Thursday, September 2, 2010

Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century

Book Review: Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century by Richard C. Foltz (St Martin’s G 1999)

This was a fascinating historical account of the religious history of the Silk Road regions from the Mediterranean and Black Sea areas all the way to eastern China. There were two main roads – one coming from Constantinople going north of the Caspian Sea and the other coming from Syria and going south of the Caspian. There was also an offshoot through Gandhara ending up in India. The time period covered in the book is mainly from about 200 BCE to about 1400 AD after the demise of the Mongol Empire.

There are some interesting accounts here of the development and growth of various orthodox and syncretistic religions and some failed sects as well. The first people noted in the text are the Sogdians, an Indo-Iranian people related to the Sakas and Scythians who lived in modern-day Uzbekistan surviving on irrigation agriculture and utilizing trade and their unique position mid-point between east and west in order to prosper. The Indo-Iranian (and Greek as well after Alexander) Bactrians embraced Buddhism in the last few centuries BCE. The Sogdians adopted Buddhism as well and helped bring it to China. Later on they helped to spread Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity as well. The Sogdians were keen merchants but they also brought Chinese paper production techniques to the west and they translated many religious texts into their languages – their business transactions requiring them to know several languages. Religions mixed in various ways. Ex-patriot communities of Zoroastrians and of Jews settled in various areas. There were mixed marriages of people with different traditions. Many areas had strongly and strangely syncretized beliefs that would hardly be recognized by modern followers of the same religion. The author suggests that several spiritual practices usually attributed to Indo-Europeans such as horse veneration, fire worship, exposure of the dead, and a supreme sky god, were also practiced by Ural-Altaic peoples to the east and may not have been borrowed from Indo-Europeans. Interestingly a sky god of shamanistic Mongolian Turks called Tangri still survives in Muslim Turkey as a name for Allah.

The author notes that Zoroastrianism, although said to be the official religion of the vast Iranian lands, was only codified as a state religion in the Sasanian Empire around 300 AD. He notes that a popular deity in Central Asia was Baga (Russian or Slavic Bog) who was associated with wine and marriage. This is the same root word for Bhagavan in Sanskrit which refers to an esteemed deity. The Sogdians, although Zoroastrian in a priestly sense also maintained a nature cult where the love goddess Nanai, equated to Anahita and Venus was venerated and the devil, or the Avestan Angra Mainyu was called Shimnu. From the 700s to the 500s BCE the Jews were exiled to Persian lands due to being conquered by the Assyrians then the Babylonians. Before and after they were freed they spread throughout the vast Persian empires. Based on this knowledge there is speculation that some of the Jewish communities in western and central Asia are very ancient indeed. Many in these communities apparently took up commerce. Some books of the Hebrew Bible were very likely composed among these Persian Jews. The Biblical Book of Esther is known to be full of Persian Lore. Here is an interesting quote regarding Persian/Zoroastrian influences:

“Eschatological ideas such as warnings of the “last days” and belief in a messianic savior, a bodily resurrection, and a last judgement are just some of the notions that Judaism (and subsequently Christianity and Islam) seems to have borrowed from the Persians. The concepts of heavenly paradise (Old Pers, Paira daeza) and a hell of punishment for the wicked are also seen in ancient Iranian religion, but not in Israelite sources prior to the Babylonian period. The Iranian evil spirit Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, evolves into the Christian and Muslim devil, who first appears in the Book of Job as ha-satan, “the accuser.” The concept of angels and demons, likewise, seems to derive from Iranian beliefs.”

Apparently the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic texts also were strongly influenced by earlier Iranian lore and in some cases are retellings of the same stories.

The Chinese may have employed Iranian soothsayers as early as the 8th century BC and it is said that that some ideas of a Taoist version of heaven were derived from earlier Persian ideas. This suggests that religious cross-pollination along the Silk Road regions has a long history although it is suggested that religion stayed more or less ethnic and tribal until the advent of the more missionary-type religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Manichaeism.

