China and India*

‘Is there anyone in any part of India who does not admire China?’ asked Yi Jing in the seventh century, on returning from India to China.1 Yi Jing may have fallen a little for exaggerated rhetoric, but there was certainly much intellectual interest about China in India at that time, as there was about India in China. Yi Jing had just spent ten years at the institute of higher learning, Nālandā, which attracted many scholars from outside India, in addition to domestic students.

Yi Jing, who studied medicine in Nālandā (in particular, ‘Ayurveda’ or ‘the science of longevity’) in addition to Buddhist philosophy and practice, was one of many Chinese scholars who visited India in the first millennium to study Buddhism and other subjects (and also to collect Sanskrit documents), and many of them spent a decade or more in India. In the other direction, hundreds of Indian scholars went to China and worked there between the first century and the eleventh. They were engaged in a variety of work, which included translating Sanskrit documents into Chinese (mostly Buddhist writings), but also other activities, such as the pursuit of mathematics and science. Several Indian mathematicians and astronomers held high positions in China’s scientific establishment, and an Indian scientist called Gautama Siddhārtha (Qutan Xida, in Chinese) even became the president of the official Board of Astronomy in China in the eighth century.


Xuanzang (Hiuan-tsang) returning to China with Sanskrit manuscripts from India in 645 AD

Intellectual links between China and India, stretching over much of the first millennium and beyond, were important in the history of the two countries. And yet they are hardly remembered today. What little notice they do get tends to come from those interested in religious history, particularly Buddhism. But religion is only one part of a much bigger story of Sino-Indian connections over the first millennium, and there is need for a broader understanding of the reach of these relations. This is important for a fuller appreciation not only of the history of a third of the world’s population, but also for the continuing relevance of these connections, linked as they are with contemporary political and social concerns.

It is certainly correct to see religion as a major reason for the historical closeness of China and India, and to appreciate the central role of Buddhism in initiating the movement of people and ideas between the two countries. However, even though Buddhism served as a critically important influence, the intellectual interactions between the two countries initiated by Buddhism were not confined to religion only. The non-religious (or what, in current terminology, may be called ‘secular’) consequences of these relations stretched well into science, mathematics, literature, linguistics, architecture, medicine and music. We know from the elaborate accounts left by a number of Chinese visitors to India, such as Faxian in the fifth century and Xuanzang and Yi Jing in the seventh,2 that their interest was by no means restricted to religious theory and practices only. Similarly, the Indian scholars who went to China, especially in the seventh and eighth centuries, included not only religious experts, but also other professionals, such as astronomers and mathematicians.

It is not, however, easy to rescue the variety and reach of early Sino-Indian intellectual relations from their interpretational confinement in the religious basket. Indeed, religious reductionism has been reinforced in recent years by the contemporary obsession with classifying the world population into distinct ‘civilizations’ defined principally by religion (well illustrated, for example, by Samuel Huntington’s partitioning of the world into such categories as ‘Western civilization’, ‘Islamic civilization’, ‘Buddhist civilization’, ‘Hindu civilization’). There is, as a result, a tendency to see people mainly – or even entirely – in terms of their religion, even though that attribution of a singular identity can miss out on much that is important. This segregation has already done significant harm to the understanding of other parts of the global history of ideas and commitments, for example through the confusion it generates between the history of Muslim people in general and Islamic history in particular, ignoring the flowering of science, mathematics and literature pursued by Muslim intellectuals, particularly between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries.*

There is, in fact, another factor that influences this interpretational bias. There is an odd dichotomy in the way in which Western and non-Western ideas and scholarship are currently comprehended, with a tendency to attribute a predominant role to religiosity in interpreting the works of non-Western intellectuals who had secular interests along with strong religious beliefs. It is, for example, not assumed that, say, Isaac Newton’s scientific work must be understood in primarily Christian terms (even though he did have Christian beliefs), nor presumed that his contributions to worldly knowledge must somehow be interpreted in the light of his deep interest in mysticism (important as mystical speculations evidently were to Newton himself and even perhaps for some of the motivation for his efforts). In contrast, when it comes to non-Western cultures, religious reductionism tends to exert a gripping influence. For example, there is a widespread tendency to presume that none of the general intellectual works of Buddhist scholars or of Tantric practitioners in India or China could be ‘properly understood’ except in the special light of their religious beliefs and practices.

The extensive contacts that were generated between India and China through Buddhist connections were not confined to the subject matter of Buddhism only. They had significant effects in other fields as well, including science, mathematics, literature, linguistics, medicine and music. They also broadened, in a general way, the intellectual horizons of people in the two countries, and even helped to make each of them less insular. This essay is concerned specifically with Sino-Indian historical relations in the first millennium that went beyond the confines of religious interactions. A particular focus of attention is the catalytic role that the connections inspired by Buddhism, and fostered by Buddhist contacts, played in advancing what can be broadly described as secular pursuits.

