The Silk Road (or Silk Route) was a vast network of inter-continental pathways that was a key artery of trade and cultural exchange during ancient times. First developed during the Han dynasty two millennia ago, the routes connected China to India, Europe, Arabia and beyond. While silk produced in China was a major commodity being traded along these routes, far more significant cultural and intellectual exchanges happed through this conduit. This essay is an exposition of how Buddhism provided a basis for cultural and commercial exchange along the Silk Road.
At the time of the Silk Road’s highest utility, several new religions were taking root across geographies. For example, two millennia ago, Christianity was born, having broken away from Judaism. The other major monotheistic religion, Islam, was born much later in history. Though these religions had their original doctrines, they were also defined in relation to one another. In other words, there were key distinguishing features from one religion to another, which are often irreconcilable and a source of strife among the respective followers. Hence, there was a need for an open-minded dialogue between the major religions of ancient times. The Silk Road, it can be claimed, served as an avenue for this much needed religious interaction. One particular area where the Silk Road was quite helpful is in bringing Islam and Buddhism closer. A constructive dialogue between the two religions was made possible through an Islamic precept called ‘ummatan wasan’. This translates as ‘Middle Nation’ and resonates with the Buddhist precept of ‘majjhima-patipada (Middle Way). This common ground between the two religions helped create an atmosphere of mutual trust and peace during Silk Road trade. The Islamic expression of ‘ummatan wasatan’ is meant to represent the community as one of equitable and reasonable people with a penchant for moderation. In other words, the term portrays Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) as an exemplar moderate. There is convergence between this Islamic principle (oft forgotten by later practitioners) and the Buddhist guidance to follow the ‘middle path’. (Yusuf, 2009)
Since there were numerous geo-social groups adhering to Islam along the Silk Road, this common ground became important. The mutual respect gained by traders adhering to Islam and Buddhism during ancient history has to be sustained in modern times as well. Both the Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) preached about “what is the true state of being and how the illusions which drag humanity through darkness and injustice can be overcome.” (Yusuf, 2009)
Starting with the first century CE, traders along the Silk Road began a “major gestalt shift into new linguistic forms and historic contexts.” (Boyle, 2001) The Silk Road proved to be the vital artery that would enable this transfer of wisdom across geographies. Though Buddhism was born in Northern India, it found its most dedicated followership in countries of East and South East Asia. By the time Buddhism reached the interiors regions of China, the nation has already achieved a distinct cultural and intellectual tradition. This provided the apt platform for the assimilation of a philosophical system that is less focussed on dogma and more focussed on a set of universal insights into the nature of human mind and behaviour. The Buddha, having been brought up by a Hindu king in Northern India, integrated some of the insights of Hindu philosophy into what would later comprise key Buddhist texts. In this sense, the Silk Road has been a channel for transmitting theological truths discovered by Indian philosophers into the Chinese language, thereby reaching the Chinese people. By the “3rd and 4th centuries Buddhist dialogue, now intercultural, was interpreted through the filter of indigenous Chinese philosophical categories.” (Boyle, 2001)