“The Buddhist Age”

By Razib Khan 36 Comments
Civilizational affinities in 700 AD

I made an offhand comment on Twitter that I thought might be worth amplifying and elaborating. You can argue that to a great extent the period between 250 AD and 750 AD can be thought of as the “Buddhist Age” in Asia. The year 750 AD is easy as a cut off point, as the battle of Talas in 751 symbolizes the recession of Tang Chinese influence in Turanian Central Asia, and the inexorable advance of the Muslim Arabs. The year 250 is more vague, but it post-dates the collapse of the Han dynasty, and starts to see the ascension of Buddhism as a Chinese religion par excellence, rather than a marginal Indian cult.

Let’s focus on the year 700. What’s going on? First, let’s acknowledge that Buddhism is in serious decline across the Indian subcontinent, though there are local pockets of strength, with a late Indian summer to come with the Pala Empire of Bengal in 750. Second, it was under threat across its East Iranian heartland. It is often forgotten that Buddhism and Zoroastrianism competed toe-to-toe as the religion of the elites across the East Iranian world, from modern-day Afghanistan to Khorasan and deep into Transoxiana. The book Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road documents this interplay. Lost Enlightenment as well as Christopher I Beckwith’s book argues from the strong role of Turanian Buddhism in shaping Abbassid era Islam (e.g., viharas as models for madrassas and Turanian Buddhist textual culture as the seedbed for hadith).

in Japan Buddhism was taking root, while in Korea and much of China it was the dominant religion in 700 AD. Buddhism also had a thin, but detectable, impact across Southeast Asia, along with Indic culture more generally. Tibet was not as clearly associated with Buddhism in 700, but the religion had already been introduced and was making a cultural impact.

What does this have to do with “Brown Pundits”? Buddhism is the dominant vehicle of clear and obvious Indian cultural influence in the world. It is, arguably, the earliest of the great missionary religions to exist today. Though Buddhism never took root in the West, it was clearly known and a presence in the eastern Mediterranean during the Roman period in cosmopolitan ports such as Alexandria. Though Indian numerals are extremely consequential, they are a more bit-sized cultural element, which has been detached from their Indian matrix. In contrast, Buddha’s Indian origin is well known, and the influence of Buddhism is probably responsible for legends that are hard to explain such as the Indian princess who married into the Korean royal line and gave rise to a modern day Korean clan.

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36 Replies to ““The Buddhist Age””

  1. There are many Serbian toponyms in Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan (I published them before). One of them is Talas. It means – ‘wave’. Another nearby river is Chui (in Serbian – Čuj) River. I already published here a song ‘A Girl from Chui river’ which was recorded and preserved in an old collection of ritual songs from SA brought by Serbian refugees who returned to old homeland after living more than 2000 of years on borders with Chinese and fighting them for more than 1000 of years. This collection of songs was preserved in a medieval monastery where was conserved in a baked clay. The collection was first mentioned here by the former regular contributor, MMK pundit, who is one of the most prominent oit representatives at BP.

    It is interesting that the same name for the first above mentioned river was also taken by so-called ‘ancient Greeks’, who, as newly arrived continentals, did not have their own word for ‘Sea’ which they called ‘Pont’ what means ‘Road’. The phrase ‘Caspian-Pontic region’ actually means ‘Caspian-Road 🙂 region’.

    It would be interesting if someone explains the (possible) connection btw Aryans and Buddhism.

    1. So the Tocharians were Serbs, and probably Afanasievo was as well.
      Of course, it was all so obvious. All of a sudden history makes sense and has come alive.

    2. (Google translated):
      ”…The third song “Girl from the river Chuj” describes the battlefield and the consequences of the great and, presumably, decisive battle for the Serbian survival in India. The girl who visits the battlefield is not an ordinary girl, she is not a girl looking for her loved ones or a dear hero, but a girl with fairy qualities: she can “reconnoiter with sight, heal wounds, awaken soldiers in a dead sleigh.” he says to “wake up the dead soldiers from the dead sleigh and bring them into the city.”

