Javanese folklore contains the story of a late 4th century Hindu king named Vadhaka who converted to Buddhism. According to legend, one night Vadhaka’s mother dreamed of a holy man coming to Java on a flying boat. The very next day, a Kashmiri monk named Gunavarman reached the shores of the island.
Upon Gunavarman’s arrival, Vadhaka’s mother asked the king to welcome the monk. The conversations that followed between the monk, the king and his mother are recorded in Memoirs of Eminent Monksa combination of biographies of monks in China which was compiled by Hui Jiao of Jiaxiang Temple in the 5th century.
Vadhaka’s mother welcomed Gunavarman and accepted the Five Precepts of Buddhism, but her son did not. Hui Jiao’s book quotes the queen mother as she tries to persuade her son. “We are mother and son because of the merits of previous existences,” she said. “I have already received the precepts, but you have not [yet] to believe. I fear that in a later life we will be cut off from present merits. Vadhaka then agreed to receive the precepts and became a practicing Buddhist over time.
For Gunavarman, the monk who brought Buddhism to Java, it was the start of another chapter in an eventful life. A few years earlier, he had given up on becoming King of Kashmir.
From prince to monk
Gunavarman was born in 367 CE in Kashmir into a royal family. As a child, he showed a penchant for spirituality, but his family did not take him seriously. Hui Jiao’s book says that it was the Buddhist monks of Kashmir who noticed Gunavarman’s intelligence and were impressed by his kind and modest nature.
He left home at the age of 20 and became an ordained monk. “He understood the nine sections of Buddhist scriptures and mastered the Agama (a collection of tantric literature and Hindu scriptures),” German scholar of Buddhism and Indology Valentina Stache-Rosen wrote in a research paper titled Gunavarman (367-431): A comparative analysis of the biographies found in the Chinese Tripitaka. “He recited more than a hundred times ten thousand words of Sutras. He grasped the chapters on discipline and was very skilled in entering into meditation.
A decade after Gunavarman became an ordained monk, Varnaditya, King of Kashmir, died leaving no heir. Several ministers asked the monk to renounce his life of renunciation and accept the throne of Kashmir, but he refused. “He took leave of his masters and left the community,” Stache-Rosen wrote. “He crossed mountains and deserts alone and hid his tracks from the world of men.”
Little is known of Gunavarman’s life when he traveled south. What is known is that he became famous when he arrived in Sri Lanka a few years later. The monks of Abhayagiri Monastery near Anuradhapura speak of Kashmir staying there and becoming specialists in the Vinaya, the division of the Buddhist canon containing the rules and procedures that govern the Buddhist monastic community.
Gunavarman set sail from Sri Lanka to Sumatra and then to Java, where he became an advisor to King Vadakha after the latter embraced Buddhism. At that time several small kingdoms disputed the power in the archipelago which today constitutes Indonesia. As a new convert to Buddhism, the Javanese king’s vow of non-violence was tested when a neighboring kingdom was about to invade Java.
“If I fight them, many people will surely be injured and killed. If I don’t fight them, there will be great peril,” Vadakha told Gunavarman, according to Hui Jiao’s book. “Now I confide in you, my master. I don’t know what to decide. The Kashmiri monk encourages the king to save his kingdom: “If cruel bandits attack you, you must defend yourself. But you should develop compassion in your mind and develop no thoughts of hatred.
When the Javanese army prepared to defend themselves, the invaders retreated. The king’s belief in Buddhism became so strong that he wanted to renounce his throne and become a monk, but his ministers begged him not to abdicate. He agreed to remain king under three conditions. “The first wish was that everyone in the king’s realm would respect the master (Gunavarman),” Stache-Rosen wrote. “The second wish was that people throughout the country refrain from killing. The third wish was that the treasures saved be distributed generously to the poor and the sick. Ministers agreed to these requests. Influenced by the king, the islanders embraced Buddhism and Java became one of the most important centers of the religion in Southeast Asia. Two centuries after the island embraced Buddhism, it became home to the largest Buddhist temple in the world: Borobudur.
As news of Gunavarman’s popularity began to spread throughout Southeast Asia and China, he received many visitors from different parts of the continent.
