Aims and Results
It is well known that Sándor Kőrösi Csoma intended to discover the ancient homeland of the Hungarian people, and to shed light on the origins of their history and language. He conceived of this project at an early age, as far back as his college years in Nagyenyed, and he dedicated all of his later studies to its pursuit. The many Western and Oriental languages he mastered all enabled him to study the original sources and thus discover more details about the history of his people.
Besides the well-known fact that Hungarians came from somewhere in the East – according to medieval historiography from Scythia – into the basin of the Carpathians, Csoma’s contemporaries discussed a number of more scholarly theories as well. The most important one, often cited by Csoma himself, was the Ugrian theory, according to which the foreign “Ungar”, “Hungar” and similar names of the Magyar people were somehow related to the name of the Ugars, as the Uyghurs, living in the border region of China and Mongolia, call themselves. As Gyula Németh 1 has pointed out, Csoma might have derived this theory, so fashionable at that time, from his studies at the college of Nagyenyed, specifically, the lessons of Újfalvy, and it was likely reinforced in Göttingen by the renowned Orientalist J. G. Eichhorn. 2 It was Eichhorn, in fact, who prompted him to learn Arabic, driven by the assumption – and as we now know, with good reason – that ancient Arabic sources might contain references to the Hungarian people. Csoma himself related his intentions to study these sources, and this is why he first set off to Constantinople.
However, all of his efforts to study the Arabic historical works failed. He could not go either to Istanbul nor to Cairo, and thus, abandoning these plans, he headed directly to the supposed Central Asian homeland of ancient Hungarians. However, numerous tribulations, the Central Asian wars and the difficulties of travel combined to thwart this project as well. He had no other choice but to postpone his journey to the Uyghurs for a long time, and to start to discover, with the support of the British, the Tibetan language and literature.
This decision was surely facilitated not only by the limitations of his possibilities, but by his openness to foreign cultures and languages as well. Thus he set about to explore this new field of inquiry, an absolute terra incognita at that time. Perhaps he also hoped to find through his Tibetan studies some sources related to the history of Hungarians as well. Seven long years elapsed, replete with superhuman efforts and hardships along with undeserved humiliations, until his indefatigable work brought him long-awaited success. In 1834 he published his Tibetan grammar and dictionary, followed by a series of dissertations on Tibetan matters. Finally, after his death, the Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary of Buddhist terminology Mahāvyutpatti was published as well, to which he appended an English glossary.
These three monographs and 24 dissertations constitute the corpus of Csoma’s work. Due to their trail-blazing nature and remarkably high quality, they still enjoy wide scholarly appreciation even today. However, it must be conceded that while Western scholarship generally acknowledges Csoma as the founder of Tibetan studies and as an indefatigable and noble-spirited scholar, Hungarian public opinion regards him either as someone who failed to achieve his purpose, or as someone who was misled in his linguistic studies by false etymologies and spurious argumentations. In both cases it is considered a deplorable fact that he drifted off course as a result of his Tibetan studies.
It is certain, however, that even if Csoma was diverted from his original purpose, he never completely gave it up. His letters are constantly interspersed with references to it, including a number of – generally false – linguistic argumentations about the origins and relationships of Hungarian language. This was also confirmed by the reports of his friends, like Dr. Gerard who wrote, after his visit with him in Kanam, that Csoma intended to learn Mongolian and to travel to Mongolia.
While studying Tibetan, Csoma also became interested in Sanskrit, which he suspected – a notion he openly espouses in the preface to his Tibetan dictionary – might be related to the Hungarian language. He felt, therefore, that learning Sanskrit was vitally important to Hungarians. This is why, after completing his Tibetan mission, he started to study the languages of India seriously. He went to Northern India, to the frontier region of Sikkim and Bhutan, to learn Bengali and Mahratta. It seems that he had no striking success in this endeavor. After this interlude he never again openly engaged in linguistic argumentation. He instead limited himself to making some cautious references to his friends that there might have been some relationship between the similar names of localities in India, Central Asia and Hungary.
In the last years of his life Csoma returned to Calcutta, where he prepared descriptions of the more than one thousand Tibetan books collected by the British ambassador in Nepal Brian Houghton Hodgson. 3 In 1842 he decided to set off again. This time his destination was the Tibetan capital Lhasa, where he hoped to find in the legendary library of the Dalai Lamas some sources on Mongolia and the Uyghurs. However, he never reached Lhasa. In Darjeeling he was stricken with malaria, forever impeding the infatigable wanderer from accomplishing the purpose that brought him to the East.
