The earliest origins of Karate as we know it today are somewhat vague due to lack of documentation. The traditional idea, acceptable to most authorities, seems to indicate that it started in India. A Buddhist priest "Bodhidharma" also known as "Tamo" (by the Chinese) or "Daruma Tashi" (by the Japanese) travelled by foot from southern India across the Himalayas to China on a missionary venture to introduce the Chinese to his particular sect of (Chan) or Zen Buddhism.
It was not uncommon for itinerant priests to be able to fight, as they would obviously be in danger on their wanderings, from wild animals as well as men.
Even Gautama Siddhartha himself had been a warrior before he became the Buddha. When he established Buddhism, he saw no contradiction in the idea of a man of peace and love also being skilled in combat.
In about A.D. 500, Bodhidharma reached the court of Emperor Wu at Chein-K'ang in China, where he was warmly received. He left the courts eventually, heading north to Honan Province and into seclusion in the Shaolin Temple (Shorin-Ji, in Japanese) to teach Zen. He believed that the physical body and the spiritual mind (soul) should be trained equally in order to achieve enlightenment. Thus Bodhidharma introduced the monks to a series of 18 exercises, based on the movement of certain animals (both real and mythical), specialised breathing techniques as well as meditative practices of Zen Buddhism. This original 18 point system was subsequently expanded and refined into a fierce form of self defence known as Shaolin Boxing or Shorin-Ji Kenpo in Japanese. The Shaolin Temple is therefore considered to be the birthplace of systematised martial arts.
Finally, the close connection between priests and medicine resulted in not only discovering vital spots on the human body, where cures could be applied, but also spots where Kenpo attacks could be directed for the best results.
From China, Kenpo and Zen Buddhism spread all over Asia. North to Mongolia, east to Korea and south-east to Okinawa. Eventually it reached Japan, where it became extremely popular after the Kamakura Era (about A.D.1200). The soldier class, the Samurai, in particular, welcomed both the combat forms and the Zen philosophy. The morality and mysticism of Zen Buddhism appealed to their sensibilities, but the real attraction was the way it provided them with a discipline which made them capable of great endurance and excellence in fighting, by giving them the special psychological skills and insights into both themselves and their opponents.
At various times in history – for instance in 1400 and again in 1609, in Okinawa – the authorities forbade the populace the use of weapons. As a means of protection against the bandits, and sometimes against the authorities, unarmed combat (Karate) became widely taught. The schools themselves, often confined to the temples, were nevertheless kept secret, because if discovered they would have been immediately wiped out by those in power.
It was not until 1901 that Karate, as we now know it, was brought out of secrecy and taught openly in Okinawa. In 1916, Master Gichin Funakoshi (the father of Shotokan karate), came from Okinawa to Tokyo and pioneered the modern system of Karate in Japan. Following World War II, and in particular since 1960s, the popularity of Karate has been increasing rapidly to the point where it is presently practised all around the world. Born from many origins, there are today many schools (styles) of Karate, each with its own merits and perhaps its own faults.
The word Karate, in its literal translation, means empty hand.