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Bagchi, Prabodh Chandra


Bagchi, Prabodh Chandra (1898-1956) was the doyen of Chinese studies in India. Born on 18 November 1898 in Srikol (Jessore district), Prabodh Chandra did his MA degree in Ancient Indian History and Culture from Calcutta University in 1920. He was immediately appointed a lecturer in the same faculty, and in 1921 was sent to the newly founded vishvabharati to study Buddhism and Chinese language under the illustrious French scholar, Sylvain Levi. With Professor Levi he worked on Buddhism in Sanskrit and, later, while doing his Docteur-es-Lettres from the University of Paris, worked with Pelliot on the ancient remains of Indian civilisation in Central Asia; with Maspero on the Buddhist literature in Chinese; with Jules Bloch on ancient Pali texts; and with Antoine Meillet on the Avestan Gathas, the study of which is essential for a comprehensive knowledge of the Vedic religion.

The first work that carried an indelible stamp of Bagchi's scholarship is the well-known monograph, Le Canon Bouddhigue en Chine (1927). This two-volume work contains the biographical history of the Indian, Chinese and other scholars who translated the Sanskrit and Pali Buddhist texts into Chinese. Another important work by him in French is a critical edition of two ancient Sanskrit-Chinese Dictionaries, one compiled in Central Asia in the 8th century AD; and the other by the famous pilgrim-scholar Yijing (I-tsing) in the 7th century AD. These works are yet to be translated into English.

In 1944 he produced another work of historical importance, India and China: A Thousand Years of Sino-Indian Contact, which is a sine qua non for students of India-China relations. Although two such works were published later in China, one by Jin Kemu (translated into both English and Hindi), and the other by the well-known Indologist, Ji Xianlin (in Chinese), Bagchi's work is unique.

Thoroughly acquainted with western methodology, Bagchi knew how to integrate literary evidence with archaeological data. His approach to the core material necessary for the reconstruction of the distant past was twofold: (i) Restoration and publication of old Chinese Buddhist texts, preparation of notices and translation of ancient manuscripts of different collections, and (ii) study of archaeological objects such as coins, inscriptions and other monumental remains to study Buddhist literature and philosophy and many other aspects of Indian cultural exchange covering wide range of subjects.

Bagchi showed ingenuity, farsightedness and thoroughness in his studies of Chinese texts. He identified Ptolemy's Gange with the Chinese Huangzhi (Huangchih), which existed between the 2nd century BC and first century AD on the basis of records contained in the official 'History of Former Han Dynasty' of China. Earlier scholars had identified it with Kanchi (Kanchipuram) on the basis of faulty phonetic equivalence and insufficient historical information. But, following Bagchi's lead, it is held now that the foreigners also knew Bengal, ie, vanga as Gange.

Contrary to the traditional belief that Buddhism entered China in the first century AD, Bagchi informs us that India's first contact with China goes back to the second century BC, when certain scientific and cosmological notions infiltrated into China through the nomadic people of Central Asia. As Buddhism was a much richer religion than Confucianism, and as it has a much deeper philosophy than Taoism, it attracted the Chinese and the Chinese literati themselves started taking an interest and pleading with the Court in its favour.

Hoards of Chinese coins discovered in Tanjore (Thanjavur) district of Tamilnadu in 1942 and 1944 were studied and identified by Bagchi. His study (with the help of Chou Ta-fu) of these coins throws further light on the uninterrupted political and trade relations between South India and China, even after China's relations with North India came to a halt in the middle of the 11th century AD. The coins belong to the period between the 8th and 13th centuries, representing the periods of the Pallavas, Cholas and Sundara Pandyas.

Bagchi solved many puzzles, big and small, of Indian chronicle based on a comparative study of Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan texts. He studied the historical evidence in the spirit of a judge. As a true historian he was above all prejudices, and never wrote anything on a preconceived pattern.

A large number of Sanskrit texts on Buddhism translated into Chinese at various times were lost to us for more than a millennium. Thanks to the efforts of scholars like Bagchi some of them are available in English translation. They include the Vajrayana texts by Fatian (Dharmadeva), the Pratitya-samutpada-sutra commented upon by Vasubandhu (early 5th century AD), the sutra spoken by Ravana on curing children's diseases, Sutra on the twelve years of the wandering life of Buddha (3rd to 5th century AD), the story of Dhanika in various Vinaya texts, The Geographical Catalogue of the Yaksas in the Mahamayuri and numerous other texts - all translated and critically evaluated by Bagchi.

Bagchi came on the cultural scene at a time when most educated Indians were either ignorant about or indifferent to the legacy of the multifaceted Chinese heritage and its importance to Indian history. He delved deep into the voluminous Vinaya and other literary works in Chinese, made a comparative study of the various texts, brought out the similarities and differences of different versions, and raised queries for future scholars to answer.

In his life and work Prabodh Chandra Bagchi exemplified the perfect Sino-Indologist. He died rather prematurely, in January 1956. His numerous typed manuscripts of monographs and translated texts will now require the concerted efforts of a group of scholars to prepare them for publication. His scholarship was a bridge between Indology and Sinology. [Haraprasad Ray]