Trade, Religion and Beyond

As it happens, Buddhism was not the only vehicle of Sino-Indian relations, which began almost certainly with trade. Indian traders were engaged in importing goods from China for re-export to Central Asia more than two thousand years ago. Zhang Qian, an early Han emissary to Bactriana in the second century BCE, was surprised to find, in the local markets, Chinese goods from Yunnan (mainly cotton and bamboo products), and on enquiry he learned that they had been brought there by Indian caravans through India and Afghanistan.3 Indian intermediation in trade between China and the west of Asia continued over the centuries, though the commodity pattern went on changing. Silk was very important initially, but ‘by the eleventh century … porcelain had already replaced silk as the leading Chinese commodity transshipped through India’.4

In India itself, consumption habits, particularly of rich Indians, were radically influenced a couple of thousand years ago by innovations made in China. Kauṭilya’s Sanskrit treatise on economics and politics, Arthaśāstra, first written in the fourth centuryBCEthough revised and finalized a few centuries later, gives a special place to ‘silk and silk-cloth from the land of China’ among ‘precious articles’ and ‘objects of value’. There are references in the ancient epic the Mahābhārata to Chinese fabric or silk (cīnaṃśuka) being given as gifts, and there are similar references also in the ancient Laws of Manu.5

The exotic nature of Chinese products was captured in many literary works in the early part of the first millennium. In a critical moment in the great fifth-century play Śakuntalā by Kālidāsa (perhaps the greatest poet and dramatist in classical Sanskrit literature), when King Duṣyanta sees, in the middle of a hunting expedition, the stunning hermit-girl Śakuntalā, and is altogether stricken by her beauty, the lovesick king explains the state of his transfixation by comparing himself with the way a banner made of Chinese silk flutters in the wind: ‘My body goes forward, / But my reluctant mind runs back / Like Chinese silk on a banner / Trembling against the wind.’ In Harṣacarita by Bāṇa, written in the seventh century, the celebrated wedding of the beautiful Rājyaśrī is made particularly resplendent by her decision to be clothed in elegant Chinese silk. There are also plentiful references in the Sanskrit literature in this period to many Chinese products other than silk that made their way into India, varying from camphor (cīnaka), fennel (cīnāka), vermilion (cīnapiṣṭa) and high-quality leather (cīnasi) to pear (cīnarājaputra) and peach (cīnani).6

If China was enriching the material world of India two thousand years ago, India was busy, it appears, exporting Buddhism to China. That often-recollected process is certainly a part of history, and this straightforward story requires acknowledgement first, before more complex correlates of those relations are examined. The first firm record of the arrival of Indian monks in China goes back to the first century CE, when Dharmarakṣa and Kāśyapa Mātaṅga came at the invitation of Emperor Mingdi of the Han dynasty. According to legend, the emperor had seen Gautama Buddha in his dream (there must have been some knowledge already of Buddhism in China for the central character in the royal dream to be recognized as Gautama), and he dispatched a search team to fetch Buddhist experts from India. Dharmarakṣa and Mātaṅga, the two Indian monks, arrived with masses of texts and relics on a white horse, whereupon the Chinese built for them the ‘White Horse Monastery’, Baima si, where the two apparently spent the rest of their lives.

From then on, Indian scholars and monks kept coming to China in an unbroken stream, and this went on until the eleventh century. There are records of the lives and works of hundreds of such scholars and translators, who produced Chinese versions of thousands of Sanskrit documents. Even as the flow came to an end in the eleventh century (no further arrivals are recorded in the Chinese chronicles after 1036), the translations were going on with astonishing rapidity (we learn that 201 further Sanskrit volumes were translated between 982 and 1011). But by then Buddhism was in long-term decline in China with the growing dominance of Neo-Confucianism. It had also, by this time, declined in the country of its origin (the last Buddhist dynasty in India, the Pālas of Bengal, petered out in the twelfth century).7

There was a similar – though somewhat smaller – flow in the opposite direction, from China to India. The reports that the Chinese visitors wrote about India covered its intellectual pursuits as well as religious practices, living styles and social systems. Yi Jing, quoted earlier, went to India in 675, on the sea route via Śrīvijaya, a flourishing coastal city in seventh-century Sumatra, which had strong Indian influences (and was where Yi Jing acquired his Sanskrit). He studied at the institute of higher learning, at Nālandā, located close to Pāṭaliputra (now Patna), the ancient capital of Maurya India (the first all-India state, established in the fourth century BCE). Yi Jing wrote a detailed account, completed in 691, on what he saw and assimilated in his decade in India.8 His investigation of what to learn from India concentrated, as one would expect, on Buddhist philosophy and practice in particular, but it also included other fields of study such as procedures of health care and medicine – a subject of special interest to him, to which Yi Jing devoted three chapters of his book. I shall return later to Yi Jing’s observations on this subject.

The first Chinese scholar to leave a serious account of his visit to India was Faxian, a Buddhist scholar from western China who wanted to go to India to seek some Sanskrit texts (such as Vinaya) and to make them available in China. He arrived in India almost three hundred years before Yi Jing, in 401. He undertook an arduous journey through the northern route via Khotan (which had a strong Buddhist presence), having started off from China in 399. After ten active years in India, Faxian returned by sea, sailing from the mouth of the Ganges or Hooghly (not far from present-day Calcutta), via Buddhist Sri Lanka, and finally Hindu Java. Faxian spent his time in India travelling widely, visiting major cities and Buddhist sites, collecting documents (which he would later translate into Chinese), and talking – it would appear – with everyone around him. He wrote a highly illuminating account of India and Sri Lanka, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms.9 Faxian’s years in Pāṭaliputra were devoted to studying language and literature, in addition to religious texts. However, with a somewhat similar interest in public health as Yi Jing would display later, Faxian also paid particular attention to the Indian arrangements for health care, and to this, too, I shall return.

