The spread of Buddhism across Asia has been studied mainly from a perspective focusing on the transmission through the overland routes popularly known as “Silk Roads” and emphasizing Central Asia as an important transit corridor and contact zone between South and East Asia. However, recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the significant role played by the sea routes or maritime “Silk Roads” in shaping premodern intra-Asian connectivity. This has paved the way for an appreciation of the important contribution of the southern rim of Asia—especially South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia—to the genesis, transformation, and circulation of various forms of Buddhism.
Evidence of the long-distance transfer of Buddhism from its northeastern Indian cradle to the outlying regions of South India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and China via the maritime routes goes back to the early centuries of the Current Era. From the 5th century onward, written and material vestiges from the southern rim of Asia became more substantial, testifying to an efflorescence of long-distance maritime contacts that were to last several centuries. As is shown by textual, epigraphic, and art historical materials—including icons, ritual accoutrements, dhāraṇīs, manuscripts, and monuments—Buddhist cults, imaginaries, and ritual technologies flourished across the vast swathe of littoral, island, and hinterland territory that can be conceptualized as the sociospatial grouping of “Maritime Asia.” Buddhist vestiges recovered from the Indian Subcontinent littorals, Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, peninsular and coastal mainland Southeast Asia, and what are now called the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine islands, speak in favor of the existence of pervasive and sustained multidirectional Buddhist exchanges among interconnected nodes linking South Asia and the Western Indian Ocean to China, Korea, and Japan through the maritime routes. A polycentric, geographically wide, and maritime-based approach is necessary to fully appreciate how religious, mercantile, and diplomatic networks acted as catalysts for transmission of Buddhism far and wide across Asia over nearly two millennia.
Stephen C. Berkwitz
Relics and images of the Buddha and of other awakened beings occupy important places in ritual practice throughout the Buddhist world. Their significance and sacrality are evidenced by the numerous written and oral narratives that have been composed by Buddhist authors and storytellers to describe how they were obtained and what makes them special. Buddhist narratives on relics and images are mainly found outside of the tradition’s canonical literature, either as discrete texts or as sections in larger works. These narratives often supply explanations as to why certain relics shrines and images are worthy of veneration and can be sites for authorizing power and political status. The written and oral narratives about these allegedly extraordinary objects typically include material concerning the origins of revered relics and images linked to the Buddha or other awakened saints, as well as narratives that prophesy and recount how such special objects were found in their present locations and came to be worshipped by devotees. Such textual sources also often associate particular relics and images with the authority of a ruler or a monastic community that possessed them. It seems clear that the more important a given relic or image is for a Buddhist community, the more likely that it will have a narrative that is used to help locate this object in time and space for devotees to understand and worship it properly. In sum, these narratives play a critical role in endowing relics and images with their extraordinary natures and important roles in the devotional and political spheres of Buddhist communities across Asia.