During the period 500 to 1000, Mahayana Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and to some extent Hinduism, started out as local or regional religions and grew into universal religions. (Scholars debate whether Hinduism has all the characteristics of a universal religion, but one needs an understanding of Hinduism’s core beliefs in order to comprehend Buddhism.) Each of these three world religions moved from a culture of origin?) into different cultural contexts. Broadly speaking, we have three different examples: moving from urbanized, settled civilization to another urbanized, settled civilization (Buddhism to China); urban, settled to recently nomadic and rural society (Christianity to Europe); and from a nomadic society to a settled, urbanized setting (Islam from Arabia to Persia and beyond).
Mahayana Buddhism developed out of the earlier Indian ethos and from earlier Buddhism. Christianity expanded from its Jewish roots to offer Gentiles its message. Islam, building on both Jewish and Christian beliefs, identified Allah as the universal divinity and Mohammed as the definitive Prophet. The spread of Christianity among the Germanic settlers in northwest Eurasia after the fall of the Roman Empire took place at the same time as Buddhist monks and teachers were bringing their faith to the nomadic peoples who had settled in northwestern China after the collapse of the Han. The religious teachers who carried these faiths to Europe, West and Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa also brought with them knowledge of language, mathematics, science, and philosophy, which local people learned in church-sponsored schools and from religious teachers who served in the leaders’ courts.
Religions like other cultural systems are always undergoing change and absorbing and adding new concepts to their foundational message. Christianity developed a synthesis of Hebraic monotheism, Persian Zoroastrianism, and Greek philosophy, especially the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. As it spread, Christianity also took on popular worship practices from a wide range of neighbors.
One of the most important underlying beliefs in the West Asian religious tradition is dualism. This outlook found its most dramatic expression in the Persian faith of Zoroastrianism and both Judaism and Christianity accepted many of its teachings. Monotheism is a second basic tenet of the West Asian religious outlook. It appears in early Egypt and develops in the Hebraic tradition and is at the core of Zoroastrianism, prophetic Judaism, and later Christianity and Islam.
The monotheism1 of West Asia, Zoroastrianism dualism2, and Greek rationalism3 spread to the rest of the world and emerged as elements of Christianity and Islam. Zoroastrian philosophy lent itself to universalizing, and it had an enormous impact on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The religious practice of that faith, however, was very closely associated with Persia and the Iranian people and was never able to spread far beyond their cultural sphere.
In contrast to the West Asian worldview, we see in the geographic area in which Buddhism developed a far different cultural ethos. In South Asia, the earlier beliefs of the Indus and later Aryan migrations blended into a mix that was very pluralistic and tended to stress the oneness of all things expressed in a myriad of forms. The Buddha was born into this belief system in 563 B.C.E., and he accepted the major ideas of his time such as karma, samsara, release from the bounds of rebirth, and dharma.
In a very general comparison between these two worldviews, one of the major differences is between what we will call ethical or philosophical dualism and monism4. Certainly within the Christian and Muslim faiths there are monistic philosophers and also within Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism there are dualistic philosophies, but there was an orientation toward monism in Eastern and Southern Asian and an orientation toward dualism in West Asia.
In dualism, one side or the other eventually must be chosen. We strive to join the children of light or right so that finally, evil will be trampled out and destroyed. Dualism is central to both Christianity and Islam: God and the devil, good and evil, right and wrong, choosing the side of good. This dualism spread through West Asia into Europe and the United States. Dualistic principles are evident in either/or arguments such as environment vs. heredity, masculine versus feminine, guilt or innocence, and almost any concept that can be reduced to opposing elements.
Conversely, the South Asian view that diffused into China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia tends to be more monistic, more pluralistic, and more inclusive. Even the early Vedic verses present the universe as a seamless web. In the Rig Veda, one of the foundational sacred texts of Hinduism, we read the story of Purusha, the cosmic man who filled the entire universe, and was willing to sacrifice himself and be rendered into little bits to make up the discreet parts of the universe. [Now in the image he is filling the floor of a temple. He falls apart into pieces and those pieces become the mountains and the streams so everything in the world is made up from his unity.
In early China, people developed the tradition of Yin and Yang. Yin stands for soft, dark, moist, feminine, non-violent qualities and Yang symbolizes male, aggressive, hard, dry and active qualities. These two halves of the whole moved around and around or back and forth in symbiotic rhythms rather than clashing against one another dualistically as in Zoroastrianism.
We do not wish to exaggerate the difference in dualism and monism, but suggest, with Geertz, that these broad worldviews instill orientations thatprovide long lasting moods and motivations. So we have in one side conflicting opposites that battle each other and on the other, relationships of opposites that is more harmonious, a seamless web, coming back together and re-experiencing the oneness of things.
Changes in Society that Give Rise to Universal Religions
Before a religion can spread to new frontiers, it must have gained extensive support in a single area. For potential converts to be receptive to the religion expanding into their territory, they must be open to new ideologies, and at the same time, be experiencing a profound anxiety about their present beliefs. When human institutions seem to be crumbling around us or change is so rapid that old values no longer seem relevant, we often look to religion to help us find deeper meanings. People within the Roman Empire during the third and fourth centuries C.E., lived an increasingly precarious life. The political stability, system of laws, and dependable daily routines they had enjoyed for so long were deteriorating. In addition, German tribes to the north that they had managed to keep at bay for centuries began to migrate into the empire where they eventually took over the government in Rome. Life became increasingly capricious, particularly for those who lived in urban society. There must be a mood of receptivity among large numbers of people if they are going to make a radical shift in their lives by converting to a new faith. But there are other factors that facilitate the spread of religions:
∑ For a religion to become universal, it also needs to have a written canon so people in widely separated areas will have some common basis for thought and action.
∑ The faith must also have a vigorous community of believers who have the zeal to preach their religion to strangers and potential converts.
∑ It helps to have the support of political power. Can we think of the success of Christianity without Constantine, Henry VIII, and so many other kings? However, as we shall see, this kind of support comes at a high price .
∑ For a religion to have success with new groups of people -- especially a rising middle class -- it should resonate with the economic values of the society it hopes to convert. For example, Christianity did not support charging interest on loans in Western Europe when that area had little or no commerce, but was supportive of commercial interests in the more prosperous Byzantine Empire. In India and China Buddhism found support with the numerous businessmen in these complex societies, and from its beginning, Islam supported traders and merchants; Muhammad was a trader and merchants played an impotent role in the spread of Islam.
∑ Finally, for a religion to become universal it must work within a wide-ranging and effective communication system so that information can be spread over a wide range of area and peoples.
1 The doctrine or belief that there is but one God.
2 A doctrine that the universe is under the dominion two opposing principles one of which is good and the other evil.
3 A reliance on reason as the basis for establishment of religious truth.
4 The theory that reality is a unified whole and is grounded in a single basic substance or principle.