Thursday, November 18, 2004

Links Between India and China

The intellectual links between China and India, stretching over two thousand years, have had far-reaching effects on the history of both countries, yet they are hardly remembered today. What little notice they get tends to come from writers interested in religious history, particularly the history of Buddhism, which began its spread from India to China in the first century. In China Buddhism became a powerful force until it was largely displaced by Confucianism and Taoism approximately a thousand years later. But religion is only one part of the much bigger story of Sino-Indian connections during the first millennium. A broader understanding of these relations is greatly needed, not only for us to appreciate more fully the history of a third of the world's population, but also because the connections between the two countries are important for political and social issues today.

Certainly religion has been a major source of contact between China and India, and Buddhism was central to the movement of people and ideas between the two countries. But the wider influence of Buddhism was not confined to religion. Its secular impact stretched into science, mathematics, literature, linguistics, architecture, medicine, and music. We know from the elaborate accounts left by a number of Chinese visitors to India, such as Faxian in the fifth century and Xuanzang and Yi Jing in the seventh,[1] that their interest was by no means restricted to religious theory and practices. Similarly, the Indian scholars who went to China, especially in the seventh and eighth centuries, included not only religious experts but also other professionals such as astronomers and mathematicians. In the eighth century an Indian astronomer named Gautama Siddhartha became the president of the Board of Astronomy in China.

The richness and variety of early intellectual relations between China and India have long been obscured. This neglect is now reinforced by the contemporary tendency to classify the world's population into distinct "civilizations" defined largely by religion (for example Samuel Huntington's partitioning of the world into such categories as "Western civilization," "Islamic civilization," and "Hindu civilization"). There is, as a result, a widespread inclination to understand people mainly through their religious beliefs, even if this misses much that is important about them. The limitations of this perspective have already done significant harm to our understanding of other aspects of the global history of ideas. Many are now predisposed to see the history of Muslims as quintessentially Islamic history, ignoring the flowering of science, mathematics, and literature that was made possible by Muslim intellectuals, particularly between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. One result of such a narrow emphasis on religion is that a disaffected Arab activist today is encouraged to take pride only in the purity of Islam, rather than in the diversity and richness of Arab history. In India too, there are frequent attempts to portray the broad civilization of India as "Hindu civilization"�to use the phrase favored both by theorists like Samuel Huntington and by Hindu political activists.

Second, there is an odd and distracting contrast between the ways in which Western and non-Western ideas and scholarship are currently understood. In interpreting non-Western works, many commentators tend to ascribe a much greater importance to religion than is merited, neglecting the works' secular interests. Few assume that, say, Isaac Newton's scientific work must be understood as primarily Christian (even though he did have Christian beliefs); nor do most of us take it for granted that his contributions to scientific knowledge must somehow be interpreted in the light of his deep interest in mysticism (important as mystical speculations were to him, perhaps even motivating some of his scientific work). In contrast, when it comes to non-Western cultures, religious reductionism tends to be a powerful influence. Scholars often presume that none of the broadly conceived intellectual work of Buddhist scholars, or of followers of Tantric practices, could be "properly understood" except in the special light of their religious beliefs and customs.

Amartya Sen - the Nobel Prize winner in the The New York Review of Books
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