Meta-Religion: Religion and Power in World History

Meta-Religion: Religion and Power in World History

by James W. Laine

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Whereas many textbooks treat the subject of world religions in an apolitical way, as if each religion were a path for individuals seeking wisdom and not a discourse intimately connected with the exercise of power, James W. Laine treats religion and politics as halves of the same whole, tracing their relationship from the policies of Alexander the Great to the ideologies of modern Europe secularists, with stops in classical India, China, and the Islamic world. Meta-Religion is a groundbreaking text that brings power and politics to the fore of our understanding of world religions, placing religion at the center of world history. This synthetic approach is both transformative and enlightening as it presents a powerful model for thinking differently about what religion is and how it functions in the world. With images and maps to bring the narrative to life, Meta-Religion combines sophisticated scholarly critique with accessibility that students and scholar alike will appreciate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520959996
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/03/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 21 MB
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About the Author

James W. Laine is Arnold H. Lowe Professor of Religious Studies at Macalester College.

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Religion and Power in World History

By James W. Laine


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95999-6


Alexander and Ashoka

Cosmopolitan Empires and Religious Policy from Egypt to India, 330–230 B.C.

One obvious place to begin a broad reflection on the history of religion is with the founders of great religions—Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, Confucius, Muhammad—and then their immediate followers. But if we are to take seriously the issue of the way that religion is enabled and constrained by political power, perhaps the less obvious path of investigating the place of religion in the imperial polity will be more fruitful. How did the imperial state patronize Buddhism or Christianity? In late antiquity, how did the state adjudicate between the conflicting claims of multiple religions? How did minority religions carve out space for their subcultures to flourish? We begin here the thousand-year story that will span Eurasia (what the Greeks called "the oikoumene") and will produce the world in which Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam could be imagined and find their geopolitical places ranged round the crossroads of the ancient world.

In addressing these questions, we can begin with the empires of two great kings whose stories, in a sense, overlap: Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 B.C.) and Ashoka Maurya (r. 269–232 B.C.). Both were long remembered as religious and political unifiers. Both grappled with religious and cultural diversity. And from their era onward, the Mediterranean would be part of the same world as distant India: Greek and Indian universalists reached out toward one another.

The Macedonian Alexander, who succeeded his father in 336 B.C. as a military and political leader of the League of Corinth, and in his short career, defeated the Persians and created an empire that stretched from Egypt and Greece to the Indian Punjab. He had been the student of Aristotle as a teenager, and was a champion of Greek culture. If his empire broke apart shortly after his death in 323 at the age of 33, the effects of this wide dispersion of Greek culture were long-lived. At the other end of the oikoumene, the Indian Ashoka ruled an empire that stretched from south India to Bengal and Afghanistan. His grandfather had hosted at court the Greek writer Megasthenes and he himself trained as a viceroy in Taxila (in modern Pakistan), one of the cities through which Alexander passed on his campaign in the Punjab. Since Greek women were part of his father's harem, some even believe Ashoka had Greek blood in his veins. More importantly, though this monarch is most well known for his patronage of Buddhism, his carved edicts included, not only declarations of Buddhist doctrine, but often rather Stoic-sounding statements of policy and philosophy in Greek and Aramaic in the northwest corner of his empire where Alexander had left his mark, and he is known to have sent embassies to Alexander's successors as far away as Egypt and Macedonia. India was a long way from Rome, but East and West were wings of the same "inhabited world," and although the military, political, religious, and material culture was diverse and varied, it was nonetheless comprehensible to cosmopolitan, "ecumenical" folk from the age of Alexander to that of the Muslim caliphs at Baghdad. By the second century B.C., Rome would be connected to India and China by land and sea routes, and with trade came the spread of religious ideas and the urgent need for universal principles by which these diverse ideas and institutions might be comprehended, managed, and governed. Alexander and Ashoka were early pioneers in the creation of this universalistic cosmopolitanism.