The most famous visitor from China, Xuanzang, came in the seventh century under the later Tang dynasty. Xuanzang, who was a formidable scholar, collected a great many Sanskrit texts (again, he would translate many of them after his return to China), and travelled throughout India for sixteen years, including the years he spent (like Yi Jing who would follow him there) in the distinguished educational establishment at Nālandā. There Xuanzang studied medicine, philosophy, logic, mathematics, astronomy and grammar, in addition to Buddhism.10 Xuanzang also met the Buddhist emperor of north India, King Harṣa, and had conversations with him on Sino-Indian relations.11

Xuanzang’s visit was well remembered for many centuries, both in India and China. A Buddhist visitor to India from Japan in the ninth century noted with much interest the fact that, in a large number of Buddhist temples in ‘middle India’, Xuanzang was represented in paintings with his ‘hemp shoes, spoon and chop-sticks mounted on multicoloured clouds’.12 In China there were a great many legends about Xuanzang, which became quite popular by the tenth century and were frequently performed as plays on the Chinese stage later on. The best known and most popular of these semi-fictional accounts is a sixteenth-century allegorical novel, Xi You Ji (‘The Journey to the West’, also translated as Monkey), by Wu Cheng’en.13

Insularity and Openness

Despite the respect in which the India-returned Chinese scholars were viewed in their own country, including the royal patronage they often received, it is important not to overlook the resistance to Indian – particularly Buddhist – influence that was also widespread in China. The resistance to Buddhism in various periods of Chinese history contained, among other elements, a strong belief in China’s sense of intellectual invulnerability, and in particular the persuasion that ideas generated outside China could not really be very important. Han Yu, an anti-Buddhist intellectual in the ninth century, who would be much championed later on by Confucians, put the issue starkly in his ‘Memorial on Buddhism’ written in 819:

The Buddha was of barbarian origin. His language differed from Chinese speech; his clothes were of a different cut; his mouth did not pronounce the prescribed words of the Former Kings; his body was not clad in garments prescribed by the Former Kings. He did not recognize the relationship between prince and subject, nor the sentiments of father and son.

Han Yu even offered an illustrative proof of the wrongness of Buddhist ways:

[Emperor Wu of the Liang] dedicated himself to the service of the Buddha. He refused to use animals in the sacrifices in his own ancestral temple. His single meal a day was limited to fruits and vegetables. In the end he was driven out and died of hunger. His dynasty likewise came to an untimely end. In serving the Buddha he was seeking good fortune, but the disaster that overtook him was only the greater. Viewed in the light of this, it is obvious that the Buddha is not worth serving.

Daoist (or Taoist) opposition to Buddhism also had a strong element of Chinese intellectual nationalism and a sense of superiority of Chinese ways. As it happens, Buddhism and Daoism have many similarities, but that only made the battle even harder, and the issue of temporal priority, too, figured in this conflict. For example, in the early fourth century a Daoist activist, named Wang Fu, wrote a book called Laozi Hua Hu Jing (‘The Classic about Lao-tzu’s Civilizing the Barbarians’). In this account, Laozi (or Lao-tzu, to use the old but perhaps more familiar spelling), the founder of Daoism (who is normally placed in the third century BCE), was put on an imagined civilizing mission to India, especially to influence Gautama Buddha (who, as it happens, had died a few centuries before Laozi’s alleged arrival). Charles Hucker has pithily described this intensely polemical work and the rather bizarre controversy it generated:

[Wang Fu’s] basic thesis is that Lao-tzu, on departing China, traveled across Central Asia into India and there either (1) magically transformed an accompanying disciple into the historic Buddha, (2) converted Buddha to Taoism, or (3) became Buddha himself, depending on which version of the text one reads. Buddhists fought this Taoist attack primarily by moving the life of the Buddha back to earlier and earlier times, and Taoists responded in kind by reassigning dates to Lao-tzu.14

As Leon Hurvitz and Tsai Heng-Ting have discussed, the question, ‘Why should a Chinese allow himself to be influenced by Indian ways?’ was, in fact, ‘one of the objections most frequently raised by Confucians and Daoists once Buddhism had acquired a foothold on Chinese soil’.15 The loss of the central position of China in the order of things in the world was among the concerns. The Buddhist response took varying forms, but helped to open up some issues of universalist ethics at least in some of the responses to anti-Buddhist polemic. Mouzi, a vigorous defender of Buddhism and of the compatibility of the Buddhist outlook with being a good Chinese, even asked the question in his combative Lihao lun (‘Disposing of Error’) whether the Chinese should claim to be uniquely central in the world, and articulated a strong claim in favour of Buddhist universalism:

The commentary says, ‘The north polar star is in the center of Heaven and to the north of man.’ From this one can see that the land of China is not necessarily situated under the center of Heaven. According to the Buddhist scriptures, above, below, and all around, all beings containing blood belong to the Buddha-clan.16

One of the positive contributions Buddhist connections produced in China is the general sense that even the Chinese must, to some extent, look outwards. Indeed, not only did Buddhism suggest that there were sources of wisdom well outside China, but it also led to the tendency of many Chinese intellectuals to go abroad, in particular to India, in search of enlightenment and understanding. Furthermore, since these visitors to India came back with tales of wonderful things they had seen in India, it was difficult to take an entirely Sino-centric view of world civilization. There were also other admirable sites and achievements they could see on the way to India. For example, Xuanzang in the seventh century marvelled at the gigantic Bamiyan statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan, which he saw as he approached India from the West (on the circuitous route he had taken via Khotan).*

In fact, some Chinese commentators felt threatened not only by the dilution of China’s centrality, but – worse – by the tendency of some Buddhists to take India to be actually more central than China.17 Even though India was commonly referred to, at that time, as ‘the Western kingdom’ (giving China a more central position), the Buddhist perspective tended to favour placing India at the centre of things. For example, Faxian’s fifth-century book on his travels described India as ‘the Middle kingdom’, with China as a frontier country.18

While all this was intensely irritating for believers in China’s centrality, such heterodoxy did bring in a challenge to what would otherwise have been China’s monolithic self-centredness. This was certainly a moderating influence on China’s insularity, and might even have made an indirect contribution to the interest and enthusiasm with which Chinese mathematicians and astronomers greeted Indian works in these fields (to be discussed presently).

