Through out history, there was natural interaction through migration and conquest, travel and trade, between the Fertile Crescent, Asia Minor, Persia, Khorasan and Central Asia and Hindustan. Alexander the Macedonian went up to Bukhara and then North West Hindustan. Earlier some Indo- Aryan tribes like Mitannis had migrated from Eurasian steppes and ruled in upper Mesopotamia. Then the Arab armies marched north east and conquered areas up to the steppes. Then the Turkish tribes marched from eastern Asian steppes to Persia! And Turkey (and the Indian sub-continent). Then came Chengiz Khan and the Mongol hordes.
Culturally, linguistically, ethnically and spiritually there is no area in the world that has so much in common as that formed by the regions connecting the river basins of Euphrates, Tigris; Amu and Syr Darya: Indus and the Ganges. This is an area with a continuous history and cradle of most civilizations and religions; Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Judaism and Christianity and Islam and their variations. The intermingling of Semitic, Indo-Iranian and Ural- Altaic languages with local languages produced a mosaic of new languages and tongues.
Influence of Buddhism in Central Asia perhaps started from the time of Greek King Menander in Bactria. During the rule of Kushana Emperor Kanishka (who was converted to Buddhism) from Peshawar, not only traders but also religious teachers moved freely throughout his Empire which then encompassed today’s Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang, Pakistan and Northern India and laid the foundations for the spread of Buddhism. Earlier Asoka had undertaken energetic steps to spread the Dharma, but his efforts were more successful in South East Asia and Ceylon. Buddhism was taken to Central Asia either directly or via Tibet or Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) where with little competition, it was easily accepted. But it was not so in Sogdiana and around it, where Zoroastrians were well entrenched, later came followers of Manichaeism and Nestorian Christians. Conquerors (and traders) spread their religions, but they were also influenced by the cultures and the creeds of the ruled.
To begin with in Buddhism symbols represented Buddha and Tantras. Sculpture representing Buddha in human form is a Greek contribution through Gandhara art from Afghanistan. Starting from Bactria, Buddhism evolved the concept of Bodhisattva Maitreya as incarnations for attaining Nirvana and return to guide and help the laity. This universal and secular religion found favor with Central Asian Turks and Mongols (also Uyghur’s in Xinjiang) when it reached there.
Influence of Viharas and Stupas on darghas and khankahs in Central Asia
Excavations have revealed Viharas and Stupas all over eastern Turkistan, up to Bukhara and into Turkmenistan. To begin with, Stupas were built to keep sacred relics (of Buddha and some of his disciples) although Buddha himself was against such practices. Later Stupas became associated with the symbols of remains of saints and cemeteries. The respect and veneration is, perhaps, based more on Aryan belief in Brahman or the Reality (Universal Soul) and Atman (individual Soul) with the saints having achieved the Union with the Reality. Prophet Mohammed had underlined that God and man are different. (Christians have still not resolved this dilemma fully). Miracles and veneration of dead persons are denounced in Quran (Sura XI, 31).
Stupas started as simple structures, as in Sanchi in Central India (1st or 2nd Cent BC) with a semi-spherical dome for the remains, fenced by a wall and 4 entrances and a Chhatri (umbrella symbolizing the Lord and the Sovereign). Later a raised square platform was added under the dome with the structures then becoming more complex and sophisticated, adorned with sculptures like Bamiyan Buddha and paintings (some times in caves i.e. in Ajanta and Barhaut in India). Viharas are monasteries with cells constructed around a court yard, with Stupa in the middle, for monks to stay during the heavy Indian monsoon rains. Normally the monks were not to attach themselves to any fixed place.
With the spread of Buddhism Central Asians including Turks and Mongols adopted and assimilated phrases from Buddhism i.e. Sanskrit and Pali words like Nirvana =Nirvana (Nibanna), Dhamma =Dharma, Cindan =Chandan (sandalwood), used for funerary ceremony, Aratna =Ratan, Stup =Stupa, Mandal= Mandala, Chakra= Chakra, Bodhistava =Bodhistav, Bakshi (accountant) =Bhikku /Bhikshu (because a Bhikshu once did accounts for the Mongols in Xinjiang) etc.
