It is almost two millennia since Sanskrit went to China through Buddhist scriptures carried from India by Chinese pilgrims like Fa Xian and Xuan Zang (known in India as Huien Tsang). The language came to be called ‘Fan Wen’ in Chinese and was extensively used in ancient Chinese classics and Buddhist literature. By the advent of the medieval period in India’s history, China had become a treasurehouse of Sanskrit manuscripts. In an article in the ‘Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society’, famous Indologist Max Mueller acknowledged: “Being myself convinced of the existence of old Indian MSS in China, I lost no opportunity during last five and twenty years of any friend of mine going to China to look out for these treasures, but with no result.”
After decades of unconcern, communist China seems to have all of sudden woken up to revive its ancient ties with India. After marketing Sa Dingding, who won the BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music in the Asia Pacific category in 2008 as the country’s first Sanskrit-singing pop icon at last year’s Shanghai Expo, Beijing’s Peking University has now launched an ambitious programme to train more than 60 Chinese students in Sanskrit.The avowed objective of this newfound love for Sanskrit is to create a team of researchers to translate hundreds of manuscripts that have been found in Tibet and other centres of Buddhism in China. But the political imperative of the communist regime’s need to boost its acceptance among the Buddhists, who account for 21 to 30 per cent of China’s population, cannot be missed. Especially at a time when their tallest leader, the Dalai Lama, has announced his retirement from public life. As if to underline the message, China’s official news agency Xinhua reported last week that the remains of the legendary Hiuen Tsang will now be available for public worship.