Of Monk Nagsen and Nagseni

A still of ancient ruins of temples in Saivya Draman.

Ashish Chouhan
In the preceding two centuries before Christ, when the Mauryan Empire’s influence was declining in the Northwest, waves of tribes from Central Asia invaded India. The ground for this movement was provided by the constant flux of nomadic tribes called Scythians in Central Asia. They posed a serious threat to the settled empires of China and India. The then-Chinese ruler, Shih Huang Ti constructed the Great Wall of China to shield his empire from the forthcoming danger. But Ashoka who was busy spreading the message of Buddha across the length and breadth of the subcontinent took no strict action to guard the mountain passes in the northwest.
At the time of this threat, Bactria, north Afghanistan of today, was ruled by the Indo-Greeks. Unable to sustain power in the area they started their movement toward India. The successors of Ashoka were too weak to stem the tide of foreign invasions. Exploiting the opportunity, Indo-Bactrians succeeded in establishing sway over northern India. The most prominent Indo-Greek king who extended his kingdom up to the Ganga-Yamuna doab was Menander. Also known by the name Milinda he established his capital at Sagala, modern-day Sialkot which is currently a city in Pakistan. Accompanied by the 500 Indo-Greek soldiers and two of his counsellors Demetrius and Antiochus his persona was awe-inspiring. Also a polymath, he had good knowledge of many philosophical schools developed at the time in India.
It was also a time when Theravada Buddhism was at its zenith in the subcontinent. Furthermore, the passes of the Himalayas were a practising ground of Buddhism in this era. Many Buddhist Gurus and scholars used to roam in these passes of the middle Himalayan belt practising and spreading the message of Buddha. Monk Nagsen was one such philosopher known to history. Born in a Brahmin family in the then Kajangal village of the modern Galigad area of Kishtwar District he was a scholar of great intellect. He learnt the knowledge of Vedas from a Brahman teacher at a very tender age. To quench the thirst for knowledge further he joined Arhat Rohan and went to Vattania Ashram. Arhat is a Sanskrit word that means a being who has attained a state of perfection in Buddhism. Nagsen joined the Buddhist fold along the way at Rakshittal. Subsequently, the chief of the Buddhist order, Arhat Assagut sent him to Pataliputra, today’s Patna, for further studies. Here he studied all three canonical texts viz. Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma Pitakas of Buddhism in a brief time.
He returned to Rakshittal thereafter and propagated the teachings of Buddhism there. At the time when his influence was growing in the middle Himalayas, King Menander in his kingdom was firing salvos at the contemporary intellectuals of the time with his mind-bending philosophical questions. He defeated many scholars of the time which bolstered his confidence and he said “The whole of this land has become devoid of scholars and intellectuals. There is no scholar who can dare to face me. Answering my questions is a far-off matter”. To save the fraternity from further shame many great Buddhist scholars at that time cajoled Monk Nagsen for the task.
Taking the responsibility onto his shoulders Nagsen went to the capital of the Indo-Greek king, Sagala. Assembly was convened at the palace of King Menander and discourse started. Menander bit the dust finally at the hand of Monk Nagsen and became Milinda, a follower of Buddhism for life. This entire discourse was compiled later in the form of a book called Milindapanho or The Questions of Milinda, thereby becoming a major semi-canonical text of Buddhism for the times to come. Written in the Pali language, Milindapanho is the only text available that talks about Nagsen and his birthplace. Some historians today are of the view that his birthplace is a modern Kunja village in District Kishtwar. In addition, its proximity with today’s Nagseni Tehsil of the same district via a
mountain pass and the similarity of some other names of the said tehsil with the names of places mentioned in the text Milindapanho corroborates the point to a very large extent that Nagsen was born in the area in the vicinity.
Nagseni Tehsil of District Kishtwar today is a place of stories and myths which beg extensive research. Its name itself has historical connotations. Apart from that there are many places like Damzi, Bhattan, Saivya Draman, Vagamgadh, etc. in this tehsil where ancient relics have been found. Moreover, one can still hear the legends of Monk Nagsen and King Milinda from the locals there. Now whether Buddhism had strong roots here or it was just an experimentation ground for the Buddhist missionaries is a point of research.
Matter of fact is that Buddhism disappeared from the face of Nagseni. But this is not the story of Nagseni alone, it disappeared to a very large extent from the very subcontinent where it was born. Currently, Buddhism is the 4th largest religion in the world with over 520 million followers worldwide. Schism in Buddhism and many other developments gradually transformed this religion. Today if we talk about Jammu & Kashmir Union Territory, the Buddhist population resides only in the Paddar subdivision of Kishtwar District, some 35-40 kms away from Nagseni in the east where the great monk Nagsen once walked about 2200 years ago.
The form of Buddhism that is prevalent nowadays in Paddar is a blend of Mahayana and Vajrayana, a quite different form from the one practised by the Nagsen. Buddhists in Paddar trace their roots to the Lahul-Spiti in Himachal and Zanskar in Kargil from where they migrated. Their culture, art forms, and languages show a close affinity with the Buddhist people in these two places. Being followers of the Drukpa Lineage, they repose great faith in the journey of monk Panchan Naropa to Paldar, his blessings, and sayings. Buddhists in Paddar believe that the word Paddar has germinated from the word Paldar given by Panchan Naropa meaning ‘The prospered Land’.
Anyway, there is a total diversion from the culture that flourished in Nagseni many years ago. Today people of Nagseni speak a language that is nowhere close to the language spoken by the people in Paddar. Their culture and festivals show great affinity with the people in Kishtwar. What caused this shift and what happened to the legacy of this great scholar Nagsen?
Today there is no school dedicated to this great scholar in Kishtwar, not any statue or relic which can instill his lessons and teachings in the masses. Milindapanho has shifted into the archives. Many translated versions of this text have piled up in different libraries across the world but the place where he was born and brought glory to has forgotten it. Neither Kishtwar, Nagseni nor Paddar has emulated his lessons. No steps have been taken so far to revive the glory of this great intellectual.
Two millennia ago when Menander put before Nagsen vexing questions, he got his answers. Today our conscience is asking questions about his legacy. And I believe answers to the questions about his legacy will be the answers to the Questions of Monk Nagsen!