Explained: The Once Bustling Indic Past Of China Which Was Influenced By Indian And Sanskrit Traditions
While India and China remain embroiled in border clash, worst one in decades, there remains a chunk of history that connects the two Asian countries in bonds of peace — the civilisational link.
D S Rajan writes about the ancient connect between the two nations. Buddhism arrived in China in early Common Era through trade routes. That China played host to Indian Buddhist monks and the latter played a key role in shaping the Chinese thoughts.
Kashyapa Matanga, Kumarajiva and Bodhidharma are some of the Indian monks who contributed significantly to Buddhism in China. Their endeavours are visible in the White Horse monastery, Lotus Sutra and Dhyan/Chan/Zen Buddhism respectively.
Many Chinese seekers also travelled to India such as Fa Hien, Xuanzang and I Ching. The latter two were students at Nalanda University in Bihar.
‘Bodhisattvas’ or the enlightened beings, like Manjusri and Avalokitesvara, are revered in China. “Brahmana books” (Puluomen Tian Wen Jing), authored by Indian monks well versed with astronomy, trigonometry and calendar making, were well known in Sui-Tang period in China.
Buddhism enriched China’s spiritual landscape. China was also able to ‘sinify’ Buddhism, by fusing it with Confucian and Taoist thoughts.
Rajan says that in material terms, if India introduced astronomy and sugar technology to China, the latter in return transmitted the art of pottery to India.
While Buddhism has mainly been responsible for the phenomenal growth of civilization ties between India and China for nearly 1500 years, Rajan argues that the cultural connect between the two existed in the pre-Buddhist period.
He gives the example of closeness between the Indian concept of ‘purusha’ and the Chinese vision of ‘heaven-earth creator’ and the apparent link between the Indian notion of ‘Nagaraja’ and its Chinese counterpart ‘ Dragon King’ (Long Wang). There is a Chinese legend of "Xiwangmu" being a goddess of Indian origin.
Tan Chung writes that the Chinese pantheon, in fact, is crowded with Indian personalities. The highest native Chinese god, the Jade Emperor (yuhuang dadl) is the duplication of Indra.
“China has the dubious honour of having the maximum numbers (numbering thousands} of Buddhas. According to Chinese oral literature, even the Indian monkey Hanuman (Chinese name "Sun Wukong"} is a Buddha with the title of "Ever Victorious Buddha in Fighting" (Douzhansheng FO}.”
He also points out that the Indians are believed to be first foreigners to do trade with China, in the fourth century BCE, much before the period when Buddhism entered China through trade along the Silk route.
“The existence of Hindu temples in South East China, the ruins of which are visible even today, may possibly have to be seen in the context of that trade.”
Indians epics like Mahabharata contain references to "China" and Chanakya, the prime minister of the Mauryan empire writes about "cinamsuka" (Chinese silk dress) and "cinapatta" (Chinese silk bundle) in Arthashastra.
The Records of the Grand Historian (2nd century BCE) contains references to "Shendu" — which is considered to be a distortion of "Sindhu" (Both ‘Indus’ and ‘Hindu’ are derived from ‘Sindhu’).
Chinese authorities reported an Indian "Shendu" community living in Yunnan when it was annexed by Han Dynasty in the 1st century BCE.
There was also a large Tamil Indian community in Quanzhou city and Jinjiang district which built more than a dozen Hindu temples or shrines, including two grand big temples in Quanzhou city.
The Chola dynasty in southern India had good relations with the Song dynasty. Chinese coins have been found in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Pudukkottai districts of Tamil Nadu.
In 1271, a visiting Italian merchant recorded that the Indians “were recognised easily.” “These rich Indian men and women mainly live on vegetables, milk and rice,” he wrote.
Subhash Kak, in a 2018 article The Rāma Story and Sanskrit in Ancient Xinjiang tells how “until about a thousand years ago the Tarim Basin (northwest of Tibet, which is the part of Xinjiang below the Tian Shin Mountains) was Indic in culture and it was a thriving part of the Sanskritic world”.
The Gāndhārī language which its people spoke is seen by many as descended from Vedic Sanskrit and many scholars traveled from Kashmir to Khotan.
"Gāndhārī inscriptions have been found as far east as Luoyang and Anyang in Henan province in Eastern China which attests to the vastness of the influence of Sanskrit. Europeans in recent centuries called the whole region Serindia, indicating the meeting place of China and India”.
Kak writes that the Khotanese kings were followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism - a sect that incorporates Vedic and Tantric systems, with all the devas such as Indra, Śiva, Viṣṇu and Sarasvatī, and just places the Buddha at the head of the system (as in Vidyākara’s Treasury).
“There was also Krishna worship in Khotan and we find the Rāma story in Khotanese language, of which there is also a Tibetan version.”
The “Prophecy of the Li Country”, composed in 746 CE, mentions some of the kings as named Vijaya Kīrti, Vijaya Saṅgrāma, Vijaya Dharma, Vijaya Saṃbhava, and Vijaya Vāhana.
Many Khotanese cities had Sanskrit names.
Kak gives the examples of Khotan, which in Sanskrit was Gaustana गौस्तन (or Gosthāna गोस्थान) and the modern city of Kashi (Kashgar) was called Śrīkrīrāti (in Sanskrit Śrī+krī+rāti, श्रीक्रीराति, ‘Glorious Hospitality’).
“Kashgar itself appears to be the popular name from Sanskrit Kāśa+giri (काशगिरि, bright mountain). The Khotanese called their language hvatanai ह्वतनै which later became hvaṃnai ह्वंनै; this is equivalent to the name deśī that is used for language in India (vatan, from svatana = deśa)."
Kak quotes Aurel Stein's Ancient Khotan: “There was little to prepare us for such overwhelming evidence .. on the large place which Indian language and culture must have occupied in the administration and daily life of this region during the early centuries of our era. That Sanskrit Buddhist literature was studied in Khotan down to the end of the eighth century A.D. has been proved beyond all doubt by the texts in Brāhmī script which I excavated.”
Rajan writes about China’s historical concept of India:
“[China] believes that India, called by it as ‘the Western Heaven’, is the only nation, which could share place with China in heaven; other countries are only under heaven and the Emperor of China was the son of heaven. China sees a definite connection between the concept and the Indian influence on its civilisation”.
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