Archive for the 'Buddhism' Category

Violent Buddhists

June 5 2015

… in Sri Lanka

Charles Haviland, BBC Radio 4. A depressing account.

Turbulent monks – the Pali Tipitaka (old post).

William Dalrymple

December 31 2014

One of Dalrymple’s heroes is Leigh Fermor. WD’s a fine historian, but not PLF’s literary equal.


In Xanadu (1989), following the path taken by Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the site of Shangdu, Xanadu, in Inner Mongolia, the summer seat of Kublai Khan. Posts here: Xanadu and JeholThe Silk Road and Summer capitals, summer palaces.

City of Djinns (1994), about Delhi, where he lives.

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1997), about eastern Christianity. Posts here: Indian churches, Christians and Yazidi, and work back from links in latter.

The Age of Kali (1998), about trouble in modern India. Kali Yuga is the fourth age in Hindu cosmology.

Editor, Lonely Planet Sacred India (1999).

White Mughals (2002), about a love affair in early-nineteenth-century Hyderabad between James Achilles Kirkpatrick and a Muslim noblewoman, Khair-un-Nissa Begum.

Begums, Thugs and White Mughals – The Journals of Fanny Parkes (2002), an edition of the travel journals of Fanny Parkes, who travelled in India from 1822 to ’46 and wrote Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque.

The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (2006).

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009).

Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan (2012), about the first Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-42.

Editor, with Yuthika Sharma, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857 (2012). After Aurangzeb.

TV, radio, journalism.


Links to podcasts this year in the BBC Radio 4 Point of View series, with my comments:

A Lenten reflection, April 4. About the discovery, by a British hunting party in 1819, of the painted caves at Ajanta, in the western Ghats in central Maharashtra. “Along with the frescoes of Pompeii, […] the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world.” The caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks, but show the sensual life of the court in which the Buddha grew up, not the austerities of the religious life. They were probably painted in the 2nd century BC, with a later group from the 5th century CE. There was no conflict between the sacred and the sensual in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, says Dalrymple; he does not dwell on Hindu traditions of mortifying the flesh.

Later: Buddhist, Jain and Hindu carvings and fragments of paintings in caves at Ellora in Maharashtra. Buddhist and Hindu carvings in caves on Elephanta Island in Mumbai harbour. Erotic Jain and Hindu carvings at temples in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh.

The puritanical break in India, he suggests, came not with Islam, but with the British, with effects still felt today in a false reinterpretation of their history by Hindus. Africans and Muslims are doing the same thing with theirs. What is rejected as unMuslim and unAfrican is often nineteenth-century unWestern.

A classic instance in modern Western art of wild eroticism united with religious sensibility is Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. Its original inspiration wasn’t Indian, but its title is a composite of two Sanskrit words, turanga and lîla, which, apparently, roughly mean “love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death”. How odd that Bernstein, who conducted the premiere in Boston, never returned to it or recorded it. Or is it kitsch?

A tale of two elections, April 11. About the 2014 elections in India and Afghanistan.

Travel-writing giants, April 18. About Peter Matthieson, who had just died, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Last year in the same series, we had Islamo-Christian heritage, December 20 2013, about the old sharing of sacred space in Egpyt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, India by Christians, Muslims and Jews. I quoted from it here.

Islam did not tolerate Christianity: it showed great tenderness towards it. Dalrymple quotes examples from Akbar’s abortive capital at Fatehpur Sikri. Mary is mentioned more often in the Quran than in the Gospels. Many apocryphal sayings of Jesus were and are current in Islam.

Contested sites and the failure to share: Jerusalem and Ayodhya, the Temple Mount and Ram Janmabhoomi. Though the Israeli occupiers of the Temple Mount do enforce a ban on prayer by non-Muslims at its Umayyad structures, a ban which some orthodox Zionists would like to defy and nearly all Muslims demand.

Dalrymple on Akbar and Christianity, New Statesman, December 19 2005. Post here mentioning Akbar’s attempt to start a new syncretic religion, the Dīn IIāhī.

The crucible of the Mahayana

December 28 2014

I  Alexander

Gautama Buddha and the founder of Jainism, Mahavira, both lived in a period of wars between local states in northern India in the 6th century BC. Gautama was born in what is now Nepal, Mahavira in Bihar.

What was the extent of Buddhism’s early influence in the Afghan or other domains of Achaemenid Persia?

In 326 BC Alexander the Great crossed the Indus (which the Persians had never done) and then the Jhelum or Hydaspes, the most western of the five rivers of the Punjab. At the Hydaspes Alexander defeated King Porus of Pauravas, an ancient country that soon afterwards fell to the Mauryans.

Another ruler, King Ambhi of Taxila, surrendered his city, already a Buddhist centre.

Alexander’s troops refused to advance further than the Beas, a tributary of the Sutlej, the easternmost of the five rivers.

II  Chandragupta

A Buddhist great power, the Mauryan Empire, emerged in India as the Achaemenid Empire fell.

After Alexander’s death in 323, Chandragupta Maurya (ruled 322-298) conquered Alexander’s briefly-held east-of-Indus satrapies with the help of a largely Persian army. Bactria, between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus, and Transoxiana, remained Greek. Both had belonged to the Achaemenids.

Chandragupta’s capital: Pataliputra (Patna).

III  Seleucus

Seleucus I Nicator, a Macedonian satrap of Alexander, established his authority as far as Bactria and the Indus and in 305 BC he fought Chandragupta. Seleucus appears to have fared poorly, ceding large territories west of the Indus to Chandragupta: Arachosia (Kandahar), Gedrosia (Baluchistan), the Paropamisadae (Hindu Kush), but not Bactria or Transoxiana. Post here on the Paropamisadae.

Chandragupta then sold Seleucus 500 war-elephants (who used them to fight Antigonus I) and married Seleucus’s daughter to formalise an alliance. Seleucus sent an ambassador, Megasthenes, to Chandragupta’s court. Relations continued between their successors.

Chandragupta was Jain. His successor Bindusara belonged to the Ajivika sect.

IV  Ashoka

Bindusara’s successor, Ashoka (reigned 269-32), embraced Buddhism and became a proselytiser of the traditional Theravada Pali canon.

His edicts, carved on pillars and rocks in various places in his empire, in the Kharoshti, Greek, Aramaic (Achaemenid) and Brahmi scripts, record the missions which he sent to Greeks and others.

V  Greek Bactrians

Meanwhile, the Seleucids were losing control of Bactria. It became the centre of an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom c 256 BC, which extended into Transoxiana.

Capitals: Bactra (Balkh), Alexandria-on-the-Oxus (possibly Ai-Khanoum).

After the Brahmanical Sunga dynasty overthrew the Mauryans in 185 BC, the Greco-Bactrians invaded and conquered northwestern India with an army led by Demetrius.

VI  Indo-Greeks

The resulting Indo-Greek Kingdom lasted until AD 10 and was opposed in the east for its first century by the Sunga. Buddhism prospered, and it has been suggested that the Greek invasion of India was intended to protect the Buddhist faith from the persecutions of the Sunga.

Capitals: Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus (Kapisa or Bagram, Hindu Kush, north of Kabul), Sirkap (Taxila, Punjab), Sagala (Sialkot, Punjab), Pushkalavati (Charsadda, NWFP).

King Menander (reigned c 160-130 BC) became a student and patron of Buddhism. Were any Greco-Bactrian or Indo-Greek kings before him personally sympathetic to Buddhism?

VII  Greeks and Buddhism

The philosophers Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus are said to have accompanied Alexander. During the eighteen months they were in India, they were able to interact with Indian ascetics, described as Gymnosophists, naked philosophers.

At Sirkap, Buddhist stupas stand side-by-side with Hindu and Greek temples, suggesting religious tolerance and syncretism.

Early Mahayana theories of reality and knowledge may be related to Greek philosophical schools of thought.

The Milinda Panha is a Buddhist discourse in the platonic style, held between Menander and the Buddhist sage Nagasena.

The Mahavamsa records that during Menander’s reign, a Greek Buddhist abbot named Mahadharmaraksita led 30,000 monks from Alexandria (possibly in-the-Caucasus) to Sri Lanka for the dedication of a stupa.

There are Buddhist inscriptions by Greeks in India, such as that of the provincial governor Theodorus, describing in the Kharoshti script (and Pali language?) how he enshrined relics of the Buddha.

Coins of Menander and some of his successors show Buddhist symbols.

Buddhist tradition recognises Menander as one of the benefactors of the faith, together with Ashoka and Kanishka (below).

The first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha are often considered a result of Greco-Buddhist interaction. The earliest Buddhist art was aniconic: the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, his footprints, the Dharma wheel, the triratna).

It was natural for the Greeks also to create a single common divinity by combining the image of a Greek God-King (Apollo, or possibly the deified founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, Demetrius) with the attributes of the Buddha.

Stylistic elements in these representations point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders (more exactly, its lighter version, the Greek himation), the contrapposto stance of the upright figures, the stylised curly hair and topknot (ushnisha) apparently derived from the Apollo of the Belvedere (c 335 BC), the measured quality of the faces.

During the following centuries, this anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha evolved to incorporate more Indian and Asian elements.

Several Buddhist deities may have been influenced by Greek gods. There are links between Greco-Persian and Buddhist cosmology.

The Buddha was known to the Church fathers. Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have been found in Alexandria in Egypt, decorated with depictions of the Dharma wheel. The presence of Buddhists in Alexandria at this time is important, since it was to be an intellectual centre of Christianity.

VIII  Successors of the Indo-Greeks

Greek rule in Bactria was extinguished c 125 BC by southward-migrating Sakas or Scythians and Yuezhi, both Indo-European speaking. The Yuezhi are later called Kushan.

At the beginning of the first century, the Yuezhi invaded the northern parts of Pakistan and India and founded the Kushan Empire, a contemporary of the Roman Empire.

The Kushan rulers (30-375) displaced the Indo-Greek kings, but their culture was Greek-influenced. They used the Greek script to write their Indo-European language. Their absorption of Greek historical and mythological culture is suggested by Kushan sculptures representing Dionysiac scenes and even the story of the Trojan horse and it is likely that Greek communities remained in India under Kushan rule. Capitals: Purushpura (Peshawar, main capital), Bagram, Taxila, Mathura.

The Greek-influenced Indo-European-speaking successors of the Indo-Greeks:

Indo-Scythian/Saka kingdoms, 110 BC-400 (final extinction)

Indo-Parthian Kingdom, 12 BC-before 100

Yuezhi/Kushan Empire, 30-375

Indo-Sasanians, 3rd century-410

Ephthalite or White Hun Empire, 5th-7th century; they belonged to the Central Asian Xionite hordes and were enemies of the Gupta and of the Sasanians

The Ephthalites controlled present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and territories to the north and are probably the ancestors of modern Pashtuns. Their power was broken by the Sasanians (Khosrau I) in and after 557 and by the Turkic steppe-dwellers.

The full religious mix before Islam has to take account of Buddhism, Greek paganism, Hinduism, Jainism, Manichaeism, Shamanism, Zoroastrianism. Even Judaism and Nestorianism.

IX  The Mahayana

The Kushan king Kanishka was famous for his religious syncretism and honoured Zoroastrian, Greek and Brahmanic deities as well as the Buddha. He convened the Fourth Buddhist Council c AD 100 in Kashmir. His reign sees the earliest representations of the Buddha on a coin (c AD 120), and in a Hellenistic style. Kanishka also had the earliest Gandhari vernacular, or Prakrit, Mahayana Buddhist texts translated into the literary language of Sanskrit.

The sacred texts of Theravada Buddhism are written in Pali, a Prakrit or vernacular which is closely related to Sanskrit and to the language the Buddha spoke. The sacred texts of the Mahayana were translated from Sanskrit into local languages.

Buddhism expanded into East Asia soon after this. The Kushan monk Lokaksema visited the Han Chinese court at Luoyang in AD 178, and worked there for ten years to make the first known translations of Mahayana texts into Chinese. This was also the great age of Gandharan art (area around Taxila, northern Pakistan): subjects Buddhist, motifs Hellenistic. (Gandhara was originally the name of an ancient Vedic kingdom.)

Buddhism probably reached China from the Kushan Empire in the first century CE: from north India via the Punjab, Gandhara, the Hindu Kush, Bactria, Transoxiana/Sogdiana, and the Fergana valley (Kokand, Anijan). Then across the Tien Shan and into the Tarim basin (Kashgar, Khotan, Turfan). In other words, by linking to the Silk Road. A minority view is that it came to China by sea, entering by the Yellow and Huai rivers.

It entered by land via a region which had been partly hellenised. The interaction of Greek culture with Buddhism may have helped to determine the forms which Buddhism took in China. The Mahayana was eventually adopted in China, Siberia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Mahayana goes beyond (or does it retreat from?) the ideal of the release from suffering, and the Nirvaṇa of the arhats, to elevate the Buddha to a God-like status and to create a pantheon of quasi-divine bodhisattvas devoting themselves to the salvation of their fellow human beings.

X  Decline of Buddhism

The interaction of Greek and Buddhist cultures operated over several centuries until it ended in the 5th century with the invasions of the anti-Buddhist Ephthalite or White Huns and later the expansion of Islam. In the Ephthalite empire Buddhism and Hinduism were still widespread, over a layer of Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism.

In India proper, the decline of Buddhism is usually attributed to a steady Brahmanical reaction, which gathered pace late in the Gupta era. Invasions by Ephthalites and later by Muslims must have hastened it.

Has the Greek influence been exaggerated by western historians? Have they shown undue interest in it because it is easier for them to understand than complicated autochthonous Buddhist movements and schools?

XI  Arrival of Islam

The Arabs completed their conquest of Persia in 651. In Persia and up to the Indus, the Caliphs’ power was gradually lost to local rulers, mainly Sunni, who distantly acknowledged the Caliphate until the fall of Baghdad.

In 661-71 the Arab armies conquered Bactria (by now called Tokharistan), which had passed from the Greeks to the Scythians, Yuezhi (Kushans), Sasanians, Ephthalite Huns and Sasanians again (or had the post-Ephthalite settlement there been Turkish rather than Persian?). 

Transoxiana, where the post-Ephthalite settlement had been Turkish, followed in 706-15; here they suffered a setback, but in 739-41 they conquered Transoxiana definitively.

This put the Islamic state astride the overland route between India and China via the Oxus-Jaxartes basin.

The Arabs conquered, further

Baluchistan after Persia

Sindh and the Indus valley in 711 (Muhammad bin Qasim); capital: Mansura; Sindh later came under local dynasties (Habbari, then Soomro)

Southern Punjab from a base in Sindh, occupying Multan in 712.

They failed to occupy the Kandahar-Ghazni-Kabul route to the Khyber Pass. Two small Hindu states in southern Afghanistan, mentioned below, stubbornly defended the approach to the Hindu Kush.

Their foothold even in the Punjab was precarious. A number of Hindu powers resisted them there. The area was eventually controlled by the Turkic Mamluk Ghaznavids and Persian Ghorids.

They tried to invade India, but were defeated by a coalition of post-Gupta Rajput dynasties in 738.

At the Talas River in 751 the newly-installed Abbasids came head to head with the Tang Chinese. If the Chinese had won the battle, they might have captured the Oxus-Jaxartes basin and reclaimed it from Islam or Zoroastrianism for Buddhism. But they lost, and their influence this far west subsided. They did not return to the Tarim basin until the Qing or Manchu; not even the Yuan governed it.

Before the Islamic conquest, Afghanistan was a religious mixture of Zoroastrianism, paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism (near Kabul) and others. There is no reliable information on when Hinduism began in Afghanistan, but the territory south of the Hindu Kush was probably culturally connected with the Indus Valley civilisation in ancient times.

Herat province, near Persia, was Islamised early on, but the Arabs dealt with a number of post-Sasanian, post-Ephthalite rulers who resisted them. South of the Hindu Kush were the Hindu Zunbil and Buddhist (later Hindu) Kabul Shahi dynasties.

We don’t know how much of the Afghan population accepted Islam immediately, but the Shahi rulers remained non-Muslim until they lost Kabul in 870 to the Persianate (old post) Saffarid Muslims of Sistan, capital: Zaranj. Later, the Persian Samanids (old post) from Bukhara in Transoxiana extended their Islamic influence into Afghanistan. Muslims and non-Muslims still lived side by side in Kabul before the arrival of Ghaznavids from Ghazni in the late 10th century.

The Persian Samanids (819-999) presided over a revival of Persian civilisation in Samarkand and later Bukhara. They sponsored the first complete translation of the Quran into Persian.

The Persian Saffarids ruled in Persia and Afghanistan from 891 to 1003. Capital: Zaranj in Sistan, Persia/Afghanistan. They were eventually reduced to vassals of the Samanids.

By the 11th century, the entire population of Afghanistan was Muslim, except in Kafiristan, or Nuristan, in the east, whose inhabitants continued to practise an ancient form of Hinduism until Nuristan was conquered by the Emirate of Afghanistan in 1895.

The Turkic Ghaznavids controlled large parts of Persia, much of Transoxania, and the northern parts of India from 977 to 1186. Capitals: Ghazni in Afghanistan, Lahore in Pakistan. Their most famous ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni (reigned 998-1002), invaded and plundered India east of the Indus seventeen times. Capitals: Ghazni in Afghanistan, then Lahore.

They and the Muslim rulers in India mentioned in the rest of this note were mostly Sunni.

The Tajik Ghorids (before 879-1215), originally central Afghanistan pagan, Sunni from 1011, were later the first Muslim power in Delhi and further east as far as Bengal: Muhammad of Ghor invaded the Indo-Gangetic plain in 1194, conquering in succession Ghazni, Multan, Sindh, Lahore, Delhi. Ghorid capitals: Firozkoh, Herat, Ghazni, those three now in Afghanistan, Lahore as winter capital.

