Ancient India and the Western world

320 AD TO 750 AD Central Asia 

The introduction of Persian figures in Ajanta establishes, in the opinion of some, the close relations between India and Persia/Central Asia in the 7th century A.D.

Central Asia continued to be a centre of Indian culture and influence. Chinese travelers like Hiuen Tsang and Fa-Hien have thrown light on the subject. Shen-shen, the first kingdom visited by Fa-Hien was situated near Lop Nor at the eastern end of Central Asia. The King was a Buddhist and there were over four thousand monks in that country.

Quoting Fa-Hien “The common people of this and other kingdoms, as well as the monks, all practice the rules of India, only that the latter do so more exactly, and the former loosely. The monks were all students of Indian books and the Indian language”. According to Hiuen Tsang, Buddhism flourished in Agni, Kuchi, Bharuka, Khotan, and Turfan.

Both these travelers refer to the flourishing condition of Buddhism in Khotan. The royal family and people were Buddhists and each family had a small stupa in front of its door. There were four great monasteries of which the most distinguished was Gomati Vihara containing three thousand monks.

Another important centre of Buddhism was Kuchi. According to Chinese records there were nearly 10,000 stupas and temples there in the beginning of the 4th century A.D. They followed Indian doctrines/rules of discipline and studied Indian texts. The Kuchi skill in music was due to the Indian influence; our musicians went there and settled down in that country. The Chinese annals refer to a family called Ts’ao, Indian name Jha or Upadhyaya, who visited Kuchi between 550 to 577 A.D. Another musician Sujiva went to China from Kuchi. The famous Bower script found near Kuchi contains three texts of medical treatise.  

We learn from Arab chronicles that Khalid, the Vizier of Caliphal-Mansur, was the son of a Barmak i.e., Chief Priest in a Buddhist monastery in Balkh called Nawbahar. Khalid came to occupy the highest office under the Caliph and his sons, grandsons ruled the Abbassid Empire from 786 to 803 A.D. They were instrumental in introducing Indian astronomy, maths, medicine and other sciences into Arabia.

While Hiuen Tsang did not find the existence of Buddhism all through his travels, he met the Great Khan of the Western Turks who had a high regard for Buddhism. An Indian monk, Prabhakaramitra of Nalanda stayed with the Turkish chief and taught him Buddhism. Sometime before the mid-eighth century A.D., a Turkish king visited India and constructed two temples each in Kashmir and Gandhara. Sanghavarman, a resident of Samarkand became an eminent Buddhist monk and visited the Mahabodhi temple at Gaya.

The testimony of Hieun Tsang would leave no doubt that a substantial portion of that country was considered as part of India. Buddhism was flourishing. However, he noticed that the people of Bamiyan and Kapisa were influenced by the rude civilization of the Turks. Bamiyan had a Buddhist king while Kapisa had a kshtriya king who practiced Buddhism. Recent excavations reveal strong Indian influence over the whole of Afghanistan.

Middle East
Trade and Political Intercourse: Although Indian trade with the Roman Empire declined after the 3rd century A.D. there is no doubt that it continued for another 300 years. Another e.g. of the flourishing nature of this trade was that when Alaric spared Rome in 408 A.D., he demanded & obtained ransom of about three hundred thousand pounds of pepper.

Trade relations with Western Asia also flourished during this period. Besides our own trade, India was a centre point for trade between China and these countries. The sword of Indian steel is proverbial in Arabic literature. Aden is mentioned at a centre of perfumery which had markets in Sind, Hind & other parts of the world. Indian spices were imported in large quantities in Arabia. India had close contacts with the Pehlevi’s rulers of Persia.  

Chess: The Persian poet Firdausi says in the Shahnama that the ambassadors brought from India a chess board to Khusru. I and men asked him to solve the secrets of the game. Other Arabic and Persian writers state that ‘Shatranj’ from the Sanskrit word Chaturanaa came into Persia from India. Thus, we have the game passing from the Hindus to the Persians, to the Arabs in the 7th century A.D. and from there to Europe in or before the 10th century A.D.

Indian Literature and Sciences: That Indian literature was highly valued. It is proved by a single book Panchatantra which is a collection of fables containing wise maxims. It was translated in the 6th century A.D. from Sanskrit to Pehelvi and then into Arabic/Syrian. The Arabic translation of Panchatantra made it well known all over Europe and it was then translated into Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, and Italian. As Max Mueller remarked, "the triumphant progress of this work from India is more wonderful than the stories contained in it". Other Indian folk tales found their way to Europe and can be traced in the mediaeval collections such as Gesta Romanorun.

Jataka stories and the traditional account of Buddha were current in Western countries. St John of Damascus (8th century A.D.) wrote Barlaam and Josaphat which contained numerous Buddhist legends and portrayed the life of Buddha as a pious Christian saint. As a result, Buddha under the guise of Saint Josaphat was included in the Martyrology of Gregory XIII (1582).

Indian sciences like medicine and arithmetic were highly prized in the West. Iran was indebted to India for its knowledge of medicine and sciences.

Buddhism was a living force in Iran up to the 6th or 7th century A.D. and had cultural contact with India and other centers of Buddhism in Asia. After the military conquest of Mecca by the Prophet, he entered the sanctuary and smashed its many idols which are said to have numbered three hundred and sixty exclaiming “Truth hath come and falsehood hath vanished.”

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