When the Bower Manuscript Opened the Doors to an Extensive Hindu Civilisational Imprint in China

When the Bower Manuscript Opened the Doors to an Extensive Hindu Civilisational Imprint in China

The decipherment of the Bower Manuscript led to a spurt of excavations in East Turkistan and paved the way to the discovery of the Kuqa and Kizil Caves in China.

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When the Bower Manuscript Opened the Doors to an Extensive Hindu Civilisational Imprint in China

— 7 — 

THE GERMAN INDOLOGIST, AUGUSTUS FREDERIC RUDOLF HOERNLÉ returned to India early in 1891 after finishing his annual leave. Hailing from a zealous Protestant missionary lineage, Hoernlé had learnt Sanskrit under Theodor Goldstucker’s tutelage. Over the years, he had earned acclaim as a scholar of the so-called Indo-Aryan languages and as an expert archeologist and numismatist. He had recently stepped down as the former editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 

And now, Hoernlé requested for and got the so-called Bower Manuscript from J. Waterhouse. In the April 1891 Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Hoernlé published the first cut of his decipherment of the Manuscript. 

It immediately overturned all the overconfident consensuses prevailing in the domain of Indology so far. Its sensational impact was comparable to or even greater than the discovery that William Jones had made more than a century ago: that Sanskrit was indeed the Mother of all languages.

In one stroke, the so-called Bower Manuscript had opened several floodgates. The most significant outcome was the launch of a whole new field of study: archeological explorations in Eastern Turkistan. The colonial British Government splurged enormous money on this endeavour. Some scholars of that era even characterised this as a “whole modern movement.” Indeed, there was no limit to what they could potentially unearth in the region. But on a subterranean plane, the cultural verdict was unambiguous: the primitive and uncivilised and superstitious race of the Hindus had a truly glorious past, and the more the British dug and studied, the farther the frontiers of this glory extended. 

The so-called Bower Manuscript was the first of hundreds of future conclusive proofs demonstrating the spread and impact of Sanatana and Bauddha Dharma in China and Central Asia. Bharatavarsha was clearly the selfless donor and Guru of exalted philosophy, spirituality and profound cultural values which sculpted and refined the civilisations and societies in this vast region.

When we study history from this perspective as well, we arrive at the same inescapable conclusion: the incalculable damage that Islamic ravages have caused to a substantial part of Asia. For centuries before Islam, commercial and cultural intercourse between India and the Far East was marked by amicability and affection. The sword and fire of Islam transformed major portions of this geography into hellholes of Abrahamic barbarism and its people into semi-savages.

— 8 — 

AS EXCAVATIONS PROCEEDED APACE, Mother Earth revealed ancient historical truths anew. 

Kuchar or Kucha, the site where Hamilton Bower had bought the manuscript, was a flourishing city of great antiquity. In the 7th century CE, it was home to scores of temples and hundreds of Buddhist stupas. There were Chinese kings with beautiful Sanskrit names such as Suvarna-deva and Suvarna-Pushpa who adhered to the Hinayana sect of the Sarvāstivāda School of Bauddha Dharma. Xuanzang who gives us this picture of Kucha also says how “the doctrine and the rules of discipline of the Sarvāstivādas  are like those of India, and those who read them use the same originals.

The most eminent Kuchan was a Buddhist scholar, monk and prolific translator named Kumarajiva. Sometime in the third or early fourth century CE, his father, Kumārāyana had migrated from Kashmir to spread Bauddha Dharma. He had landed in Kucha and had married Jivaka, the sister of the King of Kucha. Showing great promise since boyhood, Kumarajiva mastered the Bauddha Agamas and Sarvastivada. He later journeyed to the selfsame Kashgar, then a great centre of Mahayana learning and mastered Nagarjuna’s Mādhyamaka philosophy. 

Arguably, the whole of the Buddhist tradition in China was singlehandedly shaped by Kumarajiva. Even Communist China has gratefully preserved his memory in the form of a sculpture that greets the entrance of the Kizil Caves in Kuqa County in Xinjiang, China. But even more touchingly, in 384 CE, Kumarajiva built the artistic White Horse Pagoda to honour Tianliu, his devoted horse which carried Buddhist scriptures from Kucha to Dunhuang.   

White Horse Pagoda
White Horse Pagoda
Statue of Kumarajiva
Statue of Kumarajiva

Which brings us back to Kucha. The archeological digs which began after the discovery of the so-called Bower Manuscript eventually took an independent life. Japanese and European explorers and archaeologists entered the scene and uncovered thousands of valuable artefacts and sites. 

Of these, the Kizil and the Kumtura Caves are the most significant for historical, cultural, civilisational and artistic reasons. The Kizil Caves — also known as Caves of the Thousand Buddhas — are the most numerous: 236. These are the indisputable, physical proofs of how Sanatana and Bauddha Dharma shaped the  ancient Chinese religion, culture and society in a profound fashion. Numerous Sanskrit inscriptions in some of these caves list the names of the rulers who patronised Buddhist monks and offer other historical information. Monastic cells in the caves were known by their original Sanskrit name: Kuti. Several wall paintings and murals in these caves exhibit distinctive influences of the Mathura, Gandhara and Kashmir Schools of art. 

But a most astounding discovery was something called the Kizil Library. The scholar of history, Emmanuelle Lesbre writes that this library had some of the “the oldest copies of the Indian theatre known today" written in Sanskrit. Scripts of full-length Sanskrit plays were discovered, and they were explicitly titled, Nataka. They strictly adhered to the rules of Sanskrit drama, comprising prose, verse, music and pantomime. They provide what is known as stage-direction or scenic indications so that “a single performer can enact a complete play by changing attitudes and voices.” (Single-performer plays are typically known as Eka-vyakti Nataka).   

Wall Painting of Cowherd Nanda
Wall Painting of Cowherd NandaPicasa

— 9 — 

THE SUBSTANTIAL WEALTH OF LITERATURE about the Kizil Caves also reaffirms a common refrain at The Dharma Dispatch: the criminal squandering of Bharatavarsha’s inexhaustible cultural repository and the appalling neglect of our deep, civilisational imprint across the world. That these infractions have occurred at a frenzied speed after “independence” in a purposeful and sinister fashion makes the crime more grotesque and unforgivable. What is our foreign policy worth if it doesn’t recognise these indomitable strengths of our past? These are strengths we independently built through a complex amalgam of life-affirming philosophy, refined spirituality, a robust and prosperous economic system, a stable and harmonious social order and an undying spirit of Kshatra which sustained all this. For the last 75 years, we have been unable to straighten our spine — the surest indicator of playing to our strengths — which has been bent out of shape thanks to a defaced history, which has bred four generations imbued with incurable inferiority complex. 

In fact, the legendary DVG had condemned Indira Gandhi more than 40 years ago precisely on this point: 

Thanks to the great winner of independence and his daughter, India stands tied to the apron­-strings of the mother of Communism even though the bulk of India's population is not communist… what gives poignancy to the reflection that we are so miserably incapable of going at least to the moral support of Cambodia is the recollection of the historical fact of our ancient kinship. Once upon a time perhaps about the time of the beginning of the Christian era – Cambodia was part of the cultural empire of Hinduism.

What applies to Cambodia also applies to China in varying degrees. If we had actually played to our strengths, our foreign policy doctrine would have been perpetually reminding China of the incalculable debt it owes to the Santana civilisation. The debt among other things, visible to the eye, in the Kizil Caves and other ancient sites. 

And it was the so-called Bower Manuscript that cut open this road. We will briefly examine its contents in the next episode. 

To be continued 

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