Shifting Empires, and the Decline of Buddhism

Shifting Empires, and the Decline of Buddhism February 24, 2022

Last year, we read reports of one of the great archaeological discoveries of recent years, from the Musi River, in Sumatra. Very rich finds of luxury objects, especially gold, suggest that we are dealing with the lost capital of a long forgotten empire. Srivijaya was a mighty commercial merchant empire of the seas, a thalassocracy, which controlled the Straits of Malacca, and dominated much of what we call Indonesia, Malaysia, and the South China Seas. It held its power and wealth from the seventh century AD though at least the eleventh.

The story is wonderful enough in its own right, but as I will explain, this discovery spoke to a number of my interests, including the role of empires in spreading religions, as well as another and closely related idea, the way in which religions die.

How World Religions Fade and (Sometimes) Die

That latter point is counter-intuitive. We hear a great deal about religions grow and spread, but rarely how they die. Yet they certainly do die. Witness what was for a millennium the global faith of Manichaeism. For a thousand years, Zoroastrianism was the faith of the Persian Empire which counted among the three or four greatest Powers in the ancient world. Today, that same faith is the preserve of barely 100,000 Parsis.

Also, particular religions have died out in areas which they once utterly dominated. We think of the extinction of Christianity over large sections of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia in which that faith was very strong. This was the theme of my 2008 book The Lost History of Christianity. But here is another and more surprising example. What about Buddhism? Buddhism, obviously, is one of the world’s great faiths today, with perhaps half a billion adherents. But Buddhism as it exists in the modern world is a widespread or dominant faith in only a portion of the territories where it once prevailed. Like the Christianity of much of Asia and Northern Africa, Buddhism likewise ceased to exist in those areas, except as a ghost faith.

I have written of the millennium or so when Buddhism dominated most of India and Sri Lanka, roughly the era between 250BC and 800AD. By the seventh century AD, Buddhism had spread over the regions with which we associate it today, including China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Vietnam, much of Central Asia. Thailand followed shortly afterwards, and the Khmer empire in Cambodia was very open to Buddhist teaching.  In fact, the process looked very much like the prolonged and gradual conversion of Europe to Christianity, which began with the Roman Empire of the fourth century, and was not completed until Lithuania accepted the faith at the end of the fourteenth century. That Christian conversion was, in other words, a millennium-long process, very much like the Buddhist parallel.

But the Buddhist story in Asia was even more ambitious than we think today, because we have forgotten the really large areas into which that faith advanced, but where it ceased to exist. Buddhism in India faded fast at the end of the first millennium, to be replaced by resurgent Hinduism and, later, by ascendant Islam. Buddhism never perished in China, but successive regimes put severe limits on its growth and ambitions. Under the Tang Dynasty in the 840s, Buddhism suffered severe and damaging repression, which was also applied to Christianity, as this was seen as a sect of the larger Buddhist faith. The political and economic chaos of the tenth century – the era of the Five Dynasties – witnessed a sharp contraction in noble support for Buddhism. At the end of the first millennium, Buddhism was in dramatic retreat in those two vital areas of India and China.

Throughout this process, the fate of Buddhism was subject to the wishes and fortunes of the empires to which the faith had attached itself. When political empires advanced, so Buddhist monks and missionaries took full advantage of those opportunities, and when those empires failed, so did their religious enterprises.

Great Srivijaya!

And that (finally) brings me back to the discoveries in Sumatra. The Srivijaya Empire enjoyed enormous wealth. To get some idea of the trade to which it had access, we might turn to another of the great archaeological discoveries of modern times, the Belitung shipwreck, the remains of a voyage between Tang China and the Arab Gulf about 830 AD. The dazzling treasures that the ship contained, and above all the invaluable ceramics, are now a centerpiece of Singapore’s gorgeous Asian Civilizations Museum. Srivijaya was pivotal to the Spice Routes, which generated incalculable riches.

Like other empires before and since, Srivijaya left a powerful linguistic heritage. Today, in its various forms, the Malay language is spoken by about 300 million people throughout the countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. Ancient Malay probably originated in Borneo, and in the early centuries of the Christian era it evolved into Old Malay, which shows strong signs of Indian influence, and of Sanskrit.  That emerging language then spread quite rapidly, mainly, it seems, through its association with Srivijaya. The earliest written evidence is the Kedukan Bukit inscription from Sumatra, which can be dated precisely to May 1, 683 AD: it is in Pallava script, from southern India. It closes by invoking “Great Srivijaya! Prosperity and riches.” Old Malay inscriptions then appear in some numbers across Indonesia and Malaysia, including in Srivijayan monuments from south Sumatra. The exact role of the Srivijayan Empire in the development of later Malay is hotly debated, but there is no doubt that the trade and commerce that the empire practiced and encouraged played a vital role in spreading  Malay across what became its later territories. Old Malay was the lingua franca that allowed trade to proceed within the commercial and political empire.

