Journey to the West is “China’s most beloved novel of religious quest and picaresque adventure”, according to historian Jonathan Spence. Published in the 1590s during the waning years of the Ming dynasty, the novel’s hero is described by Spence as “a mischievous monkey with human traits [who] accompanies the monk-hero on his action-filled travels to India in search of Buddhist scripture.” The work represents an allegory of pilgrims journeying toward India as individuals journeying toward enlightenment.
The inspiration for Journey came from the travels of a seventh-century Chinese man named Xuanzang (a name that has been rendered in various ways over the centuries). Though raised in a conservative Confucian family near Chang’an (modern Xian), at age 13 Xuanzang followed his brother into the Buddhist monastic life, Buddhism having come to China around five centuries earlier. A precocious boy, he mastered his material so well that he was ordained a full monk when only 20. Disenchanted with the quality of Buddhist texts and teachers available to him, he decided to go west (and eventually southwest), to India, to the cradle and thriving centre of Buddhism. After a yearlong journey full of peril and adventure, across deserts and mountains, via Tashkent and Samarkand, meeting robbers and kings, debating Buddhist scholars on the Silk Road and in Afghanistan (where he saw the standing Buddhas at Bamiyan), Xuanzang reached what is now Pakistan.
He spent 17 years, from 629 until 645, in the Subcontinent, travelling, visiting places associated with the Buddha’s life, learning Sanskrit and studying with Buddhist masters. Most notably, Xuanzang studied with the teachers at Nalanda University in modern-day Bihar, one of the first great universities of the world, where subjects such as grammar, logic, philosophy, metaphysics, astronomy, medicine and theology were in the curriculum. His erudition seems to have brought him fame and royal patronage in India. In a convocation of religious scholars, Xuanzang is said to have defeated 500 Brahmins, Jains and heterodox Buddhists in debate. The Nalanda establishment greatly admired Xuanzang, and offered him a senior position on their academic staff. But he is said to have declined with this reply: “Buddha established his doctrine so that it might be diffused to all lands. Who would wish to enjoy it alone, and to forget those who are not yet enlightened?” Long thereafter, he was accorded a place in Subcontinent’s monastic iconography, tellingly depicted with chopsticks, a spoon and hemp shoes, and always sitting atop multicoloured clouds.
Before returning to China, Xuanzang gathered hundreds of Sanskrit texts, relics, statues and other artefacts, loaded them on pack animals, and set off for Xian across the Pamirs, by way of present-day NWFP. For the remaining 19 years of his life, until 664, he worked with a team of linguist monks, translating into Mandarin and writing commentaries on many of the 657 books that survived his journey (many others were lost when he crossed the Indus). When Buddhism largely died out in the Subcontinent, its texts lost forever, these translations became the only version of the originals. Xuanzang also published an account of his travels, now an invaluable historical and archaeological record.
Yi Jing’s rambles
Xuanzang founded the Faxiang school of thought in China, whose ideas live on in today’s Zen Buddhism. It was based on the phenomenology of the yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism, focusing on consciousness and suggesting that the world is a representation of the mind. The Buddhist Tang emperor Gaozong supported Xuanzang’s academic enterprise, and even built a pagoda – now the Big Goose Pagoda of Xian – to house his translations, which are displayed in a small museum on site. Outside the entrance is an elegant modern statue of the ancient trekker. It is said that the emperor was so upset when he heard of the monk’s death that he cancelled all audiences for three days.
Xuanzang’s death and grand funeral in Chang’an was likely witnessed by Yi Jing, a younger admirer and Buddhist monk who had been inspired by “the noble enthusiasm” of Xuanzang, and had for over a decade wanted to follow in his footsteps to India. When he was 30 years old, Yi Jing became serious about his dream, found a sponsor for his journey, and set sail on a Persian boat for the kingdom of Srivijaya in Sumatra. He stayed for many months with other foreign scholars, and learned Sanskrit. In the preceding centuries, Indian merchants had not only brought Buddhism to Southeast Asia but also a linguistic script, religious texts and rituals, literature, art, architecture and countless other aspects of Indian culture, immersion in which helped Yi Jing’s preparation for India.
Arriving by sea in eastern modern-day India in 673, Yi Jing found a group of merchants and priests heading for Nalanda. Travelling by foot through a region said to be unsafe, he was struck down “by an illness of the season” and could not keep up with the group. (This information was subsequently recorded in Yi Jing’s writings, a translated version of which was published in 1896 as A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago A.D. 671-695.) Finding Yi Jing alone, some mountain brigands descended on him, stripped him naked and snatched his belongings. Despairing and fearful of rumours that suggested the locals enjoyed sacrificing fair-skinned people, he writes, “I entered into a muddy hole, and besmeared all my body with mud. I covered myself with leaves, and supporting myself on a stick, I advanced slowly.”
