Sea routes, including through these waterways, were
the most important channels connecting India with Vietnam. India is also
a peninsula, albeit like a small continent. Long before the Christian
Era, Indian merchants traded with Arabs and Mediterranean countries.
Trade was especially brisk with the Roman Empire in gold, pearl,
perfumes, silk and sandalwood. In order to source enough merchandize to
trade with western markets, Indian traders set out in their boats,
taking advantage of the Southwestern monsoon, sailing towards Southeast
Asia, to Malaysia, to the Indonesian group of islands, crossing the
Malacca Strait into the South China Sea, to Vietnam, China and then
Japan. When setting out they took advantage of the Southeastern monsoon.
When coming back they had to wait for the Northeastern monsoon the
During a year’s stay, they had enough time to trade
and, gradually, deeply influence their host’s production, culture, daily
life, and religion. Unconsciously, they took part in the process of
Hinduization in Eastern areas. It was an expansionism without occupation
- just an expansion of culture, religion and economy. Among the Indian
merchants who came and went, some of them stayed and married native
wives. They were given recognition and respect by local authorities.
This diaspora was the source of the Indian villages on the islands of
Perek and Celebes in South China and Malaysia, Cambodia, Champa, and
Indonesia. They brought along Indian customs, art and religion
(Brahmanism and Buddhism). They engraved religious statements in
Sanskrit on stone columns or tablets. It must be remembered that Jataka
Buddhist collections told many stories of crossing oceans, and the Hindu
Ramayana epic told of areas like Java, Sumatra, and the "golden land" (Suvannabhumi).
On the Malaysian islands, where Indians arrived by
sea, Chinese historical materials tell of the gradual progress of
Hinduization, beginning from the second century A. D. The stone columns
and tablets carved in Sanskrit found here date from no later than the
fourth century. In Indonesia, engraved Sanskrit characters of Mulavarman
have been found in Kutei, Borneo dating from the beginning of fifth
century A. D. Stone tablets carved in Sanskrit by King Pulavarmani have
been found in western Java from the middle of the fifth century. But
Buddha statues of the Amaravati school, discovered in Sampaga (Celebes),
on the Seguntang hill in Palembang (Sumatra), the southern part of
Gember province, were much older (See W. Cohn, Buddha in der Kunst des Ostens, Leipzig, 1925, p. 28 and F.M. Schnitger, The Archeology of Hindu Sumatra, Leyde 1937, p. l).
According to Ye Tiao, in Yavadvipa the first Chinese
contact with a Hinduized Java occurred as early as 132 A.D. On the basis
of the above document, G. Ferrand, in a 1919 issue of Journal Asiatique,
stated that "Indonesia’s first contact with Hinduism must have occurred
before the Christian Era". Indian navigators were highly active in this
region from before the Christian Era. They became even more active in
the second and third centuries.
This situation cannot be explained by Brahmanic
ideology, a religion condemning relations with foreigners as not being
pure. It can only be explained by acknowledging that Brahman ideology
was shaken to the roots by the egalitarian ideology of Buddhism,
especially Mahayana Buddhism, a prominent Buddhist movement in India in
the early years of the Christian Era. The Mahayana Buddhism movement not
only advocated that all classes were equal, that everybody was equal,
but it also emphasized the Bodhisattva’s ideology of sacrificing living
creatures, including sacrificing one’s own causes in order to eliminate
desire and suffering. Fearless of long and dangerous journeys,
difficulties encountered due to languages, customs and habits,
Bodhisattvas pursued first and foremost the lofty aim of "chung sinh vo bien the nguyen do,"
i.e., helping mankind and saving the world without differentiating
among nations, among regimes. It was possible to say that Buddhist
ideology, especially the Mahayana sect, freed the Indian people,
including traders to go anywhere in the world.
Mahayana Buddhism confirmed the protecting role of
Buddha and Bodhissattvas towards people who believed in them and
repeated their names. Indian sailors and traders often prayed for help
from Buddha Dipankara and Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. A. Foucher in Iconographie Bouddhique writes: The name Dipankara symbolized the names of the islands (dipa and dvipa)
and was considered as the Buddha protecting seamen. That is why Indian
sailors and traders pray for his help during their voyages. Bodhisattva
Avalokitesvara was well-known all over the Far East as the Buddha with a
thousand eyes and a thousand hands who had great benevolence and great
power, and could save anybody believing in her and repeating her name in
their misfortunes. The fact is that Indian sailors and traders took
along Buddha Dipankara statues and Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara statues to
daily offer prayers and recite their names before certainly influenced
the people they visited.