Envoys from several countries were sent to Java to try to persuade Gunavarman to move to their countries and play a role similar to what he did in Java. In his book titled Saints and Sages of Kashmir, Kashmiri scholar and author Triloki Nath Dhar wrote that the Chinese monks Houei-Kouan and Houie-Tsong approached Emperor Wen of the Liu-Song dynasty and suggested that Gunavarman be invited to China to spread Buddhist instructions. This time in Chinese history is known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties, a time when arts and culture flourished and Mahayana Buddhism gained popularity.
“Accepting their proposal, the Emperor ordered the prefect of Kiaotheu (Jiaozhou) to take the necessary measures,” Dhar wrote. “Therefore, some Chinese monks were sent to Gunavarman to bring them to China.” The Kashmiri monk had already left Java and set sail for another kingdom, but it seemed he was destined to go to China as the wind pushed his ship towards Canton. “Upon hearing the news of his arrival, Emperor Wen again issued an edict ordering prefects and governors to send him to the capital,” Dhar wrote.
In China, it was given the name Ch’iu-na-pa-mo, which means “armor of virtue”. At Hui Jiao’s Memoirs of Eminent Monks suggests that Gunavarman arrived in China in 424 CE. He lived in the country for seven years, where he translated several Buddhist texts into Chinese.
There are several legends associated with the Kashmiri monk in China. Some accounts mention him either getting wet in the rain or getting dirty when crossing muddy paths. He set up a monastery on Houche Shan mountain, which he said resembled Gādhrakūta or Vulture Peak, the Buddha’s favorite retreat in Rajgir, Bihar. The mountain in China was home to several tigers at the time the monastery was built. A legend says that one day Gunavarman encountered a tiger. After hitting it on the head with his staff, the monk patted the tiger and continued.
The monk learned about the religious beliefs of people in the places he lived and used Taoist and Confucian terms to explain Buddhist concepts. His teachings resonated with Chinese nobility, including Emperor Wen, who asked him to stay at Chi’ Huan Monastery near the capital Nanjing. “Among princes and scholars there was not one who did not venerate him,” writes Stache-Rosen. “The day he preached, there was a traffic jam on the highways. The spectators came and went, rubbed shoulders and followed each other closely. Gunavarman had wonderful natural talents and amazing eloquence.
Records indicate that the Kashmiri translated at least 10 major Buddhist texts in 18 volumes while living in China. These texts ranged from basic teachings to important sutras. He also helped translate incomplete texts that found their way to China via the Silk Road. Another Kashmiri scholar, Dharmamitra, helped Gunavarman translate some of the texts.
In the 5th century, there was a relatively free flow of people and ideas. Gunavarman was approached by the Ying Fu Nunnery in China to confirm higher double ordination for a group of eight nuns from Sri Lanka. Gunavarman insisted that there should be at least 10 nuns before they can be ordained. He asked Sri Lankan nuns to learn the local language to better integrate into the community. A few years later, three more nuns from the Indian Ocean island came to southern China and the group was ordained by another Indian monk named Sanghavarman. Ying Fu Nunnery became the first in China to ordain foreign nuns. The ordination took place in 433 CE, two years after Gunavarman’s death.
“On the 28th day of the ninth month of this year (431 CE), while the midday meal was not yet over, Gunavarman arose first and returned to his cell,” Stache-Rosen wrote. “When his student followed later, he discovered that Gunavarman had died suddenly.” Before dying, the monk had prepared a testament of 36 verses, which he asked a disciple to take to India to show to the monks.
Hui Jiao’s book noted that the monk’s appearance and color did not change after his body was placed on a string bed, and he looked like someone who was in a meditative state. Jiao also wrote that monks and lay people who came to pay their last respects to her noticed a fragrant smell resembling a perfume coming from her body. He was cremated according to Indian customs and a white pagoda was erected at the place of his cremation.
Gunavarman’s legacy is largely forgotten today, but it was largely through his trip to China that Buddhism won the favor of large numbers of people in many parts of the country. It remains an example of the age-old cultural ties between India, Southeast Asia and China.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and journalist. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for Historical and Heritage Writings for 2022.