Influence of Indian Languages on China, Korea and Japan

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Influence of Indian Languages on China, Korea and Japan

Compiled by Sanjeev Nayyar March 2002
While comparing notes on the Indian language essays with the book, Cultural History of India by the Ramakrishna Mission I came across an interesting chapter on the above subject. So far had only heard about it in the passing or some vague references by people but for the first time got to read about it. Here is it for you verbatim from the book. What you read are excerpts, tried to make it comprehensive. The article is divided into three chapters namely –

  1. China.

  2. Korea.

  3. Japan.

China Chapter 1

Literature of Buddhism

Buddhist missionaries from India began their visits to China starting 65 a.d. The first Indian missionaries were Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaraksa, who translated a number of Buddhist works into Chinese. In the Wei period 386-354 a.d. it became the state religion there. The visit of Fa Hien to India and his stay in India from 401 to 410 a.d. is a matter of great significance in the history of Sino-Indian cultural relations in general and the growth of Buddhist literature in China in particular. He was the first authentic translator of the Mahasanghika Vinaya, which he discovered in a monastery in Patna and carried to China. Cultural contacts reached their hey day during the Tang period 618 to 907 when Buddhism made its deepest impact on the Chinese mind. Hiuen Tsang and I-tsing belonged to this period. The Chinese version of the Tripitaka is in the main a translation from the Indian original. The work of translating Indian Buddhist texts continued throughout the first millennium. By means of translations and commentaries, the Chinese collection has preserved a number of texts of the vast Sanskrit cannon of Buddhism, while the originals in Sanskrit were lost in India – thanks to foreign invasion.
Sutra, Sastra and Vinayaka

The Chinese Buddhist cannon forms a huge collection. It follows the broad pattern of the usual Buddhist classification namely –

  1. Sutra or Buddha-vacana or the Word of Buddha.

  2. Abhidharma or the Sastra.

  3. Vinayaka or the Code of Conduct and discipline that one has to follow in one’s cultivation of the Buddhist way.

The entire cannon falls into two broad divisions – Hinayana and Mahayana.

Sutra Texts

The sutras of the Hinayana consist of the Agamas, which are the Sarvastivadins’s collections of Buddhist teaching. The agamas form a small part of the Chinese collection. Some sutras are also grouped together as pen-yuan-ching, a term that can be translated as jatakas. The Chinese Sutra Pitaka also includes three different translations of the Udanavarga (the Dhammapada in Pali) made as early as the third and fourth centuries a.d. The Hinayana sutras attracted little attention in China.

The major sutras on Mahayana, have from the beginning been a subject of very wide, serious and sincere study in China. These sutras are classified into certain groups namely Prajnaparamita, Saddharmpundarika, Nirvana and Vai-pulya.
In the Prajnaparamita group, there are six translations in Chinese while the Pancavimsatisahasrika group has two. One of these is by Kumarajiva, famous Buddhist scholar and guide – early 5th century. He translated most of the early Madhyamika texts attributed to Nagarjuna, famous Madhyamila philosopher. The biggest in this group is the one translated by Hiuen Tsang. The central theme of the Prajnaparamita group is that the undivided being as the Ultimate Reality, and this is expounded through sunyata.
The Saddharmpundarika, Avatamsaka and Nirvana sutras set forth and emphasize different aspects of the philosophy of Mahayana. Each of these sutras provided the basic inspiration as well as foundation to a specific school of Buddhism. The school that takes the Saddharmpundarika school takes the name Tien-tai school, to which the Nirvana sutra is fundamental. One of the sections in the Avatamsaka-sutra, the section on the ten bhumis – levels, expounds the levels in the course of a bodhi-sattva’s wayfaring. This sutra has a commentary by Vasubandhu, famous philosopher of Vijnanavada. Also the Yogacara-bhumi-sastra, translated by Hiuen Tsang provides the psychological analysis and the details pertaining to the kinds and different levels of wayfaring. The group called Vaipulya or the Wide Collection contains sutras of the miscellaneous type.

