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Monday, January 17, 2022

Retracing Fa-Hien in the land of the Buddha

🔴 Suraj Yengde writes: Today, we must honour Fa-Hien as a great chronicler of medieval India. He should be included in the pantheons of Bahujan society and India’s national history.

Written by Suraj Yengde |
Updated: December 13, 2021 7:46:54 am
Fa-Hien at the Asoka Palace ruins (Flickr)

Sakyamuni Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment on his own accord. He became fully immersed in the bliss of Nirvaan — free from craving, greed, aversion, and fallacies. The perfect embodiment of humanity, the Buddha, the most compassionate being, did not keep the secrets of the path of liberation to himself but shared them with the world. His single purpose was to free humanity from suffering because everyone was born into the inescapable circles of pain and suffering. Buddha identified this as the “Noble Dukkha (suffering)”— the truest experience shared by all living beings. Suffering ties us all, and the path to overcome makes us all seekers. Different faiths and doctrines administer their own path of liberation. The Buddha’s was one of such, which based human being and their experiences as a path towards the final goal.

This message spread without the assistance of a sword. The Wheel of Law—the Dhamma — spread wide. Monks from India carried the word of the Enlightened One to China around 150 CE. It received the patronage of kings, invited curiosity among people in the far land of Han.

Thus, a Buddhist monk from China, Fa-Hien, decided to come to the land of the Buddha in 399/400 CE. Authorised by the Han dynasty, Fa-Hien, he took the difficult journey while recording the experiences of a flourishing Buddhism from Central Asia to South Asia. Fa-Hien reported with great detail all the Buddhist sites and symbols that he encountered. Fourteen hundred years later, Alexander Cunningham, the father of India’s archaeology, followed Fa-Hien’s trails to uncover the sites.

Fa-Hien reported with details how the Buddhist kingdoms venerated the Buddha. Fa-Hien also wrote about the important moments in Buddhist history.

Buddhism was a State religion across the plains of India. Kings vied to make offerings and patronise monasteries. The places Buddha visited were revered.

The information Fa-Hien documents is crisp, yet has detailed precision. Fa-Hien learned new languages and transcribed alien cultures filled with Buddhist lores.

The purpose of Fa-Hien’s travels to the Buddha’s lands was to take with him the Vinaya-Pitika — the code for good governance. That is why his travelogue became known as “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”, translated from old Chinese to modern English by Scotsman James Legge in 1886.

Legge identifies the existing religious beliefs at the time of translation, as Christianity, Confucianism, Brahmanism, Mohammedanism and Taoism. Notably, there is no mention of Hinduism because there didn’t exist a faith as such.

Fa-Hien notes of Brahmins as jealous and angry people who believed in a “false doctrine” that was contrary to the Buddhas. Brahmins attempted to root out any evidence of Buddhist past by cutting down the trees which were believed to be planted by the Buddha. He also notes meticulously how a “heretical Brahmin” went to the limits of murdering a woman so as to put the blame on the Buddha.

Fa-Hien’s travelogue also records the royal past of the Mallas of Kushinagar, now condemned as untouchables, who at one point were the rulers who patronised Buddhism. It also honourably notes the Kashyapa Matanga who carried the Buddha’s message to China.

Fa-Hien is one of our most spiritual-scholarly connections to China who preserved Buddha’s Dhamma. It is to the credit of Fa-Hien that we have records of our glorious history. Fa-Hien’s ethnography has brought us closer to the vast Indian past. Indo-China relations have to be built on similar lines of mutual cooperation and strong history that don’t promote jingoistic nationalism but humanitarian universalism.

Buddha is common to humanity. We should promote Buddha and Buddhist values. The Buddha’s revolution was unacceptable to the Muslim and Brahminic invaders who collectively wiped off the treasures that Fa-Hien and another traveller of the seventh century Hsüan-tsang recorded.

I wish to follow the trails of Fa-Hien. It was an uncomfortable and arduous journey. However, it was worth all the sacrifices. Today, we must honour Fa-Hien as a great chronicler of medieval India. He should be included in the pantheons of Bahujan society and India’s national history.

Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column

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