A few months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in the spring of 2001, Taliban officials oversaw a series of explosions in the Bamiyan Valley, which deliberately detonated priceless elements of world heritage. Among the victims of this depredation were a set of enormous Buddha statues that had symbolized the unity of peoples in the region across religious lines. The two statues of Buddha (at 35 and 53 meters in height, one was the tallest Buddha in the world until its destruction) were rendered in a blended Hellenistic and South Asian style. Even after the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, little has been done to restore the objects. (Left: an 1880 drawing showing how they originally appeared; right, what remained of the statues after their destruction.)
©SuperStock (drawing); ©Graciela Gonzalez Brigas (landscape)
The Code of Manu deals with many different features of Hindu life, such as the proper behavior of different castes and methods for ritual purification. The “Manu” referred to in the title is the legendary “first man” of Hindu culture, also recognized as the first lawgiver. Thus, the Code of Manu is thought of within Hinduism as a text based on human traditions (smriti), but it is also believed to be consistent with the values included in texts that are divinely revealed (shruti), such as the “Purusha Hymn.” As a result, it restates and reaffirms traditional values and structures, but it does so on the basis of religious authority.
The responsibilities described for women in the Code of Manu need to be understood within the context of Hinduism. A central component of Hinduism is the concept of dharma (“that which is firm”). Hindus believe that by living up to the religious and social responsibilities attached to one’s social position (caste and gender), one sustains the proper order of the universe and gains good karma, moving up the scale of reincarnation toward unity with the brahman, or World Soul. Composed following a period of unrest, the Code of Manu represents a vigorous attempt to reestablish order within the Hindu world.
The Law of Manu, in The Sacred Books of the East, vol. 25, trans. G. Bühler (Oxford: Clarendon, 1886), 194–197, 328–330, 332, 335, 344–345.
Constantine the Great (272–337 BCE) became Roman emperor in 306; by 312 he had defeated his most powerful rival for power. Secure in his political power, Constantine quickly turned to matters of religion. He was responsible for issuing the Edict of Milan, along with Lucinius (a co-emperor and another rival) in 313. This Edict officially made Christianity legal within the empire. This was only the first of many steps Constantine took to promote Christianity.
Constantine also took on a leadership role in relation to the church. In 325, Constantine summoned a church council at Nicaea, to combat heresy and define a statement of belief, or a creed. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, recorded the events of the council and the creed in his Ecclesiastical History, one of the most important sources for the history of early Christianity.
Eusebius, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine. (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1844),120-126
This head, crafted from copper alloy, is all that remains of an impressive image found in central Vietnam. It depicts the Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of Buddhist compassion, and the Amitabha Buddha is perched on the crown. It points to the emergence of a pan–southeast Asian bodhisattva type in the eighth and ninth centuries, as well as to the superb metal-casting skills of artisans in the Cham territories of Vietnam.
Photo: Thierry Ollivier. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
When Buddhism reached China it encountered an already established civilization with deeply rooted literary and intellectual traditions. In addition, the scholarly elite of China was somewhat hostile to “foreign” influence. On the other hand, in the troubled times that followed the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 CE, Buddhism’s promise of a better hereafter proved a powerful draw among common people, while some rulers of the regional dynasties that replaced the Han saw in Buddhism a way to buttress their authority. Finally, Chinese intellectuals looked to it as a new source for magical elixirs of longevity or immortality (a path down which Taoism had already traveled by this time) and of metaphysical speculation. Major translation projects were undertaken in the period 200–500 CE, and knowledge of Buddhism spread through these texts and through the building of temples and the founding of Buddhist communities of monks. By the 400s Buddhism had become established widely enough to cause concern among traditionalist Chinese, especially among the Confucian scholarly elite, and to provoke counterattacks in the form of government persecution in the north and of tracts attacking the faith in the south.
