Buddhism: Carrying of Buddhism to Central Asia

Chinese commerce and inventions, especially the silk trade and the invention of paper, played a great part in the development of the West, just before and after the beginning of our era, but China was also at this time exposed to many new influences from without which were destined to play an important rôle in her artistic and religious development and the greatest and most far-reaching of these was the coming of Buddhism. The ancient ritual on the altar and the traditional customs of the grave were not given up, but new inspiration came from Buddhism which brought in the present comforts and consolations of the compassionate mediation and help of the Boddhisatvas and the forward-looking hope of a paradise for the blessed.

The story of the conquests of Alexander the Great in Syria, Babylonia and Persia is well known. The far-reaching effect of his advance farther east is a chapter in the history of the world which, up to quite recently, has received less attention. His conquests in Bactria and Ferghana and in North India were epoch-making in the cultural history and especially in the art history of Asia. What carried this influence of Hellenistic art across Asia was religion. Just as it was Hellenistic forms in Christian dress that penetrated Europe, so it was Hellenistic forms in Buddhist dress that penetrated Asia. And right here we must say that the impulse from Greece became even more attenuated under Buddhist guise than under that of Christianity.

Buddhism had been founded some two hundred years before Alexander. But it did not penetrate into northwestern India, the Greek sphere, until Asoka's reign a century or so after Alexander's death. It was here that Buddhism and Hellenism first met. It was here that Buddhism received from Hellenism the inspiration which through centuries to come made Buddhist art find its chief artistic expression in the human body. Although Buddhism had not shown the absolute prejudice against all forms of images that characterized the Hebrew spirit, Buddha himself is not prominent in early sculpture. There are representations of the nativity but no babe. There are representations of Buddha riding forth from his royal domain but it is a riderless horse that goes forth. It is only when Buddhism touches the Greek domain that it becomes natural and inevitable for the divine always to be represented in the human form.

Gradually in northwestern India the Buddha form takes on its permanent conventional representations and a new type known as Ghandara art is created. From here Buddhist art with the Hellenistic type more and more attenuated spread back over the rest of India and Ceylon and north and west to China and Japan, during just the same centuries that Christianity with its Hellenistic influence was spreading across Europe.

One of the greatest factors in the carrying of Buddhism to Central Asia was the Indo-Scythian Empire in northwest India. The IndoScythians, or Yüe-chis as they are called in the Chinese annals, are first known in Chinese history as a people living in the northwest corner of China in the territory of the present province of Kansu. In the second century B.C., while still living on the Chinese border, the Yüe-chis were defeated by the Hsiung-nus whose chieftain made a drinking cup of the skull of the Yüe-chi king. Terrified by such barbarism, two hundred thousand Yüe-chi warriors, with their women and children, left Kansu and migrated westward, one of the greatest migrations in the ancient world which has remained singularly unrecognized in the history of the West. Increasing like a snowball as they went, they overwhelmed the Greek states of Central Asia, bringing restlessness and change to the countries with whom they came in contact. Though starting as rude barbarians, they absorbed gradually both the remnants of Greek culture and the Buddhist religion which they found in the regions conquered, and finally, after many years' wanderings, reached northwestern India where they settled and founded the Indo-Scythian Empire.

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