Kumarajiva, the man who translated the Lotus Sutra


As we entered the foyer of the India International Centre, the documented life of Kumarajiva came alive in a photo exhibition, curated by Buddhist scholar and seer, Dr. Shashibala. Titled, The life and legacy of Kumarajiva, the exhibition showcased the legacy of a lesser known, yet an important Buddhist monk of Indian history – Kumarajiva.

Known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Buddhism and Vedic learning, Kumarajiva is also recognised as one of the chief translators of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese. However, as per Dr. Shashibala, not many people in India are aware of Kumarajiva’s immense contribution to Indian culture and heritage. “Unfortunately our forefathers did not pen down his life and legacy, but people in China, Korea and Japan still revere him because he had a long cherished mission—propagation of the true spirit of Buddhism. He broke political, geographical, cultural and linguistic barriers to bequeath a casket of sacred sutras as the most authoritative presentations by translating them from Sanskrit into Chinese,” says Dr. Shashibala, a researcher with the International Academy of Indian Culture.

The exhibition showcases the scholar’s life through photographs of the sites he had visited, cave murals, holy objects and manuscripts of the sutras that he had translated. The impact of his works can still be felt in almost all the schools/sects of Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia.

In fact, for his comprehension of the words of the Buddha, Kumarajiva is recognised as the most prominent among around 200 great translators of Buddhist scriptures, who were active from the 2nd to 13th century.

Kumarajiva’s father was a Kashmiri Brahmin, while his mother was the then Princess of Kucha (a kingdom on the Silk Route). From a young age, Kumarajiva’s fame had reached as far as northern China. Monks from all over Central and East Asia used to gather to listen to him.

Kumarajiva based himself upon the philosophy of Nagarjuna. His dedication resulted in reverence for sutras like Saddharma-pundarika (Lotus Sutra), Prajnāpāramitā (the Great Wisdom Sutra) and Vimalakīrttinirdesa, which are widely studied throughout East Asia.

The Chinese Emperor granted him the titles of Rajaguru and Tripitakacharya. Pure Land schools in China and Japan are based on the philosophy of Sukhavativyuha-sutra translated by Kumarajiva. It has become the faith of the masses now.

Translation of Vimalakīrttinirdesa-sutra exercised a great influence on the lives of lay people giving legitimacy to the lay and the monastic life, through narratives of Vimalakirti who was a rich man and a devout Buddhist. He translated the five basic Prajna sutras as well.

Lotus Sutra translated by Kumarajiva under the patronage of Emperor Yao Hsing, is a literary religious classic. Today, it is the most famous among his works in East Asia. It has exerted a continuing influence and has been read and revered over the centuries.

Kumarajiva also wrote the biography of Ashvaghosha, an outstanding poet, an excellent composer of music and a philosopher.

“To conclude I would say that his translations are a source of spiritual value and philosophical thought in East Asian lands where people celebrate his legacy as the creator of cultural renaissance,” says Dr. Shashibala.

The exhibition titled–The Life and Legacy of Kumarajiva–was curated by Buddhist scholar Dr. Shashibala at the India International Centre, New Delhi. For more information on the life of the Buddhist monk Kumarajiva, write to drshashibala56@gmail.com.