The Sogdians as Transmitters of Buddhism

Fragment of a Statuette of Buddha Making the Abhaya mudra

Fragment of a statuette of Buddha making the

abhaya mudra, possibly 3rd or 4th century from

Samarkand.

The Sogdians have long had a reputation of involvment with Buddhism.  They are credited with translating sutras and transmitting them to China (Sims-Williams 1996, 46).  As well, Sogdiana sat along pilgrimage routes Chinese Buddhists followed towards India.  We know specifically the monk Xuanzang visited Sogdiana in search of new sutras and knowledge about Buddhism.  The Sogdians were clearly involved in some extent with the religion (Expedition Silk Road 2014, 13).  And yet, compared to other religions, there is not nearly as much evidence of Buddhism in Sogdiana as there is of others attributing Buddhism to the Sogdians.  Take, for example, the ruins at Panjikent.  There are a great many wall paintings there featuring religious figures and themes.  The vast majority seem to be local takes on Zoroastrian and Hindu deities (Marshak 2002, 17-19).  Buddhism is present, but in a subdued form.  How do we account for this discrepancy?  It may be that while Buddhism was less important to the Sogdians living at home, it was an influence on the many Sogdians living and moving abroad.

Sogdiana was truly a land of many religions.  Research suggests that the most prevalent religion in the area before the Islamic conquests was Zoroastrianism, but we also have evidence of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Manichaeism, and Buddhism.  And while Zoroastrianism is ever prevalent, Sogdians had an outside reputation and association with Buddhism.  As Buddhism spread out of northern India, it grabbed a strong foothold in Bactria before moving further north and east.  By the start of the common era, Buddhism had gotten as far as Khotan, and would have made it though what becomes Sogdiana (Expedition Silk Road 2014, 68).  We know that Sogdians translated some of the sutras from Sanskrit to Chinese, and we have accounts of Buddhist monks and monasteries in Sogdiana.  Chinese monks, such as the famous Xuanzang, even specifically traveled through Sogdiana in search of Buddhist texts and knowledge.  Yet their experiences did not always meet their expectations

Xuanzang, Sun Wukong and a horse before Bodhisattva Guanyin

This painting features the monk Xuanzang (center) meeting a bodhisattva.  Xuanzang famoulsy traveled the Silk Road out of China in search of Buddhist knowledge.

Xuanzang's pilgrimage, which began in 629 CE, demonstrates the complicated relationship between the Sogdians and Buddhism.  His ultimate destination was India, and his main goal was to make sense of some sutras that did not make sense in their Chinese translations.   He was also in search of original Buddhist texts in Sanskrit.  Thankfully, Xuanzang’s journey is well documented in a sort of hagiographic biography and his own report of his travels.  We know the route he took to India passed through Sogdian territory and into Samarkand itself.  Yet despite their association with Buddhism, when commenting on the Sogdians Xuanzang does not mention Buddhism at all.  He focuses on their language, their physical appearance, and the mercantile aspects of their society.  Religion is absent.  For example, take his discussion of Samarkand.  Of its people, he writes,

"The people are brave and energetic. This country is in the middle of the Hu people (or this is the middle //[p.33] of the Hu). They are copied by all surrounding people in point of politeness and propriety. The king is full of courage, and the neighbouring countries obey his commands. The soldiers and the horses (cavalry) are strong and numerous, and principally men of Chih-kia. These men of Chih-kia are naturally brave and fierce, and meet death as a refuge (escape or salvation). When they attack, no enemy can stand before them, (Xuanzang 2003)."  

Buddhism is not prevalent enough to warrant a reaction.

A lack of Buddhism is also noticeable in the ruins of the town of Panjikent.  There we see a truly religiously diverse society.  Zoroastrianism is ever present, we see paintings of the Mahabharata, and the goddess Nana is depicted many times.  But Buddhism is comparatively absent.  While we have no indication as to whether or not Panjikent was a typical Sogdian city or an outlier, this still complicates our understand of the Sogdian relationship with Buddhism.

What do we make of the association between the Sogdians and Buddhism?  A possible reconciliation lies in the more transient Sogdian communities.  The Sogdian association with Buddhism comes from sources outside Sogdiana.  While there are few sources within Sogdiana that supports a strong Buddhist presence, a great many Sogdians didn’t stay in their homeland, and many traveled and lived in communities abroad.  Process of elimination would suggest it was these Sogdians living outside of their homeland that built the reputation of Sogdians as Buddhists.

Pendant in the Form of Buddha Sakyamuni

Pendent of the Buddha Sakyamuni

Take this pendent of the Buddha Sakyamuni.  The pendent is small, easily transported, and seems to have been worn as a decorative piece.  Clearly it could survive on the road.  But more importantly is the item’s range.  This pendent, though acquired in Samarkand, is hypothesized to have made its way at one point out to Kashmir.  While not unrealistically far from the Sogdian heartland, it certainly stands as a region apart.  And though it may simply be a coincidence, Xuanzang, after leaving Samarkand and heading south, did travel through the modern day region of Kashmir.  And we also know of a series of Buddhist monasteries south of Samarkand in Termez.  There existed a complex of “several monasteries that shared cave and aboveground structures,” and “paintings in the interiors included images of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and noble donors,” (Expedition Silk Road 2014, 220).  We don’t know the cultural make up of the monks that resided Termez, but it seems probable that the Sogdians had a presence there.  Another example would be the settlement of Turfan, situated between Sogdiana and China.  The town had a large Sogdian population, to the point where the Chinese who lived and visited there found the city more Iranian than Chinese (Hansen 2012, 83).  Xuanzang stopped there on his was to India, before reaching Sogdiana.  There he both stayed at a monastery and spent a month teaching a Buddhist text at the local king’s insistence (Hansen 2012, 89-90).  Buddhism was not just present in Turfan, but welcome.

Buddhism had little role in the Sogdian homeland.  The evidence all points to other religions being far more dominant.  But at least we can get a glimpse of why the Sogdians would have been associated with the religion.  Sogdians at home were not practicing Buddhism, there Zoroastrianism reigned supreme.  It was the Sogdians abroad, the ones out and interacting with the rest of the world, the traveling monks, merchants, and diplomats, that spread Buddhism and earned their peers an association with the religion.

The Sogdians as Transmitters of Buddhism