Apart from memories of scholarly nature, older colleagues will certainly remember the conferences in the old days when one would meet in the evenings in Géza’s hotel room, commonly referred to as “Géza’s Bar,” to end the day over a few drinks that he had brought along from Hungary, continuing scholarly discussion of the day, or in relaxed gossip. Géza was a perfect host, and his hospitality was legendary, both at his home in Budapest or his residence in Delhi from 1994-2000, when he was the director of the Hungarian Cultural Centre. “Now that I am not in contact with research,” he used to say at that time, “I want at least to keep contact with researchers,” and he accommodated many colleagues during their stay in Delhi and made them feel at home. In a way, Géza seemed to be predestined for this position. Ever since his high school days, he had been interested above all by Eastern philosophy and religion, including yoga, as well as in Hungarian culture and literature. Cultural relations between India and Europe, with an emphasis on Hungary, also became one of his main research topics, and he dedicated a number of his publications to this subject.
Géza Bethlenfalvy was born on 10 February 1936 in Huncovce (Hunfalva), Slovakia, in a Hungarian minority family. This village is situated at the feet of the High Tatra mountains, and he had the chance to visit its upland areas in his childhood. After World War II his family relocated to Hungary. They settled in Mosonmagyaróvár, his mother’s hometown, the gateway to the scenic Szigetköz region of the Danube with several river branches and islands. He attended secondary school there, and it was during these years that he received a book on yoga by Selvarajan Yesudian from a fellow townsman. He started to do some practice with a few classmates, something that was frowned upon by local authorities because any sort of religious activities was considered undesirable in the early 1950s.
His attempts to enter university education were blocked for two years by the regime as his father’s family had been landowners before the end of the war. Thanks to auspicious coincidences, however, he was finally admitted to Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Budapest, in the summer of 1956. Here he had to take Hungarian and Russian as a major, but soon “escaped” (he actually used this expression when talking about those days) to Indology, which had just started as an independent subject led by János Harmatta. He also took courses in Art History and Psychology. He was the only student of Indology at ELTE then, before he was expelled from university, and even imprisoned, in 1957 for his engagement in the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and for participating in the commemoration of this event a year later. His suspension lasted for two years during which he worked in a foreign language bookshop, learned to play the flute and even received training as a goldsmith. Thereafter he was able to return to university and finally graduated in 1963 with degrees in Hungarian linguistics and literature and Indology.
At that time, he became involved with Tibetan Studies: he was approached by Lajos Ligeti, himself a former student of Henri Maspero, Jacques Bacot and Paul Pelliot, and invited to join the freshly formed Research Group of Altaic Studies at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and to learn Tibetan. During the next years he first studied and then also taught Tibetan and developed an interest in Buddhism and also in Buddhist meditation, and developed a scholarly interest in European-Tibetan relations and in Sándor Kőrösi Csoma (Alexander Csoma de Kőrösi). In connection with his research on this pioneer of Tibetan Studies in Europe, the history of Ladakh and Zangskar emerged as one of Géza’s major fields of interest, as well as Tibetan Buddhism in general, with an emphasis on folk religion, the development of Buddhist canonical literature, and questions concerning the tantric tradition.
Géza’s first personal encounter with Asia took place in 1969, when he made a trip to Mongolia, which he later described as a first love. He spent three months in the country, primarily in Ulaanbaatar, as a member of an academic exchange programme, and explored Buddhist scriptures there. The following year he received a six-month grant to travel to India, and used this study tour to visit Delhi, Pune, Calcutta, Darjeeling and Banaras, where he examined documents related to Csoma de Kőrös as well as various Buddhist texts.
From 1974 to 1980 he was appointed Lecturer in Hungarian at Delhi University, and India became his second home. He was good colleagues and friends with Lokesh Chandra, who encouraged him to continue work on the Mongolian Kanjur. His endeavours resulted in his first major monograph, A Catalogue of the Urga Kanjur, which was published in New Delhi in 1980. Two years later he published another catalogue, that of the Urga manuscript of the Them spangs pa Kanjur, compiled from a handwritten list and from Dzaya Paṇḍita’s Thob yig. He was particularly pleased that he was allowed to feast his eyes for a short while on this rarity, which became fully accessible only about a decade ago.
Besides philology, he researched the lives of Amrita Sher-Gil, Elizabeth Brunner, Charles Fabri, Ervin Baktay and, of course, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, and published a volume titled India in Hungarian Learning and Literature in Delhi in 1980. After his return to Hungary he continued research at the Academy and taught at ELTE University passionately with his unique personality.
He held various leading positions at the Csoma de Kőrös Society, Budapest, first as secretary (1968-1974), then as general secretary (1984-1991, when he was awarded the Csoma de Kőrös Prize), deputy president (1991-1994), and finally (after 2001) as a member of the steering committee. From 1992–1995 he was also deputy president of the Hungarian Society of Religious Studies. From 1994 to 2000 he acted as director of the Hungarian Information and Cultural Centre in New Delhi. His office and residence on Janpath became a home away from home and a meeting place for many colleagues and friends. Upon his return to Hungary after six years he rejoined the Academy research group until 2006.
Between 2007 and 2010 he was a guest professor at the University of Vienna, reading topics of Tibetan folk religion, tantrism, the Buddhist canons, the discovery of Tibet, cultural history of Ladakh, etc. The students loved him for his unconventional and easy-going way of teaching. His work was always essentially determined by extensive field research in India, Mongolia, and Tibet; in 2008 he joined the Viennese “Tibetan Manuscripts” project in Ladakh and Zangskar.