The following text, whose author and exact date of composition are unknown, takes the form of a Buddhist answer to some of the common lines of attack contained in such tracts. From that internal evidence, and knowing something about the reaction against Buddhism in China, we can safely assert that it comes from southern China during the fifth century CE. In order to win the Chinese over to Buddhism, the followers of the new faith had to address, among other things, significant aspects of existing Chinese culture—for example, the importance of ancestor worship and of the five relationships of Confucianism. The author pursues one of the logical lines to take when recommending something new to a culture: He argues that the practice of Buddhism is compatible with traditional Chinese values and that the ideas in Buddhist texts are similar to those in the Chinese classics. Buddhism, he asserts, complements and extends Chinese cultural practices rather than contradicting them.
From Mou Tzu in The Disposition of Error by DeBary, et al., Sources of the Chinese Tradition, 274–80. Copyright © 1960 Columbia University Press.
The Byzantine Empire was racked by a series of religious disputes that pulled in emperors as well as priests. One of the most significant of these was an ongoing difference of opinion concerning “graven images” of Jesus and other prominent figures in Christian narratives. Was it proper to create and display images of God, and, if so, should existing “icons” be destroyed in order to protect the faithful? These documents represent the two major perspectives on this debate, between the poles of the “iconodule” (pro-icon) position and the “iconoclastic” (anti-icon) position.
Anthony Bryer and Judith Herrin, eds., Iconoclasm: Papers Given at the Ninth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, March 1975 (Birmingham, UK: Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, 1977), available online at http://www.tulane.edu/~august/H303/readings/Iconoclasm.htm.
The name of the most holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, means “the recital.” It contains, according to Islamic theology, the direct words of God (Allah), as told to his prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. Muslims believe that the angel directed Muhammad to “recite” 114 suras, or books, beginning around 610 CE. After Muhammad’s death in 632, an authorized text of these suras was compiled and publicized. The general arrangement of the Qur’an is according to the length of each document. It is important to note, therefore, that the Qur’an does not purport to be a continuous narrative, telling a series of stories, as is typical in other religious texts. This means that individual pronouncements can be taken out of context, and that various portions of the document can be quoted to different effects.
Sahih International translation, available online at http://quran.com/2.
The Lives of Eminent Korean Monks is a compilation of biographies of Buddhist monks from the Three Kingdoms period of Korean history (first century BCE through the tenth century CE). It promotes Buddhist piety by stressing the (often supernatural) deeds of these monks, and it is also a valuable source for Korean history. In spite of its importance, the work was long thought lost until portions of it were found at a Buddhist temple in the early twentieth century. This passage of the Lives deals with the introduction of Buddhism as the national faith of the Silla Kingdom in 527 CE, under King Pŏpkong.
“Pŏpkong Declares Buddhism the National Faith,” in Peter H. Lee, ed. Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, vol. 1, From Early Times to the Sixteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 75–77.
Not all the subjects of the Roman Empire were happy with its rule, despite the peace and prosperity of the Pax Romana. The Jews, whose exclusive monotheism prevented them from participating in the cult of Augustus, were uncomfortable subjects of the Roman Empire, though the Romans were in fact fairly tolerant of the Jewish population, recognizing their separate religious tradition and allowing them to practice it. Nonetheless, religious and ethnic tensions fanned the flames of Jewish discontent, and the population broke into open revolt in 70 CE.
Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. William Whiston. Auburn and Buffalo: John E. Beardsley (1895).
Harsha Vardhana, one of the better known monarchs of India, controlled a wide swath of territory in the northern subcontinent between 606 and 647 CE. Harsha was visited during his reign by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang, who described his court and government, and the poet Bana wrote a biography of the king called the Harshacarita. However, Harsha himself also wrote at least three plays, two of which were dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and incorporated actual incidents from his court. While the plays are ostensibly fictional, the scene below draws on a real event, reported by Xuan Zang, in which Harsha saved an image of Buddha from a fire that had broken out in his palace. His plays reflect the cosmopolitan and religiously eclectic nature of his court, as well as his view of the status of the advisors and women in his orbit.
Harsha Vardhana, The Lady of the Jewel Necklace, trans. Wendy Doniger (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 259–265.