An excavation in 1930s at Moghoki Attar mosque in Bukhara, perhaps the oldest surviving mosque in Central Asia, revealed under it ruins of a Zoroastrian temple destroyed by Arabs and an earlier Buddhist temple beneath it. The name Bukhara itself perhaps derives from Vihara. (Tashkent could be from Tashkhund; region of stones in Sanskrit). There are many ruins of Viharas and Stupas in Termez on Amu Darya (Uzbekistan), Merv (Turkmenistan), Afrasiab (Samarkand), Khojand etc in Ferghana valley and around Lake Issik Kul in Kyrgyzstan .Of course in Eastern Turkistan (and Tibet) apart from the ruins, many thousand old Buddhist manuscripts (300 pages found in Merv too) and books were recovered. Buddhist paintings have also been found in Afrasiab and elsewhere in Central Asia. It is not a simple coincidence that after Islam’s arrival all these places became centre of Sufi Islam. From Stupas and Viharas have perhaps emerged sacred tombs, khankahs, darghas and madrassas.
Tombs were not popular in Arab heartland around Saudi Arabia. But the Persian, Turkish, Asian and African, even Berber Muslims accepted Pirs, Calandars, Sheikhs, Babas, Dervishes and others and their tombs became places of worship. Freedom loving eclectic nomads and others resisted Arab warriors in Sogdiana and Central Asia and their still austere Islam. It was only the modified, personalized and spiritual Islam of Persian Samanids based in Bukhara (Ismail’s tomb looks like a simple Stupa) that was first accepted by Turks and others in Central Asia .To Islam had been added strands of local religions and beliefs .It is this form of Islam that was spread in India mostly by Sufi saints, but also by forced conversions or inducements.
Sufism developed fully by 12th century by which time Arab Islam had been modified and enriched by streams from Persian, Central Asian and other religions, beliefs and philosophies .It was in the heartland of Arab Islam i.e. Baghdad and Aleppo, where Sufis saints Al Hajj (for insisting " Ana Al-haq "-I am the Truth) and Suhrawardy were martyred. Because of Sunni hostility tombs were erected much after the martyrdom of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein in Najaf and Karbala. The Wahabis, Salafis remain deadly opposed to Sufism.
The major Sufi Tariqas ( ways) had central Asian origin or influence i.e., Qadiriyas, Nakshabandis (many current Turkish leaders are its adherents), Rumi’s dervishes, Bektashis, the patron saint of non-Turkish (mostly Slav), non- Muslim ( mostly Christian) born Janissary corps and top Administrators of the Ottoman Empire based on devshirme (slave ) system. Turkey’s Shia Alevis’ faith (majority from Turkmen Oghuz tribes) has strands from Christian, Shaman and other beliefs.
Intermingling of beliefs and faiths
Human wish to comprehend and experience the Reality is as old as the natural talent to transcend beyond oneself, until this faculty was dimmed by technological afflictions. There are glimpses of it in earliest Aryan writings like Vedas and Avestan, even among Greek philosophers like Orpheus, Pythagoras, Socrates and others .So the environment and tools existed before formal religions evolved or were revealed.
Buddha himself went through the whole gamut of experiments and meditations including Jain like and other austerities, Hindu systems before realizing Nirvana. And his path and method of meditation were modified in east India, Tibet, China and Japan. If Buddhism influenced the evolution of Sufi Islam then Buddhism itself was influenced earlier by other religions and practices.
Indo-Iranian religion Mithraism flowered between the 2nd and 4th centuries in the Roman world and became very popular among the Roman aristocracy, military leaders and soldiers, traders and slaves with powerful patrons among Roman emperors, like Commodus, Septimium Severus, Caraculla and others. Diocletian built a temple for Mithra near Vienna on Danube as "the Protector of the Empire". He was the god of Light and Sun, contract, loyalty and justice. Celebrations for Mithra's birthday on December 25, the sun's solstice, was so popular in the Asia that Christmas had to be shifted to this day from January 6 to make it acceptable among the masses. Christianity also took over many of the rituals and symbols of Mithraism, like baptism, resurrection and prayers to honor the Sun.
India’s Sikh religion also known as gurmat, the teachings of the guru, founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), combines many elements of Hinduism and Islam. Guru Nanak believed that one could come close to the God through meditation and devotion .God is the true guru and his divine word has come to the humanity through the 10 historical gurus. Their sacred scripture Adi Granth is also called “Guru Granth Saheb “. The Sikh temples are known as gurdwaras, Guru’s door. Many Shi'ites Ghulat groups believe that Ali and the Imams are doors to God. When the Sunni Mogul emperors persecuted the Sikhs and their gurus, Sikh religion took to militancy and those who died for the panth (gurus’ path) became martyrs.
Human beings have evolved many paths to the Reality i.e. various Yoga systems; Tibetan, Zen, Vipassana and other Buddhist Margs, Jewish Kabala, Christian Hesychasm, Gurdjief way, Sufi Tariqas and Transcendental Meditation (TM) in modern times for spiritually challenged materialists. The masses accept what the saints and holy men they trust teach them.
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