David-Neel, Alexandra (1868-1969)
Published: Saturday, 17 September 2011 15:49
Celebrated traveler, opera singer and writer, Alexandra David was born on October 24, 1868, at Saint-Mande near Paris, France. She was the only child of elderly parents and frequently ran away from home to escape a repressive atmosphere. As a young girl she attended lectures on Eastern religions at the Paris Theosophical Society and took singing lessons. She joined the Opera Comique and toured the Middle East, the Far East, and North Africa with that company, singing leading roles in Gounod's Faust and Massenet's Manon. Massenet thanked her in a letter for the excellent way in which she had interpreted her part in his opera.
Alexandra David joined the European Section of the Theosophical Society in London on June 7, 1892. Shortly after joining, she returned to Paris and became a member of the Ananda Lodge there. In a letter to G. R. S. Mead dated December 10,1892, she wrote that she had broken off relations with her family because of her refusal to renounce Theosophy.
In 1904, Alexandra married Philippe Francois Neel, a French railway engineer, in Tunis, but she was not suited to the conjugal state, and they went their separate ways after a short time. Although the marriage failed, she and Neel remained friends and he financed many of her journeys and maintained a cordial correspondence with her until his death in 1941.
In 1911, Alexandra David-Neel left Paris and traveled to Northern India where she studied Buddhism. It is typical of her dedication and physical endurance that she, dressed only in a cotton garment, spent a winter in a cave with a young Sikkimese lama called Yongden, studying Buddhist teaching. Sometime later she spent three years in a Peking monastery.
In 1923 David-Neel began her epic journeying. Accompanied by Yongden, she traveled from Calcutta in India through Burma, Japan, and Korea to Peking, covering nearly 5,000 miles by mule, yak, and horse across China into northeastern Tibet, then into Mongolia and the Gobi to the Mekong River. From there, disguised as Tibetan pilgrims, David-Neel and Yongden traveled through Tibet to Lhasa, the "Forbidden City." While in Tibet, she was a disciple of an abbot of the monastery of the White Conch, where she became the first European woman to be ordained as a lama.
In 1925 David-Neel returned to France a celebrity, and was awarded many honors, including the Grande Medaille d'Or of La Societe de Geographie, and in 1924 the French Government made her a Commandeur de la Legion d'Honneur. In 1937 she, with Yongden, went to Asia for the last time; they journeyed to China and took up residence in Peking where she often had dinner with Chiang Kai Shek and met Teilhard de Chardin, the celebrated Jesuit anthropologist. It is claimed (The Middle Way, May 1984) that David-Neel took part in Mao's Long March. David-Neel returned to France after the end of World War 11. She died on September 9, 1969, at Digne in Southern France just short of her 102nd birthday.
David-Neel was a skilled and objective observer whose intimate knowledge of Tibetan and Sanskrit languages enabled her to interpret and convey to Western readers much concerning Tibet that was hitherto hidden behind a veil of ignorance and misinformation. Her account of her journey to Llasa ranks among the great travel stories in literature. Her sense of humor is illustrated by her reply to a woman who wrote and asked her to kill her husband by magic. She replied, "Dear Madam, if I had to kill all unfaithful husbands, the world would be populated only by widows."
David-Neel's published works include Le Modernisme et le Buddhisme du Bouddha (1911); My Journey to Lhasa (1927); Initiations & Initiates in Tibet (1931); With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (1931), retitled Magic and Mystery in Tibet; Tibetan Journey (1936); Buddhism, Its Doctrines and Methods (1939); A L'ouest Barbare de la Vaaste Chine (1947); L'inde: hier-aujourd'hui-demain (1951); and Le vieux Tibetface a la Chine nouvelle (1953).