Javanese folklore contains the story of a late 4th century Hindu king named Vadhaka who converted to Buddhism. According to the legend, one night, Vadhaka’s mother had a dream about 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.

On 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 Monks, a combination of biographies of monks in China that was compiled by Hui Jiao of the 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 on account of the merits of previous existences,” she said. “I have already received the precepts, but you do not [yet] believe. I fear that in a later life, we will be cut off from the present merits.” Vadhaka then agreed to receive the precepts and became a practising Buddhist over time.

For Gunavarman, the monk who brought Buddhism to Java, this was the start of another chapter in an eventful life. A few years before, he had renounced the opportunity to become the king of Kashmir.

From prince to monk

Gunavarman was born in 367 CE in Kashmir in a royal family. As a child he showed an inclination towards spirituality, but his family did not take this seriously. Hui Jiao’s book says it was the Buddhist monks in Kashmir who noticed Gunavarman’s intelligence and were impressed by his kind and unassuming nature.

He left his 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 over hundred times, ten thousand words of Sutras. He grasped the chapters on the discipline and was very skilful in entering meditation.”

A decade after Gunavarman became an ordained monk, Varnaditya, the king of Kashmir, passed away without leaving an heir. The monk was asked by several ministers to give up 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 traces from the world of men.”

Little is known of Gunavarman’s life when he journeyed south. What is known is that he rose to eminence when he arrived in Sri Lanka a few years later. Monks at the Abhayagiri monastery near Anuradhapura speak of the Kashmiri staying there and becoming a specialist in Vinaya, the division of the Buddhist canon containing the rules and procedures that govern the Buddhist monastic community.

Advisor to the king

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 vied for power in the archipelago that now makes up Indonesia. As a new convert to Buddhism, the Javanese king’s vow of non-violence faced a test when a neighbouring kingdom was on the verge of invading Java.

“If I fight them, many people will surely be wounded and killed. If I do not fight them, there will be great peril,” Vadakha told Gunavarman, according to Hui Jiao’s book. “Now I confide in you, my master. I do not know what to decide.” The Kashmiri monk encouraged 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 itself, 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 pleaded with him to not abdicate. He agreed to stay the king under three conditions. “The first wish was that everybody from the king’s realm should respect the master (Gunavarman),” Stache-Rosen wrote. “The second wish was that throughout the country, people should abstain from killing. The third wish was that the treasures saved should be distributed liberally to the poor and sick.” The ministers agreed to these demands. Influenced by the king, the people of the island embraced Buddhism, and Java became one of the most important centres of the religion in South East Asia. Two centuries after the island embraced Buddhism, it became home to the world’s largest Buddhist temple: Borobudur.

As the word of Gunavarman’s popularity began to spread across Southeast Asia and to China, he received many visitors from different parts of the continent.

Armour of virtue

Envoys from several countries were sent to Java to try and persuade Gunavarman to relocate to their nations 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 Chinese monks Houei-Kouan and Houie-Tsong approached the Wen Emperor of the Liu-Song Dynasty and suggested that Gunavarman be invited to China to spread Buddhist instructions. This point in Chinese history is known as the Northern and Southern dynasties, a time when arts and culture flourished and Mahayana Buddhism gained popularity.

“Agreeing to their proposal, the Emperor ordered the prefect of Kiaotheu (Jiaozhou) to take necessary actions,” Dhar wrote. “Consequently a few Chinese monks were sent to Gunavarman to bring over to China.” The Kashmiri monk had, however, already left Java and set sail for another kingdom, but it seemed like he was destined to go to China as the wind pushed his vessel to Canton. “Hearing the news of his arrival, the Wen Emperor again issued a decree ordering the prefects and governors to send him to the capital,” Dhar wrote.

In China he was given the name Ch’iu-na-pa-mo, which means “armour of virtue”. 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 to 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 the Houche Shan mountain, which he felt resembled the Gādhrakūta or Vulture Peak, the Buddha’s favourite retreat in Rajgir, Bihar. The mountain in China was home to several tigers at the time the monastery was built. One legend goes that, one day, Gunavarman encountered a tiger. After touching him on the head with his staff, the monk stroked the tiger and went on.

The monk learned about people’s religious beliefs in the places where he lived and used Taoist and Confucian terms to explain Buddhist concepts. His teachings found resonance among the Chinese nobility, including the Wen Emperor, who asked him to stay in the Chi’ Huan monastery near the capital Nanking. “Among princes and scholars, there was not one who did not venerate him,” Stache-Rosen wrote. “On the day he preached there was a congestion of carriages on the highways. The spectators came and went, rubbing shoulders and following closely after each other. Gunavarman had wonderful natural talents and astonishing eloquence.”

Records indicate that the Kashmiri translated at least 10 major Buddhist texts in 18 volumes when he lived in China. These texts ranged from basic teachings to important sutras. He also helped translate incomplete texts that found their way to China through the Silk Road. Another Kashmiri scholar, Dharmamitra, helped Gunavarman translate some of the texts.

In the 5th century, there was relatively unhindered movement of people and ideas. Gunavarman was approached by the Ying Fu nunnery in China to confirm dual higher ordination for a group of eight nuns from Sri Lanka. Gunavarman insisted that there should at least be 10 nuns before they could be ordained. He asked the Sri Lankan nuns to learn the local language so that they could be better integrated into the community. A few years later, another three nuns from the Indian Ocean island came to southern China and the group was ordained by another Indian monk named Sanghavarman. The Ying Fu nunnery became the first in China to ordain foreign nuns. The ordination took place in 433 CE, two years after Gunavarman died.

“On the 28th day of the ninth month of that year (431 CE), when the midday meal was not yet over, Gunavarman got up first and returned to his cell,” Stache-Rosen wrote. “When his pupil followed later, he found that Gunavarman had died all of a sudden.” Before he died, the monk had prepared a testament of 36 verses, which he asked a disciple to take to India to show to the monks there.

Hui Jiao’s book noted that the monk’s appearance and colour had not changed after his body was put on a string bed, and that he resembled someone who was in a meditative state. Jiao also wrote that monks and laymen who came to pay their final respects noticed a fragrant perfume-like odour coming from his body. He was cremated according to Indian customs and a white pagoda was erected on the spot of his cremation.

Gunavarman’s legacy is largely forgotten now, but it was largely because of his journey to China that Buddhism gained favour with a large number of people in many parts of the country. He remains an example of the millennia-old cultural links between India, South East Asia and China.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.