Sunday, August 16, 2009

The wide-reach of Sanskrit culture in the past!

Excerpted below are the instances of prevalence of Sanskrit from early times across most part of the globe. This is part of the wonderful article on the historical and contemporary relationship between geopolitics and Sanskrit written by Sri Rajiv Malhootra. The complete article "Geopolitics and Sanskrit Phobia" can be read at


Centuries prior to the trend of Westernization of the globe, the entire arc from Central Asia through Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam and all the way to Indonesia was a crucible of a sophisticated pan-Asian civilization. In A.L. Basham's "A Cultural History of India," it is said that:

By the fifth century CE, Indianized states, that is to say states organized along the traditional lines of Indian political theory and following the Buddhist or Hindu religions, had established themselves in many regions of Burma, Thailand, Indo-China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. (Basham 1975, 442-3)

However, unlike the violent spread of Europeanism in recent centuries, this Sanskritisation of Asia was entirely peaceful, never resorting to physical force or coercion to subvert local cultures or identities, or to engage in economic or political exploitation of the host cultures and societies. Its worldviews were based on compassion and mutual exchange, and not on the principle of conquest and domination. This is not to say that political disputes and wars of conquest never occurred, but that in most instances, neither the motive nor the result was the imposition of cultural or religious homogeneity.

The following passage from Arun Bhattacharjee's "Greater India" elaborates this point clearly:

The unique feature of India's contacts and relationship with other countries and peoples of the world is that the cultural expansion was never confused with colonial domination and commercial dynamism far less economic exploitation. That culture can advance without political motives, that trade can proceed without imperialist designs, settlements can take place without colonial excesses and that literature, religion and language can be transported without xenophobia, jingoism and race complexes are amply evidenced from the history of India's contact with her neighbors...Thus although a considerable part of central and south-eastern Asia became flourishing centers of Indian culture, they were seldom subjects to the regime of any Indian king or conquerors and hardly witnessed the horrors and havocs of any Indian military campaign. They were perfectly free, politically and economically and their people representing an integration of Indian and indigenous elements had no links with any Indian state and looked upon India as a holy land rather than a motherland – a land of pilgrimage and not an area of jurisdiction. (Bhattacharjee 1981, 1-3)

This Sanskritisation in Asia provided an adaptive and flexible unity to those regions it influenced. For example, in Thailand you can find the city of Ayodhya and Thai versions of the Ramayana. In Java, a local forest inhabited by monkeys is thought to have been the home of Hanuman at some point and the current residences his descendents. Every polity influenced by this Sanskritization was able to incorporate the vast Sanskriti culture into its own. This malleability provided a non-invasive and unimposing diffusion.

Sanskriti and Southeast Asia:

The establishment of trade (of goods and mutual material benefit) between India and Southeast Asia was the mechanism of this culture and knowledge trade:

Contacts between India and South-East Asia along the trade-routes, once established, persisted; and cultural changes in the Indian subcontinent had their effect across the Bay of Bengal. During the late Gupta and the Pala-Sena periods many Southeast Asian regions were greatly influenced by developments in Indian religious ideas, especially in the Buddhist field. (Basham 1975, 449)

This Sanskrit based civilization was not centrally developed in what is present day India, but was rather the collaborative effort of Indians with many Asian peoples, especially the Southeast Asians. For example, there were regular scholarly exchanges between thinkers from many diverse parts of Asia.

Many Asian kings sent their best students to centers of learning in India, such as Taksasila and Nalanda, which were ancient equivalents of today's Ivy Leagues in America where the third world now sends its brightest youth for higher education. King Baladeva of Indonesia was so supportive of the university in Nalanda that in A.D. 860 he made a donation to it (Basham 1975, 449). The support given to the university from a foreign king thousands of miles away in Southeast Asian demonstrates how important scholarly exchange was for those regions under the influence of Pan-Asian Sanskriti.

Interestingly, the geographies mentioned in the Puranas, such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, include many countries, especially of Southeast Asia, as a part and parcel of the Indic region. This indicates an ancient link between South and Southeast Asian even before the relatively modern Sanskritization that is being discussed here.

Sanskriti and Thailand:

Sanskriti has an established and obvious influence in Thailand, dating from 1500 years ago to the present day. Sanskrit was used for public social, cultural, and administrative purposes in Thailand and other regions of Southeast Asia.

