Faxian and other diversion from myths behind war crimes

By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

(Continued from yesterday)

The EIC view of Indian history has been demolished by science and also the decipherment of the Harappan writing by Vedic scholars like N. Jha, who made a major breakthrough in deciphering nearly 4,000 Harappan seals with Vedic Sanskrit writing on them. Similarly, it has also been proven that contrary to the EIC account, King Porus defeated Alexander, forcing him to retreat westwards. This disgraceful distortion of Indian history was halted to a certain extent by the late Professor A.L. Basham (1914-86) at the Australian National University who learnt Sanskrit in order to study the materialist philosophy of some heterodox Indian sects. His book, The Wonder That Was India (1951) was the first academic survey of complex facets of ancient Indian culture and civilisation free from the prejudices and hidden motives that plagued the writings of V. A. Smith and other EIC writers. Basham’s book questioned the ignorant pursuit of ancient Indian history from the post-industrialist, capitalistic British point of view.

In the face of demolition of this distorted EIC view of India through Indian generated evidence, apologists for British colonialism shifted emphasis to pedal other more subtle, lesser myths that are equally nauseating and condescending in terms of implying a superiority of the invasive British culture.

Faxian, a significant marker of China-South Asia relationship

Anyone wanting to acquaint themselves with the full story of Faxian, in a condensed form, could do no better than reading the full-page article by the iconic Sri Lankan linguist, academic and intellectual, Professor Emeritus K. N. O. Dharmadasa on The Island of 28 September 2010. Prof. Dharmadasa also provides references to a translation of Faxian’s travel account by another Sri Lankan academic, Prof. Wimal Balagalle. A summary view of the significance of Faxian’s travels in India in Sri Lanka is presented here, to the extent it is needed to counter Bhante Dhammika’s attempts to denigrate his mission and associated aspects.

Faxian’s pilgrimage to India and Sri Lanka was part of the cross-cultural exchanges triggered by the spread of Buddhist doctrine from India to China beginning in the first century CE during the reign of Emperor Ming (58-75 AD) of the later Han Dynasty. Faxian’s pilgrimage in the 4th century pioneered an era of westbound pilgrimage to ancient India by monks keen to master the Dharma at its source. He was followed later by the monks Xu anzang and Yijing in the 7th century. It is estimated that 42 Chinese monks studied in India and returned to China during the first millennium CE, while more than double that number is supposed to have perished during the precarious journey, by foot, to and from India. The journeys of Faxian, Xu anzang, and Yijing came to prominence among hundreds of Chinese monks, due to the detailed accounts of their travels made available by them.

The significant feature of the travels in Asia of the Chinese Bhikkus was that they were not looking for the ‘promised land’ under the pretences of ‘exploring the new world’ — a la Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese, Spanish and British vagabonds — but were genuine, humble pilgrims.

Faxian was born in the southern Shanxi Province of China, in modern Linfen City, during the Jin dynasty (266–421 CE) that patronised Buddhism in difference to most other Chinese dynasties. He became a Buddhist monk at the age of three under the religious name Fa-Hien, meaning ‘Manifest Law’. In 399 AD, at the age of 65, he undertook the perilous journey to India, by foot, from the ancient dynastic capital Chang'an (Perpetual Peace), currently known as Xi'an, with eight or nine fellow monks. Having walked through the icy Gobi deserts and the mountainous Pamir Plateau (the ‘roof of the world’) in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and after spending time in Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, and the important Buddhist centres Khotan, and the westernmost Chinese city Kashgar, in the Tarim River Basin on the Afghanistan border, he reached the city of Pataliputra (modern-day Patna) during the reign of the Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II. Having lost fellow pilgrims Huiying and Huiking to illness, and the surviving friend Daoching remaining in Middle India, Faxian travelled alone through the North, Central and East India, down to South India for nearly a decade, learning Sanskrit and transcribing manuscripts.

As to his time in India, after entering through the northwest, in 402, he spent most time in eastern India, tracing the cities the Buddha had spent his life in and had taught Dhamma. He visited Kapilavastu, where the Buddha was born, Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment, Banaras (Varanasi), where he preached the first sermon, and Kushinagara, where he entered parinibbana. He also visited important seats of Buddhist learning such as Udyana, Gandhara, Peshawar, and Taxila. He spent most of his time at Pataliputra, conversing with Buddhist monks, studying Sanskrit texts with Buddhist scholars, and transcribing the Vinaya of the Mahasanghika and the Sarvastivada schools and the Mahaparinibbana-sutra. In view of this record, Bhante Dhammika’s assertion that Faxian never climbed Sri Pada in Sri Lanka needs to be thrown into the bin.

Sometime in 408 or 409 AD, Faxien left the port of Tamralipti on the Bay of Bengal on a mercantile ship, bound for Sri Lanka. The journey is supposed to have taken 14 days of sailing day and night. Faxian arrived in Sri Lanka during the reign of king Mahanama (406 – 428). Based at Abhayagiri, he searched for Buddhist scriptures, visited sacred relics, and watched the folk customs.

He left Sri Lanka, having spent four years learning and travelling through the country — by ship to Sumatra, arriving back in China in 413 AD on board a merchant ship, having survived a hurricane that lasted 13 days during the journey. He was 79 years old at the time. Daozheng, one of the monks who accompanied Faxian, moved by the Buddhist sites and monastic institutions in India decided not to return to China.

In 414 AD, the year after his return, Faxian documented his travels as ‘Record of Buddhist Kingdoms’. He spent the short remainder of his life translating six of the 11 Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures he took back, including the Mahaparinibbana Sutta and Mahasamghika Vinaya into Chinese, with the help of an Indian Buddhist master named Buddhabhadra. Faxian died in a Buddhist temple in Jingzhou around 422 CE.

Faxian's writings referred to Sri Lanka as the land of Sinhalas — Simhala, Sinhaladipa or Kingdom of the Lions — and the Chinese names Shizi guo, Sit Tio, Si Tiao, She Tiao, Seng-Kia-lo that denotes the same meaning. He was widely respected by the local people at places he visited, often by naming the places he graced after him. The mountain Faxian visited was named ‘Faxian Hill’ (Pahiangala) and there is nothing mythical about such naming according to local custom. The etymology of the word Pahiangala (a geographic feature–gala- combined with the descriptor Faxian) bears testimony to its true, ancient origins. If Bhante Dhammika is contesting this view, he is obliged to provide an alternative explanation to the name origin rather than relying on meaningless speculation.

As outlined in a commemorative lecture on 'China-Sri Lanka Historical relations: An overview', admirably in Sinhala, by Dr Hao Weimin, Senior Lecturer, Sabaragamuwa University, in May 2010, on the occasion of the 1,600th anniversary of Faxian’s visit to Sri Lanka, at the Royal Asiatic Society auditorium, and as has been detailed by Xican Li in an article titled ‘Faxian’s Biography and His Contributions to Asian Buddhist Culture, in the journal Asian Culture and History (published by Canadian Center of Science and Education); Vol. 8, No. 1; 2016, Faxian’s visit to Sri Lanka marked a significant event in the symbiotic, non-invasive living by civilised nations. There are no myths associated with Faxian; his visit to our country or the associated aspects.

The deep rooted bonds between China and Sri Lanka that began with Faxian’s graceful visit to our land should not be allowed to be undermined by new forms of neocolonial ventures promoted as ‘Rules based international behaviour in the South China Sea’. History is ours!


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