Brief description of Fa Hian’s Account of India

Brief description of Fa Hian's Account of India

An account of ruling dynasties is not a History of India, and it is necessary that we should try to form a more distinct notion of the numerous races which inhabited India, their chief towns, their arts, and their civilisation. Happily we have some material at our disposal to help us in this undertaking, in the records of a Chinese traveller who visited India.

Fa Hian came to India about 400 A.D., and begins his account of it with Udyana, or the country round Kabul, with which he says North India commenced. The language then spoken here was the language of Mid-India, and the dress and food and drink of the people were the same. Buddhism was then flourishing, and there were five hundred Sangha-dramas or abodes of monks. He passed though Svat, Gandhara, Taxasila, and Peshawar, in which last place he saw a Buddhist tower of remarkable strength, beauty of construction, and height. Travelling through Nagarahara and other countries, and after crossing the Indus, Fa Hian at last reached the Mathura country on the Jamuna river. On the sides of the river, both right and left, there were twenty Sangharamas, with perhaps 3000 priests. The religion of Buddha was progressing and flourishing.

Brief description of Fa Hian's Account of IndiaBeyond the deserts are the countries of Western India. The kings of these countries (Rajputana) are all firm believers in the law of Buddha. . . . Southward from this is the so-called middle country (Madhyadesa). The climate of this country is warm and equable, without frost or snow. The people are very well off, without poll tax or official restrictions; only those who till the royal lands return a portion of profit of the land. If they desire to go, they go; if they like to stop, they stop. The kings govern without corporal punishment ; criminals are fined according to circumstances, lightly or heavily. Even in cases of repeated rebellion, they only cut off the right hand. The king’s personal attendants who guard him on the right and left have fixed salaries. Throughout the country the people kill no living thing, nor drink wine, nor do they eat garlic or onions, with the exception of Chandalas only. … In this country they do not keep swine nor fowls, and do not deal in cattle; they have no shambles or wine shops in their market-places. In selling they use cowrie-shells. The Chandalas only hunt and sell flesh.

Down from the time of Buddha’s Nirvana, the kings of these countries, the chief men and householders have raised Viharas, and provided for their support by bestowing on them fields, houses, and gardens, with men and oxen. Engraved title-deeds were prepared and handed down from one reign to another; no one has ventured to withdraw them, so that till now there has been no interruption. All the resident priests having chambers (in these Viharas), have their beds, mats, food, drink, and clothes provided without stint; in all places this is the case.”

Our traveller passed through Sankasya and came to Kanouj, which was at this time the flourishing capital of the Gupta emperors, but unfortunately Fa Hian has little to say about the city except its two Sangharamas!

Passing through Shachi, Fa Hian came to Kosala and its ancient capital Sravasti. But that great city had declined since the days of Buddha, and the Chinese pilgrim saw very few inhabitants in the city, altogether about 200 families. But Jetavana, in which Buddha had often preached, had not lost its natural beauty, and the Vihara there was now ornamented with clear tanks, luxuriant groves, and numberless flowers of variegated hues. The monks of the Vihara, on learning that Fa Hian and his companion had travelled from China, exclaimed, “Wonderful! To think that men from the frontiers of the earth should come so far as this from a desire to search for the law.”

Kapilvastu, the birth-place of Gautama, was no more in its glory. “In this city there is neither king nor people; it is like a great desert. There is simply a congregation of priests, and about ten families of lay people.”Kushinagara, too, where Gautama had died, was no longer a town. There were but few inhabitants, and such families as there were, were connected with the resident congregation of priests.

Fa Hian then came to Vaisali, once the proud capital of the Lichchavis, and the spot where Gautama had accepted the hospitality of the courtesan Ambapali. Here, too, was held the Second Council, and Fa Hian alludes to it: “One hundred years after the Nirvana of Buddha there were at Vaisali certain Bhikshus who broke the rules of the Vinaya in ten particulars, saying that Buddha had said it was so; at which time the Arhats and the orthodox Bhikshus, making an assembly of 700 ecclesiastics, compared and collected the Vinaya Pitaka afresh.”

Crossing the Ganges, our traveller came to Pataliputra or Patna, first built by Ajatasatru to check his northern foes, and afterwards the capital of Asoka the Great. “In the city is the royal palace, the different parts of which he (Asoka) commissioned the genii to construct by piling up the stones. The walls, doorways, and the sculptured designs are no human work. The ruins still exist.” By the tower of Asoka was an imposing and elegant Sangharama and temple with 600 or 700 monks. The great Brahman teacher Manjusri himself lived in the Buddhist Sangharama, and was esteemed by Buddhist Sramans.

