Review: Bentley's Spread of World Religions - Buddhism

Spread of World Religions

By Jerry H. Bentley

Jerry H. Bentley was a world history professor at the University of Hawaii, USA, and founding editor of the Journal of World History. Unfortunately, he died in 2012. This selection was written back in 1993, though since it's about history, it remains relevant and applicable forever.

Bentley's Spread of World Religions is a selection I would recommend for anybody to read. It's a selection from his textbook, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. The selection is a comparison of the spread of Christianity and the spread of Buddhism.

If you want to read it online, Lancaster Schools provides a PDF file specifically for this selection. If you want to read it with a hard copy, it's in the textbook Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times.

Buddhism benefited a bunch from the Silk Road, which was the network of trade from India and China to Central Asia to the Byzantine Empire. The Silk Road crossed over a large distance and brought many diverse people into contact. Buddhism, which originated in modern-day Nepal, spread throughout India, almost displacing Hinduism.

In fact, Buddhism found a sponsor in Ashoka the Great, from the Mauryan Empire. Unfortunately, with the decline of the Mauryan Empire, Buddhism rapidly declined, almost becoming extinct throughout India. Its remnants were absorbed by Hinduism, wherein the Buddha became an avatar of Vishnu. The Gupta Empire only spurred on this new development, and even though Samudragupta and Chandragupta II supported Buddhism, Buddhism eventually became a mere part of Hinduism.
File:Asoka Kaart.png
Buddhism was sponsored by Ashoka the Great, who sent Buddhist missionaries everywhere. They often reached very far places, as can be seen with this map above.
These were developments in India, though, and not the whole world. Ashoka the Great had, in addition to merely building large and great stupas throughout his domain, also sent groups of Buddhist missionaries past his domains. But why would the natives in Central Asia, Persia, and China convert?

This is the question that Bentley addresses:
"Merchants proved to be an efficient vector of the Buddhist faith, as they established diaspora communities in the string of oasis towns-Merv, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar, Khotan, Kuqa, Turpan, Dunhuang-that served as lifeline of the silk roads through central Asia."
That doesn't explain why the inhabitants of the oasis towns in Central Asia adopted Buddhism, though. Still, Bentley goes on and explains the significance of the above statement.
"The oases depended heavily on trade for their economic survival, and they quickly accommodated the needs and interests of the merchants whom they hosted. They became centers of high literacy and culture; they organized markets and arranged for lodging, care of animals, and storage of merchandise; and they allowed their guests to build monasteries and bring large contingents of Buddhist monks and copyists into their communities. Before too long-perhaps as early as the first or even the second century B.C.E.-the oasis dwellers themselves converted to Buddhism."
In other words, the Indian merchants were Buddhist. Because the merchants were Buddhist and needed Buddhist temples for worship when they reached the oases towns, the oases towns provided these. Eventually, the oases residents saw the opulence of the merchants and converted too.

Spread of Buddhism from the Gangetic Plains
But that doesn't explain why the nomads living in Central Asia and Mongolia eventually converted. In fact, it says that most of them didn't:
Yet many nomadic peoples found it difficult to accept Buddhism; they did not have traditions of literacy to accommodate Buddhist moral and theological teachings, and their mobility made it impossible to maintain fixed monastic communities. As a result, many nomadic peoples held to their native shamanist cults, and others turned to Manichaeism ' or Nestorian Christianity... Among the Mongols, for example, Buddhism did not become a popular faith until the sixteenth century.
However, there is one exception to the rule that nomads generally didn't convert to Buddhism - nomads that conquered established civilizations.
When nomadic peoples became involved in commerce, however, or when they established themselves as rulers of settled lands that they conquered, they frequently adopted Buddhism through a process of conversion through voluntary association. These patterns were quite prominent in central Asia and northern China during the era of the ancient silk roads.
There is one easy example to see. The western Jin Dynasty (the one after the Han and War of the Three Kingdoms, not the Jurchen one that conquered the Song) fell to northern nomads who rebelled in the Rebellion of the Five Barbarians. The Five Barbarians were five different non-Sinitic (non-Han) cultures in northern China. Northern China split up into Sixteen Kingdoms, most ruled by 'barbarians'.

