Syncretism is the blending of cultures and ideas from different places. We'll look at a few examples of this phenomenon that happened during the classical period.
A history of cultural exchange
In what is now Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, there sits an ancient Christian cemetery, its gravestones marked with Nestorian crosses: a cross overlaid on a lotus blossom. The epitaph on one reads, "This is the grave of Jeremiah, the believer." The gravestone gives the year of Jeremiah's death, but then it also says, "the year of the sheep", referencing the twelve-animal cycle of the Chinese Zodiac.
A reproduction of a stone tablet found in a Christian monastery in 13th-century Beijing: a Nestorian cross rests atop a lotus blossom.
Faiths, cultures, and customs bounce off of and combine with one another in a process called syncretism. We're going to discuss this notion by trying to answer the question: Why is there a Christian gravestone in Central Asia with the Chinese Zodiac year on it?
Silk, spices, and diseases weren't the only things carried along the Silk Road; nomadic merchants carried philosophies and faiths, too. Buddhism and Christianity traveled along trade routes as surely as lapis, pepper, and plague; they changed and adapted the cultures they encountered. As a Daoist might say, however, just as water changes its shape to fit the vessel, so too do faiths and ideologies change to fit the shapes and contexts of the cultures that adopt them.
Trade networks and expansion of classical empires
As the Eurasian empires of antiquity expanded, so did their trade routes and networks of communication. Some empires even grew so big that they bordered one another; for example, Alexander of Macedon’s Greek empire reached as far as India, which resulted in the development of Greco-Buddhism. The growth of classical empires meant that exchanges of cultures and ideas became possible and more common.
Early Christians managed to turn Roman infrastructure to their advantage: missionaries and preachers made use of Roman roads and Rome’s expansive imperial trade network to spread their message beyond the Mediterranean region. By the eleventh century CE, fully one-third of the world's Christians lived in Asia.
The image shows a Roman road paved with cobblestones with grass growing through the cracks. The surrounding countryside is a row of trees on the right, a low stone wall on the left, and green hills and pasture in the distance.
The Church of the East did not use Greek or Latin in its liturgy, but instead rendered the Gospels in Syriac, a Semitic language closely related to Aramaic. Many of these Syriac-speaking Christians were Nestorians, a branch of Christianity branded as heresy—out of line with accepted teachings—by both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Nestorians held that Jesus Christ was composed of distinct human and divine natures.
Even before the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, when Nestorianism was deemed heretical, Christians in Asia and Asia Minor drew religious inspiration from the other faiths that surrounded them. For example, early Christian ascetics were influenced by the self-denying practices of Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist mystics; some spent many years in seclusion. One such Christian mystic, St. Simeon Stylites, spent 37 years living by himself atop a pillar in Syria. There were major Nestorian centers from Jerusalem to Beijing and Xi'an, and bishoprics (areas controlled by bishops) were scattered along the Silk Road like beads in a strand. Timothy I, a Patriarch of the Church of the East, oversaw the establishment of a church center in Tibet.
Map of the Church of the East in the Middle Ages. Map shows western Africa and Saudi Arabia to the west, and China to the east. Shows regions and tribes influenced by the Church of the East in that area.
In 781 CE, just as Timothy began his leadership of the Church of the East, Chinese Nestorians in Chang'an, imperial capital of the Tang Empire, put up a nine-foot-tall limestone monument called the Nestorian Stele; it celebrated 150 years of Christianity in China. The monument describes Christ in Buddhist language: "[Christ] fixed the extent of the Eight Boundaries [the Eight Consciousnesses of Mahayana Buddhism], thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross [worthlessness]; he opened the gate of the three constant principles [impermanence, suffering, and nonself], introducing life and destroying death."
A rubbing of the Nestorian Stele. White Chinese characters on a black rectangular background; the Nestorian cross is at the very top inside a triangle.
Question: What does the Nestorian Stele tell us about Christianity in a Chinese context? When studying Christianity in Central Asia, why might it be useful to talk about Christianity in Buddhist terms?
In India, many members of the merchant caste were practicing Buddhists. They talked to people as they traveled and traded. In this way, Buddhism spread along the Silk Road to Iran, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and China.
As Buddhism spread, the people who adopted the religion did so within the context of their own cultures. For example, Mahayana Buddhism was much more popular in China than it was in India, where Buddhist monks engaged in stricter, more ascetic practices and placed a higher value on meditation. A lifetime of meditation practice was difficult for an ordinary person to achieve.
Mahayana, literally meaning the great vehicle, was a more accessible form of Buddhism in which people could engage in acts of devotion—such as paying for religious verses—in order to attain salvation. This more approachable version of the religion offered by missionaries and merchants allowed Buddhism to gain a greater foothold in places like China. Its universal message about attaining salvation was appealing to people and was easy for diverse cultures to adopt.
Furthermore, Mahayana Buddhism made allowances for incorporating existing cultures and practices into its philosophy. In Mongolia and Tibet, Mahayana Buddhism shifted to allow for cultural beliefs surrounding magic; for example, in Tibet, Mahayana Buddhists taught that it was possible to attain enlightenment through rituals and incantation. Buddhism took on entirely new forms based on the diverse contexts of the cultures it reached.
