The Silk Road-Part 3 of 4-Religions on the Silk Road

This is the third part of the four part series based on the research done by Learners at The Integral School, Hyderabad, on the ancient Silk Road and focuses on the various religions on the Silk Road.  The research team included Aravind Bandreddi, Qutub Khan Vajihuddin, Aatmesh and Zoya Kadeer. This document was prepared by Zoya Kadeer.

Countries that the Silk Road passed through

There were totally nine countries that the Silk Road passed through. They are the following:

  • Azerbaijan
  • Georgia and North Caucasus
  • Kazakhstan
  • Tajikistan
  • Uzbekistan
  • China
  • Iran
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Turkmenistan.


Religious beliefs along the Silk Road

Religious beliefs are often one of the most important and deeply held aspects of personal identity, and people are reluctant to go where they cannot practice their own faith. Traders, who used the Silk Road regularly, therefore built shrines and temples of their own faiths, wherever they went in order to maintain their own beliefs and practices of worship while they were so far away from home. Missionaries of many faiths, accompanied caravans on the Silk Road, consciously trying   expand the reach of their own religious persuasion and make converts to their own faith.

Religious beliefs of the people of the Silk Road had changed radically over time and were largely due to the effects of travel and trade on the road itself. For over two millennia, the Silk Road was a network of roads leading to a circulation of various religious beliefs across Eurasia

Trading activities along the Silk Road over many centuries facilitated the transmission of ideas and culture, notably in the area of religions. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam spread all over Eurasia through trade networks that were tied to specific religious communities and institutions. The spread of religions and cultural traditions along the Silk Road also led to syncretism.

The religious beliefs of people along the Silk Road at the beginning of the 1st century BCE were very different from what they would become later.

The people of the Silk Road in its early decades followed many different religions. In the Middle East, many people worshipped the gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman pagan pantheon. Others were followers of the old religion of Egypt, especially the cult of Isis and Osiris. Jewish merchants and other settlers had spread beyond the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judea and had established their own places of worship in towns and cities throughout the region. Elsewhere in the Middle East, and especially in Persia and Central Asia, many people were adherents of Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the Persian sage Zoroaster in the 6th century BCE. It posited a struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, its use of fire as the symbol of the purifying power of good was probably borrowed from the Brahmanism religion of ancient India. The Greek colonies of Central Asia that had been left behind after the collapse of the empire of Alexander the Great had, by the 1st century BCE, largely converted from  Greco-Roman paganism to Buddhism, a religion that would soon use the Silk Road to spread far and wide. In India, on side routes of the Silk Road that crossed the passes to the Indus valley and beyond, the older religion of Brahmanism had given way to Hinduism and Buddhism ; the former never spread far beyond India and South-East Asia, while the latter eventually became worldwide in extent.

Buddhism was prevalent in Central Asia but not widespread in China nor had it reached elsewhere in East Asia. Christianity was still more than a century in the future. Daoism, in the strict sense of that term, connoting an organized religion with an ordained clergy and an established body of doctrine, would not appear in China for another three centuries. Islam would be more than seven centuries in the future.

Buddhism also interacted with China with religious Daoism, especially from the 3rd century BCE. Religious Daoism, in the form of several competing sects, absorbed many of the local religious temples and doctrines of ancient China. It offered believers immortality or reincarnation in a celestial pantheon, and amassed a canon of sacred texts rivaling that of Buddhism. Daoism spread westward into Central Asia along the Silk Road, providing, just as Buddhism had done, religious facilities for travelling believers; many of the important Buddhist temple complexes of Central Asia show Daoism’s influence or incorporated its chapels. The Chinese Chan tradition of Buddhism (called “Zen” in Japanese) owes a great deal to Buddhism-Daoism syncretism.

Meanwhile, in the western reaches of the Silk Road, important changes were also taking place. Christianity was transformed, in the century 50 CE, from a local phenomenon in the region now comprising of Israel and Palestine to a rapidly expanding, proselytizing religion through the efforts of major Christian apostles. Christianity thrived especially at the expense of classical paganism; in Christianity’s original homeland, Judaism remained the dominant but non-proselytizing religion even as it evolved new traditions of study and practice.

Another Middle Eastern faith that was on the Silk Road for a time was Manichaeism, established by the Persian prophet Mani in the 3rd century CE. Mani arose from the Zoroastrian tradition, and consciously incorporated elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths into his own doctrines; he saw himself as the successor to Zoroaster, the historic Buddha, Jesus, and other great ancient religious teachers. Manichaeism, like Zoroastrianism, emphasized the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness; it offered salvation to the Elect, those who were deeply immersed in the faith’s teachings. Manichaeism became an important rival of Christianity in the Middle East and Mediterranean, North Africa, and was known along the Silk Road (though with little or no impact on China and East Asia) but its influence began to wane by the end of the 6th century.

