Alexander Csoma de Kőrös

In 2006, on the 222th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, the founder of Tibetan studies we have published on the internet in Hungarian, English and Spanish, in the collaboration of Studiolum and the Oriental Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the legacy of Csoma preserved in the Collection. This date is memorable in the history of Tibetan studies for another reason as well, since the Hungarian Ministry of Education in this year announced, with reference to the all-time high budget deficit, the suppression of several university departments, including that of Tibetan philology. Therefore on the frontispiece of our web publication we have also displayed, out of solidarity, together with the commemoration of Csoma’s anniversary that it was prepared “in memory of the Tibetan studies in Hungary, abolished in this year,” until the management of the collections made us cancel this reference in fear of retorsion. Accidentally, this happened in the weeks of the municipal elections in which the governing parties – the authors of the above deficit – led their campaign with the slogan “Budapest, the city of liberty and solidarity.”

This little East-European absurd is, however, absolutely not alien to the path of life of Csoma. It was already a miracle that this boy who was born in the Carpathian frontier zone of Transylvania obtained exemption from the life-long service of border-warden, compulsory there at that time, and could go to learn at the academies of Nagyenyed (Ajud) and Göttingen instead. But it is even more characteristic that when learning there about the tentative theories of affinity between the Hungarian and Uyghur languages, he decided to verify them on the spot, by reaching on foot from Hungary as far as Uyghuristan in China. At this time the “Great Game” was developing between the Russians and the British in Central Asia, inciting bloody wars between every people living along the fault line running from Turkey to China – but in the middle of the wars and epidemics Csoma safely reached the Indian-Tibetan border. And here another miracle followed. For, in spite of his astounding talents – he perfectly spoke twenty languages – Csoma arrived too early. Comparative linguistics in these decades was just in the first phase of the elaboration of the scientific methodology of linguistic affinity, so Csoma’s comparative research was foredoomed to failure. However, by a special grace of God, on the road leading to Tibet he met a commissary of the British government who was just in need of such a person for the exploration of the Tibetan language, completely unknown to Europeans at that time, but indispensable to the expansion of the British. In the thereafter following fifteen years Csoma has completely accomplished this task. Living in the austere monasteries of Tibet, he mastered both the language and the religion, composed the first Tibetan dictionary and grammar (1834), and gave such detailed description of the Buddhist religion – only obscurely known in Europe – and of the Tibetan literary canon that nothing essential has been added to it since then. And Buddhists from Tibet to Japan venerate him as the only European boddhisatva. He nevertheless only regarded this as a detour, or in the best case a preliminary study to the research of the Uyghur. However, he never reached the Uyghur.

The list of Zsolt Sütő from the Transylvanian Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureş) is the most complete collection of the information to be found about Csoma on the internet. We are on the distinguished fourth place on it. Zsolt himself has followed through the path of Csoma in India and Tibet, from where he brought home wonderful photos like this one above. He published them on his page with the title „Himalaya Blue” accompanied with his diary notes. In one of these notes he describes how difficult it is to explain to others what Csoma means to people grown up in this world of the absurd.

Today I went to Thiksey with an American couple, Farkas, with some Hungarian roots. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recount the Csoma story in such a usual and superficial touristy conversation. I tell them that he had come here two hundred years ago, on foot. Ah, yeah, a traveler. Yes, but eventually he made the first good Tibetan-English Dictionay, among others. Ooh, yeah? I didn’t know that. And then still how far we are from his original purpose, from his Transylvanian and Göttingen years, from the Sanskrit-Tibetan-English dictionary... I’m more and more skeptical as far as it concerns the understanding of the essentials of the Hungarian raison d’être by foreigners. Not to speak about the Transylvanian raison d’être, which is not even understood by the Hungarians. The good God has imposed an interesting fable on our shoulders.

From a more fortunate place, let us say from America it is in fact difficult to understand what makes this story so remarkable. One accomplishes the respective academic studies, goes to a given place, and with the respective methodology and institutional support he composes the dictionary of the given language. A large number of American anthropologists are indeed doing so all over the world, and Franz Boas has even established a special school for this purpose. In our part of the world, however, in the eternal lack of background, institutions, network and support, and even accompanied by the suspicion, jealousy and hostility of the political and scientific potentates it is a must that a talent should either be lost or raise an outstanding achievement by a heroic effort and in solitude. Like Ryszard Kapuściński, Bohumil Hrabal and Csoma did – or even the clematis breeders mentioned in the previous two posts.

This is why it is a special joy if someone nevertheless grasps something from this. On ‘flickr’ we have come across the photo gallery “chambre-noire” by summergreen from the UK who has published this photo montage with the portrait of Alexander Csoma de Kőrös and a leaf of his Tibetan manuscripts, referring to the English version of our biography of Csoma as a source of the original images. Our gratitude for it.

2 comentarios:

zsolt dijo...

Thank you. This was quite a big surprise. Sometimes I have the feeling that my texts (the journal I wrote while traveling in the footsteps of Csoma, but not only) would find much more readers than in Hungarian. This might not be true, however, sometimes I feel it.

(the MTAK-site is not on the "fourth place" on the list.. things there are in alphabetical order, that s all.) So far the MTAK site is the ever best site about Csoma - let s see what will I manage to create wt (it will change completely by the end of this month) - the blogging-side of this project is somehow a melléktermék only.

Think of it: the Romanian NatGeo is interested in my story, the Hungarian one not at all. I have sent the same letter to the chief editors of both of them - same text. One before leaving for India and one after returning to Romania. The .ro version replied in a few hours - the .hu version replied only the second time - it was an outofoffice-Iamonholidays-automaticreply, nothing more. :)

And this is only one of this tüköráltalhomályosan stories.

A háromszéki KCsSEgyesület is teljes apátiával áll hozzá a projekthez. Mösziő Marczell pl. egyenesen azt kérdezte tőlem, még tavasszal, hogy milyen alapon képzelem magam alkalmasnak egy ilyen utazásra.

Hát, mert távoli rokonomnak tartom Csomát. Azért. :))

Studiolum dijo...

Dear Zsolt, your comment is a perfect illustration of the content of this post. And as such, it has the answer in the post itself. That is, the only solution for this very sad and typical situation is that one does his job day by day, and thus by a heroic effort and in solitude arrives ad astra.

Think about that in those times Csoma was certainly asked as well - I cannot imagine that some Marczell-like főmufti in Enyed or in other centers missed this ziccer - on which basis he imagines himself apt for such a travel. Most probably he also replied something like he too regards those people his far away relatives. And now we are producing webpages on him, albeit especially in this question he was quite wrong.

And think about the other great Hungarian discoverer, Aurél Stein as well, whose webpage we have recently prepared with the Academy at . In all his youth he was longing for a teaching position in the high school of Cluj. He never managed to get one. The great discoveries, the world fame, the title of Sir, the British Museum, the many volumes published in Oxford, these yes, but a teaching position in the high school of Cluj is not given just to anyone.