Sometime later, Yi Jing reached Nalanda, where he ended up studying for ten years. He also travelled to the places associated with the Buddha’s life, such as Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar. In all, he reported travelling to more than 30 ‘countries’ in the Subcontinent. He met famous teachers “renowned for their brilliant character”, and wrote, “I have always been glad that I had the opportunity of acquiring knowledge from them personally which I should otherwise never have possessed.” When he eventually left the region in 685, he carried back some 400 books, and translated many of them on a second, multi-year stint on Sumatra. He died at age 79 and, like Xuanzang, was lavishly honoured by the Tang emperor. In the wake of these two explorer-monks, India, and Nalanda in particular, attracted a great many students and scholars from all over Asia, including Sri Lanka, China, Tibet, Persia, Indonesia, Japan and Korea.
Nalanda University arose in the early fifth century, during the reign of Kumara Gupta, though references to precursor sites associated with teaching and learning go back another thousand years, to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira. Between Xuanzang and Yi Jing, we have a compelling portrait of the university’s curriculum, the life of the monks, the buildings and the general features of the community.
Nalanda was more like a school of higher learning than an undergraduate college. Prospective students had to be at least 20 years old, and submit to an oral exam for university entrance. They had to demonstrate deep familiarity with a host of subjects, and with old and new works in many fields. Only around a quarter of prospective students were admitted, and even they were promptly humbled by the calibre of their teachers and co-students. When Xuanzang visited Nalanda, there were 8500 students and 1500 teachers in 108 residential monasteries, which often had two or more floors. Excavations have revealed exquisitely carved temples and a row of ten monasteries of oblong red bricks directly across from a row of stupas in brick and plaster. Rooms typically had chairs, wood blocks, small mats and utensils stored in wall niches. Yi Jing approvingly wrote that each year before the monsoon, the best rooms were awarded to the eldest members in the community.
Some of the best teachers not only taught but also composed treatises and commentaries, much as Xuanzang himself did later in life. Many acquired great fame, and a Nalanda education held serious cachet among the public. Teachers lived among the students in the monasteries, common features of which included a podium for lectures, a communal brick oven, bathrooms and a water well (often in octagonal cross-section, supposedly inspired by the Eightfold Path, one of the Buddha’s central teachings). Water clocks guided daily routines, and gongs were used to signal the start and end of events, services and ceremonies. “There are more than ten great pools near the Nalanda monastery,” wrote Yi Jing. “Every morning a ghanti is sounded to remind the monks of the bathing-hour.” For their daily exercise, the monks went for walks in mid-mornings or late afternoons. Their dinner typically included bean soup with butter, rice and vegetables, perhaps also ghee, honey, sugar or a seasonal fruit such as mango.
For centuries, the university relied on royal patrons, including the Guptas of Magadha, Harsha of Kannauj, and the Palas of Bengal. Besides periodic endowments of land grants, money and livestock, Nalanda also received tax revenues from over a hundred surrounding villages, which paid for institutional essentials like food, clothing, lodging and medicine for all students and teachers. But like most things, all this too had to end, as Buddhism began to wane in India after 800. By then, Hinduism had assimilated many of its features – including vegetarianism, insider critiques of the caste system, ending animal sacrifices – and embraced the Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. A significant factor in this was the ascendency of bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, and its great appeal to the masses.
The Palas offered the last major royal support to Nalanda as a centre of learning and the arts. In 1193, the university was put to a brutal and decisive end by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish Muslim invader on his way to conquer Bengal. He pillaged and burned the monastery, killing perhaps thousands of monks. The shock of this event lives on in local cultural memory to this day – including the legend that the three libraries of Nalanda were so large that they smouldered for six months.
Today, it is a sad irony of history that the present population around Nalanda is mostly illiterate. Despite its beautiful landscape, natural riches and awe-inspiring history – the land of the Buddha and Mahavira, Ashoka and the Mauryas, and the cultural effulgence of the Gupta age that invented the number zero and the decimal system, created great art, drama and literature, and furthered astronomy, mathematics and metallurgy – this region harbours the poorest of the poor, a population that can hardly grasp for knowledge and learning.
An ambitious project is now underway to develop a new international university, also a residential school of postgraduate studies, near the ruins of Nalanda. A consortium led by the governments of India, China, Singapore and Japan plans to endow this institution with a billion dollars. It will have a school of Buddhist studies, philosophy and comparative religion; of historical studies; international relations and peace; languages and literature; ecology and environmental studies and more – all “aimed at advancing the concept of an Asian community … and rediscovering old relationships”, according to a May 2008 article. Some years down the road, perhaps the modern-day contemporaries of Xuanzang and Yi Jing will arrive in the plains of Bihar, seeking a place of learning and scholarship.
~ Namit Arora is a travel photographer, writer and creator of Shunya, an online photo journal on India. He divides his time between San Francisco and New Delhi.