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Hung(a)ry for Sanskrit
By Priya Jestin
Publication: The Sunday Times of India
Date: December 3, 2000
There’s a small land-locked nation in faraway Europe whose people mouth Sanskrit shlokas and devour Kalidasa’s Shankutala and Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda.  Unbelievable? Probably, but Hungary is really like that.  Though most Indians don’t know much about it, this is a land where the Vedas and Upanishads have been religiously read for the past two centuries.

“We have always been interested in the literature of the East, especially India.  However till a few decades ago, these texts were available only to a select few.” Says Jozsef Vekerdy, a leading Sanskrit scholar in Hungary who has single-handedly popularised Sanskrit among the Hungarian masses.  Vekerdy was in Mumbai recently to receive the Dayawati Modi Award for this achievement.

The twinkle-eyed 74-year-old explains how he adapted the Sanskrit texts to suit Hungarian tastes.  “My love story with Sanskrit began when I was a teenager,” he reminisces.  “My first contact with Sanskrit literature was through fictionalised versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana written by E.  Baktay, one of Hungary’s prominent writers.  His versions of the epics enraptured me.  That was when I decided to take up a career as a linguist.”

Though there were translated versions of Sanskrit works, they were third-hand-translated from the English and Germans copies, says vekerdy.  “I wanted to go to the roots and get an accurate Hungarian translation of the original works,” he states.

Fuelled by this ambition, Vekerdy went on to become the first Hungarian Sanskrit scholar.  Peppering his story with a few anecdotes, Vekerdy recollects the time he was left directionless as the only Sanskrit teacher at the University fled the nation after the Soviet Union overtook the country in 1956.  “Since I was the only student, I finally had to teach myself,” he chuckles.

However, being the only Sanskrit scholar had its benefits, as the Russians “viewed anything Western with a suspicious eye”.  “We were encouraged to have ties with countries that were friendly with Soviet Russia like China and India,” he says.  Soon, Hungarian publishers were seeking out people who could translate the literary works of China and India.  And some publishing houses approached Vekerdy to translate Sanskrit epics.

However, when Vekerdy’s first book, a translation of Kalidasa’s Meghdoot was published, he was cooling his heels in a jail.  “I was arrested with a copy of a letter written by students to then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru,” he says in a stage whisper.  “Over 2000 students were deported or hanged after a student uprising against the Soviet occupation.  That was when I sent the letter to Nehru explaining the conditions in our country and soon, through Nehru’s personal intervention, the atrocities against us stopped.” However, the letter led to Vekerdy’s spending three years in prison.

“Prison life has its own advantages,” he says with a naughty grin and hastily explains how he read and translated quite a few of Kalidasa’s works during his prison tenure.  It was during this time that he tried to innovate and make Sanskrit texts more interesting to the lay reader.  “All Sanskrit texts are long and laborious to read.  Hence to retain reader interest, I first translated only selections from the Vedas, Upanishads and versified them.  Later, I began selecting a few sentences from a paragraph and then put them together to make a cohesive text;” he explains.

Adhering to the original text was a must and Vekerdy even got some poets to put the translations to verse.  “All metric translations strictly follow the original Sanskrit verse format.  Since Hungarian is phonetically similar to Sanskrit, the essence of the verses can be retained in the language,” he explains.  To date, he has translated at least 28 Sanskrit texts, including the Vedas and the Upanishads.  Vekerdy’s labour of love seems to have paid off.  “Today, many Hungarian youngsters can recite verses of the Gita Govinda in Sanskrit,” he says proudly.

Apart from Sanskrit works, Vekerdy also studied and later translated the sayings of the Buddha from Pali.  For a man who loves Indian culture and literature, isn’t it strange that is Vekerdy’s first trip to the land? “I am a lazy man,” he explains candidly.  Now that he has translated quite a few ancient texts, Vekerdy proposes to begin translating another Sanskrit tome, a relatively modern one this time: a poem on Indira Gandhi.

And when does he plan to stop? “When there are no more Sanskrit works left to translate.”



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