïve…

(Summer 1873, p. 70)

You poor, ignorant Tibetan women, who live in your isolated valley, turning your prayer wheels…. You have dwelt in the shadow of superstition, but, on the final day, the Lord will take stock of your works and your simple-minded creed…

It would be easy to criticize this Orientalist couple today, from our 21st-century postcolonial perch; but we would be repeating their mistake, judging another culture, distant in time and place, by our own contemporary standards. In fact, they were doing then exactly what we scholars do today, when we publish a book or article — take some material and evaluate it with the intellectual and ethical tools that are current in our field. (Poor, ignorant Orientalists; if only they knew that their work would eventually lead to the spread of Buddhism to the West, that there would be Buddhist nuns as far away as North America.)

The value of studying Foucaux’s annotations — in contrast to his published work — is that it gives us some insight into how he engaged with Sanskrit and Tibetan materials before he had to pass judgment upon them and package them for the scholarly community of his time. In his notes, we find questions, not conclusions; we see him striving to understand this faraway world, these faraway minds, these unfamiliar beliefs that contrasted so startlingly with his own. And it is this curiosity, above all, that endures in his work. In a talk given to inaugurate his class on Tibetan language and literature at the Bibliothèque royale, he exhorts his students to be just as curious:

Sous les neiges de ses montagnes, le Tibet cache d’abondantes mines d’or qui n’excitent pas  la cupidité d’un peuple simple, ignorant et étranger au luxe… Seulement, Messieurs, jetez les yeux sur la carte, vous verrez le pays dont la langue va nous occuper, placé entre la Chine et l’Inde.

(Foucaux 1842, 15)

Beneath the snow of its mountains, Tibet teems with deposits of gold that do not arouse the greed of a simple, ignorant people, strangers to such luxuries… Gentlemen, simply cast your eyes upon the map, and you will see the country whose language we will be occupied with, situated between China and India.

Suffice it to say, Foucaux’s florid description here is not experienced nor remembered, but rather constructed out of his encounters with Tibetan texts, reports from travellers, and his own prejudices. Nevertheless, his vivid imaginings inspired a generation to seek out this exotic place for themselves. His students would need to learn Tibetan, he said, if they wanted to follow in the footsteps of explorers like Csoma de Kőrös. And many of them did exactly that — William Woodville Rockhill, for example, and Alexandra David-Néel2 both eventually made their own way to Tibet. Foucaux, meanwhile, stayed in Paris, content to dream of that sliver on the map, the savage, distant kingdom and its snow-capped mountains.


Suggested citation


Li, Charles. 2021. “Philippe-Édouard Foucaux in the margins.” Texts Surrounding Texts: Satellite Stanzas, Prefaces and Colophons in South-Indian Manuscripts (Paris BnF and Hamburg Stabi collections). 26 March.

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

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  1. In addition, on the 29th of September, the BnF acquired a manuscript of the Mahāvyutpatti copied by Foucaux and Julien Stanislas, sold by Stanislas, for 2000 francs. []
  2. See le Calloc’h 2001, 59ff. []

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Charles Li (March 26, 2021). Philippe-Édouard Foucaux in the margins. Texts Surrounding Texts. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

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