      In the religion of the ancestors, or as it is still called by ethnographers and researchers of ancient beliefs – in the religion of the dead, this is a very important act. That is its essence, the basic dogma – to call on tribal souls, and especially those who gave their lives for their family, to now from the spiritual world, when they have even greater power and strength, to protect and defend the community, the tribe, from enemy attacks.”

    3. (Google translated):
      ”…The third song “Girl from the river Chuj” describes the battlefield and the consequences of the great and, presumably, decisive battle for the Serbian survival in India. The girl who visits the battlefield is not an ordinary girl, she is not a girl looking for her loved ones or a dear hero, but a girl with fairy qualities: she can “reconnoiter with sight, heal wounds, awaken soldiers in a dead sleigh.” At the end of the song, it is again said that she wakes up the dead soldiers from the “dead sleigh and brings them into the city”.

      In the religion of the ancestors, or as it is still called by ethnographers and researchers of ancient beliefs – in the religion of the dead, this is a very important act. That is its essence, the basic dogma – to call on tribal souls, and especially those who gave their lives for their family, to now from the spiritual world, when they have even greater power and strength, to protect and defend the community, the tribe, from enemy attacks…”

  2. Razib IIRC you mentioned that Central Asian Buddhism had a profound effect on the type of Islam that formed in that area also (I believe we discussed it during or after the Odd Compass podcast). Have you ever written about that or maybe I am remembering incorrectly?

  3. I made this comment before as well. But Islam is uniquely suited meta religion for central Asian warrior nomads like Turks. Islam is more focused on the here and now I.e. Alpha males get to dominate societies as they like as long as they maintain rule of law. When you live on the fringes of civilization and survival is a struggle of fittest, then focusing on the abstract meta physics is not very appealing. Just look at what happened to mongols who stuck with Buddhism.

    1. \ abstract meta physics is not very appealing\

      It is not that simple- Japanese adopted and adapted Buddhism and came up with Zen which is the warrior religion of samurais. Buddhist monastaries in China specialised in unarmed combat which still hold first place nowadays.

      Ultimately what you do with a religion is what matters, not it’s abstract principles

      1. Japanese militarism till 1945 was more inspired by Shintoism rather than zen Buddhism. For e.g. the yakasuni shrine. I can’t imagine Catholicism with its life long monogamy and subservience to Pope having much appeal to medieval central Asian warriors. The Buddhist emphasis on middle path means kings do not have Carte Blanche to do as they please. They still need to get approval from monks in viharas .

        1. you sound like a moron who doesn’t know shit.

          ie someone who doesn’t know about the buddhist kalymyk/oirat obliteration of the kazakhs on their way west.

          oda nobunaga burned down buddhist monasteries which were being used as castes by ‘military monks.’ idiot.

          1. i never claimed to know all shit. Isn’t the yakasuni shrine, meant to honour war heroes a shinto shrine? I never made the claim that buddhists did not indulge in violent or warlike behavior. My point was what appeals to warrior tribes? islam or buddhism? You could make the counter point that the Turks adopted Islam since they got defeated by Arabs whereas Chinese and other central asian tribes did not.

  4. the ambedkarites are viewing buddhism as a revenge against brahminism. but, i have a feeling that at the next level of trying to understand buddhism, they will realise that it is very brahminical in its practices.

  5. the ambedkarites are viewing buddhism as a revenge against brahminism. but, i have a feeling that at the next level of trying to understand buddhism, they will realise that it is very brahminical in its practices.

    assertion is not an argument. what do you mean? here are some hypothesis (no strong attachment to any):

    – ‘brahminism’ as we understand it cannot be comprehended without a dynamic interplay with shramanic religious movements. that is, brahmin orthodoxy at certain levels is a reaction to shramanic critiques (simple elucidatio nof this would be turn away from animal sacrifice and toward vegetarianism)

    – buddhism/shramanic religious movements are revolt and emergence of subliminated non-aryan religious strands in the subcontinent (no contradictory to the first)

