Monday, November 14, 2022

Life and Works of Alexander Csoma de Körös by Theodore Duka

Inadequate biography of a fascinating life 
Alexander Csoma de Körös
Alexander Csoma de Körös (1784-1842) is the founder of Tibetology. A Hungarian philologist, he was one of the first Western scholars to venture into Tibet, learn their language, and read their texts. His journey East and his cultural and linguistic studies are really quite fascinating. Unfortunately his biography, Life and Works of Alexander Csoma de Körös by Theodore Duka, doesn’t really do justice to its subject. Due to a lack of concrete information on Csoma, this account of his life is rather boring and repetitive, but it is likely the best source we have for shedding light on the journeys, discoveries, and eccentric personality of this intrepid linguistic explorer.

Born in the town of Körös in Transylvania, Csoma was of Székely origin, a Hungarian ethnic group in Romania. As a young scholar, he decided to research the origins of the Hungarian people. He believed they were descended from the Huns, who came from Asia to make frequent raids into Eastern Europe. This naturally directed his studies Eastward. Today we know that most European languages evolved from a prototypical Indo-European tongue. In his peregrinations Eastward, Csoma was essentially tracing this linguistic family tree backwards to India, where he marked similarities between the Hungarian language and Sanskrit. Eventually he became fascinated with Tibet and Buddhism, and the Tibetan language became the primary focus of his studies and the field in which he made important contributions. Csoma was a gifted polyglot with a facility in many languages, among them Hungarian, Romanian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, English, Slavonic, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Bengali, Pashto, Hindustani, Marathi, Tibetan, and Russian.

Despite his formidable achievements, Csoma was a very modest man, and didn’t write much about himself or his travels. The result of this is a paucity of information on the man. Duka based this biography mostly on a series of letters, many reproduced verbatim, between Csoma and officials of the English government in India who financed his travels. In these letters, Csoma summarized his studies, much like a professor today might write a grant report to a funding agency. Much of the correspondence discusses the stipend granted to Csoma by the English, some of which he refused to accept. In India and Tibet, Csoma lived a very ascetic existence similar to the Buddhist monks with whom he studied. He resided in small cells, sleeping on the floor, surviving on tea and rice, and devoting all his time to his studies. He seemed to be addicted to self-denial, eschewing not only luxuries but also what most would consider bare necessities, perhaps viewing himself as a martyr to knowledge. Out of gratitude to his English benefactors, Csoma published his research in English, including the first Tibetan-English dictionary.

While the biography feels sparse, one thing Duka does very thoroughly is summarize Csoma’s writings, perhaps too thoroughly for all but Csoma’s peer Tibetologists. About the last quarter of the book is devoted to this extensive annotated bibliography of Csoma’s published research.

I enjoy reading biographies of scientists, explorers, and ethnographers because they allow one to live vicariously through the subject’s travels and discoveries. That’s difficult to do with Life and Works of Alexander Csoma de Körös, because the person in question never shared his experiences of world travel, only his scholarly research. Even so, I’m glad I read this to learn more about this interesting historical figure. Thankfully, I also have a healthy interest in foreign languages, because this book will probably only appeal to those who do.

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