GLIMPSES                                                                                                                                    February 2006

Of My Ancient Indian Roots in Modern China

Chander Khanna

May you be born in the Land of the Western Paradise used to be a popular blessing in China. When the famous Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) reached Sarnath in the 7th century, he wept uncontrollably at having finally reached the Western Paradise – Tushita Heaven - after traveling almost a year across the edge of the Taklamakan and the Gobi Deserts, crossing the lofty Tien Shan Mountains, the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush, in search of Buddha’s original teachings. He also wept at his poor Karmas for not having taken birth at the time of Buddha’s physical presence, a thousand years earlier.


Throughout his seventeen-year pilgrimage in India, Xuanzang was imbued with a spirit of enquiry into some of the most sublime thoughts recorded by the human intellect, emerging from deep Samadhi. While Xuanzang had a passion for the Yogacara School – already highly developed almost two hundred years before Maharishi Patanjali codified the Yoga Sutras - he also acquired an in-depth understanding of all the other major schools of thought. Many of these were distilled in what later became known as the Buddhist Tripitaka - Sutras, Vinaya, and Abhidharma. As Dr. Radhkrishnan notes in his Indian Philosophy, Gautama Buddha never saw himself as an innovator of ideas. His genius, like that of Veda Vyasa in the case of the Bhagavad Gita, was in presenting pre-existing thoughts in a manner that had great appeal to the average layman.


After studying under Silabhadra at Nalanda and being assisted along the way by Emperors Harsha Vardhana and the Great Turkic Khan of Central Asia, Xuanzang returned to his homeland where he spent the rest of his life translating hundreds of Sutras that he brought to China. Under his guidance, Emperor Tizong of the then emerging Tang Dynasty converted to Buddhism in his later years and accorded Sanskrit an official language status.

Common Roots

So deep and penetrating has been the influence of the Buddhist canon in the hearts and minds of the Chinese psyche that many European explorers of the 18th century concluded that to understand the ancient roots of China, one has to look to India. Even today, there is open acknowledgement by many Chinese of the influence on China of Indian thought. Hu Shih, a former Chinese Ambassador to the USA said that India conquered the hearts and the minds of the Chinese without firing a single shot.


While it may sound chauvinistic for an Indian to say the same thing, we must not forget the great debt we owe to monks like Faxian and Xuanzang for preserving most of India’s contemporary history. Had it not been for their meticulous records that were subsequently used by Cunningham and other present day explorers, much of our history would have been lost forever. Equally, every Indian should be grateful for the genius of its sages to be so well preserved and revered by citizens of two great ancient civilizations – China and Japan. 


The cross-cultural influence of the most original thoughts in the history of human thought, which shaped two of the world’s oldest and most enduring civilisations, is attracting scholars and lay people alike. Many are re-tracing journeys undertaken by the Chinese and Indian monks in the past. This is an attempt to understand the pivotal points in history which led, for instances, to the Dhyana school of the Vedic tradition to flourish and to reach its logical conclusions in the Chan school of China and the subsequent Zen school in Japan.


In a truly remarkable trip undertaken earlier this year, I too saw glimpses of my ancient Indian roots in modern China and witnessed ancient connections being re-enacted.


At the conclusion of a three-day conference in Beijing on Sustainable Development and Environmental Harmony organized by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, UNESCO and some private foundations, Swami Veda Bharati, who serves on the UN Peace Council of World Religious leaders, was invited to visit some ancient cities and centres of higher Buddhist and Taoist learning. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel with Swami Veda and recorded the following impressions.


Our first visit was to a Taoist monastery in the Qinling Mountains, two hours from Xian, capital of Shaanxi province in Central China. Nestled in a forest-like setting atop a scenic hill, the 2,500-year-old monastery served as the seat of Lao Tze, founder of Taoism (one of the two indigenous religions of China) who taught here in 560 BC. Like other intuitive thinkers of the coaxial era, Lao Tze taught a doctrine, which is very similar to the Upanishads in its cosmology and is identical to Bhagavad-Gita's teaching of “Action in inaction, inaction in action”.