This panel from a temple in the Mayan city of Palenque contains glyphs (forming a caption) and two figures. A captive kneels before a standing warrior who holds a flint spear and wears a war headdress. The large text to the left records an event at Palenque that occurred in 490. The small text above the kneeling figure gives the name of a captive.
Drawing by Linda Schele © David Schele. The Linda Schele Drawings Collection, http://research.famsi.org/schele_list.php?_allSearch=118.
Buddhism had begun to spread widely within India after the conversion of Asoka in the third century BCE, and his promotion of the religion as part of a syncretic (a combination of elements from different beliefs) emphasis on dharma (sacred duty) as the bond between his government and his subjects. It may have been these efforts at popularizing the religion that gave impetus to tendencies within the religion that eventually carried it in a new direction. By the first century CE, these tendencies had begun to come together into a self-conscious new school of Buddhism, described by its practitioners as Mahayana, or the Greater Vehicle—meaning that this sect promised to carry far more people to salvation than the older version could. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism referred to the older version as Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle. The followers of the older version, though, preferred to refer to their religion as Theravada, or the Teaching of the Elders. This religion continued to exist and itself spread to parts of southeast Asia. It was the Mahayana version of Buddhism that first became widely popular in India and then, during the early centuries CE, spread all over central and East Asia.
In Mahayana belief, the Buddha has become an all-knowing being, somewhere between a divine person—a mortal man who achieves immortality— and a god, to whom even Hindu gods offer respect. His wisdom surpasses that of the other gods, because he recognizes the uncreated and infinite nature of the universe, whereas some of them imagine themselves as creators.
Accompanying the belief in the Buddha’s divinity is a belief in a class of beings known as bodhisattvas, or Wise Beings. Essentially these are people who had reached the edge of nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth, only to compassionately turn back to help others cross over into bliss. Nirvana itself evolved from the somewhat abstract notion of “extinguishment”—of the soul becoming one with the cosmos and escaping the illusion of individuality—to a notion of a heavenly paradise. The image often used to explain the role of the bodhisattva is of a ferryman who repeatedly carries masses of devout worshippers over to salvation on his giant barge, while Theravada Buddhists cross the river one at a time and each one only once.
One of the most popular of the bodhisattvas was Avalokitesvara, or “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds,” who first shows up in a book called The Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest and most influential of the sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra describes the ten cosmic levels of existence, from hell up to nirvana, with bodhisattvas on the ninth level working to remove the suffering of the world and to carry people to the highest level. Avalokitesvara is prominent among the bodhisattvas of The Lotus Sutra, and his cult spread with the dissemination of the text. The work was first translated into Chinese in 255 CE, and a Chinese translation made in 406 is the basis for this English translation. One interesting note about the transmission of Buddhism to China is that in later centuries Avalokitesvara, called Guanyin in China, was transformed into a female. In either form, “Perceiver of the World’s Sounds” illustrates the central characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism’s encounter with the transcendent.
The Lotus Sutra, trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press (1993): 298–303. Copyright © 1993 Columbia University Press.
Just before his death in Babylon in June 323 BCE, Alexander the Great was the unrivalled conqueror of an enormous portion of the known world, counting modern Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan among his possessions. However, when he died, leaving his kingdom “to the strongest,” conflicts immediately broke out among his Macedonian successors to determine who that strongest man was. A part of the military and political struggle that followed was an attempt to Hellenize, with varying levels of success, the older and more entrenched cultures Alexander had defeated as he raced through Africa and Asia. This process continued for the next three centuries, and, in the mid-second century BCE, one of these successor kings, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, attempted a brutal imposition of Greek cultural values on the Jews in Jerusalem. This effort, and the revolt it triggered, is described in the apocryphal (i.e., not part of the standard canon) Jewish book of 1 Maccabees. Notice that the Hellenistic era did not appear to everyone to have been a fortuitous blending of disparate cultures.
The Apocrypha: Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1957), 190–192.