Sastra or Abhidharma texts

In this case the term Abhidharma (AB) means analysis, definition, and classification of elements as well as laying bare of the various ways in which the elements function in order to bring about events that constitute the world of experience. All the seven AB texts of the Sarvastivada School, one of the most important schools of Buddhism, are preserved in Chinese translations. The AB-mahavibhasa-sastra is a great commentary on the Jnana-prasthana-sastra, which was the basic text of the Sarvastivada study of dharmas. This was the main work with the other six being deemed supplementary to it. They were translated into Chinese by Hiuen Tsang.
The school of Buddhism that prevailed in China as the Kosa school was later absorbed into the Fa Hsiang School. The Madhyamika School is known as the ‘School of Three Treatises’ namely the Madhyamika-sastra and the Dvadasamukha-sastra of Nagarjuna and the Sata-sastra of Aryaveda.
Based on these texts there came into being the ‘School of the Four Treatise which emphasized the positive side of the teaching of sunyata. Later it got absorbed into the Tien-tai school. Among the Mahayana texts in the Sastra class, the Prajnaparamita-sastra and the Yogacara-bhumi-sastra are the most significant and outstanding. But in the Chinese collection, there are a large number of sastras of Mahayana which are either expositions of special topics like logic, psychology, and metaphysics are brief introductions to these systems.

Vinaya Texts

The Vinaya class in the Chinese section is rich with enormous value. We have Vinaya texts of five different Buddhist schools. What the Chinese have belonged to the first four schools and were translated in the early 5th century. These texts were brought in order to meet the growing need of regulating the community life of the Sangha and for discipline in the daily life of its members.

Tantrayana or Mantrayana Sutras

Around the eight-century a.d. there are in the Chinese collection a number of sutras that together form the esoteric school of Buddhism known as Tantrayana, under the influence of Hindu Tantricism. The basic philosophy of two groups of sutras is that of Mahayana. Of the various mystic forms only the Vajrayana works are available in Chinese. Vajrabodhi and his disciple Amoghavajra, two Indian monks carried the works to China and translated about 150 of them into Chinese between 720-744 a.d. Amongst others there were two Indian monks Dharmadeva and Danapal who rendered into Chinese about 200 Vajrayana texts. Many of these works are in the form of mantras, dharanis and sadhanas relating to deities of the Mahayana pantheon.
The vast literature preserved in Chinese consisting of translations from the original Indian Buddhist works in Sanskrit amply testify to the study of Sanskrit during the first millennium a.d. Chinese-Sanskrit dictionaries were compiled. Also that a variety or derivative of Brahmi called Siddham, used in North India in the 7-8th centuries became very popular in China – due to its association with the Mantrayana school. This script was used in China during the 8-10th centuries a.d. for writing Sanskrit mantras and dharanis. Bricks in certain temples in Yunnan (China) bear magical formulas in the Siddham script. It appears that Prakrit was also known in China in the early centuries of the Christian era and is supposed to have played an important role in the propagation of Buddhism in the country.

Secular Literature

The introduction of Buddhism into China made the two countries get closer. In the course of time the Chinese gained a first hand knowledge of other aspects of Indian culture such as music, maths, astronomy, astrology etc. When we study the lists of Indian books translated into Chinese, we realize that most of the books translated deal with astronomy and astrology and two most of the books were translated by the Buddhists during the Sui (581 –681) and Tang (618-907 a.d. Indians maths was appreciated as a useful tool to understand Indian astronomy.

Although Indian music, painting and sculpture exerted great Indian influence on the corresponding aspects of Chinese culture, no reference is now available to Indian books on music and Silpa-sastra being translated into Chinese. In the 5-6th centuries a.d. the Indians had attained a high degree of development in astronomy so it was of keen interest to the Chinese.

Astronomy - There are lots of details on the Indian contribution shall share a few aspects only. The annals of the Sui dynasty completed by Wei Cheng in 636 a.d. contains in its bibliographical catalogue the following Indian astronomical works, almost all beginning with the words Po-lo-men (Brahmin), The Brahmin Astronomical Manual, The Astronomical Theories of the Brahman sage Chie-chie, The Brahmin Calendrical Methods. These works must have circulated around 600 a.d. but are all lost today. Between 718 and 719 Indian astronomer Siddhartha (His-ta) who was president of the Bureau of Astronomy at the Chinese capital produced K’ai-yuan-chan-ching, the greatest collection of Chinese astronomical and astrological fragments from the 4th century onwards. Chapter CIV of this collection is virtually a translation from the Indian calendar, Navagraha-siddhanta.

The Kumara School contributed a method of computation of solar eclipses to the Ta-yen calendar 728 a.d. The influence of Indian astronomy on this calendar is evident from its introduction in the Indian fashion, of nine planets, namely the sun, moon, the five planets, and Rahu and Ketu. Said Amoghavajra who translated another Buddhist astrological work named Hsiu-yao-ching in 759 a.d. “Those who wish to know the position of the five planets adopt Indian calendrical methods. One can this predict what hsui (a planet will be traversing). So we have three clans of Indian calendar experts, Chiayeh (Kasyapa), Chutan (Gautama) and Chumolo(Kumara) all of whom hold office at the Bureau of Astronomy.