Swami Veda’s grasp of the more subtle aspects of Taoism and Chinese Buddhism did not go unnoticed by the Ministry’s officials in attendance. His quiet spirit of enquiry into how we can all learn from the way people of ancient China adopted so seamlessly the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism into their daily lives endeared the Abbots, monks and the Museum Directors alike. As a result, in the next few weeks many doors, normally closed to average tourists, were opened as a special dispensation from Beijing.



Ancient Connections

Modern day Xian with its wide boulevards, expressways, bustling shopping plazas comparable to the glitter of Singapore of the 80’s was once known as Chang’an, the capital of seven ancient dynasties including Qin, Sui and the Tang dynasties. North of the city, is the home of the eighth wonder of the modern world, site of the 9,000 terra cotta warriors still being excavated and restored since their discovery in 1980.


To the northeast of Xian is the home of the Famen Temple complex facing a huge Ashoka Pillar in the centre of the town. Initially named Ashoka Stupa, Famen temple is one of the most revered sites in China as this is where the “Sarira” – the finger bone relic of Gautama Buddha is kept. The Sarira preserved in Garbhadhatus - eight boxes of different precious metals nestled in each other - used to be exhibited to the general public by the Emperors of the Eastern Han Dynasty every 30 years.


In a very moving ceremony, Swami Veda presented Sanskrit scrolls containing brief passages from the Prajna Paramita Hridya Sutra in his exquisite handwriting. While receiving special gold plated replicas of the Bodhisattva presenting the Garbhadhatus and other precious scrolls from the Chinese hosts, Swami Veda recited passages from the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit. 


This historic act was repeated in the world famous Tang Dynasty temple - Goose Pagoda (Hamso) - of monk Xuanzang in Xian and also at the Dunhuang caves along the Silk Route, at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The re-enactment of ancient connections between two ancient civilizations, the likes of which perhaps not witnessed in China over the last one thousand seven hundred years may turn out to be one of the most momentous steps in re-establishing relations between the two ancient civilisations.

White Horse Pagoda, Longmen’s Grottos and the Shaolin Temple

All three sites are near Zhangzhou, the capital of Henan province, the seat of four major Dynasties. Zhangzhou also houses the Yellow River Museum whose river bed has risen 40 feet in recorded history, and whose levees were deliberately breached in what must have been one of the most painful decisions ever taken, in this case by Chiang Kai-Shek to thwart the Japanese assault. Close to a million people perished as a result of the breach of China’s River of Sorrow.


The White Horse Temple is the first Buddhist temple in China, where the “White Horse” represents the arrival of Indian monks, Kashyapa Matanga and Dharmaranya to help build the temple and to translate ancient Sanskrit texts in 68 AD. With mounds of fresh burning incense permeating its exquisite garden-like setting, the temple also has superb statues of Guanyin, the goddess of compassion. Over the centuries, Avalokiteshwara Buddha of compassion has taken a female form in China and in Japan, equivalent to Dolma of the Tibetans, Tara in the Tantric tradition and Saraswati of the Vedic tradition. Recently, the Indian and Chinese governments jointly announced the construction of an Indian-style Buddhist temple at the site.


In a very moving ceremony on the night of the full moon a week later, Swami Veda led our hosts and about a hundred people from the surrounding villages in meditation at an environmental retreat at the base of the Chinling Mountains. At around 10 p.m., with everyone sitting in absolute stillness and silence in the courtyard that was bathed in brilliant moonshine, Swami Veda, with his back to the mountain creating a halo effect from the moon still hidden behind the peak, led everyone in the recitation of the Sanskrit mantra to Guanyin – Om Tare Tuttare Ture Swaha. This same Mantra was recited on the historic occasion of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Swami Veda’s camp at the 2001 Kumbh Mela.


