- Education and Science
Murshid Khan caught up with Fa Hien and his companions who were travelling towards a pass in the Himalayas in the northeastern part of India. Khan was the commanding officer of a troop of some one hundred horsemen. He was assigned the particular task of gathering intelligence generally in the northeast by the Afghan sultan Muhammad Ghori's military chief, Bakhtiar Khilji who led the invasion on behalf of the sultan. Like many other invaders in the past, Khilji reached Punjub with little resistance and from there moved east like a hurricane to Uttar pradesh and from there to the adjacent province of Bihar. There the invaders laid waste all the vihars, Buddhist and Jain monasteries, and looted gold and silver from the temples. They set about burning the University of Nalanda down before moving on for further plunder and mayhem. The destruction of the University of Nalanda was a great loss for the intellectual communities of a large section of Asia directly because students and scholars from neighbouring countries used to spend time there. It was already a centre of excellence in the 8th century which was burnt down by Bakhtiar Khilji. The year was 1192 CE.
Fa Hien, not his exact name but corrupted by the Indians, came every year with a couple of dozens of Chinese students to Nalanda to debate and study the dharma.
The huge library, now burning, had manuscripts detailing the various parts of the Vedas, the Purans and serious discourses on Buddhism and Jainism.
Fa Hien, now nearly 50 years old took away manuscripts to China. He collected all the available volumes on Darshans, the ancient Indian philosophical theorems and Buddhist texts which were numerous. Apart from treatises on Vinaya, rules, sutras, teachings of Gautam Buddha, and the higher philosophical discourses on Buddhism called Abhidharma, there were many texts describing the Tantric tradition.
Apart from manuscripts Fa Hien wrote down summaries of debates and his own comments; every year he took them back
with him to China.
It was about a month since Fa Hien fled from Nalanda. There was no time to procure mules so his companions numbering two dozens carried the writings together with dried fruit and puffed rice just to sustain themselves. On their way they were joined by Indian and Tibetan Bhikkhus and Siddhas laden with texts on mainly Vajrayana-, Sahajayana- and Kalichakra -tantra. As was the custom, there were a few Sahajyani Siddhas with their female partners. Apart from written materials, they carried a silver statuette of Shiva, a superior deva representing Upaya (method) and a golden statuette of a female representing Shakti (power). Among the Tantrics were lay communities who had their own clay statuettes of Shiva and his consort Kali, the former being painted white the latter, black.
The Tantrics, both Indians and Tibetans, were heading towards Tibet while Fa Hien was going home towards the northeastern region of China. On this occasion, however, all of them were escaping from the invding marauders and seeking sanctuary in safe regions. There were altogether about 80 of them who walked from 4.00 am to 9.00 am every morning and found a shaded area of which there were many and spent the hot day meditating, debating or simply observing the sunset. They cooked communally but the Tantrics separated because they were meat eaters, the meat being obtained by the lay followers. They, much to the chagrin of Fa Hien, drank alcohol and sang devotional songs loudly before going to sleep.
Murshid Khan sent groups of horsemen in various directions with the purpose of reconnaissance. He himself stayed back with half the cavalry with the fleeing Chinese, Indians and Tibetans. Every night a group of horsemen guarded the refugees while the others bivouacked about a hundred yards away. Murshid Khan was in fact carrying out a superficial survey of the area east of Nalanda for future invasions by the Afghans who were ambitious to rule the whole of India.
The destination for the refugees was still far away. News came that the University was so huge and manuscripts so plentiful that it was still burning. The Afghan commander of 100 horsemen had sojourns in many parts of north India before. He spoke and understood an Indian language which was probably a precursor of today's Hindustani or Urdu. Fa Hien, being a scholar, knew Pali and Sanskrit in depth and understood a few other Indian languages having travelled to various Buddhist centres from Gandhar and Kashmir to Bihar. Consequently they both sat together every evening for a considerable time and talked before they were ready for their evening meals. A bond developed between them.
“Come and eat with me,” asked Murshid one evening.
“No,” replied Fa Hien with a regretful tone. “I cannot eat with you.”
“You are beyond the pale.”
“Am I outside the jati?” Today one sees jati mistranslated as caste. The British in their confident manner used caste for jati.
Caste is taken from the Portugese word, casta, meaning race or breed. It is difficult to convey the meaning of jati in English without a great degree of circumlocution.
It looks as if the word caste for jati is here to stay.
Fa Hien nodded in agreement; the Afghan was an outcaste.
“But you are not Indian!” exclaimed an aggrieved Murshid Khan. “Surely, the Chinese don't discriminate as we don't.”
Fa Hien did not answer the question. Instead he asked, “Are you sure you are the same as those marauding Afghans?”
The Afghan commander appeared to be glad of the question. He turned to the Chinese and said without hesitation, “Coming to think of it, I am not. In the year 1152, came a similar wave of Afghans to the northwest of India. They gang raped my mother who died of physical and mental trauma. They took my father away because he was a stone mason. They took me too. I was 12. My father was forcibly converted but allowed to marry an Indian slave woman. I remember clearly my Indian culture which my father and hence myself were forced to abandon. I am lower than you because I do not follow your dharma. Is that not so?”
“Yes that is so.” replied Fa Hien. “And I am lower than you since I am a kafir; because your Almighty does not have any jurisdiction over me; because I don't bow to Him.”
They talked about many other things but the one time Indian was seriously interested in Fa Hien's and his group's dharma. He eventually asked about the Tantric Buddhists as they are called by some nowadays. Fa Hien talked in detail.