On the other side, Buddhist connections also helped to moderate Indian self-centredness and sense of civilizational exclusiveness. Suspicion of foreigners has been a continuing factor in parts of Indian thinking. Even as late as the eleventh century, Alberuni, the remarkable Iranian visitor, in his book Ta’rikh al-hind (‘The History of India’), complained about the Indian attitude towards foreigners:

On the whole, there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves.… On the contrary all their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them – against all foreigners. They call them mleccha, i.e., impure, and forbid having any connection with them, be it by intermarriage or any other kind of relationship, or by sitting, eating, and drinking with them.19

That attitude did receive a challenge from Buddhist universalism and from the fact that Indians became, for many centuries, closely linked to other people through the common bond of a shared religion.

As it happens, despite the spread of Buddhism beyond the borders of India, locally confined Indian Buddhists did not always recognize what a world religion Buddhism was becoming. In the early fifth century, Faxian noted that when he met some Buddhist monks at the Jetavana monastery in India, he was surprised by their sense of uniqueness. The account, in third person, recounts the experience of Faxian and Dao Jing, who had accompanied Faxian:

The crowd of monks came out, and asked them from what kingdom they were come. ‘We are come,’ they replied, ‘from the land of Han.’ ‘Strange,’ said the monks with a sigh, ‘that men of a border country should be able to come here in search of our Law!’ Then they said to one another, ‘During all the time that we, preceptors and monks, have succeeded to one another, we have never seen men of Han, followers of our system, arrive here.’20

The reach of Buddhism and the presence of Chinese Buddhists in India would have done something to challenge the tendency to see the world in narrowly Indian terms.

Buddhist educational institutions, particularly that at Nālandā in east India, with many distinguished Chinese and other foreign students, provided a good basis for overcoming that mistrust. The conflicting attitudes came out very sharply at the point of Xuanzang’s departure from Nālandā, in the seventh century. The Nālandā establishment greatly admired Xuanzang and wanted him to stay on, and they had offered him a leading position in the academic staff there. Xuanzang’s disciple Hui Li reports the attempt by the Nālandā academic staff to give a plethora of reasons to persuade Xuanzang to make India his home:

The monks of Nālandā, when they heard of it [Xuanzang’s plan to return to China], begged him to remain, saying: ‘India is the land of Buddha’s birth, and though he has left the world, there are many traces of him.… Why then do you wish to leave having come so far? Moreover, China is a country of mlecchas, of unimportant barbarians, who despise the religious and the Faith. That is why Buddha was not born there. The mind of the people is narrow, and their coarseness profound, hence neither saints nor sages go there. The climate is cold and the country rugged – you must think again.21

To this Xuanzang replied with two counterarguments. The first disputed the syllogism by invoking Buddhist universalism without questioning the empirical premise: ‘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?’ Xuanzang’s second argument disputed the empirical premise about China, in a spirit of national pride, without contradicting his own universalist outlook:

Besides, in my country the magistrates are clothed with dignity, and the laws are everywhere respected. The emperor is virtuous and the subjects loyal, parents are loving and sons obedient, humanity and justice are highly esteemed, and old men and sages are held in honour.… How then can you say that Buddha did not go to my country because of its insignificance?

Xuanzang returned to China in 645, but continued his communications with India. A few years afterwards he received a letter from his old friend, Prajñadeva, from Nālandā, who sent his regards along with those of other Indian friends of Xuanzang, and added:

The Upāsakas [students and trainees] always continue to offer their salutations to you. We are sending you a pair of white cloths to show that we are not forgetful. The road is long. So do not mind the smallness of the present. We wish you may accept it. As regards the Sūtras and the Śāstras [Sanskrit texts] which you may require, please send us a list. We will copy them and send them to you.

Xuanzang replied by first noting that he had heard the sad news of the death of one of his teachers in Nālandā, and then by taking up Prajñadeva’s offer to help in sending useful documents from India:

I learnt from an ambassador who recently came back from India that the great teacher Śīlabhadra was no more. This news overwhelmed me with grief that knows no bounds.… I should let you know that while crossing the Indus I had lost a load of sacred texts. I now send you a list of the texts annexed to this letter. I request you to send them to me if you get a chance. I am sending some small articles as presents. Please accept them.

Through the normal sorrows and tragedies of human life, the borderless engagement in pursuing a common understanding continued. But the foreign contacts generated through Buddhism had, at least temporarily, shamed the self-centred arrogance of some of the leading Indian intellectuals of the time.

The broadening effects of Buddhist connections on the self-centredness of both Chinese and Indian intellectuals are among the significant secular consequences of these linkages. They added a psychological and perceptual dimension to the other – more palpable – secular consequences of Buddhist connections, over such diverse fields as mathematics, astronomy, literature, linguistics, music, fine arts, medicine and public health, which I take up now.

Transmission of Ideas: A Methodological Difficulty

Interactions between Indian and Chinese intellectuals in the first millennium were particularly strong in mathematics and science (especially astronomy). Before assessing these interactions, it would be useful to consider a serious methodological difficulty related to the procedure for diagnosing the movement of ideas from one country to another. Even though plausible connections are easy to point out, direct evidence of movement of ideas is often hard to find. ‘In works on the Chinese sciences,’ Jean-Claude Martzloff has noted in his history of Chinese mathematics, ‘no question has been touched on more often than that of the circulation of ideas,’ and yet ‘we still know very little about the subject.’22

Joseph Needham has attempted to provide a list of mathematical ideas that ‘radiated from China’, particularly to India, and he has argued that many more ideas went from China to India than came in the opposite direction: ‘India was the more receptive of the two cultures.’23 Martzloff criticizes Needham’s procedure ‘because of its chronological and methodological imprecision’, and goes on to provide some serious counterarguments to Needham’s substantive conclusions.24 In the absence of direct evidence of the movement of an idea, Needham presumes that the idea in question actually did move from the country where its known use is earlier to the country where the evidence of its first recorded use is at a later date. The procedure is, thus, essentially speculative, and can be faulted, among other problems, for ignoring the possible loss of an earlier record of use which could affect chronological priority, and not acknowledging the possibility of an independent discovery.

