By Prof. Priyadarsi Mukherji
Prabhat Kumar Mukherji, a renowned Indian Sinologist
As early as in 1931, in the international university of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, a renowned Indian Sinologist, a historian and the most authentic biographer of Tagore— named Prabhat Kumar Mukherji (1892-1985) authored a book titled “Indian Literature in China and the Far East”. The spread of Buddhist literature in China in successive ages have been discussed in this book. Later, after the founding of new China, the renowned orientalist Ji Xianlin (1911-2009) wrote in his book titled “Collected Essays on History of Sino-Indian Cultural Relations” that—“Indians were the primary creators. Later religious missionaries, including Buddhist monks, went to borrow the works and use them in the Buddhist scriptures. And those entered China when the texts spread outside India. The literati in China took interest in the texts and further plagiarized them. They used them in their own works. Some used them to propagate the Buddhist concept of Karma, and thus exhorted the believers. Instances can be found of stories finding popularity in the Chinese folk realm.” There is another book named “Essays on Indian Culture” authored by Jin Kemu (1912-2000), which is a collection of papers on Indian culture. He writes in his book—“Today’s India can be understood by comprehending ancient India. We can also know about our motherland China by understanding India.”
While talking about the shared heritage of China and India, we can firstly begin with the story of Pan Gu splitting the Heaven and the Earth apart. Popular in the southern China, Pan Gu emerged from a gigantic egg. This fabulous egg originated in India from the Brahmanda. In Indian myths, Purusha is the masculine, and Prakriti the feminine element in the Nature. In Sanskrit, the word Prakriti also means Nature. After the death of Pan Gu, his body parts turned into myriads of elements in the Nature.
It is well known that the ethnic minorities of China, especially those residing along the Sino-Vietnamese border, have the customs of worshipping the yoni of Nüwa. The Han tomb paintings depicting Fuxi and Nüwa have been two gigantic snakes intertwining each other. In the pictures, they are human-headed, dragon-bodied creatures. There is an ancient Hindu temple in a small town called Halebid in the Indian state of Karnataka. The same depiction of a pair of intertwined human-headed, snake-bodied figures can be seen inside the temple. Here it should be pointed out that the giant snake from the Indian myths later transformed into a dragon in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Similar to the tradition of worshipping the yoni in China, there has been the tradition of worshipping the phallus in India. The phallus of Lord Shiva becomes the object of worship. The Chinese character 祖 depicts this fact. 示 (to express) combined with 且 (the phallus) reflects this ancient customs. Here I would like to point out that the practice of worshipping snakes has been the most ancient customs in the world. The character 蛇 has such a connotation.
Talking about the import of Chinese sericulture into India, Ji Xianlin pointed out that the ancient book titled “Arthashastra” from India of the 4th century BC—-had mentioned about the arrival of Chinese silk in India. Prof. Ji also said that the Indians came to know about silk in the post-Vedic period. He also said that the varied expressions meaning silk in Sanskrit reflected the fact that the ancient Indians were much more knowledgeable and emancipated about silk compared to the ancient Greeks and Romans. There are a number of words in Sanskrit that mean silk. All these words are compounds, composed of the words—Kita and Krimi. The meaning is insect or worm. And Kitaja and Krimija mean ‘Born out of worms’. Besides, the word Kausheya is an inflexion of the word Kosha which means cocoon. The thing produced by the cocoon is called Kausheya. Ancient India knew that silk emerges out of the oral emission of silkworms, and also knew that it is extracted from the cocoons.
The Chinese monk Yi Jing travelled to India during 671-695 AD in search of Buddhist texts. Yi Jing’s book “The Thousand Words of Sanskrit” shows
Excerpt of a scroll from Yijing’s Buddhist Monastic Traditions of Southern Asia.
that apart from the word 丝 , there are varied words like 绢、绫、锦、绣etc in the sense of silk. These sufficiently indicate that the Chinese silk had entered India and south-east Asian countries quite early. Indians specially enjoyed the gorgeous look of the silk brocade from Sichuan—with multicolored floral designs. The south-western parts of China had flourishing border trade ties with the northern and north-eastern regions of India. There were figures of Maitreya Buddha and the Avalokiteshwara embroidered in silk. It is apparent that spreading of religion had a close bond with transportation of silk. In the Indian vocabulary, the word 锦 had the meaning of China. The Indians called China by the name 锦; and thus 锦 became popular throughout the world. The examples are— China, Chine etc.
The only exception had been in the case of Russian. In all probability, Russia began communicating with China during the Liao dynasty (907—1125). During that period, the Khitan tribe had been ruling over certain northern regions of China—under the reigning title of Liao. Thus, the Russians started calling China as ‘Kitay’. The word “Khitan” became synonymous to China.
