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Tamil Nadu – China Connect: Cultural ‘Manipravala’; By Balasubramanian C

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

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Article 05/2020

Post Mamallapuram Summit, the Second Informal Meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi there has been a significant momentum in India-China relations with both sides conferring growing importance to the potential for cooperation in the area of Culture.

On one hand, Culture has the ability to go beyond the confining framework of state-state relations by focusing on more broad-based people-to-people relations, and on the other, it can also help to establish and develop a dialogue despite and parallel to the political relationship between these two ancient civilizations.

Recent Times, both India and China have taken advantage of this strategic importance of Culture by designing new mechanisms of cooperation and integrating them into the policy framework of bilateral relations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have decided to designate 2020 as the ”Year of India-China Cultural and People to People Exchanges”. As important contemporary civilizations with great traditions, both Leaders deemed it important to enhance dialogue in order to foster cultural understanding between the two peoples. Both Leaders also agreed that, as major civilizations in history, they can work together to enhance greater dialogue and understanding between cultures and civilizations in other parts of the world. The two leaders exchanged views on the age-old commercial linkages and people-to-people contacts between India and China in the past two millennia, including significant maritime contacts. According to the MEA, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations the two countries will organise 70 activities including a conference on a ship voyage that will trace the historical connection between the two civilizations. On the link between Tamil Nadu and China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suggested carrying out a research on the subject.

This article is an attempt to look beyond ‘Bodhi Dharma’ and make the history of centuries of India-China cultural contacts accessible and also create awareness about our common cultural heritage.

Dignaga (Around 440 – 520 CE)

Dignaga (Also known as Chenna or Yulong 域龍:域 in Chinese) was an ancient Indian Buddhist logician and scholar. He was one of the founders of Buddhist “Hetuvidya School” of philosophy.

Dignaga or Chenna was born in South India at a place referred in ancient times as Simhavakta (Seeyamangalam) near present-day Kanchipuram.

Dignaga was a Brahmin and learnt Tirthika (the doctrine of Non – Buddhist religions like Hinduism/Jainism) but later turned to Hinayana and became a believer of Vatsiputriya, which is one of the twenty Hinayana schools of Buddhism.

Finally, he became a student of Vasubandhu who was the founder of Yogachara and learnt Mahayana. He was also once a student of an acharya and learnt mantras.

It is mentioned in texts he also went to Oóra (present-day Odisha) for meditation (dhyana). Many Tirthika followers (Vadins) were impressed by his articulation qualities.

He gained prominence after his successful debate with Nyaya, a Tirthika good at logical reasoning. Activities in the ancient Nalanda University where he once stayed primarily focussed on preaching Abhidharmakosa Sastra, Vijapitimatrata and Hetuvidya.

Dignaga believed in morality and always wore tattered clothes, had a mean obtained from begging per day, lived under the tree or near to abandoned graves etc. He finally passed away in a forest cave in Oḍra (present-day Odisha).

Dignaga belonged to Yogachara School. His theory was referred to as the consciousness-only philosophy with selflessness. This has been one of the important theoretical sources of Chinese Dharma character school.

The greatest contribution of Dignaga lies in his Hetuvidya Philosophy. He was the founder of Hetuvidya school of philosophy which changed the original five-part syllogism into the three-part syllogism.

This characterised a great forward leap in the history of logic in ancient India. The transformation not only deeply influenced the way of reasoning in each Buddhist school of thought. It became a basis for ‘Buddhist Epistemology’, namely “Pramana” and laid the groundwork for deductive logic. Dignaga’s mature philosophy is expounded in his literary jewel, the Pramāṇa-samuccaya.

His theory about pramana was embodied in his books on Hetuvidya Theory, although the original manuscript of the book became non-existent, in the second year of Jingyun (711 CE), Tang Yijing translated it.

Vajrabodhi (671–741 CE)

Vajrabodhi (Jingangzhi 金剛智) was an Indian Buddhist monk and translator who came to China during Tang Dynasty.

He was one of the founders of “Chinese Esoteric Buddhism” together with Subhakarasimha (Shanwuwei) and Amoghavajra (Bukong) they were referred to as “Three Major Buddhists of Kaiyuan”.

