HARSHA-VARDHANA AND HIUEN TSANG

HARSHA-VARDHANA

 AND

 HIUEN TSANG

 

( from Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru)

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We shall go back to India again.  The Huns have been defeated and driven back, but many remain in odd corners.  The great Gupta dynasty fades away after Baladitya, and there are many kingdoms and States in northern India.  In the south Pulakesin has established the Chalukyan Empire.

 

            Not far from Cawnpore is the little town of Kanauj.  Cawnpore is now a big city, but an ugly one with its factories and chimneys, and Kanauj is a modest place, hardly bigger than village.  But in the days of which I speak, Kanauj was a great capital, famous for its poets and artists and philosophers, and Cawnpore was still unborn, and was to remain unborn for many hundreds of years.

 

            Kanauj is the modern name.  The real name is Kanya-Kubja-the “hunch-backed girl”.  The story is that some ancient sage or rishi, made angry at a fancied slight, cursed the hundred daughters of a king and made them hunch-backed! And since then the city where they lived was called the “City of Hunch-backed Girls”-Kanya-kubja.

 

            But we shall call it Kanauj for short.  The Huns killed the Raja of Kanauj and made his wife Rajashri a prisoner.  Thereupon Rajashri’s brother, Raja-Vardhana, came to fight the Huns and rescue his sister.  He defeated them, but was treacherously killed.  The younger brother, Harsha-Vardhana, now went out to search for his sister Rajashri.  The poor girl had managed to escape to the mountains and, overcome by her sufferings, had decided to end her life.  It is said that she was on the point of becoming a sati when Harsha found her and saved her from this. 

 

            Having found and rescued his sister, the next thing Harsha did was to punish the petty raja who had killed his brother treacherously.  Not only did he punish him, but he succeeded in conquering the whole of northern India, from sea to sea, and up to the Vindhya Mountains in the south.  Beyond the Vindhyas was the Chalukyan Empire, and Harsha was stopped by this.

 

            Harsha-Vardhana made Kanauj his capital.  Being himself a poet and dramatist, he gathered round himself a host of poets and artists, and Kanauj became a famous city.  Harsha was a keen Buddhist.  Buddhism, as a separate faith, had weakened greatly in India; it was being swallowed up by the Brahmans.  Harsha appears to have been the last great Buddhist sovereign in India.

 

            It was during Harsha’s reign that our old friend, Hiuen Tsang, came to India, and the book of his travels that he wrote on his return tells us a lot about India and the countries of Central Asia which he crossed on his way to India.  He was a pious Buddhist, and he came to visit the sacred places of Buddhism and to take with him the scriptures of the faith.  Right across the desert of Gobi he came, visiting many a famous city on the way-Tashkand and Samarqand and Balkh and Khotan and Yarkand.  All over India he traveled, perhaps even visiting Ceylon.  His book is a strange and fascinating jumble of accurate observations of the countries he visited, wonderful character-sketches of peoples in different parts of India, which seem true even today, fantastic stories which he heard, and numerous miracle-stories of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas.  One of his delightful stories, about the Very Wise Man who went about with copper-plates round his belly, I have already told you.

 

            Many years he spent in India, especially in the great university of Nalanda, which was not far from Pataliputra.  Nalanda, which was a monastery and university combined, is said to have had as many as 10,000 students and monks in residence.  It was the great center of Buddhist learning, a rival to Benares, which was the stronghold of Brahman learning.

 

            I told you once that India was known of old as the Land of the Moon-Indu-land!  Hiuen Tsang also tells us about this, and describes how suitable the name is.  Apparently even in Chinese in-Tu is the name for the moon.  So it is quite easy for you to adopt a Chinese name!

 

            Hiuen Tsang came to India in 629 A.D.  He was twenty-six years old when he started on his journey from China.  An old Chinese record tells us that he was handsome and tall.  “His colouring was delicate, his eyes brilliant.  His bearing was grave and majestic, and his features seemed to radiate charm and brightness…  He had the majesty of the great waters that surrounded the earth, the serenity and brilliance of the lotus that rises from the midst of the waters.”

 

            Alone, in the saffron garb of the Buddhist bhikshu, he started on his mighty journey, even though the Chinese Emperor had refused his permission.  He crossed the Gobi desert, barely surviving the ordeal, and reached the kingdom of Turfan, that stood on the very edge of this desert.  A strange little of oasis of culture was this desert kingdom.  It is a dead place now where archaeologists and antiquarians dig for old remains.  But in the seventh century, when Hiuen Tsang passed through it, it was full of life and a high culture.  And this culture was a remarkable combination of India, China, Persia, and even bits of Europe. Buddhism flourished and Indian influence through Sanskrit was marked; and yet the ways of life were borrowed largely from China and Persia.  Their language was not Mongolian, as one might expect, but Indo-European, resembling in many ways the Celtic languages of Europe.  And, stranger still, on their frescoes in stone appear figures that are similar to European types.  Very beautiful are these frescoes with their Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and gods and goddesses.  The goddesses often have Indian draperies or Grecian head-dresses and draperies, presenting, so says the French critic M.Grousset, “the happiest combination of Hindu suppleness, Helenic eloquence, and Chinese charm”.

 

            Turfan still exists, and you can find it in the map.  But it is a place of little importance.  How wonderful it is that in the far-off seventh century, rich streams of culture should have flown from distant regions to meet here and unite to form a harmonious synthesis!

 

            From Turfan the pilgrim Hiuen Tsang went on to Kucha, yet another famous center of Central Asia then, with a rich and brilliant civilization, known especially for the fame of its musicians and the charm of its women.  Its religion and art came from India; Iran contributed to its culture and to its merchandise; and its language was related to Sanskrit, old Persian, Latin and Celtic.  Another fascinating mixture!