In addition to the various cultural and religious factors above, there are other reasons for the Indian diaspora, for example:
- King Asoka’s invasion of Kalinga on the East Coast
of India in the third century B.C. could have pushed people to migrate
to foreign countries.
- The Kushan invasion in the early years of the Christian Era probably had the same effect.
- According to G. Coedes, the author of Histoire Ancienne Des Etats Hindouises d’ Exteme Orient, the deep causes of India’s expansion in the early years of the Christian Era were economic and commercial.
Other historical events led to improved commercial
links between the Far East and the Mediterranean Sea. Alexander the
Great’s eastern campaign, the foundation of Maurya’s dynasty and the
following Kaniskha dynasty in India, the occurrence of the Seleucides
Empire and especially the Roman Empire in the West. However, increased
trade in luxury goods attracted the attention of a number of Latin
scholars. (E.H. Warminton, The Commerce Between the Roman Empire and India,
Cambridge, 1928). These luxury goods included spices, perfumes and aloe
wood, which were not found in India but on islands lying off her east
Geographical names in Sanskrit like Takkola (pepper
market), Karpura dvipa (camphor island), Narikeladivipa (coconut island)
remind us of the areas to which Indian traders came. (Sylvain Levy in
Kouen louen and Dripanlara said that Kanakapuri was a "gold town" on the
Dvipantara Island. Gold was also sought by Indians, especially in
Indonesia where there were many rivers with gold.
Before the Christian Era, India still bought gold in
Siberia and followed the route across Bactria. But in about 200 B.C.
waves of migration in Central Asia cut off this route. In the first
century, India imported gold coins from the Roman Empire, and then
melted them down for other purposes. Even today gold coins of this kind
can be found in India. Nevertheless, India’s imports of these coins were
abruptly stopped when the Roman Emperor stopped the illegal export of
gold that was hurting the Roman economy. India soon had to turn to South
East Asia and the Far East to acquire the gold needed (R. Sewell, Roman Coins Found in India, 1904, pp. 591-638).
There was thus not only one reason but many for
India’s expansion to the East. Depending on differing historical points
of view, this or that reason is given priority. The Buddhist belief
promoted after Asoka’s dynasty in the year 300 B.C., which abolished
prejudices about the purity of Aryans, may also have had an influence.
Following the voyages of sailors and traders were
probably the journeys of Buddhist monks to propagate Buddhism. Buddhist
monks at that time were often intellectuals who had a broad knowledge.
Without them, the influence of Buddhism, Hinduism and Sanskrit
literature could not have been thoroughly integrated into Cambodia,
Champa, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
According to Chinese historians, the Funan Kingdom in
Cambodia was founded in the first century by an Indian Brahmin called
Kaundinya. China did not have an official and direct relation to the
Funan imperial court. The chief mandarins in Funan are known to have
been Indian because in Chinese historical materials their names start
with "zhu," the surname previously given to all Indians by the Chinese.
In Cambodia, archaeologists have found four stone
tablets carved in Sanskrit. Relations between the Champa kingdom and
China began in the years 190-193 A.D. In Quang Nam province the Dong
Duong Buddha statue, one of the most beautiful examples belonging to the
Indian Amaravati carving school, was found (See V. Rougier, Nouvelles Decouvertes Chames au Quang Nam, Befeo XI, p. 471; and A.K. Coomarasvamy, The History of Indian and Indonesian Art,
p. 197). Chinese historical materials also demonstrate that numerous
small kingdoms on the Malay peninsula were "Indianized" from the
beginning of the second century. Such Indianized kingdoms were obviously
suitable areas for further Indian migrations.
More and more Indian people came to overseas areas in
the East, mostly by the sea routes mentioned above. But what about
overland routes? There were many overland routes, but they were more
difficult to travel. First, there were favorable combinations of water
and land routes. Instead of sailing through the Straits of Malacca, far
away to the south, Indian traders could transport goods through the
Isthmus of Kra on the Malay peninsula, then go along easy land routes,
to cross from this sea to the other within hours. From Southern India,
Indian traders could use quite small boats to cross the narrow waterway
between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands or the one between Aceh and the
Nicobars a little further to the South. The second route reached Kedah
on the Malay peninsula. At Aceh and Kedah, archaeologists have excavated
many ancient objects belonging to Indian civilization. (See H.G.