The Tang Dynasty, through the strength of its military, imposed peace and order over Central Asia, making it safe enough for traveling scholars and missionaries to accompany trading parties across the deserts and steppes. Its domain extended from the East China Sea all the way to Kashgar, near the border of present-day Kyrgyzstan. Buddhist monks traveled west along the Silk Road in efforts to study Buddhist doctrine in India. A seventh-century Buddhist scholar, Xuanzang, wrote in his Great Tang Records of the Western Regions of the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan: “Immense stone Buddhas carved into cliffs.” Buddhism was well-entrenched in this part of Central Asia—the statues, each over 120 feet in height, flanked the valley. These statues remained in Bamiyan until 2001, when the Afghan Taliban ordered them destroyed.
A photo of one of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The sculpture is massive; for scale, a person is standing at the foot of the statue and reaches the statue's ankle. The statue is dressed in a Greek style and is standing a pose typical of Greek style as well.
Merging of political and religious authority
Constantine I, a fourth-century Roman Emperor, made it legal for Christians to practice their faith openly after reportedly having a religious vision. By the late fourth century, emperor Theodosius had established Christianity as the official religion of Imperial Rome. Christians were able to hold positions of power in government, which granted the religion more legitimacy and followers. During this time, conversions increased in Spain, Italy, north Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean area.
This change also brought a more established infrastructure to the Christian church within the empire: five bishops and patriarchs held power in five major cities, while bishops in smaller areas had control over dioceses, or districts. Stricter channels of power led to a tightening on the official religious doctrines. Leaders met to discuss the issue of Jesus’ nature—whether he was mainly human, mainly divine, or both at the same time—at the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon in 325 and 451 CE, respectively. At Chalcedon, leaders stated that Jesus had two completely separate natures: one divine, and one human, but that he was both of these at the same time. While this decision ran contrary to the beliefs of Nestorians, Copts, and other Christian groups, a uniform set of beliefs furthered Christianity’s spread in the Roman empire and beyond.
Roman rulers began to lose control over the empire in the late 300s CE and the western Roman empire fell completely by 476. However, the infrastructure of the Christian church survived, paving the way for greater expansion and religious control in Europe. The pope, the bishop of Rome, became the key figure of religious leadership; bishops organized governments at the local level and spearheaded missionary ventures to the Germanic region. A popular form of Christianity among Germanic peoples, Arianism, spread into the empire with Arian missionaries. Followers of this Christian sect believed that God the Son, Jesus, was not coeternal with God the Father. This belief was deemed heresy at the First Council of Nicaea, but it still enjoyed a large following.
Question: How was the expansion of the Christian church affected by the collapse of the Roman empire and the formation of a system of Christian authority?
The Maurya emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism possibly as a means of uniting his citizens around a common religion. He also sponsored and sent missionaries to a variety of locations. The first missionaries arrived in Sri Lanka in 250 BCE, and Ashoka also sent missionaries to central Asia and the Middle East. From Sri Lanka, Buddhism spread to Burma, Java, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. From central Asia, it eventually spread to East Asia and Tibet.
These missionaries acted as official spokespeople for the royal government; as a result, they had access to the rulers in the cities they visited. Buddhist religion was able to spread quickly and efficiently as more kings adopted Buddhism in their own regions.
Question: How did governments use Buddhism to strengthen their legitimacy when interacting with new cultures?
Syncretism of cultures and traditions developed in many different contexts during the classical period: Hinduism is a highly syncretic religion that developed and spread through diverse parts of the Indian subcontinent; Mesopotamian culture and legal codes influenced Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures; and Greek culture influenced Judaism as Alexander of Macedon’s empire spread east.
So let's go back to that Nestorian gravestone in Central Asia.
Do you have a better sense now of why the grave would give both a western calendar year and a Chinese Zodiac year? Do you see how Silk Road communities—sandwiched between two empires and financially dependent on the shipping of goods from one great power to another—might end up transporting more than bolts of silk?
Question: Based on the examples of syncretism in the article, why do you think the Nestorian graves had Chinese Zodiac symbols on them?
Question: What examples of religious or cultural syncretism can you think of in your life today?
Want to join the conversation?
- Why did Afghan Taliban order the statues to be torn down in 2001?(12 votes)
- The Islamic government was furious after a foreign delegation offered money to preserve the ancient works while a million Afghans were starving. They destroyed the Buddhas as a political and religious outcry, though in a destructive way.(4 votes)
- why is Christianity glorified it was and is still not the best religion(1 vote)
- Let's take that apart and see what might be done with it.
"The best religion". Religions are not comparable on a "good, better, best" scale. Just don't go there, with ANYBODY's religion.
"Glorified" Now you're using a religious term. I think you might mean "admired". If you do, then read on.
The reason why Christianity is admired is because it has worked for many people for a long time. Other religions have worked for other people for a long time, too. If you find Christianity being admired in this course, it could merely be because this "school" is American, and in Europe and America, Christianity is very common.
If Khan Academy came out of Indonesia, the "glorified" or "admired" religion would probably be Islam. If Khan Academy came out of India, the admired religion would likely be Hinduism. If Khan Academy came out of Sri Lanka or Myanmar, the admired religion would be Buddhism.(2 votes)
- was there calcher intelegint(1 vote)
- They produced an intelligent culture.(1 vote)
- Why did Afghan Taliban order the statues to be torn down in 2001?(0 votes)
- They didn't. It was Al Qaeda, who did it because they wanted to challenge a Western power and show them that they weren't all that mighty. Also because the Western power in this case, the USA, was pretty imperialist and also very contradictory of traditionalist Islamic ideology. The Taliban later did harbor Al Qaeda, which would explain your confusion.(1 vote)