Michael Hahn 1941-2014


It is with deep regret that I convey to you the sad news of the passing away of our beloved teacher and good friend Professor Michael Hahn. After a prolonged illness this distinguished scholar left us peacefully in the evening of July 12, 2014. For almost two decades from 1988 till 2006 Professor Michael Hahn held the chair of the Department of Indology and Tibetology at the University of Marburg, where he fostered many students and contributed numerous books and articles. Even to the very last days of his fruitful life, despite the impediments of his illness, he was always keen to promote scholarship and generously shared his vast knowledge. We will all dearly miss him. A small memorial service will be held today at 5 p.m. in the St. Elisabeth-Hospiz in Marburg. At present arrangements for a funeral service at his birthplace in Otterndorf are being made.

Dragomir Dimitrov

A Personal Homage to Michael Hahn (1941-2014)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to convey a few words in memory and in honor of an esteemed colleague and dear friend, the late Prof. Dr. Michael Hahn.

Michael Hahn showed a remarkable diversity of talents and interests already in his youth. Born in 1941 in Otterndorf, a small town on the northern coast of Germany, he was an enthusiastic piano player from a young age and this love stayed with him till the end of his life. One of the last times we met, in 2012, he treated us, his guests, to a wonderful recital of Mozart and Beethoven in his living room.

His university studies at Göttingen, Hamburg and Bonn (between 1960 and 1968) included such multifarious fields as mathematics, Sanskrit, psychology, musicology, Tibetan and Mongolian. I think we can find echoes of all these various academic disciplines and approaches throughout Hahn’s work.

His immense contribution to South and Central Asian literary studies, and to Tibetan linguistics is of course obvious. Mathematics I see in the thorough systematics and uncompromising precision which is typical of all of his publications. Psychology is present in many of his discussions of –for instance— poetical tropes and metaphors in narrative or lyrical literature which so often speak of the peculiarities –both strengths and weaknesses— of human nature. Even musicology and his love of music I see reflected, for example  in his work on chandas, ‘metrics’, which of course dictates the ‘musical’ rhythm and melody of  poetry.

As successor to Wilhelm Rau (1922-1999), Michael Hahn was professor of Indology and Tibetology at the Marburg University from 1988 to 2007. During these years he produced groundbreaking explorations of a number of Indo-Tibetan literary fields, notably poetical metrics, didactical narrative, Buddhist plays and hymns. Both Indian and Tibetan studies owe him a great debt for the wealth of textual materials he has made accessible, with uncompromising precision in its presentation and analysis.

Michael was not merely a huge source of knowledge and information, he also was a tremendous inspiration to his students and colleagues alike. To phrase it in Buddhist terms: he had no ācāryamuṣṭi, no ‘clinched fist of the teacher’. In other words, he did not withhold knowledge or insights, but shared this freely with those sincerely intent on a thorough exploration of these often abstruse literary fields. So he was not only the Marburg  Mahāpaṇḍita par excellence, but I have always regarded him also –to remain in the Buddhist idiom– as a true Kalyāṇa-mitra in academia.

I have used Hahn’s textbook of classical Tibetan as the main tool ever since I started teaching Classical Tibetan at Leiden University in 1987, and I still use it to this day. Needless to say that it was a thrill for me to meet Michael in person for the first time at a conference in the 1990s. I sensed that quite a few colleagues were in awe of his rather strict and rigorous outward appearance, but I –and many with me— have admired and appreciated the magnanimous way in which he shared his vast expertise, and the warm heart that lived within him.

Actually the very first paper I heard him deliver was a real eye-opener for me. He spoke on the etymology of one Tibetan word: gtsug-lag, ‘science / sacred literature’.* Anyone familiar with Tibetan literature will have encountered this term countless times. I had occasionally wondered  briefly about its etymology, but did not give it serious attention and moved on. It is the kind of term one takes for granted. But Michael didn’t. He really set his teeth in it and came up with an etymological analysis that went against traditional views, yet was perfectly logical and consistent, lucidly argued and entirely convincing to me.

During my numerous visits to the Marburg Indology department I was invariably struck by the welcoming and warm atmosphere, yet at the same time intensely serious and focused spirit that pervaded the institute. And it was perfectly clear that Michael stood at the heart of this, that he was the true moving and inspiring force behind this.

To those truly committed to acquiring a well-founded and comprehensive understanding of the Indo-Tibetan literary heritage Michael offered exemplary integrity and accuracy. He did so to those who met him in person. He does so today still in his many publications and indirectly through his students and all others he inspired and taught by example. Let us remember the scholar and the man Michael Hahn in fond recognition.

Peter Verhagen (Leiden University Institute of Area Studies, The Netherlands)

* Paper read at the 7th IATS seminar in Graz 1995, and published as: M. Hahn (1997).’ À Propos the Term gtsug lag’, PIATS 7 Wien, vol. 1.