1.4 Journey to the West

When we read the words ‘journey to the west’, we naturally start thinking about a journey to western countries like England and America. But ‘west’ is a relative term. For countries to our east, WE are the west! This particular journey that we are going to read about was actually a journey from China to our own country! It was made by the famous seventh century traveller Yuan Chwang.

In those days, travelling from China to India was not an easy task – one had to travel thousands of miles on foot or horseback, crossing deserts, crossing snow-clad mountains, crossing strange, unfamiliar regions, using roads where bandits and robbers roamed – who would do it? But Yuan Chwang had a dream. He wanted to take Buddhist scriptures from India to his homeland in China. It was like a pilgrimage to him.

Yuan Chwang undertook the long and difficult journey to follow his dream. For seventeen long years, he kept on travelling, suffering many hardships on the way. He travelled across the Gobi Desert, then along the Tian Shan mountain range, and on and on along the Silk Road, through regions that are now Kyrgizstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan before he came to India. In India, he travelled to many parts and gathered many important manuscripts.

The way back home was also equally difficult. But Yuan Chwang managed to reach China safely along with the scriptures. This was a great achievement. It was almost unbelievable. So much so, that people thought that the gods and supernatural powers had helped Yuan Chwang in his quest. This gave rise to many interesting folk tales. Centuries later, an epic novel called ‘Journey to the West’ was written about this famous pilgrimage. The novel made use of many of the folk tales. The novel and the stories in it are still very popular.

The novel tells us that there are many demons and evil powers who are eager to kill and gobble up the holy monk. Who would save him? Who would vanquish the demons? Well, the Guanyin deity, who is the goddess of mercy, has seen to that. She has assigned this task to three special people – Sun Wukong or the Monkey King, Zu Bajji or Pigsy, and Sha Wujing or Sand Priest.

 Now, these three characters are no saints. In fact, though they all have supernatural powers, they are known trouble makers. So the gods have thrown them out of heaven. However, the kind deity Guanyin has offered each of them one more chance. ‘If you help the holy monk in his pilgrimage to India, if you use your powers for this good work, then you may return to heaven.’ That is why the three characters have agreed to be Yuan Chwang’s disciples and to help Yuan Chwang in his difficult journey. And sure enough, they have many thrilling, exciting and sometimes humorous adventures on the way to the holy land – India!

The most powerful among the three disciples is Sun Wukong. Everything about him is extra[1]ordinary. He was born when winds blew over a huge stone egg on the Flower Fruit Mountain. He is able to transform himself in 72 different ways. Not only that but he can also transform each of his hair strands into any living or non-living thing of his choice. His ‘As-you-wish-gold-banded cudgel’ is also magical. It can grow as big as a pillar supporting the sky, but at other times, it becomes as tiny as a needle. Then the Monkey King just tucks it away behind his ear. Sun Wukong can travel thousands of kilometres in just one somersault. He can walk through fire, travel under water and fly to any place at will. His body is as hard as a diamond. So no one and nothing can injure him.

 His ‘golden- gaze -fiery eyes’ have x-ray vision. No one can deceive him. Sun Wukong is brave and intelligent but he is also a trickster. He loves to have fun. And some of his superpowers help him to just that. He has a vase which can suck in anything or anyone. He can simply point at a lock and open it. He is very very quick and can grow very big and very tiny at a blink. You can imagine how he must have teased his enemies using these tricks.

If you want to read about the adventures that Sun Wukong and his companions had on the way, you will find the stories in the English translation of ‘Journey to the West’. Some of the stories have also been turned into films. What would you like better – to read the historical account of Yuan Chwng’s travels, or to read the fantastic stories of Sun Wukong? Maybe you should read both to find out what you like better! Happy reading!