Solution: Daily Problem Practice for 2023 History Optional [Ancient India: Day 23]

Q. Evaluate the account of Fa Hien as a source of history of Ancient India. How his account can be compared with the account of Hiuen Tsang? [15 Marks]


Fa Hien, a Chinese Buddhist, was one of the pilgrims who visited India in search of original Buddhist texts, during the reign of Gupta emperor Chandragupta II. He stayed in India up to 411 CE. He went on a pilgrimage to Mathura, Kanauj, Kapilvastu, Lumbini, Kushinagar, Vaishali, Pataliputra, Kashi and Rajgriha and made careful observations about the empire’s conditions.

His travelogues give a fine impression about Chandra Gupta’s empire. The various aspects of his empire. i.e. political, religious, social and economic, were clearly reflected in his writings.

Social condition:

  • Fahien noted the peacefulness of India, the rarity of serious crime, and the mildness of the administration. He stated that it was possible to travel from one end to another in the country without molestation, and without passports.
    • Hiuen Tsang had said he had been robbed twice which implies there were law and order problem during Harsha period.
  • In his remarks on social custom he stated that all respectable persons were vegetarians, meat eating being confined to low castes and untouchables. Most citizens did not consume onions, garlic, meat, and wine.
    • Hiuen Tsang was also aware of the four classes and had mentioned many mixed classes, but he shows no clear knowledge of the existence of caste in its modern form. Yuan Chwang had mentioned both about vegetarian and non vegetarian.
  • According to Fahien, the Shudras were kept outside the town and entered the town by making a noise with a stick. They were butchers, hunters, and fishermen.
    • Hiuen Tsang had also described this.

Religious condition:

  • He found Buddhism still flourishing, but theistic Hinduism was very widespread. His record shows that in place of the old sacrificial Brahminism, Hinduism has appeared. But in the best days of the Gupta Empire Indian culture reached a perfection which it was never to attain again. Humanitarian ideas, probably encouraged by Buddhism, were effective in Gupta period in moderating the fierce punishments of earlier days.
  • Fahien stated that the death penalty was not imposed in north India, but most crime was punished by fines and only serious revolt by the amputation of one hand. Executions were rare.
    • Hiuen Tsang, 200 years later. reported that prisoners were not executed under Harsha. but were left to rot in dungeons. Punishments were rather mild as compared to the later times.
  • He had given a detailed description of the Buddhist pilgrimages. According to him, the Buddhist religion was divided into Mahayana and Hinayana. He saw twenty Buddha vihars in Mathura. But in Kapilavastu. Gaya and Kushinagar the condition was deteriorating which indicated the weakening of Buddhism. In the description of Fahien, it is not clear whether Brahmin religion was prevalent in the country or not. He visited two vihars near the stupa of an Ashoka in Patliputra- in one of them the Mahayana monks resided and in the other the Hinyana monks. The ruler of Madhya Pradesh was a worshipper of Vishnu; according to him mutual relation was cordial and peaceful among the Hindus and the Buddhists. This indicates the religious tolerance of the society.
    • Hiuen Tsang had also described the religious conditions of India at that time. The Buddhist religion was clearly declining. Despite of this, hundreds of monks resided in the country.
  • Fahien had mentioned about the Jainism, Shaiv and Vaishnav also. But there is no mention of the Jain religion in Hiuen Tsang’s texts.

Economic condition:

  • Fahien states that the income of the government was mainly based on the revenue taxes which were one-sixth of the total production. There was absence of poll-tax and land tax.
  • Faxian wrote. “The people were rich and prosperous and seemed to emulate each other in the practice of virtue. Charitable institutions were numerous and rest houses for travelers were provided on the highway. The capital possessed an excellent hospital.”
  • Government officials were given fixed income and there was no contribution from the people. Donation was prevalent in those times. Fahien had made special note of free hospitals maintained by the donations of pious citizens.
    • Hiuen Tsang had also reported that Nalanda was supported by the revenues of an enormous estate of one hundred villages, and by the alms of many patrons, including the great Harsha himself; it provided free training for no less than 10,000 students, who had a large staff to wait on them.
  • Fahien was enamored by Patliputra and the huge palace of Ashoka.
    • According to Hiuen Tsang, Patliputra was not a main city of north India and its place was taken by Kannauj. Hiuen Tsang had mentioned about the social and economic conditions. He reported about varna system and marriage. Fahien had not described all this. But both of them had stated that the economy was based on agriculture.

Political condition:

  • As his main interest was religion, Fa-hien did not record anything specifically about the political condition of India. He did not mention even the name of Chandra Gupta II in whose dominion he must have lived for more than five years. But his account for other aspects of society does implies that the administration of the Guptas was benevolent and successful and the rulers not only maintained peace and security within the empire but also looked after the welfare of their subjects.
  • Hiuen Tsang had glorified Harsha, he said Harsha was a great King and he had a great army.

Fahien, in comparison to Hiuen Tsang, had not been so observant and informative with regard to social, economic and political conditions of the society. Hiuen Tsang had completely described the period of king Harshavardhana but Fa Hien did not mention name of Chandragupta Vikramaditya.

From his accounts, the Gupta Empire was a prosperous period, until the Rome-China trade axis was broken with the fall of the Han dynasty, the Guptas’ did indeed prosper. His writings form one of the most important sources for the history of this period.


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