Lecture examines avenues of understanding Alexander Csoma de Koros, Tibetology
Evan DaCosta | Tuesday, March 6, 2018
The life and legacy of founder of Tibetology Alexander Csoma de Koros were topics of discussion during a lecture in Jenkins and Nanovic Halls on Monday. Professor of theology emeritus and fellow at the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian studies Robert Gimello hosted the event, titled “A Protestant Scholar or a Buddhist Bodhisattva: Csoma’s Life and Works.”
Professor Imre Hamar, a Professor of Chinese Studies at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, said Csoma de Koros has great significance to the people of Hungary, who see him as a prominent national hero. Hamar said a debate exists over Csoma de Koros’s involvement with Buddhism, particularly over whether Csoma de Koros was a true follower of Tibetan Buddhism or a Protestant scholar.
“For most Hungarians, Csoma is not so much a scholar who founded a new discipline, but a national hero who dedicated his life to find the true homeland of the Hungarian people,” Hamar said. “His main motivation was to find the origins of the Hungarian people.”
The Hungarian people were originally nomads from Asia, and Csoma de Koros sought to understand the origins of both the Hungarian language and people, Hamar said. To do this, he travelled east to Asia, and eventually Tibet.
Csoma de Koros was born in 1784 in a small village near the border of the Ottoman Empire, Hamar said. He was born to a Szekler family whose ethnicity held the ancient responsibility for defending Hungary’s borders against invaders. Instead of becoming a border guard, as was his obligation, he earned a scholarship to a Protestant school, Hamar said.
During his time at college, Csoma de Koros became increasingly appreciative of the Hungarian people and language, and his desire to understand the roots of the Hungarian people grew. After spending some time studying Slavic languages in Europe, Csoma de Koros travelled from Hungary, through the Middle East, Persia and India before finally arriving in Tibet.
It was at the command of a British officer, William Moorcroft, that Csoma de Koros began his studies in Tibetology specifically, Hamar said. Csoma de Koros compiled a Tibetan alphabet and book of grammar, “Alphabetum Tibetanum.” The book was intended to aid missionaries in their work in Tibet, Hamar said, although the main motif of the book was the struggle against many Protestant teachings.
Hamar said Csoma de Koros was one of the first Europeans to bring Tibetan Buddhist teachings back to Europe, and he worked in three different monasteries in Ladakh, India. The Alexander books, which he wrote, were compilations of questions he had for his Lama — or teacher — in Ladakh, and his Lama’s answers. In 1834, he published the first Tibetan-English Dictionary. These were some of the first texts that were direct interactions between Eastern and Western thinking, Hamar said.
“The Liu Institute was very glad to have an introduction by a leading expert into an important figure in the history of European knowledge of Asia, who is not well known in the western world except in Hungary, so we have the opportunity because of Professor Hamar’s lecture to learn more about this heroic figure,” Gimello said.