The Hindu roots of karate

There is an adage that says that to understand the present we must know the past, so it would be necessary to go back to at least India to understand the origin of Karate-Dō (空手道); since the foundation of modern Asian martial arts arguably stems from a mix of early Chinese and Hindu martial arts. Certain legendary tales link the origin of the Shàolínquán (少林 拳), better known as Shaolin Kung-fu, with the spread of Buddhism from ancient India to China in the early 5th century AD., with the figure of Bodhidharma, who according to legend was the one who began the physical training of the monks of the Shaolin Temple. Although it is only a theory, many clues have been found in historical writings of the Gupta period, which is why Bodhidharma, the fourth son of a king of the Pallava Dynasty in South India, is still believed to have been the founder of the Shaolin Kung-fu. However, before entering the Chinese origins of Karate, it is necessary to first cover the subject of Indian martial arts.
Photo 1 courtesy: Wiki Commons, Indo-sphere Historical Cultural Influence Zone for the transmission of elements of Indian culture, including martial arts.
Asian martial arts were well documented during the medieval period, in the case of Japan they began with the establishment of the samurai nobility in the 12th century, in China with Ming Dynasty treatises such as the Jìxiào Xīnshū (紀 效 新書) which translated would mean something like "New treaty on military efficiency", and in the case of India with texts like the Agní-purana (अग्नि पुराण) or the Malla-yuddha (मल्लयुद्ध).

Around the year 630 AD., King Narasimhavarman of the Pallava Dynasty commissioned dozens of granite sculptures that depicted fighters disarming armed opponents with their bare hands in a style similar to the style described in the Agní-purana (अग्नि पुराण). Similarly, the Malla-yuddha (मल्लयुद्ध) is closely related to Southeast Asian fighting styles such as Naban. The Malla-yuddha incorporates grip, joint locks, punching, biting, suffocation, and pressure/vital point strike techniques. Furthermore, in Book 4: Virata Parva, Section XIII (Samayapalana Parva) of the Mahābhārata (महाभारतम्), we can appreciate a passage that explains in detail combat techniques that may well have been the basis of what we know today as Asian martial arts.
Photo 2 courtesy: Wiki Commons, Bhimasena - The King of the Kamyaka Forest."And Bhima (भीम) then summoned to the combat that athlete known by the name of Jimuta who was like unto the Asura Vritra whose prowess was widely known. And both of them were possessed of great courage, and both were endued with terrible prowess. And they were like a couple of infuriate and huge-bodied elephants, each sixty years old.

And those brave tigers among men then cheerfully engaged in wrestling combat, desirous of vanquishing each other. And terrible was the encounter that took place between them, like the clash of the thunderbolt against the stony mountain-breast. And both of them were exceedingly powerful and extremely delighted at each other's strength. And desirous of vanquishing each other, each stood eager to take advantage of his adversary's lapse. And both were greatly delighted and both looked like infuriate elephants of prodigious size.

And various were the modes of attack and defense that they exhibited with their clenched fists. And each dashed against the other and flung his adversary to a distance. And each cast the other down and pressed him close to the ground. And each got up again and squeezed the other in his arms. And each threw the other violently off his place by boxing him on the breast. And each caught the other by the legs and whirling him round threw him down on the ground. And they slapped each other with their palms that struck as hard as the thunderbolt. And they also struck each other with their outstretched fingers and stretching them out like spears thrust the nails into each other's body. And they gave each other violent kicks. And they struck knee and head against head, producing the crash of one stone against another. And in this manner that furious combat between those warriors raged on without weapons, sustained mainly by the power of their arms and their physical and mental energy, to the infinite delight of the concourse of spectators.

And all people, O king, took a deep interest in that encounter of those powerful wrestlers who fought like Indra and the Asura Vritra. And they cheered both of them with loud acclamations of applause. And the broad-chested and long-armed experts in wrestling then pulled and pressed and whirled and hurled down each other and struck each other with their knees, expressing all the while their scorn for each other in loud voices. And they began to fight with their bare arms in this way, which was like spiked maces of iron.

