The Silk Road (or Silk Route) was a vast network of inter-continental pathways that was a key artery of trade and cultural exchange during ancient times. First developed during the Han dynasty two millennia ago, the routes connected China to India, Europe, Arabia and beyond. While silk produced in China was a major commodity being traded along these routes, far more significant cultural and intellectual exchanges happed through this conduit. This essay is an exposition of how Buddhism provided a basis for cultural and commercial exchange along the Silk Road.
At the time of the Silk Road’s highest utility, several new religions were taking root across geographies. For example, two millennia ago, Christianity was born, having broken away from Judaism. The other major monotheistic religion, Islam, was born much later in history. Though these religions had their original doctrines, they were also defined in relation to one another. In other words, there were key distinguishing features from one religion to another, which are often irreconcilable and a source of strife among the respective followers. Hence, there was a need for an open-minded dialogue between the major religions of ancient times. The Silk Road, it can be claimed, served as an avenue for this much needed religious interaction. One particular area where the Silk Road was quite helpful is in bringing Islam and Buddhism closer. A constructive dialogue between the two religions was made possible through an Islamic precept called ‘ummatan wasan’. This translates as ‘Middle Nation’ and resonates with the Buddhist precept of ‘majjhima-patipada (Middle Way). This common ground between the two religions helped create an atmosphere of mutual trust and peace during Silk Road trade. The Islamic expression of ‘ummatan wasatan’ is meant to represent the community as one of equitable and reasonable people with a penchant for moderation. In other words, the term portrays Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) as an exemplar moderate. There is convergence between this Islamic principle (oft forgotten by later practitioners) and the Buddhist guidance to follow the ‘middle path’. (Yusuf, 2009)
Since there were numerous geo-social groups adhering to Islam along the Silk Road, this common ground became important. The mutual respect gained by traders adhering to Islam and Buddhism during ancient history has to be sustained in modern times as well. Both the Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) preached about “what is the true state of being and how the illusions which drag humanity through darkness and injustice can be overcome.” (Yusuf, 2009)
Starting with the first century CE, traders along the Silk Road began a “major gestalt shift into new linguistic forms and historic contexts.” (Boyle, 2001) The Silk Road proved to be the vital artery that would enable this transfer of wisdom across geographies. Though Buddhism was born in Northern India, it found its most dedicated followership in countries of East and South East Asia. By the time Buddhism reached the interiors regions of China, the nation has already achieved a distinct cultural and intellectual tradition. This provided the apt platform for the assimilation of a philosophical system that is less focussed on dogma and more focussed on a set of universal insights into the nature of human mind and behaviour. The Buddha, having been brought up by a Hindu king in Northern India, integrated some of the insights of Hindu philosophy into what would later comprise key Buddhist texts. In this sense, the Silk Road has been a channel for transmitting theological truths discovered by Indian philosophers into the Chinese language, thereby reaching the Chinese people. By the “3rd and 4th centuries Buddhist dialogue, now intercultural, was interpreted through the filter of indigenous Chinese philosophical categories.” (Boyle, 2001)
Just as philosophical discourse within China flourished through universal wisdom brought over from India, so did the latter’s economy prosper as a result of the Silk Road. For example, the Mauryan Empire continued to thrive in large part due to its land and sea trade “with China and Sumatra to the east, Ceylon to the south, and Persia and the Mediterranean to the west. The silk routes from Europe to China put India at the center of a vibrant land trade route…” (Dehejia & Dehejia, 1993) Likewise, there were other civilizations that prospered culturally and economically by availing the Silk Road. The community of Sogdians were one such, who turned out to be the most successful traders on the Silk Road. They travelled more than two thousand miles from Eastern and Central Europe to come to the courts of Chinese kings to make trade agreements. Sogdian merchants were instrumental in linguistic and intellectual exchange between these two parts of the world. For example, the writings of Nanai-Vandak – an influential Sogdian merchant – remains a key historical text in China. In return, Sogidans took Buddhist wisdom and artistic paraphernalia surrounding Buddhist philosophy to their homelands. For example, a Buddhist sculpture standing a mere 4.5 inches high was discovered in Central Europe recently. This rare gilt bronze statue of a “Seated Buddha with a Parasol” is estimated to be about 1500 years old. (Finlay, 2002) Musicians and dancers from Central Asia were offered patronage by local Chinese dominions. Some of the sculptural works from the period reflect scenes of cultural expression. For example there is a small statue of a person with a double-gourd flask on his shoulders, indicating that he is a commissioned entertainer. He is shown performing the ‘Sogdian whirl’ – a popular dance form of the Sogdians. But what is instructive is that this dancing figure is “mounted on a lotus-flower pedestal, a detail borrowed from more-sober Buddhist images.” (Finlay, 2002) Thus, the cultural exchanges between Buddhist societies and far-off civilizations are quite apparent.
Traders traversing the Silk Road took the Buddhist tradition of peace and non-violence when they went back home. The Buddhist doctrine of inner harmony and human compassion held an appeal to all those who met with it. This accounts for the various branches of Buddhism that have evolved across regions along the Silk Road. For example, the schools of Buddhism in India, China, Japan and other South-East Asian countries are slightly different. Yet they are united by the Buddha’s basic articulations on the nature of human suffering. Contemporarily, there is even a brand of Buddhism that is evolving in Western countries. But what the history of the Silk Road has shown is that new forms of Buddhism “have created interacting communities of peace discourse, intermingling unique literary, artistic, philosophical and ethical heritages.” (Nicolini-Zani, 2011) To not be dogmatic is an essential spirit of Buddhism. Hence, this philosophical system emphasized the importance of everyday practice in a collective community setting, as against treating ‘belief’ as something abstract and above practical realities and considerations. This flexible nature inherent in Buddhism explains how it has been able to accommodate and grace people from various other religious backgrounds who traversed the Silk Road.
Finally, as a note of caution and disappointment, it should be understood that while commerce provided the context for cultural exchange and helped facilitate better understanding of other religions, it did not help create a climate of total peace. This is evident from the numerous religion-inspired wars that were to occur in subsequent history, the most calamitous of it being the Second World War and the Holocaust. In the ongoing era of globalization, when interconnectivity between various parts of the world is becoming quick and easy, there have been increased instances of geo-political and cultural conflict. There is a need more than ever before for all the major religions of the world to confer and find common ground. Buddhism has the potential to play that mediating role in bringing together major monotheistic religions for dialogue. Buddhism can today replicate the noble uniting role that it played millennia ago during the usage of the Silk Road. (Yusuf, 2009)
• Boyle, J. (2001). Buddhist Discourse: An Instrument of Peace. International Journal of Humanities and Peace, 17(1), 27+.
• Dehejia, R. H., & Dehejia, V. H. (1993). Religion and Economic Activity in India: An Historical Perspective. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 52(2), 145+.
• Finlay, J. R. (2002, March). Treasures of the Silk Road: During a Period of Disunity in China’s History, New Religious, Ethnic, and Commercial Influences Transformed Its Culture. (Museum Today). USA TODAY, 130(2682), 42+.
• Nicolini-Zani, M. (2011). Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters: Studies on East Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia. The Catholic Historical Review, 97(3), 616+.
• Yusuf, I. (2009). Dialogue between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasatan (the Middle Nation) and Majjhima-Patipada (the Middle Way). Islamic Studies, 48(3), 367+.