Thursday, 19 September 2019

China’s tryst with Nalanda

Updated: November 19, 2015 11:27 am

Yi Jing had spent ten years at Nalanda. He studied Ayurveda, Buddhist philosophy, and collected Sanskrit documents which were to be translated into Chinese. Similar to Yi Jing in the 7th century, Indian scholars went to China between the first and eleventh century; they translated documents, related to Buddhism, into Chinese

Former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, one of the most famous diplomats of the twentieth century, wrote a     book, ‘On China,’ which was published in 2011. His perception of China, from a distant past to this day, is interesting for both diplomats and historians. His thoughts have explained a lot about the Chinese. Indeed, Kissinger’s writing enables us to understand why Chinese scholars were inspired to visit India during an incredible day and age. It was a day and age when the famed Nalanda University was very much in existence. A university that had an illustrious life for eight hundred years, from the fifth to the twelfth century.

Throughout history China followed an almost non belligerent policy. The country considered her territory as a world of her own. At the same time, China’s “splendid isolation” (Kissinger) nurtured a Chinese self perception that, as a nation China can only be unique. Kissinger brilliantly compares western and Chinese foreign policy to chess and wei qi. The oldest board game, wei qi was introduced in China during the fifth century. Kissinger says the western strategy is comparable to chess where the player seeks a quick and decisive battle aiming for an early victory. The Chinese, however, prefer a protracted campaign for gaining a relative advantage. Therefore the western comparison to chess represents single mindedness and the Chinese comparison to wei qi encourages strategic flexibility. Historically, he says, war was never a preferred option to China. The Chinese never encountered threats from powers that equalled China’s size as a country. Their wisdom therefore emphasised that prudence was the best possible option. Sun Tzu advised to engage in war “without anger.” Their sages reiterated that the world could never be conquered.

This motivated the Chinese to traverse to India and thus pursue the study of various subjects at Nalanda. These studies could only be pursued by scholars visiting the university. An interesting and significant interaction commenced between scholars from both countries. Professor Amartya Sen laments that these pursuits “are hardly remembered today.” Our awareness of these exchanges between India and China are important because of the social and political dimension this contributes to India.

Yi Jing had spent ten years at Nalanda. He studied Ayurveda, Buddhist philosophy, and collected Sanskrit documents which were to be translated into Chinese. Similar to Yi Jing in the 7th century, Indian scholars went to China between the first and eleventh century; they translated documents, related to Buddhism, into Chinese. They also translated documents with mathematics and science. We must remember that the interaction between India and China was not solely confined to religion. The interest of Chinese scholars in Nalanda stretched to linguistics, art, medicine, literature, science, and music. Xuanzang, in the seventh century, Faxian before that in the fifth century, carefully studied these subjects and meticulocusly translated their principles into Chinese. Indian scholars who went to China included astronomers and mathematicians. Gautama Siddhartha, a scientist, went to China in the eighth century to lead China’s Astronomy Board. A reference to Chinese items is acknowledged in Indian literature. Kalidasa was the most famous sanskrit poet and playwright; he refers to Chinese silk in his play, Sakuntala; the lovesick King Dusyanta says, “my body goes forward, but my reluctant mind runs back, Like Chinese silk on a banner, trembling against the wind.” We may understand how these exchanges developed the intellectual perspectives of people from both countries. Ironically, we are enlightened with an example of how Buddhism may have been the catalyst, but this common factor between India and China, further illuminated the way for sharing knowledge between them; this sharing of knowledge   appeared to be on a reciprocal basis between Indian and Chinese scholars.

Mankind’s quest for knowledge has continued through the centuries. This is the most vital component that sets him apart from every other creature on our planet. Once any knowledge has been assimilated it will continue to live like an eternal flame. Chinese scholars in Nalanda and Indian scholars who went to China, had perpetuated an ethos articulated by the Vedas: “The light of knowledge never extinguishes… It continues to flourish.”

By Deepak Rikhye

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