A fascinating instance of a woman’s empowerment in the Classical World is that of Vibia Perpetua, who was executed for her beliefs in 202 or 203 CE in Carthage in Roman North Africa. Very little is known about Perpetua, except that she was still a catechumen—that is, she had not yet been baptized—at the time of her arrest. Her father, who figures prominently in her diary, was a pagan, but her mother and two brothers were Christians. She was executed along with five others who publicly asserted their Christian faith, despite, or perhaps because of, the assurance of execution. As the diary and accompanying materials make clear, Perpetua was a leader and was looked up to as having special spiritual gifts. The supposed day of her death, March 7, is still celebrated as her feast day in the Roman Catholic Church.
Women’s role in society is a complex issue in Christianity. On the one hand, Eve is blamed for the fall from grace and the expulsion from the Garden into the troubles of this world. On the other hand, Mary was honored by her selection as the woman who would bear the god-child, Jesus, and the sorrows she endured watching her son be tortured and crucified have earned her particular respect and affection among Christians. Given the subordinate role that women have experienced in almost all cultures, Jesus’ special recognition and blessing of the meek in the Sermon on the Mount gave Christianity an additional appeal among women. Yet despite the fact that Christian congregations have often numbered more women than men, most Christian religions have not accorded women equal status. This can be seen very clearly in religion’s policies concerning women clergy. Christianity has historically been dominated by men, who are still the only ones deemed worthy of being priests or preachers in the majority of Christian denominations.
The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, trans. Herbert Musurillo. Oxford University Press (1972): 109, 111, 113, 115, 117, 119.
Virtually no records have survived from the period between the unification of China in 221 BCE and the collapse of the Qin Empire 15 years later. Accordingly, historians are forced to rely on documents composed during the Han dynasty for relevant information. Nevertheless, one of the stories passed along, concerning the advice of Li Si to the emperor, is a stark reminder of how fragile learning can be, even in a temporarily successful polity. The Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) is a lengthy history of China compiled by Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 BCE), and the collection also includes a detailed biography of Li Si.
Shih chi 87:6b–7a, in de Bary and Bloom, comps., Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 140–141.
Born around 360 CE and instructed by her father, Theon, a mathematician and the last librarian of the famous Library of Alexandria, Hypatia directed the Platonic school in the city, teaching students who were of mixed religious commitments but were, presumably, all men. The few sources that mention her agree that she was abducted, stripped of her clothes, and stoned to death with roof tiles by a deranged group of Christians, but the precise sequence of events that led to this atrocity has always been controversial.
Because all of these sources were composed by Christians—with the exception of her own correspondence with a former student, the bishop Synesius of Cyrene—the lynching of Hypatia may be interpreted as an instance of fanaticism attempting to destroy reason, or as the elimination of a dangerous pagan influence in the midst of a Christianizing Egypt. The latter approach has, unfortunately, been more common, given Christian influence—and misogyny—in Western societies and the installation of her main opponent, Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, as one of the “fathers of the church.”
Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 7.15, available online at http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-religion451.shtml.
The eastern Mediterranean around the beginning of the first century CE was a world of religious ferment. In addition to the civic and emerging imperial cults of the ruling Roman Empire, mystery religions—often secret groups who looked to some particular god for eternal life, Truth, and so forth, usually by means of sacrificial ceremonies and other rituals—were gaining popularity. Prominent also were many of the ideas associated with Persian Zoroastrianism and a variety of dualistic, proto-salvationist faiths influenced by it. Finally, a number of Jewish sects took varying approaches to the problem posed by Roman control of Palestine, the land they believed had been promised to them by their god. A militant strain in Judaism would rise in revolt against Rome in 69 CE, leading to the war chronicled by Josephus. But before then, a different sort of Jewish rabbi, or teacher, and his followers had already made their mark on the religious world.
Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BCE–c. 30 CE) was a prophet, who preached the coming, not of a military Messiah (Anointed One, a sacred leader) who would lead the Jews to repossession of the promised land, but of the coming of a spiritual Messiah who would lead not just Jews but all of mankind to the promised land of salvation and heavenly reward. At some point, his followers became convinced that he was that Messiah. Despite his emphasis on a heavenly Kingdom, his popularity among the Jewish population made both the Romans and the leaders of the Jewish community (who had no desire to irritate the Romans) nervous, and they had him executed by crucifixion. His followers, however, believed that he rose from the dead and visited his apostles before ascending to his Father in heaven, promising to return to sit in judgment on mankind.