The investigation of the movement of mathematical or scientific ideas between China and India is also seriously hampered by the fact that there is a substantial informational asymmetry between the preserved records in the two countries. The Chinese records are much more extensive and much better preserved than their Indian counterparts. It has become increasingly common to claim in recent Indian discussions that the Hindu and Buddhist records from the first millennium were substantially destroyed during and after the Muslim conquests in the following centuries. That did occur to some extent, particularly in north India, but, no less importantly, the general lack of enthusiasm in chronicling events and incidents in ancient India does contrast with Chinese meticulousness in wanting to produce – and keep – detailed records. John Kieschnick has drawn attention to another possible explanation of the paucity of Indian early documents: ‘With the inscriptions on metal, clay, or stone, most writings in ancient India were inscribed on pieces of birch bark or palm leaves, which were then bound together. Few such manuscripts survive from ancient and medieval India, owing perhaps more to the ephemerality of palm leaves and birch bark than to disinterest in the medium.’25

Whatever the causes of this asymmetry of records (and we do not have to settle that larger issue here), it clearly has very substantial effects – as it happens in ‘opposite’ directions – on the methods that have been used, that is, the traditional reliance on direct evidence of movement, and Needham’s technique of relying on chronological priority of records to presume a geographical transfer. As far as the reliance on direct evidence is concerned, the informational asymmetry makes it a lot easier to show that ideas moved from India to China, rather than the opposite, since the Chinese records of derivation from India are much fuller and much better preserved than the corresponding Indian records of Chinese influence. This tends to exaggerate China’s receptivity, compared with India’s. On the other hand, Needham’s presumptive method of comparing the dates of first known use in each country tends to tilt the diagnoses in favour of movements from China to India, rather than the opposite, since Chinese records of early use of particular ideas are much fuller and much better kept than the corresponding Indian records. Indeed, given the asymmetry of records, there would seem to be no obvious way of avoiding bias in one direction or the other.

It is indeed hard to settle Needham’s enquiry into what can be called the ‘balance of trade’ in the movement of new ideas between India and China. But we don’t really have to resolve that rather esoteric issue. What is important to note here is that ideas in mathematics and science, and also in other non-religious subjects, moved plentifully in both directions. Both countries can to a considerable extent be absolved from the charge of abiding intellectual insularity.

Mathematics and Science

One of the connections on which evidence of intellectual connections is plentiful is the impact of Buddhists in general, and of adherents of Tantric Buddhism in particular, on Chinese mathematics and astronomy in the seventh and eighth centuries, in the Tang period. Yi Jing, with whose rhetorical question this essay began, was one of many translators of Tantric texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. He was in India in the last quarter of the seventh century, at a time when Tantrism was beginning to generate a lot of interest in China. Tantrism became a major force in China in the seventh and eighth centuries, and had followers among Chinese intellectuals of the highest standing. Since many Tantric scholars had a deep interest in mathematics (perhaps connected, at least initially, with the Tantric fascination with numbers), Tantric mathematicians had a significant influence on Chinese mathematics as well.

Indeed, as Needham notes, ‘the most important Tantrist was I-Hsing (+672 to +717), the greatest Chinese astronomer and mathematician of his time’. Needham goes on to remark that ‘this fact alone should give us pause, since it offers a clue to the possible significance of this form of Buddhism for all kinds of observational and experimental sciences’.26 Though Tantrism is of Indian origin, the influences, as Needham points out, went in both directions.27 Indeed, ‘Cīnācāra’ (or Chinese practice) figures prominently in parts of the Indian Tantric literature, as do Indian texts in Chinese Tantric writings.28

Yi Xing (or I-Hsing, to use Needham’s spelling) was fluent in Sanskrit. As a Buddhist monk, he was familiar with Indian religious literature, but he had acquired a great expertise also on Indian writings on mathematics and astronomy. Despite his own religious connection, it would be a mistake to assume that Yi Xing’s mathematical or scientific work must have been motivated by religious concerns. As a general mathematician who happened to be also a Tantrist, Yi Xing dealt with a variety of analytical and computational problems, many of which had no particular connection with Tantrism or Buddhism at all. The combinatorial problems tackled by Yi Xing included such classic ones as ‘calculating the total number of possible situations in chess’. Yi Xing was particularly concerned with calendrical calculations, and even constructed, on imperial order, a new calendar for China.

Calendrical studies, in which Indian astronomers located in China in the eighth century, along with Yi Xing, were particularly involved, made good use of the progress of trigonometry that had already occurred in India by then (going much beyond the original Greek roots of Indian trigonometry). The movement east of Indian trigonometry to China was part of a global exchange of ideas that also went west around that time. Indeed, this was also about the time when Indian trigonometry was having a major impact on the Arab world (with widely used Arabic translations of the works of Āryabhaṭa, Varāhamihira, Brahmagupta and others), which would later influence European mathematics as well, through the Arabs. Some verbal signposts to the global movement of ideas can be readily traced. A good example is the transformation of Āryabhaṭa’s Sanskrit term jya for what we now call sine: jya was translated, through proximity of sound, into Arabic jiba (a meaningless word in Arabic) and later transformed into jaib (a bay or a cove in Arabic), and ultimately into the Latin word sinus (meaning a bay or a cove), from which the modern term ‘sine’ is derived. Āryabhaṭa’s jya was translated in Chinese as ming and was used in such tables as yue jianliang ming, literally ‘sine of lunar intervals’.29

