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A religion for east Asia: from the 1st century AD

Buddhism is the first of the world religions to expand from its place of origin. It does so by two distinct routes.

Theravada Buddhism is carried eastwards into southeast Asia, in an upsurge of Indian trade from the 1st century AD. The merchants and sailors are either Buddhist or Hindu, and missionaries take advantage of the new opportunities for travel. As a result the kingdoms of southeast Asia, much influenced by the more advanced civilization of India, variously adopt Buddhist and Hindu religious practices. Which of the two prevails is often the result of the preference of a ruling dynasty. The areas which eventually choose Buddhism are Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Mahayana Buddhism travels by a land route. In the 2nd century AD northern India and Afghanistan are ruled by the Kushan dynasty, one of whose kings, Kanishka, is a devotee of this form of Buddhism. His encouragement of it has special significance, since his kingdom occupies a central position on the Silk Road - at one of its busiest times, when its caravans effectively link China with Rome.

The western influence on the Kushan region (also known as Gandhara) is seen in the famous style of sculpture which portrays Buddhist figures with the realism of Greece and Rome. Eastwards from Gandhara the trade route is soon dignified with spectacular Buddhist centres, such as Yün-kang.

Buddhism is well established in China by the 2nd century AD and coexists there, with varying fortunes, alongside China's indigenous religions - Daoism and Confucianism. By the 6th century its influence has spread through Korea to Japan. Here too it coexists, in a shifting pattern, with the earlier Japanese religion, Shinto.

The region which develops the most distinctive form of Buddhism lies between India and China, and receives its first Buddhist influences from both directions in the 7th century. This is Tibet. It will evolve an element of Buddhism unique to itself - that of a succession of reincarnating lamas, with the Dalai Lama as the senior line.

Eastern religions and the Romans: 1st - 4th century AD

The Roman attitude to religion is essentially practical. Divine help is desirable. Any god may be worth a try. And the wide extent of the empire means that many attractive new candidates are available.

Three foreign religions, all from the Middle East, acquire by the third century a considerable following in the Roman world. They have a personal quality lacking in the official Roman cult. Believers become members of a closely knit group, enjoying a special relationship with the god and with each other. There are initiation ceremonies, in some cases secret. As a result these eastern cults are often grouped together under the title of mysteries or mystery religions.

One such cult, popular in the Roman capital, centres on the Egyptian goddess Isis. She is a giver of life, an enchantress who is able to restore to health her husband, Osiris, after his body has been sliced into fourteen pieces and scattered all over Egypt by the villainous Seth.

The story is a version of a worldwide myth, that of plants being brought back to life in the spring. But when adopted as a personal deity, Isis seems to promise her initiates health and life in a more general sense.

More exclusive is Mithraism. Only males are admitted to the sect, so not surprisingly many of its devotees are in the Roman army. There are seven ranks, described as Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Courier of the Sun and Father, each with its own initiation ceremonies (the sequence of seniority is not known). Worshippers meet in a small underground crypt, with at one end a sculpture of the god Mithras sacrificing a bull.

The cult comes from Iran, where Mithras is both a creator and a guardian against evil. Merchants on the trade routes are among the god's followers, but the strongest appeal is to the poorer sections of society. This is true also of early believers in the third contending religion.

Christians resemble the other mystery cults in having an initiation ceremony (baptism) and a private ritual (the Eucharist). Rumours of cannibalism, or the eating of their god, cause them to be regarded with extra suspicion. So does their quiet rejection of many everyday activities. But above all they have a peculiarity, seen by the state as sinister, which they share only with the Jews. They refuse to worship any god but their own.

The Jews are a much longer estabished group, with a clear racial identity; the Romans have to some extent become accustomed to their not worshipping the gods of Rome. There seems less excuse for the Christians. Their reluctance to take part in the Roman cult leads, in the 3rd century, to their persecution.

The spread of both Mithraism and Christianity can be seen at the two extremes of the empire. Doura-Europos, a frontier post on the Euphrates abandoned in about AD 257, has buildings associated with both religions.

Thousands of miles away, in Britain, there is a temple of Mithras in London in the early 4th century. Also in England, and from the same century, a very early depiction of Jesus Christ (young, clean-shaven, with curly fair hair) survives in a mosaic pavement at Hinton St Mary.

Sol Invictus: AD 274

In AD 272 the emperor Aurelian, defeating the army of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, believes that he has done so with the support of an eastern deity - a Syrian sun god. In gratitude he establishes in 274 an imperial cult of Sol Invictus, the 'unconquered sun', with a major new temple in Rome.

This sun god features in art as a man with a halo of light round his head; and his official birthday, just after the darkest day of the winter solstice, is declared to be December 25. Both details are later adopted by another religion, favoured by another emperor.