In 1206 a former slave of Muhammad established the Sultanate of Delhi. His Mamluk (slave) dynasty was the first there. The Sultanate ended with the accession of the Timurid Babur, the first Mughal, in 1526. When the Mughals first arrived in India, they spoke a Turkic language. In adopting Persian, they inherited the language of the Perso-Turkic Delhi Sultanate.

Genghis Khan invaded Transoxiana and Bactria in 1219-20. Before his death in 1227, he assigned the lands of western central Asia to his second son Chagatai, and this region became known as the Chagatai Khanate. In 1369 Timur, of the Barlas tribe, became the effective ruler while continuing the ceremonial authority of Chagatai Khan’s dynasty, and made Samarkand the capital of his empire (1370-1507).

The first independent Islamic Kingdom in South India was the Bahmanid Sultanate (1347-1527). It broke up into five states known as the Deccan Sultanates.

The Arab conquests brought the demise of Buddhism in eastern Persia and greater Afghanistan, but in some places in Afghanistan, such as Bamiyan (Bamiyan province) and Hadda (site near Jalalabad), it survived until the 8th or 9th century. The Taliban dynamited two monumental Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley (6th and 7th centuries) in March 2001.

XII  Old posts:

Persian capitals before Islam

Transoxiana and Bactria

Indic and Hindu

Buddhism and Persia

Persia, 651-present

Toynbee and Ikeda 3

The Old World’s eastern roundabout

The Silk Road

NWFP, 1901-2010


Maps of Central Asia

Near Jalalabad

Picture credit: AfghaniDan; near Jalalabad

Silk Road

Picture credit: Luciana Di Floriano; Silk Road, probably Tien Shan mountains

Buddhism in Persia

December 13 2014

Buddhism may have reached Balkh, now in Afghanistan, then under the Achaemenids, during or soon after the lifetime of the Buddha.

From the 2nd century Parthians such as An Shigao, were active in spreading Buddhism in China. Some of the earliest translators of Buddhist literature into Chinese were from Parthia.

The Sasanids persecuted the Buddhists when they came to power in AD 224 and promoted Zoroastrianism.

Surviving Buddhist sites were raided by the Ephthalites or White Huns, the nomadic confederation which at the height of its power (first half of 6th century) controlled territories in Transoxiana, Bactria, India, China.

Nevertheless, at the time of the Arab conquests, much of the eastern Iranian world was mainly Buddhist.

The Arab conquests brought the demise of Buddhism in eastern Persia and Afghanistan, but in some places, such as Bamiyan and Hadda (both Afghanistan), it survived until the 8th or 9th century.

In 1295 the Mongol ruler in Persia, Ghazan, was converted from Buddhism to Islam and made it the state religion of the Ilkhanate. He prohibited the practice of Buddhism, but allowed monks to go into exile in neighbouring Buddhist regions.

Antitypes of cosmic dawns

September 29 2014

The joy of dawn is the emotional charge in some of the most famous scenes in Western history – the Latin Christian warriors’ shout of “Deus le volt” in response to Pope Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade, the ministry of Saint Francis of Assisi seen through Giotto’s and through Saint Thomas of Celano’s eyes, the landfalls of the Pinta [footnote: Though the first member of Columbus’s first expedition to sight land was a sailor on board the Pinta, this vessel’s name had not won equal renown with the Santa Maria, which was the Admiral’s flagship.] and the Mayflower, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the taking of the Tennis Court Oath – and the poetry in some, at least, of these historic events has been uttered in lines that speak more eloquently than volumes. The poetry in the American Revolutionary War has been distilled by Emerson into one quatrain:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the World.

[Footnote: Emerson: Concord Hymn, stanza 1.]

The poetry in the French Revolution has been distilled by Wordsworth into two lines:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven.

[Footnote: Wordsworth: The Prelude, Book XI, ll. 108-9, incorporating The French Revolution as it appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement.]

It is no wonder that, in these rejoicings at a dawn, the historians should have had to let the poets be their spokesmen; for the joy awakened by the dawn of a new era of History is the Soul’s response to an epiphany that is something more than a merely temporal event. The dawns that awaken such joy as this are irruptions into Time out of Eternity. What has happened on these historic occasions likewise happens at the birth of every child:

“A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come; but, as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the World.”

[Footnote: John xvi. 21.]

In a mother’s joy the Soul hails an incarnation; and, since “alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis”, [footnote: Goethe: Faust, ll. 12104-5.] the dawns of mundane eras that have this poetry in them are antitypes of cosmic dawns in which a Divine Light breaks into This World. A radiance which shines in upon us through Botticelli’s picture, in the National Gallery in London, of the birth in the stable at Bethlehem is likewise manifest in the enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, in the descent of the Dove at the baptism in Jordan, in the transfiguration on the mountain, in the vision on the road to Damascus, and in the imprinting of the stigmata in the wilderness; and, as Milton’s voice strikes up in a Franciscan ode on the morning of Christ’s nativity, Gibbon’s voice dies away.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

Dread of birth

September 12 2014

Among people who have believed in the reality of rebirth, the dread of it has always been stronger than the dread of death.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

Survival of the Hinayana

February 21 2014

In A.D. 1956 the Hinayanian [Theravadan] Buddhist philosophy was the dominant way of life in Ceylon, Burma, Siam, and Cambodia; and in that year a Hinayanian Buddhist oecumenical council was in session at Rangoon, sitting placidly within a stone’s throw of the tense borderline between a Communist-dominated and a Western-dominated hemisphere. This serenity was an heroic example of a spirit that was also in evidence in ordinary life in the Hinayanian Buddhist countries. Many Western observers, including Westerners who were still Christians, were impressed by the strength, pervasiveness, and beneficence of the Hīnayāna’s influence on the êthos of the people at large, beyond the small circle of professed philosopher-monks. If philosophers, as well as prophets, are to be known by their fruits, [footnote: Matt, vii. 16 and 20.] the Hinayanian Buddhist philosophers need not fear comparison with their Mahayanian critics. Yet the local survival of the Hīnayāna in South-Eastern Asia was no more than a modest practical success by comparison with the tenacity of Confucianism; and elsewhere the Hīnayāna, like the Hellenic philosophies, had been superseded by other faiths. In its Indian homeland it had been evicted by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism; and, on the threshold of a vast mission-field in China, Korea, and Japan, the adherents of an advancing Buddhism had fallen away from a Hinayanian philosophy to a Mahayanian religion, in which the social demands of Love and Pity had been given patent precedence over the pursuit of self-sufficiency through self-extinction.

Old posts:

The survival of the Brahmans

Survival of the Confucians.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Pure Land

November 29 2013

One feature of capital importance […] is common to the Civitas Dei as conceived of by Saint Augustine and to the Paradise of Amida [post before last] as conceived of by, for example, Ryōyo Shogei (vivebat A.D. 1314-1420), a Japanese Mahayanian Father who was the Seventh Patriarch of the Jōdo Sect [Jōdo-shū] and who taught that Amida is omnipresent and his Paradise is simply absolute reality – “if we can change our point of view and see things as they really are, we can be in the Pure Land here and now” (Eliot, op. cit., p. 385). […]

The reference is to

Eliot, Sir Charles: Japanese Buddhism (London 1935, Arnold) […].

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

The Kamakura shogunate

November 28 2013

In Japan the period 935-1185 saw a progressive transfer of power and wealth from the exotic Imperial Court at Kyoto to provincial barons, and a concomitant lapse from domestic peace into civil disorder. The peace of the capital itself was disturbed more and more frequently and rudely by incursions of the armed forces of adjacent Buddhist monasteries. A civil war between two provincial families of Imperial descent, the Taira and the Minamoto, culminated in 1185 in the victory of Yoritomo Minamoto and his establishment of an effective dictatorship over the whole of Japan from a base at Kamakura – just beyond the southwestern extremity of the Kanto, the biggest of the rare plains on the main island, Honshu. [An hour out of Tokyo by train.] The Imperial Court and its sophisticated culture were allowed to survive at Kyoto, but the Kyoto Government was deprived of effective power. De facto, the Imperial Government at Kyoto had been controlled by regents belonging to the Fujiwara family since at least as early as 858, and, after Yoritomo Minamoto’s death in 1199, the regency for the Bakufu (military government) of the Shogun (Commander-in-Chief) at Kamakura was acquired in 1203 by the Hojo family, who stayed in the saddle till 1333 and maintained effectively, till about 1284, the regime that Yoritomo Minamoto had instituted.

Japan had never before been so efficiently governed as she was from 1185 to 1284, and the gross national product increased, though there was also an increase in the inequality of its distribution. Japan was fortunate in having a strong government during this century; for the Mongols invaded Japan in 1274, and again in 1281, after the completion of their conquest of the Sung Empire in 1279. On both occasions Japanese valour was assisted by storms that made havoc of the invaders’ ships. In 1274 the Mongols’ expeditionary force was small, and it broke off its attack after only one day’s fighting. In 1281 the invading force was on a large scale, and the attack was kept up for two months [before it was repulsed].

The military government of Kamakura was more in tune than the civil government at Kyoto with the cultural and social conditions of twelfth-century and thirteenth-century Japan. Yoritomo Minamoto and the Hojo regents who carried on his regime at Kamakura had contemporaries who played a corresponding role in the field of religion. The earliest forms of Mahayana Buddhism that were introduced into Japan via China and Korea were abstruse in their metaphysics – though some monasteries of these sects became crudely militaristic in their practice on Japanese soil. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Buddhism was presented to the Japanese people in simplified forms in which it was comprehensible and congenial to wider circles. A sect of Zen (Ch’an, Dhyana) Buddhism was introduced into Kamakura in 1191. The Zen spiritual technique of achieving sudden enlightenment through severely disciplined meditation was attractive to the soldiers [samurai].

Zen was the Japanese variant, introduced under the Kamakura shogunate, of Chán, a Chinese school of Mahayana Buddhism which emphasised dhyana, concentrated meditation.

Honen (1135-1212) [Jōdo-shū school] and Shinran (1173-1262) [Jōdo Shinshū school] appealed to the masses by concentrating on the repetition of the name of the bodhisattva Amida (Amitabha) as a talisman for securing admission, after death, to the “Pure Land”, Amida’s paradise.


Nichiren (1222-82) concentrated on chanting the praise of the Lotus Sutra. He was more akin to the ninth-century-B.C. Israelite prophets Elijah and Elisha than to any traditional Buddhist sage. Nichiren combated all other Buddhist sects, intervened actively in politics, got into trouble with the Bakufu, but won popularity by preaching resistance to the Mongols. Each of these twelfth-century and thirteenth-century Japanese simplified forms of Buddhism still had numerous adherents in the 1970s.

Toynbee himself, at the end of his life, knew and recorded a dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda.

Ikeda in his youth had joined a lay organisation founded in 1930 which propagated Nichiren Buddhism among the urban rootless called Soka Gakkai. In 1960 he became its President. In 1975 he set up Soka Gakkai International as an umbrella organisation for Soka Gakkai-affiliated groups around the world. After Toynbee’s death, the Nichiren Shōshū priesthood cut off relations with Soka Gakkai and Soka Gakkai International and excommunicated Ikeda.

Polly Toynbee on Ikeda.

Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura

Mid-thirteenth century bronze Amida Buddha (a giant Buddha or Daibutsu) at the Jōdo-shū Kōtoku-in temple, Kamakura

Mankind and Mother Earth, A Narrative History of the World, OUP, 1976, posthumous

The pitchfork and the flute

November 23 2013

It was Human Nature that Horace had in mind when he wrote that Nature will always keep on coming back at you, even if you drive her out with a pitchfork; [footnote: “Naturam expellas furcâ, tamen usque recurret.” – Horace, Epistulae I, x, 24.] and, in the Subconscious Psyche’s repertory of “primordial images”, this Nature that is Man’s inseparable and intractable companion is expressively portrayed as a bull. This creature, far stronger physically than Man, which Man has precariously subjugated by the exercise of his Intellect and his Will, is an apt symbol for those subconscious principalities and powers in the Psyche which are so much more difficult for the Intellect and the Will to cope with than any veritably non-human living creature is.

Two antithetical alternative policies for coping with this psychic bull are commended in two significant myths. In the Mithraic myth a hero slays the monster and staggers forward with his victim’s inseparable carcase weighing on his shoulders. In the Zen Mahayanian Buddhist myth a boy-herdsman makes friends with the great ox and comes home riding on the monster’s back to the music of the rider’s flute. The boy’s deft diplomacy is a more effective way of dealing with Man’s problem than the hero’s crude resort to force; for the force which sometimes recoils upon its user, even when Non-Human Nature is its target, is a wholly inappropriate instrument for dealing with the psychic bull.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Essence and accidents

May 26 2013

How, in an Oikoumenê that was being united on a literally world-wide range within a Western framework, were Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus to make further progress in disengaging the essence of Religion from the accidents? The only way open to these fellow seekers after spiritual light was the hard road of spiritual travail along which their predecessors, with God’s help, had arrived at the degree of religious enlightenment represented by the living higher religions at the stage in which they found themselves at this crucial moment in Mankind’s history. By comparison with the stage embodied in Primitive Paganism, the state of relative enlightenment to which the adherents of the higher religions had attained by a date midway through the twentieth century of the Christian Era manifestly represented a marvellous spiritual advance; yet, marvellous though it might be, they had now become aware that they could no longer go on living parasitically on God’s past mercies to their forefathers and on their own forefathers’ past spiritual endeavours to win a fuller vision of God, and a closer communion with Him, for themselves and for their children. They knew that they could no longer rest on their predecessors’ spiritual labours because, in their generation, they were being racked by a conflict between heart and head which they could not leave unresolved with impunity, and which could be resolved only by a fresh spiritual move forward.

As the pilgrims girded themselves to take the hard road again, they might draw some encouragement from divers past successes of Mankind in discarding veils which had served as windows in their time. In default of fuller light, there had been a glimmer of spiritual enlightenment in the faint translucency of Man’s vision of God through the animal creation. In the demonic physical energies of untamed wild beasts Man had caught a glimpse of a divine power surpassing Man’s own strength; in the hunter’s game and in the shepherd’s flock he had caught a glimpse of God’s beneficence as the giver and sustainer of life; and a primitive worship of God in animal form had lived on to play a leading role in the religion of the Egyptiac Civilization. Yet, in the World as it was in A.D. 1952, this dim “theriomorphic” vision of God, though still a living reality for unsophisticated souls at the lower levels of Hinduism, was on the whole on the wane. In the Christian consciousness the lamb, the dove, and the fish stood, not for literal likenesses of God, but for poetic images of His ineffable nature – just as the rock on which the Church was built according to the Roman Catholic Christian belief was not a literal stone like the stone that had once embodied the Emesan divinity Elagabalus or the stone that still supported the wall of a Meccan Kaʿbah.

There were, however, some relics of past stages of enlightenment which might not prove so easy to purge away. The Muslims, who had resolutely rejected all visual representations of God in the physical likeness of living creatures, including “the human form divine” [Blake, The Divine Image], had not yet summoned up the resolution to break with that older and cruder phase of idolatry which had been embedded in Islam by the founder Muhammad himself – against the grain of his own prophetic mission – when he had given his sanction to the adoration of the Black Stone as part of a compromise with the vested interests of an ancien régime at Mecca. [Would Muslims say “revere” rather than “adore”?] Even the puritanical Wahhābī reformers, who had twice entered Mecca as conquerors pledged to purge Islam of idolatrous accretions, had left the Black Stone untouched both in A.D. 1804 and in A.D. 1924. To Christian minds the Muslims’ reluctance to part with the Black Stone seemed a quaint anachronism in glaring contradiction with the abhorrence of idolatry and devotion to monotheism that were the twin beacon-lights of Islam; and, conversely, Muslim minds found stumbling-blocks in the idolatry and the polytheism which, as they saw it, were still being practised by Christians, as well as by Buddhists and Hindus. In Muslim eyes the Christians’ persistent idolatry betrayed itself in the visual representation of God in the forms of a man, a bird, and an animal, and their persistent polytheism in their doctrine of the Trinity and their cults of the saints, while in a Protestant Christian’s eyes the sacrament of the pagan mysteries survived in the Catholic “Sacrifice of the Mass”, and the worship of the Great Mother had been withdrawn from Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Cybele, and Inanna only to be paid, by Catholic devotees, to the same Mother of God under the name of Mary. [Footnote: […] Catholic Christians, of course, did not admit the Protestant allegation that their adoration of Mary amounted to the worship of a goddess. According to the Catholic Christian doctrine, Mary was one of God’s creatures, and the qualities that Catholics adored in her were gifts to her from her Creator.]


This was the challenge that confronted the followers of the historic higher religions in a world in which they had suddenly been brought to close quarters with one another and with a Modern Western Science owing to the rapid spread of a secularized Western Civilization over the whole habitable and traversable surface of the planet. In the year A.D. 1952 the living generation of Mankind did not yet know how they were going to negotiate this next stage of their present “climbers’ pitch”; still less did they know whether they would succeed in scaling it; but they could see that they stood no chance of succeeding unless they could settle their latter-day conflict between Heart and Head, and that therefore a sincere and earnest attempt to recapture a lost spiritual harmony was an indispensable prelude to grappling with the formidable precipice that towered above them.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

A religious landslide in China

January 19 2013

The Far Eastern Civilization, and its offshoots in Korea and Japan, were “affiliated” through the Mahayana to the Sinic Civilization: the Mahayana was the chrysalis of a new society.

