Empires and the Making of Buddhism (and Christianity)

Empires and the Making of Buddhism (and Christianity) February 17, 2022

Any long term history of Christianity must pay proper attention to one key turning point, namely the conversion of the Roman Empire to this new faith. We all have a good sense of what happened next, in terms of imperial support and patronage that spread Christianity to all corners of the very extensive world that the Romans knew. Among other factors, the empire created an ideal environment for such diffusion, through a shared language, through the spread of literacy and written communication, through faster means of travel and transport, the maintenance of public order and the suppression of threats to travel and trade, and the emergence of great cities and entrepôts for moving objects and ideas. But Christianity was by no means the only faith to be so intimately bound up with imperial fortunes over long centuries. So was Buddhism.

Buddhism and Christianity

The analogies between Buddhism and Christianity are very strong. Which great world religion am I describing here? Born in one region (in which it is now all but extinct) it spread into many societies far removed from its original home. During that diffusion, it encountered some highly literate and educated societies, where it had to frame its claims in a particular way. Elsewhere, it actively introduced ideas of literacy and learning, profoundly affecting those societies, and often incorporating older deities and customs into the new faith, in lightly disguised ways.

The religion’s followers built great institutions of communal living and devotion, and also of teaching. Some of those schools became full-fledged universities. Monastic institutions had a vast impact on their surroundings, engaging in transformative agricultural and economic practices. Those communities were vital to developing the arts and sciences. Places of worship were sumptuously illustrated with visual aids to devotion and religious instruction for ordinary believers, images of holy figures and scenes from the main narrative of faith. These variously took the form of paintings, sculpture, fabrics, reliquaries, or jewelry, which included some of the finest artistic products of the age. The works of art that we recall from these eras virtually always have religious themes, and the artists received patronage either from religious houses, or from rulers seeking their favor. Rulers found ideological support from the religious institutions, which thereby became critical to state formation.

The religion was highly cosmopolitan, allowing its faithful to wander freely between institutions in many different societies, to observe and learn from them. The religion provided a common cultural and ideological framework that spanned half a continent. Among other things, these transactions spread artistic styles and cultural motifs. In this process of travel and communication, pilgrimage to sacred sites served as a powerful stimulus. Whatever its founders intended, this was in effect a religion of holy figures, of shrines and pilgrimages. Cultivating those things gave additional power to the mighty monastic houses, and further fostered artistic patronage. And at every stage, the religious evolution was utterly shaped by the attitudes of secular regimes, above all of successive great empires.

That is the story of Buddhism, and of Christianity.

The Heritage of Empire

I have already quoted Thomas Hobbes’s remark about of the Catholic Church in 1651: “The Language also, which they use, both in the Churches, and in their Publique Acts, being Latin, which is not commonly used by any Nation now in the world, what is it but the Ghost of the Old Roman Language?” Empires, and their languages, left ghosts. That analogy comes to mind when we think of the ancient canon of Buddhist scriptures, which is in the language of Pali: this is also the language of the Theravada branch of the faith. From early times, Buddhists claimed that Pali was identical with (or closely related to) Magahi, the language spoken in the ancient kingdom of Magadha – roughly modern Bihar, India. That claim is probably not correct literally, but in a symbolic sense, it is very significant. Just as Catholics relate Church Latin back to the ancient Roman world, so Buddhists are staking their claim to continuity from another bygone realm of immense and enduring power and prestige. They are claiming an imperial legacy from those Magadha realms.

The territory of Magadha became central to a series of successive empires that was based in that region from the fourth century BC through the sixth century AD, namely the Nanda, Maurya, and Gupta Empires. One early Magadha ruler founded the city of Pataliputra, near modern Patna, which became the capital of all those three empires, and others later. (Patna today is the capital of the state of Bihar).  Under the Maurya Empire of the fourth century BC, Pataliputra was one of the largest and most important cities on the planet, with a population of 400,000, perhaps more. Its only real competitors on the global stage were Alexandria and Carthage. Somewhat later, the Mediterranean had imperial Rome; India had imperial Pataliputra. Rome became the metropolis for Christianity; Pataliputra for Buddhism.

Ashoka’s World

As with Christianity, the growth of Buddhism owed a very great deal to its imperial connections.

One part of that history is famous in the West. One of India’s greatest rulers was Ashoka (304-232 BC), a Maurya emperor, born in Pataliputra. Through a series of triumphant and very bloody campaigns, he united much of India under his rule, but the incredible violence of the wars appalled him and forced him to seek a new spiritual direction, probably around 260BC. He made Buddhism the state religion, and tried to apply its moral and ethical principles to worldly government. He also sent Buddhist monks and missionaries to Sri Lanka and Central Asia, and built temples and stupas across India. Buddhist envoys traveled to Greece, Egypt, and the Hellenistic realms. In short, Ashoka did a huge amount to create the map of Buddhism that we would know in later centuries. For Westerners, his influence naturally makes us think of Constantine, but by common consent, Ashoka was a far superior figure morally and spiritually. His symbol, the Buddhist wheel of Dhamma, appears on the flag of modern India.

