“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.