The Hungarian Bodhisattva
Geographer and science historian János Kubassek speaks about orientalist Sándor Kőrösi Csoma on the 180th anniversary of his death.
Ancient Knowledge in a Modern World

The Hungarian Bodhisattva

János Kubassek, geographer and science historian (Photo: András Éberling)
Erika Ozsda 15/02/2023 05:00

János Kubassek works to find traces and remnants of Hungarian presence all around the world. A geographer, science historian and director of the Hungarian Geographical Museum in Érd, awarded with the Officer’s Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit, Kubassek has visited no less than 108 countries, and authored 28 books as well as hundreds of articles and studies. Of all Hungarian travellers and explorers, Sándor Kőrösi Csoma is the one for whom Kubassek has the highest regard. Orientalist Kőrösi Csoma set out on foot on a journey from his hometown of Nagyenyed to Inner Asia in 1819 in search of what many of his fellow scientists regarded as the original motherland of the Hungarian people in the Chinese Dzungaria region, and within that the Uyghur people whom he reckoned to be close relatives of the Hungarians. This article pays tribute to Sándor Kőrösi Csoma on the 180th anniversary of his death.

– Sándor Kőrösi Csoma and his scientific legacy are the pride of both East and West. Do they at least acknowledge he was Hungarian?

– Well, on the cover of his Tibetan-English dictionary, which was published by The Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1834, he calls himself “Alexander Csoma de Koros – Siculo-Hungarian of Transylvania” – a Hungarian Szekler. So he himself made it clear what nationality he identified with. But no doubt there were attempts by other nations to “claim” him. In 1984 the ambassador of Romania to India proposed an event in commemoration of the “great Romanian linguist”. True, his home village, called Csomakőrös today, is indeed in Romania. But the Indians just picked up Kőrösi’s famous dictionary and, pointing at the cover, asked the ambassador what this “Siculo–Hungarian” could mean then. This killed the Romanian zeal for the commemorative event at once. I think the fact that other nations have been trying to make Kőrösi one of their own should rather be seen as a sign of respect, an acknowledgment of his tremendous accomplishments.

Followers and Admirers

Statue of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma (Photo: András Éberling)

– Do we Hungarians have the level of appreciation of Kőrösi Csoma he deserves?

– I would say we do. Several schools and institutes bear his name, and many writings on art make mention of him. He is one of the few Hungarian scientists who has always been well regarded in Hungary, regardless of the political regime. His grave has been visited by conservative Miklós Horthy, communist Pál Losonczi and liberal Árpád Göncz. And the list of prominent figures of Hungarian literature who wrote about him... From Lajos Áprily and Gyula Illyés through András Sütő and Elek Benedek all the way to Érd poet Zoltán Csuka. And it was thus from the beginning: Kőrösi Csoma drew praise from two members of the Batthyány‑led first Hungarian government, István Széchenyi and József Eötvös. In fact, until he died, Széchenyi kept on his desk a painting of Kőrösi Csoma’s grave in Darjeeling. And the pedestal of the Kőrösi Csoma statue in the garden of our museum in Érd bears a quote form Eötvös saying “He is the living proof that there is no hardship persevering human will cannot overcome.” The literature on Kőrösi Csoma’s life and work could fill a library. Tivadar Duka, who spent a long time in Bengal as an army doctor, collected Kőrösi Csoma’s manuscripts and heritage as well as any documents pertaining to his life there, and published them in English, then later also in Hungarian. Lajos Lóczy was a member of the East Asian expedition led by Bála Széchenyi during which, in 1877, he discovered the hitherto believed lost autobiography of Kőrösi Csoma in the Calcutta library of The Asiatic Society of Bengal. The documents regarding Kőrösi Csoma’s life in Transylvania were collected by historian Elek Csetri. Geographer Bernard Le Calloc’h commemorated him in quite several studies and books. He also appears in works of Indian authors. If I may mention my own book, I wrote about Kőrösi Csoma in my “Hungarian Hermit of the Himalaya: The Life of Sandor Korosi Csoma Against a Contemporary Historical and Geographical Backdrop”.

– Has anyone recreated his entire journey?