In world-historical terms, Alexander's dream of world conquest led him from Macedonia and Greece, to Egypt and the Middle East, to India's northwest. Throughout this realm he left behind Greek institutions and opened up the channels through which Asian cultural products would flow westward. In religious terms, he maintained his pious Greek observances throughout his expanding realm, while beginning to incorporate traditions that he encountered at the most ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian centers of human culture. Alexander did not spread his own religion as he spread his imperium; rather he incorporated the religions he met, giving them a place within a broadly cosmopolitan Hellenism. In most ways, however, he was impressed by the high culture of Persia (whose notions of divine kingship endured from at least 600 B.C. to 1721 A.D. and beyond), and adopted it rather than imposing his own, perhaps too rough Macedonian ways upon those he conquered. It is noteworthy that Alexander visited Athens only one time in his life, and after his return from India, settled in Mesopotamia to consolidate his Greco-Persian empire. He died prematurely from a sudden illness, but it is clear that he had certainly been in no hurry to return to Greece or Macedonia. His sense of world empire drew him to the most ancient centers of human civilization, while his sense of the divine depended on a Hellenistic reading of ancient polytheism.

Alexander's flexible approach to religion remained the basic imperial pattern for empire builders until Constantine (d. 337 A.D.) began the process of transforming the Roman Empire into a Christian one and western monotheists began to follow patterns quite at odds with their Indian contemporaries. In the meantime, two generations after Alexander, Ashoka also developed a broadly inclusive religious policy, one that involved both a patronage of Buddhism, the universalist religion to which he converted, and a broader support of other religious communities that brought peace and stability to his realm. His approach, while more consciously deliberate than Alexander's, would have made perfect sense to the Macedonian king, and we know that Ashoka sent emissaries from India to communicate something of his views to Alexander's successors in the Mediterranean world.

Given our extant sources, it is difficult to get inside the head of either Alexander or Ashoka. We know something of Alexander's specific acts of piety and we know of his experiments in forging collaboration with the Persians of his new empire. We can further speculate on the lasting effects of his philosophical education, and what seems to be the lasting imprint of Greek philosophy on the expanded Hellenistic world and its role in the imperial policies of Alexander's successors, especially the Romans. In the case of Ashoka, we do have his edicts, carved as public monuments along the roadways of his far-flung empire, but the exact meaning of his religious policy remains a matter of scholarly debate.

As a Macedonian, Alexander was not a child of Athenian culture but a product of the Greek cultural frontier. And though he was a supporter of Greek culture and much enamored of Greek classical literature himself, he was to spend most of his astonishing military career in what he thought of as "Asia." Upon his accession to power at the age of twenty, he quickly confirmed his control over the Greek lands his father had won, and then moved decisively to undertake the quest that was to be his life's work, namely the conquest of Persia. The Greeks had seen the great Persian Empire as their primary adversaries since the golden age of Athens, when they survived Xerxes' massive Persian invasion in 480 B.C. Knowing this history, Alexander probably began his military venture as an act of revenge, replying to the Persian invasion and liberating the Greek colonies in Asia Minor from Persian rule.

When we refer to Persia in this period, we mean the great empire that centered itself not in Iran but in Mesopotamia (what is today Iraq), near the most ancient sites of culture and civilization in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, the region of Babylon and Nineveh. Crossing the Hellespont in 334, Alexander landed in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), a twenty-two-year-old general, thrust his spear in the ground, and declared Asia to be his, the gift of the gods to whom he immediately gave worship. We may see this as a move from the center (what could be more central than Athens?) to the East, but it may have been more a case of moving from the periphery to the center, to the crossroads of world culture and the oldest sites of civilization. He not only aspired to defeat the Persians in battle, but to incorporate them and to replace their king in their ancient Mesopotamian capital.

