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READ: Syncretism

Is a pizza with pineapple still pizza? Systems of belief, though a weightier subject, have also adapted the ingredients as trade routes and politics helped new ideas spread and change.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What are some ways in which Christianity changed as it spread to new societies, especially in Asia?
  2. What are some ways in which Buddhism changed as it spread?
  3. How did the adoption of Buddhism and Christianity by political powers help those religions spread?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. This article begins and ends with the example of a Nestorian Christian gravestone in Central Asia. Why do you think this gravestone had both a western calendar year and a Chinese Zodiac year?
  2. How does syncretism help explain how a belief system could be a network? Does that change how you think about belief systems as communities?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.


*By David Rheinstrom and Rosie Friedland, revised by Eman M. Elshaikh
Is a pizza with pineapple still pizza? Systems of belief, though a weightier subject, have also adapted the ingredients as trade routes and politics helped new ideas spread and change.

A history of cultural exchange

In what is now Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, there sits an ancient Christian cemetery. Its gravestones are marked with Nestorian images that feature a cross over a lotus blossom. The inscription on one says, "This is the grave of Jeremiah, the believer." It gives the year of Jeremiah's death, but then it also says, "the year of the sheep," referencing the twelve-animal cycle of the Chinese Zodiac.
Wait. Why is there a Christian gravestone in Central Asia with the Chinese Zodiac year on it? The Nestorians were one of many examples of a process called syncretism, which is what happens when a combination of different belief systems create something new. Transformed and even hybrid versions of religions, cultures, and ways of thinking emerge and spread for a variety of reasons. Syncretism can be when trade networks, shifts in political power, or the environment bring different groups of people into contact. Let's consider some historical examples of syncretism during this era.
We can start along the winding trade routes of the Silk Road. Let's just say that silk, spices, and diseases weren't the only things carried along the Silk Road. Nomadic merchants brought philosophies and faiths, too. Buddhism and Christianity traveled along trade networks as surely as lapis, pepper, and plague. These ideas changed and adapted the communities they encountered. As a Daoist might say, however, just as water changes its shape to fit the vessel, so do faiths and ideologies change to fit the contexts of the cultures that adopt them.

Trade networks and the expansion of classical empires

The growth of classical empires meant that exchanges of cultures and ideas became possible and more common. Whenever Eurasian empires of antiquity expanded, their trade routes and networks of communication grew and improved as well. Some empires even got so big that they bordered one another. For example, Alexander of Macedon's Greek empire reached as far as India, resulting in the development of Greco-Buddhism.
Christianity took some interesting routes as it spread and changed. Early Christian missionaries and preachers managed to turn Roman infrastructure to their advantage. They used Roman roads and Rome's expansive imperial trade network to spread their message far beyond the Mediterranean region. By the eleventh century CE, fully one-third of the world's Christians lived in Asia.
Ancient Roman road near Tall Aqibrin in Syria. By Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0.
As it spread, it adapted to local cultures. For starters, the language could change. Rather than the traditional Greek or Latin, the Church of the East used Syriac, a Semitic language, to write and read scriptures. Many of these Syriac-speaking Christians were Nestorians. This was a branch of Christianity that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches branded as heresy—out of line with accepted teachings and therefore a big no-no. Nestorians held that Jesus Christ was someone both human and divine in nature. Many early Christian ascetics (those who practiced moderation and led minimalist lives) were also influenced by the self-denying practices of Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist mystics. Some of these ascetics spent many years in seclusion as an expression of spiritual devotion.
Map of the Church of the East in the Middle Ages. By Kościół_Wschodu, CC BY-SA 3.0
As Christianity spread further east, it took on elements of other belief systems. A monument in the imperial capital of the Tang dynasty describes Christ in Buddhist language: "[Christ] fixed the extent of the Eight Boundaries [the Eight Consciousnesses of Mahayana Buddhism], thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross [worthlessness]; he opened the gate of the three constant principles [impermanence, suffering, and non-self], introducing life and destroying death."
Buddhism itself was transformed as it spread across the world. In India, many members of the merchant caste were practicing Buddhists. They talked to people as they traveled and traded. In this way, Buddhism spread along the Silk Road to Iran, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and China.
As Buddhism spread, it was adopted within the context of peoples and their communities. For example, Mahayana Buddhism was much more popular in China than it was in India. Buddhist monks in India engaged in stricter, more ascetic practices and placed a higher value on meditation. A lifetime of meditation practice was difficult for an ordinary person to achieve. On the other hand, Mahayana, literally meaning "the great vehicle," was a form of Buddhism more people were willing to accept. In this branch you could attain salvation with acts of devotion such as paying for religious verses, rather than through asceticism (extreme self-denial). Missionaries and merchants promoting this more accessible version of the belief system attracted more followers. As a result, Buddhism gained a greater foothold in places like China. Its universal message of attaining salvation appealed to people and was easier for diverse cultures to understand and adopt.
Furthermore, Mahayana Buddhism made allowances for incorporating existing cultures and practices into its philosophy. In Mongolia and Tibet, Mahayana Buddhism shifted to allow for cultural beliefs in magic. In Tibet, for example, Mahayana Buddhists taught that it was possible to attain enlightenment through rituals and incantation. As with Christianity, Buddhism took on entirely new forms based on the diverse contexts of the communities it reached.
Political power also played a massive role in reshaping belief systems. The Tang dynasty, through the strength of its military, imposed peace and order over Central Asia. This stability made it safe enough for traveling scholars and missionaries to accompany trading parties across the deserts and steppes. Its domain extended from the East China Sea all the way to Kashgar, near the border of present-day Kyrgyzstan. Buddhist monks traveled west along the Silk Road in efforts to study Buddhist doctrine in India, where they encountered massive Buddhist statues carved into cliffs as far west as modern-day Afghanistan.

