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Silk Road

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Autor:  anton  12 March 2011
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International trade routes have always been more than just the means of transporting goods and services to neighboring countries; they served as a way to spread culture and art in the region. Throughout history, when mass media, radio and telephones did not exist, trade routes served as communication highways. One of the most prominent trade routes in the past was the Silk Road which carried goods like silk and paper, and also served as a main medium to spread the ideas of Buddhism throughout Central Asia.

Silk Road or the Silk Route comes from the German Seidenstrabe. The term was first used by the German geographer and explorer, Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen. After having received extensive education in Germany and Europe, von Richthofen joined the Eulenburg Expedition, which took him through main Asian countries, such as Burma, Japan, Siam and Taiwan. Later on he frequently traveled to the region and visited Japan, China and other Asian countries. He labeled the trade route for its prominence in silk trading, the product which was to that day unknown in Europe.

The route itself divided in the Tibetan region, to bypass the mountains and spread far and wide. On the northern side it went in the present Russia and Georgia, encompassing both the Caspian and Black seas. On the southern side it spread though Asia going though China and India and reaching up to Mesopotamia and further though the Middle Eastern region to the Mediterranean. Silk Road extended by sea as well and reached to what is known today as Philippines, Africa and Europe.

Various findings suggest that the trade routes exited in the ancient times and were only perfected with years. Evidence of foreign trading exists all over the continents and can be traced though certain products that were transported on the routes. Historians and archeologists found evidence to suggest that animals were transported to Africa from Asia as early as BCE. Foreign items were found on other continents, suggesting intercultural contact and trading, giving reason to believe that the Silk Road existed, in some form, long before it was well known and served as one of the most prominent trading routes known.

As centuries went by the Silk Road gained momentum. It was the only way that the people could get access to products they could not obtain in their native parts. Silk, being a crop that did not grow in the mild climates of Europe and all too hot surrounding of Africa and Middle East, could only be obtained through trade with Asian countries, prominently China, India and Japan. Rice and other crops, along with domesticated animals and fines artworks and china were transported though the route as well. Even before the colonization began the route called to the attention of the Western Cultures and attracted the interests of European investors and merchants. Asia was conveniently located in the area from which most parts of the world became accessible and gained momentum in the trading marked.

But, aside from being one of the most prominent trading routes it was also and information highway which allowed the spread of one of the most prominent Asian religions and philosophies : the Buddhism. Buddhism is much more than religion, it is a philosophy, a way of life, a way to see the world and build your moral stance on.

The name Buddha means the awakened. It was not his real name. He was born Sighattha Gotama, a child of a wealthy family with an ancient noble lineage. The most common idea is that he was a prince. He was rich and is said to have had a life full of everything a man may desire. In his early adulthood he was suddenly exposed to finding out that life had a suffering side too and having discovered human pain through others wished to seek enlightenment. He renounced his former life, left his home, his parents, and his wife and went to seek the light. He sought to find a way to live without pain and suffering and wanted to free the rest of the people from having to live a painful existence. He spent many years trying to understand the world and define what it would mean to live in contentment with oneself and the surrounding world. He finally founded the concept of Nirvana, one of the most important notions in Buddhism. Nirvana means a state of existence free of burdens, of suffering and pain inflicted on the human soul by the imperfections of the material world. It was a place where one would be free to live a spiritual and enlightened life, as well as an idea that every human being should strive to implement in every day life. It was a spiritual discovery, a way to life a life and a way to deal with the imperfections that human world possessed. After he received the light, Buddha set out to teach and spread his word around the regions, trying to shed the light onto those who were still in the darkness. After his death he had left many followers and supporters who continued to spread his word after he was gone. His belongings were divided amongst the most loyal and his teachings lived on through the council and his followers that appeared after his death. India was the first country in Asia to have adopted the religion. Ashoka, the king of India, adopted the religion and vigorously did everything to have it spread though the country. During his reign Buddhist monasteries flourished and the monks were allowed to move freely about the whole of Indian Empire. They went around spreading the religion while Ashoka made it official on the government level, by making celebrations official through edicts and by dedicating various works of art to Buddha's life and teaching.

As Buddhism began to spread its influence in India more and more territories and people became susceptible to its spread. One of the main strategic points won over the newborn religion was the Kushans region. This region connected North-western India and what is known as Afghanistan and Pakistan today. From this region major trading routes took way, going to China and all the way up to the Roman Empire. In the 2nd century CE, Kanishak, the ruler of the region, converted to Buddhism. His conversion further contributed to flourishing of the Buddhist communities and monks as well as emersion of some distinctive art forms which defined the early stages of Buddhism. It kept growing and spreading, reaching to Bactria from Kushans. Some of the greatest Buddhist centers were built near Kabul, where colossal statues of Buddha stood unharmed for ages until the recent developments in the region and the fundamentalists' rage against this religion.

