One of my favorite podcasts is Two for Tea, which tends toward “centrist-edgelordism”. The latest guest is, Armin Navabi, who I have nicknamed the Ayatollah. Armin is literally one of the most logical people I have ever known of, at least in the domain of those who are not visibly already extremely at one end of the spectrum. His views on religion come from this rationalist perspective, and that is where I part ways with him because I don’t see rationality as powerful a force as he does in shaping human behavior.
But in this post, I want to disagree with something Armin said in relation to the history of religion: that universalism and post-tribal religion was invented by Christianity and the Abrahamic tradition. This is clearly false.
From Ashoka’s Edict 13, put down in the 3rd century before Christ:
Now, it is the conquest by the Dharma that the Beloved of the Gods considers as the best conquest. And this one (the conquest by the Dharma) was won here, on the borders, and even 600 yojanas (leagues) from here, where the king Antiochos reigns, and beyond where reign the four kings Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander, likewise in the south, where live the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni.
The usual interpretation is that Ashoka was a partisan of the Buddhist school. But whether he or wasn’t (some revisionists claim that the Buddhists coopted him), the fact is that Ashoka was involved in the proselytizing of Indian religious views to non-Indians. This gave rise in the subsequent generations to Indo-Greek kings, such as Menander, who seem to have patronized Buddhism. Again, revisionists might suggest that Menander was not a Buddhist himself, and what did it mean to be Buddhist anyway in the 2nd century B.C.? But, we know that Buddhism arrived in China in the 1st century A.D., almost certainly from Central Asia.
My overall point is that even before the death of Jesus Christ (assuming someone who fit that general description lived, which is the majority consensus), Buddhism was already an international religion. By the time of the birth of Christ, it was probably as important a cultural force in Central Asia, among Iranian-speaking peoples, as it was in India.
This post though is not to engage in “but everything was invented in India!” To be honest, I think the emergence of Buddhism and Christianity as portable universal religions was probably somewhat inevitable in Eurasia during the Iron Age. I don’t discredit the idea that some forms of Buddhism may have had an influence on early Christianity, as the Persian Church was coextensive with a large population of Buddhists in Central Asia, and before the identification of Christianity with the Roman Empire in the 4th century arguably Persia was more congenial to the religion. But the cross-fertilization of religious ideas occurred in many directions.
But, I do wonder at the emergence of universalism within India in particular, because this is a region now renowned for its acceptance of particularism. Buddhism was one of many religious and philosophical movements that rebelled against the traditional religious structures and beliefs of India, which eventually gave rise to Hinduism. The genetic record seems to suggest that jati (caste) and ethno-social segregation has a deep history in South Asia. Perhaps then a universal religion like Buddhism developed early within India due to a Hegelian dialectical process.
Universalism as an ideology takes root where it is most needed to counter-act ideologies of particularism?