Moral Dualism, Buddhism and Polytheism

Bodhgaya, India
Moral dualism is a view in which there is a strong delineation between good and evil, which in most applicable Eurasian religions is generally symbolized as light versus darkness. The natural result of such a view is often a strong tendency to firmly divide actions and even people into absolute positive and negative categories. One example of this is Christianity, in which humanity constantly struggles between a life in line with God’s commandments and sin. The dichotomy is also drawn between people: there are the virtuous devotees who will enjoy salvation, and the rest of humanity who intentionally or unintentionally side with the enemy of God – Satan – while being condemned to hell.

Moral dualism also often – though not always – goes together with a belief that there is something wrong with the world, in particular the human condition, from which we ought to escape, either through transcending the mundane life while alive, or seeking postmortem salvation in another place away from here. 

This is by no means limited to monotheism. Buddhist traditions understand the ordinary human condition as essentially comprised of suffering. The world in which we find ourselves is a result of the collective karma or action of all beings (human or otherwise). This experience of conditioned existence, life after life, is called saṃsāra. 

The Buddhist project from the beginning was to escape saṃsāra through wisdom, meditation and renunciation. Later in Mahāyāna traditions, starting especially in the early centuries CE,  new beliefs emerged that suggested one could escape saṃsāra through the assistance of benevolent buddhas and bodhisattvas. Although in Mahāyāna one ideal is to become a bodhisattva and actively remain engaged in the world for the benefit of others, the underlying assumption is still that there is something wrong with ordinary existence and all the ups and downs, pleasures and pains, that come with it.

I have observed that polytheist traditions, especially those that are non-prophetic, avoid moral dualism. I have in mind ancient Greek polytheism, but also the various minor cults throughout history that I have studied, from Egypt and the Near East across Asia to Japan. If I may speak in broad and general terms, we see in "classical polytheism" a worldview in which gods and humanity do whatever is in their interests, and in the end the world sorts itself out. There is no absolute right or wrong.

Consider how Zeus overthrew his father Kronos and established his own order; an order that was in the interests of Zeus and his divine regime. Zeus is furthermore not a paragon of virtue. A human society may stand to benefit from entering into a relationship with him, but this requires blood sacrifice and honors to be performed by the people, and just as well Zeus can abandon and harm the people who worship him.

Polytheist traditions might suggest that the gods punish immoral people. At the same time, however, the practice of sacrifice is designed to please and placate the gods, but woe be upon he who angers the gods. In other words, mere mortals can bend the will of powerful gods, if the terms are right. I’ve actually observed this way of thinking in modern Taiwan, where people frequently make offerings and utter sincere requests before gods at shrines. If their prayers are answered, then often the devotee responds by fulfilling their initial pledge, such as making additional offerings. In one case of which I know, a whole new shrine was financed.

These points just illustrate that such a polytheist worldview believes that gods have their preferences and selfish interests, and these might even change over time. This stands in contrast to, for instance, Mahāyāna Buddhism, which considers eminent bodhisattvas – Avalokiteśvara being the most obvious figure – to be basically morally perfected and incapable of malicious acts, deception or selfishness. Avalokiteśvara’s devotees might be flawed people, but the bodhisattva is absolutely good. Ordinary people are encouraged to emulate him, and achieve such moral perfection for themselves as an optimal means of benefiting others.

Bodhisattvas also do not compete with one another, let alone attack each other (in contrast to Zeus and Kronos). An idealized Buddhist world is governed by a benevolent and fully awakened buddha, such as Sukhāvatī in the western direction, supervised by the Buddha Amitābha. Avalokiteśvara, who is part of the retinue of Amitābha, is not expected to ever depose Amitābha, since ideal Buddhist figures are free from mundane ambitions and desires for power.

The polytheist conventions that I mentioned above are also observable in many traditions of ancient magic, in which the mage typically summons spirits and then forces them to do his bidding, which may be entirely selfish and even harmful to other parties. There is no sense in the texts that divine punishment or some impersonal force such as karma will punish those who work magic for worldly gain or the destruction of others (of course, in a culture where magic is widely practiced, an opposing party could just as well direct their magic against you). The comfort of the spirit is also irrelevant, much the same way as the well-being of a sacrificed lamb or bull is irrelevant when a sacrifice is performed to gain the blessings of a god.

I might also point to astrology, which was born out of the Greco-Egyptian environment of Alexandria starting around the second century BCE. Astrology is morally neutral. Someone with rich martian elements in their natal horoscope might be predicted to be violent, competitive and even thuggish, but there is no judgment that condemns this as inherently bad and evil. It is just a result of fate, and fate is the order of things. Similarly, it might be predicted that someone with strong saturnine tendencies in their chart will become a deceptive and gloomy liar, but there is no moral judgement, or even the suggestion that this person might try to reform themselves for the better. Everything has its place in the tapestry of fate. Although there might be measures to negotiate some outcomes of fate, there is no underlying idea that fate is wrong, impure or broken, let alone any notion that one ought to escape from it via some sort of salvation or transcendence.