Csoma’s Publications on Tibetan Studies
The main fruit of the seven years of Csoma’s Tibetan studies, full of privations and hardships, the Tibetan grammar and dictionary, were published in 1834 in Calcutta. With these pioneering works a new branch of Oriental research, Tibetan studies, was born. Both works proved to be of lasting interest: they were published again in 1971 and in 1984.
Csoma’s dictionary has been the main source of later, better-known ones, like the Tibetan-English dictionaries of Jäschke and of Das. 4 Its one defect is found in its structure, for in contrast to both the traditional Tibetan glossaries and the later Western dictionaries (including that of the Indian Das), Csoma’s lexicon followed the Latin alphabet instead of the Tibetan one. However, this annoying fault that makes consultation of the dictionary more difficult, is not due to Csoma. It was the explicit request of the publisher, the Asian Society, that the work should follow the Latin system, and it seems that not even the world’s foremost expert on the Tibetan language could dissuade the publisher from this unfortunate decision.
Csoma’s grammar, on the other hand, merits singular appreciation, and this is not merely due to its trail-blazing nature. Although the methodology of linguistics and the composition of grammars have undergone radical changes since the 19th century, nevertheless Csoma’s grammar has proven to be useful even to our days as a source of new works, due to its exhaustiveness and the richness of its material. He provided not only the description of Tibetan grammar, but complemented it with an analysis of Tibetan chronology and with chronological tables. In addition, the work features a collection of selected passages from the Tibetan canon, expressions from the spoken language and lithographies presenting the various types of script used in Tibet and Nepal.
Csoma’s third, posthumous monograph was a Sanskrit-Tibetan-English glossary, a modern version of the famous 9th-century -century dictionary of Buddhist terminology Mahavyutpatti complemented with English equivalents. It was considered an unparalleled achievement in its own field for more than a century.
Our author’s dissertations also shed light on his genius and on the extent of his scholarship. Even today, when Tibetan language is taught at most major universities, and Tibetan texts are available worldwide, only the greatest and most erudite scholars can boast of having acquired a mastery of Tibetan literature and scholarship comparable to that of Csoma.
Among Csoma’s essays published between 1832 and 1856 in the journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the most outstanding are those presenting the Tibetan canon, the Bka’ ’gyur and the Bstan ’gyur. The most exhaustive essay is the one published in 1836 about the Vinaya (in Tibetan ’dul ba), the treatise of the Bka’ ’gyur dedicated to monastic discipline. This was followed in 1839 by a more concise dissertation about the other classes of the Bka’ ’gyur, the Tantra, Prainyāpāramitā, Ratnakūta, Nirvāna etc. In this same year of 1839 – as well as some years earlier, in 1833 – he published long translations from the Bka’ ’gyur and the Sūtra of the Bstan’ gyur about the historical Buddha and his generation. The last essay published in his lifetime was a concise summary of the Bstan ’gyur (1839).
Besides the canonical works, which are mostly Tibetan translations from originals composed in Sanskrit or other Indian languages, Csoma also made efforts to introduce his readers to literature of Tibetan origin. He described in a short essay of 1834 the Four Tantras (Rgyud bzhi), the fundamental work of Tibetan medicine. Some years later he published an outline of the sources of Tibetan historical and grammatical literature, while his translation of the famous poem of Sa-skya Pandita, the Subhāshitaratnanidhi (in Tibetan Legs par bshad pa rin po che’i gter) was published after his death, in 1855-56. Apart from this, he dedicated shorter studies to other fields of Tibetan culture, the geography of Tibet, amulets, sacral flags and other topics as well.
Csoma’s dissertations were collected by his first biographer Tivadar Duka, 5 and they were published in the edition of Sir Denison Ross in Calcutta in 1912. His posthumous work, the Mahāvyutpatti was published in three parts, in 1910, 1916 and 1944 in the edition of Sir Denison Ross and Durga Charan Chatterjee, respectively. In 1984 the Hungarian Academic Publisher edited the complete works of Csoma in four volumes.
Our illustrations come from the Inner Asian photo collection of the other great researcher of the East Aurel Stein, conserved in the Oriental Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. See: Catalogue of the Collections of Sir Stein Aurel in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, compiled by J. Falconer – Á. Kárteszi – Á. Kelecsényi –L. Russel-Smith; edited by Éva Apor – Helen Wang; Budapest 2002.