Professor Elliot Sperling, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Tibetan history and Sino-Tibetan relations, and a prominent advocate for human rights, has died at the age of 66 at his home in Jackson Heights, New York City. Memorial services were held on Saturday evening at Tibet House in New York and in Dharamsala, Northern India on Sunday to commemorate his life and achievements.
Before retiring in 2014, Prof. Sperling spent just under three decades as a faculty member of Indiana University’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies, where he taught the Tibetan Studies program, serving seven of those years as the department’s chair. He was also a laureate of the 1984 MacArthur Fellowship.
His published works include essays such as “Tibetan Buddhism, Perceived And Imagined, Along The Ming-Era Sino-Tibetan Frontier,” in Buddhism between Tibet and China (2009), The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics (2004), and “‘Orientalism’ and Aspects of Violence in the Tibetan Tradition,” in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies (2001). In addition to his extensive writing on Tibetan history, historical and contemporary Sino-Tibetan relations, and interethnic relations in Central Asia from the early 14th century to the present day, Prof. Sperling contributed commentaries and analysis of Tibet for numerous publications, including The New York Times and The Far Eastern Economic Review.
Friends, admirers, and contemporaries took to social media to mourn the loss of the distinguished scholar after the news of his passing was announced in a notice sent to an email list for Tibet scholars on 1 February by Karl Debreczeny, senior curator at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, who wrote: “It is with great sadness that I write to inform everyone that beloved teacher, mentor, colleague and friend Elliot Sperling passed away suddenly this past weekend.” (High Peaks Pure Earth)
Beijing-based Tibetan activist Tsering Woeser posted a series of five messages on Twitter in response to the news, describing Prof. Sperling’s passing as a great loss: “Many people on Facebook commemorate him, our Elliot Sperling, thinking of him in tears. Let me share this one sentence: It’s as if a whole library has burned down . . .” (High Peaks Pure Earth)
“The grief makes me empty. It struck many people. He was not only an outstanding and inspiring scholar, he was even more a person who always stood up for basic human values,” Woeser wrote. “His conduct was always, as Albert Camus once conveyed, not just about personal indignation, but also always about solicitude for others. But I cried for an entire day, am so deeply sad on this day on which I have to say that I lost an intimate friend and greatly respected teacher: Elliot Sperling!” (High Peaks Pure Earth)
Tibetan activist and writer Jamyang Norbu echoed similar sentiments on Facebook: “My very dear friend Elliot Sperling passed away just a few days ago at his apartment in Jackson Heights NY. At the moment I am not capable of saying much more, but I lit a choe-me lamp to honor the memory of an outstanding Tibet scholar, [a] courageous human-rights activist, and a man who was unwavering in his dedication to truth and freedom. (Jamyang Norbu Facebook)