The speed and scale of […] religious landslides appear, as might be expected, to be proportionate to the degree of the pressure exerted on the disintegrating civilization by the barbarian aggressors who are the church’s competitors for this derelict heritage.

[…] we have already observed that in a moribund Sinic World the Mahāyāna began to make appreciable progress after the collapse of the Han Empire [which lasted from 206 BC to AD 220] towards the close of the second century of the Christian Era and its replacement in the third century by the indigenous successor-states known as “the Three Kingdoms”. When, however, in the fourth century of the Christian Era the North was overrun and occupied by Eurasian Nomad war-bands, while the regions south of the watershed between the Yellow River and the Yangtse Basin succeeded in keeping these alien invaders at bay, there was a sudden sharp differentiation in the fortunes of the Mahāyāna in these two now politically differentiated areas. In the North the Mahāyāna now captivated an overwhelming majority of the population – no less than 90 per cent., even according to the testimony of unsympathetic historians of the Confucian School. In the South, where the sense of insecurity was less acute, the new higher religion never succeeded in either absorbing or erasing the old secular culture. Though the strength of the hold which the Mahāyāna obtained there too is attested by the devotion to it of so cultivated a ruler as Liang Wuti (imperabat A.D. 502-49), the tradition of Confucian scholarship and administration succeeded in maintaining in the South a base of operations from which it eventually reasserted itself throughout the domain of a nascent Far Eastern Society.

In Reconsiderations, Toynbee abandons the Sinic-Far Eastern distinction.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Constantine and Ashoka

December 4 2012

Constantine’s motive for becoming a convert to Christianity was ethically much inferior to Ashoka’s motive for becoming a convert to Buddhism. Ashoka’s motive had been repentance for his crime of having waged an aggressive war, and he had never gone to war again. Constantine’s motive was gratitude for his victories in three successive civil wars.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

The Mahayana and the masses

October 18 2012

In [the] first chapter of its history in Japan [sixth century onwards] the Mahāyāna, while nominally professed by all subjects of the Emperor, was not in fact comprehended and assimilated by Japanese souls outside the narrow limits of a sophisticated court circle. The propagation of the Mahāyāna among the masses, in popular forms which the common man could understand, did not begin until after the onset of a “Time of Troubles” [and of a feudal age] in the latter part of the twelfth century of the Christian Era […].

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Thou shalt not

September 20 2012

I asked a Thai in Dubai whether he enjoyed living there. His answer, “Can not, can not”, reminded me of Blake.

The cup of Lethe

July 15 2012

Love has […] become the axle-tree of the vehicle of the Mahāyāna; and its conquest of Buddhism is more surprising than its outburst in Christianity; for the Christian religion of Love is in conscious and deliberate revolt against the Stoic philosophy of Detachment, whereas the Mahayanian religion of Love purports to be fulfilling the Hinayanian law and not destroying it – though, in Hinayanian eyes, the Mahayanian Bodhisattva is a Hinayanian arhat manqué […]. The Bodhisattva is in fact an arhat who, at the moment when his age-long efforts to attain Detachment have brought him at last to the brink of Nirvāna, refrains from immediately entering into his rest through taking the final step that would precipitate him into the bliss of self-annihilation, and decides, instead, to postpone the consummation of his own spiritual career – and this, may be, for countless ages more – in order to devote himself to the self-imposed task of helping other beings, by communicating to them some of the light of his own enlightenment […] (see Thomas, E. J.: The History of Buddhist Thought (London 1933, Kegan Paul), pp. 169-72). A follower of Christ will agree with the follower of the Mahāyāna that the Bodhisattva who, for love of his fellows, forbears to drink of the liberating elixir of Lethe when the cup is at his lips, is overcoming the Self in a far profounder sense than the arhat who exercises his duly earned right to consummate his own self-annihilation without being deterred by any pity for a groaning and travailing creation. The labour of Love to which the Bodhisattva dedicates himself is not unworthy to be compared with the self-sacrifice of Christ […]. […]

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Religious categories in India

July 11 2012

Harsha (last post) was a convert to Buddhism and was the last Indian Buddhist ever to rule an empire. Had any of the Guptas been personally Buddhist? Which of the Kushan emperors were Zoroastrian? Were all the Indo-Greek kings personally Buddhist? Were all the Mauryan emperors after Ashoka personally Buddhist?

Wikipedia, slightly edited: “The distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism in India was purely sectarian and never more than the difference between saivism and vaishnavism [Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu] [my bracket]. The exclusiveness of religious doctrines is a Semitic conception, which was unknown to India for a long time. Buddha himself was looked upon in his lifetime and afterwards as a Hindu saint and avatar and his followers were but another sect in the great Aryan tradition. Ashoka was a Buddhist in the same way as Harsha was a Buddhist. But in the view of the people of the day he was a Hindu monarch following one of the recognized sects. His own inscriptions bear ample witness to the fact. While his doctrines follow the middle path, his gifts are to the brahmins, Buddhist priests and others equally. His own name of adoption is Devanam Priya, the beloved of the gods. Which gods? Surely the gods of the Aryan religion. Buddhism had no gods of its own. The idea that Ashoka was a kind of Buddhist Constantine declaring himself against paganism is a complete misreading of Indian conditions. Ashoka was essentially a Hindu, as indeed was the founder of the sect to which he belonged.”

Interesting, though not in the style of an encyclopaedia. Indian writers (I notice) often storm into Wikipedia and write or rewrite tendentiously and without citations.

Sirkap, Purushapura, Sthanesvara

July 11 2012

The Mauryas and the Guptas alike retained their seat of government at Pataliputra (the latter-day Patna), which had previously been Magadha’s parochial capital. [Magadha was ancient Bihar.] Standing, as it did, at the junction of the Ganges with the Jumna and with two other tributaries, Pataliputra was the natural administrative centre for the Ganges Basin […].

After the derelict domain of an enfeebled Mauryan Empire had been overrun by the Euthydemid Bactrian Greek prince Demetrius in the second decade of the second century B.C., the conqueror transferred the seat of government from Pataliputra to a new site far along the Great North-West Road connecting the former Mauryan capital with Demetrius’s own former capital at Bactra (Balkh) on the Central Asian side of the Hindu Kush. Demetrius’s New Taxila [it was called Sirkap] lay near the old city of the same name, in the neighbourhood of the latter-day Rawalpindi, which, before the foundation of the Mauryan Empire, had been the capital of a parochial Indian state; and it commanded the approaches, on the Indian side, to the difficult section of the highway in which a traveller had to negotiate the three successive obstacles of the River Indus, the Khyber Pass, and the main chain of the Hindu Kush.

This neighbourhood was the natural location for the capital of a Power which was seeking to “abolish the Hindu Kush” by uniting the Ganges-Jumna Basin with the Oxus-Jaxartes Basin. The Greek warlord Demetrius’s pioneering essay in this audacious defiance of physical geography proved ephemeral. The Bactrian Greek Power had no sooner overrun the Mauryan Empire than it was broken up by fratricidal warfare which opened the way for Nomad invasions of its dominions on the Indian as well as the Central Asian side of the Hindu Kush; but, when, after more than two centuries of kaleidoscopic political changes, the momentary achievement of the Greek empire-builder Demetrius was repeated in the first century of the Christian Era by the Kushan empire-builder Kadphises I and was perpetuated by Kadphises’ successors, the seat of government of this reconstituted political union of North-Western India with Central Asia came to rest not far from the spot originally selected for it by Demetrius. The capital of the Kushan Empire was planted at Peshāwar [then called Purushapura], on the Great North-West Road between the Indus and the Khyber Pass.

After the Mauryan Empire had been re-established by the Guptas, history repeated itself. The Guptas, like their predecessors, ruled the Indic World from Pataliputra; but, when the Guptan Empire collapsed in its turn and was momentarily restored by the Emperor Harsha (imperabat A.D. 606-47), this last of all the rulers of the Indic universal state [after this, in Toynbee’s terminology, the society is no longer Indic, but Hindu] placed his seat of government, not at Pataliputra, but at Sthanesvara [now called Thanesar] on the banks of the Upper Jumna, above the site of Delhi, covering the north-western approaches to the Ganges Basin from the quarter from which Hun and Gurjara Nomad invaders had swept down on the Guptan Empire from the Eurasian Steppe in the preceding chapter of Indic history.

Pataliputra – Patna

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The Silk Road

June 22 2012

Maps of the Silk Road differ and are often approximate if not inaccurate. Nor is there one Silk Road. I’ll take this one, which appears to be in the public domain, as a simple reference. It shows the main route from Chang’an, now Xi’an, in Shaanxi province, going north and south of the Taklamakan desert or Tarim Basin. The westernmost city in modern China here is Kashgar or Kashi. From there the road passes through Tajikistan (and perhaps Kyrgyzstan) into Uzbekistan – in other words, through Sogdiana – and from there into Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria.

This does not show an alternative southern route which began near Kashgar and passed through Bactria, north of the Hindu Kush, before rejoining the main route north of Merv.

Another road left China to cross the Karakoram into what is now Pakistan.

The Silk Road is not a steppe route. It runs south of the steppe. It is a mountain and desert route.

On the other hand, from Transoxiana, traders could pass north of the Aral and Caspian seas in order to reach the Black Sea ports via the steppe.

Buddhism entered China on the Silk Road via the Kushan Empire in the first century of the Christian era.

The salt lake at the eastern edge of the Taklamakan is Lop Nur.

The Dzungarian Gap is the approach, between the Altai to the north and the Tien Shan to the south, across the now-Chinese Gobi, to the Great Wall and China proper.

China’s artificial northern frontier was the Wall. Its natural northern frontier was the Gobi.

Ashoka’s missions

April 26 2012

Açoka has left us a notice of the philosophic missions which he sent to the realms of five of Alexander’s successors in the second generation, but no record of his emissaries’ activities has come to us from their mission field, and, whatever their fortunes may have been, they made no discernible effect upon the history of Mankind. In seeking to propagate the philosophy of Siddhārtha Gautama beyond the western limits of his own Mauryan Peace, Açoka was unlucky in his generation, for the Achaemenian Peace, which had proved so conductive a medium for Judaism and Zoroastrianism, and had perhaps conveyed to the Hellenic World the Zoroastrian and Indic elements that are to be found in Orphism, had been broken up by force of Macedonian arms two generations before Açoka’s time, and the anarchy that racked the Syriac and Hellenic worlds, with little intermission, from this break-up of the Achaemenian Peace to the establishment of the Roman Peace was particularly unpropitious for missionary work.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Ritual, reason and revelation

April 14 2012

In the encounter between a dawning philosophy and a traditional paganism there had been no problem of reconciling Heart and Head because there had been no common ground on which the two organs could have come into collision. The pith of Primitive Religion is not belief but action, and the test of conformity is not assent to a theological creed but participation in ritual performances. For the vast majority of the faithful, the correct and alert execution of their ritual duties is the alpha and omega of Religion; primitive religious practice is an end in itself, and it does not occur to the practitioners to look, beyond the rites which they perform, for a truth which these rites convey. The truth is that the rites have no meaning beyond the practical effect which their correct execution is believed to have upon the human performers’ social and physical environment. The so-called “aetiological myths”, which purport to explain a traditional practice’s historical origin, are not taken as statements concerning matter[s] of fact that can be labelled “true” or “false”; they are taken in the spirit in which, in a more sophisticated state of society, a child takes a fairy-story or a grown-up person takes poetry. Accordingly, when, in this primitive religious setting, philosophers arise who do set out to make a chart of Man’s environment in intellectual terms to which the labels “true” and “false” apply, no collision occurs so long as the philosopher continues to carry out his hereditary religious duties – and there can be nothing in his philosophy to inhibit him from doing this, because there is nothing in the traditional rites that could be incompatible with any philosophy.

Awkward situations do, no doubt, occasionally arise, as when, in a ritually conservative Athens, the intellectually adventurous Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (vivebat 500-428 B.C.) got into trouble for having made public his opinion that the heavenly bodies were not living gods but inanimate material objects. A more celebrated case was the prosecution, conviction, and judicial murder of Socrates by his Athenian fellow countrymen in 399 B.C. on three charges, [footnote: Plato: Apologia Socratis, 24 B.] of which the second was that Socrates did not pay due worship to the gods who were the official objects of worship at Athens, and the third was that he paid worship to other divinities who were strange gods. Yet it may be doubted whether legal proceedings involving Anaxagoras would have been taken, some twenty years after the Clazomenian philosopher had ceased to reside in Athens, if these had not served the current political purpose of “smearing” Pericles; and it may equally be doubted whether Socrates would have suffered the death-penalty that Anaxagoras escaped if Socrates’ attitude towards religion had been all that his enemies had had against him. Socrates was – and remained to the last – a scrupulous performer of his ritual duties; and, on the religious counts, Aristophanes’ malicious caricature of him in The Clouds might have remained the limit of the penalty exacted from him, if he had not also been under fire in 399 B.C. on another count – the political charge of “corrupting the young” – which, significantly, figured first in the indictment. Socrates was the victim, not so much of conservative Athenian religious fanaticism, as of democratic Athenian resentment over the final defeat of Athens in the long-drawn-out Atheno-Peloponnesian war and democratic Athenian vindictiveness towards a fascist-minded Athenian minority who had seized the opportunity opened to them by the discrediting of the democratic régime through military defeat in order to overthrow the democratic constitution. Socrates’ past personal association with Critias, the moving spirit among “the Thirty Tyrants”, was the offence that the restored democratic régime could neither forget nor forgive. It was Politics, not Religion, that cost Socrates his life.

Where the issue was not confused, as it was in Socrates’ case, by political animus, Philosophy and Primitive Religion encountered one another without colliding. The death of Socrates was an exception to a rule of which the life of Confucius was a classical example. Confucius reconciled a conservative reverence for the traditional rites of primitive Sinic religion with a new moral philosophy of his own making by presenting his personal ideas as the meaning which the rites had been intended to convey. Fortunately for himself, Confucius found no Sinic Critias to be his political pupil in his own lifetime; and – thanks to this failure, which was the great disappointment of his life – he died peacefully in his bed. Confucius’s attitude and experience were characteristic of the normal relations between Philosophy and Primitive Religion; but a new situation arose when the higher religions came on the scene.

The higher religions did, indeed, sweep up and carry along with them a heavy freight of traditional rites that happened to be current in the religious milieux in which the new faiths made their first appearance; but this religious flotsam was not, of course, their essence. The distinctive new feature of the higher religions was that they based their claim to allegiance, and their test of conformity, on personal revelations received by their prophets; [footnote: This was true in some degree in practice even if not in theory of the “Indistic” higher religions as well as the “Judaistic”. Ipse dixit came to be a criterion of truth, not only for the followers of Jesus and Muhammad, but also for the followers of Siddhārtha Gautama and of the philosophic prophets of a post-Buddhaic Hinduism.] and these deliveries of the prophets were presented, like the propositions of the philosophers, as statements of fact, to be labelled either “true” or “false”. Therewith, Truth became a disputed mental territory; for thenceforward there were two independent authorities – on the one hand prophetic Revelation and on the other hand philosophical or scientific Reason – each of which claimed sovereign jurisdiction over the Intellect’s whole field of action; and, when once the hypothesis that the spheres of Revelation and Reason were even partially coincident had been accepted – and both parties did accept this as axiomatic – it became impossible for Reason and Revelation to live and let live on the auspicious precedent of the amicable symbiosis of Reason and Ritual. “There is a peculiar agony in the paradox that Truth has two forms, each of them indisputable, yet each antagonistic to the other.” [Footnote: Gosse, E.: Father and Son, chap. 5.] In this new and excruciating situation, there were only two alternative possibilities. Either the two rival exponents of a supposedly one and indivisible Truth must convert their rivalry into a partnership by agreeing that their expositions were mutually consistent, or, finding themselves unable to agree, they must decide the ownership of an apparently unpartitionable disputed territory in an ordeal by battle that would have to be fought out until one or other party had been driven right off the field.

The Hellenic world and China have been the only two places where advanced philosophy has preceded “higher religion” (if we regard the Vedic origins of Hinduism as belonging to that category).

Where did the conflict occur in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions? Is there even a serious gulf between philosophical/scientific and religious thought in the Indian tradition? In Hinduism, revelation is implied in the terms Apaurusheyatva and Śruti. Can one speak of revelation in Buddhism?

Anaxagoras, young crater near the lunar north pole

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Indonesian shadows

October 17 2011

Toynbee is sparing with references to Spengler in the Study and doesn’t mention him in the Acknowledgements and Thanks.

A four-page annex in Volume XII deals with one of his ideas.

Spengler’s concept of “pseudomorphosis” (“Deceptive Cultural Formation”) is one of the most illuminating of his intuitions. It throws light, for instance, on the relation between a satellite civilization and the society into whose field it has been drawn.

In essence the idea is a simple one. When two civilizations are interacting with each other, their meeting may be on an unequal footing. At the moment one of the two may be the more powerful, the other the more creative. In this situation the more creative civilization will be constrained to conform outwardly to the more powerful civilization’s cultural configuration, like a hermit crab who fits himself into a shell that is not his own. But an observer would be allowing himself to be misled if here he were to take appearances at their face value. He must look below the surface, study what underlies it, and take due note of the difference between the two. “The hands are the hands of Esau”, [footnote: 2 Gen. xxvii. 22.] but only because they have been disguised in order to deceive. “The voice is Jacob’s voice.” That is authentic, and it is therefore telltale, provided that the listener is not bent upon being deceived.


Didn’t Spengler’s conception of pseudomorphosis often imply the constraining of a vital new culture by an ingrained older one, with the creativity on the new rather than the old side?