    – buddhism is the logical extension of indo-aryan religio-philosophical thought

    the last would seem to fit the idea that brahminism=>buddhism. though a lot of the thinkers who espoused this idea, albeit without much learning, suggest buddhism’s strength was in the kshatriya and vaishya classes, and not the brahmin rituals.

    so let’s start talking and stop asserting. tell me what you think

    1. i am talking of instances in karnataka,
      1. a lay dalit (not necessary an illiterate) who has becomes a buddhist mainly on the ambedkar’s thought put forth by dalit influencers ( many of them academics and high officials) sees the following as he enters deeper into the current buddhist practices:
      i) temple structures, which are sort of similar to the hindu temples.
      ii)idol worship, including burning of incense sticks etc. and with it collection of donations.
      iii) a priestly class in orange robes conduction rituals and chanting etc.
      iv) chants not in kannada or any local language but in pali/pakrit which once again sounds similar to sanskrit and is alien to the vast majority therein.
      v) affirmation of karma theory in general.
      vi) affirmation of reincarnation instances.
      vii) realisation that many of buddha’s chief followers were ” upper caste”, i.e brahmins or kshatrias.

      also i have seen buddhist monks officiating ground breaking ceremonies and building opening ceremonies where buddha’s statue is worshipped with flowers etc.

      all these above for a hesitant believer, will be difficult to distinguish it from some other sect of hinduism.

      1. Ambedkerite buddhism is very different from trad. buddhism.
        it reimagines nirvana as a sort of rationalist social justice utopia and doesn’t believe in karma, 4 noble truths etc.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navayana

        I don’t know how buddhists dalits actually practice things in india.

        But ambedkar wrote a few books on that matter so his views are pretty clear.

    2. – ‘brahminism’ as we understand it cannot be comprehended without a dynamic interplay with shramanic religious movements.
      How do you understand ‘brahmanism’. I think this term is used without any clear understanding. Some people understand it as superiority and dominance of Brahmans as a caste while others understand it as “Brahm” being the source of everything living or non-living and ultimate goal of a soul is to unite with ‘it’. It seems that most of the time it is used to ridicule hinduism.

  6. Vajrapani killing Maheswara (Shiva):

    For people with less time:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mahakala,_12th_century,_Rubin_Museum_of_Art.jpg
    Vajrapani stands on the breasts of Uma and chest of Maheswara.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:6-armiger_Mahakala.jpg
    Is that Mahakala(Buddhist version of Shiva) standing on Ganesha?

    For people with more time:
    https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/jiabs/article/download/8784/2691/

    Rambling:
    Buddhists are thorough Hindus(i.e. Indians), actually I will go even further, Buddhism to me looks like Brahmanism without (theoretically) God or caste. Both have almost the same gods, same value system, same styles of arguments… Higher-ups of both espouse lofty sounding but self-serving ideals and both are passive aggressive in spewing insults. The Brahmanical(i.e. Indian style scholarly) bickering of these two sects(not religions) was put to rest by Musclemaan Turks who showed them that drawing cartoons of (Buddhist) Mahakaal astride corpse of Shiva or disparaging Buddhists in books isn’t how grown men play. Hinduism being the more visceral, less organized, and illogical of the two is more resilient and grounded. Any sufficiently thoughtful Hindu becomes Buddhist (or their proxy Advaitin) any chilled out Buddhist is already a Hindu.

    1. Well done, Bhim. I can see you will be a dark horse of the next discussion topic – mythology.
      If Mahakala is the Buddhist version of Shiva, it would be interesting to find out the connection with Serbian/Slavic deity Živa (=alive), maybe they are all the same personality. If you have time, you may also research insufficiently researched what Razib said ‘buddhism is the logical extension of indo-aryan religio-philosophical thought’. You may become a pioneer, world authority and a superstar in Buddhist countries – China, Japan, Thailand, Serendib, etc.