Quaritch Wales, "A Newly Explored Route of Ancient Indian Cultural
Expansion," Indian Art and Letters, pp. 1-31).
Traders setting off from Central India could go by
the land route crossing the Three Pagodas Pass and sail along the
Kamburi River to the Gulf of Thailand. Further to the north, it was
possible to get to the Gulf of Thailand by a land route which nowadays
connects Moulmein with Tak Rahaeng, a town on a branch of the Mae Nam
Wang. There was another route linking the Mae Nam with the Mekong River,
crossing Korat, Sitep and the Mun river valleys. It was this route,
which led directly to the Bassak region in the midstream of the Mekong
River in the Cambodian Kingdom. This kingdom was probably founded by
Indian migrants before the Christian Era. In the beginning of this Era,
Indian monks might have come to Laos by this route and from there
crossed the Truong Son ranges to Vietnam’s Thanh Hoa or Nghe An
Further to the North was the route connecting India
with southern China, crossing Assam, Burma and Yunnan province. This
route might have been used since the second century A.D. or even before
this time. (See Pelliot, P., Deux Itheraires, Befeo, IV, pp 142-143; and G.H. Luce Pe Maung Tin, "Burma Down to the Fall of Pagan", Burma Research Society, p. 29).
All of the geographical and historical facts above
refute the theories that Buddhism first came second hand from China,
spreading from India to China and then from China to Vietnam. Granted,
nobody denies that there were water and overland routes connecting India
and China without crossing Vietnam, most importantly the two land
routes through Central Asia. Nobody can also deny the fact that Vietnam
was greatly influenced by Chinese Buddhism. According to historical
materials, however, Buddhism was introduced directly into Vietnam by
Indian monks a very long time before it entered Southern China.
Whether by sea or by land, alone or in groups of two
or three people, and sometimes traveling with traders, foreign monks,
particularly from India or Central Asia, came to Vietnam to spread
Buddhism. Nevertheless, it is not easy to clearly answer the questions:
When did the first Buddhist monks come to Vietnam? Where were they from?
How many of them came? Foreign monks whose names are mentioned in
Vietnamese or Chinese historical materials were probably not those who
were the first to set the foundation for Buddhism in Vietnam.
It is known that in 300 B.C. during Emperor Asoka’s reign, after the Third Congress for Compiling Sutras (Ket tap),
many Buddhist prosletyzing delegations were sent to West, East and
South East Asia. A delegation headed by the two monks Uttara and Sona
was sent to Suvannabbumi, the golden land. Historical materials from
Burmese Buddhism relate that the two monks came to Burma to propagate
Buddhism. Nevertheless, Thai historical materials also indicate the two
went to Thailand to spread Buddhism. Did the two go to Vietnam?
Until now, this question has not been settled one way
or the other by Chinese and Vietnamese historians. On the basis of one
Chinese scholar’s materials, King Asoka’s stupa can be found in
Giao Chau (ancient Vietnam) at the Nele ("muddy") wall, affirming that
the Nele wall is the present Vietnamese coastal city of Do Son.
South India was the first region which witnessed the appearance of the Mahayanist "Bat Nha" Sutra (Zhi Hui in Chinese, and Prajna
in Sanskrit). For example, the Diamond Sutra, well known in Vietnam, is
one of the most important Mahayana Sutras in the Prajna collection. On
the basis of the collection of Prajna Sutras, the learned Nagarjuna
promoted the famous "Middle way" (Madhyamaka), which had a profound
influence on Vietnamese Buddhism, as it did on China. An analysis of the
Zen (Chan in Chinese) literature of the Zen masters of the first
two Zen sects in Vietnam, Vinitaruci and Vo Ngon Thong, shows clearly
the deep influence of Prajna ideology. It is quite likely that the
Mahayana Prajna was directly transferred from South India to Vietnam
through Indonesia and Champa. In China, although the first Prajna sutra
was translated by Lokesama during the Han dynasty, by the end of the
second century A.D., its influence was not enduring and wide. Only after
Kumarajiva came to China at the beginning of the fifth century did the
Prajna sutra become widely popular there. (See K. Mukerji, Indian Literature in China and the Far East, p. 92-93).