There are detailed Chinese records of the fact that several Indian astronomers and mathematicians were employed in high positions in the Astronomical Bureau at the Chinese capital in this period. As was mentioned earlier, one of them, Gautama (Qutan Xida), became President of the Board of Astronomy in China. He produced the great Chinese compendium of astronomy Kaiyvan Zhanjing – an eighth-century scientific classic.30 He was also engaged in adapting a number of Indian astronomical works into Chinese. For example, Jiuzhi li, which draws on a particular planetary calendar in India (‘Navagraha’ calendar), is clearly based on the classical Pañcasiddhāntika, produced around 550 CE by Varāhamihira. It is mainly an algorithmic guide to computation, estimating such things as the duration of eclipses based on the diameter of the moon and other relevant parameters. The techniques involved drew on methods that were established by Āryabhaṭa and then further developed by his followers in India such as Varāhamihira and Brahmagupta.

Yang Jingfeng, an eighth-century Chinese astronomer, described the mixed background of official Chinese astronomy thus:

Those who wish to know the positions of the five planets adopt Indian calendrical methods.… So we have three clans of Indian calendar experts, Chiayeb (Kāśyapa), Chhüthan (Gautama), and Chümolo (Kumāra), all of whom hold office at the Bureau of Astronomy. But now most use is made of the calendrical methods of Master Chhüthan [Qutan], together with his ‘Great Art’, in the work which is carried out for the government.31

In scrutinizing these Sino-Indian connections in science, which were evidently important, we have to assess the role of Buddhism as a catalyst. Even though the Indian astronomers, such as Gautama, or Kāśyapa or Kumāra, would not have been in China but for the relations generated by Buddhism, their work can hardly be seen primarily as contributions to Buddhism.

Creative Arts, Literature and Language

Turning from science and mathematics to the broader field of culture, the consequences of Buddhist connections on China and India were also extensive. The Chinese produced some of the finest Buddhist monuments, temples and monasteries, and among the greatest Buddhist sculpture and paintings in the world. While these must, at one level, be seen as religious achievements, one would have to be quite boorish to see in these works of art nothing other than graphic religiosity. And even though, as Kieschnick has illuminatingly argued, bridge-building has special connections with Buddhist ideas and theories,32 the art and engineering of bridge-building, which received much encouragement from the spread of Buddhism, must be seen to be of considerable secular relevance, no matter what the initial religious inspiration might have been.

The same can be said of music, though the influences here are less immediate than in the visual arts and material construction. Buddhist chants as well as Indian music in various forms (such as Tianzhu music) penetrated into China in the Tang period, and the interactions continued over the centuries. In 1404 Emperor Chengzu, also known as the Yongluo emperor, of the Ming dynasty, is supposed to have compiled and edited ‘Songs of Buddha’, which had been popular in China from the Tang to Yuan dynasties (618 to 1368) and various versions of this song book can be found even today in China as well as in south-east Asia, for example in Vietnam and Burma.

That Buddhism had an impact on Chinese literature cannot come as a surprise. The use of religious and mythological themes for poetry, fiction and drama is standard practice around the world, and any new source of intellectual stimulation cannot but have its impact on what is written and read and enjoyed. There is also nothing astonishing in the fact that over time what began as a purely religious theme can become sufficiently detached – and ‘secularized’ – to be enjoyed irrespective of one’s own religious persuasion. A Chinese audience enjoying Peking operas based on ‘The Heavenly Girl Scattering Flowers’ and ‘Maudgyayana Saving His Mother’ does not need expertise on the Indian Buddhist tradition to make sense of what is going on, and the same applies to the appreciation of the large volume of Chinese poetry and prose that was influenced by Buddhist ideas and its rich treasury of anecdotes.

What is more striking is the indication that thousands of new words and idioms were introduced into the Chinese language through translations from Sanskrit. While some of these Sanskrit words had religious connections, such as dhyana (meditation), which became ch’an in Chinese (and then zen), others did not. Indeed, even the word ‘Mandarin’ derives from the Sanskrit word Mantrī (an adviser or a minister: the Prime Minister of India is still the country’s ‘Pradhān Mantrī’), though that came much later – evidently via Malaya. Sanskrit, like classical Chinese, does have a rich vocabulary, and the immense volume of Sanskrit texts that were translated into Chinese provided the occasion for adding to China’s already rich lexicon.

Another general area of considerable interaction was linguistics and grammar, on which Pāṇini, the Sanskritist, had made a major breakthrough in the fourth century BCE. In the seventh century, Xuanzang discusses the contributions of Pāṇini and his disciples. Within decades of that, Yi Jing separates out this field as one in which India and China had both made significant contributions to scholarly understanding in the whole world. ‘How much more then’, mused this India-returned Chinese scholar, ‘should people of the Divine Land (China), as well as the Celestial Store House (India), teach the real rules of language!’33 How deep these contributions were and how much the two cultures benefited from their interactions remain to be assessed, but this area too, like others already identified, demands investigation from the perspective of broader consequences of Buddhist connections.

Public Communication and Arguments

The movement of ideas and skills in mathematics and science remains particularly relevant in the contemporary world, and creativity based on give and take has immediate implications for global commerce and enterprise (involving, for example, the use and development of information technology or modern industrial methods). What may be perhaps less immediately obvious is the importance of learning from each other in the commitment to public communication and in the art of public health care. These were important in the intellectual relations between China and India in the first millennium and remain quite central even today.