Jaggery is a traditional sweetener made by heating raw sugarcane juice
In the article titled—“An Incomplete Dunhuang Manuscript concerning the Migration of Sugar from India to China” , Ji Xianlin wrote how the sugarcane juice from India had been made into jaggery and molasses. Such types of sweet items were called sharkara in Sanskrit. Therefrom originated the Chinese word 石蜜. During the Tang dynasty of China, the Indian techniques of making sugar entered China. Hence, the Chinese word 糖 carries the name of the Tang dynasty. The Chinese churned out the white sugar granules, and sent it back to India. And this time the Indians did not know that it was actually a product of their land. So, they started calling it ‘Chini’, meaning— from China. Similarly, the Indian jaggery or molasses were made into sugar candy in Egypt and sent back to India. And the Indians called it ‘misari’, meaning—from Egypt. However, the words for sugar—used in Europe or America, all originate in the Sanskrit word “Sharkara”. For example, sugar in English, sucre in French, Zucker in German, sakhar in Russian, azúcar in Spanish, etc. The English word candy comes from the Sanskrit word khanda, which in Chinese is 石蜜.
The Indian “Panchatantra” has been popular in the whole world since long. People acquainted with the fables of La Fontaine, and the Grimm brothers’ tales, can find in them the Indian tales. Ji Xianlin rightly pointed out that the orally-transmitted folktales in many countries of Asia, Africa and Europe— have been borrowed from “Panchatantra”. Not only do we see its influence on Chinese folk literature, but can also find its effect on Chinese character. For example, we know the story of the race between a hare and a tortoise. The finishing line of the race had a silk ribbon. The tortoise defeated the complacent hare in the race. The hare reached late and hence emerged the word 才（纔） in Chinese. While analyzing Chinese characters, we find the positions top and bottom—-imply the meaning of winning and getting defeated respectively; showing which side is the victor. Here the tortoise is the winner and therefore the tortoise is placed above the hare. In between, the word 比 tells us about the race.
Chinese fables contain a tale of a rabbit sitting inside the moon
Speaking about the top and bottom placement of characters, we can also see how the ancient Chinese viewed the Human Body. The character 體 not only contains the spinal chord, but it also has 曲 symbolizing the spiritual culture, and 豆 symbolizing the material culture. This shows that the brain on the top needs music, and the belly below needs the beans for food. In the eyes of the human ancestors, the position of spiritual culture was evidently higher than the material culture. And hence, 曲was placed above 豆.
According to Chinese legend, a rabbit lives on the moon and pounds the elixir of life in a pestle
The Chinese fables and myths contain a tale of a rabbit sitting inside the moon. Ji Xianlin again points out that starting from the ages of the Rig-Veda from more than a millennium before Christ, Indians believed that a rabbit resides in the moon. The Sanskrit vocabulary can divulge this information. The Sanskrit words for moon all contain the derivatives of the word Shasha, meaning rabbit. For example, Shashadhara and Shashabhrit mean—“containing the rabbit”. Shashalakshana means—“with the shadow of the rabbit”.
Among the Hindu deities, there is one goddess named Durga. Her incarnation is Kali. There is a garland of human skulls
Goddess Kali Kali meaning Mother of Time
around the neck of Kali. She represents the passage of time. The word Kal in Kali—means time. And Kali means the Mother of Time. The male companion of Kali is Mahakala—-the Great Divine Keeper of Time. In the ancient Chinese text “Shuyiji”, there is a story of Guimu, the Mother Ghost. It is said that Guimu gives birth to ten ghosts every morning, and by evening she devours all of her ten children. From the story we can gather that her children were the ten suns or the passage of time. While discussing this topic, we can recall the characters of ten suns and the three-legged ravens in the story of “Yi the Archer shooting down Nine Suns”. It is worth noticing that 鬼and 晷 are homonyms. 晷 has three interrelated senses: shadow of the sun, time, and solar scale for watching time. The word 時 originally contains 日 (the sun) and 寺 (temple). The words 日规 and 日晷 have the same meaning.
In the history of Sino-Indian cultural bond, we come across the historical event of Zheng He embarking on sea voyages across the Indian Ocean. However, there is hardly few people who would know about the linguistic kinship between the southern Indian languages and Chinese—-having connection with the Sea Silk Route. Between 1405 and 1433 AD, Zheng He went seven times on sea voyages. On every voyage, he visited the southern Indian state of Kerala. The local Malayalam language contains a number of words that sound similar to the Chinese words. For example, both would say 你 for ‘you’; 您 stands for ‘ningal’; 姐姐 becomes ‘chechi’; Kerala Muslims call ‘ittiri’ for 一点儿。墨水 is masi in Sanskrit. 哥哥is ikka which comes from Arabic Kaka. Besides these instances, Bengali and Tamil also have many words with prefix Cheena or Cheeni, showing that these items had arrived from China. Like, Chinese nut, Chinese Kaolin, Chinese stringed-crackers, Chinese silk etc in Bengali. In Malayalam, we see Chinese fishing net, Chinese frying pan, Chinese sweet potato, Chinese porcelain jars for preserving pickles, etc. Such examples are not few in other languages as well. In rural Bengal, the colloquial word for River is Gaang. This word sounds very similar to the word Kaang（江）that means River in Shanghai or Zhejiang or even Cantonese dialects of China. It seems that the name of the longest river in India—-Ganga, has the original meaning of river.
