How Buddhism spread in Asia and lessons for the Modern World

Buddhism is probably the best demonstration of Indian Soft Power ever. It’s fascinating though how quickly Buddhism detached itself from the Bihari(?) Motherland.

Shockingly I just noticed on the map that Mindanao Island was a focal point for Buddhism. In some way Hindu-Buddhist culture among the Malay peoples lay the foundation for Islam.

The Hindu-Buddhist cultural revolution was strongest in the coastal areas of the island, but were incorporated into local animist beliefs and customs tribes that resided more inland. The Rajahnate of Butuan, a fully Hindu kingdom mentioned in Chinese records as a tributary state in the 10th century AD, was concentrated along the northeastern coast of the island around Butuan.[15] The Darangen epic of the Maranao people harkens back to this era as the most complete local version of the Ramayana. The Maguindanao at this time also had strong Hindu beliefs, evidenced by the Ladya Lawana (Rajah Ravana) epic saga that survives to the modern day, albeit highly Islamized from the 17th century on wards.

Sultanates and Islam

The spread of Islam in the Philippines began in the 14th century, mostly by Muslim merchants from the western part of the Malay Archipelago. The first Mosque in the Philippines was built in the mid-14th century in the town of Simunul.[15] Around the 16th century, Muslim sultanates: Sulu, Lanao and Maguindanao were established from formerly Hindu-Buddhist Rajahnates.

As Islam gained a foothold over most of Mindanao, the natives residing within the Sultanates were either converted into Islam or obligated to pay tribute to their new Muslim rulers. The largest of the Muslim settlements was the Sultanate named after the Maguindanaoans. Maps made during the 17th and 18th centuries suggest that the name Mindanao was used by the natives to refer to the island, by then Islam was well established in Mindanao and had influenced groups on other islands to the north.[dubious ][citation needed]It intersected with another random thought of mine when I saw the below video (Happy Janmashtami):

Osho talks about Lord Krishna’s “material detachment” (which to me sounds a bit stark) but I immediately guessed Osho was a UPite. I was right, he’s from MP and born to Jain parents (apparently there is a strain of Jainism in Bundelkand).

My intuition just came about because I feel there is a sweet spot for philosophical and religious development in the Hindi CowBelt (BIMARU). Extremely dense populations, relatively low material standards (compared to the coast) and insulated from foreign influences (when we think about westernised India, we mainly think Mumbai).

Like the oceanic churn of early Hindu mythology so in the same way this belt churns out religions and philosophies that “catch on” to the outer world.

It touches on as well about the “Inward Looking” nature of India in contrast to the more “Outward Looking” nature of Pakistan (the same terms apply in Academia as well). The rather frenetic nature of Pakistan struggling in the Great Geopolitical Games may echo its ancient geography as being a crossroads of sort; one of the many roads to India.

Due to the events of the last millennia when foreign incursions have shifted India’s geographic focus to the Punjab-Delhi axis it may be more worthwhile for India to start projecting as an “Indian Ocean Hegemon” as opposed to leaving it clear for the Chinese. Being caught up in Central Asian intrigue isn’t necessarily the most optimal path for India because the Islamic world forms an ideological wall to Indian/Hindu concepts in the way that the Far East doesn’t..

It parallels how keenly Indians are in emphasizing Pakistan’s (and sometimes Afghanistan) “Indianess” but seem extraordinarily ambivalent about Bangladesh (instead they complain about “Bangladeshi infiltrators”).

It makes me ponder that Pakistani Non-Muslims (of the upper and middle stratas) sometimes have it better than Indian Muslims. Pakistan is explicitly a Mughal-Muslim Republic and once one buys into that preliminary identity, it’s easy to become accepted (I’m excepting the lower stratas who have immense difficulties). However like Israel India is also trying to maintain it’s liberal credentials and therefore there is much majoritarian resentment towards the “privileges” of the minority. Therefore Muslims are always perceived as some sort of 5th column. If for instance the Bangladeshi emigrants in the North-East were never allowed the vote then it would be a Gulf Khaleej type situation where 80% of the population could be disenfranchised but no one would be too bothered about it because it was more about the economics than politics anyway. However India refuses to budge from it’s Nehruvian firmanents and that actually makes her susceptible to populism..

