The Kushan Empire, where main narratives met
The Kushan Empire began to form in the 1st century BC and stretched from the Indus to the Aral Sea including parts of Iran, the Turkic states of Central Asia, all of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the north of current India.
When they supplanted the Central Asian kingdoms created by Alexander the Great, the Kushans absorbed some Hellenistic residues. By invading northern India’s Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms, the Kushans absorbed some of these cultural remnants. As they extended their domain westward, they encountered the Persian world. And to the east, they met an expanding China. The Kushan Empire and its successors stretched across four of the significant intercommunication areas of the ancient world.
In the Kushan Empire, constellations of different cultures met. They formed a new form of a constellation of ideas that including and excluding elements of the two original cultures.
The Kushans adopt Buddhism
The Kushans adopted Buddhism and many Buddhist missionaries came to their empire from India. Initially, Buddhists had rejected sculptural representations of the master because, they thought, one did not know what Buddha looked like.
In the Kushan world, Buddhists breathed in the fumes of Hellenic culture left by Alexander the Great. The Greeks habitually made images of their deities to represent their spiritual tastes.
In this context, Buddhists began to create sculptures of the Buddha to express, through features and postures, the spiritual stability they sought. Buddhist statues had a Hellenistic air.
The Kushan Empire also extended into the Persian world, home of the Zoroastrian narrative, a world replete with Avestan epochs (Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, Persian religion at that time), including the cult of Mithra.
Mithra was originally the Aryan god. Aryans were shepherds from the steppes of Central Asia who came to India between 2000 and 1500 BCE and introduced the Indo-European languages to the subcontinent and their gods.
(Image on the right) Gautama Buddha in Greco-Buddhist style, 1st–2nd century CE, Gandhara (Peshawar basin, modern day Pakistan).
In time, Mithra became a supernatural being born of a human mother and a divine father, which placed him on the line between the eternal and the temporal (this reminds me of another story). Being both human and divine, Mithra could lead humans away from death and into eternal life. He was a saviour.
Mahayana Buddhism and Silk Road travellers
When Buddhists encountered the followers of Mithra, a new notion was born in Buddhism. Certain exalted spiritual luminaries who reached the brink of nirvana but, instead of passing into bliss, stopped on that line and reached out to help others. They were saviours. And like Mithra, they straddled the illusory material world and the timeless reality. These figures were called «bodhisattvas,» and the greatest of them (yet to come) was a figure known as Maitreya (somewhat similar to Mithra…).
(Image on the left) An illustration in a manuscript of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra from Nalanda, depicting the bodhisattva Maitreya, an important figure in Mahāyāna.
The Mahayana opened the door to the idea that every person might not have to lead a disciplined life and ceaseless meditation to attain nirvana (a kind of Paradise, from the Avestan «pairidaēza» denoting the gardens, arbors, and orchards of the Zoroastrian religion –later integrated in Christian narrative-). Some devotees could live as monks to fulfil the tricky part for many, as a full-time occupation.
The sheep could get closer to the ultimate goal by simply helping and supporting the monks. Monasteries spread and served as repositories for donations from people who believed in the Buddhist path but could not fulfil their daily work. Such monasteries came to possess a lot of gold and land (The monks began to make their full-time job highly profitable).
Unlike other monastic orders, they could not flaunt their wealth. Therefore, the Buddhist monasteries directed their capital towards large-scale commercial ventures. They invested in trading expeditions with large caravans of animals and people with road stations and rest stops, and financial mechanisms to facilitate transactions.
Mithra and its encounter with the Roman Empire
The grand narratives in Iran and Mesopotamia (in ancient Greece and later in Europe) presented the universe as an apocalyptic drama with a beginning and an end, with gods as protagonists and men as helpers. Buddhists saw the universe as a featureless field, where events and affairs did not exist and where each individual was heading towards an eternal, formless, and impersonal nirvana. These two aspects were incompatible, as with the Jewish prophets, therefore That is on of the main reasons Mithraism did not came to our West.
Meanwhile, the cult of Mithra continued to spread in the Persian world. The rulers of the Parthian Empire (an ancient land roughly corresponding to the northeast of present-day Iran, southern Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan) controlled most of the trade routes between Asia and the Greco-Roman world, and this control brought them great wealth. Persian rulers pushed westward while the Romans pushed eastward. Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) was the battle line between the two. In this border area, Roman soldiers discovered the cult of Mithras.
The cult of Mithras had properties similar to those of many mystical religions, a familiar feature of the Greco-Roman world. These esoteric religions evolved around a body of secret knowledge that ignorant novices, absorbing the secret knowledge, reached the heart of the mystery, where they or a clairvoyant leader came into direct contact with the supernatural. As Mithraism echoed the themes, it resonated with Roman soldiers, and a reconfigured cult of Mithra emerged as a new mystery religion in Rome.
Mithraism and the main lines Christian Narrative
The central figure of the Mithraic mysteries was born of a virgin mother named Anahid, a human who had given birth to a god. The birth took place around the winter solstice, i.e., near the 25 December. During his career on earth, Mithra was followed by followers corresponding to the twelve signs of the zodiac. The virgin birth, saviour of humankind, born around the 25 December, twelve followers,…
Mithraism developed in the Roman Empire a little earlier than the Christian cult. Once Rome conquered the Fertile Crescent, all these ideological narratives – the numerous temples of Mesopotamia, the god of the Hebrews, Mithras, etc. – flowed into the Roman Empire. As soon as Jews´s land was conquered, the idea of a messiah, a charismatic figure sent by god to lead the Jews to freedom from Rome, appeared.
The Jewish world was soon filled with agitators who rose against Rome and preached a religious revival. A census of Galilee ordered by Rome spurred the Zealots –-members of a Jewish sect noted for its uncompromising opposition to pagan Rome – to rally the populace to noncompliance on the grounds that agreement was an implicit acknowledgment by Jews of the right of pagans to rule their nation.
Among all these opponents to the Roman empire, one stood out. His name was John, and he brought his followers into his inner circle through a ritual called baptism. He was Jewish, but initiation rituals were a common feature of the mystery religions so prevalent in the Greco-Roman world: the Mithraic mysteries, among others. These mystical ideologies generally promised initiates access to secret knowledge that would exalt them spiritually and assure them a happy future, even mortality.
The rest of the story… … a Jew named Jesus, born from earthly mother and heavenly father, around the winter´s solstice, baptised by John, followed by twelve apostles, and who claimed to be one of the messiahs who would save the people from the Roman yoke, …
… but that is another story and we come to the end of another of our travel notes. But our Journey to the East continues so…