In the early 2010s he continued to pursue his various research interests related to India, Ladakh, Tibet and Mongolia, while remaining devoted to classical music, fine art and tea. From around the middle of the decade his health started to decline slowly but steadily. He passed away peacefully at his home, a legendary place for numerous visitors, situated on the slopes of the highest hill of Budapest, on 18 November 2021. Alongside the great amount of valuable help he provided to colleagues, his curiosity, enthusiasm, bohemian character and good spirits were irresistible; one walked away from each conversation not only laden with new information (and anecdotes), but a certain cheerful lightness. The international community of Tibetan Studies will remember him as a brilliant yet modest researcher, a reliable partner in the field, a good colleague to all, and a friend to many. On the day following his passing, one of his former students wrote: “if you knew him, you liked him—no exceptions”.
For the English translation of an interview with Géza Bethlenfalvy recorded on 15 April 2017, visit https://oralhistory.iats.info/interviews/geza-bethlenfalvy/
Publications and Conference Papers – A Brief Selection
Books and articles
“Representation of Buddhist hells in a Tibeto-Mongol illustrated blockprint” (co-author: Alice Sárközi). W. Heissig (ed.), Altaica Collecta, Berichte und Vorträge der XVII. Permanent International Altaistic Conference, 3.-8. Juni 1974, Bonn/Bad Honnef. Wiesbaden 1974. 93–130.
A Painter’s Pilgrimage : Elizabeth Brunner’s Buddhist Paintings from India, Nepal, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand. New Delhi 1978.
A Catalogue of the Urga Kanjur. Delhi 1980.
India in Hungarian Learning and Literature. Delhi 1980.
“Bla-ma Bžad-pa and the Rdzong-khul Gompa.” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 34. Budapest 1980, 4-6.
A Hand-list of the Ulan Bator Manuscript of the Kanjur Rgyal-rtse Them-spangs-ma. Budapest 1982.
“The Śatagāthā attributed to Vararuci.” L. Ligeti (ed.), Tibetan and Buddhist Studies Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csoma de Kőrös. Budapest 1984. 17-58.
Enchanted by India – Ervin Baktay (1890–1963). Life and Works. New Delhi 1990.
“Frightening and Protective Deities: Sky-, Air-, Earth-, Mountain-, Water-demons, Helpful and Harmful Demons, Spirits, Ghosts, Devils, and Witches in Tibet and Mongolia.” Béla Kelényi (ed.), Demons and Protectors. Budapest 2003, 27–46.
The Mystical India – Through the Art of Two Hungarian Painters. (Exhibition catalogue). Budapest 2007.
India magyarjai – Kőrösi Csoma Sándor. (Documentary video). 2008.
A Tibeto-Mongolian Picture-book of Hell. Budapest 2010.
1992 6th Conference of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS), Fagernes, Norway: “Golden libation (gser-skyems) to the Altai mountains, a Tibetan text from Western Mongolia” [not in the proceedings]
1995 International Symposium on India Studies, Trivandrum, India: “Historical and ideological background of Indian religious syncretism” [no proceedings found]
1996 7th Conference of IATS, Graz, Austria: “Three notices to important Kanjur lineages” [not in the proceedings]
1998 Nemzetközi Orientalista Kongresszus (International Congress of Orientalists), Budapest: “The work of Alexander Csoma de Kőrös in the context of the contemporary historical-political situation in Asia” [no proceedings found]
1998 8th Conference of IATS, Bloomington, USA: “Notes to the Rdzong-khul lineage” [no table of contents available]
1999 Kőrösi Csoma Seminar, New Delhi and Calcutta, India: “Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, a pioneer of Buddhist studies” [no proceedings found]
Lectures: 2001 Ladakh and Alexander Csoma de Kőrös (6 lectures at the Shambala Society, Budapest in November–December 2001)
For his contributions to several documentaries, see:
Gergely Hidas, Péter-Dániel Szántó and Helmut Tauscher
* * *
The following message was recently circulated by Géza Bethlenfalvy’s family
To family and friends, colleagues, students and admirers of Géza Bethlenfalvy
As you may have heard, Geza left us on 18 November 2021. He was at home, with his family beside him. Thank you to everyone who has already, or will be expressing their love and respect for him in kind messages to us!
We know that many friends want to find a way to take leave of him, yet an obstacle is posed not only by the great distances between the countries where we live, but the dreadful surge of the epidemic in Hungary and elsewhere. So we would like to offer a number of ways in which he can be remembered.
Many of us have a memorable story to share about Géza. We have created a page online where anyone can add their story and/or photograph to remember Géza by. You can write on the page by clicking on the + sign you see at the bottom right of the page:
Géza’s ashes were laid to rest in the Cemetery of Mosonmagyarovar in a close family circle on 28 December. We are planning an English-speaking Zoom event for 30 January at 6.30 pm Indian time, 2 pm Hungarian time, 1 pm UTC/GMT, where we can gather to retell short reminiscences of Géza. If you would like to join us, please let Balint Bethlenfalvy know (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Various institutions of oriental studies in Hungary plan to hold a memorial event in the Spring, where we might be able to see each other in person. A date will be set as soon as the Covid situation gets a bit better.
Warm greetings and thanks,
from Géza’s family