Mani and Plotinus: 3rd century AD

Two contemporaries, born in the early 3rd century in Persia and Egypt, construct religious and philosophical systems which have considerable influence in coming centuries.

The Persian is Mani, an aristocrat who like the founders of Zoroastrianism and Buddhism is inspired to establish a new religion. Based on a simple version of the Zoroastrian opposition between darkness and light, but with lively theological trappings invented by Mani himself, the new religion is rapidly successful. It is thriving in north Africa in the time of Augustine, in the 4th century; and Manichaean sects in central Asia and China survive until the 14th century.

The Egyptian contemporary of Mani is Plotinus, educated in Alexandria. His influence derives from his later years, after AD 244, when he goes to Rome to teach philosophy. One of his pupils, Porphyry, publishes his works posthumously under the title Enneads.

This book has a profound influence on Christian thought, because Plotinus combines the philosophical rigour of Plato with the hope of a personal experience of divine reality. The religious element is implicit in Plato's theory of Forms; Plotinus merely gives more emphasis to the quest of each human soul. Such a quest powerfully inspires St Augustine, one of the channels through whom Neo-Platonism influences Christianity.

A new imperial religion: 4th century AD

The most significant single event in the spread of any of the world's great religions is the personal decision of one man - the Roman emperor Constantine - to favour Christianity.

Christianity acquires through Constantine its historic homelands. For the next three centuries the entire Roman empire will be Christian. In the 7th century much of the eastern empire is lost to a newer religion, Islam. But Christianity compensates by conquering pagan territories to the north of the Alps. It becomes the religion of Europe. Through European colonialism it will spread, in later empires, across much of the world.

Shinto: from the 4th century AD

The first inhabitants of Japan, migrating from the mainland, bring with them their own version of the shamanism which prevails in prehistoric Asia. To the pantheon of the spirits and forces of nature, the Japanese add famous people, significant places or any other phenomena seeming worthy of reverence. The result is a profusion of local deities or kami, the worship of whom is given the name Shinto, meaning roughly the 'way of the gods'.

With the emergence of a strong clan system, each clan gives special honour to one particular god considered to be the ancestor of all members of the group - and particularly, in the most direct line, ancestor of the clan leader.

By the 4th century AD, when the Yamato clan has achieved an imperial pre-eminence, their forebear has a similarly prominent place among the gods. The Yamato claim as ancestor the Sun empress, who shines above all others in the heavens. A creation story is commissioned to chronicle the descent of the emperors from the sun.

Thus begins the imperial family's political use of Shinto, an issue of importance in the 20th century. At a deeper level this very ancient religion remains a thriving popular cult. Lacking an official ritual or sacred text, Shinto is able to absorb elements of Buddhism, a later arrival in Japan, without losing its own sense of conviction.

Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism: 4th - 13th c.

With hindsight it may appear that the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches go their separate ways quite early in Christian history. But at no point is there a single specific break or 'schism'.

As early as381 the bishop of Constantinople is given equal status with the bishop of Rome. Differences both of practice and of doctrine gradually evolve within the two spheres of influence.

The most evident differences in practice concern the sacraments of ordination and of the Eucharist. In the Greek Orthodox church a married man may be ordained a priest, and the congregation receives both the bread and the wine in the communion service. In Roman Catholicism only the celibate may be ordained, only the bread is given to the laity (until the 20th century).

A contentious area of doctrine has been whether the Holy Spirit derives (or 'proceeds') equally from the Father and the Son. The Western church believes so, adding the word Filioque to the Nicene creed in the 6th century. The Greek Orthodox see this as a distortion of the doctrine of the Trinity. Even so, at no point does the dispute lead to a declared schism.

More harmful in the relationship between the two churches are various events which give good cause for affront. Rome is grievously offended by the Byzantine emperor Leo III, who in 726 introduces the policy of iconoclasm and in 733 transfers southern Italy, Greece and much of the Balkans from papal jurisdiction to that of Constantinople.

Both sides clash in the 10th century in their rival efforts to convert the Slavs. In 1054 the Greeks are outraged when Rome decides to excommunicate the patriarch of Constantinople. In 1204 the Greeks are again given profound cause for resentment when the fleet of the fourth crusade, launched by Rome, is diverted to capture and sack Constantinople.

At every stage of this prolonged quarrel the two sides continue to express the hope that reunion will be possible. If anything, it is not so much mutual antogonism which separates them as the successful spread of each faith. The missionary achievements of both eastern and western Christianity exaggerate the apparent split, as vast new territories are converted which lack any understanding of the rival culture.

Roman Catholicism is the first to go its own way, bringing northwest Europe into the fold - including eventually those most energetic of medieval marauders, the Vikings. Meanwhile the Greeks convert the Slavs in the eastern Balkans, to be followed subsequently by Russia.

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