We have also here an account of the pomp and circumstance with which Buddhist rites were then celebrated. “Every year on the eighth day of the second month there is a procession of images. On this occasion they construct a four-wheeled car and erect upon it a tower of five stages, composed of bamboos lashed together, the whole being supported by a centre post, resembling a spear with three points, in height 22 feet and more. So it looks like a pagoda. They then cover it over with fine white linen, which they afterwards paint with gaudy colours. Having made figures of the Devas, and decorated them with gold, silver, and glass, they place them under canopies of embroidered silk. Then at the four corners of the car, they construct niches (shrines) in which they place figures of Buddha in a sitting posture, with a Bodhisattva standing in attendance. There are perhaps twenty cars thus prepared, and differently decorated. During the day of the procession, both priests and laymen assemble in great numbers. There are games and music, whilst they offer flowers and incense. The Brahmacharis come forth to offer their invitations. The Buddhas then one after the other enter the city. After coming into the town again they halt. Then all night long they burn lamps, indulge in games and music, and make religious offerings. Such is the custom of all those who assemble on this occasion from the different countries round about.” This is a valuable account from an eye-witness of the system of idolatry to which Buddhism had declined by the fifth century A.D.

buddha-225x300More interesting to us is the account of the charitable dispensaries of the town of Pataliputra. “The nobles and householders of this country have founded hospitals within the city to which the poor of all countries, the destitute, cripple, and the diseased may repair. They receive every kind of requisite help gratuitously. Physicians inspect their diseases, and according to their cases order them food and drink, medicine or decoctions, everything in fact that may contribute to their ease. When cured, they depart at their convenience.”

Fa Hian then visited Rajagriha, the new town built by Ajatasatru, as well as the old town of Bimbisara. The traveller here alludes to the first Buddhist Council, which was held immediately after the death of Buddha to compile the sacred texts. “There is a stone cave situated in the northern shade of the mountain, and called Cheti. This is the place where 500 Arhats assembled after the Nirvana of Buddha to arrange the collection of sacred books.”

At Gaya, Fa Hian found everything desolate and like a desert. He visited the famous Bo-tree and all the other places connected with Buddha’s penances and attaining supreme wisdom, and tells legends which had grown up since Gautama’s time. He then arrived at the country of Kast and the city of Benares, where he visited the deer park where Gautama had first proclaimed the truth. Two Sangharamas had been built here. Thence he went to the ancient town of Kausambi, where Gautama had often preached.

From Benares, Fa Hian returned to Pataliputra. The purpose of Fa Hian was to seek for copies of the Vinaya Pitaka; but “throughout the whole of Northern India the various masters trusted to tradition only for their knowledge of the precepts, and had no originals to copy from. Wherefore Fa Hian had come even so far as Mid-India. But here in the Sangharama of the great vehicle he obtained one collection of the precepts.” Proceeding down the course of the river Ganges, the pilgrim came to Champa, on the southern shore of the river. We have already said before, that Champa was the capital of Anga or East Behar, and was situated near modern Bhagalpur. Going further eastward and southward, Fa Hian came to Tamralipti, which was then the great seaport at the mouth of the Ganges. There were twenty- four Sangharamas in this country; all of them had resident priests, and the law of Buddha was generally respected. Fa Hian remained here for two years, writing out copies of the sacred books, and drawing image pictures. He then shipped himself on board a great merchant vessel. Putting to sea, they proceeded in a south-westerly direction, catching the first fair wind of the winter season. They sailed for fourteen days and nights, and arrived at the “country of the lions” {Sinhala Ceylon).

Ceylon, our traveller says, had originally no inhabitants, but merchants came in great numbers and gradually settled here, and so a great kingdom rose. Then the Buddhists came (Fa Hian says, Bhuddha came), and converted the people. The climate of Ceylon was agreeable and the vegetation verdant, and to the north of the royal city was a great tower 479 feet in height, with a Sangharama containing 5000 monks. But amid these pleasing scenes, the heart of the traveller sickened for his home, from which he was now separated for many years, and when on one occasion the present of a fan of Chinese manufacture by a merchant, to a jasper figure of Buddha 22 feet high, reminded Fa Hian of his native country, he “gave way to his sorrowful feelings, and the tears flowing down filled his eyes.”

After a residence of two years in Ceylon, and after obtaining copies of the Vinaya Pitaka and other works “hitherto unknown” in China, Fa Hian shipped himself on board a great merchant vessel which carried about 200 men. A great tempest arose, and the ship sprung a leak, and much cargo had to be thrown overboard. Fa Hian threw overboard his pitcher and his basin, “and was only afraid lest the merchants should fling into the sea his sacred books and images.”

The hurricane abated after thirteen days, the passengers came to a little island where they stopped the leak, and then put to sea again. “In this ocean there are many pirates, who, coming on you suddenly, destroy everything. The sea itself is boundless in extent; it is impossible to know east or west, except by observing the sun, moon, or stars, and so progress. . . At length, the weather clearing up, they got their right bearings, and once more shaped a correct course and proceeded onwards,” and after over ninety days they reached Ye-po-ti (Java, or Sumatra).

“In this country heretics and Brahmans flourish.” Stopping here for nearly five months, Fa Hian embarked on board another merchant vessel with a crew of about 200 men, who took fifty days’ provisions with them. After they had sailed for over a month, a storm again arose and sailing for eighty-two days, they finally arrived at the southern coast of China.

~ R.C. Dutt


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