Since the fifteenth century of the Christian Era, Islam has captured (sic) Indonesia. In this case the conversion has been accomplished by peaceful missionary enterprise, not by force of arms, and therefore has not provoked the militant opposition that it did arouse among Hindus in India. Nevertheless, Islam in Indonesia has not succeeded in supplanting, below the surface, the Indian culture – Hindu and Buddhist – which had been paramount in Indonesia for more than a thousand years before Islam’s arrival there. A present-day Indonesian Muslim reminds himself of his Hindu cultural heritage by assuming a Sanskrit name in conjunction with his Arabic one; and he celebrates the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (the Mawlid) by entertaining himself with puppet-plays [wayang kulit or shadow plays] in which the characters are the heroes of the Mahabharata. Here we can watch the Indian culture, which the Indonesians have never ceased to cherish, breaking through an Islamic veneer. The Islamic surface of present-day Indonesian culture is, in fact, a “pseudomorphosis”. But so, too, was the Indian culture which preceded Islam in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula and which, in the Hinayanian [roughly, Theravada] Buddhist version of it, is still paramount on the South-East Asian mainland in Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. [Vietnam follows the Mahāyāna, or Northern Buddhism, which it took from China.] In South-East Asia the dissemination of Indian culture, like the later dissemination of Islam in the insular and peninsular parts of the region, was a peaceful process. But the Indian Civilization in South-East Asia experienced the same fortune that Islam experienced there later. The Indian Civilization, too, failed to supplant the previously prevailing local cultures. Below the surface these continued to hold their own. In South-East Asia the exotic forms of Indian architecture, art, and religion have been adapted to express a native South-East Asian content. [Footnote: See D. G. E. Hall: A History of South-East Asia (London 1955, Macmillan), passim.]


“In many parts of Indonesia, the celebration of the Mawlid al-nabi ‘seems to surpass in importance, liveliness, and splendour’ the two official Islamic holidays of Eid ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.”

Quotation from Herman Beck, Islamic Purity at Odds with Javanese Identity: The Muhammadiyah and the Celebration of the Garebeg Maulud Ritual in Yogyakarta in Jan Platvoet and Karel van der Toorn, editors, Pluralism and Identity: Studies in Ritual Behaviour, Leiden, Brill, 1995.

Garebeg Maulud in Yogyakarta (and elsewhere?) commemorates the Prophet’s birthday. The Muhammadiyah is the second-largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia. The largest is the Nahdlatul Ulama.

Balinese wayang performance, image from Gustavo Thomas Theatre; Bali is Hindu anyway: Islam didn’t penetrate there, but wayang kulit is popular in Java too

There is almost nothing about Southeast Asia in the first ten volumes of the Study. Toynbee may have acquired Hall’s book as background reading for his journey round the world of 1956-57. I bought it as a 1,000-page paperback in Bangkok c 1990.

A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961

Ashoka and Akbar

October 1 2011

Chandragupta Maurya 322-298 BC

Bindusara 297-272 BC

Ashoka the Great 273-232 BC

Dasaratha 232-224 BC

Samprati 224-215 BC

Salisuka 215-202 BC

Devavarman 202-195 BC

Satadhanvan 195-187 BC

Brihadratha 187-185 BC

In Hellenic terms, the Mauryan Empire comes between Alexander and the Indo-Greek Kingdom. Capital: Pataliputra (post here) or modern Patna.

I could do a mnemonic for the Great Mughals, but don’t think I can manage the Mauryans.

Ashoka is famous because he was an emperor who […] put into practice our common human sense of fraternity. He is justly recognised as being a morally outstanding figure, because the sovereign power that gives such an unusual opportunity for treating one’s fellow creatures as one’s brothers also makes it unusually tempting to disobey one’s conscience and unusually difficult to act in accordance with it, even if one has the will.

Ashoka will continue to be remembered because he put conscience into practice in the exercise of his political power. This is all the more notable considering that, unlike ourselves, Ashoka lived in the Pre-Atomic Age and therefore did not have the obvious urgent utilitarian incentive, that our generation of mankind has, to renounce the use of war as an instrument of national policy. Waging war with even the deadliest of the weapons then at Man’s disposal, Ashoka would have run no risk of getting his own subjects exterminated, not to speak of bringing annihilation upon the human race as a whole. He could have been sure of enjoying this material kind of impunity if, for instance, he had chosen to follow up his conquest of Kalinga by going on to conquer the southern tip of the Indian peninsula and the adjacent island of Ceylon [neither of which the Mauryans reached, though Chandragupta is considered the first unifier of India]. To seize opportunities of rounding off their dominions by pushing forward to so-called “natural frontiers” is one of the standing temptations besetting the rulers of states. And in this case, Ashoka could have plausibly represented to himself that he would be waging war in the cause of peace. He would be bestowing on a whole subcontinent the peace that comes from political unification.

Instead of thinking and acting on these conventional lines of raison d’etat, Ashoka, as we know, was moved to action of a very different kind. He was moved – and this for the rest of his life – by a moral revulsion against his crime of having incorporated Kalinga in the Maurya Empire by an aggressive war of conquest. He was horrified at the spectacle of the wickedness and the suffering that he had let loose by his act of aggression. He stood convicted, in his conscience, of having sinned against his sense of brotherhood, and he responded by making a complete break with his dynasty’s and every dynasty’s traditional policy. Ashoka’s break with tradition was the more remarkable considering that the criminal policy of using war as an instrument for empire-building had not been peculiar to the Mauryas. It had been common form for every ruler, anywhere in the World, who had had the power to practise it. Ashoka’s grandfather Chandragupta had had Alexander’s bad example to incite him; Alexander had had Cyrus’s bad example, and so on, in a regressive chain of Karma, back to the Egyptian and Sumerian empire-builders in the third millennium B.C. In contrast to these predecessors of his, Ashoka devoted the rest of his life, and the whole of his political power, to putting his sense of brotherhood into action.

He was a chakravartin.

In renouncing war, Ashoka did not abandon the aim of unifying mankind, but he pursued this aim thenceforth by missionary, instead of military, methods. He did intervene in Ceylon, and not only there but also in the vast tracts, west of his empire’s western frontiers, that were being fought over, in Ashoka’s time, by Alexander’s pugnacious Macedonian Greek successors. Ashoka intervened outside his empire’s political frontiers by spreading knowledge of the beliefs and practices of Buddhism, and he recognised no “natural frontiers” for his missionary activities, short of the limits of the inhabited portion of the Earth’s surface. Today, Buddhism has adherents all over Eastern Asia; and the spiritual brotherhood among Buddhists has been, and still is, one of the great unifying forces in the World. The sense of Buddhist brotherhood seems to be growing in strength today. At least, this is the impression made on me, three years ago, when I visited what are, I suppose, the two chief Buddhist holy places on Indian soil: Sarnath and Bodh Gaya. The ubiquity and vitality of Buddhism can, of course, be traced to a number of causes, but one of these causes is certainly Ashoka’s change of heart in the third century B.C. – his change of heart and his translation of this experience into action.

Ashoka’s actions also illustrate the point that, in India, the human sense of fraternity is not limited to a fellow feeling for other human beings. If I am right, Ashoka abolished the Imperial Hunt, placed his court on a vegetarian diet, and made the slaughtering of animals illegal for his subjects on fifty-six days in the year. The strength of this large-hearted tradition in India is attested by the extraordinary fact that, 1800 years after Ashoka’s day, the self-same three measures – all reflecting an Indian recognition of a brotherhood with non-human forms of life – were enacted by another emperor of India, Akbar.

Akbar had been a great huntsman himself. He became a vegetarian in deference to Hindu sensibilities.

The Indian religious influence that moved Akbar to take these measures appears to have come from a Jain, not a Buddhist, source (Buddhism had lost its last foothold in India not much less than 400 years before Akbar’s time). All the same, it was an Indian influence; and what one might perhaps call the “Indianisation” of Turkish Akbar’s spirit in the course of his life in India is an impressive illustration of the Indian spiritual tradition’s power to captivate foreigners when they come within its range. Except for Timur’s transitory raid, Akbar’s forebears had not set foot on Indian soil till Akbar’s own grandfather, Babur, had invaded India. Babur himself had spent too large a part of his life west of the Khyber Pass ever to be able to feel at home on Indian ground. As for Babur’s grandson, Akbar had been brought up as a Muslim; and Islam, like the other two religions, of the Judaic family, is exclusive-minded and intolerant by comparison with the religions and philosophies of Indian origin. Yet the influence of India on Akbar went so deep that he worked out for himself a religion of his own. Akbar’s Din Ilabi was characteristically Indian in its large-hearted catholicity.

Though Akbar, like Ashoka, renounced war on animals, he did not also make Ashoka’s renunciation of war against human beings. No doubt this would have been harder, from a practical point of view, for Akbar than it was for Ashoka. Ashoka had inherited an empire whose authority was well established. Akbar had refounded an empire which his father had lost after his grandfather had won it. A renunciation of war against human beings would probably have cost Akbar his throne, and might have cost him his life as well. Yet we may guess that Ashoka would still have done what he did do if the accident of birth had put him in Akbar’s place instead of in his own.

In the Atomic Age, the spirit that we need in our statesmen is surely Ashoka’s spirit. We can no longer do without unity. But we can also no longer afford to pursue this indispensable objective by methods of coercion. Conversion, not coercion, is, in our day, the only means that we can employ for uniting mankind. In the Atomic Age, the use of force would result, not in union, but in self-destruction. In this age, fear, as well as conscience, commands a policy that Ashoka, in his time, was inspired to follow by conscience alone.

Chakravartin, possibly Ashoka, plus or minus year 1; Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh; Musée Guimet, Paris; Wikimedia Commons

One World and India, New Delhi, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Orient Longmans Private Ltd, February 1960

East and West

May 27 2011

Though, in all persecutions, there are, no doubt, always many weaker vessels who […] fail to stand the ordeal, the followers of the higher religions have been conspicuous, on the whole, for their steadfastness and courage when put to the test.

The Christian Church was put to this test by the Roman Empire; the Mahāyāna by the Chinese Empire in its avatar in the age of the T’ang Dynasty. Both churches responded by producing martyrs; but the Christians in the Roman Empire seem to have been more steadfast than the Mahayanian Buddhists in China in standing a more severe ordeal; and this apparent preeminence of the Christians in a common heroism is, indeed, what was to be expected. We should expect both the Mahāyāna and Christianity to shine in facing persecution, since the distinguishing mark of the higher religions is, as we have seen, their voluntary acceptance of Suffering as an opportunity for active service. At the same time we should expect the persecution itself to be sharper, and the endurance of it more heroic, in the western than in the eastern half of the Old World because the temper of life in South-West Asia and in the Graeco-Roman Society was more tragic and more intransigent than the temper in either India or China. In appraising both the comparative mildness of the T’ang imperial government and the comparative softness of its Buddhist victims, we must make the allowance for this general difference in psychological climate. It would be unwarrantable to assume that the T’ang régime was more virtuous than the Roman régime was, or that the Buddhist martyrs were less heroic than the Christian martyrs were.

The same difference in temper between the two halves of the Old World comes out in other historical parallels as well. For example, Christianity and Buddhism were, each, expelled from its homeland by a rival younger religion which had derived its inspiration from the older religion that it was opposing and evicting. Christianity was expelled from South-West Asia by Islam; Buddhism was expelled from India by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism whose philosophy bears indelible marks of its Buddhist origin. But the advance of Hinduism at Buddhism’s expense in India in the age of the Gupta Dynasty was accomplished as peacefully as the previous advance of Buddhism at the expense of a pre-Buddhist Indian paganism in the age of the Maurya Emperor Açoka. By contrast with this Indian record, the supplanting of Christianity by Islam in South-West Asia and Egypt in the age of the Arab Caliphate was a story of pressure and penalization – though, by contrast with the treatment of subject Jews and Muslims in Christendom, the treatment of subject “People of the Book” in Dār-al-Islām has been honourably distinguished by its comparative tolerance.

The Chinese nurse

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Sanskrit, prakrits, modern vernaculars

February 4 2011

The earliest inscriptions in the prakrit vernaculars of northern India appeared under the Buddhist Mauryan emperor Ashoka (third century BC). These vernaculars declined as literary vehicles early in the Christian era.

Sanskrit’s Cronos-like feat of devouring its own children, the prākrits, in a post-Açokan Age of Indic history had endowed
the cannibal tongue with such an irrepressible vitality that in the history of a Hindu Civilization, affiliated to the Indic, there was never any question of a renaissance of Sanskrit, because the successfully reinstated archaic Indic language and literature had never tasted death [footnote: Matt. xvi. 28; Mark ix. 1; Luke ix. 27.] […].

Old post on Indic and Hindu.


In seeking to account for the difference in the respective literary fortunes of the prākrits – which, save for the survival of Pālī as the medium of the Hinayanian Buddhist scriptures, were driven off the field of literary usage by their Sanskrit parent’s counter-offensive – and of the latter-day parochial vernacular languages of a Hindu World which were fertilized by their encounter with the Sanskrit language and literature, instead of being blighted by it, we have to allow for one pertinent consideration of a linguistic, not a literary, order. The prākrits’ chances of victory in their competition with their Sanskrit parent were no doubt compromised by the linguistic fact that the degree of their differentiation from a common Sanskrit stock was slight enough to allow anyone who was literate in any prākrit to take to reading and writing Sanskrit, instead, with little difficulty. In departing from the pattern of Sanskrit, the prākrits had not gone so far as to break with the habit of expressing relations by the inflexion of the verbs and nouns that were the vehicles of meaning, instead of hitting upon the use of separate auxiliary words. The prākrits, like their Sanskrit parent, were inflective languages of the primitive Indo-European type. On the other hand the vernaculars of the next generation, derived from the prākrits, did sharply differentiate themselves from their parents by taking the revolutionary step that was taken by the Romance languages when they broke out of Latin, and by English when it broke out of Anglian […]. In crossing this great linguistic “divide”, these Indo-Aryan languages of the third generation had cut themselves off from their prākrit parents and their Sanskrit grandparent alike, and had thereby ensured their hold, more effectively than the prākrits had ever ensured theirs, against the risk of an attempt on the part of Sanskrit to capture for itself exclusively the entire literary allegiance of the peoples speaking these derivative languages as their mother tongues. A fortiori it was difficult for Sanskrit to deprive of their literary birthright the Dravidian languages of Southern India which, like the Ugro-Finnish languages in Hungary, Finland, and the domain of the Soviet Union, were non-Indo-European. The Hindu devotional poetry in the Dravidian languages was even less in danger than a Hindi Rāmcharit Mānas was of ever being supplanted by a classical Sanskrit equivalent.

From T Burrow, The Sanskrit Language, London, Faber and Faber, 1955, revised 1973, quoted in MW Sugathapala De Silva, Diglossia and Literacy, Mysore, Central Institute of Indian Languages, 1976 and online:

“The growing predominance of Sanskrit as opposed to Prakrit in the period succeeding the Christian era can be attributed to two reasons, one ideological and one practical. In the Maurya period the heterodox religions of Buddhism and Jainism had attained such influence as to threaten the existence of the old Brahmanical order. In the succeeding period, beginning with the usurpation of Pusyamitra (c. 188 B.C.), a reaction set in and there began a gradual decline of these systems in the face of victorious orthodoxy. This change in the religious atmosphere was reflected in language, and Sanskrit, associated with the traditional Vedic religion gained ground at the expense of Prakrit … The practical reason was that Sanskrit offered a united language for the whole of India [north of the Vindhya Range]. In the early Middle Indian period the differences between the various local vernaculars were not so great as to preclude mutual understanding, but even at this period Asoka found it necessary to engrave his edicts in three different dialects. With the progress of time the differences between the local dialects grew greater, so that Sanskrit became a necessary bond for the cultural unity of India. Furthermore the Prakrits were unstable and subject to continual change through the centuries. Any literary language established on the basis of a vernacular rapidly became obsolete. The traditional Prakrits in the latter period were as artificial as Sanskrit, and did not have the advantage of its universal appeal and utility. For such reasons alone Sanskrit was the only form of language which could serve as a national language in Ancient India, whose cultural unity, far more influential and important than its political disunity, rendered such a language essential.”

Was there a connection between the post-Mauryan Brahmanical revival and the later eclipse of Buddhism itself?

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

East Asia

December 11 2010

Dong YuanWintry Groves and Layered Banks, Southern Tang, China, c 934-c 962, ink and colour on silk scroll, Kurokawa Institute, Kobe, Japan

Till the 19th century of the Christian era, Chinese culture was the formative influence throughout Eastern Asia. Indian culture, which has been disseminated in Eastern Asia by the Indian religion or philosophy of Buddhism, reached Korea, Japan, and Vietnam via China and in forms in which it had already been given a Chinese impress.

No mention of Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia. They, along with Sri Lanka and, for a time, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Java, adopted forms of Buddhism which came from India directly. The prevailing one was the southern form which Toynbee calls the Hinayana, an obsolete term, and we call Theravada (which is not quite synonymous with Hinayana).

Hinduism also reached parts of southeast Asia from India – eg kingdom of Majapahit (1293-1527) on Java.

Northern Buddhism is the Mahayana, a term still used. The Mahayana travelled to China and beyond from India via Central Asia/Xinjiang. Tibetan Buddhism is part of the Mahayana. Some of the philosophical differences between the two schools are mentioned here.

The sacred texts of Theravada Buddhism are written in Pali, which is closely related to Sanskrit and to the language the Buddha spoke. The sacred texts of the Mahayana are translated from Sanskrit into local languages.