Buddhism was basically the first missionary-type movement. In the 300’s BC the King Ashoka of the Mauryan empire spread the teachings of Buddha throughout his vast empire. Along the Silk Road there were early Buddhist communities around Khotan and Gandhara (Afghanistan) – indeed a legend states that two of Buddha’s early students were from this region. After the invasions of Alexander the Great many Greeks migrated to Bactria and Gandhara and there were syncretistic mixtures of Buddhism, Greek Paganism, Saivism, and likely with Zoroastrian and shamanistic elements as well. Various schools of Buddhism appeared and disappeared – some leaving India for greater autonomy in the north. Buddhism developed a vast canon of texts. Sometime in the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD the Mahayana, or Greater Vehicle philosophy took hold and became the dominant form of Buddhism along the Silk Road although some of the earlier schools remained. The predominant schools along the Silk Road were first the Dharmaguptakas who were replaced gradually by the Sarvastivadins who held that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously – an idea said to have been rejected by the last of Ashoka’s councils to determine orthodoxy – hence they went north. There was another school called the Mahasangikas which may have influenced some aspects of the development of the Mahayana movement. The ideals of compassion for all beings, innate capacity of all to become enlightened (buddha nature), and building meritorious energy became established – although the monastic rules of the Dharmaguptakas or the Sarvastivadins were still followed by the Mahayana monastics. The syncretism of this period in these areas was strong as there are pagan Greek and Zoroastrian versions of Buddhist tales and vice versa. The empire of the Sakas from the northern steppes kept up the same syncretism. The Kushan empire starting in the late 2nd century adopted the prevailing religions – the first King being a devotee of Shiva and the Iranian goddess Ardoxsho. The Buddhist and nature deity Hariti and other Yaksha spirits were also very popular during this period. Other Kushan kings honored Nike, the Greek goddess of victory and various Iranian deities. It was also a Kushan king who caused the Buddhist texts to be translated from Gandharan Prakrit into Sanskrit. Recent archaeological discoveries show established Buddhist communities in northeastern Iran (now Turkmenistan) from the Saka and Kushan periods. Buddhism traveled on the Silk Road to China beginning in the 1st century AD and texts were translated. In fact, translation of texts (typically by Sogdians) into native languages proabably had more influence on conversions than any othger single factor. By the 3rd century AD Chinese Buddhist monks were making pilgrimages to India via the Silk Road. Fa-hsien wrote about his trip in the early 400s which inspired the famed Hsuan-tsang who wrote extensively about his travels to Buddhist central Asia and India in the 600s. His accounts of the various lands, temples and texts are very revealing as not much is known about these times. Apparently in some north and western areas Sasanian dynasty-sponsored Zoroastrianism suppressed Buddhism during these times. New interpretations of Buddhism arose in these times in different areas, namely Tantra, Pure Land sects, and in China, Chan (later to be Zen in Japan). Buddhism made it to Tibet during these times, beginning when a larger Tibetan empire controlled parts of the Silk Road in the late 600s.

Next we come to the Christian and Gnostic heretics who found refuge and took root along the Silk Road. In the early centuries AD there were antagonisms between Christians and Jews in the Eastern Roman empire, between interpretations of Christianity, and between Zoroastrians and Manichaeans. Merchants and missionaries developed symbiotic relationships along the Silk Road. Among the Jews- who were not missionary-oriented – there were trade networks of the Radanites from southern Gaul (France) to Turkey to the Slavic lands were they traded in slaves with the Roman empire – thus Slavs and the word slave. The Christians had a doctrinal split in the 400s where the Roman church declared the nature of Jesus as two persons, one human and one divine. A Bishop called Nestor favored the other version – Christ as a god incarnated as a human – the Divine Logos. This became the position of the now heretical Nestorian Christians, or Syrian Christians as this view was favored among the Alexandrian theologians and Syrian was the liturgical language as well as one of the main trade languages in the western part of the Silk Road. Christianity in Iranian lands mixed with already present Judaism and the Magian Zoroastrianism. Nestorian Christianity was the preferred form by far along the Silk Road with communities stretching to China. There were also Hellenistic religions around the Mediterranean and Egypt that exerted influence. Arising from Persian syncretism came Manichaeaism – derived from the revelations of the Persian prophet Mani who traveled in the 200’s to Central Asia and even India to spread his very syncretistic religion that attempted to accommodate everyone. His Gnostic mix of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and later Buddhism was marketed as a new universal tradition. It had mixed results but sects in far spread out areas thrived off and on for many centuries. It was a rival to Christianity for a while – even St. Augustine was a Manichaean before denouncing it as heretical. The Uigher Turk empire of Western China in the 700s embraced Manichaeaism for a while and there are even a few ancient temples that merged with Buddhistic styles that still apparently exist. There is also some speculation that Manichaeaism had some influence on esoteric forms of Taoism and Buddhist Dzogchen and Bon.

