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Medieval NRIs: How Indian monks rewrote Buddhism in China

When we think of India’s influence on the world, it's important to recognise individuals who weren't kings — Buddhist monks can shed stereotypes.

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In the 21st century, we are accustomed to thinking of the Indian diaspora as a globally influential people. Indians and people of Indian origin shape today’s global cultural, technological, and social landscape. While this modern dynamic is unprecedented in scale, the communities of the Indian subcontinent have always been proactive in their attempts to traverse the seas and spread their ideas. Far from our stereotype of Indians being uninterested in sharing their religious cultures, new scholarship shows us that Indian immigrant monks totally transformed the religious world of much of Asia in the eighth century CE.

Monks, tantra, and kings

Buddhism’s presence across Asia is often thought of as the result of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka’s embassies of the third century that were sent out across the region to preach the religion’s ideals. In reality, the heyday of Asian Buddhism came nearly 1,000 years after Ashoka, when vibrant new polities and religious networks had emerged across South and Southeast Asia.

Variously called “Maritime” or “Monsoon” Asia, this immense geocultural world stretched across the Indian subcontinent and into the oceans, plugging the thriving cultures of Bengal and Tamil Nadu into the Rohana and Lambakanna kingdoms of Sri Lanka, the Pyu polities of Myanmar, the emerging city-states of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, the powerful Sailendra polity of Java, and thence to the vibrant, cosmopolitan world of China under the Tang dynasty. Ideas and material goods flowed between these regions, took on local forms, and then returned to circulation.

By the eighth century, South Asian religious masters, especially the Shaivites, had developed the concepts of tantra. Today, we see it as Victorian England once did — a dark, violent, lustful body of ideas separate from mainstream Indian religions. However, medieval tantra was a vast corpus of thought concerned with manipulating reality and inculcating power through various esoteric practices. It was deeply integrated into mainstream Shaivism, Shaktism, and even Buddhism and Vaishnavism. Tantric offerings might include blood, meat, and sexual fluids, but were more typically flowers, incense, gestures, mandalas, and the chanting of complex mantras. Tantric masters promised that they could bring rains, avert famines, ensure prosperity and military victory, and offered a host of spiritual benefits.

To the kings of Asia — the Deccan king Vikramaditya I (r. 655–680 CE), who underwent an initiation into an esoteric Shaivite sect in 660 CE, or the Tamil ruler Narasimhavarman Pallava II (r. 690–725 CE), who was similarly initiated in the early 700s — Tantrism was believed to offer tangible benefits for the states they were building. Indeed, a young relation of Narasimhavarman appears to have been sent to Nalanda University in Bihar to develop his understanding of tantric Buddhism, even as the king himself became a Shaiva initiate. He was called Vajrabodhi, or Vajrabuddhi, and he would go on to transform Asian Buddhism.


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Indian monks in China and Asia

Born around 705 CE according to Chinese court biographies, Vajrabodhi spent much of his early life travelling through northern and western India and studying tantric Buddhism before returning to his family’s kingdom in Tamil Nadu. There, he immediately displayed his tantric powers by forcing rain and trees to blossom, at which point he decided to travel to China via Sri Lanka and Java, resisting attempts by local kings to get him to stay and imbue their kingdoms with his powers (in this, Southeast Asian kings were very clearly similar to contemporary Indian kings).

Much of Vajrabodhi’s career in China was spent translating voluminous tantric scriptures in Sanskrit that he had memorised into Chinese. These include texts such as The Ritual for Practicing the Samadhi of Vairocana in the Yoga of the Adamantine Pinnacle Sutra and The Spell Text of the Great Body of the Bodhisattva Thousand-Armed and Thousand-Eyed Avalokiteshvara. As flowery as these names are, they reveal something much more interesting: Vajrabodhi was importing the most cutting-edge ideas in theology and religious practice from Bengal via Tamil Nadu into China with influence from tantric Shaiva and Buddhist schools. In his theology, five supreme Buddhas were associated with a cosmic mandala that could be manipulated with ritual. This was a very different religion from that once preached by Siddhartha Gautama.

Vajrabodhi’s disciple and successor in the Tang court, Amoghavajra, had a Central Asian father and an Indian mother. He developed a cult dedicated to the Buddhist deity Manjusri after accessing esoteric libraries in Sri Lanka and Bengal. Historian Swati Chemburkar writes in Esoteric Buddhism in Medieval Maritime Asia, “By the end of the eighth century, Manjusri’s cult, centred on the five-peaked mountain called Wutai Shan, was one of the most important cults in China where aspirants to chakravartin [emperor] status would seek the Bodhisattva [Manjusri]’s support.” She further notes that similar royal Buddhist cults existed in Bengal and Java. The mandala-based royal Buddhism of these two Indian monks would go on to become the basis for many influential schools in Japan and China in subsequent centuries.

The Buddhist world of Maritime Asia was one of the most vibrant cultural centres in global history. Amoghavajra and Vajrabodhi are just two among thousands of monks who traversed the region, often working with royals and ambassadors. Texts, icons, relics, and ideas were exchanged at a large scale. The urge to build states and consolidate royal power was inseparable from belief and religion. When we think of India’s influence on this wider world, it’s important to recognise remarkable individuals who were not kings. But we must also remember that other regions of Asia had their own complex reasons for adopting ideas from the subcontinent.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a writer and digital public humanities scholar. He is author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. Views are personal.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history. 

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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