(This is an extract from the book “The Beginning of Hindu Culture as World Power (AD 300- 600)” authored by Benoy Kumar Sarkar in 1916. Benoy Kumar Sarkar was a social scientist, professor, and nationalist. He founded several institutes in Calcutta, including the Bengali Institute of Sociology, Bengali Asia Academy, Bengali Dante Society, and Bengali Institute of American Culture. Sarkar wrote in five languages, his native Bengali, English, German, French and Italian, publishing a large volume of work on a variety of topics, including 53 books and booklets in English alone. He even authored a piece about Hindu Rashtra in Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s Bangabani)
The Hindus of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries were not living in “splendid isolation,” as it has been the fashion to suppose that the Asiatic have ever done. As in previous ages, so under the Guptas they kept up cultivating the “world-sense.”
In the first place, it must be remembered that India alone is a world by herself the whole of Europe minus Russia. Therefore, for the Hindus to be able to develop the “India-sense” in pre-Steam days must be regarded as an expression of internationalism of high order. Considered territorially, and also in terms of population, the world-sense of the Roman Emperors was not greater than that of the Hindu Imperialists.
The internationalism of the Hindus was extra-Indian too. It is well-known that the world of Kalidasa’s poetry includes the whole of India and also the Indian borderland and Persia. The fact that with the fifth century, augmented the stream of traffic between India and China both by land and sea is itself an indication of the “Asia-sense” they had been developing. It may be said that the Mauryas had cultivated mainly the relations with West-Asia, the Kushans had opened up the Central-Asian regions, and the Guptas developed the Far Eastern intercourse. The Hindus could now think not only in terms of India but of the entire Asia.
The larger world beyond Asia was also to a certain extent within the purview of the Hindus. Ever since Alexander’s opening up of the West-Asian route, the Hindus had kept touch with the “barbarians.” About the first century A.D. Hindu trade with the Roman Empire was not a negligible item of international commerce. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (c A.D. 100) is a document of that Indo-Roman intercourse. Both the Kushans in the North and the Andhra Monarchs in the South were interested in Rome.
In the Imperial Gazetteer of India (India, Vol. II.) Sewell describes the foreign trade of the Hindus under the South Indian Andhras (B.C. 200 A.D. 250): “The Andhra period seems to have been one of considerable prosperity. There was trade both overland and by sea, with Western Asia, Greece, Rome, and Egypt, as well as with China and the East. Embassies are said to have been sent from South India to Rome. Indian elephants were used for Syrian warfare. Pliny mentions the vast quantities of species that found its way every year from Rome to India and in this he is confirmed by the author of the Periplus. Roman coins have been found in profusion in the peninsula, and especially in the south. In A.D. 68 a number of Jews, fleeing from Roman persecution, seem to have taken refuge among the friendly coast people of South India and to have settled in Malabar.”
The following picture of foreign settlements in Southern India is given by Vincent Smith : “There is good reason to believe that considerable colonies of Roman subjects engaged in trade were settled in Southern India during the first two centuries of our era, and that European soldiers, described as powerful Yavanas, dumb Mlechchas (barbarians), clad in complete armour, acted as body-guards to Tamil kings.”
According to the same authority Chandragupta II. Vikramaditya (A.D. 375-413) of the Gupta dynasty was “in direct touch with the sea-borne commerce with Europe through Egypt.”
Besides, intercourse with Further India and the colonisation of Java form parts of an adventure which in Gupta times was nearing completion. In fact, with the fourth century A.D. really commences the foundation of a “Greater India” of commerce and culture, extending ultimately from Japan on the East to Madagascar on the West. The romantic story of this Expansion of India has found its proper place in Mookerji’s History of Indian Shipping and Maritime Activity from the Earliest Times. The heroic pioneers of that undertaking were all embodiments of the world-sense.
It would thus appear that the travels of Kumarajiva the Hindu Missionary (A.D. 405) and of Fa Hien the Celestial Apostle were facts of a nature to which the Indians had long been used. The Chinese monks came to a and through which the current of world-life regularly flowed. Hindustan had never been shunted off from the main-track of universal culture. To come to India in the age of the Guptas was to imbibe the internationalism of the atmosphere.
Regarding the Indo-Chinese intercourse of this age the following extracts from The Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art are interesting:
“Of what took place in the Tartar regions of the north we know little, since their dynasties have not been recognised by Chinese historians as legitimate. The true Celestial annals, indeed the lore of Chinese genius, belong at this time to the stimulus afforded by the new southern conditions. The new capital, near the present Nanking, was on the great Yangtse. The Southern seats of the Chinese were in closer proximity to a new part of India, the south through Burma, or along the opening lines of coast trade. It was here too, in the Southern Chinese nests, that Buddhism could drop her most fertile germs.”
It may be mentioned that the patriarch Bodhidharma, originally a South Indian Prince, reached Canton by sea and was then invited to Nanking (A. D. 520).
The above is a picture of the sea-traffic. References to this are to be found in the Kwan-Yuen Catalogue (A.D. 730) of the Chinese Tripitaka which has been drawn upon by Prof. Anesaki for his paper in the J.R.A.S. (April, 1903).
It must not be forgotten, besides, that Kucha and Khotan, the halfway house between India and China, remained all this while the great emporium of Hindu culture and Graeko-Buddhist art. Manuscripts, unearthed by Stein and others, both in Kharosthi and Chinese Scripts, prove that Central Asian Indianism flourished during the period from 3rd century A.D. to 8th or 9th. And it was the Central Asian land-route which was traversed by Fa Hien in A.D. 399 and later by Hiuen Thsang in A.D. 629 on their way to India, from which both returned home by sea.