05 enero, 2008

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.

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.

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