Alexander visited ancient Troy (or the town claiming to be such), but quickly began his military conquests and his pursuit of his opponent, the emperor of Persia, Darius III. When he "freed" Greek cities, he pronounced them democratic city-states, while still assuming imperial overlordship. Alexander won a decisive victory over Darius in 333 in southern Turkey, capturing Darius's family but not the emperor himself, who fled the field. Turning to Syria and Phoenicia, he won difficult victories on the eastern Mediterranean coast, at Tyre and Gaza, before marching triumphantly into Egypt, which welcomed him as a liberator from the Persians and crowned him Pharoah. In the winter of 332, he visited a famous oracle in the Libyan desert, the shrine of Amon at Siwah. Such a shrine, though administered by Egyptian priests, would be a place equivalent to Delphi, where supplicants could put questions to the god represented there and receive answers, however inscrutable those answers might be. The god in this case, Amon, already known to classical Greek writers like Herodotus and Pindar, was a high god, associated with the sun and equated with Zeus.

We might pause here with Alexander, to consider what his religious acts in Siwah meant to him, what his understanding of religion was. Alexander, like most people from Macedonia to the Middle East, to Egypt, and even, for that matter, to India, was a pious man who worshiped the gods of specific locations while at the same time believing those gods equivalent to universal forces named differently in different cultures. He thought of himself as a descendant of Herakles, who had, according to legend, supplicated Amon at Siwah. Alexander had taken considerable trouble to follow in the footsteps of his heroic ancestor, and, upon receiving the word that he was destined to be king of Asia, set forth to conquer with a divine approval that reached beyond the borders of Greece and Macedonia. Perhaps the priests also revealed to him that he was the Son of God (Amon, Zeus), supporting a claim his mother had made. He certainly claimed thereafter a divinely sanctioned royal legitimacy for Macedonian rulers that was to last in Egypt until the days of Cleopatra, three centuries later.

Returning to Mesopotamia, Alexander spurned Darius's offers for peace, occupied Babylon, and defeated him again near the Tigris. Graciously installing Darius's family in comfortable circumstances at Susa, the capital, Alexander pursued his prey, but finding the fleeing Darius murdered by a disloyal vassal, he arranged for an honorable royal funeral in Persepolis. Confirming what he learned in Egypt, Alexander began to think of himself, not as a Macedonian invader, but as the legitimate emperor of Asia, the successor of Cyrus the Great (r. 559–529 B.C.), the Persian emperor who swept down from Iran to topple the ancient Babylonian kingdom and liberate the Jews from exile. In this light, he began to envision Macedonians and Persians administering a common empire and manning a common army, a vision not often shared by his Macedonian comrades. Moreover, he began to adopt Persian royal dress and experiment with Persian royal etiquette.

Consolidating his power across the Persian Empire and deep into Central Asia, Alexander turned to India in 327 B.C. He had some success there, reaching the Punjab, where King Porus sued for peace and allied with him before Alexander's weary soldiers mutinied and demanded to return home. As it turned out, the journey home proved almost more difficult than the life of conquest, and those returning both by sea and land suffered terribly from hunger, illness, and thirst.

Finally arriving back in Mesopotamia in 324, many of his Macedonian soldiers chose to retire home, but Alexander, maybe now fully inhabiting the role of Persian emperor ("Lord of Asia"), remained at Susa, just east of the Tigris River, where he married Darius's daughter and arranged a mass wedding of ten thousand Macedonian men and Persian women, a social experiment known as his policy of "racial fusion." He arranged a funeral in Babylon for his beloved companion, and while there, planned future campaigns into Arabia. However, at this point when he might have consolidated his empire, while residing in the ancient palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, Alexander suddenly died of illness at the age of thirty-three, and his empire soon broke apart, his successors including, among others, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria and western Asia, both bearers of Greek-speaking culture, and both known to Ashoka. For the next thousand years, Indians would write about "Greek" invaders (Yavanas, Yonas) from the northwest, ultimately applying that title to Muslim soldiers of largely Turkish stock. After Alexander, India was never to be cut off from contact with the Mediterranean world.