28 thoughts on “How Buddhism spread in Asia and lessons for the Modern World”

  1. Very interesting map.

    But it raises a question. Islam, originating in Arabia, spread eastwards and westwards. Christianity, originating in Palestine, spread westwards and (as Nestorianism) eastwards. Manichaeanism, originating in Mesopotamia, spread (before its extinction) westwards and eastwards.

    Buddhism, originating in India, spread extensively eastwards but not westwards at all. Hinduism likewise.


    1. Perhaps because of the “Persian barrier”? It’d have been hard to convert the Persians to a different faith without conquering them, like the Arabs did, or having their elites convert to a new religion (similar to what happened with the Roman Empire and Christianity.)

  2. Buddhism, originating in India, spread extensively eastwards but not westwards at all. Hinduism likewise.

    buddhism spread west into khorasan and central asia. before swinging east to china

    1. For some values of “westwards”. By most reckonings, Buddhism in westernmost Khorasan was at its furthest probably less a thousand miles from its Indian origins. Now compare that to the eastern and western influences of other Eurasian religions.

      Explanations? Something in western traditions unreceptive to Hinduism and Buddhism?

      1. Just putting a thought out there about the “exceptionalism” of monotheism that emerge in the Egypt-Palestine-Persia belt.

        I mention Egypt because of the aggressive nature of the sun god worship that may have caught on with the Hebrew. From the other direction the duality of Zoroastrianism (probably influenced by Mesopotamian concepts) made for a perfect storm in ancient Israel.

        Monotheism has little space for foreign gods but these are just speculations on my part.

      2. Stephen, Hinduism and the Buddhist Hinduism are part of the Arya faith system. Arya faiths predominated in Iran, Lebanon (Baalbek), Greece, Rome and Serbia. In what way did they not spread west?

        They spread west more than 4 thousand years ago. Eastern philosophy spread again during Alexander the Great.

        Arya faiths do not believe in proselytization. Someone can have many religions at once authentically.

        Christianity and Islam changed things of course.

        1. AnAn, I think you may not have understood my question.

          Granted that the Indo-European, or if you prefer Aryan religions spread far into the West (though as many would argue, not from India) that is quite irrelevant to the question of why much later Buddhism, which is a distinct Indian subset of Aryan religion, spread eastwards as far as China and Japan, but westwards hardly at all: and why Hinduism spread eastwards to India-China and Indonesia, but westwards hardly at all.

          If you have any references to the spread of Eastern philosophy (as distinct from occasional gymnosophists) under Alexander, I would be glad to learn of them.

      3. Perhaps because of the Buddhist insistence on self-abnegation is not terribly attractive, i.e. attachment to the world is the root of all suffering and therefore to reduce suffering (the primary objective of any morality) one must end attachment.

        Here’s Nietzsche’s skepticism on Schopenhauer’s embrace of Buddhist credo and more generally on why Buddhism is unfit for Europeans:

        What was at stake was the value of morality-and over this I had to come to terms almost exclusively with my great teacher Schopenhauer to whom that book of mine, the passion and the concealed contradiction of that book, addressed itself as if to a contemporary (-for that book, too, was a “polemic”). What was especially at stake was the value of the “unegoistic,” the instincts of pity, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice, which Schopenhauer had guilded, deified, and projected into a beyond for so long that at last they became for him “value in itself,” on the basis of which he said No to life and to himself. But it was against precisely these instincts that there spoke from me an ever more fundamental
        mistrust, an ever more corrosive skepticism. It was precisely here that I saw the great danger to mankind, its sublimest enticement and seduction-but to what? to nothingness?-it was precisely here that I saw the beginning of the end, the dead stop, a retrospective weariness, the will turning against life, the tender and sorrowful signs of the ultimate illness; I understood the ever spreading morality of pity that had seized even on philosophers and made them ill, as the most sinister symptom of a European culture that had itself become sinister, perhaps as its by-pass to a new Buddhism? to a Buddhism for Europeans? to nihilism?

        PS: I think to Buddha’s credit, he posed the moral problem correctly and better than any religious leader before (or perhaps even after) him, i.e. as one of reducing suffering. But his solution to it is typically Indian (and bonkers!)