Srivijaya was wealthy, powerful, and also Buddhist. We recall that the very name Indonesia is a modern geographical term for the “Indian Islands,” those areas under profound cultural and political influence from the subcontinent. Across Asia, we can map this sphere of Indian soft power through the dissemination of the superb epic, the Ramayana, and Indonesia was no exception to this rule. Even today, there are still many places where you indicate someone’s mental failings by declaring that “He’s so dumb he doesn’t know the plot of the Ramayana!” Naturally, then, the region was thoroughly exposed to the Indian religion of the time, which was Buddhism, and especially in the then-prevailing Mahayana form. The Old Malay language shows lots of borrowings from both Hindu and Buddhist religion.


This expansion finds an overwhelming visual symbol in the incredible temple of Borobudur, in central Java, which was likely built in the eighth and ninth centuries. This was the work of the Shaildenra dynasty, which also controlled Srivijaya.

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Superlatives fail in describing Borobudur, which is simply the world’s largest Buddhist temple, and arguably the most awe-inspiring. Its location and orientation also demonstrate a fascination with astronomical alignments: it is intended as a hub of multiple universes. Many of the tourists who visit Borobudur must at some point wonder why this magnificent site is here, so very far from what we naturally think of as the heart of the Buddhist world – or indeed, why it lies so far beyond the frontiers of that world.

We might visualize a map of Asia in the eighth or ninth century, before the reversal of fortunes in India and China. Besides all the territories that we think of today, we would also think of Buddhist missions spreading throughout what we call Indonesia and the Philippines, and into the Pacific. Buddhism also remained vibrant in Central Asia. As late as the thirteenth century, traditional-minded Mongol warlords divided their religious custom between Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism, which together constituted the beliefs of the “Old Mongol” party.

Why Asia Never Became Buddhist

Around 800 AD, say, the time of Charlemagne, it was scarcely too much to think of an Asia that was as thoroughly Buddhist as Europe would become Christian. Given the incredible wealth of South and East Asia at the time, and the very high populations of that region, Buddhism stood every chance of becoming the most flourishing and influential religion that had ever existed, and the best endowed in terms of buildings and monuments and sacred structures.

It was not to be, for reasons that I have explored elsewhere. The loss of India undoubtedly played a disproportionate role in this story. Although Indian institutions never occupied a role anything like that of the Popes in Christianity, they had a real charisma. Kings from far off Srivijaya sent offerings to the legendary Buddhist center of learning at Nalanda, in northern India. Those Buddhist realities did not vanish overnight: we are looking at a process spread over several centuries. But Buddhism was increasingly eclipsed by Hinduism, and this was the model that now diffused throughout much of the “Indosphere,” through Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. That situation in turn prevailed until the arrival of Islam.

That was actually one of the great contrasts with Christianity, which in its European strongholds never had to deal with another competing religion of anything like the same nature (Judaism was never substantial enough to constitute such a rival). To contemplate anything like the Asian reality, we would have to imagine a European situation in which France accepted Christianity for several centuries, but then around 800 or so decided to revert back to organized Druidism. No, it was never going to happen, but it is an intriguing intellectual exercise. (I can’t help thinking in terms of Panoramix, the druid in Asterix).

But there is a larger question in all this. Just why did Buddhism face those setbacks and disasters at the time it did? I will return to this in my next post.

SPOILER: I think climate had a huge amount to do with it.


A few very selective references:

For the making and remaking of history and memory in Indonesia, see Marieke Bloembergen and Martijn Eickhoff, The Politics of Heritage in Indonesia: A Cultural History ( (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)

Johan Elverskog, The Buddha’s Footprint: An Environmental History of Asia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

R. E. Jordaan and B. E. Colless, The Maharajas of the Isles: The Sailendras and the Problem of Srivijaya (University of Leiden, 2009).

John N. Miksic and Geok Yian Goh, Ancient Southeast Asia (London: Routledge, 2017).

Michael Walter, Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet (Brill, 2009).





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