Monday, September 14, 2009

The unsolved mysteries

Xuanzang’s total stay at Nalanda

As we have noticed in some of the previous discussions, the two biographies of Xuanzang ‘Life’ and ‘Travel’ pose a significant challenge in drawing parallel conclusions.
Life of Hiuen-Tsiang” (“Life”) by Hwui Li and “Records of western Countries” (“Travels”) have different interpretations about route taken by Xuanzang to Nalanda. While both travelogues state the journey start in Pataliputra for Bodh Gaya and on the way he went to Telhada monastery but the description about how he arrived at Nalanda is significantly different. The “Life” account maintains that he arrived at Kulika (the birth place of Moggallana) directly from Bodh Gaya and stayed there for a night at a farm before he was given a pompous welcome at Nalanda the following day. But the “Travel” account says that he first reached Rajgriha and from there he traveled to Nalanda.

There is also considerable doubt about the number of years Xuanzang stayed at Nalanda, Cunningham, who based his calculations on the both the accounts concludes that Xuanzang arrived at Nalanda in March 637AD and left Nalanda for his travel to southern India in Jan 639AD. There are four different references of his stay at Nalanda in the “life”, and that partly fuels the confusion on the number of years that Xuanzang actually stayed at Nalanda and when.

In Book III page 125,
Thus he penetrated, and examined completely, all collection, and also studied the sacred books of the Brahmans during Five years.

Here the biographer doesn’t clarify if this was his study and stay at Nalanda or total time he devoted to study including his travels to various parts of the country.

In Book III page 109, it reads
Then Fa-Tsong (Shilabhadra) asked him further “for how many years have you been on your journey?” he answered “during three Years” …..

We know Xuanzang started from Changan in August 629. And as Xuanzang himself mentioned that he traveled for 3 years and in addition to that he stayed at few places for study on his way, the major ones include 2 years at Kashmir and 14 months at Chinabhukti (modern firozpur) among many others. This would sum up to about 7 to 8 years from his start in 629AD and brings us to 637 AD. And this is how we arrive at the tentative year of when Xuanzang arrived at Nalanda.

From Nalanda he went to Kamrupa and then all way to Kanchipuram. From Southern India he came to Vallabhi in west and then returned to Nalanda via Multan and Parvata.

After his sojourn at Nalanda, he left for Tiladaka monastery about 3 Yojan west and stayed there for 2 Months. From Tiladaka monastery he went to Yastivana (modern Jethian) where he speaks about Jayasena, who according to him was a man of high attainment and Xuanzang stayed with him for two years.

In book III page no 121
Shilabhadra requested him to remain there and listen to the explanation of the sutras for 15 Months……
The master of law whilst he stopped in the convent heard the explanation of Yogasastra three times.

It evident from this dialogue that Xuanzang stayed at Nalanda monastery for 15 months before leaving for the pilgrimage to further east and south India.

In Book IV page 155
The master of law remained (Xuanzang) with him first and last for two years, and studied a treatise on the difficulties of the Vidya-matra-siddhi……..

This reference is in context with his stay at Yastivana (modern Jethian) with Jayasena. As discussed earlier Xuanzang after his trip to south India returned to Nalanda monastery and then left for Tiladaka monastery and then to Jethian.  Xuanzang has given a detail description of his association with Jayasena and even if he didn’t stay for 2 years he did spend a considerable time with him.

Taking into account these various descriptions the total time that Xuanzang must have spent at Nalanda would be

Nalanda Mahavihar- 637 to 639 +
Tiladaka – 2 Months +
Yastivana- Two years +
Total= 4 years

After his initial stay at Nalanda in 637AD, he left for a pilgrimage to southern India via Kamrupa, Kanchipuram, Multan and Parvata and arrived back at Nalanda after a journey of more than 30 thousand Li. At some places like Irana, Bezwada and south Kosala he stayed for as long as a month each.
The other confirmed date that we have is his arrival in Changan in April 645 AD. We track back keeping this time as constant and try to come up with a timeframe when he started his return journey from Nalanda. His return path included the places mentioned below from Nalanda to Changan and also is a summary of time he spent there…

Kamrupa- 1 Month
Kanyakubja (Harsavardhan Court) - 4 Months
Virashana- 2 month
Jalandhara- 1 Month
Kapisa- 75 Days
Kunduz- 1 Month
Khotan- 8 month

So adding up the time he stayed at these places and a travel time of about a year since it was a caravan of elephants carrying numerous scriptures and sculptures, we can deduce that his return journey was about 3 years and that tells us that his return from Nalanda started in the year 642 AD.

