Just as philosophical discourse within China flourished through universal wisdom brought over from India, so did the latter’s economy prosper as a result of the Silk Road. For example, the Mauryan Empire continued to thrive in large part due to its land and sea trade “with China and Sumatra to the east, Ceylon to the south, and Persia and the Mediterranean to the west. The silk routes from Europe to China put India at the center of a vibrant land trade route…” (Dehejia & Dehejia, 1993) Likewise, there were other civilizations that prospered culturally and economically by availing the Silk Road. The community of Sogdians were one such, who turned out to be the most successful traders on the Silk Road. They travelled more than two thousand miles from Eastern and Central Europe to come to the courts of Chinese kings to make trade agreements. Sogdian merchants were instrumental in linguistic and intellectual exchange between these two parts of the world. For example, the writings of Nanai-Vandak – an influential Sogdian merchant – remains a key historical text in China. In return, Sogidans took Buddhist wisdom and artistic paraphernalia surrounding Buddhist philosophy to their homelands. For example, a Buddhist sculpture standing a mere 4.5 inches high was discovered in Central Europe recently. This rare gilt bronze statue of a “Seated Buddha with a Parasol” is estimated to be about 1500 years old. (Finlay, 2002) Musicians and dancers from Central Asia were offered patronage by local Chinese dominions. Some of the sculptural works from the period reflect scenes of cultural expression. For example there is a small statue of a person with a double-gourd flask on his shoulders, indicating that he is a commissioned entertainer. He is shown performing the ‘Sogdian whirl’ – a popular dance form of the Sogdians. But what is instructive is that this dancing figure is “mounted on a lotus-flower pedestal, a detail borrowed from more-sober Buddhist images.” (Finlay, 2002) Thus, the cultural exchanges between Buddhist societies and far-off civilizations are quite apparent.
Traders traversing the Silk Road took the Buddhist tradition of peace and non-violence when they went back home. The Buddhist doctrine of inner harmony and human compassion held an appeal to all those who met with it. This accounts for the various branches of Buddhism that have evolved across regions along the Silk Road. For example, the schools of Buddhism in India, China, Japan and other South-East Asian countries are slightly different. Yet they are united by the Buddha’s basic articulations on the nature of human suffering. Contemporarily, there is even a brand of Buddhism that is evolving in Western countries. But what the history of the Silk Road has shown is that new forms of Buddhism “have created interacting communities of peace discourse, intermingling unique literary, artistic, philosophical and ethical heritages.” (Nicolini-Zani, 2011) To not be dogmatic is an essential spirit of Buddhism. Hence, this philosophical system emphasized the importance of everyday practice in a collective community setting, as against treating ‘belief’ as something abstract and above practical realities and considerations. This flexible nature inherent in Buddhism explains how it has been able to accommodate and grace people from various other religious backgrounds who traversed the Silk Road.
Finally, as a note of caution and disappointment, it should be understood that while commerce provided the context for cultural exchange and helped facilitate better understanding of other religions, it did not help create a climate of total peace. This is evident from the numerous religion-inspired wars that were to occur in subsequent history, the most calamitous of it being the Second World War and the Holocaust. In the ongoing era of globalization, when interconnectivity between various parts of the world is becoming quick and easy, there have been increased instances of geo-political and cultural conflict. There is a need more than ever before for all the major religions of the world to confer and find common ground. Buddhism has the potential to play that mediating role in bringing together major monotheistic religions for dialogue. Buddhism can today replicate the noble uniting role that it played millennia ago during the usage of the Silk Road. (Yusuf, 2009)
• Boyle, J. (2001). Buddhist Discourse: An Instrument of Peace. International Journal of Humanities and Peace, 17(1), 27+.
• Dehejia, R. H., & Dehejia, V. H. (1993). Religion and Economic Activity in India: An Historical Perspective. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 52(2), 145+.
• Finlay, J. R. (2002, March). Treasures of the Silk Road: During a Period of Disunity in China’s History, New Religious, Ethnic, and Commercial Influences Transformed Its Culture. (Museum Today). USA TODAY, 130(2682), 42+.
• Nicolini-Zani, M. (2011). Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters: Studies on East Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia. The Catholic Historical Review, 97(3), 616+.
• Yusuf, I. (2009). Dialogue between Islam and Buddhism through the Concepts Ummatan Wasatan (the Middle Nation) and Majjhima-Patipada (the Middle Way). Islamic Studies, 48(3), 367+.