Tracing Fa-Hien in the land of the Buddha


Buddha Sakyamuni Gautama achieved enlightenment on his own. He completely immersed himself in the bliss of Nirvaan – free from thirst, greed, aversion and fallacies. The perfect embodiment of humanity, the Buddha, the most compassionate being, did not keep the secrets of the path to liberation to himself, but shared them with the world. Its sole purpose was to free humanity from suffering because everyone is born into the inevitable circles of pain and suffering. Buddha identified this as the “Noble Dukkha (suffering)” – the truest experience shared by all living beings. Suffering binds us all together, and the path to overcoming makes us all seekers. Different denominations and doctrines administer their own path to liberation. The Buddha was one of those, who based the human being and his experiences as a path to the final goal.

This message spread without the aid of a sword. The Wheel of Law – the Dhamma – has spread widely. Monks from India brought the word of the Illuminated to China around 150 CE. He received the patronage of kings, aroused curiosity among the inhabitants of the distant land of the Han.

So, a Buddhist monk from China, Fa-Hien, decided to come to the land of the Buddha in 399/400 CE. Authorized by the Han dynasty, Fa-Hien, he embarked on the difficult journey by recording the experiences of a flourishing Buddhism from Central Asia to South Asia. Fa-Hien reported in great detail all the Buddhist sites and symbols he encountered. Fourteen hundred years later, Alexander Cunningham, the father of Indian archeology, followed in Fa-Hien’s footsteps to discover the sites.

Fa-Hien reported in detail how the Buddhist realms worshiped the Buddha. Fa-Hien has also written about important moments in Buddhist history.

Buddhism was a state religion in the plains of India. Kings competed to make offerings and patronize monasteries. The places visited by Buddha were revered.

The information Fa-Hien documents is crisp, but has detailed accuracy. Fa-Hien learned new languages ​​and transcribed foreign cultures filled with Buddhist traditions.

The purpose of Fa-Hien’s travels to the Buddha’s lands was to take with him the Vinaya-Pitika – the code of good governance. This is why his travelogue came to be known as “A Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms”, translated from ancient Chinese to modern English by the Scotsman James Legge in 1886.

Legge identifies religious beliefs existing at the time of translation, such as Christianity, Confucianism, Brahmanism, Mohammedanism, and Taoism. Notably, there is no mention of Hinduism because there was no faith as such.

Fa-Hien notes that the Brahmins are jealous and angry people who believed in “false doctrine” contrary to the Buddhas. The Brahmins tried to eradicate all traces of the Buddhist past by cutting down trees that would have been planted by the Buddha. He also meticulously notes how a “heretical Brahmin” went all the way in murdering a woman in order to lay the blame on the Buddha.

Fa-Hien’s travelogue also records the royal past of the now doomed Kushinagar Mallas as untouchables, who at one point were the rulers who sponsored Buddhism. He also honorably notes the Kashyapa Matanga who carried the Buddha’s message to China.

Fa-Hien is one of our most spiritual and scholarly ties with China which has preserved Buddha’s Dhamma. It is to Fa-Hien’s credit that we have records of our glorious history. Fa-Hien’s ethnography has brought us closer to the vast Indian past. Indochinese relations must be built on similar lines of mutual cooperation and strong history that do not promote chauvinist nationalism but humanitarian universalism.

Buddha is common to mankind. We have to promote the Buddha and Buddhist values. The Buddha’s revolution was unacceptable to the Muslim and Brahmin invaders who collectively wiped out the treasures that Fa-Hien and another 7th century traveler Hsüan-tsang recorded.

I wish to follow in Fa-Hien’s footsteps. It was an uncomfortable and arduous journey. However, it was worth all the sacrifices. Today we must honor Fa-Hien as a great chronicler of medieval India. He should be included in the pantheons of Bahujan society and the national history of India.

Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, is the curator of the bimonthly column “Dalitality”