Once it spread firmly in India and surrounding regions, Buddhism took off full force and began spreading further across Asia. As it spread in massive forces Indian culture began to spread alongside with it, making Sanskrit one of the most popular languages in the region and introducing new art works and cultural dogmas into societies that prior had no contact with their neighbor. Gradually even nomads took up on the religion and introduced it into the steppes. Nomadic tribes embraced the religious traditions and started worshipping Buddha, spreading his word across the steppes, from tribe to tribe. Evidence found shows that the religious rituals were upheld by numerous tribes and seemed to be a very strong influence on the nomad life. The nomads were the ones who spread the faith to the Turks exiled from Mongolia, who inhabited the steppes and were followers of a different faith. Their pre-existent faith was quickly abandoned in favor of the local form of Buddhism and seemed to be deeply enrooted according to the evidence. The Turks, who gladly picked up on the religion, built temples to celebrate the Buddhist traditions and were noted for their prominent marks on shaping the way religion evolved in this region.

Even Mongols who controlled the Silk Road in that period of time seemed to be showing favor for the religion, even though the majority of Mongolian tribes converted to Islam. The tolerant and benevolent view of Buddhism by the warring Mongols allowed it to survive and spread further that anyone could ever imagine.

Once Buddhism had reached the Silk Road it stopped being just a local phenomenon, it gained access to new territories and the fate of the new religion began to take on a different shape. The Silk Road was not just the way by which goods were transported. Along with goods came caravans of travelers and explorers and different missionaries. In the days when travel was not as easy as buying a plane ticket or traveling by car, it was difficult to make it alone through the deserts and debris that covered the lands. It was much easier to travel along the very well known routes where people were aplenty and help could be sought if need arose. The Silk Road represented a culture in itself. People who traveled the routes exchanged news, ideas, products and art works. Buddhist monk and missionaries were among the people who have entered the Silk Road in second century BCE.

Today no one can say for sure when it was exactly that Buddhism has reached China. Spread of Buddhism to China was a slow process. News did not travel very fast and at first the notion of India and its distant god were just an idea to the Chinese people and Chinese culture. There are some early records indicating that a Buddhist community existed in China at the permission of the Han prince but the real impact that Buddhism had in China is dated from the story of Han King who was said to have a dream in which a golden figure appeared to him at night. In the morning, upon his awakening the King called his ministers and demanded to know what the dream meant. The ministers informed him that the golden figure he referred to was most likely the Indian god Buddha. The Han King then sent one of his envoys to India where he stayed for three years learning about the Indian culture and Buddhism. Upon his return back to China he brought back Buddhist relics, Buddhist text and Buddhist monks who were to educate the Chinese of the ways of their god.

In the early centuries of CE the map of the world was not yet complete and knowing about neighboring countries depended on how far the travelers went and how well they know the surrounding regions. The Silk Road was the main factor contributing to the fact that the Chinese even learned of the far off India, which they had no relationship with until the trade route picked up. Most likely without it the spread of Buddhism to China would have been delayed and might not have had such an impact on the Chinese culture, as it later had. But the Silk Road carried the news to the far off country and the Chinese Empire was finally introduced to the living faith of the Indian people.

The Silk Road spread of Buddhism started as early as 1st century CE when Chinese Emperor Ming sent his embassy to the West. Furthermore, in the 2nd century CE the relationship between Buddhism and Chinese Empire started to become more widespread as a consequence of the spread of Kushan Empire into the Chinese territory. From that point on, more and more Buddhist monks and missionaries entered the regions of Central Asia. According to historic documents, the first missionaries and translators of Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese were Kushan, Parthian, Sogdian or Kuchean. From about 4th century, Chinese pilgrims started to travel to India in order to learn more about the new religion and get access to the original Buddhist scriptures. Two of the most significant pilgrimages include Fa-hsien's pilgrimage to India (395-414) and Xuan Zang (629-644). As a result of these pilgrmages cultural exchange between India and China greatly increased, more and more Buddhist scriptures were brought back and translated into Chinese. Along with the scriptures, came new ideas as well as new art forms. The art of Buddhims left the world the most amazing and powerful monuments along the Silk Road, among them the most significant Buddhist sculptures, painting and murals.