 

            And so Hiuen Tsang travelled on through the lands of the Turks from where the Great Khan, who was a Buddhist, exercised dominion over the greater part of Central Asia; to Samarqand, which was already then an ancient city with memories of Alexander, who had passed by it nearly 1000 years earlier; to Balkh; and then the valley of the Kabul river, and Kashmir and India.

 

            There were the early days of the Tang dynasty in China, when Si-an-fu, their capital, was a center of art and learning, and China led the world in civilization. You must remember, therefore, that Hiuen Tsang came from this highly civilized country, and his standards of comparison must have been high. His testimony about Indian conditions is thus important and valuable. He praises the Indian people and the administration. “With respect to the ordinary people”, he says, although they are naturally light-minded, yet they are upright and honourable.  In money matters, they are without craft, and in administering justice, they are considerate…They are not deceitful or treacherous in their conduct, and are faithful in their oaths and promises.  In their rules of government there is remarkable rectitude, whilst in their behaviour there is much gentleness and sweetness.  With respect to criminals or rebels, these are few in number, and only occasionally troublesome.

 

He further says:

 

As the administration of the government is founded on benign principles, the executive is simple…People are not subject to forced labour.  In this way taxes on people are light and personal service required of them is moderate.  Each one keeps his own worldly goods in peace, and all till the ground for their subsistence.  Those who cultivate the royal estates pay a sixth part of the produce as tribute.  The merchants who engage in commerce come and go in carrying out their transactions, and so on.

 

            Hiuen Tsang found that the education of the people was organized and began early.  After the primer had been learnt, the boy or girl was supposed to begin the study of the five Shastras at the age of seven.  Shastras” are now supposed to mean purely religious books, but in those days they meant knowledge of all kinds.  Thus the five Shastras were (1) Grammar; (2) Science of arts and crafts; (3) Medicine; (4) Logic; (5) Philosophy.  The study of these subjects went on in the universities and was usually completed at the age of thirty.  I suppose not very many people could goon up to that age.  But it appears that primary education was comparatively widespread, as all the monks and priests were the teachers, and there was no lack of them.  Hiuen Tsang was much stuck by the love of learning of the Indian people, and right through his book he refers to this.

 

            Hiuen gives us a description of the great Kumbh Mela at Prayag.  When you see this mela again, think of Hiuen Tsang’s visit to it 1300 years ago, and remember that even then it was an old mela coming right down from the Vedic times.  Compared to this ancient one, of hoary lineage, our city of Allahabad is but of yesterday.  It was founded by Akbar less than 400 years ago.  Far older was Prayag, but older still is that attraction which, for thousands of years, has drawn millions, year after year, to the meeting-place of the Ganga and the Jumna.

 

            Hiuen Tsang tells us how Harsha, though a Buddhist, went to this typical Hindu festival.  On his behalf an imperial decree invited all the poor and needy of the “Five Indies” to come and be his guests at the mela.  It was a brave invitation, even for an emperor.  Needless to say, many came; and 100,000 are said to have fed daily as Harsha’s guests!  At this mela, every five years, Harsha used to distribute all the surplus of his treasury: gold, jewellery, silk-indeed everything he had.  He even gave away his crown and rich clothing and took from his sister Rajashri a common garment which had already been worn.

 

            As a pious Buddhist, Harsha stopped the killing of animals for food.  This was probably not objected to much by the Brahmans, as they had taken more and more to vegetarianism since Buddha’s coming.

 

            There is a little tit-bit of information in Hiuen’s book which might interest you.  He tells us that when a person fell ill in India he immediately fasted for seven days.  Most people recovered during this fast.  But if the illness continued, then they took medicine.  Illness could not have been popular in those days, nor would doctors be much in demand!

 

            A striking feature of India in those days was the great deference and respect shown by rulers and military men to learned and cultured people.  In India and in China a deliberate attempt was made, and with great success, to give the place of honour to learning and culture, and not to brute force or riches.

 

            After spending many years in India, Hiuen Tsang journeyed back home, crossing again the northern mountains.  He was nearly drowned in the Indus many of his valuable books were washed away.  But still he managed to take a large number of manuscripts, and the translation of these into Chinese kept him busy for many years.  He was welcomed back with great warmth by the Tang Emperor at Si-an-fu, and it was this Emperor who made him write the account of his travels.

 

            Hiuen tells us of the Turks he met in Central Asia-this new tribe which in later years was to go west and upset many a kingdom.  He tells us of Buddhist monasteries all over Central Asia.  Indeed, Buddhist monasteries were to be found in Persia, Iraq or Mesopotamia, Khorasan, Mosul-right up to the frontiers of Syria.  Of the Persian people, Hiuen tells us that they “care not for learning, but give themselves entirely to works of art.  All they make the neighbouring countries value very much.”

 

            Wonderful travelers there were in those days!  Even the journeys to the heart of Africa or the North or South Pole now seem feeble compared with the giant journeys of old.  For years they moved on and on, across mountains and deserts, and cut off completely from all friends.  Sometimes, perhaps, they felt a little home-sick, but they are much too dignified to say so.  One of these travelers, however, lets us have a glimpse into his mind as, standing in a distant land, he thought of home and hungered for it.  His name was Sung-Yun, and he came to India 100 years before Hiuen Tsang.  He was in the mountain country in Gandhara, north-west of India.  He tells us that

 

the gentle breeze which fanned the air, the songs of the birds, the trees in their springtide beauty, the butterflies that fluttered over the numerous flowers-all this caused Sung-Yun, as he gazed on this lovely scenery in a distant land, to revert to home thoughts; and so melancholy were his reflections, that he brought on a severe attack of illness!

           

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