The Growth of World Religions in the Post-Classical World
The period of classical decline (Rome,
Han and Gupta) saw the spread of some of the world’s great religions. During this time Christianity and Buddhism
spread and Islam emerged as a new religion.
These religions, with their emphasis on the life of the spirit and
divine guidance and help, gave solace to people who had experienced devastating
plagues along with the dissolution of their political securities. Indeed, the uncertainties and poverty of this
period is often used to explain the remarkable growth of religions that
emphasized devotion, piety, and better conditions in the afterlife.
The spread of Buddhism during this period owes a great deal
to the bodhisattvas, a sect of monks
who transformed the focus of Buddhism from ethics to a deeply emotional
religion. The bodhisattvas preached that
common people could attain Nirvana in this life through meditation. The Bodhisattvas’ emphasis on a celestial
afterlife was particularly attractive to Chinese living in the troubled times
of the Han dynasty’s decline. They
formed monasteries and people held them up as purveyors of spiritual advice and
As Buddhism spread from China,
many Buddhists came to revere Buddha himself as a god. Statues were made of him and people prayed
and sacrificed to them. This form of
Buddhism became known as Mahayana
Buddhism. Most prominent in East
Asia, it believed that the bodhisattvas, or holy men, went to
heaven when they died where they received the prayers of Buddhists and give
them help in times of trouble. Buddhism
had developed, like Hinduism and Christianity, a functioning priesthood.
As it spread in China,
Buddhism helped to moderate the typical Confucian view of women. Traditional Chinese culture did not hold
women in high esteem; but Buddhism taught that they too had souls and could
attain to high levels of spirituality.
However, Buddhism in China
did not overturn the patriarchal family order (the belief which places the man
in complete control of wife and family.)
Chinese culture transformed Buddhism to accommodate this hierarchal
family order, and Buddhism in turn provided a life for women
that was more spiritually meaningful than traditional Confucian culture.
Buddhism was hotly resisted by
Confucian leaders, however. They found
its spirituality detrimental to secular and political goals. They thought its emphasis on individual meditation
detracted from proper family obligations.
Because of this resistance, Buddhism remained a minority religion in China. It thrived much better in Korea
and Japan. But the integration of Buddhism into China,
although not overturning China’s
basic cultural structure, did forever render Chinese religious life more
As Buddhism migrated eastward from India,
Christianity moved western from Palestine. Like Buddhism during the Han decline,
Christianity provided comfort during political and social unrest. But Christianity differed from Buddhism in
some important ways. Using the Roman
Empire as a model, it became very structured and organized through
a hierarchy of priests and bishops.
Christianity claimed possession of exclusive religious truth; therefore
it was very intolerant of other faiths.
This orientation created an urgency to spread Christian faith. Consequently, the missionary movement was
much more active and widespread in Christianity than in Buddhism.
Christian message spread quickly throughout the Roman Empire
for several reasons. It was much more
appealing than the sterile civil religion offered by the Roman
Empire, especially among the poor.
The Roman Empire, with its roads, trade routes,
and common language, was very conducive to the dissemination of the faith. And when the emperor (Constantine) himself
converted, Christianity was made the official religion of the Empire.
western half of the Roman Empire fell Christianity’s
ideas were preserved by the rise of monasticism. Monasticism is the formation of monasteries
where monks preserved religious teachings and ministered to local people. This preservation of Christianity gave it an
intellectual dimension; intellectuals and scholars could debate matters of
theology. But Christianity was also
deeply spiritual; it attracted not just the educated and upper classes, but the
lower classes who generally desired a more mystical religious experience.
originated geographically in the Mediterranean civilization but it was not a product
of its culture or values. Christian
culture placed devotion to Christ above that of the polis or state. It struggled against slavery (at first,
anyway) and placed a high premium on disciplined work. With its emphasis on spiritual equality and
otherworldliness, it fused together a culture that was quite different from
that of Mediterranean classical civilization (although it did borrow from it in
the area of philosophy and architecture.)
With the decline and fall of classical civilizations the
great world religions became the defining characteristics of culture and
civilization. Their spheres of influence
and penetration became the boundaries on the new world map. In some cases—such as Hinduism in India—the
world religion helped preserve its host culture. In other cases—such as Christianity—it
produced something quite different.
Nevertheless, after the fall of classical civilization the great
religions of the world took on a more unifying and dynamic function.