Like Alexander, Ashoka was something of an outsider to the high culture of his own realm. He did not come from a properly royal (or kshatriya) family, and he patronized the heterodox religion of Buddhism and developed a critique of some aspects of the orthodox teaching of the high-caste brahmin priests. He inherited a Mauryan Empire that, under his rule, expanded to include almost all of the Indian subcontinent, extending into the northwest as far as the upper Indus Valley, even into regions of what is Afghanistan today. The legends of King Ashoka are numerous, but reliable historical information is more difficult to obtain. We know little of his military success but do know that his empire was extensive, uniting India in a way not seen again until the Mughal Empire or perhaps even British times. Most importantly, however, we have epigraphical sources, the inscriptions he commissioned as statements of his policies. In his own words, he pursued a policy of dharma, a word variously translated as "religion," "truth," "piety," or "righteousness," and these proclamations were etched in stone, left for us to decipher today. As a political unifier of ancient India, he is taken as an icon in modern India, his symbols covering contemporary Indian currency, with his watchword, dharma viyaya ("the victory of dharma") subtly replaced by the Gandhian phrase satyam eva jayate ("truth alone conquers").

While Alexander was a man of action, much admired for his military genius, we have but a few tantalizing clues to about the nature of his religious beliefs and his dreams for a world empire. Perhaps his experiments in uniting Persians and Greeks grew out of his commitment to Greek cosmopolitanism, and a belief in a kind of destiny and natural law that gives legitimacy to the victor. Ashoka, however, provides us with a more clearly articulated religious policy. He proclaims that his primary role as emperor is to foster dharma, not in the narrow sense of Buddhist teaching (about which he mentions very few specifics), but in the broadest sense of good conduct, piety, and truth. After the time of Ashoka, the precise meaning of dharma becomes a primary point of debate between orthodox brahmins and Buddhists. But already in Ashoka's inscriptions, dharma is translated into Greek and serving as a broadly cosmopolitan policy toward religious diversity. Ashoka's "dharma policy" was an imperial meta-religion designed to manage the religious diversity characteristic not only of India but of the entire Eurasian oikoumene in the third century B.C.

Ashoka was a Buddhist, and while we can discount legends that have him end his life as a monk, it is clear that he took his religion very seriously. By his own account, he converted to Buddhism as an act of remorse, following the great battle against Kalinga:

The Kalinga country was conquered by King Priyadarsi, Beloved of the Gods [Asoka], in the eighth year of his reign. One hundred and fifty thousand persons were carried away captive, one hundred thousand were slain, and many times that number died.

Immediately after the Kalingas and had been conquered, King Priyadarsi became intensely devoted to the study of Dharma, to the love of Dharma, and to the inculcation of Dharma.

The Beloved of the Gods, conqueror of the Kalingas, is moved to remorse now. For he has felt profound sorrow and regret because the conquest of a people unconquered involves slaughter, death, and deportation.


Excerpted from Meta-Religion by James W. Laine. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Alexander and Ashoka: Cosmopolitan Empires  and Religious Policy from Egypt to India, 330–230 B.C.
2. Imperial Religion: China to Rome, 250 BC–250 A.D.
3. The Debate over Dharma: Hindus and Buddhists Compete for Ideological Dominance in South Asia
4. Confessional Religion and Empire before the Rise of Islam
5. The Rise of Islam and the Early Caliphate, 622–711 A.D.

6. Imperial Islam, 690–1500 A.D.
7. The Great Islamic Empires of the Early Modern Era (ca. 1500–1700)

8. Putting Religion in Its Place: Reformers, Kings, and Philosophers Challenge the Church
9. Putting Religion in Its Place: Revolution and Religious Freedom
10. The Contemporary Era: The Worldwide Regime of Meta-Religion


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