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The Shravan Kumars of China — How Buddhist stories made it to Chinese iconography

In Chinese caves and iconography, many Indians will see a familiar image — a son carrying his parents on his shoulder. It was Confucian propaganda.

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When Buddhism came to China in the 1st century AD, caring for ageing parents became a troubling matter. As more and more monks were renouncing their families, Chinese Confucian scholars raised the question of filial piety and duty. That is how ancient Buddhist sutras and Indian Samas began appearing in Chinese iconography. The image of a son carrying his parents on his shoulders may be a common Shravan story for Indians, but it began to appear in Chinese scriptures and murals and became a core concept of Confucianism.

Whether the apocryphal Sutra of Sakyamuni’s Filial Piety (Da Fang Bian Fo Bao’En Jing, Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 3, No. 0156), or the murals in the Dunhuang Caves from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), teachings on family duty soon started percolating Chinese iconography.

To merge Buddhist philosophy with Chinese conditions, monks would add extra content when they translated Indian texts, or even compile some of their ‘homemade scriptures’ as ‘Buddha’s speeches’.

From “Sāma/Syama Jātaka”, Sanchi Stupa No.1,1st century BC | Li Ling
From “Sāma/Syama Jātaka”, Sanchi Stupa No.1,1st century BC | Li Ling

Also read: Buddhist Asia had a globalised script 1,000 yrs before the West. It spread from north India

The Shravan Kumars of China

Chinese Buddhist scriptures can usually be divided into three categories—authentic scriptures, doubtful scriptures, and apocryphal scriptures. And the Shravan Kumars of China (or Samas, an earlier incarnation of Buddha as a son who served his parents) can be found across all.

In the teachings on Filial Piety (Xiao), there are several Chinese Buddhist apocryphal sutras:

–          The Sutra of Filial Piety (Fo Shuo Fu Mu’En Zhong Nan Bao Jing, Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 16, No. 0684) by An Shigao (c. 148-180 CE)

–          The Sutra of Sakyamuni’s Filial Piety (Da Fang Bian Fo Bao’En Jing, Taisho Tripitaka, Vol. 3, No. 0156), late Han Dynasty (25-220CE)

–          The Ullambana Sutra (Fo Shuo Bao’En Feng Pen Jing, Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 16, No. 068) had profound influence on traditional Chinese culture.

2. From “Sāma/Syama Jātaka”, Kizil Buddhist Caves No.17, 5th century | Li Ling

The Sāma Sutra/Sāma Jātaka—which came from a real Indian filial story as an authentic sutra and was translated around the 3rd century AD to Chinese—included six Chinese Buddhist scriptures and is regarded as the Buddhist Filial Sutra (Xiao Jing). The image of Sama was so popular that it gradually entered Chinese folklore and became a typical figure in Confucian propaganda on filial piety. The Sāma Jātaka was then transformed from its Indian origin into popular Chinese stories. For instance, “Bringing Deer’s Milk to Ailing Parents (Lu Ru Feng Qin)” was recorded as one of the Twenty-Four Stories of Filial Piety (Er Shi Si Xiao) during the Song Dynasty (950-1279 CE). From then on, the Sāma Jātaka started to appear in many tomb murals.

From “Bringing Deer's Milk to Ailing Parents”, Tomb Mural, Shaanxi Province, 13th century | Li Ling
From “Bringing Deer’s Milk to Ailing Parents”, Tomb Mural, Shaanxi Province, 13th century | Li Ling

Also read: Medieval NRIs: How Indian monks rewrote Buddhism in China

How Sama became Brahmin

There are two types of visual representation for the figure of Sāma in India. First or Type I is a man fetching water for his parents, discovered for the first time in Sanchi Stupa number 1. The second or Type II is a man carrying his parents on his shoulders, discovered for the first time in a mural inside Ajanta cave number 17. Type I is extremely popular in cave temples in northern China, but Type II can hardly be found.

How did this happen? In ancient China, the Type II Sama was transformed from a Buddhist man (as seen in the Ajanta Caves) into a Brahmin figure.

The apocryphal Sutra of Filial Piety received more popularity during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and the image of the Type II Sāma was painted and carved as a filial Brahmin in Dunhuang and Dazu. So, the image of the Sāma, a filial Buddhist practitioner, was removed from its original context and transformed into a non-Buddhist Brahmin figure carrying his parents. However, this image, which was popular post-Tang Dynasty, did not rigorously conform to Type II. The difference is that the Sāma who appeared in Ajanta carries both of his parents on his shoulders, while the Brahmin filial Sāma who appeared in post-Tang murals only carries his mother.

From “Sāma/Syama Jātaka”, Dunhuang Buddhist Caves No.302, 6th century | Li Ling

Only one Chinese Sāma image is consistent with the Ajanta murals – the one found in Sichuan’s Dazu Rock Carving. The carving, which appeared mid-Song Dynasty (1174-1252 CE), contains a clear inscription referring to the preface scene of the Sutra of Sakyamuni’s Filial Piety: When Ānanda (Buddha’s first cousin and disciple) was out begging for food, he encountered a filial Brahmin carrying his parents on his shoulder along with six non-Buddhist practice masters. These people accused Ānanda of monastic cultivation that disregarded companionship with his ageing parents making Ānanda so bewildered that he returned to ask the Buddha to explain how monks perform filial piety. The Buddha, i.e. Sakyamuni, told Ānanda about his filial deeds in previous lives and preached the Sutra of Sakyamuni’s Filial Piety.

From “Sāma/Syama Jātaka”, Dunhuang Buddhist Caves No.299, 6th century | Li Ling

Obviously, the tradition that the Dazu carving inherited is not from northern China, but might be related to the historical exchange between Southwest China and Southeast Asian countries. Ramayana, another Indian classic that recorded the same storyline (story of Shravan Kumar), was well disseminated in Southwest China by the 10th-12th century CE because of trade with Southeast Asian regions. Since then, the filial story and iconographic style of Sāma/Sama Jātaka have been known in the Brahminic context in most of China.

Li Ling is a professor at the Institute of Taoism and Religious Culture, Sichuan University. Views are personal.

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