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Across the Himalayan Gap

January 17, 2011

An interesting book by Tan Chung titled ‘Across the Himalayan Gap‘ explains a lot of similarities between India and China. Raking up millennia, Chung delves into Indian and Chinese philosophy, symbolism, buddhism and ancient texts to explain how the revered Indian snake metamorphosed into the Chinese dragon, or how the term `Zhong Guo’ meaning Middle Kingdom today originated from Indian texts. Excerpts from the book –

On the Indian snake – Chinese dragon connect: One common symbol is the powerful snake whose legendary image is known as Nagaraja in India, and LonglDragon in China. In Chinese Buddhist literature, these two symbols have merged into “Long”. (Chinese translators, like the famous pilgrim Xuanzang, rendered the supernatural Naga in ancient Indian texts into Long/dragon on purpose.) Ancient Chinese heard about the magical power of Indians to call rains whenever they wanted. Some Indian Buddhist monks, like Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra etc., demonstrated such a power by playing with the symbol of NagalDragon. We have records of Indian monks presiding over imperial rain-invoking ceremonies when China was visited by severe drought in the years 366, 726, 772 and 889, the last occurred in independent Yunnan -the state of Nanzhao.2 Both India and China were agrocultures for which rain-fall assumed great importance. The imaginary powerful Naga /Dragon symbol definitely had a connection with it. We can describe the two civilizations as Snake-Power Twins before the advent of Buddhism in China.

On the origin of the term ‘Zhong Guo’ from Indian texts: According to a recent study the term “Zhongguo” (now the Chinese name for “China”) appeared 178 times in all written documents before China’s unification in 221 BC. “Guo” in the bisyllable denoted “country”, or “state”, while the other syllable “zhong” denoting “centre”, (This has given rise to the international term “Middle Kingdom”, and also the international stigma of “sinocentrism”.) But, politically China was not one state when these terms appeared. A detailed investigation of these 178 concepts proves that they mean different things in various contexts, and were anything but the suggestion that China lay in the centre of the universe. One scholar felt that “zhongguo” arrived as a symbol of a kind of unity in diversity. This shows clearly that the progenies of the Ramapithecus (the direct ape ancestor of humanity) north of the Himalaya started an endeavour in the hinterland of present China to build up a commonwealth sharing a common cultural development, Such a commonwealth would not exclude communities from various directions who might not be the direct descendants of the trans-Himalayan Ramapithecus. It can be said that in ancient India, the same movement towards establishing a commonwealth was in action culminating in the establishment of the Maurya and Gupta empires.

To continue with the historical employment of the “Zhongguo” terminology. Chinese Buddhist scholars, from the early centuries of our common era onwards, attached to it a new signification, i.e. India, Daoxuan, In Shijia Fangzhi (Gazetteer of Sakyamuni World) wrote : “When we discuss terminology we generally say ‘zhongguo’ is the western regions [xiyu], its another name is ‘Central Tianzhu’ [Central Heavenly India]. Sages of this land reiterate that the western country is Zhongguo.”

Here, Daoxuan was citing the ancient Indian signification of “Madhyadesa” for Magadha. That he had no hesitation in transposing the Chinese term “Zhongguo” (Central state) to Magadha, the heartland of Buddhist India (in modern Bihar) may indicate his absolute loyalty to Buddha, but also indirectly reflects the open-mindedness among Chinese intellectuals of his times. He, further, in the same text, cited a debate taken place in the court of Emperor Wen of Song (reigning from 424 to 453 AD), In the presence of the emperor, Buddhist monk-scholar Huiyan out-smarted learned scholar He Chengtian by saying that in summer in India there was no shadow which proved that India was the real “zhongguo”, The emperor was pleased to hear that and offered an appointment to the monk. Once again, it was the Chinese ruler’s being convinced, (in this case, that India, not China, was the central state and lay at the centre of the earth) that should be noted than monk Hulyan’s going overboard to compliment India.

Buddhism and its impact on China: Buddhism has revolutionized Chinese way of life in many ways. It has created new institutions and “conventions from burning incense to burning the dead people, from chanting charms to chanting scriptures (which, in turn, helped Chinese to discover the tone-phonemes in their tongues). For more than a thousand years Chinese have been celebrating two festivals in the new year, one on the first day of the first month, and another 15 days later because Chinese learnt that in the “country of Buddha”, i.e. India, the month commenced on the full moon which was half a month later than the Chinese practice. And the mode of celebration of the second festival (called “lantern festival”) is the imitation of Diwali. Again, we have an instance of duplication.

While Buddha has assumed the highest position among all foreign gods in China, the highest native Chinese god, the Jade Emperor (yuhuang dadl) is the duplication of Indra. Bodhidharma (in China from 520? to 536? till his death} took a seat directly in the Chinese heaven after his demise. The Chinese pantheon, in fact, is crowded with Indian personalities. China has the dubious honour of having the maximum numbers (numbering thousands} of Buddhas. According to Chinese oral literature, even the Indian monkey Hanuman (Chinese name “Sun Wukong”} is a Buddha with the title of “Ever Victorious Buddha in Fighting” (Douzhansheng FO}

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