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Cambodia: Sanskrit Inscriptions

While the newspapers continue to tell us how in Vietnam, and now in Cambodia, people, animals, villages, farms, cities, crops, forests, and even the fish in the ocean are being destroyed, little information is given about the destruction of an ancient civilization. We do not know which temples and monasteries were destroyed and which books and manuscripts, sculptures and inscriptions have disappeared forever. A study of the history of the Sanskrit inscriptions from Cambodia alone may help us to understand a civilization that may soon be altogether lost.

During the first century A.D. several Hindu kingdoms arose in Southeast Asia. The largest of these was Fu-nan in the lower Mekhong delta, which by the third century ranged over a large area extending from North Vietnam well into the Malayan peninsula. The Hindu and soon also Buddhist kings of these states left numerous Sanskrit inscriptions, the Sanskrit language having been introduced from India along with Hinduism and Buddhism. While Cambodia possesses or possessed an enormous wealth of such inscriptions, sometimes of great historical, literary, religious, and moral value, the oldest Sanskrit inscription, that of Vocañh, is in fact from Vietnam and dates from the third century. It refers to an earlier king, Srimararaja, but since the text is much mutilated we know neither the name of the writer, nor his relationship to Srimara. About the present state of this inscription nothing is known.

The Vocañh inscription is written in regular Sanskrit prose, and most of the inscriptions from Cambodia are written in a more correct form of Sanskrit than that which is used in some of the inscriptions from India. The reason for this may be that the Cambodians learned Sanskrit from grammar books and not from native speakers. The Indian grammarian Panini is in fact honored by being mentioned in these inscriptions; other linguistic works are referred to as well.

Apart from certain isolated idiosyncrasies, of which the most interesting is perhaps the use of a relative clause with the verb either in the form of the present participle or in the locative absolute, whatever deviations from regular Sanskrit are found in the inscriptions from Cambodia are generally attributed to the influence of middle-Indic languages, more rarely to the influence of the Khmer language. While the oldest Cambodian inscriptions, those of Fu-nan, date from the fifth or sixth century, the first inscriptions in Khmer date from the seventh century. Later the poetic parts of the inscriptions tend to be written in Sanskrit, while the accompanying prose, which provides more technical detail, is in Khmer.

While Vietnam used to be called Campa (which is also the name of a town in western Bengal), the name Cambodia itself is probably the Sanskrit Kamboja or Kambuja. Tradition has it that the Cambodians were the offspring of the union of Kambu (literally “conch shell”) and Mera or Pera, who was given in marriage to Kambu by Siva. Older Sanskrit sources refer to the Kambuja as a people living in another area, viz. the region north of Kashmir now called Badakshan-Pamir, around the river Oxus in Central Asia. Old Persian inscriptions refer to these Cambodians as Kambujiya. In the fourth century B.C., the grammarian Panini complimented these (Central Asian) Cambodians by analyzing the formation of the term kamboja as referring to their king. A millennium later, this compliment was returned with the mention of Panini in the inscriptions of their namesakes, the Cambodians from Southeast Asia (as we have seen).

Almost all of the inscriptions from Cambodia relate to the foundation of religious and educational institutions by kings or high officials. They are similar in part to the Indian prasasti panegyrics. They regularly begin with an invocation (mangala) to Hindu gods or to the Buddha, drawing freely on the Upanisads, the Puranas, saiva and vaisnava agamas or the Buddhist scriptures. It is interesting to note that they often contain more philosophic material than their Indian counterparts. Next comes a panegyric of the king or high official, who makes the donation. These parts are often written in the elaborate kavya style of Sanskrit court poetry. This is followed by a description of the endowments and the established institutions themselves, often elaborating on technical details. Finally the wish is expressed that these foundations may flourish, and last but not least, that they may be protected from destruction.

King Jayaviravarman, for example, ends an inscription found in Tûol Pràsàt with the following verse:

lumpanti no ye mama kalpanan te
svarggapavarggañ ciram avasantu
tad varddhanaraksanatatparanam
ka ca tatha punyaphalesu tesam //

punyam mama svarthaparartham eva
lumpanti ye svalpadhiyas tu tesam
utpattir eva sthitir astv ahanir
analpakalpan narake ‘tighore //

(May those who do not destroy these foundations of mine live long in the bliss of paradise. Why say more about the merit that will accure to people concerned with preserving them and making them flourish?

But may those small minds who destroy my meritorious work, whether for their own sake or for the sake of others, go to hell and stay for numerous aeons in that horrible place.)

The information provided by these inscriptions often sheds a great deal of light on the outlook of the inhabitants of Kamboja and the conditions of their society. The inscriptions from the reign of the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII (1181-circa 1220 A.D.) stress Buddhist virtues such as charity, non-violence, and compassion toward the entire world. The Ta Prohm Inscription of this king relates to the group of temples of that name, which was a great institution of learning and provided lodging and shelter for 439 professors and the 970 scholars studying under them.

The study of the inscriptions from Cambodia has been made possible by the excellent work carried out by French scholars now for almost a century. A. Barth published in 1885 the Inscriptions Sanscrites du Cambodge, followed in 1893 by A. Bergaigne’s Inscriptions Sanscrites de Campâ et du Cambodge. Numerous Sanskrit and Khmer inscriptions have been edited and translated by L. Finot and G. Coedès in the Bulletin de l’école française d’extrême orient, the Journal asiatique, the Mélanges Sylvain Lévi, and other periodicals and publications. In 1937 Coedès began his magnificent Inscriptions du Cambodge, of which six volumes have so far been published. At present some of this work is being carried on by Indian scholars, e.g., R. C. Majumdar, working in India, and Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, working in France.

When the history of Western imperialism in Asia is written, it will be remembered that the French, who during the “colonial era” exploited Indo-China, also made these scholarly contributions which will preserve at least records of what soon may be irretrievably lost. During the present “destructive era,” destruction is wrought not even for the sake of exploiting people, but mainly because of political paranoia, and without the faintest idea of what it is that is being destroyed.

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