Changing empires and the decline of Buddhism

Last year we read reports from one of the major archaeological discoveries of recent years, Musi River, Sumatra. Very rich finds of luxury items, especially gold, suggest that we are dealing with the lost capital of a long forgotten empire. Srivijaya was a mighty merchant trading 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 retained its power and wealth from the 7th century AD to at least the 11th.

The story is wonderful enough on its own, but as I will explain, this discovery touched on a number of my interests, including the role of empires in the spread of religions, as well as another closely related idea, the how religions die. .

How the World‘s Religions Disappear and (Sometimes) Die

This last point is counter-intuitive. We hear a lot about religions growing and spreading, but rarely about how they die. Yet they certainly die. Witness to what was for a millennium the global faith of Manichaeism. For a thousand years, Zoroastrianism was the faith of the Persian Empire which was among the three or four greatest powers of the ancient world. Today, this same faith is the prerogative of barely 100,000 Parsis.

Moreover, particular religions have become extinct in regions which they once totally dominated. We think of the extinction of Christianity in vast areas of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia in which this faith was very strong. It was the theme of my 2008 book The Lost History of Christianity. But here is another more surprising example. What about Buddhism? Buddhism, of course, is one of the great religions in the world today, with perhaps half a billion adherents. But Buddhism as it exists in the modern world is only a widespread or dominant faith in some of the territories where it once prevailed. Like the Christianity of much of Asia and North Africa, Buddhism also ceased to exist in these regions except as a shadow faith.

I wrote about the millennium or so when Buddhism dominated most of India and Sri Lanka, roughly the period between 250 BC and 800 AD. By the seventh century AD, Buddhism had spread to the regions we associate it with today, including China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Vietnam, much of Central Asia. Thailand followed soon after, and the Khmer Empire in Cambodia was very open to Buddhist teaching. In fact, the process was very similar to the prolonged and gradual conversion of Europe to Christianity, which began with the Roman Empire in the 4th century and was not completed until Lithuania accepted the faith in the late 14th century. century. This Christian conversion was, in other words, a millennial process, very similar to the Buddhist parallel.

But the history of Buddhism in Asia was even more ambitious than we think today, because we have forgotten the very large areas in which this faith advanced, but where it ceased to exist. Buddhism in India quickly faded away at the end of the first millennium, to be replaced by resurgent Hinduism and, later, ascendant Islam. Buddhism never perished in China, but successive regimes imposed 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 it was seen as a sect of the larger Buddhist faith. The political and economic chaos of the 10th century – the era of the Five Dynasties – witnessed a sharp contraction in noble support for Buddhism. By the end of the first millennium, Buddhism was in dramatic decline in these two vital regions 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, Buddhist monks and missionaries took full advantage of these opportunities, and when those empires failed, so did their religious enterprises.

Great Srivijaya!

And that brings me back (finally) to the discoveries of Sumatra. The Srivijaya Empire enjoyed enormous wealth. To get an idea of ​​the trade to which it had access, one could turn to another of the great archaeological discoveries of modern times, the sinking of Belitung, the remains of a voyage between Tang China and the Arabian Gulf around AD 830. The dazzling treasures the ship contained, and especially the priceless ceramics, are now a centerpiece of the magnificent city of Singapore. Asian Civilizations Museum. Srivijaya played a central role in the Spice Routeswhich has generated untold wealth.

Like other empires before and since, Srivijaya left a powerful linguistic legacy. Today, in its various forms, the Malay language is spoken by approximately 300 million people in the countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. Old Malay probably originated in Borneo and during the first centuries of the Christian era it evolved into Old Malay, which shows strong signs of Indian and Sanskrit influence. This emerging language then spread quite rapidly, mainly, it seems, through its association with Srivijaya. The first written evidence is Kedukan Bukit inscription from Sumatra, which can be dated precisely to May 1, 683 AD: it is in Pallava script, from southern India. It ends by invoking “Great Srivijaya! Prosperity and wealth. Ancient Malay inscriptions then appear in numbers across Indonesia and Malaysia, including in the Srivijayan monuments of 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 the spread of Malay on what became its later territories. Old Malay was the lingua franca that allowed trade to continue within the commercial and political empire.

Srivijaya was rich, powerful and also a Buddhist. We recall that the very name of Indonesia is a modern geographical term designating the “Indian islands”, those regions under the deep cultural and political influence of 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 someone’s mental failings are pointed out by saying, “He’s so dumb he doesn’t know the plot of the RamayanaNaturally, then, the region was completely exposed to the Indian religion of the time, which was Buddhism, and particularly in the then-dominant Mahayana form. The ancient Malay language shows many borrowings from both the Hindu religion and Buddhist.


This extension finds an overwhelming visual symbol in the incredible Borobudur Temple, in central Java, which was probably built in the 8th and 9th centuries. It was the work of the Shaildenra dynasty, which also controlled Srivijaya.

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Superlatives fail to describe Borobudur, which is quite simply the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and arguably the most impressive. Its location and orientation also testify to a fascination for astronomical alignments: it is intended as a hub of multiple universes. Many tourists who visit Borobudur must at some point wonder why this magnificent site is here, so far from what we naturally consider the heart of the Buddhist world – or in fact, why it is so far beyond the borders of this world. .

One could picture a map of Asia in the eighth or ninth century, before the reversal of fortunes in India and China. Besides all the lands we think of today, we would also think of Buddhist missions spreading through what we call Indonesia and the Philippines, and out into the Pacific. Buddhism also remained vibrant in Central Asia. As late as the 13th 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 the year 800, say in the time of Charlemagne, it was hardly an exaggeration to think of an Asia as profoundly Buddhist as Europe would become Christian. Given the incredible wealth of South and East Asia at the time, and the very high populations of this region, Buddhism had every chance of becoming the most flourishing and influential religion in history. ever existed, and the best endowed in terms of buildings and sacred monuments and structures.

This was not to be the case, for reasons I have explored elsewhere. The loss of India arguably played a disproportionate role in this story. Although the Indian institutions never played a role comparable to that of the popes in Christianity, they had a real charisma. Kings from far and wide Srivijaya sent offerings to the legendary center of Buddhist learning at Nalanda in northern India. These Buddhist realities did not disappear overnight: we are witnessing a process spread over several centuries. But Buddhism was increasingly eclipsed by Hinduism, and it was the model that was now spreading through much of the “Indosphere”, through Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. This situation prevailed until the arrival of Islam.

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

But there is a larger question in all of this. Why did Buddhism face such setbacks and disasters back then? I will come back to this in my next post.

SPOILER: I think the climate has a lot to do with it.

Some very selective references:

For the making and remaking of history and memory in Indonesia, see Marieke Bloembergen and Martijn Eickhoff, Heritage policy 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 Footprint of the Buddha: An Environmental History of Asia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

RE Jordaan and BE Colless, The Maharajas of the Islands: The Sailendras and the Srivijaya Problem (Leiden University, 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 primitive Tibet (Brill, 2009).