To summarise his lengthy discourse, according to his observation, the Tantrics visualise a mandala as the Universe. A mandala is painted on the floor so a Tantric sits with it in front of him.The process of sitting down, shutting one's eyes and meditating is known as sadhana. During sadhana, a Tantric chants mantras as well and offers flowers to the mandala. It takes many years but faithful adherence to sadhana leads to the appearance of the whole Universe, vishwa, to the Tantric as he remains seated with closed eyes. He concentrates his gaze on the manifest Universe for it to become unmanifest and all that the Tantric sees then is emptiness, shunyata, around him. This event is nirvan for the Tantric.
A Tibetan lama carries out a form of sadhana as well. During the process of sadhana, with time, two non-corporeal faculties, namely Wisdom and Compassion appear as Buddhas in front of his closed eyes. If he continues meticulously with his sadhana two more aspects appear as Buddhas to him; these are Generosity and Action. They together constitute the four cardinal points around a fifth Buddha who sits in the centre.
Murshid Khan, a mere soldier, wanted Fa Hien to repeat all he told him about sadhana. He seemed to understand it. Fa Hien was pleased and added that association of such sets of correspondences with the five cosmic Buddhas is common among scholars of Tantric Buddhism. Of course use of sets of correspondences has been known from the Rig Vedic times in India a few millennia ago.
“I now know of Gautam Buddha,” said the cavalry officer. What are these cosmic Buddhas called?”
“Well,” smiled Fa Hien. “Tantrics seldom talk about anybody without mentioning their colour and consorts. In the centre is white- skinned Vairachana with his consort Vajradhateshwari and at the cardinal points are the following:
(1) Blue-skinned Akshobhya with
Lochana as his consort.
(2) Consort Mamaki of the yellow-skinned
(3) Red Amitabha and his consort,
(4) Green-skinned Amoghasiddhi with his
Of course only the male Buddhas sit around the central point. The ladies don't join them.”
Murshid Khan asked, “Who is Gnosis? Who is Skandha? Who is Klesa? Who is mudra?”
“I did not mention them, did I?”
Murshid Khan pulled out a piece of perchment from his tunic and said, “Do you read Persian?”
“Well, it is there. You were talking about correspondences.”
Fa Hien was pleased; a believer in an
Almighty creator! A robber! A killer! Such a person with an interest in dharma?
They moved forward towards their destinations slowly but the progress was slow. Even the cavalrymen walked to protect their horses from the punishing sun and a load to carry.
One day Fa Hien said, “In the Nalanda library, from written accounts, I was trying to establish more about the cosmic Buddhas and Buddha Maitreya who is yet to come but we fled as we heard about your imminent onslaaught on us.”
Murshid Khan was thoughtful. He just said, “From the intelligece I receive every day, your University is still burning; a huge place like that with thousands of manuscripts and wooden buildings.”
Fa Hien brought back the subject of Buddhas. He said that the five cosmic Buddhas correspond also, according to one school of thought, to five skandhas, heaps, viz.,(1) the material form,(2) feelings, (3) perceptions,
(4) formations such as volitions or intentions and (5) consciousness.
Scholars have also equated them with the five basic elements which are fire, water, earth, air and ether. Others have found correspondence with the five primary energies acting in unison to manifest the phenomenal world. He added that he would have liked to identify the five primary energies.
Some 30 miles from the Himalayan pass, mistakenly named Naga La by the Afghan surveyers, Murshid Khan became absent one night. Fa Hien missed the unexpected tutorials on the aspects of dharma.
Next evening though the commander sat beside Fa Hien but did not discuss dharma. He gazed at his Chinese companion for a while before saying somewhat diffidently, “Convert tomorrow to our religion- all of you.”
Fa Hien smiled, “No, no, no; that is a preposterous proposition.”
Murshid Khan looked ahead disappointed for a few seconds, before saying, “In that case all of you will be put to death and your manuscripts and notes destroyed. Do you understand that?”
“I do perfectly,” replied the scholar without hesitation. “I hope you will meet someone again and ask them about gnosis, klesha and mudra.”
The marauding interloper stood up and turned towards his interlocutor. He folded his palms, an unacceptable gesture forbidden by his faith, and walked away slowly.
Men of various races speaking many languages, horses and wagons reached the base of Naga La. The Afghans were physically exhausted but the erstwhile residents of Nalanda, anticipating death next day, ate a hearty meal that evening; rice, beans and fruit picked from local trees.
The Chinese, the Tibetans and the Indians gathered round the Bengali Tantric as he placed the so far hidden statuette of Shakti, the primordial power of the Universe, vishwa, and gave puja. He finished with the mantra which can be translated as follows:
Om. Mahadevi, Mahakali, you remain as
Many namaskars to you.
Give us knowledge, give us
Give us pran, life breath, Oh Shaktidevi,
Pran is mother, pran is father, pran is
brahman, the receptacle of the Universe,
Pran is all.
The mantra of course was recited in Sanskrit which is as follows:
Mahadevi, Mahakali, Shaktirupena
Namastassai, namastassai, namastassai,
Jnanang dehi, bodhi dehi, pranang dehi
Pran mata, pran pita, pran Brahman
In the morning they bathed and folded their palms towards the crimson sun. Noticing a very unusual absence of guards, they walked a few yards to the spot where commander Mursid Khan and his horsemen bivouacked the night before; but there was no sign of them!