For this reason, the present book [Half the World, a coffee-table book edited by Toynbee, published in 1973] starts by giving an account of Chinese culture, including Chinese Buddhism, in the first six chapters. The Chinese characters (Chapter I) [Signs and Meanings, E Glahn] are something more than a means of communication; they are the expression of an attitude to life, and they have carried this attitude with them into other East Asian countries in so far as they have been adopted there too. The main thread of East Asian history was the political history of China (Chapter II) [“The Middle Kingdom”, DC Twitchett] down to China’s sudden catastrophic demotion, in and after the Anglo-Chinese War of 1839-42, from being “the Middle Kingdom” of Eastern Asia to being a “native state” at the mercy of the Western powers, of Russia, and eventually also of China’s own former cultural satellite, Japan. […]

China’s northern neighbours, before the eastward expansion of Russia to the East Asian shores of the Pacific Ocean, were the nomadic pastoral peoples of the Eurasian steppes (Chapter III) [Beyond the Wall, Owen Lattimore]. Pastoral nomadism is now dying out everywhere, but, for about 4,000 years, it was one of the forces that shaped the history of the Old World. The nomads were the first aliens with a distinctively different culture whom the Chinese encountered, and they were a formidable problem for China till as recently as the 18th century. China’s relations with the nomads have a longer history than her relations with India, and a very much longer history than her relations with the West.

Human life is many-sided, but our various activities are interrelated. In order to understand anyone of them, we have to take a synoptic view of them all. We have to take account of philosophy and religion and science and technology and literature and visual art, besides politics. In this book, visual art is presented in the illustrations, but the other non-political aspects of Chinese culture are discussed in the text (Chapters IV-VI) [The Path to Wisdom, Wing-Tsit Chan; The Empirical Tradition, S Nakayama; Worlds [sic] and Language, James JY Liu].

The historic cultural unity of Eastern Asia is a product of the radiation of Chinese culture into the East Asian countries on China’s fringes (Chapter VII) [Chinese Culture Overseas, Zenryu Tsukamoto]. Chinese culture has been attractive, and China’s neighbours have been receptive, but an imported foreign culture seldom maintains itself unmodified, however great its potency and its prestige may be. It has been noted already that China transformed an Indian religion, Buddhism, into something Chinese before she transmitted it, along with the indigenous components of Chinese culture, to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam; and these non-Chinese East Asian countries, in their turn, did to Chinese culture, including Chinese Buddhism, what China had done to Indian Buddhism. They transformed it to fit their own conditions and to meet their own needs.

Japan, for instance, derived her culture from China, but she developed what she had borrowed from China into something so different from the Chinese pattern that the outcome was virtually an original product of the Japanese genius (Chapters VIII-X) [Feudal Japan, Charles D Sheldon; Cult and Creed, Carmen Blacker; A Literature of Court and People, Donald Keene]. The Japanese changed the centralized bureaucratic Chinese system of administration into a feudal system which, in so far as it had any counterpart in Chinese history, was akin to the feudalism of the period of the “Warring States” which had preceded the establishment of the Imperial regime in China […]. The forms in which Buddhism became a widespread popular religion in Japan had no counterparts in either China or India. Pre-Meiji [pre-1868] Japanese literature was an equally original Japanese creation. Yet some of Japan’s cultural imports from China maintained their identity – for instance the Zen (Dhyana) school of Buddhism [a school of Mahayana Buddhism] and the Confucian philosophy, which, like Zen Buddhism, was adopted (in its crypto-Buddhist neo-Confucian form) by the Japanese military class at a late stage in the evolution of Japanese feudalism.

Zen was introduced from China in 1191, not a “late stage” in feudalism. It soon became popular among the samurai class.

Neo-Confucianism was an important philosophy in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868). Confucianism had been one of the formative influences on Japan from the sixth century onwards.

The transformation of Chinese culture [including religion and administration] on Japanese soil after its transplantation is not surprising; for, at the date of its introduction – the 6th to the 8th century of the Christian era – the indigenous Japanese way of life was not only very different from the Chinese; it was also very much less sophisticated. The success of the Japanese in adopting and adapting one potent foreign culture perhaps partly accounts for their repetition of this achievement in the 19th century when they decided that they now had to come to terms with the Western civilization. Having already once received an alien civilization and having succeeded in adjusting it to their own way of life, the Japanese did not shrink from doing this for the second time. The Chinese, too, had received a foreign civilization once already before they encountered the West; but the Chinese reception of Indian culture in the form of Buddhism had not been so exacting an experience as the Japanese reception of Chinese culture. China had been on a par with India culturally; the spirit of Buddhism was not aggressive; and the indigenous Chinese attitude to life had a facet, represented by Taoism, to which Buddhism was congenial. Thus China was not so well schooled by her past experience as Japan was for the ordeal of coping with the formidably aggressive civilization of the modern West (Chapters XI-XIII) [Europe Goes East, Paul A Cohen; A New Role for Japan, Y Toriumi; Rebellion, Reform and Revolution, Jean Chesneaux].

Editor, Half the World, The History and Culture of China and Japan, Thames & Hudson, 1973

Foreigners in Cathay

December 10 2010

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), founded by Kublai Khan, hundreds of thousands of Muslims – Arabs, Persians, Uyghurs – were forcibly relocated from western and central Asia to help the Mongols administer their Chinese empire. (Is that number verifiable?) Muslim scholars were brought in to work on calendar-making and astronomy. The Mongols gave the immigrants an elevated status, as foreigners, over the native Han Chinese.

That did not mean that they favoured Islam. The Yuan dynasty, unlike the western khanates, never embraced Islam, and actually persecuted it. They forbade halal butchering and circumcision. Towards the end, the persecution became so severe that Muslim generals joined Han Chinese in rebelling against the Mongols. The Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang had Muslim generals.

Several Mongol tribes were Nestorian Christian. The court had Christian sympathies. At about the time of the establishment of the dynasty, the monks Rabban Bar Sauma and Rabban Marcos made a pilgrimage to the West, visiting many Nestorian communities along the way.

In 1289 Pope Nicholas IV sent Franciscan envoys to the Mongol capital at Khanbaliq or Dadu (Beijing; the Ming dynasty renamed it Beiping). They were welcomed by Kublai Khan and worked in parallel with the Nestorian Christians. The mission collapsed in 1368, as the Ming dynasty set out to eject all foreign influences from China, including the Tibetan Lamaist Buddhism favoured by the Mongols.

Nestorian missionaries had reached China in the early part of the Tang dynasty (seventh century): Christianity and Islam arrived in China at the same time.

A Saracen adviser in the court of Kublai Khan provoked an anti-Muslim and anti-Christian rebellion.

From the Livres des merveilles du monde, the travelogue written c 1300 in old French by Rustichello da Pisa from stories told by Marco Polo (c 1254-1324), describing Polo’s travels between 1271 and 1291. The source is given as

Polo, Marco: The Book of Ser Marco Polo, translated and edited by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, 3rd edition (London 1903, John Murray, 2 vols.) […].

The square brackets are in the original.

“A certain Saracen named Ahmad [from Banākath or Fanākant in Transoxania], a shrewd and able man, … had more power and influence with the Great Khan [Qubilay] than any of the others; and the Khan held him in such regard that he could do what he pleased. … In such authority did this man continue for two-and-twenty years. At last the people of the country, to wit the Cathayans [i.e., the Chinese], utterly wearied with the endless outrages and abominable iniquities which he perpetrated against them, … conspired to slay him and revolt against the Government. … [The principal conspirators, who were two Chinese military officers in Qubilay’s service with commands at Peking,] sent word to their friends in many other cities that they had determined on such a day, at the signal given by a beacon, to massacre all the men with beards, and that the other cities should stand ready to do the like on seeing the signal fires. The reason why they spoke of massacring the bearded men was that the Cathayans naturally have no beard, whilst beards are worn by the Tatars, Saracens and Christians. And you should know that all the Cathayans detested the Great Khan’s rule because he set over them governors who were Tatars, or still more frequently Saracens, and these they could not endure, for they were treated by them just like slaves. You see, the Great Khan had not succeeded to the dominion of Cathay by hereditary right, but held it by conquest; and thus, having no confidence in the natives, he put all authority into the hands of Tatars, Saracens or Christians who were attached to his household and devoted to his service, and were foreigners in Cathay.”

The evil Ahmad is a character in the 1938 film The Adventures of Marco Polo, with Gary Cooper and Sigrid Gurie (iTunes; poster images at Today the Taleban murder people who do not have beards.

The Khan himself wore a beard. This picture, by a Nepalese artist, painted shortly after his death, shows him as he would have appeared at the beginning of his reign, before he became emperor. Colour and ink on silk, National Palace Museum, Taipei (the image may come from a copy or print and looks cropped). Han Chinese emperors, in many periods, are often shown with thin-looking, straight-haired beards. Confucius is usually portrayed with a beard.

Xanadu and Jehol

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

The Paropanisadae

November 2 2010

Maps of Central Asia

Transoxiana and Bactria

The Old World’s eastern roundabout

The Paropanisus or Paropamisus range is a name for the western Hindu Kush. Paropanisadae or Paropamisadae can refer both to the region and its inhabitants.

I was standing on a terrace at Istâlif [about 18 miles northwest of Kabul], looking out northeastwards over the Koh-i-Daman plain. The northern horizon was barred by the snow-crowned wall of the Hindu Kush – not quite so lofty here, perhaps, as farther east above Nuristan [Afghan province in the southern Hindu Kush bordering Pakistan], yet lofty enough to be an obstacle even for an eagle, if the range’s ancient name is something more than a poetic hyperbole. The graecised version of this ancient name is Paropanisus, and the original word is said to mean, in the Iranian language of the Avesta [ancient Zoroastrian texts], a mountain loftier than the ceiling of even an eagle’s flight. There it now was, the Paropanisus, barring the horizon from east to west. And down here, in the middle distance, this isolated miniature mountain, rising abruptly out of the Koh-i-Daman plain, gives me the bearings of the invisible point where the Ghorband and Panjshir rivers meet. Either river leads up to [flows down from] a pass, practicable for men and donkeys, over the eagle-baffling Paropanisus. So the point where the two rivers meet was always supremely important until the recent rise to prominence of the city of Kabul deflected the lines of communication from their natural courses.

For at least fourteen hundred years running from the sixth century B.C., the strategic and political centre of this part of the world was not Kabul; it was a pair of cities bestriding the confluence of the Ghorband and Panjshir rivers just to the north-west of that miniature mountain down there in the plain. Darius calls this pair of cities Kapisha-Kanish. Today, the deserted site is known as Begrám [or Bagram, about 40 miles north of Kabul; the Greeks called it Alexandria of the Caucasus, ie of the Hindu Kush]. The double city attained its political zenith in the first and second centuries of the Christian Era, when it was one of the capitals of an empire stretching from the Oxus to the Jumna. The builders of this empire were the Kushans, ex-nomadic immigrants from Central Asia. Under the aegis of the Kushan Empire, Buddhism made its passage of the Paropanisus in the course of its long roundabout trek from India through Central Asia to China. But the imperial Kushans were heirs of imperial Greeks. And, as I stood on that terrace at Istâlif and feasted my eyes on that magnificent landscape of plain and mountain, my mind was running on the exploits of Alexander and Demetrius and Hermaeus [one of the last Greek rulers in the Paropamisadae].

When the Greeks reached the land of the Paropanisadae after crossing South-West Asia from the Dardanelles, they felt at home again here for the first time. This mountain-girt plain reminded them of their own Eordaea or Thessaly, and the vineyards convinced them that their own god Dionysus must have forestalled Alexander’s conquests. This land of the Paropanisadae must be Dionysus’s legendary land of Nysa. The god had made it his own; and his latter-day Greek worshippers joyfully took their cue from him. Alexander planted a Greek colony at Begrám, and, in the first century of the Christian Era, a Greek prince, Hermaeus, was still ruling here after Greek rule had evaporated everywhere else. Hermaeus is said to have fraternised with the Kushans from the other side of the mountain-wall. No doubt, his power was a puny one compared to theirs. But he did still hold the key to the passage from Central Asia to India, so his good will still had an appreciable value for his Kushan heirs. The Kushans, like the Romans, were Philhellenes; and on the banks of the Jumna and the Oxus, as well as round the shores of the Mediterranean, Greek culture, fostered by a non-Greek but Philhellene regime, long survived the extinction of Greek rule.

No one now believes that Hermaeus lived in the first century CE. He died c 80-70 BC.

Musing on the terrace at Istâlif, I thought of Alexander crossing the Hindu Kush from the Koh-i-Daman plain to invade Bactria from the south. I thought of Demetrius, the later Greek king of Bactria, crossing the same mountain-wall from north to south, a century and a half later, on his way to invade India. Demetrius and his successors carried Greek arms and Greek coinages into India farther afield, and with more lasting effects, than Alexander in his ephemeral raid into the western fringe of the huge Sub-continent. The lovely coins of the Bactrian Greek conquerors of India and the Hellenising art of the Bactrian Greeks’ Kushan successors testify to the vitality of Greek culture in this far-away land of the Paropanisadae and in the still more remote land of Gandhara, where the Kabul River loses itself in the mightier Indus. For fifty years past, I had been studying this chapter of the World’s history in books and on maps. Here, at Istâlif, I had been able to take it all in at a glance; and that one glance had told me more than my fifty-years’ book-work had. has images which might remind you of the Greek landscape.

Bagram relief, c 100 AD, National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul

There is something oddly Indian in this image of the rear of the V&A’s plaster copy of Donatello’s David, the first freestanding nude sculpture made in the West since antiquity. (What a revolutionary work, for a man born in the fourteenth century.) The buttocks remind one of Indian sculpted breasts. The akimbo arm, tilting hips, legs look Indian. Of course there was no Indian influence on Italian sculpture, but a Greco-Buddhist art was exported to China and beyond. Is it stretching things too far to imagine a Hellenic influence on a non-Greco-Buddhist “Hindu” sculpture?

Between Oxus and Jumna, OUP, 1961

Arts of Asia

August 7 2010

Just a nod to one of my favourite magazines, published from Hong Kong since 1971. Ideal bathroom reading.

Hammers of the priests

April 8 2010

If the formidable authority conferred on the priests by their custody of tradition is to be challenged, the challenge can be delivered only by the word of God Himself as revealed in His prophet’s message; for, if that message is once recognized to be authentic, it must override the rulings of priests who are not God’s spokesmen but merely His ministers; and, though the winged words of God’s living human spokesman will be likely to have both a greater virtue and a greater effect than any written testament, dumb scripture has one decisive posthumous advantage over the living voice. Scripture can attain a longevity which, at second hand, will multiply a hundredfold the brief life-span of the prophet whose message this frozen echo perpetuates. Holy Writ that purports to enshrine prophetic revelation is thus a malleus presbyterorum that is a literal godsend to rebels against sacerdotal authority. The followers of the Prophets of Israel and Judah and of Zarathustra made effective use of this weapon against the priests of their day; the Scribes and Pharisees used it against the Sadducees; the Protestant Reformers used it against the Papal Church.

This revolutionary attack in the name of Holy Writ had been met by the priests with varying degrees of success in different cases. The Jewish priesthood was eventually worsted by a combination of adverse circumstances: the Babylonish Captivity; the permanent preponderance of the Diaspora over a reconstituted temple-state at Jerusalem; the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and consequent cessation of the Hierosolymitan liturgy of sacrifice; and, above all, the gradual change of outlook and ethos in Jewry from a communal towards an individual relation to God. On the other hand the Magi signally defeated Zarathustra by playing upon his too simple-minded followers the confidence-trick which the English King Richard II sought to play upon a rebel peasantry when he cried “I will be your leader!”; and, by an equally skilful use of similar tactics, the Brahmans had managed to survive the epiphanies of a long series of sacred books, from the Vedas onwards. The error of short-sighted priests who had clumsily ensured the prophets’ triumph by ill-advisedly putting them to death had been retrieved by those priests’ far-sighted children, who had contrived to sterilize the martyrs’ spiritual legacies by building their sepulchres; [footnote: Matt, xxiii. 29-31; Luke xi. 47-48.] and the efficacy of this stratagem had been so great that it had proved able to weather even a scathing exposure. They say: “If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” [Footnote: Matt. xxiii. 30.] The priest had drawn the sting of the prophet’s message when, under the cloak of a feigned repentance, he had constituted himself the official interpreter of the prophetic books.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Cold heaven

April 4 2010

The human master of the ceremonies who makes the World go round is the monarch of the Sinic universal state; and, in virtue of the superhuman scope of his function, the Emperor was officially styled the Son of Heaven; yet this Heaven who, in the Sinic Society, was the adoptive father of the magician-in-chief, was as pale as the sky on a frosty winter day in Northern China.

“Création savante de la mythologie politique, le Souverain d’En-haut n’a qu’une existence littéraire. Ce patron dynastique, chanté par les poètes de la cour royale, n’a jamais dû jouir d’un grand crédit auprès des ‘petites gens’, ainsi que semble le prouver l’échec [failure] de la propagande théocratique de Mö tseu [Mo-tse] [bracket in original; he lived early in the Warring States period, c 470-c 391 BC]. Confuciens ou Taoïstes ne lui accordent aucune considération. Pour eux, les seuls êtres sacrés, ce sont les Saints ou les Sages.”

[Footnote: Granet, op. cit., p. 587. [Cited previously as “Marcel Granet in his La Pensée Chinoise (Paris 1934, Renaissance du Livre.”).] It will be seen that the Sinic philosophers were of one mind with their Indic confrères in assigning a higher rank in the hierarchy of Existence to a disciplined human being than to a volatile divinity. (For the Buddhist sages’ attitude towards the gods of the Vedic Pantheon see [page references for the same volume of the Study].)]

