KUMARAJIVA - A Great Buddhist Master

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Kumārajīva, a philosopher and seer, an outstanding translator of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures into Chinese still shines in East Asia as a luminous star among hundreds of Indian and Chinese monks and scholars who played an important role in disseminating Buddhism and cultural reawakening of East Asian countries. He, the only son of a Kashmiri Brāhmaõa Kumārāyaõa, was taken as war booty by a Chinese emperor because of his outstanding knowledge of Sanskrit Buddhist såtras and was appointed as Ràjaguru at the court in 5th century.

 

Kumārajīva had a long cherished mission- propagation of the true spirit of Buddhism. He broke political, geographical, cultural and linguistic barriers; traveled through barren lands and rivers, mountains and forbidding terrains to bequeath a casket of sacred sūtras as the most authoritative presentations by translating them from Sanskrit into Chinese. He created pure, boundless and unthinkable versions of the sūtras as an obeisance to the sacred voice so that one could bathe in the pure pond of the Dharma.

 

Dharmarakùa, Kumārajīva and Hsuan-tsang are the three masters who stand out by their preeminent virtue and for spreading the subtle philosophical systems of Buddhism. The process was begun by Dharmarakùa who was rom Yueh-chih. It found its full flowering in Kumārajīva and culmination in Hsuan-tsang. But Kumārajīva remains central to practical Buddhism in East Asia. He represents an international personality. He was a Kuchean who were speaking a European language, and reading and discussing in Sanskrit which was a medium of instruction in monasteries. Moreover they could converse and write in Chinese.

 

Kumārajīva was famed for his encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhism and Vedic learning, for fluency and proficiency in Sanskrit and Chinese languages and for excellence of translations couched in powerful and compelling language. His sensitivity to both the languages was remarkable like Hsuan-tsang. For his comprehension of the words of the Buddha, he is recognized as the most prominent among around 200 great translators of Buddhist scriptures, who were active from 2nd to 13th century. Fifty-four texts that he translated in a distinctive style possessing a flowing smoothness run into 6000-7000 fascicles. They reflect prioritization of conveying the meaning as opposed to precise literal rendering. Generations after generations in East Asia acknowledge his brilliance. The impact of his works can still be felt in almost all the schools/sects of Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia.

 

Kumārajīva translated Sanskrit scriptures as a poet by heart with an artistic perfection and power. Most of the later philosophers used his translations to develop their philosophical principles. Philosophy of life could be easily conveyed to people. Thus he gained a wide appeal and support of the emperors and the masses, of the monks and the laity. His works influenced art and literature. His translations were so easy to internalize that Buddhism became a religion of the masses.

 

His life and legacy is forgotten in his own land but is kept alive reverentially in East Asian countries. People in thousands of Buddhist temples in China, Korea and Japan recite Sanskrit sutras translated by him.

To read power point presentation on Kumarajiva in PDF

Author is Dean, Centre of Indology, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Delhi Kendra.

Also read

1. Harmonious blend of Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto strains in Japan

2. India and China - The Beyond and the Within

3. Sanskrit manuscripts and Indian scripts in Japan