Mathematics - Due to the development of trigonometry, Indian astronomy was valued in China and Indians works on maths were translated into Chinese. The Yin-te Index no 10 mentions three books on maths, all beginning with Po-lo-men. These books were Brahmin Arithmetical Rules, The Brahmin Arithmetical Classics are two Indian books that find mention in the annals of the Sui dynasty.

Medicine - Chinese Buddhist monks had felt interest in the Indian medical system from the 5th century a.d. There is a work called Chih-ch’an-ping-pi-yao-fang by a Chinese noble converted to Buddhism, Ching Sheng. Translated in 455 a.d. this is a compilation from different texts of Indian origin. Also the Yin-te Index no 10 mentions Indian books on pharmaceutics. The Sanskrit work Ravana-kumara Tantra deals with the method of treatment of children’s diseases as well as fumigation was translated into Chinese in the 11th century a.d.

KOREA Chapter 2

Buddhism was introduced by Indian Buddhists into China in 65 a.d.. Gradually a Chinese form of Buddhism with its won peculiar special features came into existence and thus a new sphere of Buddhist culture emerged in east Asia covering Korea and Japan with its center as China. Although Buddhism thus disseminated was almost Chinese in character, there were some Indian acharyas who played a significant role in spreading Buddhism and its literature to these two countries directly from India.

Korea’s knowledge of Indian Buddhist literature was colored mainly by Chinese versions of Indian texts, a study of Korean literature enables one to known the Indian influence. Unfortunately Korea had no national script because of which there was no growth of any literature there in the early centuries of the Christian era.

The country was divided into three kingdoms Koguryo, Paikje and Silla. They flourished side by side between 313 to 668 a.d. The first Koguryo was closest to China adopted Buddhism in 372 a.d. In 374 the first Indian monk Ahdo came to Korea and in 384 the religion spread to Paikje. In 540 the then Chinese emperor of the Liang dynasty at the request of the king of Paikje sent teachers and sacred scriptures of the Buddhists. A local monk Kyumik brought from India sacred Buddhist texts relating to Vinaya and translated them into Chinese. A third Indian monk named Mukhoja visited in 417 a.d. visited Silla. During the reign of King Wang 1313-30 another Indian mink named Jigong came to Korea. I-chang a Korean scholar came to India in 673 and stayed at Nalanda for about a decade studying Indian scriptures. Then he traveled all over India and collected Sanskrit texts. When he returned to Korea in 695 a.d. he brought with him as many as 400 Sanskrit texts.

Influence of Sanskrit on the first Korean Sanskrit

The introduction of Buddhism necessitated the study of Buddhist scriptures in Pali and Sanskrit, and also the writing of texts and annotations in native Korean. But the native language had no script. The Chinese system of writing could not serve the purpose of the national script. In 1446 King Sejong of the Yi dynasty 1392-1910 developed a script for Korean called Hanggul. It was the first Korean system of writing and many Buddhist scriptures were published in that script. Some scholars are of the opinion that the Hanggul script consisting of 28 letters was adapted from Sanskrit. It may be mentioned here that the study of Sanskrit characters known as Siddham had also been introduced in Korea and the use of this script is still in vogue in the land for writing Sanskrit.

Publication of Buddhist Scriptures

The printing of Daejang-gyung (Buddhist scriptures which were originally written in Sanskrit and translated into Chinese and Mongolian) was the greatest achievement of the Koryo dynasty. This corpus of scriptures was based on the Chinese edition brought to Korea by Mukhwa in 981 a.d. The printing was started during 1010-31.

A Buddhist monk named Uichun brought from China in 1086 some 3,000 commentaries on Buddhist scriptures. These were preserved in the Hungchunsa temple and 1010 copies of 4,740 volumes were printed in 1096. Unfortunately the Mongolian hordes destroyed them in 1232. Only a few volumes survived. The Daejang-gyung texts were reprinted in 1236 1,511 copies of 6,791 volumes of the sacred scriptures printed from 81,658 blocks. The blocks have come to be known as ‘Eighty Thousand’ and are now preserved in the Hawinsa temple.

