The case for Tibet

Saving the software of Nalanda

This passage from the Dalai Lama’s speech at Dharmasala yesterday is interesting. Although he intends this for China, it is really applicable to the international community.

The (People’s Republic of China, PRC) is a country comprising many nationalities, enriched by a diversity of languages and cultures. Protection of the language and culture of each nationality is a policy of the PRC, which is clearly spelt out in its constitution. Tibetan is the only language to preserve the entire range of the Buddha’s teachings, including the texts on logic and theories of knowledge (epistemology), which we inherited from India’s Nalanda University. This is a system of knowledge governed by reason and logic that has the potential to contribute to the peace and happiness of all beings. Therefore, the policy of undermining such a culture, instead of protecting and developing it, will in the long run amount to the destruction of humanity’s common heritage. [Dalai Lama’s official website]

If the hardware of Nalanda was destroyed many centuries ago, the software lives on in Tibetan culture. This is an important reason for Indian society to support the preservation of Tibetan culture.

Pax Indica: Use religion in foreign policy

The missing ingredient in India’s soft power

“We have allowed,” today’s Pax Indica contends “our misunderstanding of secularism to keep religion out of the foreign policy toolkit.”


No one bats an eyelid when someone argues that we should use democracy, free-market capitalism, socialism or “South-South solidarity” to promote India’s interests abroad. But mention religion and all sorts of people jump at you. The first objection you hear is that “it’s against our secular values”. This is absurd, as I’ve just argued, because secularism applies only to India’s internal affairs.

It is unacceptable for a country with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, one with the longest experience of practising the Islamic faith in a multi-religious society to have no voice at all in one of the most important geopolitical dynamics of our time. India’s lack of Islamic soft power is a symptom of its, well, secular rejection of religious soft power. If we are serious about being a major global power, if soft power is to be something more than a feel-good story, and indeed for our own survival and security, we must dispassionately begin to make strategic use of our religion and culture. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]

649 – The year China first invaded India

The geopolitical implications of Xuanzang’s round-trip

The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey to India and back is well-known (see Samanth Subramanian’s review of Mishi Saran’s book in Pragati). What is not so well-known is that his trip led, unintentionally, to a diplomatic spat between the China and India that ultimately resulted in the first Chinese military expedition to ‘punish’ the Indians.

Harsha-vardhana of India had earlier sent emissaries to Chang’an and in 643, around the time of Xuanzang’s departure from India, a Tang mission under a military official called Wang Xuance had repaid the compliment. Five years later, in 648, Wang Xuance was back in India at the head of a more impressive embassy that was doubtless influenced by Xuanzang’s reports on Harsha.

But this time ambassador Wang Xuanxe received a very different reception. Harsha had died the previous year, his empire was already crumbling, and a Brahminical reaction had set in against the Buddhist community. Evidently, Xuanzang’s long sojourn and his influence on Harsha had encouraged the idea that Chinese support was enabling Indian Buddhists to subvert the political primacy claimed by India’s priestly caste. Wang Xuance’s 648 mission was therefore waylaid. Its valuables were stolen, its personnel detained and Wang Xuance himself barely escaped with his life. He escaped to Tibet.

There he took advantage of a rare moment of amity in Sino-Tibetan relations. In the 630s the great Srong-brtsan-sgam-po [Songtsen Gampo] had been engaged in sporadic warfare with Tang forces in both Sichuan and Qinghai. Unusually the Tibetans fought not to keep the Chinese out of Tibet but to secure closer relations with them, or rather, to secure parity of treatment with that extended by Chang’an to their local rivals…(In 641) with a view to ending their raids, Tang Taizong had granted the Tibetans what was in effect a ‘peace-through-kinship’ treaty. It was sealed as usual with the dispatch of an imperial princess. Further exchanges followed, the Tibetans regarding them as evidence of Tang vassalage and the Tang as evidence of Tibetan vassalage.