Once Buddhism came to China it was meant to stay. The Buddhist communities began to grow and the fascination with everything that Buddhism represented grew and flourished. The sacred Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese, Buddhist art and traditions spread and established themselves in the land and it was clear that the religion was rooting itself in the soil of the foreign country. Chinese Buddhism flourished and was at its peak under the rule of the first half of the Tang dynasty. Chinese Empress Wu Ze Tian sponsored many Buddhist projects, one of which is a White Buddha statue at the Mogao Caves. Its been estimated by scholars that as many as 90% of Chinese population was converted to Buddhism. It became the religion of the elites, the top of the ruling clans and the privilege of the learned. But by the 6th century CE it has finally spread to the common folk, thus reinforcing its position as one of the dominant forces in the region. Art and literature developed under the influence brought about by the Buddhist culture. By the end of the 6th century Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan further reaffirming its importance in Asia. It continued to grow and gain momentum until finally reaching the point at which persecutions of the Buddhists began in China in 9th century CE.

Buddhism was not the only religion that traveled routes of the great Silk Road. Many ideas and innovations came the same way as Buddhism had come but not as many lingered and managed to have such a great impact on the cultures of Asia as it had. The Silk Road was responsible for the bringing Hellenistic influences to the region as well as for spread of Islam. It gave rise to many great traditions and introduced many cultures to their distant neighbors while creating a pool of cross-cultural interaction. Its phenomenon was greatly recorded in contemporary literary works and was recognized by many as one of the greatest ways to spread ideas and increase trade. Even today the Silk Road is discussed in details when the history of Asia is closely examined.

No one any longer knows who those people who traveled these routes first were, what brought them to establish these trade routes and why Silk Road was so widely known whereas other trade routes existent before it came and perished without a trace. One thing is clear however: it has played a major role in shaping the future of Asia and the way cultures developed around the Silk Road.

Buddhism gave people a new way of life, an existence filled with meaning and hope that things did not have to look so bad. It was a philosophy, a way to live a life. Buddha opened his arms and heart for anyone who was willing to embrace the light and open a way for the light of Nirvana. As long as the Chinese Empire was prominent in the region Buddhism reigned with its soft light and alluring hopes.

But as is the case with many things in life, Silk Road was interchangeable and lacked in faithfulness to ideas. Throughout human history, ideas came and went, replaced by something new, more alluring and exiting. In the same way, Buddhism was gradually pushed out of the way of the Silk Road and out of the Central Asia region. Most scholars agree that decline of Buddhism began with the decline of the Chinese Empire, in which it was closely rooted. As the Chinese influence in the region began to dissipate other forces began to gain rise.

Gradually over the course of time new dominant entities began to appear in the region, among which were the Turkish and Mongolian empires. Even though historically both of these cultures were rather sympathetic to the spread of Buddhism through the region, none of these cultures succeeded in converting to the religion. With rise of Islam in the Middle East the power grid began to shift and it soon became apparent that Islam was to dominate both the Turks and the Mongols. As Buddhism once before, Islam entered the Silk Road. Islam was a radically different notion to the indigenous people. It did not offer a philosophy as much as it introduced an idea of a unified god, a god responsible for everything in this world, a god who created and ruled it and therefore negated all the other deities that existed before.

Just like Buddhism, Islam swept though the Silk Road like a storm. With growing influence of Mongols and Turks, who fully embraced the religion of the East, it began to push Buddhism out of the way. When the Chinese lost their momentum and Mongols began to fully dominate the region along side with the Ottoman Empire, there was finally no room left for the spread of Buddhism and it was all but obliterated from the routes of the Silk Road.

It is both sad and ironic that the Silk Road was the way to both greatest glory and decline of the Buddhist faith. Buddhist traditions flourished along side the trade highway and then painfully died on its outskirts. Buddhism became a victim of its own success. It spread so rapidly and drastically, replacing Chinese belief system that in the second half of the Tang dynasty it caused a series of counteractions from which it never fully recovered. Collapse of the Tang dynasty as well as the invasion of Arabs in the West also greatly contributed to the decline of the Buddhist faith. Unfortunately, this example only further illustrates that nothing is permanent under the sun, as King Solomon has once suggested. The Silk Road gave humanity one of the greatest notions of the world, carrying it swiftly through the steppes and regions of Central Asia, and then crashed it with new and more appealing concepts that were interchangeable it the vast sea of people carrying material goods alongside with spiritual and moral ideas of the most prominent contemporary highway.


1. "Buddhism and its Spread Along Silk Road." 1997-2000. http://www.silkroad.com/art/buddhism.shtml

2. Sam van Schaik "Buddhism on the Silk Road" 29 Oct. 2001. 11 Jan. 2002. http://idp.bl.uk/education/buddhism/index.html

3. Wikipedia. " Silk Road" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road

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