Indeed, this celestial stalking-horse of the human manipulator of the Sinic Universe had so faint a personality that, in the affiliated Far Eastern Society at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the Christian Era, the Jesuit missionaries in China raised a storm [within the Church] when – in their eagerness to translate the doctrines of Christianity into terms that would be familiar and agreeable to their prospective converts – they employed the Chinese word for Heaven, T’ien, to render their Latin word Deus. In A.D. 1693 the Papal Vicar-General of the Chinese province of Fukien, Bishop Maigrot, issued an edict prescribing that Deus must henceforth be rendered in Chinese no longer by the single word T’ien (Heaven) but by the phrase T’ien Chu (the Lord of Heaven); in 1704 Bishop Maigrot’s edict was confirmed by a decree of Pope Clement XI; and the prospects of Catholicism in China were compromised – as it proved, beyond rehabilitation – when, in December 1706, Bishop Maigrot was summoned into the Emperor K’ang Hsi’s presence and was dismissed into banishment for his outrageous presumption in venturing to dispute with the Son of Heaven himself on the meaning of the Chinese word Tien, although he was convicted by the Emperor, in a personal colloquy, of being quite unversed in the Sinic philosophy and even ignorant of the Chinese language.

This unhappy controversy might never have arisen if, in the Sinic World some two thousand years before the day of the Manchu Emperor K’ang Hsi and the French Bishop Maigrot, an enrichment of the Sinic conception of the magical order of the Universe [with the Emperor himself for the Universe’s hub] had not brought with it a proportionate impoverishment of the Sinic conception of the Godhead. For the T’ien whose personality was so faint that a Papal Vicar-General was unwilling to recognize in him a counterpart of the Christian Deus (notwithstanding the willingness of the Son of Heaven to wield his immense authority under an alleged mandate from this nebulous power) was an abstraction from an earlier Shangti (“Supreme Ancestor”) whose claim to have been a personal god would appear to be less open to doubt.

Even Shangdi was never represented with images or idols. Wikipedia: “During the Shang Dynasty (17th–11th centuries BCE) the Chinese called god Shangdi (上帝 ‘lord on high’) or Di (‘lord’), and during the Zhōu Dynasty (11th–3rd centuries BCE) Tian (‘heaven’).” The idea of the Mandate of Heaven appeared early in the Zhōu era. Tian neither neatly followed nor neatly replaced Shangdi. They are sometimes synonymous.

“A trend of ‘depersonalization’ of Shangdi began to appear, or at least grow, after the Warring States (戰國) period [ie from the time to which Toynbee is referring here] with the ascension of Daoism. Oddly, later Daoism appears to restore personality traits to Heaven, around 900 AD.”

Looking heavenwards: a Beauvais tapestry showing Jesuit astronomers with the Kangxi Emperor

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

Higher religions

January 23 2010

By higher religions I mean religions designed to bring human beings into direct communion with absolute spiritual Reality as individuals, in contrast to earlier forms of religion that have brought them only into indirect communion with It through the medium of the particular society in which they have happened to be participants. Religion, in these earlier forms, is an integral part of the culture of some particular society. On the other hand the higher religions have broken – some partially, some completely – out of the configuration of the particular cultures in which they originated. They have become separate systems of specifically religious culture, in a state of tension with the systems of secular culture with which they have parted company. The advent of a higher religion thus brings with it the distinction – previously unknown – between “religious” and “secular”, “spiritual” and “temporal”, “sacred” and “profane”.

A religion cannot be extricated from the non-religious elements in culture without being divorced from the society that carries these non-religious elements on its network of relations between people. But no form of culture, secular or religious, can subsist without a social setting; and therefore the adherents of a higher religion cannot assert its independence of secular culture without at the same time incorporating it in an independent society. Every higher religion is carried on a network of social relations of its own. This is a specific form of society, distinct from both civilizations and pre-civilizational societies. A name is needed for a society of this religious species, and it would be convenient if we could label it “a church”. I have sometimes used the word “church” in this wide sense; but this usage has been contested by several of my critics, and they are, I think, right. The word “church” implies a unified ecclesiastical government, and this is possessed by perhaps no more than two of the extant higher religions: the Tantric Mahayana and the Roman Catholic denomination of Christianity. The Christian churches of the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Protestant Episcopalian denomination are respectively in communion with each other without having any common organs of ecclesiastical government. The ecclesiastical organization of most other extant higher religions is still less formal and more loose.

A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961

The city and the pillar

January 14 2010

… or The descent of Daniel

The harmony which Frazer denies [harmony between the service of God and the service of Man] is exemplified in practice in the lives of the Christian anchorites – a Saint Antony in his desert in Egypt or a Saint Symeon on his pillar in Syria – in an age when the Roman Empire, and the Hellenic Society embodied in it, were approaching their final dissolution. It is manifest that, in insulating themselves physically from their fellow men, these saints were entering into a far more active relation with a far wider circle than any that would have centred round them if they had remained “in the World” and had spent their lives in some secular occupation. They swayed the world from their retreats to greater effect than the Emperor in the city or than the master of the soldiers in the cantonment, because their personal pursuit of holiness through seeking communion with God was a form of social action that moved their fellow men more powerfully than any secular social service on the military or the political plane. The anchorites were recognized by their contemporaries to be pursuing the highest social aim on behalf of all Mankind with complete single-mindedness and disinterestedness; and this spectacle of their self-realization through self-surrender struck their contemporaries’ imaginations and touched their hearts and thereby played its part in the forging of a social bond of a spiritual order which held firm when Society dissolved on the political and economic levels.

Until recently it was considered to be beneficial to society for certain people to sit alone in rooms studying Latin and Greek texts.

Stylite comes from the ecclesiastical Greek stulitēs, from stulos, pillar. Stylites would sit for years on the tops of pillars in contemplation and prayer. St Simeon Stylites (c 390-459) lived near Aleppo, St Daniel (c 409-93) at Anaplus on the west side of the Bosphorus, St Simeon the Younger (521-97) near Antioch, St Alypius (522-640, dying apparently at the age of 118) in Paphlagonia. There are later examples in the Orthodox world, including in Russia.

“It has sometimes been said that the ascetic ideal of the East Roman was a barren withdrawal from the world of his day; the biography of John the Almsgiver [footnote (I presume Toynbee): John the Almsgiver [not a stylite] was Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria from A.D. 611 to A.D. 619. During these years Syria was under Persian military occupation while Egypt was still in Roman hands, and the Patriarch had to cope with an influx of Syrian refugees.] may suggest why it was that the Byzantine in his hour of need turned instinctively for aid and comfort to the ascete in the full assurance of his sympathy and succour. … One of the outstanding features of early Byzantine asceticism is its passion for social justice and its championship of the poor and oppressed.” [Footnote: Dawes, E., and Baynes, N. H.: Three Byzantine Saints (Oxford 1948, Blackwell), pp. 198 and 197.]

The anchorites’ concern and travail for the welfare of their fellow men would still have been recognized without question by their contemporaries if the anchorites themselves had never departed from their chosen and approved way of performing the opus Dei. But there were occasions on which the anchorites showed their love for Man and their humility towards God by breaking the regime of insulation that they had imposed on themselves and returning to the World to intervene in a secular crisis.

Thus [footnote: An English translation of the original Greek text narrating the following story will be found in Dawes and Baynes, op. cit., pp. 49-59. The anonymous author was one of the Saint’s personal attendants.] in A.D. 475-6 Saint Daniel the Stylite, at the instance of the emissaries of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, consented to descend from his pillar at Anaplus, up the Bosphorus, in order to save Orthodoxy from the Monophysite proclivities of the usurping Emperor Basiliscus. [Footnote: Monophysitism versus Orthodoxy was a secular as well as a religious issue at this date, since Monophysitism was becoming the theological expression of the resurgent national consciousness of the non-Hellenic peoples of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire – particularly the Copts, Syrians, and Armenians – as against the [Chalcedonian] Orthodoxy of the “Melchite” Greek-speaking supporters of the Roman Imperial régime […].] The mere news of the holy man’s epiphany in the cathedral church of the Apostles in the Imperial City frightened the Emperor into evacuating his own capital and retreating to the imperial palace at the seventh milestone. It was indeed a crushing indictment of his conduct of public affairs that the report of his people’s affliction should have moved the saint to re-emerge from a physical isolation in which, by that time, he had been living already for twenty-four years [footnote: For the first nine years of these twenty-four, Saint Daniel had immured himself in an ex-pagan temple; for the last fifteen he had marooned himself on the top of a pillar.] and which was to have lasted unbroken till his death. Working spiritual acts of psychical and physical healing on his way, Saint Daniel led the clergy and people of Constantinople to beard the truant prince in his suburban asylum; and, when the guards refused the crowd admission to the imperial presence, the saint directed the people to follow him in the scriptural symbolic act of shaking the dust of the palace precincts off their garments [there are references in both Testaments to the gesture of shaking dust off garments or feet] – which they did with such a thunderous reverberation that most of the guards on duty were moved to desert their imperial master and follow in the stylite’s train. In vain the Emperor sent messages after the departing saint to beg him to return to the Hebdomon [the suburb to which he had retreated]; in vain he returned to Constantinople himself and besought Daniel to visit him in his palace there. In the end the Emperor was constrained to present himself before the Saint in the Cathedral and prostrate himself at his feet; and a public profession of Orthodoxy was the price that he eventually had to pay in order to save his throne by setting Daniel at liberty to resume his station on his pillar-top.

This was the sole occasion on which Saint Daniel issued from his physical seclusion during a period of forty-two years (A.D. 451-93) which saw the Roman Empire founder in the West while in the East it escaped shipwreck under the spiritual pilotage of the stylite’s “distant control”.

“For three and thirty years [in total] (A.D. 460-93) he stood for varying periods on the three columns. … During these he was deemed worthy to receive ‘the prize of his high calling’; [footnote (Toynbee or Dawes and Baynes?): Phil. iii. 14.] he blessed all men, he prayed on behalf of all, he counselled all not to be covetous, he instructed all in the things necessary to salvation, he showed hospitality to all [on the top of the column?], yet he possessed nothing on Earth beyond the confines of the spot on which the enclosure and religious houses had been built.” [Footnote: Dawes and Baynes, op. cit., pp. 70-71.]

On the face of it, Saint Daniel’s return to the World in order to rescue his fellow men from political oppression is the same story as the return of Purun Baghat [footnote: Kipling, Rudyard: “The Miracle of Purun Baghat” in The Second Jungle Book […].] to give warning, to the village below this Hindu hermit’s cave, of an impending landslide that would otherwise have engulfed the villagers unawares. The point is, indeed, the same in the legend of the Christian saint and in the Western storyteller’s version of a Hindu theme. The historic Christian and the imaginary Hindu hermit each rises to his highest spiritual flight by breaking away, for the love of God and Man, from a settled course of physical withdrawal from the World along which he had been seeking spiritual perfection. Yet, though both responded in the same way to the same illumination, there is a difference between their spiritual histories in the crucial point of the relation of the new light that had dawned on them to their previous spiritual outlook. The Christian saint had been led into his physical retreat from the World by the same love of God and Man that eventually moved him to descend from his pillar, whereas the Hindu sage, when he yielded to the impulse of love and pity that sent his feet hastening down the mountainside from the cave to the village, was not fulfilling his philosophy but was flying in its face – and who can say whether he would have brought himself to make this sacrifice “in real life”, if he had been an historical character authentically brought up in a philosophical tradition inherited by Hinduism from a Primitive Buddhist School, instead of having been created, as he was, by the imagination of a Western man of letters brought up in the religious tradition of Christianity?

The truth is that Frazer’s strictures, which miss their mark when he directs them against the saints, find a legitimate target in the philosophers, be they of the Indic or of the Hellenic school, who cultivate a detachment in which the withdrawal leads to no return. The Hinayanian, Stoic, and Epicurean ideal of the sage goes astray through casting Man for a superhuman role of godlike self-sufficiency and thereby condemning the adept to seek a way out of an impossible position by restricting himself to a sub-human performance. This philosophy attempts to make of Man, not a saint inspired by God’s grace, but a very god in himself; and, since this is too heavy a burden for a human soul to bear, the philosopher cannot make even a pretence of carrying it off unless he lightens his self-imposed load by casting out his God-given feelings of love and pity for the rest of God’s creatures.

Stephen Marsh, I suspect, would disagree with what seems to be the thrust of the last section as it concerns the detachment of the Greeks, having written in response to something here, and believing Toynbee to be anyway out of his depth in matters of philosophy: “Stoicism contains a great deal of ethical concern about the world outside the self including the claim that the world is the polis of good men” and “the ideal of euergetism [helping a community through patronage] makes even Epicureans like Diogenes of Oenanda concerned with promoting a good, ie happy, life for their fellow citizens”.

For similarly brilliant references to Kipling, see Mowgli’s finger and Gallicus Tumultus.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Plus ça change

January 4 2010

If the law of the Universe is really the sardonic law Plus ça change plus cest la même chose [footnote: Karr, Alphonse: Les Guêpes, January 1849.], no wonder that the poet [Shelley in Hellas] cries for the Buddhist release from a Wheel of Existence which may be a thing of beauty so long as it is merely guiding the stars in their courses, but which is an intolerable tread-mill for our human feet.

Karr published the satirical journal Les Guêpes (The Wasps) from 1839 to 1849.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

Plotinus and Ali Hujwiri

October 22 2009

The Nirvāna that is the normal and permanent goal of the Hinayanian [obsolescent term for the Theravāda or southern Buddhist school] Buddhist arhat was […] perhaps apprehended as a rare and fleeting experience by Plotinus, whose Neoplatonism was the last of the schools of Hellenic philosophy.

“The ecstatic trance, in which the distinction between the mind and its ideas, the self and self-knowledge, passes away, is not, so Plotinus would have us believe, a mere swooning and eclipse of the Soul while the World goes booming on, but a flight of the Alone to the Alone. Sense and spiritual contemplation and mystic union are psychological states corresponding to cosmic climes, and growth in self-knowledge may be described also as a journey of the Soul through the Universe to its far-off home. Only this should be noted, that the actual attainment of the noetic state, when once the Soul has been released from the bondage of rebirth, brings a cessation of what we regard as personal existence. The heaven of the Nous has no place for memory of the Soul’s past lives, and Being there is not an immortality that denotes conscious continuity; it is rather a blissful forgetfulness. And the last stage of identification with the One is a complete loss of identity” (More, P. E.: Hellenistic Philosophies = The Greek Tradition from the Death of Socrates to the Council of Chalcedon: 399 B.C.-A.D. 451, vol. ii (Princeton 1923, University Press), pp. 197-8).

On this showing, Plotinus’s Visio Beatifica might be described as an entry into Nirvāna that is momentary instead of being permanent, but which is genuine for so long as it lasts. On the other hand the common essence of the Neoplatonic and the Hinayanian Buddhist experience is apparently not to be found in the experience of either the Christian or the Islamic school of mysticism.

He quotes from the Encyclopaedia of Islam.

Fanā, an important technical term of Sūfism, meaning ‘annihilation, dissolution’. The Sūfī who attains perfection must be in a kind of state of annihilation. … The origin of the Muslim conception of fanā has … to be sought in Christianity, from which it seems to be borrowed. This conception simply means the annihilation of the individual human will before the will of God – an idea which forms the centre of all Christian mysticism. The conception thus belongs to the domain of ethics and not in the slightest degree to that of metaphysics, like the nirvāna of the Hindu. … The author of the Kashf al-Mahjub expressly states that fanādoes not mean loss of essence and destruction of personality, as some ignorant Sūfīs think” (Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. ii (London 1927, Luzac), p. 52).

The author of the Kashf al-Mahjub was Ali Hujwiri, who lived in the Ghaznavid Empire from c 990 to 1077. He was born in Ghazni, in present-day Afghanistan, wrote in Persian and died in Lahore. The Ghaznavids, who were of mamluk origin, ruled much of Persia, Transoxiana and the Indus valley from 963 to 1187 and were not even nominally subject to the Abbasid caliphate.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Lakshmi Narayan Mandir

March 8 2009


Click to enlarge. From Wikimedia Commons and the Wikipedia page for the Bihari city of Rajgir, a holy city in Buddhism and Jainism.

“The pink-hued Hindu temple called the Lakshmi Narayan Mandir has within its grounds the ancient hot springs. The temple is (as the name indicates), dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his consort, Goddess Lakshmi. [The] springs used to be the site of the Tapodarama, a Buddhist monastery at the time of Gautama Buddha.” (Wikipedia.)

Chinese pilgrims

January 6 2009


Baoguosi, a temple on Mount Emei

After the propagation of the Mahāyāna into the domain of a disintegrating Sinic Civilization, the converts to this oecumenical higher religion in a nascent Far Eastern World [Far Eastern follows Sinic in Toynbeean terminology; the Mahayana was the church through which the Sinic Society came to be apparented to the modern Far Eastern Society] were inspired with a zeal to visit the scenes of the Buddha’s life and work in Northern India; and surviving records of journeys made by Chinese pilgrims to the holy land of Buddhism in the course of a span of years beginning in A.D. 259 and ending circa A.D. 1050 [footnote: See Goodrich, L. C.: A Short History of the Chinese People (London 1948, Allen & Unwin), pp. 64 and 156.] showed that the practice had been at its height in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries of the Christian Era. This floruit is surprising at first sight, considering that the more frequented pilgrims’ way was not the sea-route from the south-east coast of China to the Bay of Bengal but the land-route via the Tarim Basin and the Oxus-Jaxartes Basin and the passes into the Indus Basin over the Hindu Kush; for the period during which the overland pilgrimage from China to India was enjoying its floruit approximately coincided with a period, running from circa A.D. 375 to circa A.D. 675, when the Eurasian Nomads were in a state of effervescence, and when the perils braved by pilgrims on the overland route were consequently at a maximum.