Now we come to the arrival of Islam spreading from the west. The author points out that caravan raiding “... was an established part of the economic life of Arabia.” The only ones immune were clan members and other clans with which the raiders had treaties. After Muhammad’s death the Arabs were re-united by a similar pact and began expanding into Persian lands. The raids became wars of conquest and success led to further expansion. Originally the Arabs had not intended for Islam to be spread to non-Arabs. Persia was subdued eventually but not without much and varied resistance. There were some interesting and odd religious movements during these times (700’s and 800’s AD) in response to the Islamic spread. There was the religion of Muqanna, the Veiled One that threatened the Baghdad Caliphate. Here is the story of another one:

“The single most effective anti-Muslim resistance movement in Iran proper, which lasted from around 816-837, was waged in the region south of the Caspian Sea by a sect known as the Khurram-din, or “Happy Religion.” Led by a prophetic figure named Babak, the Khurram-dinniya were a group descended from a sixth-century social reform movement known as Mazdakism, which enjoyed a period of official favor under the Sasanian Emperor Kavad from 488 to 531 but was brutally crushed under his son and successor, Khusraw I.

“The Mazdakites were a sort of pro-communist sect which opposed the possession of private property, including wives. Following the public execution of Babak, which was particularly drawn out and grisly, the movement ceased to be a political force, but continued a secret existence while professing Islam and may still survive today.”

The Muslims did not overly persecute those referred to as “People of the Book” who seemed to have more or less Abrahamic monotheistic dualisms: ie the Jews, the Christians, and the Zoroastrians. The Hindus fared nearly as well but the Buddhists due to the iconographic depictions developed in Central Asia were very often referred to as idol-worshippers – noting taboos against such by the Prophet (which very likely stretches back to Zarathustra himself as a reason for the split with Vedic Culture). Thus the Buddhists more-so than others were persecuted by the invading Muslims. Temples, icons, and books were destroyed and burned and monks and supporters were killed and brought back as slaves. The Ghaznavid Turks were especially vigorous in this regard.

Next we have the Mongol empire where the early rulers (khans) showed interest in all the prevailing religions to some extent and there was at times great tolerance and other times trickery, betrayal, and mostly trying to win the favor of the khans. Some Mongol Turks were Christianized, others were shamanistic, and yet others embraced Buddhism and some Taoist and Zoroastrian elements. There were Chinese Muslims by this time as well as there are today. For all the khans’ tolerance for other religions there was still much bloodshed in the name of vying for religious superiority and privilege. Nestorian Christianity, by then nearly unrecognizable to Roman Catholic travelers eventually died out along the Silk Road as did Manichaeasm with a few possible exceptions. The Islam that stayed was often secured by the more Sufi sects that were said to be more esoteric/mystical in content and perhaps more tolerant and syncretistic. The ultimate Islamization of these Central Asian areas was mostly the result of trade being dominated by Muslims. In fact, generally speaking, the rule seems to have been – those who controlled trade in each area wielded the dominant religion.

In any case – this was a fun and informative book about a fascinating history.

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