– Ervin Baktay travelled to his main stopping points in India and Tibet in 1928 and collected any evidence of his stays he could find. He gave an excellent account of his journey in his book “A világ tetején” (“On top of the World”). He also took the opportunity to place a commemorative plaque on the walls of the monasteries of Zangla and Phuktal. In his book “Háromszéktől a Himalájáig” (“From Háromszék to the Himalayas”) he leads his readers through the life of Kőrösi Csoma. In 1972 Ödön Jakabos, a young man from Kézdivásárhely completed a considerable portion of Kőrösi Csoma’s original route and reported on it in his book “Indiai útinapló” (“An Indian Travel Diary”). His endeavour cost him dearly though: he caught some serious illness which proved to be fatal in 1979.

From Monastery to Monastery

– In what ways does your book differ from the previously published works on the same topic?

– In several respects. During my university years, I spent 310 days in South Asia between 1980 and 1981, most of it in the Western Himalayas. I went to the monasteries where Kőrösi Csoma started his Tibetan studies, first Zangla then Phuktal. These he went to in hope of finding documents and sources pertaining to the Hungarian motherland. Then I went to the third monastery in Kanam, where Kőrösi Csoma spent a longer time, then to the Bengal region. What is new in the third edition of the book is that it contains information that French natural scientist Victor Jacquemont wrote about Kőrösi Csoma which I obtained with the help of my friend Bernard Le Calloc’h. Bernard was kind enough to provide me with these new details so I could publish them for the first time in Hungarian. I illustrated the book with photographs I took myself.

– Kőrösi Csoma was born into a poor family in a small village in Transylvania. What made him venture on his journey? What was his motivation?

– He received excellent education at the Bethlen College in Nagyenyed. Then he studied at the University of Göttingen, one of the most prestigious schools on the continent. His studies in Göttingen in today’s Germany were an important factor, as it was here, at this Western school that he obtained the knowledge he would then build his expertise in oriental studies upon. The science of Hungarian origins was a hot topic in the early 1800s. In the times of the Napoleonic wars, the links thought to connect minor peoples were very much in focus. People wanted to clarify connections. Could it be that our “relatives” live somewhere in Dzungaria, in the heart of Asia? This topic obviously fascinated Kőrösi Csoma. He found related information in the works of György Pray and Ézsaiás Budai, and was inspired by theories he heard in university lectures that the Uyghur, that faraway Asian people, may be related to the Hungarians. Kőrösi Csoma was never satisfied with the amount of knowledge he had. People said of him that “If he chose to walk a distance, he would never rest until he reached his destination.” If he reached the summit of a hill, he always wanted to see what was beyond the hill. In those days the borders between nations were drawn with sword and blood. He lived in the Himalayas in the toughest of circumstances. He made flatbread on yak dung fires. For years his main food was barley flour mixed in tea. He traversed deserts and mountains on foot, through nothing but danger and peril. He set out on this fantastic journey to a faraway world at the age of 35.

The First European Saint

– How long did it take him to reach Zangla?

– It was a three-year journey he made on foot or by joining caravans. Today you can fly to New Delhi in eight hours then to Leh in another two. Kőrösi Csoma crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Alexandria in Egypt, which means he also set foot in North Africa, and then made his way to Kabul via Cyprus, Baghdad and Tehran. His most productive years were those he spent in Kashmir. It was there he began his studies in the monasteries. He met William Moorcroft, the commissioner of the British Indian government, in the mountains of Western Tibet. Moorcroft recognised Kőrösi Csorna’s genius, diligence and extraordinary linguistic ability – by the end of his life, he could speak 16 languages. Moorcroft offered him the support of his government to enable him to compose a Tibetan‑English dictionary and grammar book. The completed manuscripts were sent to Calcutta for printing and publishing. The British were highly interested in the history and resources of Asia, and spared no expense in research on the topic. They established The Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta. This scientific society is still functioning today, researching the history of the whole continent. Their publications are regarded as standard works to this day. The Society provided Kőrösi Csoma with accommodation, a place to work, and income. British support allowed him to complete the gigantic task which was to he an outstanding contribution to the Society’s efforts in researching the whole of East Asia. He sent copies of his works published by the Asiatic Society back to Europe, and they can now be found on the shelves of libraries around the continent, including the library of the Debrecen Reformed Theological University. He never received any kind of financial support from Hungary. He could not return home from Asia, and never saw his family and homeland, Transylvania again.

