Chasing the Monk’s Shadow by Mishi Saran is a very difficult book for me to review. For this is a book that I would have loved to write – so there is a bit of reverence with which I read the book. I discovered this book while reading a short piece by the author Mishi Saran in the anthology Shaping the World by Manju Kapur. I bought Chasing the Monk’s Shadow book. But it was during one of the travels that I started reading the book. And I knew I have to read it slowly. But never thought I would take me months to read it.

Mishi Saran retraces the journey of Xuanzang or as Huan Tsang as he was called in my history books. Since the time I visited Nalanda and read bits of what he has written about 7th CE India, I have been looking for resources to read more of what he recorded about India. Attend an art history class and his reference is bound to come especially when you study Buddhist Art. So, when I read about Mishi Saran’s exploration of this route – I had to read this book.

It is a very long route that Mishi Saran took to walk in the steps of the monk. Her journey tells you the challenges that the monk overcame to reach India or Nalanda. In her narration of the journey, she brings out the places as they exist today and contrasts it with what the monk had recorded. She finds of strains of continuity when someone like a beauty parlor worker at Vizag tells her the exact words as the monk for the people of Andhra region. Or, when she discovers a word that still continues to be used in the same manner.

She begins by getting into the mind of Xuanzang. How strong his urge must have been to travel all the way to India. How he would have come back like a stranger to his own land. Did he eat with hands after returning from India? I liked these monologues from the monk’s head that Mishi Saran has shared. You can only do this when you have walked the path, faced similar if not same challenges. She wonders if while translating the scriptures from Sanskrit after his return from India – Did he feel doubly homesick? One for the China that existed in his past and second for India that he would never reach again and that has transformed him.

She brings out the nuances of his travels like at one place where he had to escape like a thief since he was not getting permission to venture out. It sounds like a thriller where a monk wants to travel and he has this set of obstacles he must tackle at every step.

Looking at his notes she wonders how accurate he was – he noted directions, distances, no of days he walked, crops, rivers, kings, people – Everything. He almost recreates the place for you – leaving not much for you to imagine. It seems he counted the distances based on the rosary counts as he walked. How strong his urge must have been for India that he was willing to cross mountains, kingdoms unknown.

At every step comes out the relationship between India and China. When you read about the Pagoda that was built to keep the scriptures brought from India or a five-story tower was built in Indian Style or dome-shaped stupas instead of pagodas – you wonder, why have we most them all in India. At one place monk says – I’m going to seek law in the country of the Brahmins. The limits of Ashoka’s kingdom beyond the boundaries of present-day India

You learn about the silk route – the finer details of its landscape and the changing cultures. For example at Kyrgyzstan, Mishi talks about Manas – an epic that is a story of a warrior that is 4 times longer than Ramayana. At Sogdiana, she discovers Goddess Nana – with four arms and riding a lion. She finds a parallel of Athena springing from the head of Zeus to Ganga springing from the head of Shiva. I learned that travelers on silk road covered 30-35 kms a day. The book brings out how the landscape of Central Asia must have been Buddhist when Xuanzang traveled and how only traces of it remain there.

Of the Indian Part of the journey, having been to most of the places, it was an easy read for me. I could visualize almost every place the author visited and every quirk she mentions. Still, I learned that Jalandhar in Punjab has 50 or so monasteries with 2000 monks. About Mathura, Buddha apparently said there are 5 defects – uneven ground, too many stones, prickly shrubs, people take solitary meals and there are too many women. She talks about the tussle between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhists.

Towards the end, when Mishi Saran visits Pakistan and Afghanistan to complete the journey, it becomes less about monk’s journey but more about the current state of affairs in the region. She traveled just before the 9/11 attack in America. You get a very different image of the region. I have always doubted the intentions and modus operandi of NGOs and Mishi’s description of their work in Afghanistan reaffirms my belief. Her assessment of UN agencies and how they create a small island of peace and luxury for themselves even in the war zone is disappointing, to say the least.

Some of my favorite quotes from the Chasing The Monk’s Shadow by Mishi Saran:

  • To understand China, you must see India’s influence. Many Many Sanskrit roots and concepts have shaped us. – Huang – a Chinese Scholar.
  • Relics of Xuanzang were divided in the same manner as Buddha’s.
  • At the place of Xuanzang’s birth, Mishi was asked – So, you are from the place where Xuanzang went to get the scriptures.
  • On Avalokiteshwara – Indian Buddhism was stern, cerebral stuff, but ordinary housewives of China needed something more accessible, somewhere to turn to when their husbands beat them, when they couldn’t conceive, when rice got burnt or when children grew up to become drunk. They turned to Avalokiteshwara – the Lord who regards the cries of the world.
  • Guanyin is the female form of Avalokiteshvara and its representation is like Goddess Kali with thousand arms.
  • Fa Xian, Sung Yun, Hui-Sheng – he muttered the name of the monks who had been to India – at a monastery.
  • Xuanzang was introduced to grammar and Indian logic. He learned the use of valid arguments. And he perfected his elocution. He learned the rules of debate, that he must speak pure Sanskrit, that he must not show nervousness, that he must not speak out of turn.
  • Buddhism died for the same reason as many modern projects wilt: funding ran out, the organization became too hierarchical, an elite group took control, there was infighting, monetary patronages lessened and so there were desertions – Dr. Sharma.
  • Home is where you learned the first language you ever spoke.

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The narrative of the Chasing the Monk’s Shadow book is such that the monk’s journey and author’s journey merge with each other. And then come out in two different eras at places. You miss a sentence and you may lose the context. You need to read the book carefully. Mishi has put a lot of herself in the book, which is not easy. But it provides an extra layer of engagement with the reader. Whatever little I have read of Xuanzang – it seems he saw everything Buddhist. And ignored most other things – it was his worldview of India. Mishi also has a similar view of China – limited to all the things that the monk touched. Do we all not have such inbuilt filtering mechanisms?

I loved her knack for picking up common words in different languages and connecting them to commonality in cultures.

Overall, I loved the Chasing the Monk’s Shadow book. It recreated the journey of Xuanzang with a parallel in 21st CE.

Go, Read Chasing the Monk’s Shadow.

Chasing the Monk's Shadow by Mishi Saran

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