One sort of duality that one can see in urban societies of the polytheist type is that of order versus chaos. For example, one of the potent myths underpinning Roman imperial dominance was the aforementioned narrative of Zeus (or Jupiter) establishing his order after succeeding Kronos. Dominance and conquest of peoples the Romans considered either barbarian or civilized could be justified by the end result, which was demonstrable peace and order. Operating a lethal war machine and enslaving subjugated peoples to subsidize further expansion and an increase in citizens’ standard of living could be justified without having to refer to a narrative of good versus evil. The end justified the means.

Kathmandu, Nepal
So, returning to Buddhism, does it really subscribe to moral dualism? I’m usually hesitant to speak of Buddhism as a single entity, since it is not and never was, but one continual thread running through all Buddhist traditions is the concept of karma, i.e., action: benevolent actions lead to agreeable results, either in this life or the next, and malicious actions lead to disagreeable results. The moral quality of an action is therefore determined by the state of mind in which the act was executed. Karma is mechanistic and impersonal, so there is no divine law that determines the outcome (however, in practice, Buddhists have often regarded the precepts laid down by the Buddha as sacred laws that should be upheld under penalty of karmic retribution). There is a clear distinction between positive and negative karmas. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, saṃsāra is regarded as painful and wrong, in contrast to the liberated state of nirvāṇa. It stands to state that, very clearly, the idea of karma is dualistic.

Of course, we can point to the concept of upāya or “skillful means”, in which one may carry out otherwise karmically negative acts provided one’s intentions are benevolent. The Yogācārabhūmi, an Indian Mahāyāna treatise, states that even homicide is permissible if it is to save an arhat from being murdered, thereby sparing the perpetrator from falling into the most terrible of hells. There is also in Buddhist thought the idea that intentions may be mixed, and so the resultant effects will consequently be limited for better or worse. However, the ideal is to always have right intentions and to avoid negative karma altogether.

I would also point out that Buddhist soteriology is dualistic in the sense that one prerequisite for liberation is prajñā or wisdom, which is correct awareness and realization of reality and existence. Each Buddhist school has its own ideas about reality and existence, but it is dogmatically assumed that there is one route to permanent, irreversible and complete liberation from saṃsāra, and everyone else is wrong, or at least not 100% correct. It is a battle of wisdom versus ignorance. All the non-Buddhists will eventually, sooner or later, fall back into the lower realms and suffer horribly until they maybe get another chance at true liberation through contact with the teachings of a buddha. Other schools might allow for a yogi to achieve highly advanced states, but that is not true liberation. There is one route to liberation and that is through the Buddhadharma.

The classical polytheist, if I may imagine such a figure, first of all, probably would not see the point in trying to escape the world. Second, he would not have issues with other people’s worshipping different gods. In fact, as has often been the case, he might try to imagine equivalent gods in the other culture similar to his own (in the ancient world, Greek Ares was seen as equivalent to Roman Mars, Iranian Wahrām and Mesopotamian Nergal). The mythologies might differ considerably, but then in the absence of dogmatism and competition between organized religions, there is less need to strictly adhere to one version of mythology.

Interestingly, there are a lot of residual elements of pre-Buddhist polytheism in Buddhist mythology. Just as Zeus overthrew the Titans, so did Indra cast the Asuras off of Mount Meru (both stories stem from the same earlier Indo-European myth). The Asuras climbed up the mountain “like ants going up a pillar”, but were repelled by Indra, who himself was originally a warrior deity. 

In the Buddhist view, Indra is arguably not a figure to be emulated, despite his later positive qualities and devotion to the Buddha. This old stratum of mythology is embedded within Buddhist lore as a sort of cultural fossil. While Buddhists were aware of it, their values and sacred narratives were instead based upon the Dharma of the Buddha and successive thinkers and developments.

Is Astrology Religion?

Yesterday I did a talk here at Leiden University discussing the presence of astrology within various major religions of the world, pointing out that the general integrity of astrological doctrines and concepts was well-preserved from medieval Spain to Japan. I also discussed the fact that astral magic, which itself is also traced back to the Greco-Egyptian tradition, accompanied the translation of astrology to Europe and East Asia.

During the question session after the talk, someone suggested that astrology has been generally regarded as a science. I suggested that – perhaps contrary to the conventions of scholars in modern Religious Studies – astrology ought to be considered a religion, or more specifically a kind of “sub-religion” within larger religions.