Though Buddhism is a religion like any other, it began with at least two specific characteristics that were quite unusual, to wit, its foundational agnosticism and its commitment to public communication and discussion. The latter was responsible for the fact that some of the earliest open public meetings in the world, aimed specifically at settling disputes between different views, took place in India in elaborately organized Buddhist ‘councils’, where adherents of different points of view tried to argue out their differences, particularly on public practices as well as religious beliefs. As was discussed in Essay 1 above, these councils are of great importance for the history of public arguments. The host of the largest of these councils (the third), Ashoka, even tried to establish, in the third century BCE, good rules for productive debating to be followed by all, with ‘restraint in regard to speech’ and with the points of view of all being ‘duly honoured in every way on all occasions’.

In so far as public reasoning is central to democracy (as political philosophers like John Stuart Mill, John Rawls and Juergen Habermas have argued), parts of the global roots of democracy can indeed be traced to the tradition of public discussion that received much encouragement in both India and China (and also in Japan, Korea and elsewhere), from the dialogic commitment of Buddhist organization. It is also significant that nearly every attempt at early printing in China, Korea and Japan was undertaken by Buddhist technologists.* As was mentioned in Essay 4, the first printed book in the world with a date (corresponding to 868 CE), which was the Chinese translation of a Sanskrit treatise, the so-called ‘Diamond Sutra’ (Kumārajīva had translated it in 402 CE), carried the remarkable motivational explanation: ‘for universal free distribution’.

John Kieschnick has noted that ‘one of the reasons for the important place for books in the Chinese Buddhist tradition is the belief that one can gain merit by copying or printing Buddhist scriptures’, and he has argued that ‘the origins of this belief can be traced to India’.34 There is some ground for that diagnosis, but aside from any belief in the merit of reproduction, there is surely a connection here also with the importance of public communication, emphasized by such Buddhist leaders as Ashoka, who covered India with stone tablets bearing inscriptions on good public behaviour, including rules on how to conduct an argument.

The development of printing was, of course, important in the long run for democracy as we know it, but even in the short run, it transformed the possibilities of public communication in general, with enormously important consequences for social and political life in China. Among other things, it also influenced neo-Confucian education, and, as Theodore de Bary has noted, ‘women’s education achieved a new level of importance with the rise of the Song [dynasty] learning and its neo-Confucian extensions in the Ming, marked by the great spread of printing, literacy and schooling’.35

Health Care and Medicine

Aside from public communication, the inter-country connections in public health care are also of importance, and the two do interrelate with each other (this linkage will be presently discussed). As was mentioned earlier, Faxian, who arrived in India in 401 CE, took considerable interest in contemporary health arrangements in India. He was particularly impressed by the civic facilities for medical care in fifth-century Pāṭaliputra:

All the poor and destitute in the country … and all who are diseased, go to these houses, and are provided with every kind of help, and doctors examine their diseases. They get the food and medicine which their cases require, and are made to feel at ease; and when they are better, they go away of themselves.36

Whether or not this description was over-flattering to early fifth-century Patna (which seems very likely), what is important is the involvement with which Faxian wanted to observe and learn from the arrangements for medical care in the country he visited for a decade.

Yi Jing too, two and a half centuries later, was very engaged in examining health care, to which he devoted three chapters of his book on India. He was more impressed with Indian health practice than with Indian medicine. While giving India credit for some medical treatments, mainly aimed at palliation (such as ‘ghee, oil, honey, or syrups give one relief from cold’), he concluded: ‘In the healing arts of acupuncture and cautery and the skill of feeling the pulse, China has never been surpassed [by India]; the medicament for prolonging life is only found in China.’ On the other hand, there were things to learn from India on health behaviour, such as ‘the Indians use fine white cloth for straining water and in China fine silk should be used’, and: ‘in China, people of the present time eat fish and vegetables mostly uncooked; no Indians do this.’ While Yi Jing returned to China happy enough with his country of origin, he did not omit to discuss what China could nevertheless learn from India.

Public Health and Public Arguments

The extensive intellectual relations between China and India in the first millennium are of obvious narrative significance both for the history of a big part of humanity and for the relevance of these deliberations in the global history of ideas. The need to study these relations is made even stronger by the way this rich history has tended to be ignored in the contemporary understanding of our global past. Many of the concerns and interests that linked China and India in the first millennium (varying from mathematics and science to literature, arts and public communication), with interactions across the borders, have continued to exert their influence in the thousand years that have passed since the first millennium.

There are, however, additional questions of conjectural interest about the light that Sino-Indian intellectual engagements in the first millennium may throw on political, social and economic discussion in the world today. Is the old history of these cross-border interactions between China and India of any relevance to the present-day concerns in these countries, and more broadly, in the contemporary world? For example, does the overcoming of national or civilizational insularity have continuing interest? Is there any contemporary relevance in the traditions and practices in the two countries that, to varying extents, engaged both countries in the first millennium, such as ‘the art of prolonging life’ or the extent to which ‘public arguments’ are to be encouraged?

Public health is a subject in which learning from each other can indeed be extremely important, and this – as we saw earlier – was a subject of concentration in Sino-Indian relations even as early as the fifth century. While Chinese commentators were particularly engaged in asking what China could learn from India in the ‘art of prolonging life’, in the modern context it is much easier to see what India can learn from China, rather than the converse. The lessons for India from China will be a particular focus of attention in Essay 9. In fact, China has enjoyed a life expectancy that is significantly longer than India’s over quite a few decades now (in fact, from shortly after the Chinese revolution and India’s independence, respectively).

However, the history of progress in life expectancy in the two countries tells a much richer story than that overall summary comparison can reveal. Maoist China made an early start in widespread health care shortly after its revolution, in the form of some health insurance for all, delivered by the state or by the collectives or communes in the rural areas. There was nothing comparable in India at that time. By the time economic reforms were introduced in China in 1979, China had a lead of fourteen years over India in longevity. The Chinese life expectancy – around 68 years by 1979 – was almost a decade and a half longer than India’s puny figure of 54 years, at the time of the Chinese economic reforms.