The Longmen’s caves, a UNESCO heritage site on the Eastern flank of a tributary of the Yellow river, flowing ever so serenely between two hills are an awe-inspiring site. A kilometer wide swath of the hillside is the house of 100,000 (one lakh) Bodhisatwa statues carved into sheer rock very much like the three-sided Petra caves East of the Dead Sea separating Jordan and Israel or the spectacular 13,00 feet high caves of Tholing and Tsaparang of the ancient Guge Kingdom straddling Sutlej and the Sindhu North east of Mount Kailash in Tibet. The caves could only be accessed from the top as the promenades, at the banks of the river, are of recent origin. One cave alone has 16,000 statues of Buddha. Some statues show him in the robust, regal posture of the Tang Dynasty sitting on a throne. Others of the earlier Qin and Sui Dynasties depict the more familiar Buddha image, which in the Central Asian regions from Kushan to Bokhara and Samarkand, Kashigar and Khotan equate with ultimate in beauty. 

The Shaolin Temple is a 100-acre pagoda forest site immaculately preserved even as the abbots and the monks were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. The most revered pagodas, even today, are the burial grounds of three Indian monks -  Bodhidharma, Kumarjiva and Kashyapa Matanga. In a hill nearby, the shadow of Bodhidharma is believed to have made an impression on the rock of the cave as he sat in meditation for nine months.

There are about 3,000 children ranging in age from 6 to 18 who attend Martial arts “Gurukulams”. In earlier times, the older monks practiced Hatha Yoga postures in
between meditation practices, while the younger children took breaks in silence and stillness with martial arts. Nowadays, however, most of the youngsters attending the academies on the outskirt of the pagoda forest, receive training in becoming Jackie Chan or Crouching tigers and Dragons

Siddham Texts 

On seeing the 100 armed statue of Guanyin armed to the teeth as Durga/Kali, I am reminded of Misha Saran's observation in her recent book on Xuanzang "Am I imagining links that do not exist. Or am I closer to home than I imagined." All illusions are cast aside when one sees details from epics etched in marble in superbly maintained temples in the heartland of China. It’s easy for the Indian in me to get goose bumps on seeing mantras and texts from the Shastras etched in stone dating back one thousand five hundred years. The Siddham script, used in Japan and in China, is a stylized way of writing Sanskrit mantras and Sutras similar in shape to the local alphabet.   


The extent and scope of the translations of Sanskrit texts into Chinese is staggering. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Sutras alone have been translated into Chinese. Some fifty thousand rare manuscripts, along with exquisite murals, paintings and art forms from the Natya Shastra concealed in some of the Dunhuang caves were re-discovered by Auriel Stein and by other French and German explorers. In many cases the original Sanskrit texts of these translations have been lost in India.


Ajanta Ellora inspired Maggao caves near Dunhuang, a small Oasis town along the Silk Route (Shastra Route?) at the Southern edge of the Gobi desert, are a unique collection of the best ancient Indian art forms anywhere in the world outside of India. Set into the cliff walls, the caves were constructed over a millennium from the 4th to the 14th centuries. Of the initial thousand caves, only 492 remain containing some 45,000 sq. meters of murals and 2,400 painted statues of Sakyamuni and Bodhisattvas. Many contain mythological scenes including from the Puranas. At a personal level, the most inspiring sight was watching craftsmen lying on their backs on scaffolds restoring sculptures. One has to pay homage to the original master craftsmen who worked in total darkness over decades to complete each cave.


As commented at length by the art historian, Kapila Vatsyayana, serious students of dance from as far away as Beijing and Shanghai come in large numbers even today to learn dance forms of the 10 Karnas from the Natya Shastras as depicted in the Dunhuang caves.


Siddham script


The Siddham script is a descendent of the Brahmi script and an ancestor of the Devanagari script. The name Siddham comes from Sanskrit and means "accomplished or perfected" The Siddham script is mainly used by Shingon Buddhist in Japan to write out mantra and sutras in Sanskrit. It was introduced to Japan by Kukai in 806 AD after he had studied Sanskrit and Mantrayana Buddhism in China .

Notable features

  • Siddham is written from left to right in horizontal lines.

  • Siddham is a syllabic alphabet in which consonants all have an inherent vowel (a). This vowel can be muted with a special diacritic called a virama.

  • Vowels can be written as independent letters, or by using diacritical marks which are written above, below, before or after the consonant they belong to.


Vowel diacritics with ka


[Chander Khanna is the organizer of the Ontario Branch of the Himalayan Yoga Meditation Society, and one of the most active members of the Toronto interfaith community. He can be reached at 416-590-9645 or]


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