        1. His question was not “Why did Buddhism fail?”, but more like “Why was the raging success of Buddhism in the east not replicated in the west?”. Not convinced your Nietzche quote helps much to explain the difference. Also note that China, Korea, Japan etc. went through very productive non-life-negating phases with Buddhism very much alive and kicking, so your comment looks more like a reflection of your personal judgmentalism about the thoughts and about India.

          1. How many judgemental comments have you read that start with “perhaps”?

            Secondly, you missed the point about why I quoted Nietzsche – to add colour about the nihilist-like doctrine of Buddhism. It is quite possible that Chinese philosophy before Buddhism must have had similar strains and Buddhist religious practice was easy to plug-and-play, characteristics which Near Eastern religions did not share. So the abnegation may have been offensive to them, as it was to Nietzsche.

            (Besides we know for a fact that Zoroastrianism was almost a state-imposed religion in Sassanid Iran and Buddhist & Nestorian Christian communities faced some religious persecution)

            PS: I don’t think Buddhism is actually nihilistic, but moderating. However, moderating or not, any philosophy that advocates less engagement with the physical world as a moral choice is tyrannical in my opinion (for reasons that are beyond the scope of this comment thread and certainly far more general than my subjective view of Indian culture).

          2. How many judgemental comments have you read that start with “perhaps”?

            Almost always whenever the said judgement comes from a super intelligent person 😛

  3. Really interesting post.

    “It parallels how keenly Indians are in emphasizing Pakistan’s (and sometimes Afghanistan) “Indianess” but seem extraordinarily ambivalent about Bangladesh (instead they complain about “Bangladeshi infiltrators”).”

    Indians are not ambivalent about Bangladeshis at all, they visit India in larger numbers than any other nationality. Its just that the Delhi elite (for racial reasons) and Bollywood (for market (and racial ?) reasons) like to appropriate Pakistan, and these entities are prominent in media.

    Regarding infiltrators, the complain there is about illegal immigration, and not about where they are coming from. If the infiltrators were from Pakistan, the reaction would go a long way beyond only complaints.

    1. It’s disingenuous to argue that there is no religious angle to the “Bangladeshi infiltrators” issue. Some of the antipathy to them is because they tend to be Muslim. Although, some Bengali Hindus are also in danger of becoming stateless.

      BJP wants to create a pathway to citizenship for Hindus from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Don’t try to pretend that there isn’t a double standard based on religion.

      1. yes the issue is in no way related to Bengali Hindus; the 7 Sisters may fear the “Bengali angle” but in a pan-Indian debate the idea is clearly about “Muslims” in the North East.

        it is healthier for India to acknowledge it is a Hindu State like Pakistan and Israel. It would then lead to a much more honest conversation imho.

        There is so much seething resentment against Indian Muslims because “they” are seen as the reason as to why India is not properly Hindu..

        1. Zack, Hinduism doesn’t regard itself as a religion. The essense of Hinduism is Sarva Dharma Sarva Sresht. All paths can lead to the truth. Universalism, Secularism and Hinduism are synonymous. How can Hinduism become an official state religion?

          There isn’t seething resentment against Sufis, twelvers, sixers, St. Mathew Christians, Ba’hai etc. There is deep fear of Jihadi Islamism? But isn’t this fear shared by every other country on earth and most muslims?


          Zorastrianism is an Arya faith. Therefore they believed in secularism, universalism and respect for other faiths. Hindus (including Jains and Buddhists) prospered under Zorastrian rule. The Zorastrians were not considered others or an occupation in the way muslim rule was.

          “Monotheism has little space for foreign gods but these are just speculations on my part.” Don’t agree with this. Sufism, Zorastrianism and many monotheistic traditions inside Sanathana Dharma are very respectful of other faiths.

          For that matter Jews and Zorastrians have had a love affair for thousands of years.

        2. resentment exists precisely because the rules are different for different communities/belief.
          Wasnt the point of India being secular state is to move beyond all this and make individual the center of it all?. If that project is being abandoned by the left because of their utter failure in convincing communities and people of certain religions to relax and chill what do you think will happen considering that the same community has broken off and become an islamist state and engaged in war against India multiple times, responsible for 1971 massacre of hindus, only muslim majority state in kashmir has engaged in ethnic cleansing of a minority not more than 3%.

