Disseminators of Dharma
Situated a rather short distance from the birthplace of Buddhism in Northern India, and having Buddhist territories such as the Indo-Greek Kingdom and then the Kushan Empire, as neighbors, Sogdiana had every potential to become an important Buddhist center. There is a Pali legend that Silk Road merchants had already started to spread Buddhism during Buddha’s lifetime (Foltz, 2013). The legend says that two brothers from Bactria visited Buddha only eight weeks after his enlightenment, immediately became his disciples, and upon returning home built numerous Buddhist temples. While this story is just a legend, the Indian Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BCE), one of the main propagators of Buddhism across Asia, did in fact send emissaries to the territories of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, which at that time included Sogdiana. Over the next few centuries these promulgating activities bore fruit, as the immediate Sogdian neighbor, Bactria, became a major Buddhist region (Foltz, 2013). Unfortunately, little material evidence remains of the connections between Bactrian Buddhism and Sogdiana, and the philological and archaeological evidence do not create a mutually consistent picture (Tremblay, 2007).
According to archeological findings, there is strong evidence that Buddhism existed in Sogdiana from about the 3rd century till about the 8th century CE (De Vaissière, 2005, 327). The first possible reference to Buddhism in Sogdiana may be in the third of the Ancient Letters (313 CE), discovered in a watch-tower on the Chinese border about 2000 miles east of Samarkand. In the letter there is a reference to a certain “Venerator of Gotam”, which can be interpreted as a reference to Buddha Gautama (Tremblay, 2007, 89). Despite this development of Buddhism in the religiously pluralistic Sogdian region, Buddhism never became a major religion in the area. However, Buddhist manuscripts written in Sogdian from this time period also describe Sogdians who lived or traded in neighboring Buddhist territories and adopted Buddhism as their religion (or at least some form of it, as we will see further). It is these Sogdians who would come to play an important role in the further diffusion of Buddhism along the Silk Road.
The earliest translators of Buddhist texts in China had Sogdian family names that signaled their roots in Samarkand, in Kanka, or in Bukhara. While these translators’ names signify a Sogdian heritage, they may have long lost their connections with Sogdiana, and therefore one can’t “extrapolate from them to Sogdiana’s culture” (Tremblay, 2007, 92). Similarly, we must be cautious in assuming that translators from Sogdiana brought Buddhism to China, since these two activities are not necessarily connected. It is possible that the sources documenting the spread of Buddhism were more concerned with the act of translation and the accommodation of the Buddhist canon to the Chinese world-view, than with actual preaching activities of Indian or other Buddhist monks (Tremblay, 2007, 94). In addition, people from Central Asia belonging to the milieu accustomed to travelling were simply more active in moving around the Silk Road than native Indian monks (De Vaissiere, 2005, 78). These travelers could therefore become “transmitters of ideas” without specifically aiming to do so. Since the development and the flourishing of Buddhism largely depended on the donations of “traveling merchants who would make donations to Buddhist monasteries (viharas), and shrines (stupas)” (Foltz, 2010, 205), some of the Central Asian merchants may have “become” Buddhists for the time of their travels, while worshipping their native deities back home. If the Sogdians considered Buddha as a protector for travellers (something that is supported by the discovery of travelling amulets in the shape of Buddha), they would be more likely to worship Buddha only while abroad, and not in their home country. Also, the Buddhist doctrine of non-self, including renunciation of the material world, would hardly suit a merchant society. As Grenet pointed out: “Seen from China, the Sogdians appeared mostly as adherents and transmitters of the three great “salvation religions” of the time – Buddhism, Christianity, and Manichaeism – while in their homeland their art and religious buildings appeared fairly Iranian and conservatively Zoroastrian” (Grenet, 2007, 464).
While it is difficult to definitively assert that it was Sogdians who brought Buddhism to China, one can attest that there are numerous influences of Zoroastrianism in Chinese Mahāyāna systems, such as the appearance of the idea of the bodhisattva, totally absent in the Hīnayāna Buddhism. For example, the bodhisattva Maitreya presents a parallel to the Zoroastrian god Saoshyan, Amitabha has common features with the Iranian god Zurvan, and Avalokiteśvara shares some elements with Mithra. Khotanese Buddhism even developed its own bodhisattva Kṣitabgarbha, who doesn't exist in any other Buddhist tradition, but whose mission is very similar to the one of the Zoroastrian Gods, Chinvat, namely, to help souls to cross a “bridge of death” (Foltz, 2010, 210; Puri, 1987, 268). These bodhisattvas reflect a syncretic religious approach that exactly suited the Sogdian travellers. If Buddhism did in fact carry a very superficial dimension in society within Sogdiana, it could have been adopted as a temporary alternative to the Sogdian gods while abroad in order to conceal their beliefs from locals (Xinjinang, 2013). Thus, when Sogdians were settling down in Buddhist regions along the Silk Road, such as Khotan, they would convert to Buddhism while continuing to worship Zoroastrian deities under the cover of syncretic iconography in buddhas and bodhisattvas.
While most of the encounters of Sogdians with Buddhism happened outside of Sogdiana, along the Silk Roads or in the outposts, these contacts left behind many philological materials. Indeed, as Tremblay puts it “of the four faiths which yielded texts in Sogdian, Buddhism is the best represented in the extant manuscripts” (Tremblay, 2007, 91). These manuscripts are normally dated later than the Ancient Letters, but earlier than Manichaean and Christian Sogdian texts. All the Buddhist manuscripts written in Sogdian were found in China, in Turfan or in Dunhuang, places with extensive Sogdian populations but also significant centers of Buddhism. Most of these texts were translated not from Sanskrit but from Chinese, to the point that some peculiar idioms or terms are slavishly translated word by word, and are hardly translatable without their Chinese sources (Utz, 1978, 7; De Vaissière, 2005, 77). This suggests that the texts acquired a purely formal use, and were no longer a part of the living tradition.
In contrast with the numerous philological records of the encounters of the Sogdian with Buddhism and the Buddhists, we have very little art historical and archeological evidence pointing to this relationship. Although material Buddhist culture has been found in the territory of Sogdiana, such as amulets in the shape of Buddha, remains of Buddhist statues, or frescos with Buddhist motifs, this evidence is far from overwhelming. Amulets, medallions and small statues represent travelling items (Forte, 2015) and therefore could have belonged to travelling Buddhist visitors or Buddhist Sogdians visiting from the outposts. The frescos are painted in secondary places of the houses and contain numerous iconographical mistakes, which indicates that the patron or the painter had only a derivative knowledge of Buddhism (Tremblay, 2007, 91). All this evidence favours my conjecture that Buddhism was perceived as a helpful support during travel, and a way to connect with the local population in the oases along the Silk Road, but wasn't considered a significant religion back home.