At the beginning of his career, Joseph Campbell developed a lasting fascination with the cultures of the Far East, and explorations of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy later became recurring motifs in his vast body of work. However, Campbell had to wait until middle age to visit the lands that inspired him so deeply. In 1954, he took a sabbatical from his teaching position and embarked on a yearlong voyage through India, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and finally Japan. Asian Journals combines the two hardcover editions of Campbell’s journals, Baksheesh & Brahman and Sake & Satori, into one paperback volume, an edited day-to-day travel diary of the people he met and the historical places he visited on his trek through Asia. Along the way, he enlivens the narrative with his musings on culture, religion, myth, and politics, describing both the trivial and the sublime. As always, Campbell’s keen intellect and boundless curiosity shine through in his lucid prose. From these pages, Campbell enthusiasts will come away with a deeper understanding of the man, his work, and his enduring legacy.
We hope you'll enjoy this excerpt from Asian Journals: India and Japan.
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From the Editor’s Foreword by David Kudler:
When Joseph Campbell arrived in Colombo, Ceylon, on March 4, 1955, he was in a foul mood. He had come to India some six months before, funded by grants from the Bollingen Foundation, and driven by his own deep desire to see the country that had dominated his professional life and his dreams for so many years.
Since a chance meeting with Jiddu Krishnamurti on a transatlantic steamship in 1924, Campbell had been fascinated with the religions and philosophies of Asia, and particularly India. When his mentor, renowned Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, had died in 1943, leaving behind a huge volume of notes for uncompleted scholarly texts, Campbell had agreed with Zimmer’s widow Christiane to fashion these notes into a collection of posthumous works. He had spent the next twelve years devoting most of his professional energy into these books. Indeed, he had traveled to India with the proofs for the last volume, The Art of Indian Asia, in his suitcase.
Campbell had arrived in India expecting to find the breath of brahman—the World Soul of the Hindu religion—that inspired the classical Indian art and literature that he and Zimmer had studied. What he had found instead was a society obsessed with bhakti, the rituals of devotion, and centered around what Campbell came to call “the Baksheesh Complex”: what he felt was a national expectation of getting something for nothing. In his journals, he said:
The squalor of India is not a result of Indian poverty alone, but also of an indifference to dirt, the inefficiency of city officials, and an intentional spectacle of poverty presented by professional beggars: moreover, the assault that the visitor endures from the beggars gives him an exaggerated view of the seedier aspects of the Indian scene. This whole matter of Indian poverty and squalor may be summed up as a function of the Baksheesh Complex, which has two major forms of manifestation: that of the beggar, that of the retired pensioner. The formula for both is Something for Nothing.
India’s pretext of spiritual superiority is another consequence of the Baksheesh Complex and does not accord with the actualities of the modern international scene. India is in fact receiving all of her progressive ideals (spiritual principles) as well as machines (technological principles) from the West.
Campbell had faced beggars and hucksters, pimps and fakirs, and like many Westerners before and since it had put him in a state of moral shock. He had had many wonderful, enriching experiences as well, but by the time he had finished up his tour, he was sick at heart.
The Indian government itself had dealt the final insult. As Campbell had applied for an exit visa, he had discovered that he would have to pay income tax on all the money that he had brought into the country. In Campbell’s eye, this was nothing but the last, egregious, institutional form of baksheesh. As he wrote to the Indian Minister of Finance:
I arrived in New Delhi, August 30, 1954; lectured, gratis, at a number of Indian colleges and institutions; spent as much as I could afford on Indian textiles; gave as generously as I could to your temples and beggars; overlooked the anti-American propaganda in the newspapers; learned to admire and love the Indian people, as I had long admired and loved their culture—and when it came time for me to buy my ticket to depart (that is to say, today), my way was blocked by your income tax officials, to whom I am compelled to pay 519 rupees—not on any moneys earned in India (for I have not received one rupee here) but out of the funds that I brought into India and spent here. After this final experience of the baksheesh motif—played fortissimo, now, by the government itself—I am afraid that I am going to find it harder than it used to be, to speak and write about the Indian character with the respect it deserves.
Campbell’s thoughts and feelings about the contradictions of Indian philosophy and society dominate the journals from which this volume and Baksheesh & Brahman are drawn as he moves from a Hindu to a Buddhist world. He was ready for a different experience than the dirt and squalor that had overwhelmed him in India, and he found it in Ceylon, Southeast Asia, and especially Japan. Reading his daily musings, one sees a sensualist delight in the pleasures of these newfound lands. He experienced anew the joy of discovery, not only in the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but also in the bath- and teahouses.