          And left defends even perverse ideas with regards to law allowing polygamy and triple talaq as well. They arent defending muslims, they are defending islam at this point. And it is this attitude that has done more harm and will do even more harm and might very well lead India to become a Hindu state, but it wont be because of lacking in intent and honest effort to create and foster something better.

          The empirical evidence at this moment of time shows the attempted integration of muslims with just about everyone else has been problematic. Is voicing even that problematic?. How long should one keep this extended loan of social trust to continue?. Shouldnt others demand a return back on that social capital of trust they have invested?. Or is our job to only trust and never ask for reciprocity? And show disgruntlement when we see that things are better?. china,russia,thailand,India,europe , one one hand stands the rest of the world, on other hand,on belief system, Lee kuan yew predicted this.

          “I have to speak candidly to be of value, but I do not want to offend the Muslim community… I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came, and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration – friends, inter-marriages and so on – than Muslims… I would say, today, we can integrate all religions and races, except Islam.”

  4. In India there is opposition to letting Bangladeshi Hindus move to India.

    India has tens of millions of illegal immigrants. This naturally creates tension much the way illegal immigration into the US causes tension.

    1. You’re not supposed to say “illegal immigrant” anymore. Didn’t you get the memo? It’s 2018.

      We now say “undocumented immigrant”.

      1. Most hispanic Americans have no problem with the phrase “illegal immigrant.”

        Yes post modernist caucasions have an issue with the phrase. But they are a distinct minority.

        I am a globalist and support greater legal immigration. I am willing to defend greater legal immigration as well (not just for developed countries, I think muslim and African countries should also accept more legal immigrants). But it is madness to think that there should be no vetting of immigrants and travelers. Unless someone is okay with a massive surge in rapes, molestation, murder, armed assault, forcible robbery, organized crime and Jihadi terrorism.

        1. Only right-wing people use “illegal immigrant” any more. Otherwise, it is thought to be offensive.

          1. I’m merely pointing out what is considered offensive in 2018.

            Isn’t Zack responsible for moderating his posts? Or is this some special animus you have against me?

      2. We now say “undocumented immigrant”.

        Sorry, we are not all obligated to use the euphemisms of the post-modern American Left.

        The nature and politics of immigration in the US is very different from that in India, so don’t just jump to comparisons.

        For my part, I’m a liberal on immigration and think people who have been around for decades should have the right to stay and call the country home (even while we make a best effort to control our borders.) But I have no problem in calling a spade a spade: immigration is guided by laws, and by definition can be legal or illegal.

        1. What you really need to do get our resident post-modernist riled up about immigration is to float a plan to translocate a few million undocumented migrants- say, oppressed dalits and muslims from the heartland into his ethnic homeland up North. Not only will you get strong lessons on the legality of obscure articles of some constitution but a vigorous defence of cultural nationalism, ethnic chauvinism and exclusion. The icing on the top is that you will automatically be right wing hindutva fanatic and bigot. Its all simple really.

        2. Oh those “post-moderns”– so easy to blame them!

          I think the idea is that human beings are not supposed to be referred to as “illegals”. That is offensive.

          I agree that countries have the right to make their own immigration laws and people should follow those laws.

  5. It makes me ponder that Pakistani Non-Muslims (of the upper and middle stratas) sometimes have it better than Indian Muslims.

    Are you sure. I won’t say that. For whatever it’s worth even in symbolic terms upper middle class Muslims do have better than non Muslims have in Pakistan. Don’t take it other wise. Probably the last significant non Muslim was Bhagwan Das and that’s about it. While india music sports and movie industry has its fare share of Muslims

    Like for like india upper class minority have it better than Pakistan upper class minority Of course that doesn’t say the whole thing about India’s or Pakistan treatment of its minorities.

    Anyway your suggestion if India taking Israel path is a interesting idea

  6. Saurav, I find that India treats minorities very well. Including India’s ancient Jewish, Parsi and Mathews Christian minorities.

    There is no safer place to be a muslim than India except maybe the US and Canada. Especially if someone is a Sufi, twelver, sixer, minority muslim, liberal muslim or atheist muslim. Of course the current BJP government is closely aligned with Sufis and twelvers.

    Most of India is amazingly safe to travel through and live. There are large exceptions of course.

    1. I’m sure Indian Muslims feel extremely safe when being lynched on suspicion of eating beef. You live in some dream world of your own. Hindutva is a disgusting racist ideology.

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