Kung Fu and The Indian Connection! | Hidden History Of India | Archana Garodia Gupta


With celebrities like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as brand advocates, the art of kung fu has a global following. But, the real education news is that unlike its Hollywood counterpart, kung fu (a general word for Chinese martial arts) requires its followers to harness their mental energy in ways that require a great deal of patience, discipline, and time to learn.

  • Fun Fact – You’ll be surprised to learn that two Indian monks founded one of the oldest types of kung fu, Shaolin Kung Fu, and the Shaolin Temple itself. Or so goes the story.

Kung fu has its origins rooted in China but various forms and techniques are believed to be influenced by the great monk and Shaolin kung fu master Bodhidharma. Indian martial techniques are also thought to have impacted Shaolin Kungfu after being transmitted to China via Buddhism in the early 5th or 6th centuries of the common era.

So Who Exactly Was Bodhidharma?

Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who existed in the 5th or 6th century. According to Indian legend, he was a monk from southern India who was the third son of the Pallava monarch of Kanchipuram. He gave up his throne to his brother and converted to Buddhism. He is often considered the first Chinese patriarch, founder of Bodhidharma kung fu, and the transmission of Buddhism to China. In China, he is known as Dámó, while in Japan, he is renowned as Daruma. In Sanskrit, his name signifies “dharma of waking (bodhi).” 

How Did Bodhidharma End Up In China 

After giving up his princely life, Bodhidharma resided with and followed his guru. When the guru was on his deathbed, he said to Bodhidharma “You should leave this place and travel North. That is where your true destiny lies”. He then traveled continuously towards the north, crossing the Himalayas, and did not stop until he reached the capital of China. And there, according to mythology, he was welcomed by Emperor Wu of Liang. 

The King and The Monk

The king welcomed him into his country with open arms and sought his advice. He told Bodhidharma what he had done, how he was a great and worthy king with a vast empire, and then questioned, “Is this not enough?” Why do I lack fulfillment? Am I not deserving enough?

To this, Bodhidharma reacted in a very conventional and straightforward Indian guru fashion, saying that it was all worth nothing, what really matters is what’s in your heart, and showed him a mirror. A dispute arose between them over Buddhist doctrine and Bodhidharma just walked out of there without paying heed to the King’s arguments. 

Shaolin Temple and The Dharma Cave

The monk’s words and actions amazed and motivated a general in the court who witnessed the episode. So he resolved to follow him out and become his worthy pupil. They walked toward the Yangtze River and Bodhidharma crossed the river easily by throwing some straws in the water and walking on them. The general tried to copy him excitedly but failed to do so as he was not an enlightened monk free from worldly matters. They tried to take refuge at the ancient Shaolin temple but were denied entry by the Shaolin monk as they did not admit strangers. So Bodhidharma retreated outside and meditated for years in a nearby cave, while the general patiently awaited his return. 

The Famous Dharma Cave – Following the legend, the cave became famed as the Dharma Cave, with an outline believed to be made by the light emanating from Bodhidharma’s body while he was deep in meditation. Inside the cave, there is also a sitting statue of Bodhidharma, which represents his dhyana state.

How Bodhidharma Laid The Foundation Of Shaolin Kung Fu

After a while, they accepted them into their monastery and the general followed Bodhidharma even though he still had not accepted him as his disciple. The monks were engaged in some highly ceremonial and elaborate religious acts, he discovered. They were engrossed in a scholastic investigation of Buddhism, which Bodhidharma did not participate in since he preferred to experience the philosophy rather than learn or recite it. So he attempted to teach them his strict meditation techniques for achieving enlightenment, but the monks were unable to concentrate due to their bad health. As he was trained as a warrior in ancient Indian martial arts, he devised a set of exercises to help them strengthen both their bodies and minds.

Bodhidharma recorded these exercises and postures in a Bodhidharma martial arts book titled Yijin Jing (Muscle Rehabilitation Classic), completely unaware that he was establishing the foundation for Shaolin Kung Fu. The form has been modified since then but the groundwork is still the same set by the great legend Bodhidharma.

Significance of The One-Handed Bow In Shaolin Kung Fu

Hui Ke, the general, aspired to be a disciple of Bodhidharma, yet he was still rejected. He remarked on a cold winter day that he would accept him as his pupil the day red snow blanketed the land. To this Hui Ke answered heroically by tearing off his arm of his body and waving it about, pouring his blood everywhere staining the snow literally blood red. Bodhidharma readily accepted him as a disciple, impressed by his commitment to understanding the truth of Buddhism. This is why Shaolin Kung Fu practitioners bow with one hand to honor Hui Ke and, ideally, to express their desire to understand Chan Buddhism.

Daruma Dolls and The Japanese Zen Tradition Of Buddhism

Chan in Chinese and Zen in Japanese, both of which translate to Dhyana, is considered to be based on this kind of Buddhism. Daruma (Bodhidharma in Japanese) is regarded as the first patriarch of the Zen school of thought in Japan, as he had followers there as well.

Daruma Dolls

Daruma is a hollow, spherical Japanese traditional doll modeled after the bearded Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen Buddhist movement. The notion of Daruma Dolls, which were believed to symbolize Daruma, was founded by one of Japan’s great kings who was also a major devotee of Bodhidharma’s thoughts. Daruma’s appearance is rich in symbolism, and the Japanese view it as a talisman of good fortune. Daruma dolls are a popular motivational gift since they are viewed as a symbol of tenacity and good fortune. They are still incredibly popular, with over half a million Daruma Dolls being sold every year. You can even easily find these in online stores.


So that’s how a monk became a living legend in the history of China and Japan through Bodhidharma Kung Fu training and thoughts of Buddhism, and how Kung Fu is originally associated with India.

Join us on this insightful and thrilling voyage on Atharva Marcom’s Youtube channel to be a part of an enlightening journey through India and its rich history, as well as to discover more such Education PR stories and many more wonderful ones on an array of subjects.

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