And at last, the powerful and mighty-armed Bhima, the slayer of his foes, shouting aloud seized the vociferous athlete by the arms even as the lion seizes the elephant, and taking him up from the ground and holding him aloft, began to whirl him around, to the great astonishment of the assembled athletes and the people of Matsya. And having whirled him round and round a hundred times till he was insensible, the strong-armed Vrikodara dashed him to death on the ground. And when the brave and renowned Jimuta was thus killed, Virata and his friends were filled with great delight".
Photo 3 courtesy: Wiki Commons, Bhima assassinates Jimuta.Written evidence of martial arts in South India dates back to Sangam Literature (சங்க இலக்கியம்), circa the 2nd century BC. to the 2nd century AD., making clear that the combat techniques of the Sangam period were among the first precursors. Now, like other branches of Sanskrit literature, treatises on martial arts became more systematic in the course of the first millennium of our era, for example, the Vajra Mushti (वज्रमुष्टि), popularly known as "fist of thunder" or "diamond fist" is a style of fighting that is mentioned in the sources of the first centuries of our era. Around this time, tantric philosophers developed important metaphysical concepts like chakra (चक्र) and mantra (मन्त्र).
Photo 4 courtesy: Wiki Commons, Sapta Chakra, from a 118-page Yoga manuscript in the Braj Bhasha language, 1899.On the other hand, the Suśruta Saṃhitā (सुश्रुतसंहिता) from the 4th century AD. identifies 107 vital points on the human body of which 64 were classified as lethal if properly struck with a fist or stick. Suśruta's work formed the basis of the Ayurvedic medical discipline that was taught along with various martial arts. With numerous scattered references to vital points in Vedic and epic sources, it could be concluded that the earliest fighters in India knew and practiced attacking or defending vital points.

Many of the popular sports mentioned in the Vedas and epics, such as "The Charanavyuha" written by Shaunaka (शौनक), have their origin in boxing training, fighting, chariot racing, horse riding and military sciences, whose Mastery was the duty or "dharma" of the warrior class. Of course, kings or rulers, such as Siddhartha Gautama or Rudradaman, belonging to the warrior class served as army chiefs; therefore, all the above-named disciplines were an integral part of their education. So much so, that the Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, and translator Xuánzàng (玄奘), who traveled to India in the 7th century and described the interaction between Chinese Buddhism and Indian Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty, wrote that Emperor Harsha was light on his feet despite his advanced age and managed to dodge and capture an assailant during an assassination attempt.
Photo 5 courtesy: Wiki Commons, A representation of the Chinese monk Xuánzàng on his journey to India.References to the fighting arts can also be found in early Buddhist texts, such as the Lotus Sutra dating from the 1st century AD. which classified the combat techniques in joint blocking, grapples, fists strikes, and throws. Siddhartha Gautama himself was a fighting champion and great swordsman before becoming Buddha, and this precisely brings us back to Bodhidharma who, according to existing well-known accounts written by his contemporaries, is believed to have come from the western regions, and was the son of a great king of the Pallava Dynasty in southern India. Later sources have added additional details, attributing him to even be a descendant of a Brahmin king, which aligns with the reign of the Pallavas, who also "claim to belong to a Brahmin lineage."
Photo 6 courtesy: Wiki Commons, Bhima, and Jarasandh fighting.According to legend, it was Bodhidharma who began the physical training of the Shaolin Temple monks and left the Yìjīnjīng (易筋經) behind after he departed from the monastery. The Yìjīnjīng is a manual containing a series of exercises, which coordinated with breathing, are said to dramatically improve physical health when practiced consistently. It would not be at all a surprise then that an individual belonging to the warrior class not only had access to these texts and carried copies, but also was able to teach these techniques given their training. Legend also has it that the Yìjīnjīng and another text called Xisui Jing were discovered on the temple walls years after he left and that these copies were passed on to one of his students from the Shaolin Temple. The monks allegedly continued to practice the exercises within the text, selfishly coveting the skills embodied therein, falling into unorthodox ways, and losing the correct purpose of cultivating "The Path," the true purpose of the document. However, the monks became famous for their fighting ability, probably thanks to having obtained this manuscript.
Photo 7 courtesy: Wiki Commons, Illustrations of exercises from the text Yìjīnjīng (易筋經).Both documents were written, according to mythology, in a Hindu language that the temple monks did not understand well. And it is said that a monk decided that the text should contain more valuable knowledge than simply self-defense, therefore, he went on a pilgrimage with a copy to find someone who could translate the deeper meaning of the text. Eventually, he encountered a Hindu priest named Pramati in the Szechwan province who, upon examining the text, explained that the meaning of the text was extraordinarily profound and beyond his ability to fully translate. However, he provided a partial translation. The monk discovered that within a year of practicing the techniques that Pramati had translated, his constitution had become "as tough as steel", and he felt that he could be a Buddha.

Read it in Spanish at Mundo Karate.

Older Post
Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Close (esc)


Use this popup to embed a mailing list sign up form. Alternatively use it as a simple call to action with a link to a product or a page.

Age verification

By clicking enter you are verifying that you are old enough to consume alcohol.


Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now