A survey of astrology in world religions will quickly reveal that Japanese Buddhists and Spanish Christians alike were simultaneously practicing astrology in the thirteenth century. Obviously, Catholicism and Buddhism are entirely separate religions, yet many of their adherents have practiced horoscopy and tried to make sense of the premises of astrology within the contexts of their respective religious frameworks.

In the case of medieval Japanese Buddhism, as I have been researching as of late, there were some attempts on the part of Buddhist astrologer-monks to reconcile the determinism of traditional astrology with the theory of karma. \

The basic theory of karma suggests that an individual’s circumstances and the quality of their experiences in life are determined by past actions, be they of the present or past lives. The circumstances of the present life can also be altered for the best through the cultivation of positive karma, i.e., benevolent conduct and acts of goodwill to sentient beings. Astrology, however, suggests that the movements of the planets signal predetermined events and experiences within the life of an individual, which can be foreknown through a skilled analysis of their natal horoscope.

This is common knowledge, of course, to anyone who has read about astrology, but one fact about medieval traditions that is often overlooked is that there was often a simultaneous belief that the planets are actually gods. 

Saturn 土星. 10th or 11th cent. Song China.
As we will recall, the planets, as we know them in English, are named after Roman deities: Jupiter and so forth. This custom of naming planets after deities is traced back to Mesopotamia, and as Mesopotamian astronomy spread throughout Eurasia and North Africa, other cultures emulated this custom. This stands in contrast to the native Chinese model, in which the planets are named after the five elements (for instance, Mars is the “Fire Star” 火星), though during the eighth and ninth centuries, as a result of influences from foreign religions, Chinese civilization also started conceiving of the planets as gods, and depicting them as such.

If the planets are gods, then it is easy to understand why mystics and mages sought to negotiate their fate and fortune with these powers. This is why astral magic is found throughout the religious landscape of the pre-modern “Old World”. 

The Picatrix, was translated into Latin during the thirteenth century from the eleventh-century Arabic Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, a manual of astral magic often based on Syrian sources. This rather dark work allows the mage to interact with the planetary deities through various rituals. Similarly, traditions of astral magic ended up in Japan from China, starting in the ninth century, which then evolved in unique ways. These rituals, which I have been researching over the last year or so, fuse together Daoist, Indian and Iranian elements within a loosely Buddhist framework.

I should note that the goal of Buddhist astral magic in East Asia is seldom related to liberation from saṃsāra or attainment of wisdom. I am presently examining a Japanese horoscope for a monk born in January of 1113. The accompanying commentary, written by another Buddhist monk, indicates that the client was primarily interested in his worldly affairs, such as his economic forecast, lifespan and number of disciples (in this context, his adopted heirs). As a means of countering unfavorable prognostications, the astrologer advises his client to carry out rituals for specific planets, especially the malefic ones, which include the baneful Rāhu and Ketu.

The idea here is that you can negotiate your fate with the planetary deities yourself. Within a Buddhist context this might initially seem to contradict the doctrine of karma, since your suffering is supposed to be in large part due to your own past actions, not the wrath of astral deities. However, the more I ponder this, I realize that the existence of the navagraha within Buddhist cosmology as powerful deities is not necessarily so problematic if we consider that other deities of nature, such as Agni, are also present in the Buddhist cosmos, albeit without much significance in the literature. In another context, we might consider how Vināyaka (Gaṇeśa) is believed to remove obstacles (or create them) in the life of a practitioner. In other words, various gods have a role in the life of an individual, alongside that individual’s own karma as it manifests in innumerable ways.

Bottom-right quarter of the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala
Of course, interaction with astral deities is hardly the core project of a tradition like Mahāyāna Buddhism. Nevertheless, such deities could be conceived of as at least belonging on the periphery of Buddhist orthodoxy. The example I might cite here is the presence of the navagraha in the outermost courts of the Japanese Genzu mandara 現圖曼荼羅 (“Presently Depicted Maṇḍala”) version of the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala (associated with the Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi or *Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經). In this position, they are symbolically farthest from Mahāvairocana and the project of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi, but they still have a role to play on the fringes of Buddhist orthodoxy, if only to grant worldly blessings and ease to a practitioner of Buddhadharma.

In light of the above discussion, I am very much inclined to think of astrology and astral magic as comprising a kind of “sub-religion” that has often been embedded, whether formally recognized or not, within larger religions. As my present research indicates, the horoscopy and astral magic practiced by Japanese monks were similar to what a Christian monk in medieval Europe might have done with the Picatrix in hand (of course, the Buddhist monk of course probably would not have killed any animals in their rituals). Their respective traditions are both traced back to the Near East.

Buddhism and Christianity are separate religions, but on their peripheries we can see common practices. One of these is astrology, which itself has its own premises, doctrines, beliefs and gods. Astrology might require astronomical knowledge, but that by no means renders it a science by modern definition, but at the same time I have never seen anyone calling it a religion, even though it has all the features of one, including prominent patriarchs of sorts, such as Nechepso and Petosiris.

