Hiuen Tsang – Xuanzang – Foreign Traveller in Indian History
Hiuen Tsang: Everybody runs away from studying. But today’s story is about a traveller who ran away from China to study in India, Hieun Tsang. Xuanzang was born Chen Hui / Chen Yi (陳禕), also known as Hiuen Tsang
Today we will know how he reached India in 600 AD, and how he became an important part of history while studying history. And why he is known as ‘The Prince of Pilgrims’. You must’ve heard the name ‘Hiuen Tsang‘. If it doesn’t ring a bell then try and remember that Chinese guy from history books who carried a heavy backpack and flaunted a Chinese umbrella on his head.
Now you remember, don’t you? By the way, Hiuen Tsang wasn’t always known as Hiuen Tsang. He was named Chen Hui upon his birth in 602 AD. He was inclined towards Buddhism since childhood so much so that he got his initiation when he was just 13 years old. And was named Hiuen Tsang when he became a monk at age 20. Reading Buddhism books translated from Sanskrit to Chinese would often trouble him because they were poorly translated.
He got so absorbed in these religious books that one day he saw a dream. A voice in the dream encouraged him to go to India to fulfill his wish to study Sanskrit and Buddhism. Thus, he made up his mind to go to India.
But when Hiuen Tsang sought Chinese Emperor Taizong’s permission to go to India to study Buddhism, he flat-out refused. Because Taizong had no interest in Buddhism. A lot of people advised him against going to India as the journey would be dangerous and the weather would be hot.
To which he replied, “I would rather die going to the west than live by staying in the east.”Then, at age 27 Hiuen Tsang somehow managed to escape from China. But the road to India wasn’t that easy. While he was crossing the Gobi desert a brutal sandstorm hit and he lost his way. Hunger and thirst drained him completely and he fainted on the ground. His experienced horse saved his life. His horse picked him up and took him near a water source which gave him the strength to continue.
Then, he reached Kashmir via the silk route. Kashmir’s flower gardens not only fascinated him but also gave him his first teachers Vinita Prabha, Chandravarman, and Jayagupta. They were three of the most famous Buddhist scholars of the time. They became his guides. You would be surprised to know that Kashmir, like Magadha, was a stronghold of Buddhism at the time. After Kashmir, he went to different places in North India like Lahaul-Laddhakh, Jalandhar, and Mathura to understand Buddhism.
And then followed Buddha’s footsteps to Lumbini, Kushinagar, and Sarnath before finally reaching Bodh Gaya, where under the Bodhi tree Buddha had attained enlightenment. This is why he is also known as the Prince of Pilgrims.
Four years had passed since he’d come to India. Studious Hiuen Tsang reached Nalanda University and took admitted there to quench his thirst for knowledge, Nalanda is considered the world’s first University, He was Chancellor Shilbhadra’s most special student. It is said that Shilbhadra was distressed because of his various illnesses and had lost the will to live. During this time, God appeared in his dream and ordered him to keep patience. A monk will come from China to promote this tradition over the world.
This is when Hiuen Tsang reached Nalanda. This is probably why Shilbhadra gave him the name Mokshadeva. Gained a reputation as a famous scholar at Nalandaand this is why, when King Harshavardhan from the Vardhan dynasty invited him over, he happily accepted. When Hiuen Tsang came to Kannauj in 641 AD King Harshavardhan organized an 18-day religious congregation. Here, in a scholarly debate, Hiuen Tsang defeated 500 Brahmin, Jain, and Buddhist scholars.
Harshvardhan’s pride swelled at his victory. Slowly, both of them became close friends. Hiuen Tsang heaped lavish praise on Harshavardhan’s bravery, compassion, and valor.
In his description of the Kumbh Mela, he tells how Harshavardhan would invite the whole state to an event to feed more than 1 lakh needy people daily. He writes that Harshavardhan’s army consisted of 60 thousand elephants, 50 thousand chariots, and more than 1 lakh soldiers. The crime rate was very low in Harsha’s era and capital punishment didn’t even exist. If ever there was a crime committed criminal was made to go through a test. The test was called ‘The scales of justice.
In this, a big stone was kept on one side of a scale while the criminal was on the other. If the criminal’s side was heavier he would be let off. If not, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. While talking about the education system, he says that both boys and girls learned the Shastras after primary education. Shastras are considered religious texts now but they meant grammar, the science of arts and crafts, medicine, logic, and philosophy then.
After exploring India for 12 years when Hiuen Tsang set out for China again, people asked him, “Aren’t you afraid of going back as you had run away to come here?””You criticize their lack of respect for religion.””Then why do you want to go back there?
“Hiuen Tsang explained, “If we do not spread Buddha’s teaching to those who need it the most then what is the point of learning?” 42 years old Hiuen Tsang packed 657 Buddhist texts, and 150 Buddhist relics in 520 boxes, loaded them on 20 horses, and set out for China. But going to China wasn’t easy. He faced the threat of drowning in the Sindhu river.
And he did in fact narrowly escape drowning in the river. Unfortunately, many priceless books were destroyed. But he still managed to get across a lot of books to China. You must be wondering what happened to runaway Hiuen Tsang when he reached China? He was welcomed with a lot of fanfare and became a cultural ambassador of sorts, as he brought Harshavardhana and the Tang dynasty closer by starting a cultural movement between the two great civilizations of the East. In his book, Si-Yu-Ki, which means ‘travels in the East, he writes that India is known as ‘In-Tu’ in China.
In-Tu means ‘Moon’ in Chinese. In-Tu because India was like the Moon whose saints and philosophers were spreading the light of knowledge to the world.
Afanasy Nikitin is the next Explorer. A traveler, who came to India for business after crossing three seas and became the first Russian to do so. What did he bring from Russia to sell here? What did he buy first when he reached Gujarat? And which time of the South left him speechless? All this is in the next article.