Besides all these, both India and China share the same cultural heritage of numbers, especially the odd numbers. Like, the Tripitaka of the Buddhists, the three human lives, three jewels, etc. The Confucian school has the three principles and five regular occurrences. The five metals, five natural elements, five inner organs, five sacred mountains, five poisons, five cereals, five external organs, etc; and then seven feelings, nine springs, etc. Both India and China share the mystical numbers: 81, 108, 72 etc. But always the sum total of the digits comes to nine. Viewing from the angle of Chinese culture, the word nine is homophonic with the word 久 meaning longevity. And from the view of Sanskrit, the sound for nine also means new.
It is said that the five-character and seven-character poems in China have come from the Indian poetics. The ancient Indian poetry rhythms have also been the mother of almost all the famous poems later in the history of Indian literature. In Chinese poetries, there are either five syllables or seven syllables; and in Indian poetries, there are words with five or seven syllables in each line. JinKemu said that while reciting the Sanskrit scriptures, the varied pitches used therein—- had direct influence over the different tones in Chinese language. The Sanskrit Udātta is the Chinese high pitch; Anudātta is the low pitch; Guru is the heavy or the bass tone; Laghu is the neutral tone; and Svarita is the medium or the falling tone.
While talking about the mathematical formulas used in writing Chinese characters, and to delve deep into the Chinese psyche, we find in the word 靈 meaning soul, the picture of a witch uttering mantras to invoke a soul under a rainy sky. There are three mouths in the character, indicating the repetition of mantras. From antiquity till today, Indians recite mantras in different places to invoke god or the souls of dead, and the mantras end by saying ‘Shanti’ thrice in succession. It means peace, peace, and peace; let peace reside in all beings of the world. The three mouths in a row in 靈 indicate the monotonous reciting of the incantations. Hence no top-bottom alignment in it. But in 品 we find a triangular alignment, showing piling of things. Similarly, in 晶、森、焱、淼、掱， the triads reflect piling, density, or extremity. Besides, we find a tetrad in 器, or a dyad in 骂 or 哭。Certain machines, utensils, containers or physical organs have different outlets, like exhausts for gas, pipes for letting out water, or air-ventilators. In Sanskrit similarly, the word yantra means all these which we see in Chinese.
Before concluding my observation, I should clarify certain points raised by Ji Xianlin. He was in disagreement with those who advocated that “Sino-Indian cultural relations historically constituted a one-way traffic”. He said, “I consider that the India-China relations going as far as two to three millennia have had a special characteristic. The most outstanding of all was the process of mutual learning. Both of them had been innovative. They illuminated and permeated each other. In every historical era, this has been the trend. I believe, it would further be like this in future. This is a commendable characteristic. The two brilliant cultures of the great peoples of China and India have lighted the path of progress of mankind. In the process of mutual contact and learning, it was also obvious that each of these two cultures had preserved and developed their uniqueness. And at the same time had absorbed and learnt the culture of the other side. In no stage of history had there been a “one-way traffic”. Bias in favor of China, or in favor of India—run quite contrary to the historical facts.”
Sinology cannot exist in isolation. It should be termed as “Sin-Indology”—a composite cultural perspective emerging out of the cultural communication between the peoples of China and India; and at the same time,successfully retaining their respective characteristic features.
Ji Xianlin, “Collected Essays on History of Sino-Indian Cultural Relations”, Beijing: Sanlian Book Company, 1982, p.125.
Jin Kemu, “Essays on Indian Culture”, Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Publication, 1983, Preface, p.3.
Li Li, “A Study of Paintings depicting Divinities on Han Tombs”, Shanghai Classics Press, 2004, p.13.
Ji Xianlin, “Collected Essays on History of Sino-Indian Cultural Relations”, Beijing: Sanlian Book Company, 1982, pp.76-77.
Chen Yan, “An Preliminary Study of the Southern Sea ‘Silk Route’ ”, cited in “Papers on Oriental Studies”, Peking University Press, 1983, pp.33-35.
Ji Xianlin, “An Incomplete Dunhuang Manuscript concerning the Migration of Sugar from India to China”, cited in “Papers on Oriental Studies”, Peking University Press, 1983, pp.1-17.
Ji Xianlin, “Collected Essays on History of Sino-Indian Cultural Relations”, Beijing: Sanlian Book Company, 1982, p.417.
Ji Xianlin, “Collected Essays on History of Sino-Indian Cultural Relations”, Beijing: Sanlian Book Company, 1982, p.121.
Jin Kemu, “Essays on Indian Culture”, Beijing: Chinese Social Sciences Publication, 1983, pp.313-318.
Ji Xianlin, “Collected Essays on History of Sino-Indian Cultural Relations”, Beijing: Sanlian Book Company, 1982, pp.3-4.
Prof. Priyadarsi Mukherji is a Professor in Chinese & Sinological Studies, Centre for Chinese & South-East Asian Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India