The New Religious Map. The decline of the classical civilizations contributed to the growth of the three great world religions: Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. All emphasized intense devotion and piety, stressing the importance of spiritual concerns beyond the daily cares of earthly life. All three offered the hope of a better existence after this life ended, and each one responded to new political instability and to the growing poverty of people in various parts of the civilized world. Buddhism and Christianity reshaped major portions of Europe and Asia, and, after its introduction in the 7th century, Islam became the most dynamic force in world history during the next several centuries. The spread of the major religions in Asia, Europe, and Africa, crossed many cultural and political boundaries, radically changing beliefs and expectations along the way. The religions themselves changed too, in a process called syncretism, taking on the features of individual civilizations even while maintaining larger religious claims.
Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Despite important common features, the major religions were very different. Hinduism, as we have seen, retained its belief in reincarnation and its combination of spiritual interest in union with the divine essence and extensive rituals and ceremonies. The religion did experience greater popular appeal after the fall of the Guptas, associated with the expanded use of popular languages and with the worship of the mother goddess Devi. Buddhism was altered more substantially than Hinduism as it traveled mainly beyond India’s borders, becoming only a small minority faith in India itself. Buddhism’s spiritual solace and cultural cohesion was increasingly attractive in this unstable period. Buddhists called bodhisattvas, promoting a life of meditation for the attainment of nirvana, popularized the idea of salvation. Chinese Buddhism, called Mahayana, emphasized Buddha as a savior god similar to the Christian Christ, and introduced temples, rituals, and ceremonies. Chinese cultural values, including subordination of women, were incorporated into Buddhism. Buddhism’s growing influence stimulated thought among Daoists; they formalized their religion and adopted beliefs about achieving immortality through good works. Confucian leaders, perceiving Buddhism as a threat to state loyalty, drove out Buddhist missionaries, rendering Buddhism a minority religion in China. Mahayana Buddhism proliferated in Korea, japan, and Vietnam. In parts of southeast Asia, it remained somewhat truer to earlier Buddhist concepts of individual meditation and ethics.
Christianity and Islam. Christianity moved westward, from its original center in the Middle East, as Buddhism was spreading east from India; eventually, Christianity became one of the two largest faiths worldwide. Despite important similarities to Buddhism in its emphasis on salvation and the guidance of saints, Christianity differed in crucial ways. Christianity, the heir to the legacy of Mediterranean religions and Roman traditions, emphasized church organization, gave more value to missionary activity, and claimed possession of exclusive truth. Christianity began as a Jewish reform movement, only gradually turning to missionary activity. The Christians believed that there was a single god who loved humanity, that virtuous life should be devoted to his worship, that all people were spiritually equal, and that Christ’s sacrifice permitted attainment of an afterlife. The message, its travels facilitated by Roman unity, satisfied unfilled spiritual needs present in the deteriorating empire. Under Paul of Tarsus, Christianity became a separate religion open to all and, paralleling the provincial government of the empire, was more formally organized. Finally, Christian doctrine became increasingly organized, as the writings of several disciples and others were collected into what became known as the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
During the first three centuries after Christ, Christianity gained ground. Despite government persecution, by the 4th century, Christianity had won over about 10 percent of the Roman Empire’s population. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it an accepted faith. Rulers intervened in church affairs, particularly in the eastern empire where government remained strong. In the disorganized West, bishops created a centralized church organization under the authority of the pope—the bishop of Rome— that endured when the western empire collapsed. Doctrinal controversies abounded, though both East and West established certain shared beliefs against several heresies such as the Trinity. Augustine made major contributions in formulating a theology that incorporated elements of classical philosophy. As a syncretic religion, local polytheistic beliefs were incorporated into Christian practice. Mystics flourished, particularly in the Middle East. In the west, this tendency was disciplined by the institution of monasticism. Benedict created the Benedictine Rule for monks in 6th century Italy. Christianity continued to appeal to all classes, especially to the poor and women. It promoted a new culture differing from that of the classical world in its beliefs in spiritual equality and otherworldly emphasis. The state was accepted, but made second to religion, where the brotherhood of all Christians prevailed. Classical values endured, including philosophical themes, architectural styles, and the Latin language in the West and Greek in the East. Monastic libraries preserved classical literature. When the Roman Empire fell, Christian history was still in its infancy. The Western church would soon spread its missionary zeal to northern Europe, and the Eastern church would reach into the Slavic lands of the Balkans and Russia. Christianity truly had become a world religion: a faith of unusual durability and drawing power, one whose complexity wins the devotion of many different kinds of people. Islam, launched early in the 7th century, would initially surpass Christianity as a world faith The centuries after Christianity’s rise, the spread of Buddhism, and the inception of Islam would see the conversion of most of the civilized world to one or another of the great faiths. This produced a religious map that, in Europe and Asia and even parts of Africa, would not alter greatly until our own time.
The Spread of the Major Religions.The spread of major religions—Hinduism in India, Buddhism in east and southeast Asia, a more popular Daoism in China, Christianity in Europe and parts of the Mediterranean world, and ultimately Islam—was a vital result of the changes in classical civilizations brought on by attack and decay. Common difficulties, including invading forces and contagious epidemics, help explain parallel changes in separate civilizations. Trade and travel also provided common bonds. Numerous peoples in different societies left old beliefs and turned to concentration on a single divine force and a hope for an afterlife. Polytheistic beliefs and practices continued to flourish as part of popular Hinduism and popular Daoism, and they were not entirely displaced among ordinary people who converted to Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. But the new religious surge reduced the hold of literal animism in much of Asia and Europe.
The World Around 500 C.E. Developments in many parts of the world by 500 C.E. produced three major themes for world history in subsequent centuries. First, and particularly in the centers of classical civilization, there was the task of reviving or reworking their key institutions and values. Second, in these areas, but also in other parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia, was the need to integrate new religious institutions and values into established civilizations or, use them as the basis for a new one. Finally, increased skill in agriculture and the creation of early civilizations or new contacts prepared parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas for new developments in the centuries to come.
In the Wake of Decline and Fall.By 600 c.e. the major civilizations had altered in permanent ways. China maintained political cohesion; along with India, it preserved much cultural cohesion. In contrast, the Roman Empire disintegrated, and successor civilizations did not restore geographical unity or a unified classical culture.
GLOBAL CONNECTIONS: The Late Classical Period and the World. Classical civilizations influenced other regions. When they started declining, contacts both accelerated and became more difficult. Commerce across Eurasia became dangerous, but ocean connections rose, especially in the Indian Ocean. Porous borders were penetrated by traders, missionaries, and nomadic invaders. Thus the end of the period experienced important cultural exchanges across regions.
KEY TERMS Devi: mother goddess within Hinduism; devotion to her spread widely after the collapse of the Gupta and encouraged new emotionalism in religious ritual.
Mahayana: version of Buddhism popular in China; emphasized Buddha’s role as a savior.
Bodhisattvas:Buddhist holy men who refused advance toward nirvana to receive prayers of the living to help them reach holiness.
Saints: holy men and women in Christianity; their merit could be tapped by ordinary Christians.
Pope: Bishop of Rome; head of the Catholic church in western Europe.
Augustine: North African Christian theologian; made major contributions in incorporating elements of classical philosophy into Christianity.
Benedict:founder of monasticism in the former