Silk Road faiths from the Middle East to the north-western reaches of China were challenged and, in time, displaced by the spread of Islam, which is at present; the faith of the majority of the people in the countries spanned by the old Silk Road.

Diverse Religions on the Silk Road


A dualistic religious system with Christian, Gnostic, and pagan elements, founded in Persia in the 3rd century by Mani (circa 216-circa 276) and was based on a supposed primeval conflict between light and darkness. It was widespread in the Roman Empire and in Asia, and survived in eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) until the 13th century.

Manichaeism was a type of Gnosticism-a dualistic religion that offered salvation through special knowledge (gnosis) of spiritual truth. Like all forms of Gnosticism, Manichaeism taught that life in this life is unbearably painful and radically evil. Inner illumination reveals that the soul which shares in the nature of God has fallen into the evil world of matter and must be saved by means of the spirit or intelligence. To know one’s self is to recover one’s true self, which was previously clouded by ignorance and lack of self-consciousness because of its mingling with the body and with matter. In Manichaeism, to no one’s self is to see one’s soul as sharing in the very nature of God and as coming from a transcendent world. Knowledge enables a person to realize that, despite his abject present condition in the material world, he does not cease to remain united to the transcendent world by eternal and immanent bonds. Thus, knowledge is the only way to salvation.


It is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. It was founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in ancient Iran approximately 3500 years ago.

The oldest faith still practiced, Zoroastrianism is also one of the least well-known. About 150,000 people are followers. Zoroastrians believe in a supreme God named Ahura Mazda, the creator and the source of all that’s good in the universe. They believe that people can overcome evil in the world by doing good deeds, thinking good thoughts, and living a good life.


It is an ancient monotheistic religion, with the Torah as its foundational text (part of the larger text known as the Tanah or Hebrew Bible) and supplemental oral tradition represented by later text such as the Midrash and the Talmud.

Followers of Judaism known as Jews worship one God, and they are all children of Abraham, the man who brought God’s message to the people. The holy book of Judaism, the Torah, tells the story of how God promised to protect Abraham’s people if they vowed to love and obey God, and to follow God’s laws. The most important laws are the Ten Commandments handed down from God to a leader named Moses.


It is a widespread Asian religion or philosophy, founded by Siddhartha Gautama in North-East India in the 5th century BC.

Buddhism is not like other faiths. Its followers, who are Buddhists, live according to the teachings of Buddha, its founder. Buddha did not believe in a supreme god, so Buddhists do not worship Buddha that way. Instead they pay respect to him and to all living beings. Buddha taught that life moves around in an endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. If people live with neither too much nor too little, and are kind, they come closer to a joyful state of understanding called enlightenment. This is the goal of Buddhists.


The religion is based on the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, or its beliefs and practices.

Two thousand years ago in Israel, a great teacher spread a simple message: people must live God’s word everyday through acts of kindness and love. This man was Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe is God’s son. Although Jesus inspired many people, he was put to death by the Romans, who ruled the area. Yet three days later Jesus rose from the dead. His life and teachings are celebrated in Christianity.


It is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion that upholds that God is one and incomparable and that the purpose of existence is to worship God. Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet of God.

Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born around 570 CE. At the age of 40, according to Muslim tradition, he became the recipient of a series of revelations, recorded in the Quran, which is for Muslims a faithful recording of the entire revelation of God sent through Muhammad. The basic teachings of the Quran were belief in one God, unique and compassionate; the necessity of faith, compassion, and morality in human affairs; accountability of human actions; and the recognition that the same God had sent Prophets and Revelations to other societies which Islam affirmed while regarding the Quran as the final message and Muhammad as the last of the divine messengers.


It is a major religious and cultural tradition of South Asia, which developed from Vedic religion.

More than 5,000 years ago, the faith known as Hinduism began in India. It evolved out of many different practices of the ancient Indian people. So, Hinduism is not a single religion, but a family of religious traditions. Although they show their faith in different ways, most Hindus believe in God, who is worshipped in many forms. They also believe in rebirth in a new body.

Daoism (Taoism)

Taoism, also known as Daoism is a religious, philosophical and ritual tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (literally meaning “Way” also Romanized as Dao).



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