There was a strong Buddhist influence on Korean literature. Some of the poems show the influence of Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics, and it appears they were composed by Buddhist monks. (579 to 876 a.d.). In the 15th century an important work Kumo Sinhwa was written. It contained five independent stories of which one is titled Manboksa Chap’o Ki (Game with Buddha). Indian tales and fables also went to Korea and made a great impact there. Korean folk songs were influenced by Indian tunes. Styles and principles of Indian art and architecture also exercised a great influence in Korea.

JAPAN Chapter 3

Buddhism was officially introduced into Japan from Korea in 552 a.d. when an image of Buddha and some copies of Buddhist scriptures were brought to the Japanese court by a representative of the Korean king of Paikje.

Study of Sanskrit Buddhist Scriptures

The study of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures became quite extensive in Japan since the last decade of the 6th century and was an important part of Japanese cultural life. The find of ancient Sanskrit manuscripts in old Brahmi characters preserved intact in Horyuji, the most ancient monastery extant in Japan, and some other monasteries is a pertinent point. In fact the manuscripts are older than what we have in India i.e. 6th century as compared to 10th century in India. The patronage of Empress Suiko 592-628 to Buddhism was a factor of great significance so far as the spread of the Dharma and the study of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures are concerned.

It is said that Dosho 700 a.d. went to China to study Vijnaptimatrata i.e. Buddhist idealism as well as the Buddhist system of logic under Hiuen Tsang. He returned to Japan in 661 and began to teach Buddhist logic from the Genkoji temple. There were others too who went to China to study Buddhist logic, returned to Japan and started teaching locals.

The scope of studying Buddhist scriptures was expanded during the Nara period, as it included the study of Vinaya as well as the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu, the Satyasiddhi of Harivarman, the works of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva, besides works on Buddhist idealism like Dharmapala’s Vijnaptimatratasiddhi and the Avatamsaka. These have been designated as the ‘Six Schools of Ancient Capital’. The first three belong to the Hinayana school and the last three to the Mahayana.

Bodhisena a great Buddhist from India visited Japan in 736 on a special invitation from Emperor Shomu, used to teach Sanskrit and the Hua-yen (Gandavyuha-Sutra) in different monasteries of Japan. Another scholar Dharmabodhi is said to have visited Japan in the first half of the 7th century. The visits of these two men throw light on Indo-Japanese cultural relations in the first millennium after Christ.

In addition to important Buddhists texts like Bhadracarinama Arya-Samanta were studied the Sanskrit dharannis, stotras, gathas and grammars. Sanskrit studies received a great impetus from Jogan who was a great Sanskritist himself. He wrote a book Shittan-sanmitsu that is an authoritative text on Sanskrit studies in Japan.

Japanese Alphabets India’s Contribution

Japanese like Korean also suffered from the handicap of not having a national script for the first few centuries of the Christian era. The Chinese language and its written characters had obtained vogue in the land, particularly among the official class. The extant of chronicles of Japan covering the period 686 to 784 and the first great anthology of Japanese poetry Manyoshu 760 a.d. were written in Chinese. But Chinese was unsuited for the Japanese language, as the latter was phonetic while the former was ideographic.

The Japanese language like Sanskrit is inflectional. Its rules governing syntax, morphology, phonology and semantic structure follow a pattern of its own. The forty-seven letters of the Japanese alphabet are said to have been devised by the Japanese Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi 774-835, after the Sanskrit alphabet. The arrangement of the Japanese syllabary based on the Sanskrit system is also attributed to the influence of Bodshisena in Japan, which, according to Riri Nakayama, ‘will continue as long as the Japanese language continues to exist’. It has been pointed out that the old Japanese song ‘Iroha-uta’ which contains all the 47 Japanese letters, is a liberal translation of a Sanskrit Buddhist hymn in the Mahaparinirvana-Sutra. The Indian script known as Siddham, called His-t’an in Chinese and Shittan in Japanese gained currency in Japan for writing Sanskrit from the 8th century. It was introduced by Kobo who was responsible for bringing Mantrayana Buddhism from China to Japan.

Some details of the Siddham script have been preserved in Bonji-shittanjimo-narabi-ni-shaku-gi, a text written by Kobo. The title of the text signifies ‘Sanskrit and Siddham scripts and the explanation of their designations’. It describes the origins of the Indian scripts, the explanation of different dharanis. More important than Kobo’s work was the text Shittan-zo (Siddham Ratnakara) written by An-nen in 880 a.d. The work narrates at the beginning what is known from the original Chinese sources about Sanskrit and the Siddham script. The author examines the transliteration of Sanskrit words in Chinese characters and compares the phonetic value of both. Lastly, he discussed all the letters of the Siddham script. Each of the letters of this script is deemed to be a bija and identified with a deity.

