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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”