Why should this route have been frequented by Chinese pilgrims during these particularly hazardous centuries, and deserted in the course of the next three hundred years, though these were times in which the Nomads were relatively quiescent? No doubt, one element in the answer is that the incentive of the merit to be earned by making the pilgrimage counted for more in Chinese Buddhist minds than the deterrent of the dangers that had to be faced. On this reckoning, the greater the peril, the greater the virtue of braving it; and accordingly the pilgrimage from China to India flourished, in spite, or perhaps rather because, of its hazardousness, so long as a distant holy land in Bihār was the only pilgrimage-resort where the Chinese pilgrim could hope to earn the merit that was the object of his quest. From the same angle of vision, we can also see that the stream of Chinese pilgrims to Bodh Gayā [the present name of the place in Bihar in which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment] would be likely to dwindle, and finally to run dry, when a Mahāyāna that had long since taken root on Chinese soil begat there, in the fullness of time, a number of local Far Eastern Buddhist holy places – Wu-T’ai Shan in Shansi [Shanxi], Omei [Emei] in Szechwan, and the like – whose gradually accumulated mana [footnote: Wu-t’ai Shan, for instance, had already acquired such sanctity by the time of the great persecution of Buddhism in China in A.D. 845 that it was rehabilitated thereafter as early as A.D. 857 (Goodrich, op. cit., p. 127)] eventually came to rival in the Chinese Buddhist community’s estimation the mana of a Bodh Gayā in a once Buddhist Hindustan where in the meantime Buddhism had been progressively giving place to Hinduism.

Ennin: a Japanese pilgrim in China.


Wutai Shan temple grounds

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Indian temples

December 22 2008

January 1957.

No “Works of Man” ever have played or can play so important a part in India’s history as her god-given rivers. If the sub-continent were not watered by rivers, it could not support life. So the rivers have been enshrined in Indian myth and ritual, and they have never been more important than they are in this secular-minded age, when they are being tapped scientifically for irrigation. A time may come when every river in India will have been drained dry to feed India’s rapidly growing network of irrigation canals, and when the storage capacity of India’s reservoirs will have become vast enough to hold the whole volume of the monsoon rain. But, if that time does come, the empty beds of Nature’s superseded waterways will bear witness to the rivers’ enduring value for the country.

Prescient words, though reservoirs (a controversial matter in India) will not replace rivers.

By comparison with the rivers of India, her temples are a recent and minor innovation in her life. This may sound surprising in a sub-continent where religion has always loomed so large; yet history bears out this apparently paradoxical statement. In the earliest centres of Man’s civilization, ‘Iraq and Egypt, the temples were the veritable seeds of the cities. The god in the temple was the owner of the irrigated land; his servitors became the administrators of the country; and their headquarters became the nuclei of urban settlement. There are cities in the south of India today in which the temple occupies the same central and dominating position. At Chidambaram [in Tamil Nadu], for instance, the city lies four-square round the four-square temple enclosure with its quartet of tower-crowned gates; and at Madura [Tamil Nadu], I am told, the relation between city and temple is the same. As I circumambulated the temple of Chidambaram, and gazed at the god’s gigantic processional cars laid up, outside the temenos [Greek, meaning temple precinct], to await the annual festival, I fancied myself in ancient Ur or Babylon. Perhaps the Babylonians may have influenced the religious architecture of Southern India (their Sumerian predecessors are known to have been in touch with the ancient civilization of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in the Indus valley). The temple towers of Southern India are certainly reminiscent of Babylonian ziggurats. Yet, if we ventured to credit them with a Babylonian origin, we should be in danger of falling foul of the experts in Indian archaeology.

Not the Babylonian ziggurat but the Buddhist stupa is the prototype of the Indian temple according to current archaeological doctrine. Archaeological theories have a disconcerting way of boxing the compass; but at least it seems to be securely established that, in India, Buddhism was the mother of ecclesiastical architecture.

He is arguing that Indian temples came late in the day, out of another higher religion, whereas Babylonian ziggurats were present, and centres of earthly power, at the beginning.

The Aryan barbarians who destroyed the ancient Indus culture probably worshipped their gods under the open sky [the Indus culture also has left no large religious monuments]. It was the Buddhists who designed the first substantial religious buildings on Indian soil: reliquaries, called stupas, to hold relics of the Buddha; and monasteries, called viharas, to house the monks who were seeking a happy issue out of this life in accordance with the Buddha’s precepts. The primitive stupa was a round barrow of earth surmounted by a pole that was garnished with a series of umbrella-shaped disks. When this structure was translated into stone, Indian ecclesiastical architecture was born.

The Buddhists acquired a habit of carving stupas and viharas out of the living rock inside caves driven into a mountain-side. You can see some of these at Karli [Maharashtra], on the rim of the Maharashtrian plateau, on the road up the ghat to Poona from Bombay. And at Ellora [Maharashtra] you can see how the Buddhist cave was taken over by the Jains and the Hindus; for, at Ellora, caves hewn by followers of all three religions are ranged, in a titanic row, side by side.

I need not describe the mighty Hindu temple at Ellora that has been created, not by laying stone on stone, but by cutting away the living rock till the pattern, conceived in the architect’s mind, has been laid bare in a single solid block. This marvellous achievement of human genius and industry is familiar. But there is more beauty in the earlier, smaller, and simpler rock-hewn temples at Mahabalipuram [Tamil Nadu], on the Coromandel Coast between Madras and Pondichéry [French until 1954]. In fact, the history of the Hindu temple is a story of increasing elaboration. Mahabalipuram, hewn in about the seventh century of the Christian Era, is almost Greek in the restraint of its conception and in the gracefulness of its lines. But, as century follows century, and the rock-carved temple increases in stature and eventually turns into a pile of intricately carved stones, the beauty ebbs away. In the latest [latest?] and biggest examples, which date from the age when the Empire of Vijayanagar [fourteenth to sixteenth centuries] was providing a citadel for Hinduism in the South against the assaults of Islam, the decoration quite overwhelms the design.

The Hindu temple may be a failure as a work of art, but it is a magnificently successful expression of the feelings of a religion that glories in the prodigality of Nature, the great mother of both life and death. From Chidambaram they took us to Gangaicholapuram [Tamil Nadu]. Night had fallen before we arrived, and the great tower soared aloft into the black sky, with the figures of the gods lit up for an instant here and there by the wavering light of our electric torches. As we groped our way along a pillared corridor towards the holy of holies, the strident temple music struck up, and the priest performed his ministrations to the god resident in the principal idol. For a moment, under the spell of the darkness and the din, the Western visitor could participate in the ecstasy of the Hindu worshippers. The next moment, the second Commandment in the Decalogue had re-established its sway over his Judaic conscience. But that moment of communion with Hinduism was illuminating. It taught the inquirer something about the part that the Hindu temple plays in Indian life.

East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958

The Mahayana’s Royal Road

October 23 2008

Below is most of a passage called The Mahāyāna’s Transcontinental Royal Road.

Buddhism travelled from India to China, west and around Tibet, along roads which had been unwittingly prepared for it by empire-builders. The King’s Highway had a similar destiny: a road built for armies and trade came to serve a religion.

When Toynbee calls it a Royal Road, he is probably thinking of the Great Royal Road built by the rulers of the Mauryan Empire, which crossed northern India. A road in the Achaemenid Empire, described by Herodotus, which ran northwestward from Susa (southwestern Persia, 150 miles east of the Tigris) to Sardis (the former Lydian capital in Anatolia), was also called Royal.

The Mahāyāna […] laid one empire after another under contribution to prepare the way for its astonishing journey from the Ganges to the Yellow River round three sides of the Tibetan Plateau. When Cyrus II had opened a road from Oxus to Indus over the Hindu Kush in order to annex the Panjab to the Achaemenian Empire [c 535 BC]; when Chandragupta [Maurya] had carried Cyrus’s highland highway on south-eastwards, across the whole expanse of the plains of Hindustan, from Taxila to Magadha, in order to clinch his hold on an Indic universal state which he had founded by expelling Alexander’s feeble garrisons from Cyrus’s and Darius’s derelict Indian provinces [c 320 BC]; when the Greek princes of Bactria and their Kushan successors had taken an unintended advantage of Cyrus’s and Darius’s and Chandragupta’s work in order to “abolish the Hindu Kush” by establishing their rule from Farghānah to Bihar [c 180 BC-second century CE]; when the Prior Han, feeling their way westward beyond the north-western extremity of Ts’in She Hwang-ti’s Wall and crossing the sand-sea in the Tarim Basin from oasis to oasis, had “abolished the Tien Shan” by descending on Farghānah [second century BC]; when the Posterior Han had contended for the possession of this coveted route with the Kushan [Buddhist] Emperor Kanishka [mid-second century AD]: not one of these empire-builders can have suspected that the mighty public works which each had believed himself to be carrying out for his own carefully calculated purposes were mere fragments of a grand design in which he and his rivals and adversaries, and his and their predecessors and successors, were each unconsciously performing their allotted task in the corvée. He would have been still more astonished to learn that this gigantic network of communications was being constructed by a press-gang of empire-builders for the benefit, not of some superlative secular empire of Pan-Asian dimensions, but of an Indic philosophy which was being transfigured into a religion as it travelled – along the road that captains and kings had prepared for it – towards its mighty mission field among the peoples of the Far East.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Buddhism and Christianity

July 28 2008


The metamorphosis of a Jewish sect into the ecumenical Christian Church is indeed astonishing; but so, too, is the metamorphosis of the Indian Theravadin Buddhist philosophy into the ecumenical Mahayanian Buddhist religion. The strength of the Mahayana as a missionary religion lay in its devotees’ willingness to come to terms with the pre-existing religions of the areas that the Mahayanian missionaries evangelized. The Mahayana was not inhibited by anything in its Theravadin Buddhist past from being frankly tolerant and from overtly aiming, not at conquest, but at symbiosis. On the other hand, Christianity’s Jewish past was a handicap for Christian theologians and missionaries. Christianity could not bring itself to live and let live; it had either to destroy its rivals or to absorb them; and it would absorb them only in so far as it could do this covertly. Yet Christianity absorbed far more than it destroyed. In fact, its method of propagating itself was more Mahayana-like than its official representatives could afford to admit.

Mankind and Mother Earth, A Narrative History of the World, OUP, 1976, posthumous

The Old World’s eastern roundabout

July 1 2008

Maps of Central Asia (category link).

Anyone who, unlike me, already knows something about Afghanistan or Central Asia, or has read the posts here back to only June 26, should be able to understand the next passage.

Europeans have a saying that “all roads lead to Rome”. From a European standpoint they may look as if they do. But Europe is one of the fringes of the Old World, and eccentric positions produce distorted views. Plant yourself, not in Europe, but in ‘Iraq, which is the historic centre of our Oikoumenê. Seen from this central position, the road-map of the Old World will assume a very different pattern. It will become evident that half the roads of the Old World lead to Aleppo, and half to Begrám. The second of these two names marks the site of the historic city of Kapisha-Kanish, at the southern foot of the Central Hindu Kush, where three roads meet after crossing the mountains.

Why particularly Aleppo and Begrám? I referred to the geopolitical significance of Aleppo in this post. Begrám is a staging-post en route to India. Cyrus the Great and his successor Darius captured it, though they did not cross the Indus. Alexander established a colony nearby named Alexandria of the Caucasus. Caucasus Indicus was an ancient name for the Hindu Kush. Another name for Begrám has been Kapisa.

After Alexander’s death, Begrám passed to his general Seleucus, who traded it to the Mauryan Dynasty of India in 305 BC. Bactria, to the north of Begrám, became part of the Seleucid Empire, and then, from the middle of the third century, an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom.

After the Mauryans (322-185) were overthrown by the Sunga Dynasty (185-73), the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom invaded and conquered northwestern India with an army led by Demetrius. It is then called Indo-Greek. Alexandria of the Caucasus became a capital of the Indo-Greek Kingdom after the Yuezhi and Scythians (Sakas) attacked the Greco-Bactrians in the north c 160-140 BC.

Begrám became the summer capital of the Kushan Empire in the first century CE, its other capitals being Peshawar, Taxila, and, in central India, Mathura.

Civilization in the Old World seems to have started in ‘Iraq about 5,000 years ago, and in the meantime it has spread from ‘Iraq both eastwards and westwards. Eastwards it has spread to Persia, Afghanistan, the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent, Central Asia, Eastern Asia. Westwards it has spread to Egypt, Anatolia, the Aegean, North-West Africa, Europe, Russia. This progressive spread of civilization from its birth-place in ‘Iraq to the ends of the Earth has turned the Oikoumenê into a house of many mansions. Civilization has become plural instead of singular; and the civilized world has diversified itself into a festoon of regional civilizations, trailing from Japan at the north-eastern end to Ireland at the north-western end and dipping below the Equator in Java. The younger provinces of civilization, on either side of ‘Iraq, do not all stand in the same relation to each other or to the Oikoumenê as a whole. The differences between their geographical situations sort them out into two classes. Some of them are “culs-de-sac” and some of them are “roundabouts”. The culs-de-sac are regions on the fringe of the Oikoumenê that have received successive influences from the centre but have not been able to pass these influences on to regions farther afield. The roundabouts are regions on which routes converge from all quarters of the compass and from which routes radiate out to all quarters of the compass again.

Java is the only place in the Old World south of the Equator that Toynbee brings into the Oikoumenê. He uses that word here to mean the “civilised” world, or rather the world in process of civilisation, but in a later book, Mankind and Mother Earth, he acknowledges that its literal Greek meaning is wider: “the Inhabited (Part of the World)”. We joined him a few weeks ago in Java in a post on Borobudur.

Classical examples of culs-de-sac are Japan at the north-eastern corner of the Oikoumenê, Java at its southernmost bulge, and Morocco, the British Isles, and Scandinavia at its north-western corner. Classical examples of roundabouts are two regions flanking ‘Iraq on either side. Syria (in the broadest geographical meaning of the name) is the roundabout to the west of ‘Iraq, and North-Eastern Iran (the present-day Afghanistan) is the one to the east of her. Syria has been the link between South-West Asia, Africa, Anatolia, and Europe. Afghanistan has been the link between South-West Asia, the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent, Central Asia, and Eastern Asia.

The vicissitudes of history can turn a cul-de-sac into a roundabout and a roundabout into a cul-de-sac. Western Europe was a cul-de-sac for about 1,700 years, dating from its incorporation in the Oikoumenê in the third century B.C. During those seventeen centuries the Atlantic was a barrier to any farther westward expansion of the civilization of the Old World. But the Spanish-born Roman poet Seneca had prophesied that, one day, this barrier would give way to human enterprise, and, after 1,400 years, this prophecy came true. In the fifteenth century the Portuguese invented a new kind of sailing-ship that could keep the sea continuously for months on end. This invention suddenly gave the West European peoples the command of the oceans, and that achievement temporarily turned Western Europe into the World’s central roundabout from which all sea-routes radiated and on which all sea-routes converged. This revolutionary change in the nature of the key-instruments of communication temporarily put both Afghanistan and Syria out of business; for the traffic that had made the fortunes of these two historic roundabouts had been mainly overland traffic on the backs of domesticated animals. The carriers had been donkeys, horses, and camels. Technology, however, is always reluctant to stand still. In our day we have been seeing a further series of technological inventions: mechanized rail and road vehicles, followed up by aircraft. These latest inventions have been deposing Western Europe from her temporary ascendancy in the World and have been reinstating Syria and Afghanistan.

On some of this, see the post here called Babur’s horizon. The idea, now developed, that the old “roundabouts” were being “reinstated” in 1960, when he was writing, seems a little dated or premature.

Both these historic roundabouts would have recaptured their traditional role as focuses of communication still faster than they are doing if their economic recovery were not being handicapped by disputes over political frontiers. These can be as formidable obstacles as any physical barrier. All the same, Beirut is already one of the World’s most important international airports, and Qandahar is making a bid to become another of them. As for mechanized transport on the ground, the new roads that are being built for Afghanistan by Russian and American civil engineers promise to turn her, once again, into the international thoroughfare that she used to be in the Donkey-and-Camel Age.

The Russians are building a new road from Qandahar northward to Kushka, the southernmost rail-head of the railway-network of Soviet Central Asia [now in Turkmenistan]. The Americans are building a new road from Qandahar south-eastward to Chaman, the terminus of the road and railway in Pakistan that run north-westward from Quetta to the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. [It is on the border of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan and Qandahar province in Afghanistan.] The Russians are building another new road from Kabul northward to Qyzyl Qala, a river-port that they have already built for Afghanistan on the Afghan bank of the River Oxus. This road will be carried through the Central Hindu Kush by a tunnel under the Salang Pass. This is the most direct, but also the highest, of three passes – Salang, Shibar, and Khawak – that cross this section of the Hindu Kush and link the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent with Central Asia. The Americans are building another new road from Kabul eastward to Torkham, the western terminus of the road and railway in Pakistan that clamber over the hump of the Khyber Pass.

These new roads promise to reinstate Afghanistan in her traditional position in the World. They are her economic bonus from the present political competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. The bonus is valuable, but the accompanying risk is high. Roundabouts are strategic as well as economic assets, and strategic assets are tempting political prizes.

It will be obvious that Afghanistan is intensely interesting today for a student of contemporary international affairs. It is of equal interest for a student of the history of civilization in the Old World during these last five thousand years. As he follows the main threads of history – economic, political, demographic, artistic, religious – he finds his attention being drawn again and again to the Old World’s eastern roundabout, as well as to its western one. Afghanistan has been a highway for migrating peoples and for expanding civilizations and religions, and it has been a key-point in the structure of empires. The examples of Afghanistan’s role as a roundabout in each of these aspects are so numerous that an exhaustive catalogue would fill a volume and would quite overload a chapter. A few illustrations will be enough to make the point.