Indian Influence on Japanese Stories

A considerable portion of the cosmogonical and mythological literature of Japan bears traces of Indian influence. Hajime Nakamura observed ‘ Some stories of ancient India were very influential in shaping Japanese stories by providing them with materials. In the process of shaping, however, Indian materials were greatly modified and adapted in such a way as would appeal to the mentality of common people of Japan in general’ quoted from Lokesh Chandra and others – India’s Contribution to World Thought and Culture.

Post Wheeler also said ‘Many fragments of the Japanese myth-mass were unmistakably Indian. The original homeland of the first man and women of Japanese mythology is said to have been in the Earth-Residence-Pillar i.e. Mount Meru of Indian mythology. There is another story of Buro-no-Kami whose identity has been established with the deity called Brave-Swift-Impetuous-male. This Kami may be none other than the Indian deity Gavagriva, the Ox-head deity. The story recounts in the style of the jatakas how the deity punished the heartless rich brother and rewarded the king hearted poor brother. In India one of the names of the moon is Sasanka (lit. having a rabbit in the lap) and there is an ancient Indian legend why it is so called. The belief prevalent in ancient Japan that there lived a rabbit in the moon was probably an outcome of the Indian influence.

The story of the monkey and the crocodile mentioned in the Jataka appears in a slightly modified form in Sasekishu, a medieval Japanese collection of popular stories. The story is referred to in a work by Nichiren 1222-82 a.d. and also in Konjaku-monogatari. Another Puranic story of the sage Rsyarnga is likely to have reach Japan in the trail of Buddhist legends. A famous medieval Japanese drama Narukami has been based on this story.

These instances clearly illustrate the nature and extent of Indian influences on Japanese stories.

Indian Influence on Japanese Classical Works

Japanese classical works also reveal a great deal of Indian influence both Buddhist and Brahmanical.

The works of some important poets of the first phase of classical Japanese literature extending from 784 to 1100 show considerable Buddhist influence. The greatest work of Japanese literature namely The Tale of Genji shows Buddhist influence too. During the second phase from 1100 to 1241 some of the works bear Buddhist thought due to the efforts of the Buddhist sects to bring the religion closer to the common man. Shinram 1175-1262 wrote many articles like Tannisho in easy Japanese for the comprehension of his rustic followers laying stress on the veneration Amitabha Buddha. The work of Dogen 1200-1253 gave regular discourses on Buddhism, his texts Sho-bo-gen-zo is recognized as authoritative texts on the essence of the True Doctrine in Japan.

The last phase of Japanese Classical literature was from 1241 to 1500. A poetess of this age was Chikako 1300 a.d., some of whose writings exhibit the influence of Zen Buddhism.

Japanese literature is also replete with instances of the influence of the Indian Theory of Karma and the transmigration of the soul. Although Buddhist deities like Buddha, Maitreya, Amitabha and Vairocana predominate Japanese literature; Hindu gods are also quite well known.


Indian Name

Japanese Name

1. Seagod



2. King of Gods



3. God of Success



4. God of Wealth



5. Goddess of Learning



6. Goddess of Fortune



7. Mahesh



8. Divine Architect



In the annals of the Todaji temple, it has been stated that the worship of Sarasvati and Laksmi was first introduced in 722 a.d. and continued down the centuries. In Bessom Zakki (Description of Gods) written in the 12th century written in the Siddham script, a corrupt Sanskrit mantra reads: ‘Sarasvatai svaha namo sarasvatyai mahadevyai svaha, namo bhagavati mahadevi sarasvati sidhyatu mantrapadami svaha’. A description of Sarasvati occurs in the voluminous text Asabasho by Shocho 1205-82 and the rituals connected with her worship have been recorded by Ryoson 1279 to 1349 in Chapter CXLIX of his Byaku-hokku-sho (The White Jewel of Indian Tradition). The adoption of these Hindu deities into the Buddhist and Shintonist pantheons of Japan indicate the influence of India on Japanese religions as well as the syncretic character of the religious systems of Japan.

The survey made above reveals the immense contribution of India to the theology of Japanese Buddhism as well as to Japanese literature. The present indications are that the texts utilized were all written in Sanskrit, probably in the Siddham script, and there was no intrusion of Pali, unlike in the Buddhist countries of South-East Asia.

Shintoism has been designated by some scholars as the Japanese version of Hinduism – Chaman Lal.

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