Hieun Tsang

Also referred to as Xuanzang

Hieun Tsang was a Chinese monk who visited India around 630, during the reign of King Harshavardhana (606-647). The Deccan region then belonged to the Chalukyas under Pulekesin II (609-642) while further south was the domain of the Pallavas who had Narasimha Varman I (630-668) as their ruler. Hieun Tsang trekked to India through perilous mountains, ruthless deserts and hostile territories. It was the fame of India as the foremost center of Buddhist learning that inspired him to undertake such an arduous journey.

The university at Nalanda, now in Bihar, had attained the stature of the premier institution for Buddhist instructions. Hieun Tsang stayed for 12 years at Nalanda, first as a student and later as a tutor. Here he was titled Mokshdeva (God of Salvation). He devoted almost his entire time in India visiting monasteries and collecting Buddhist scriptures which he later translated and compiled to form seminal works on Buddhism in Chinese. Hieun Tsang’s accounts make it clear that Buddhism had far less followers than first believed.

Harsha’s assembly at Kanauj in 643 served as a platform where Hieun Tsang could meet Buddhist scholars of various sects besides learned people from various faiths. The assembly featured serious discussions on several religious issues and had regular discourses from different beliefs that helped foster an atmosphere of compassion and belonging.

Hieun Tsang recorded his experiences in Ta-Tang-Si-Yu–Ki, translated as Buddhist travels in the western world, because India, to the Chinese embodied the west. In it there are notes on the administrative policies of King Harshavardhana and an overview of his society. There are also detailed accounts on the functioning of the university of Nalanda. It is widely believed that these ideas reached the West through Muslim intermediaries when centers of learning in Europe adopted a similar pattern.

Updated on 14th September, 2015


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