Although the Maurya Empire failed around the 180s BC, other successive empires held comparable power, and over the following eight centuries, they strongly supported Buddhism, which enjoyed a dazzling golden age in India itself. I stress that Indian concentration, and the role of the Indian empires. If you list the places associated with the Buddha’s life, and with early Buddhist history – Lumbini, Sarnath, Bodhgaya, Kushinagar – you are looking at a map of modern-day north-east Indian states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Plain of the Ganges, and Southern Nepal. Even the name Bihar comes from the Pali word vihara, which recalls the Buddhist monasteries that so proliferated in the area. From the fifth century AD, a great Buddhist university operated at Nalanda, fifty miles from Pataliputra: in its day, it might have been the greatest center of learning in the world. When the Chinese monk Faxian wandered through Buddhist India at its absolute height, around 400 AD, his accounts suggest an amazing profusion of monasteries, shrines, and stupas, with monks and nuns running into the countless thousands.

The Mahayana World

In the first two centuries AD, Buddhism experienced the important movement called Mahayana, the “Great Vehicle,” with its emphasis on mighty spiritual beings called bodhisattvas. This Mahayana form of the faith led Buddhist expansion into Central and Eastern Asia. Essential to that spread was the Kushan Empire that sprawled over northwest India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bactria from the first century AD through the third. One of its most celebrated rulers was the emperor Kanishka the Great, who reigned c.120-144AD, and of whom historian Vincent Smith remarked that “He played the part of a second Ashoka in the history of Buddhism.” He is associated with a monumental stupa that bears his name, and which might have been the tallest building in the world at the time. It also had a stunning collection of Buddhist relics.

The Kushan Empire had close ties both with other empires in the Mediterranean world, and in China. Its vital center was Gandhara in present day Pakistan, around Peshawar, and Gandhara was a primary base for missionary expansion. Just this week, the Smithsonian has an interesting piece about the recent discovery of a very early Buddhist temple from the Gandhara region, which they date (probably) to the second century BC.  Crucially for later religious developments, the Kushan empire’s political geography inevitably connected it to the Silk Route, which opened doors for Buddhism across Central and Eastern Asia.  Between the second and fourth centuries AD, Mahayana Buddhism established itself in China, Korea, and Vietnam. Japan followed in the sixth century, Tibet in the seventh.

Later Indian regimes were also sympathetic. Buddhists had an excellent relationship with the great Gupta empire that ruled India between about 320 and 550 AD, although the Guptas also patronized traditional Hindu causes. Not well known in the West, the Gupta age was one of the greatest and most innovative in human history, comparable to the Athenian Golden Age. It was probably during the fifth century AD that the Vakataka Empire sponsored the superb art of the Ajanta cave temples in Maharashtra, which are to Indian Buddhist history what Chartres Cathedral is to Christianity.

Buddhist prestige in India itself enjoyed a last efflorescence with the northern empire of Harsha in the early seventh century. He tolerated all religions, but particularly favored Buddhism, and built many shrines and stupas.

Losing Imperial Support

The story of Indian Buddhism was intimately and inextricably linked to that of empires – Maurya, Kushan, Gupta, and others less well known. What is different from the West is that the Roman Empire and its national successors never abandoned their formal alliance with Christianity, which retained its role as the imperial, royal ,and official creed of Europe until modern times. In India, empires largely withdrew their support from the seventh century AD, and Buddhism shriveled in that land, while booming in the newly converted territories. The death of Harsha in 647 AD marks a turning point to that story.

Buddhist states and empires continued, notably the Pala empire in Bengal and Bihar, which firmly supported the shrines and universities. About 800, the Pala emperor created a new university at Vikramashila, as a rival to Nalanda. Even so, this activity was on a rather smaller and more geographically constrained scale than its predecessors, and the Palas went into steep decline during the ninth century. These stubborn Buddhist holdouts were increasingly isolated.

Buddhism lost ground to resurgent Hinduism, which attracted strong support from various empires and kingdoms. Indian Buddhism was already much weakened by the tenth century AD, when the country faced the onslaught of Muslim invaders. Invasions, wars, and religious conflicts were causing massive destruction by the thirteenth century, a process conveniently described by the Wikipedia entry on The Decline of Buddhism in India, which is well worth reading. I go into some detail about this story at some earlier posts at this site. The first great Muslim incursion happened in the early eighth century, at exactly the time Muslim forces were annexing Spain in the west. The Indian attacks were ruinous for Buddhism in much of north-west India, although the establishment of Islamic power was a lengthy process. One key date occurred when Muslim raiders sacked both Nalanda  and Vikramashila in 1193.

I have presented the stories of Buddhism and Christianity as two sides of one coin. In both cases, the religions owed everything to their alliance with empires, and for both faiths, the spiritual maps long outlived the political ones. The difference was that, when empires removed their support of Buddhism, that faith faltered and all but vanished in its Indian homeland. The Christianity of Europe suffered no such calamity, at least before the time of the French Revolution.

The story of world religions cannot be separated from the fate of empires, and their sometimes fickle rulers. To repeat my original point, this is a Buddhist story, and a Christian one.

More on these themes next time.


From a large literature on that early Buddhist globalization, one of the finest scholars active is Johan Elverskog. See especially his Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); and also The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

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