Merging of political and religious authority

For both Christianity and Buddhism, political and religious authority were often mixed. For example, Constantine I, a fourth-century Roman Emperor, changed the rules after reportedly having a religious vision. He made it legal for Christians to practice their faith openly. By the late fourth century, emperor Theodosius had established Christianity as the official religion of Imperial Rome. Christians were able to hold positions of power in government, which granted the religion more legitimacy and followers. During this time, conversions increased in Spain, Italy, north Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean area.
A photo of one of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The sculpture is massive; for scale, a person is standing at the foot of the statue and reaches the statue’s ankle. By Phecda109, public domain.
Buddhism also spread and transformed as a result of political power. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism possibly as a means of uniting his citizens around a common belief system. He also sent missionaries to a variety of locations. The first missionaries arrived in modern-day Sri Lanka in 250 BCE. Ashoka also sent missionaries to central Asia and the Middle East. From Sri Lanka, Buddhism spread to Burma, Java, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. From central Asia, it eventually spread to East Asia and Tibet.
Why does this matter? Well, these missionaries acted as official spokespeople for the royal government, which gave them access to the rulers in the cities they visited. When a ruler likes what you have to say, it's pretty much the BCE version of having a celebrity re-share your post. You get a lot more followers. Buddhism was able to spread quickly and efficiently as more kings adopted the belief system in their own communities.
Syncretism of cultures and traditions also developed in many different contexts during the classical period. Hinduism is a highly syncretic religion that developed and spread through diverse parts of the Indian subcontinent. Mesopotamian culture and legal codes influenced Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures. Greek culture influenced Judaism as Alexander of Macedon's empire spread east.
So, let's go back to that Nestorian gravestone in Central Asia. Do you have a better sense now of why the grave would give both a western calendar year and a Chinese Zodiac year? Do you see how doing business along Silk Road networks allowed ideas, not just goods, to be delivered?
Author bios
Rosie Friedland is a content contributor at Khan Academy. She has created materials for a variety of Khan Academy's test prep offerings, including free SAT prep in partnership with College Board. She has also worked on course materials for Grammar, World History, U.S. History, and early-grade English Language Arts.
David Rheinstrom is a content creator at Khan Academy, and a former Grammar Fellow. Together with Rosie Friedland and Paige Finch, he developed the Grammar section of the website, and has contributed work to the test prep domain, World History, U.S. History, and a collaboration with the National Constitution Center. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Eman M. Elshaikh is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences, focusing on history and anthropology. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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