In Giao Chau at the beginning of the third century the sutra Astasahasrika, translated by Khuong Tang Hoi, was considered the oldest Prajna Sutra (Astasahasrika). The Prajna Sutra Damasahasrika, translated by Lokasema, appeared later by the end of the Han dynasty (25-220 A.D.) at the second stage of Prajna Literature (Jaidava Singh, An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy, Delhi, p. 9). The Astasakasrika Sutra is the oldest in the whole of the Prajna Literature.
It surely came to Vietnam from Southern India and not China, long
before it was translated. In the Buddhist center of Luy Lau, there were
monasteries or schools where the Sutra Prajna was taught, including the Sutra Astasahasrika, later
translated into Chinese by Khuong Tang Hoi. In addition, the spread of
Buddhism in Vietnam continued from the beginning of the common era
through the following centuries owing to the contributions of Indian,
Central Asian, Chinese, and even Vietnamese monks themselves who had
studied Buddhism in India or China. Records show that many Chinese monks
followed a Southern route and stopped in Giao Chau before going to
India to look for Buddhist teachers. For example Yu Fa Lan, Yu Dao Cui
at the beginning of the fourth century and Ming Yuan at the end of the
fourth century, Sui Ming, Wu Xing, Tan Run, Zhi Heng, Hui Ning, and Yi
Jing in the fifth, sixth, seventh centuries.
Not satisfied with Buddhism in China and the
translated Sutras, they wanted to continue their study of Buddhism in
India. Their journeys were long and dangerous. Storms, diseases,
pirates, and the like threatened their survival. Thus, in order to
prepare for their journeys they had to improve upon their physical
strength, their knowledge of Sanskrit, astronomy, and the customs and
habits of the people at their destination. Giao Chau was a very
convenient place for such preparation. When they went and especially
when they came back, they talked with monks in Giao Chau about their new
knowledge of Buddhism and different Buddhist sects. They deposited
there their Sutra books, which they had collected. All of this led to
the further spread of Buddhism in Giao Chau.
Some Vietnamese monks also set out to look for
Buddhist teachers together with Chinese monks, going "Southward" and
"Westward". Sometimes they went by themselves on the trading boats of
Indian merchants. Some of their names were Mosadeva, Khuy Xung, Hue
Diem, Tri Hanh, and Dai Thang Dang. Before arriving in India, they
passed many Buddhist kingdoms in South East Asia and Southern Asia. Some
of them reached Southern India, or Western India, or Northern India.
Most went because they were not satisfied with the amount of Buddhism
that had reached their country via monks from India, China or Central
Asia. They also wanted to see with their own eyes what Buddhism was like
in India and what society and people with Buddhist beliefs were like
They made a great effort to study Buddhism and Indian
society. Some of them had a very good command of Buddhism, such as Dai
Thang Dang. He could explain the treatise "Duyen Sinh Luan." Many
of these monks intended to return to develop Buddhism in their homeland
though some died on the way to India or in India. After returning home,
they used the knowledge they had acquired to have discussions with
monks or Buddhist followers in the region. All of this helped the native
people understand more about the Buddha’s belief and brought a specific
character to the native Buddhism.
Buddhism continued to spread throughout Vietnam until
the late stage of Chinese feudal domination, and even until Vietnam
became independent in the tenth century. There were, however, some
changes in the introduction routes. The direct Southwestern routes from
India were no longer used. New teachings of Buddhism were introduced
into Vietnam through Northern routes including the various Chinese Chan
sects. For example, the Vinitaruci and Wu Yantong sects of Zen Buddhism
were introduced during the late Chinese domination stage. The Cao Tang,
Lin Ji and Cao Dong schools were introduced after the tenth century.
Because Vietnamese society at that time had features in common with the
Chinese, it easily accepted Chinese culture, including its beliefs. At
the same time, Hinduism and Islam became more popular in India, while
Buddhism declined in popularity. Buddhist missionaries were no longer
sent out. Nevertheless, previous Indian missionaries had already left
their mark on Vietnam. They were the first and one of the important
influences on the development of Buddhism in Vietnam. They and others
have helped to build up the features of the history of Buddhism in