Into this happy state of mutual misunderstanding straggled Wang Xuance on his way back from his rebuff in India. The rout of an embassy from the Son of Heaven, not to mention the Heavenly Qaghan, could not go unavenged. Wang Xuance demanded troops for a retaliatory attack on India and the Tibetans obliged. It was thus a joint Sino-Tibetan force that in 649, probably by way of the Chumbi pass between Sikkim and Nepal, crossed the Great Himalaya and inflicted heavy defeat on Harsha’s successors. ‘Thereupon’, says the standard Tang history, ‘India was overawed.’

Elsewhere it is recorded that Wang Xuance brought back as prisoner to Chang’an the man who had supposedly usurped Harsha’s throne. A statue of ‘this contumacious Indian’ was erected among the many in front of Tang Taizong’s tomb and ‘so [the Indian] found lasting fame—but as a trophy and an emblem’. Needless to say, Indian tradition is blissfully ignorant of all this. The Sino-Tibetan incursion probably affected only a corner of Bengal and had no known repercussions. Though a Chinese assault on Indian territory had been shown to be feasible, it would not be repeated until the 1960s. [John Keay/China – A History pp243-244]

Another account offers more and slightly different details:

With the growth of close relations between Nepal and Tibet, Nepal became well known to China as well. In 648-49, during the reign of Narendradeva, son of Udayadeva II, who is believed to have succeeded his father to the kingship in 643, with the help of Tibet, the Nepalese and Tibetan forces combined to avenge an insult offered by a chief of Tirhut (Tirabhukti) to an embassy from China, led by [Wang Xuance] and proceeding to Harsha’s court. This chief of Tirhut is described incorrectly in Chinese accounts as the usurper of Harsha’s throne. [Ram Rahul/Making of Modern Nepal International Studies 16:1]

Someone, Ambassador Wang perhaps, might have inflated the status of the captive to impress the emperor.

Also, given that there is no concept of sovereign equality in the Chinese system of international relations, it is reasonable to speculate whether the Wang’s embassy itself might have been, much like what led to the ‘mutual misunderstanding’ with the Tibetans, a suggestion of paramountcy. Within the context of a backlash against Buddhist political influence, such a suggestion could well have provoked the treatment that Wang received. Not unlike the treatment the Manchu emperor meted out to the papal missionaries a millennium later.

Related Posts: On the New Himalayas and on India’s omphaloskepsis

Did you see the 1000ft sleeping Buddha anywhere?

Unless that old monk was exaggerating

The only clue you have is from a 7th century CE travelogue by Yuan Zhang (or Hiuen Tsiang, as he appeared in history textbooks of an older generation).

Going with difficulty 600 li or so, we leave the country of Tukhara, and arrive at the kingdom of Fan-yen-na (Bamiyan)…The capital leans on a steep hill, bordering on a valley 6 or 7 li in length. On the north it is backed by high precipices.
To the north-east of the royal city there is a mountain, on the declivity of which is placed a stone figure of Buddha, erect, in height 140 or 150 feet. Its golden hues sparkle on every side, and its precious ornaments dazzle the eyes by their brightness.
To the east of this spot there is a convent, which was built by a former king of the country. To the east of the convent there is a standing figure of Sakya Buddha, made of metallic stone (teou-shih) in height 100 feet. It has been cast in different parts and joined together, and thus placed in a completed form as it stands.
To the east of the city 12 or 13 li there is a convent, in which there is a figure of Buddha lying in a sleeping position, as when he attained Nirvana. The figure is in length about 1000 feet or so. [Yuan Zhang (Samuel Beal, trans.)/Si-Yu-Ki pp 49-51

Now Yuan Zhang’s accounts are believed to be generally accurate, but when he mentions a 1000 foot reclining Buddha, perhaps indoors, you won’t be blamed for saying “but that’s incredible!”. Yet archaelogists, led by the indomitable Tarzis, not only believe that it’s there somewhere, but have been looking for it for several years. They have yet to find the big one, but the search throwing up many unexpected rewards—like a “new” 62-foot sleeping Buddha.

Citing Masson, in his translation of Yuan Zhang’s work, Samuel Beal mentions that there were five statues. The Taliban destroyed two. Archaeologists just found a third one. The elusive 1000-footer apart, there should be one more.