Buddhism Along the Silk Road, 5th–8th Century
“People of distant places with diverse customs,” wrote a Chinese Buddhist monk in the mid-seventh century, “generally designate the land that they admire as India.”
Xuanzang was a scholar, traveler, and translator. When he wrote these words in the seventh century, he had just returned from an epic seventeen-year, six-thousand-mile overland pilgrimage and manuscript-gathering expedition to the great Indian centers of Buddhist learning. Buddhism by then had been the established religion of most of South and Central Asia since it was taken up by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, around three hundred years after the Buddha’s death in northern India. The account Xuanzang wrote of his journey, Buddhist Record of the Western World, makes it clear that the places he passed through from western China to the Hindu Kush were then very largely dominated by Indic ideas, languages, and religions.
For most of its later medieval and modern history, it was India’s fate to be on the receiving end of foreign influences. Following the establishment of a series of Turkic-ruled Islamic sultanates throughout India in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Persian became the language of government across much of the region, and Persian cultural standards, in art, dress, and etiquette, were adopted even in Hindu courts. By the nineteenth century, English had replaced Persian, and India became instead a distant part of the Westernizing Anglosphere. To master English was now the route to advancement, and Indians who wished to get ahead had to abandon, or at least sublimate, much of their own culture, becoming instead English-speaking “Brown Sahibs,” or what V.S. Naipaul called “Mimic Men.”
But for at least seven hundred years before then, from about 400 AD to 1200 AD, India was a large-scale and confident exporter of its own diverse civilization in all its forms, and the rest of Asia was the willing and eager recipient of a startlingly comprehensive mass transfer of Indian culture, religion, art, music, technology, astronomy, mythology, language, and literature. Out of India came not just artists, sculptors, traders, scientists, astronomers, and the occasional fleets of warships, but also missionaries of three Indic forms of religion: Buddhism and two rival branches of Hinduism: Shaivism, in which Lord Shiva is revered as the Supreme Being; and Vaishnavism, which venerates Lord Vishnu.
If the scale and breadth of this extraordinary cultural diffusion is not as well known as it should be, that is perhaps partly because of a tendency to perceive and study this process as two separate disciplines, each the preserve of a different group of scholars. The many Buddhist monuments scattered around Afghanistan and the Taklamakan desert in northwest China, through which Xuanzang passed, for example, are usually viewed today as the first step in the story of the spread…
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