A long procession of nomadic or ex-nomadic migrant peoples have passed through Afghanistan from Central Asia en route for the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent. The Aryas, who passed through at some date during the second half of the second millennium B.C., brought the Sanskrit language to India. They were the fathers of the Hindu civilization that supplanted the pre-Aryan culture which is represented in the Indus valley by the sites at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. A swarm of Iranian-speaking nomadic invaders who occupied the Helmand River basin and the Panjab in the seventh century B.C. deserves mention because one of the participating tribes bore the name Pactyes according to the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Is the name that has come down to us in this Ancient Greek version identical with the present-day name Pakhtuns (alias Pathans)? If it is, we have here a clue to the date at which the ancestors of the present-day Pathans first established themselves in the Helmand basin.

A second swarm of Iranian-speaking nomads, the Sakas, invaded Afghanistan in the second century B.C. Some of these settled in the delta of the Helmand River, as is witnessed by the name Seistan which this country still bears today instead of its previous name Sarangia. [In Afghanistan, this corresponds now to Nimruz province, on the border with Iran.] Others pushed on far into the Sub-continent. Some of their blood, and still more of their spirit, may have been inherited from them by the present-day Marathas in the highland hinterland of Bombay. Another Central Asian nomadic people, the Yüechi, following close at the Sakas’ heels, settled in the country between the Oxus and the Hindu Kush which had previously been known as Bactria and which is now included in the Kingdom of Afghanistan. In the first century of the Christian Era one of the Yüechi tribes, the Kushans, built up an empire [60 BC-AD 375] that straddled the Hindu Kush and stretched from the south bank of the Oxus to the west bank of the Jumna. In the course of the last nineteen centuries the Kushan Empire has had more than one avatar. Approximately the same area was ruled in the eleventh century of the Christian Era by the Turkish empire-builder Mahmud of Ghazni [who established the Ghaznavid Empire, which lasted from 975 to 1187] and again in the eighteenth century by the Afghan empire-builder Ahmad Shah Abdâli [who established the Durrani Empire, which lasted from 1747 to 1843].

In the fifth century of the Christian Era one wing of the Huns invaded the Sub-continent across Afghanistan [and overthrew the Hindu Gupta Empire] while Europe was being invaded by another wing of the same Central Asian nomadic people. The Huns were ferocious and destructive, but they were surpassed by the Mongols, who, in the thirteenth century, invaded Afghanistan as well as most of the rest of continental Eurasia. (On the mainland, only India and Western Europe escaped this calamity.) Finally, in the early years of the sixteenth century, a Turkish-speaking people from Western Siberia, the Uzbegs, occupied what is now Northern Afghanistan, as well as what is now the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan on the opposite side of the Oxus River. The Uzbegs did not succeed in crossing the Hindu Kush, but, indirectly, the Uzbegs did, nevertheless, change the course of history in the Sub-continent. They changed it by propelling across the Hindu Kush the survivors of the Timurids [a Turkicised Mongol rump], who had been the previous Turkish rulers of the Central Asian region that the Uzbegs conquered. These fugitive Timurids became the founders of the Mughal Empire in India.

The peoples of Afghanistan themselves were not always passive spectators of the migrations that passed through their country. They, too, took an active part in the game of invading India. The Ghoris, who supplanted the Turkish rulers of Ghazni in the twelfth century of the Christian Era, were natives of the central highlands of Afghanistan. They extended the area of Muslim rule in India from the Indus to the Ganges basin. The Ghoris’ Turkish successors at Delhi were supplanted by the Afghan Lodis, before these, in their turn, were supplanted by the Mughals. The Mughal Emperor Babur’s conquest of Hindustan was successfully challenged, after Babur’s death, by a Bengali Muslim of Afghan descent, Sher Shah Sur. So long as Sher Shah lived, Babur’s son Humayun remained an exile; and, though Sher Shah’s reign over Hindustan was brief [the Mughals were quickly reinstated], he found time to organize a system of imperial communications and land-taxation. This system was so good that it was taken over by the Mughals after their return, and then by the Mughals’ successors the British. In the interval of anarchy in Hindustan, when the Mughal regime was already declining and the British regime had not yet taken its place, another swarm of Afghan invaders, the Rohillas, established themselves in a choice piece of territory that is now included in [the state of] Uttar Pradesh (formerly the United Provinces and still the U.P.).

Migrations of peoples, such as those that have just been passed in review, can change the course of history, but still greater effects can be produced by the spread of civilizations and religions, and the history of Afghanistan bears witness also to this.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire, which expanded across Afghanistan into the Indus valley in and after the sixth century B.C., brought with it, as one of its official languages, Aramaic written in an alphabet derived from the Phoenician. The use of the Aramaic language as an international medium of communication did not long survive the overthrow of the First Persian Empire by Alexander the Great – though a bi-lingual inscription in Aramaic and Greek, set up by the [Mauryan] Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C., has recently been discovered at Qandahar. On the other hand the Aramaic alphabet made conquests after the fall of the Persian Empire that put even Chingis Khan’s conquests in the shade. It is not surprising that in Western Iran this alphabet should have been used for writing a local Iranian language: Pahlavi. It is more remarkable that from Afghanistan the use of the Aramaic alphabet should have spread south-eastwards into the Sub-continent and north-eastwards across the whole breadth of Asia. On the north-western border of the Sub-continent the Aramaic alphabet became the parent of the Kharoshthi, which was used for writing some of the Indian dialects stemming from Sanskrit. Travelling north-eastward across the Oxus, the Aramaic alphabet was used successively for writing a Central Asian Iranian language, Soghdian, a Central Asian Turkish language, Uighur, and eventually also Mongol and Manchu. Visit the Temple of Heaven at Peking, which was built in the Manchu imperial dynasty’s time, and look at the trilingual inscriptions on it. The Chinese version is, of course, written in Chinese characters, but the Manchu and Mongol versions are written in the Aramaic alphabet.

After the overthrow of the First Persian Empire by Alexander, the Greek invaders felt themselves at home again when they reached the vine-clad country of the Paropanisadae, at the southern approach to the passes leading northwards over the Central Hindu Kush; and in Bactria, north of the passes and between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus, they planted their civilization so successfully that its influence lasted here for centuries.

About the year 183 B.C. a Greek king of Bactria, Demetrius [the founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom], seized an opportunity that was offered him in India by the fall there of the Maurya dynasty’s empire. Demetrius crossed the Hindu Kush and conquered what are now Southern Afghanistan and the Panjab. After that, Greek rule lasted for half a century more in Bactria [before it was supplanted by the Yüechi] and for two centuries south of the Hindu Kush. The chief surviving witnesses to it are the Greek princes’ splendid coins. But in this region Greek civilization outlasted Greek rule; for the Greeks’ successors the Kushans, whose empire was larger and longer-lived than the Bactrian Greek empire had been, were – as they claimed to be – Philhellenes. Though they adopted the local Iranian language of Bactria, instead of Greek, to serve as the official language of their empire, the Kushans wrote their Bactrian in the Greek alphabet. This has been proved by the discovery of a Bactrian inscription, in Greek letters, at the Kushan Emperor Kanishka’s fire-temple at Surkh Kotal, on the road to Balkh from the passes over the Central Hindu Kush. [But are there similar Greek inscriptions further east?] And there is, of course, a powerful Greek ingredient in the visual art of the so-called Gandhara School, which flourished, in the age of the Kushan Empire, in and around the empire’s capital cities: Begrám, Peshawar, Taxila.

Greek artistic influences may have played upon Kushan Gandhara from two directions: over the Hindu Kush from Bactria and over the Indian Ocean from Alexandria in Egypt. By the time when the Kushan Empire was established in the first century of the Christian Era, Greek seamen, plying in the Indian Ocean from ports on Egypt’s Red-Sea coast, had discovered how to make use of the monsoons for sailing direct across the Indian Ocean to the delta of the Indus, instead of hugging the coasts of Arabia and Baluchistan. This notable shortening of the length of the voyage gave a stimulus to trade between the valleys of the Indus and the Nile; and so, in Kushan Gandhara, the Greek influence from Bactria over the Hindu Kush may have been reinforced by a Greek influence from Alexandria via the Indus valley.

History repeated itself in the Old World’s eastern roundabout after the overthrow of the Sasanid Persian Empire by the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century of the Christian Era. Like the Greeks nearly a thousand years earlier, the Arabs planted themselves firmly in the country between the Oxus and the Hindu Kush that had once been known as Bactria; and, like their Greek predecessors again, the Muslims eventually forced their way over the Central Hindu Kush and invaded the Sub-continent. Afghanistan was the thoroughfare along which Islam, like Hellenism before it, made its way into India.

All the movements of peoples, empires, civilizations, and religions that have been mentioned in this chapter up to this point were movements across Afghanistan into the Sub-continent from regions outside India. But there have also been movements across Afghanistan from India into other parts of the World; and one of these – the propagation of Buddhism into Eastern Asia – is an outstanding event in mankind’s history up to date.

When the First Persian Empire’s carcass was divided up, after Alexander’s death, among a number of rival competitors for the prize, one of these was an Indian empire-builder, Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta began by annexing Alexander’s ephemeral conquests in the Indus valley and uniting them with the ancient Kingdom of Magadha in the Ganges basin. He then went on to extend his empire still farther westward by doing a deal with the Macedonian war-lord Seleucus “the Victor”. Chandragupta gave Seleucus 500 Indian war-elephants for use against Seleucus’s most formidable Macedonian rival, Antigonus “One-Eye”. In exchange, Seleucus ceded to Chandragupta a large zone of former Persian territory west of the Indus and south of the Hindu Kush. The recently discovered bilingual inscription set up by Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, at Qandahar shows that Qandahar must have lain on the Mauryan side of the new frontier between the Mauryan and the Seleucid dominions.

Chandragupta Maurya’s success in extending his empire westward was merely an achievement on the political surface of life; and, on this superficial plane, it was more than undone when, some hundred and fifty years later, the Maurya Empire fell to pieces and the Bactrian Greeks [under Demetrius] pushed their way farther into India than Alexander’s limit. But the spread of Indian influence beyond the bounds of the Sub-continent took a more significant and enduring form when Chandragupta’s grandson, the Emperor Ashoka, became a convert to Buddhism. We know, from one of Ashoka’s own inscriptions, that he sent missionaries to preach Buddhism in the realms of the contemporary rulers of the Persian Empire’s Greek successor-states. We do not know what results, if any, were produced by this Buddhist missionary enterprise in the Hellenic World; but it is certain that, in India itself, Ashoka’s conversion placed Buddhism in a strong position for the next six hundred years at least. It was strong enough to influence successive waves of invaders from beyond the Hindu Kush after the Maurya Empire’s fall. Menander, one of the most important of the Bactrian Greek rulers in India in the second century B.C., figures in the Buddhist scriptures as a participant in a dialogue called The Questions of Milinda; and, round about the turn of the first and second centuries of the Christian Era, the greatest of the Kushan emperors, Kanishka, became a patron of Buddhism, if not an outright convert to it.

The Kushan Empire was the thoroughfare along which Buddhism made its way from India, through what are now Soviet Central Asia and Sinkiang, to the north-west corner of China. From there it spread to the whole of the rest of China and on into Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Afghanistan’s role as a roundabout has never been played to greater effect.

This route from India to China via Afghanistan, which is the route by which Buddhism actually travelled, looks strangely circuitous on the map. Why travel round three sides of Tibet? Why not short-circuit this rambling route by travelling straight from Bengal to Yunnan? The answer is, of course, that South-East Asia – where India and China have so sensitive and sore a common frontier today – was still outside the pale of civilization when Buddhism was on the march. In Kanishka’s day, Indian culture was only just acquiring its first footholds in what are now Cambodia and Annam; and it was not till the close of the thirteenth century of the Christian Era that Yunnan was redeemed from barbarism and incorporated in China by China’s Mongol conquerors. The route through Afghanistan, circuitous though this was, was the earliest route along which India and China made contact with each other. This was the route followed in the transmission of Buddhism; and that is the most important transaction that has ever taken place between India and China so far.

Between Oxus and Jumna, OUP, 1961

Transoxiana and Bactria

June 28 2008

It’s impossible to get a grasp of Central Asian history without understanding the geography – which is hard to understand because there are no convenient shorelines and, most of the time, no neat cultural or political or ethnic borders to break it all down. I’m moving slowly. I have created a sub-Category here called Maps of Central Asia: link on the left. (I’m a fan of simple maps. Several of them are relevant in understanding this post. See also this post, called Indic and Hindu.)

What are Transoxiana and Bactria?

Transoxiana (sometimes called Transoxania) corresponds with modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and south Kazakhstan east of the Aral Sea and is the land between the Amu Darya (Oxus) and Syr Darya (Jaxartes) rivers. Toynbee calls it the Oxus-Jaxartes basin. The Persians called it, or part of it, Sogdiana. I’ll use the Greek names for the rivers. Here’s a map: rather small, but at least simple.

The Oxus, the longest river in Central Asia, rises in the Pamir mountains in the Wakhan Corridor, northeastern Afghanistan, and flows into the Aral Sea. The Naryn, the main headwater of the Jaxartes, rises in the Tien Shan mountains, and joins the Kara Darya in Fergana in eastern Uzbekistan, to form the Jaxartes, which then flows into the Aral Sea. I showed a map of those mountain systems here. The map above shows the shores of the Aral Sea c 1960. The sea is disappearing.

Sogdiana was a province of the Achaemenid Empire. Alexander the Great extended Greek culture into the region. Transoxiana was the northeastern point of the Hellenistic culture, and kept a hybrid Greek-Persian-Chinese-Buddhist culture until the Islamic invasion.

The Chinese explorer Zhang Qian, who visited Bactria and Parthia along with Transoxiana in 126 BC, made the first known Chinese report on this region.

Transoxiana flourished under the Sasanids (226-651), helped by wealth derived from the Northern Silk Road. Many Persian nobles and landlords escaped there after the Muslim invasion. (Pre-Islamic Persian empires: Elamite, Median, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Sasanid.)

The major cities are Samarkand and Bukhara. They remained centres of Persian culture and civilization after the Islamic conquest of Iran. Tashkent is more modern. All three are in Uzbekistan (one of the most appealing countries I’ve ever been to, though not politically: a wonderful cultural and physical mixture of Russian and oriental).

The region was conquered by Qutaybah ibn-Muslim between 706 and 715, loosely held by the Umayyads from 715 to 738, reconquered by Nasr ibn-Sayyar between 738 and 740. It was under the Umayyads from 740 to 748 and under the Abbasids after 748.

As Abbasid power weakened, Samarkand and Bukhara played a role in a revival of Persian civilisation under the native Persian Samanid dynasty (Sunni, ruled Persia 819-999).

Genghis Khan invaded Transoxiana in 1219. Before his death in 1227, he assigned the lands of Western Central Asia to his second son Chagatai, and this region became known as the Chagatai Khanate. In 1369 Timur, of the Barlas tribe, became the effective ruler while continuing the ceremonial authority of Chagatai Khan’s dynasty, and made Samarkand the capital of his future empire. In the map of Uzbekistan, below, you can see Farghana, the home of Babur, which was mentioned in an earlier post.

Bactria is further south. Its centre is the land between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus. Its historic capital was Balkh or Bactra, in northern Afghanistan. The Bactrian language is Indo-European. The people are Tajiks. In the period of the Kushan Empire (60 BC-AD 375), the area to the east of the Hindu Kush – in eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan – is called Gandhara. Gandhara’s cities were Purushapura or Peshawar and Takshashila or Taxila.

It isn’t known whether Bactria formed part of the Median Empire, but it was subjugated by Cyrus, and from then formed one of the satrapies of the Persian empire. Alexander conquered Sogdiana (Transoxiana) and Iran without much difficulty; he met more resistance in Bactria. He defeated Darius III. Bessus, the satrap of Bactria, murdered Darius in the ensuing chaos and tried to organise a national resistance based on his satrapy. Bactria became a province of the Macedonian empire, but Alexander never successfully subdued the people. After Alexander’s death, the empire was divided up between his generals. Bactria and Transoxiana became part of the Seleucid empire. Seleucus I and his son Antiochus I founded many Greek towns in eastern Iran.

The difficulties which the Seleucid kings had to face, and the attacks of Ptolemy II of Egypt, gave Diodotus, satrap of Bactria, the opportunity to declare independence (about 255 BC) and conquer Sogdiana/Transoxiana. He was the founder of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Diodotus and his successors were able to maintain themselves against the attacks of the Seleucids – particularly Antiochus III, the Great, who was ultimately defeated by the Romans (190 BC).

The Greeks were pushed out of Bactria by migrating Sakas and Yuezhi (both Indo-European-speaking) c 125 BC, but continued to rule south of the Hindu Kush for another fifty years.

The so-called Indo-Greek kingdom, an extension of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, was founded when the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius invaded India early in the second century BC. Alexander had reached India, but the Greek presence there had not lasted. Demetrius was more successful. The Indo-Greek king Menander I (known as Milinda in India, ruled 155-130 BC) was converted to Buddhism. His successors managed to cling to power, but by c AD 10 the Greeks were gone, though Greek influence remained. They in turn were overthrown by Sakas and then Yuezhi. The Yuezhi eventually established the Kushan Empire. The Kushans were supplanted in India by the first great Hindu power, the Gupta Empire.

The Arabs conquered Bactria – which they called Tokharistan – before they crossed the Oxus to subdue Transoxiana.