The Thais, once established in the Menam basin, underwent a process of Indianization which, because it is well documented, provides an invaluable example of the mechanics of cultural fusion in South-East Asia... On the other hand, the Thais absorbed much from their Khmer and Mon subjects; and the influence of Angkor and Dvaravati is obvious in Thai art. Thai kings embraced the Indian religions, and they based their principles of government upon Hindu practice as it had been understood by their Khmer predecessors (Basham, 1975, 450).

In Thailand, Sanskrit is highly respected today as the medium of validating, legitimating, and transmitting royal succession and instituting formal rituals.

The Thai monarchy, though following Hinayana Buddhism of the Sinhalese type, still requires the presence of Court brahmans... for the proper performance of its ceremonials. (Basham 1975, 442-3)

Furthermore, India and Sanskriti directly influenced aspects of Thai aesthetics such as architecture and art.

Thai rulers...sent, for example, agents to Bengal, at that time suffering from the disruption of Islamic conquest, to bring back models upon which to base an official sculpture and architecture. Hence Thai architects began to build replicas of the Bodh-Gaya stupa (Wat Chet Yot in Chiengmai is a good example) and Thai artists made Buddha images according to the Pala canon as they saw it. (Basham: 450).

Dance and theatre also continue to reflect the underlying influence of Sanskriti.

The traditional dance and shadow-puppet theatres in many South-East Asian regions, in Thailand, Malaya, and Java for example, continue to fascinate their audiences with the adventures of Rama and Sita and Hanuman. (Basham 1975, 442-3)

In linguistic terms, Sanskrit had the same cultural influence on Thai as Latin had on English. In other cases, Pali influenced more than Sanskrit - for instance, a person who knows Pali can often guess the meaning of present day Cambodian, Burmese, Thai and Lao, and this Pali impact was largely from Sri Lanka. Basham points out:

Many South-East languages contain an important proportion of words of Sanskrit or Dravidian origin. Some of these languages, like Thai, are still written in scripts which are clearly derived from Indian models. (Basham 1975, 442-3).

Sanskriti and China:

China and India had a unique and mutually respected exchange. Buddhist thought is the most notable and obvious import into China from Sanskriti influence. The Tang dynasty provided an opening for the Chinese civilization to welcome Sanskriti coming from South and Southeast Asia.

The Tang dynasty ruled in China from 618 to 907 AD. This is one of the most glorious periods in the history of China. The whole of China came under one political power that extended over Central Asia. It was in this period that the influence of India over China reached the highest peak. A large number of missionaries and merchants crowded the main cities of China. Similarly, more Chinese monks and royal embassies came to India in the seventh century AD than during any other period. The Nalanda University which was at its height attracted large number of Buddhist monks from all over Asia. The Chinese scholars at Nalanda not only studied Buddhism but Brahmanical philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and medicine also. The Chinese emperor gave liberal support to the Chinese scholars studying at Nalanda" (Bhattacharjee 1981, 131-2).

The characteristic of the recipient "pulling" knowledge is typical in the transmission of Sanskriti and is to be contrasted with the "pushing" model of the spread of Christianity and Islam by divine fiat. Unlike Christian evangelists "pushing", Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing came from China to "pull" knowledge by learning Buddhism and other disciplines in India and taking them back.

Foremost among such scholars was Hiuen Tsang who played the most distinguished part in establishing Buddhism on a solid footing in China and improving the cultural relations between these two countries. He learnt the Yogachara system at Nalanda from the famous monk Silabhadra. On his return to China he translated Buddhist texts and trained his pupils. He founded a new school of Buddhist philosophy in China, which carried on his work after his death. His noble example induced other Chinese monks to visit India. We find that during the later half of the seventh century AD as many as sixty Chinese monks visited India. (Bhattacharjee 1981, 131-2)

An outstanding scholar who dipped into India's prestigious centers of learning to transfer know-how to China was I-Tsing:

I-Tsing...left China by the sea route in 671 AD and having spent several years in Sri-vijaya, an important centre of Buddhist learning in Sumatra reached the port of Tamralipti in Bengal in 673 AD. He stayed at Nalanda for ten years (675-685 AD) and studied and copied Buddhist texts. He came back to China with a collection of four hundred Sanskrit manuscripts containing more than fifty thousand slokas. He translated several texts and compiled a Chinese-Sanskrit dictionary. In his book A Record of the Buddhist Religion as practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago, he has recorded in details the rules of monastic life as practiced in India, which was a subject of his special interest. He also wrote a biography of sixty Buddhist monks who visited India. Most of such monks were Chinese, though some of them belonged to Korea, Samarkand and Tushdra (Turk countries). This book shows the international position of Buddhism in Asia and at the same time indicates its influence in outlying countries like Korea (Bhattacharjee 1981, 138).