We are left with a spread of 639 AD to April 642 AD. This includes his 2nd stay at Nalanda and around plus 30 thousand Li journey across India.

So if we try to distribute this time of 3 years to accommodate a two year stay and a travel distance of about 30 thousand Li to various places across India, it would not be irrelevant to say perhaps he didn’t not stay in Nalanda for more that 2 years. And his fondness and appreciation for Jayasena and clearly mentioning about his 2 year stay at Yastivana puts further doubt on how many years he actually spent at Nalanda. 


Number of students in the Nalanda Mahasanghrama

Let’s put all the references in the travelogue about number of students at Nalanda Mahavihar
1-       The life of Xuanzang, Book-III, page 101, travels, chapter XIV, Magadha, page 86
Crossing the Ganges we come to the kingdom of Magadha. This kingdom is 5000Li in circuit. There are about 50 Sangharamas and 10,000 priests, mostly attached to Great vehicle.
2-       Book-III, page 112
The priests, belonging to the convent or strangers always reach to the number of 10,000
3-       “Travels”- Thomas Watters, chapter-XIV, page 86
Crossing the Ganges we come to the kingdom of Magadha. This kingdom is 5000Li in circuit. There are about 50 Sangharamas and 10,000 priests, mostly attached to Great vehicle.
Itsing - Itsing puts the number of students to 3000
Hwui Lun -There are about 3500 priests in the temple at Nalanda
Dharmasvamin -The Mahasanghrama was counting its last days when Dharmasvamin visited the monastery. There were around 70 students and two monastic units were in use

There is a general perception of 10,000 students staying in this big complex during the time of Xuanzang visit. But on a closer look and a thoughtful analysis we find neither is this true but also not possible. Xuanzang in his “Travel” and “Life” accounts has mentioned about 10,000 students and over 50 monasteries for the Magadha region this is usual of Xuanzang as he has mentioned about the area, number of monasteries, Higher or Lower vehicle and approximate number of monks in the monasteries of all the kingdoms he has visited. Further in the “Life” accounts he says “The priests, belonging to the convent or strangers always reach to the number of 10,000”, we must notice the word strangers, always and reach in the context.  This is probably reference to some lay disciples or monks, priests and students reaching there for attending some important discourse, functions and festivals and not the actual residents of the Mahasanghrama. This is corroborated with the description in “Life” where he tells about his welcome at Kulika.
Page 106,
Halting here for short refreshment, then with two hundred priests and some thousand lay patrons, who surrounded him as he went, recounting his praises, and carrying standards, umbrellas, flowers and perfumes, he entered Nalanda.
Moreover he has mentioned that there are 50+ sangharamas and 10,000 students in whole of Magadha region of which Nalanda Mahasanghrama was also apart. Further we have accounts of It-sing and Hwui Lun who mention of 3000 and 3500 students at their time respectively
We try to examine the possible capacity of sangharama at the time of Xuanzang
1-       There were 5 monasteries in working condition as per the Xuanzang accounts
2-       Monasteries were 4 storeys ( Maximum)
3-       Monasteries had same monastic plan as the excavated remains
The calculations

Cells (Ground floor)
On top floors
Total cells
16  x  3= 48
31  x  3=93
21  x  3= 63
38  x  3=  114
38  x  3= 114
Total no of Cells- 555
If there is double occupancy- 562X 2 = 1124students
We see the maximum students as per the description where 1110. He has mentioned about separate chambers for the priests which again is in 4 stages. In any case this number is not exceeding 2000 students + teachers.

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