Now, by his own testimony, Campbell was a very happily married man. He wrote his wife, choreographer Jean Erdman, regularly, and looked forward to his final month in Asia, when she would join him on a teaching junket. Yet he indulged in the fleshpots of Tokyo with a man-of-the-world (and almost entirely voyeuristic) verve.
From the sybaritic glee that Campbell took in immersing himself in Japanese nightclubs, baths, and theaters, he soon moved to the scholar’s joy of immersing himself in this new country’s language and religion. As his stay lengthened—and especially once the first copy of The Art of Indian Asia arrived—Campbell’s physical, spiritual, and intellectual reaction to his stay in India mellowed, and he gained new perspectives on India, Japan, and his own psyche, as well as on geopolitics, a subject he had previously avoided considering.
Campbell’s timing in traveling to East Asia was politically fortuitous. Nineteen fifty-five was a relative slack-water period in the Cold War: two years after the cessation of hostilities in Korea, one after the French departure from Indochina. America’s post–World War II occupation of Japan was officially over (though an enormous U.S. military presence remained in the country, much to Campbell’s repeatedly voiced dismay) and its involvement in Vietnam had not yet begun. Joseph McCarthy’s hearings in the U.S. Senate, seeking to unearth Communists among the employees of the Department of State and the army (whom Campbell refers to somewhat sneeringly as “our Fifth Amendment boys”), had ended. Yet the politics of East and West, Capitalist and Communist were very much in the air, and Campbell, a lifelong nonpartisan, found himself increasingly drawn to defend his native land.
The difficulty for Campbell was that he found the Americans working and traveling in Asia to be, for the most part, woefully uninformed, misinformed, and unconcerned about the cultures of the nations they were visiting. A classic example occurred during a dusty tour-bus ride back from the spectacular ruins of Angkor Wat. As he was to recount many times in later years, he overheard an American tourist moan to his wife, “I’d give everything I have to have had three Coca-Colas instead of all those temples.”
As he considered this dilemma—his love of America and what it stood for on the one hand, and the poor showing that its representatives made abroad—several initiatives shaped themselves in his mind that were to inform the rest of his career. The first was his course of lectures on world culture and religion for the Foreign Service Institute, the training program of the U.S. State Department, that he undertook soon after his return to the United States and continued well into the 1970s.
The second was the germ of the idea that was to become the series of books known as The Masks of God—four comprehensive volumes on comparative religion and myth aimed not only at his fellow academics but also at the broader American populace. These books would engage most of his writing energy from his return home until the last volume, Creative Mythology, was issued in 1968.
The third initiative that he undertook after his travels in Asia was his series of popular lectures. From his homecoming until his death in 1987, Campbell embarked on an ongoing succession of lectures at colleges and churches, public venues (such as New York’s Cooper Union) and private conferences, on radio and television, seeking to educate the public about world myth and religion.
Indeed, it is in these journals that Campbell finally identifies his field of study: “Resolution: Comparative mythology...is indeed my field.” Amazing as it may seem to us, Campbell had always avoided defining precisely what it was that he was studying and teaching. He had studied English, biology, and medieval literature as a young man; he was on the Sarah Lawrence College English faculty. It was only now, at the age of fifty, that Campbell—the obdurate generalist—felt ready to name his specialty.
It is in these journals too that Campbell begins to realize and take into account some of his own preconceptions. In the notes that provide the first manifesto for what is to become The Masks of God, Campbell wrote, “As a contemporary Occidental faced with Occidental and contemporary psychological problems, I am to admit and even celebrate (in Spengler’s manner) the relativity of my historical view to my own neurosis (Rorschach formula).” It is in this self-aware mode that Campbell embarked on the new phase of a career that was to reshape his ideas on comparative mythology, and ours.
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Perhaps most responsible for bringing mythology to a mass audience, Joseph Campbell’s works rank among the classics in mythology and literature. Among his many awards, Campbell received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contribution to Creative Literature and the 1985 Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club. A president of the American Society for the Study of Religion, Campbell was professor emeritus at Sarah Lawrence College in New York until his retirement in 1972, at which time he devoted himself to his writing. He died after a short struggle with cancer in 1987. David Kudler is the managing editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation.
From the book Asian Journals: India and Japan. Copyright © 2002 by the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Excerpted with special permission from the Joseph Campbell Foundation, www.jcf.org.