Ancient Buddhist Inscriptions in Malaysia

When I came to Malaysia in 2008 I started giving talks on the history of Buddhist civilisation and culture, and through that research I became interested in the part Malaysia in particular had played in the development of Buddhism throughout the region.

Not many people know that the earliest evidence we have for Buddhism in SE Asia is actually found at the southern Kedah site known as the Bujang Valley, where datings for Buddhist artifacts has recently been placed in the second century of the Common Era, three centuries earlier than other rivals.

There are a number of inscriptions associated with this site, most of which are dated to around the 5th century when the peninsular was the seat of a great maritime civilisation that ebbed and flowed with the silk trade routes running from China to India to the Middle East.

The two most common inscriptions, which were sometimes combined, have very different histories, the first has the words of the famous saying which the Arahat Assajī spoke to Sāriputta, which led to his attaining the first Path and Fruit.

It is also the same words that Sāriputta shared with his friend Moggallāna, which also led to his attainment, following which, together with their 500 disciples, they both went to the Buddha and asked to be his disciples. The Buddha accepted them, and they became in time the two Chief Disciples of the Buddha.

The words themselves became almost an emblem of the religion throughout India and SE Asia, and are found written and carved in many places: cetiyas, sculptures, inscriptions and in various texts, both in Pāli, Sanskrit and occasionally Prākrit.

The Bujang Valley belongs linguistically, along with southern Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia to the cultures which seem to have been using Sanskrit for their scriptures. I have taken the transliteration below as quoted in Michel Jacq-Hergoualc’h’s The Malay Peninsular (Brill, Leiden, 2002) chapter eight, and added my own Pāli and English translation:

Ye dharmma hetuprabhavā hetun-teṣān-Tathāgata āha,
Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā hetuṁ tesaṁ Tathāgato āha,
Whatever things have a cause and source, their cause the Realised One told,

teṣān-ca yo nirodha – evam-vādi Mahāśramaṇaḥ.
tesañ-ca yo nirodho – evaṁvādī Mahāsamaṇo.
and also that which is their cessation – such is the Great Ascetic’s doctrine.

I previously worked on a text and translation of the Mahāvagga of the Vinaya Piṭaka, which contains the story of Sāriputta and Moggallāna, which can be found in Pāli and English here.

The text of a second inscription is not known from any other source, either scriptural or from the South Asian mainland, and it appears it may have been composed in the southern SE Asian zone. Although not scriptural in the same sense as the first one, it nevertheless reflects the same teaching, but this time in regard to kamma and rebirth:

Ajñānāc-cīyate karmma, janmanaḥ karmma kāraṇam,
Aññāṇaṁ cīyate kammaṁ, jananaṁ kammakāraṇaṁ,
Through ignorance (volitional) deeds are piled up, through (volitional) deeds there is (further) birth,

jñānān-na cīyate karmma, karmmābhāvān-na jāyate.
ñāṇaṁ na cīyate kammaṁ, kammābhāvaṁ na jāyate.
through knowledge (volitional) deeds are not piled up, without (volitional) deeds there is no (further) birth.

Below are photographs of two steles that are from the Bujang Valley. The first is in the Bujang Valley Museum, the second is also in the Museum, but I think it must be a copy. The original should be in the Indian Museum in Kolkata, India.

The writing in both cases is Pallava script, which is a southern form of Brahmi script, but with certain characteristics only found in SE Asia. For more photographs of artifacts from the Museum, see the Bujang Valley Museum album on my Photo Dharma website.

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