With the reforms of 1979, the Chinese economy surged ahead spectacularly and grew much faster than India’s more modest performance (even though India’s growth rate from the 1980s onwards was higher than her own past performance). However, despite China’s much faster economic growth, the rate of extension of life expectancy in India has been about three times as fast, on the average, as that in China, since 1979. China’s life expectancy, which is now just about 71 years, compares with India’s figure of 64 years, so that the life-expectancy gap in favour of China, which was fourteen years in 1979 (at the time of the Chinese reforms), has now been halved to only seven years.

Indeed, China’s life expectancy of 71 years is now significantly lower than that in parts of India, most notably in the state of Kerala. It is particularly instructive to look at Kerala, despite the fact that it is just one state within a large country. In fact, with its 30 million people, Kerala could have been a country on its own, but more importantly, Kerala’s experience has been particularly distinguished in combining Indian style multi-party democracy with social intervention of the type in which pre-reform China was perhaps the world leader. The advantage of that combination shows itself not only in achievements in high life expectancy, but also in many other fields. For example, while the female–male ratio in the total population in China is only 0.94 and the Indian overall average is a little lower, namely 0.93, Kerala’s ratio is 1.06, exactly as it is in North America and Western Europe (reflecting the survival advantages of women in the absence of unequal treatment).* The fall in the fertility rate in Kerala has also been substantially faster than in China, despite the coercive birth-control policies used in the latter.

At the time of the Chinese reforms in 1979, Kerala’s life expectancy was slightly lower than China’s. However, by 1995–9 (the last period for which firm figures for life expectancy in India are available), Kerala’s life expectancy of seventy-four years was already significantly higher than China’s last firm figure of seventy-one years for 2000. Going further into specific points of concern, the infant-mortality rate in China has declined extremely slowly since the economic reforms, whereas it has continued to fall very quickly in Kerala. While Kerala had roughly the same infant-mortality rate as China – 37 per thousand – at the time of the Chinese reforms in 1979, Kerala’s present rate, 10 per thousand, is a third of China’s 30 per thousand (where it has stagnated over the last decade).

A couple of factors, both of which link to the issue of democracy, can help to explain the slackening of Chinese progress in the art of prolonging life, despite being helped by its extremely rapid economic growth. First, the reforms of 1979 led to the ending of free public health insurance, and it was now necessary to buy private health insurance at one’s own cost (except when provided by the employer, which covers only a small minority of cases). This retrograde movement in the coverage of health care, with the withdrawal of a highly valued public facility, received little political resistance – as it undoubtedly would have met in any multi-party democracy.

Second, democracy also makes a direct contribution to health care by bringing social failures into public scrutiny.* India offers high-quality medical facilities to the Indian rich and to rich foreigners, but basic health services in India are quite bad, as we know from elaborate criticisms of these services in the Indian media. But the possibility of intense criticism is also a social opportunity to make amends. In fact, vigorous reporting of the deficiencies of Indian health services is, ultimately, a source of India’s dynamic strength, which is partly reflected in the sharp reduction in the China–India gap in life expectancy and the better achievements of Kerala by combining democratic participation with a radical social commitment. The terrible effects of the secrecy surrounding the SARS epidemic, which surfaced in China in November 2002 but information about which was suppressed until the following spring, also bring out the link between public communication and health care.

So while India has much to learn from China about health care (especially from the powerful public commitment of the early post-revolutionary period) and about economic policy making (from China’s post-reform experience), the relevance of public communication, which is central to democracy, is a general lesson that India can still offer to China. Interestingly, it is the tradition of irreverence and defiance of authority which came with Buddhism from India that was singled out for a particularly strong chastisement in early anti-Buddhist criticisms in China. Fu-yi, a powerful Confucian leader, submitted in the seventh century the following complaint about Buddhists to the Tang emperor (almost paralleling the contemporary ire of the Chinese authorities about the disorder generated by the present-day Falungong):

Buddhism infiltrated into China from Central Asia, under a strange and barbarous form, and as such, it was then less dangerous. But since the Han period the Indian texts began to be translated into Chinese. Their publicity began to adversely affect the faith of the Princes and filial piety began to degenerate. The people began to shave their heads and refused to bow their heads to the Princes and their ancestors.37

Fu-yi proposed not only a ban on Buddhist preaching, but also quite a novel way of dealing with the ‘tens of thousands’ of activists rampaging around in China. ‘I request you to get them married,’ Fu-yi advised the Tang emperor, and ‘then bring up [their] children to fill the ranks of your army’. The emperor, we learn, refused to undertake this imaginative programme of eliminating Buddhist defiance.

China has joined – and become a leader of – the world economy with stunning success, and from this India, like many other countries, has been learning a great deal, particularly in recent years. The insularity of the earlier Indian approach to economic development needed to be replaced and here the experience of China has been profoundly important. There are great lessons also from China’s early move to universalized health care and basic education. But the role of democratic participation in India suggests that some learning and understanding may go in the other direction as well.

As it happens, India is the only country in the outside world to which scholars from ancient China went for education and training. The overcoming of cultural insularity that we can observe both in China and in India in the first millennium has continuing interest and practical usefulness in the world today. When Xuanzang put a profound rhetorical question about human knowledge to his teachers in Nālandā, ‘Who would wish to enjoy it alone?’, he was pointing to a foundational issue the relevance of which reaches far beyond Buddhist enlightenment in particular. Indeed, that concern and commitment remain as relevant today as they were in Xuanzang’s world in the seventh century. India and China learned a lot from each other in the first millennium, but the significance of that epistemic process has not dried up even at the beginning of the third millennium.

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