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The Hungarian Who Walked to Heaven
Alexander Csoma de Koros 1784-1842
by Edward Fox
Short Books, 96 pp, 4.99
ISBN 0-571-20805-3

Most New Agers who metaphorically (or otherwise) sit at the feet of the Dali Lama and assiduously practice the delightful tenets of Tantric Yoga, probably don't know that they have a 5 foot tall masochistic Hungarian scholar to thank for their ready access to all things Tibetan. But when Alexander Csoma de Koros, otherwise known as Skander Beg the Armenian, or Phyi-glin-gi-grwa-pa (Tibetan for 'foreign pupil'), arrived at Zanskar, on the fringe of the Tibetan plateau, in 1823, his single-minded devotion - obsession would not be too strong a word - to absorb the then unknown Tibetan language, let loose a deluge of esoteric doctrine that hasn’t stopped nearly two centuries later.

For 16 months Csoma de Koros and the monk Phuntsog crouched in a freezing cell and laboured over adding Tibetan to Csoma de Koros' already hefty knapsack of languages (by they time he died he had mastered 17). Nudging each other to turn the page in shivering sub-zero weather and without a fire (the smoke hurt Csoma de Koros' eyes), the two subsisted mainly on tsampa, the Tibetan national staple, made of water, tea, salt and yak's blood. Csoma de Koros was nothing if not persistent, and in 1834 his grammar and dictionary of the Tibetan language--hitherto as closed to European minds as were the country's own borders - was published in Calcutta. Today there stands a statue of Csoma de Koros at the Buddhist Unversity of Japan, where he sits in the lotus position, befitting the bodhisattva he had been declared in 1933.

Like the American Lafcadio Hearn, another short man, Csoma de Koros had cast off his western soul and sank into the mystic East. But unlike Hearn, Csoma de Koros' early years at a gruelling Hungarian boarding school left an irreparable bruise on his psyche. He slept on a hard floor at all times, starved, even when he had ample money for food, and, for the most part, over a period of 14 years, walked from Nagyenyed in Hungary, to Darjeeling, taking in Arabia, much of Central Asia and Ladakh along the way.

Csoma de Koros' impetus for his incredible trek was the romantic nationalist belief that the origin of the 'alien' Hungarian people were to be found in the remote fastness of Yarkand, on the northern side of the Karakorum mountain range, and which, in his last days, he hoped to reach. He never made it, dying of malaria in Darjeeling. Csoma de Koros rejected the now accepted notion that the Hungarian people are linked to the Finns, saying scornfully that such a theory stank of fish oil. Who could blame him for
wanting to find his roots among the Scythians or ravaging Mongols of the Central Asian steppes?

A meeting with the equally fascinating horse-breeder and travel diarist William Moorcroft led Csoma de Koros to his Tibetan undertaking which, he believed, would provide support for his nationalist fantasies. Edward Fox's brief but utterly absorbing account of one of scholarship's sublime madmen is a much welcomed alternative to the blissfully serene reports of cotton candy jaunts amidst the rooftop of the world that litter many a mind, body and spirit shelf. Csoma de Koros was, undoubtedly, a nut, but he was also a genius, and without him we probably wouldn't know a chakra from a hole in the head. We have Fox to thank for reminding us of his achievement.
Gary Lachman

The New Age started here


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from FT 151
October 2001

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