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At the beginning of the middle path

Lives of Early Buddhist Monks, is a compendium of the biographies of Buddhist masters that are contained in Chinese historical works, writes Navanjyot Lahiri.

india Updated: Jun 24, 2008 12:57 IST
Navanjyot Lahiri

Lives of Early Buddhist Monks
Saroj Kumar Chaudhuri
Abha Prakashan
Rs 1,200, PP 192

While the earliest impressions of India in China were based on accounts of traders and diplomats, it is the more vivid, first-hand records of Chinese Buddhist monks who came to the Indian subcontinent that are best known. Among other things, this is because of the impact that these sources have had on the archaeology and historical geography of India. Saroj Kumar Chaudhuri's book, though, is not about such travellers. It is a compendium of the biographies of Buddhist masters that are contained in Chinese historical works. Considering that so many of these were Indian monks, he provides a window into the Chinese reception of Indians and China’s perceptions of India that go be yond the better known travel literature of pious pilgrims like Hsuan Tsang and Fa Xian.

Chaudhuri, who has taught Japanese in New Delhi and Japan, provides an English translation of the Japanese version of the original Chinese texts in which these biographies are recorded. The role of Chinese texts is well known in the study of Indian Buddhism. Less well known is the fact that some translations also have a biography section. For example, the bulk of what appears in this book is based on one such text — Shih Sengyu’s Collection of the Records of the Translation of the Tripataka containing thirty two major biographies. The ethnicity of these monks is varied — Parthian, Yueh-chih, Sogdian, Huna, Indian and Chinese.

The Indian monks themselves were from diverse backgrounds. Chu Shu-lan (c. 3rd-4th centuries AD), was of Indian parentage but was born and brought up in China while Kumarajiva (350413 AD) was taken to China by force as booty for war. Dharmaksema came from central India and worked and died in China during the first half of the fourth century AD. And then, there are the biographies of several natives of Kashmir: Gunavarman, Dharmamitra, Buddhayasas and Sanghabhuti are some of them.

While this volume opens up a new biographical terrain to English language readers, one which further illuminates the India-China relationship in ancient times, there are at least three other aspects that merit consideration. First, these life stories are part hagiographies and part biographies. Second, these are the monks who frequently undertook extensive travels. Those from Kashmir travelled overland and across the sea. This is not surprising since Kashmir was a notable centre of the Saravastivada school, and its scholarly monks played a central role in the transmission of Buddhist ideas to China. For instance, Buddhayasas spent time in Kashgar and Kucha before settling down in Ch’an-an around the beginning of the 5th century AD. On the other hand, Gunavarman, first went to Ceylon, then to Java and eventually to China around 431 AD.

Finally, public debate appears in these biographies, to be central for establishing truth and winning converts. The debates of Dharmaksema, who had studied Hinayana texts, with a dhyana master called Pai-t’ou, for instance, continued for one hundred days because their areas of specialisation were different. The debate between Parsva (the teacher of Asvaghosha) and a heretic ascetic was conducted in the presence of the king of Madhya-desa, ministers, monks, and heretic teachers. In another instance, the king of Ayodhya conducted the debate between the heretic Vindhyavasaka and Buddhamitra, the guru of Vasubandhu, a famous Buddhist monk. This was a debate that was won by the heretic who was rewarded with three lakh gold coins. While Vasubandhu was very displeased with the humiliation of his guru and sought to avenge his defeat, what is striking, and I’m sure this will please Professor Amartya Sen no end, is that all of them — Buddhists, Brahmanas, heretics — appear as ‘argumentative Indians’.

Nayanjot Lahiri teaches archaeology at the University of Delhi