The Earliest Satyagraha?

In 629 or 630 C.E., the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang reached the oasis city of Gaochang on his way to India. The king at that time was a Buddhist by the name of Qu Wencai and he was was thrilled to see the Master of the Law. He was so thrilled that he did not want the Master to travel West; he wanted him to stay in Gaochang.

This posed a problem and it started a diplomatic dance between the Master of the Law and the monarch. First the monarch sent a eighty year old master with this request. When that did not work, the monarch himself made the request. The Master praised the monarch’s goodness, but said that his heart disagrees. The monarch tried more praise: he said he had seen numerous teachers, but none as impressive as the master;he would provide for the Master till the end of his life; he would make all his subjects the Master’s disciples.

Nothing worked. Instead the Master explained why he was traveling to India – to correct the imperfect knowledge of Yogacara in China and to find the truth for himself. This angered the monarch and he threatened the monk with other means to resolve this debate.

Thus the stubborn monk faced a stubborn monarch. Faced with uncertainty, the Master told boldly that the the king had control over his body but not over his spirit, went into meditation, and refused to eat or drink. On the fourth day the monk almost fainted. The king felt guilty about the whole affair and gave permission for the monk to travel West.

This probably is one of the earliest use of hunger strike as a political weapon.


  1. Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Vintage, 2002). 
  2. Mishi Saran, Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin Global, 2005).