Chinese pilgrims were officially sent to Indian holy sites to pay homage on behalf of the Chinese emperorship. The presence of Chinese pilgrims was a practice of close interaction between the Sanskriti superstructure and the Chinese civilization.

Between 950 and 1033 AD a large number of Chinese pilgrims visited India. In 964 AD 300 Chinese monks left China to pay imperial homages (as desired by the Chinese emperor) to the holy places of India. Five of the pilgrims left short inscriptions at the sacred site of Bodh-Gaya. It records the construction of a stupa in honour of emperor T'ai-tsong by the emperor and the dowager empress of the great Song dynasty...The last Chinese monk to visit India was after 1036 AD which marks the close of the long and intimate cultural intercourse between India and China (Bhattacharjee 1981, 125-8).

The exchange was by no means unidirectional. Indian gurus and pandits also went to China and were received with honor by the Chinese. These holy men went to China not just to exchange ideas but also for the practical task of translating Sanskrit texts into Chinese.

In 972 AD as many as forty-four Indian monks went to China. In 973 AD Dharmadeva, a monk of Nalanda was received by the Chinese emperor with great honours. He is credited with translating a large number of Sanskrit texts. Between 970 and 1036 AD a number of other Indian monarchs including a prince of western India named Manjusri stayed at China between 970 and 1036 AD. We know from the Chinese records that there were never so many Indian monks in the Chinese court as at the close of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century AD. These Indian monks and Chinese pilgrims carried with them a large number of Sanskrit manuscripts into China. The Chinese emperor appointed a Board of Translators with three Indian scholars at the head. This board succeeded in translating more than 200 volumes between 982 and 1011 AD. (Bhattacharjee 1981, 125-8).

Buddhism's spread across Asia is well acknowledged, but beyond mere religion, this pan-Asian civilization also become a fountain of knowledge in fields as diverse as arts, language, linguistics, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, botany, martial arts and philosophy. For instance, in China:

Indian astronomy, mathematics and medicine earned great popularity... On the official boards were Indian astronomers to prepare the calendars. In the seventh century AD in the capital city flourished three astronomical schools known as Gautama, Kasyapa and Kumara. China had already adopted the Indian theory of nine planets. The Sanskrit astronomical work – Navagraha-Siddhanta was translated into Chinese in the T'ang period. A large number of mathematical and astronomical works were translated into Chinese...Indian medicinal treatise found great favour in China. A large number of medical texts are found in the Chinese Buddhist collection. Rdvana-Kumara Charita, a Sanskrit treatise on the method of treatment of children's diseases was translated into Chinese in the eleventh century AD (Bhattarcharjee 1981, 134-5).

The arts were also centers of confluence of Chinese culture and Sanskriti. Motifs and styles as well as actual artists were exported to China.

Along with Buddhism art of India traveled to China. In fact, the art of India exerted a great influence on the native traditions and gave rise to a new school of art known as Sino-Indian art. The Wei period witnessed a great development in this art. A number of rock-cut caves at Thunwang, Yun-kang and Longmen, colossal images of Buddha 60 to 70 feet high and fresco paintings on the walls of the caves illustrate this art. The inspiration came not only from the images and pictures that were imported from India to China but also from the Indian artists who visited China. Three Indian painters of the names of Sakyabuddha, Buddhakirti and Kumarabodhi worked in China during the Wei period. Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta – the three different schools of sculpture in India were well represented in Chinese art. The best image of Buddha of Wei period was definitely made after the Buddha images of Ajanta and Sarnath. (Bhattarcharjee 1981, 134-5)

Indian musicians also traveled to China and even Japan to share their talent.

Indian music also traveled to China. An Indian musician settled in Kuchi was its sponsor in China. In 581 AD a musical party went from India to China. Although emperor Kaotsu (581-595 AD) vainly tried to ban it by an Imperial order, his successor gave encouragement to the lndian music in China. From a Japanese tradition we come to understand that two principal types of music called Bodhisattva and Bhairo were taken from China to Japan by an Indian brahmana called Bodhi in the T'ang period. (Bhattarcharjee 1981, 134-5)

It is little wonder that Hu Shih, former Chinese ambassador to USA is said to have remarked that India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.


Related post:-

Re-visiting the greatness of Sanskrit.


1 comment:

Jayasree Saranathan said...

Blogger Jimmy said...

Hey..this is a verty knowledgable article..I never knew these facts about sanskrit though I'm an Indian too..I just use to take sanskrit as an ordinary language..