This was the perfect environment for a Buddhist missionary, Bentley explains. They often used miracles to convert rulers.
Fotudeng probably came from...an oasis town on the Silk Road...He...set out to do missionary work in northern China during the early fourth century...he caught the attention of Shi Le, the ruler of the nomadic Jie people...who controlled most of northern China during the fourth century. 
Fotudeng realized early on that he would not get very far with Shi Le by lecturing him on fine points of Buddhist philosophy, but he had a reputation for working miracles, which he used to the advantage of his mission. He dazzled Shi Le by producing bright blue lotus blossoms from his monk's begging bowl and by looking into his palm to see the reflection of distant events. Among his more utilitarian talents were rainmaking, healing, and prophecy. Fotudeng helped Shi Le plan military campaigns by foreseeing the outcome and devising clever strategies to ensure success. As a result of his miraculous talents, Fotudeng won widespread fame, and people from distant regions worshipped him. When he died about the year 345, he reportedly had ten thousand disciples and the erection of 893 temples to his credit.
There's another example - southeast Asia. Kings often relied on Hindu theology to justify their rule, but the populace typically remained Buddhist. Or we can look at West Africa, where the common people continued shamanistic and animistic practices, though the kings often converted to Islam.

In other words, despite rulers converting to a new faith (the Hohenzollerns of Imperial Germany were Calvinist, though their Prussian subjects were Lutheran), the people are rarely converted. How, then, was Buddhism so remarkably successful?
After an initial period of tension and uncertain relations, it dawned on both Buddhists and rulers that an alliance could serve the interests of both parties. Buddhist monasteries provided ideological and economic support for established ruling houses: They recognized the legitimacy of the Jie and Toba rule; they facilitated long-distance trade, which figured prominently in the local economy; and they served as a conduit for the importation of exotic and luxury goods that symbolized the special status of the ruling elites. Meanwhile, the dynasties patronized the Buddhists in return, participated in their rituals, and protected the interests of their monasteries.
Because Buddhism was a foreign faith, the elite could use it to justify their rule, similar to southeast Asian kings. However, Buddhism was a proselytizing faith, unlike Hinduism, so the local populace of northern China could be converted, unlike the local populace of southeast Asia. Now, we should talk about southeast Asia, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
Merchants from the subcontinent established diaspora communities, into which they invited Hindu and Buddhist authorities...Indian influence ran so deep in these states that they and their successors for a millennium and more are commonly referred to as the "Indianized states of southeast Asia."
The Malay states of southeast Asia like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are Muslim now, a phenomenon we'll talk about later in a different post. But before they were Muslim, there was a kingdom centered in southern Sumatra called Srivijaya, a Sanskrit name meaning fortunate, prosperous, happy, victorious, or excellent.

In fact, the influence was so deep that...
In a land previously governed by charismatic individuals of great personal influence, for example, rulers adopted Indian notions of divine kingship. They associated themselves with the cults of Siva, Visnu, or the Buddha, and they claimed both foreign and divine authority to legitimize their rule. They built walled cities with temples at the center, and they introduced Indian music and ceremonies into court rituals. They brought in Hindu and Buddhist advisers, who reinforced the sense of divinely sanctioned rule. They took Sanskrit names and titles for themselves, and they used Sanskrit as the language of law and bureaucracy. Indian influence was so extensive, in fact, that an earlier generation of historians suggested that vast armadas of Indians had colonized southeast Asia-a view now regarded as complete fiction.
Buddhism and Hinduism held a strong grip over southeast Asia, though it often had to mix with local customs and syncretize. Even today, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are majority-Buddhist countries.

  1. Dhammajoti. Asoka Kaart. Digital image. Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 18 Feb. 2005. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.
  2. Kartapranata, Gunawan. Buddhist Expansion. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia, 31 Jan. 2014. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.

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