Vajrabodhi was from South India and was a Brahmin by caste (in some other records, he is referred to as the prince from central India belonging to Kshatriya caste).

His father was proficient in Pancha-vidya and was the state Buddhist monk of the royal house of present-day Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu.

When he was 10, Vajrabodhi became a monk of Nalanda Monastery (some records states when he was 16, he was enlightened with Buddhism and followed the teacher to Ancient Nalanda University).

Later, he returned to Nalanda University and learned Mahayana and Theravada law as well as, SataSastra, Dvadasamukhasastras among others.

Then he went to Kapilavastu (present-day Nepal) to learn Yogacarabhumi Sastra, Vijnaptimatrata Siddhi Sastra and Madhyantavibhaganika from teachers.

During middle ages, he came to southern India again and learned means of Vairochana Dharani and Mahayana sutras, Pancha-vidya theory, and accepted abhisheka or consecration where tantric vows of samaya were undertaken by initiates.

Finally, seven years later, he mastered the knowledge of all kinds of Esoteric Buddhism. According to one legend, he followed Guanyin Bodhisattva’s instructions to lead his eight common disciples to Sri Lanka.

He went to the Fearless King Temple to make obeisance to Buddha’s tooth. He went to the Simhaldvipa (Sri Lanka) to worship relic of Buddha there. Soon after returning to India, he planned to promote Buddhism in China.

The king asked him to bring the local products, treasures and a large number of pattra leaf scriptures of Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra; they are the sixteen sutras within the collection represent sixteen separate teachings given by the Buddha, each to a different assembly.

He first came to Simhaldvipa and stayed there for a month at the request of King Srisila (Shilishiluo). He then followed Persian merchants to sail across the sea and reached Śrīvijaya (Sumatra) within one month.

But due to wind direction, which was unfavourable for travel, he stayed there for some time. He finally reached Guangzhou (China) in about three years.

In the eighth year of Kaiyuan Calendar of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty (720 CE), he came to Luoyang, got a reception from the emperor and was ordered to live in Da Ci’en Temple (Yanta District, Xi’an, Shaanxi). He soon moved to Zisheng Temple (some records indicate Jianfu Temple).

From then on, he often followed the emperor to Luoyang and Xi’an. Wherever he arrived, he conducted an Abhisheka to help people remove their troubles or prayed for rain and warded off various calamities for local people.

He built Maha Mandala Abhisheka Altar in the temple where he lived and accepted the four-fold assembly conversion. Buddhists Dazhi, Dahui, Amoghavajra and Yixing became his disciples.

He also started the translation of scriptures. In his later years, Jingangzhi intended to return home, and Emperor Xuanzong gave his consent. But he died in 732 CE. He was buried in Yichuan of southern Longmen.

The emperor conferred on him the title of “Abhisheka Buddha” and built a pagoda in Xigang of Fengxian Temple in Longmen in his memory.

The Emperor Xuanzong of Tang gave Jingangzhi another title of ‘Guoshi’, ‘Teacher of the Realm’.

And in 768 CE, Emperor Daizong of Tang paid posthumous honour by personally writing the inscription for the pagoda plaque on the request of Amoghavajra, a disciple of Vajrabodhi.

Most translations of Jingangzhi were related to Esoteric Buddhist scriptures and sadhana with translations spanning several volumes.

Vajrabodhi’s importance was twofold. Although the doctrines of the Yoga Tantras were known to Śubhāka-rasiṃha, Vajrabodhi was the first translator and systematic teacher in China of the Sarvatathagatatattvasamgraha and of Vajrayāna as practised in South India and in Srivijaya. Second, Vajrabodhi reinforced the presence and visibility of the Vajrayana at the Chinese court, a presence that, under his disciple, Amoghavajra, would become the dominant force in the court during the second half of the eighth century.

It is worth noting that no monk in Chinese history, either before or since has wielded such immense power.

(Balasubramanian C is a Research Officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies.  His areas of interests include Sino –Russia Relations, Indian Ocean Region, Geo-economics, Security and Strategic Studies. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author)

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