The teachings of Jesus himself clearly formed the basis of what became a new religion, Christianity, so called because Jesus’ title of Messiah in Greek is Christos, and his followers were therefore Christians. Jesus left no writings of his own. Therefore, the working out and refining of Jesus’ message in theological terms, as well as defining who the message was aimed at and what constituted the community of believers, was largely the work of a Jew named Saul (3 BCE–64 or 67 CE) from Tarsus in Asia Minor. Trained as a rabbi and scholarly religious leader in the Jewish tradition, he underwent a sudden conversion experience, changed his name to Paul, and became early Christianity’s most influential missionary and teacher. He wrote many epistles, or letters, to different communities of converts, explaining and developing the new faith and, most crucially, opening it up decisively to Gentiles, or non-Jews. His letter to a group of Christians in Rome is his fullest, most complete statement of the tenets of the new religion, and it came to be part of the authoritative texts of the faith. These texts, including Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, came to be known collectively as the New Testament of the Bible, to distinguish it from the Old Testament, the Jewish portion of the Bible. A section of this epistle is the first reading here.
Also included as the foundation of the New Testament were accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, known as Gospels, or Good News. Four came to be considered canonical, with pride of place taken by that of Matthew. Early Christians attributed this book to the Matthew who was one of Jesus’ original twelve Apostles, but modern scholarship places the author as a second-generation Christian, probably from Antioch, writing around 80 CE. Included here is the section of the Gospel of Matthew known as the Sermon on the Mount, which almost certainly represents not a verbatim transcription of a single speech but Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ key teachings set in an appropriate setting. Together, the writings of Paul and Matthew give a good sense of the foundations of this new salvation religion.
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Edition (New York: American Bible Society, 1952): Romans 1, 5, 10; Matthew 5, 6.
John of Damascus
John of Damascus, d. 754, wrote in defense of images during the first stage of the iconoclast controversy (726-787) in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines were torn apart by the dispute over whether icons violated the Biblical prohibition of graven images; it was a schism that had religious and political repercussions, and ultimately led to the loss of authority by the emperor over the church (in 842). It also distracted the Byzantine church from other potential religious developments.
From A Source Book for Ancient Church History: From the Apostolic Age to the Close of the Concillar Period. Edited by Joseph Cullen Ayer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913, pp. 691-693.
Islam began, on the model of Judaism (from which it in part derived), as a faith for a particular people, the Arabs, despite its conception of Allah as the sole god of the universe. It developed a universalist mission of conversion more slowly, under the conditions of rapid and widespread conquest that installed Muslims as the rulers of large non-Muslim populations. What were Muslims to do about such populations?
T. W. Arnold, trans., The Preaching of Islam, 2nd ed. (London, 1913), 57–59.
This source represents an alternative path that Chinese Buddhists took in trying to establish the compatibility of their faith with the existing body of Chinese literature and culture. Instead of arguing that the practice of Buddhism is compatible with ideas in classical Chinese texts, this alternative path was based on the Buddhist emphasis on individual enlightenment by means of meditation. Meditation and contemplation had been important practices in Buddhism since the Buddha himself attained enlightenment by meditating under a bo tree. In addition, a School of Meditation arose as one stream of Mahayana Buddhism, emphasizing meditation as the central path to enlightenment. Known as Ch’an in China and later as Zen in Japan, this school tended to discount the importance of texts in favor of practice and the direct transmission of the Buddhist Law from one master (or patriarch) to another. The foundational text for this school is The Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch. The Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638–713), was the key figure in Ch’an Buddhism’s rise to prominence as one of the most influential Buddhist schools in China. The text appears to be a lecture by Hui-neng recorded by one of his pupils and dates to the early eighth century, around or shortly after Hui-neng’s death.
From The Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch by DeBary, et al., Sources of the Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press (1960): 350–52.