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 wisdom. 

As Buddhism spread from China, through Korea into Japan, 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 complex.



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. 

            The 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.

            When the 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. 

            Christianity 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.