      1. Just a small addendum…

        Why this approach is still unresearched? Why western scholars haven’t touched it? Because they ignore the fact, which many of them know, that Aryans were Slavics, i.e. Serbs. Because they never try to establish the link, between Vincha, Aryans, Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddhism haven’t started from nowhere nor from thin air. It had to be a continuation from some previous stream of philosophical thinking as Razib mentioned. Someone (Dip?) recently asked about Ashoka, but none answered. I would be also interested to know the answer although it is not in the centre of my research interest. That is a great chance for Bhim or oit guys who waste their time in inventing warm water and citing Talageri but not able to answer what is RG. They can start from a premise I suggested and prove that this premise was wrong (or right). I am pushing them to become world champions (I would do this myself but I am busy with other things) but they stubbornly provide resistance and strive to lunacy. If they succeed in their striving, it would be my unsuccess too because I could not bring them to their own common sense.

  7. Anyone have any good book recommendations on the history of Indian Buddhism and/or classical age (500 CE – 1000 CE?) Hinduism?

  8. What is the best explanation for Buddhism dying out in Pakistan, while Hinduism persisting for centuries? Was it a lack of caste?

    1. *What is the best explanation for Buddhism dying out in Pakistan*

      Buddhism thrived in the border areas such as Kashmir/Bengal/Afghanistan/Central Asia

      These same areas also converted to Islam

      Hinduism in contrast was in core of India.

      1. I think his question was why Hinduism survived in Pakistan (in whatever diminished capacity) right upto partition while Buddhism didn’t.

        1. Thanks for the clarification.

          Yes, I think it was caste.

          Because of caste, conversion usually happened in a bloc, I think. If the caste already had a relatively high status in Hindu society then the incentive to convert becomes less

  9. Buddhism thrived in the border areas such as Kashmir/Bengal/Afghanistan/Central Asia

    Well buddhism also thrived in eastern up, bihar, virdhaba etc,
    (places that would be considered ‘core india’ today)

    And it died out there as well

    I think more likely the emergence of the ‘Hindu synthesis’ lead to Buddhism getting outcompeted. And then the arrival of Islam finished it off, but Buddhism was already in decline by then.

  10. Buddhism in its infancy was not a linear reform process of the Hindu orthodoxy of those times like some Western historians are wont to depict. Siddhartha did not nail any theses to walls neither did he go into any temple to belabor moneylenders.

    Ananda Coomaraswamy states that he was also in search of the Brahman just like any other Hindu philosopher. Siddhartha intrinsically understood that the Hindu scriptures weren’t urban or suited to the rigors of a settled urban life. Brahmins in the 6th century BCE were playing a whole host of roles in the polity from advising the king to regulating commerce. There was no space for the spiritual seeker and Brahmins had ceases to fulfil the function of their namesake – seeking Brahman. They had been reduced to Brahmins determined at birth. Hence the move of Siddhartha into the forest to simulate the setting in which the Vedas and Upanishads were composed.

    Also observers from the 3rd century BCE onwards do not classify or view Buddhism as being disruptive or radical. The most famous and well known observer is Chanakya. His Arthashastra is mandatory reading to understand the philosophical systems of that time. Buddhism was called as Samkhya – a legitimate component of Hinduism. There is no distinctive political, soteriological entity called Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE. There was no attempt to tear down or reform the social structure of society. It is still a individualistic take on Dukkha (suffering).

    Only after the rise of “Institutional Buddhism”, do Buddhist philosophers start compartmentalising and adding distinctive motifs and cleaving Samkhya from its roots. The rift is perhaps sanctioned by Ashoka with royal patronage (motivations unknown). But for whatever reasons, by the 5th century CE, Buddhism is firmly established as a competitor to Hinduism in the farthest corners of India. Sambandar, the Tamil Saivite monk in the 7th century CE writes of the “confusing logic of the Buddhists” and their “ambiguous ways”. This article shows a very good summation of the 7th century Saivite orthodox view of Buddhism.

    https://journal.fi/scripta/article/view/67219/27517

    In the 1000 years interval from when it emerged as a natural component of “roots Hinduism” to carving a separate identity, Buddhism perhaps maintained logical purity. I would call it as the fight between two forks of Hinduism – one of which tried to return it to the original timeline. The other fork was already anti-fragile having assimilated many influences and tested by time.

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