– What do we, the Hungarian nation owe to him? And what can the east and west be thankful to him for?

– We can regard him as an example. He was a persevering, diligent and deeply committed man. As a professor from India put it at a conference of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 23 years ago: “We hold him in high regard because he didn’t come here to take but to give. He enriched our nation.” Indeed, he is very highly regarded in India. His grave has become a site of pilgrimage. Kőrösi Csoma encountered many peoples, nations, cultures and faiths, and he could always adapt to them without having to give up his goals. He lived in Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu communities. He never ceased to be a Christian. And yet, in 1933, he became the first European to be declared a bodhisattva – a Buddhist saint. The scientific disciplines of Tibetan studies and Tibetology started with his dictionary and grammar book. He made several Tibetan study documents available and researchable. His translations of works on Tibetan medicine and Buddhism are considered reference works to this day. We are linked to the east in a thousand ways – we should respect and nurture these connections. I myself have made numerous trips to the east and I have seen great things there. Things like the utmost respect for and strong cohesion of the family, and caring about one another. In Indonesia I met a businessman who sent thousands of dollars to a cousin he had never met so that he could get his son medical care. You won’t find an orphanage in Indonesia. Children who lose their parents will always be taken in by relatives, neighbours or friends who will then bring them up as their own. And, of course, help is always mutual. Those who work their way to any kind of prosperity are expected to support those who helped them achieve that. Good and bad examples are equally taken notice of.
Sándor Kőrösi Csoma always remained modest, even when he knew he was one of the most revered scholars of his era, János Kubassek says (Photo: András Éberling)

In The Footsteps of Missionaries

– Where did you go on your last trip?

– Bukovina. There are two parts of the world that will always be dear to me and where I will always be happy to go. One is Transylvania and the other is Indonesia and Thailand. The Thai people’s love of freedom has always had a profound impact on me. I was lucky enough to be the author of the first Hungarian book about Thailand, which was first published in 1987 then again two more times.

– What goals do you have yet to achieve?

– One cannot live without goals and plans. I have been researching the history of Hungarian missionaries around the world. There are still have several figures whose lives I would really like to study. I have finished a volume of my life’s work: 40 years’ worth of studies, articles and presentations. Let’s hope it will be published soon.

– What are you most proud of?

– My son Tamás, who works in international economic law. He graduated from American and German universities, and I admit I was a little concerned he would be persuaded to stay abroad for good. But eventually he decided to come home because he wans to work in his home country. Like father, like son.

Our Nation in the elite

– Have you, yourself ever wavered?

– I did. I had major temptations in America and Canada in 1985. An uncle of mine, a geologist, lived in California at the time. He told me that if I decided to stay there and work for the local Geological Service, I would have a job that would enable me to travel around the world. At the time my monthly salary in Hungary – with a university diploma and a doctor’s degree – was less than what a garbage collector in the USA got a week. And still, at the end of the day I felt I had a mission here in Hungary. This is where I got my knowledge, this is where I got my doctor’s degree – this is where I must give back all I have received. I haven’t had a spectacular career, but I am happy to have been able to live off what I love doing. In a sense, I’m a record holder. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of my tenure as the director of the Hungarian Geographical Museum in Érd, certainly a record as public collections in Hungary, 832 in number, go.

– What have you found everyone around the world knows about us Hungarians?

– The names of Ferenc Puskás and Ernő Rubik are renowned around the world. If we only take a look at the numbers, we must say that of the eight billion members of humanity, we, the fifteen million Hungarians, make up but a tiny fraction. But if we take a look at culture and science, we can safely claim we are in the elite, which is a definite source of national pride – well, combined with due modesty, of course. We mustn’t think too highly of ourselves – another respect in which Kőrösi Csoma set the perfect example: he always remained modest, even when he knew he was one of the most revered scholars of his era.

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.

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