I suppose the main objection would be to point to the theories of Ptolemy, who conceived of the planetary influences in a naturalistic or even materialist manner. Ptolemy, despite his later popularity, is actually unusual so far as classical astrology is concerned. The literature that I have been studying tends to suggest that the early tradition of Hellenistic astrology thought of the planets as gods with their own unique qualities and even personalities. The Greco-Egyptian tradition of magic also produced means to interact with the planetary deities. This very religious conception of astrological lore and practice is actually what we see throughout the history of astrology, especially in Asia.

Astrology, in my opinion, is basically religion, and should be studied as such by scholars.

Where was "Western India" 西天竺?

In past posts we have discussed the geographic locations of Anxi 安息(Bukhara), Jibin 罽賓 and Daqin 大秦(the Levant) during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), showing that the definitions of these place names changed over time. Anxi, for example, originally referred to the Parthian empire in the first centuries CE, but the name in Chinese remained in use for several more centuries, even after the Parthian state was toppled by the Sassanians in the early third century. During the Tang Dynasty, Anxi actually referred to Bukhara. Daqin originally referred to the eastern part of the Roman empire in the early centuries CE, but later came to specifically refer to the general geographic area of the Levant and Syria. It later referred to the Byzantium empire, which had lost its hold on the Levant. 

Here I want to discuss the geographic location of “Western India” 西天竺 in some Tang sources. The Chinese Tianzhu 天竺 is an approximate transcription of sindhu in some Central Asian language (it was not derived from Sanskrit). The name Tianzhu is attested in the Hou Han shu 後漢書 (Book of the Later Han), the history of the later Han (25–220), states the following:

The country of Tianzhu: another name is Shendu. It is located thousands of miles southeast of the Yuezhi. Their customs are the same as the Yuezhi.

At this point in time, Tianzhu refers to the territories of the Kuṣāṇa dynasty (1st – 3rd centuries CE). In a later century, the famous Chinese monk Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664), who was proficient in Sanskrit and had studied at Nālanda, rejected this name for India:

《大唐西域記》卷2:「詳夫天竺之稱,異議糺紛,舊云身毒,或曰賢豆,今從正音,宜云印度。... 印度者,唐言月。月有多名,斯其一稱。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 875, b16-20)
Now with consideration of the names of Tianzhu, there are numerous disputes on the matter. It was formerly called Shendu, or otherwise Xiandou [Middle Chinese: hen duwH]. Now we will follow the correct pronunciation. It should be called Yindu [Middle Chinese: jinH duH]. … “Yindu” in Chinese means moon. The moon has many names. This is one of its appellations.

Xuanzang tried to introduce new terminology and transcriptions of Indian terms into Chinese, and while he succeeded to some degree, a lot of the old vocabulary remained in use. Throughout the Tang Dynasty, the name Tianzhu was still widely used by Chinese authors. The Tongdian 通典 (the Comprehensive Chronicle), compiled in 801 by Du You 杜佑 (735–812), draws upon numerous accounts of Tianzhu. The Chinese image of India's geography at this point in time had become rather complex. The Tongdian provides the following details:

The later Han had contact with Tianzhu, which was the country of Shendu during the former Han. In the beginning, Zhang Qian [d. 114 BCE] was sent as an envoy to Daxia [Bactria], where he saw Chinese bamboo staves and fabrics from Sichuan. He asked, “Where did you get these?” The men of Daxia said, “Our merchants go to the country of Shendu and trade for them.” This is referring to Tianzhu. Some call it “Magadha” or “Brahman”. It is south of the Conglin range [Pamirs]. It is thousands of miles southeast of the Yuezhi, and its lands are over thirty-thousand miles. It is divided into “Five Tianzhus” [Indias]: Central, Eastern, Southern, Western and Northern. Each land is made up of thousands of miles with hundreds of cities. Southern India borders a great sea. Northern India meets snowy mountains [the Himalayas] and is walled in on all four sides by mountains, with a great valley at its southern face acting as an entryway into the country.1 Eastern India borders a great sea to its east. It is connected to Funan and Linyi [Southeast Asian polities] with just a small sea in between [the Bay of Bengal]. Western India connects to Jibin and Persia. Middle India is positioned between the four Indias. The countries all have their kings.

The “Five Indias” roughly correspond to modern geographical regions as follows:

Central India: Bihar and Jharkhand.
Southern India: Odisha (Orissa).
Northern India: Kashmir valley.
Eastern India: Bengal.
Western India: Sindh.

The political landscape of India described by Du You is simplistic and uninformed as a result of relying on chronologically disparate sources (the Yuezhi were extinct long before the Tang Dynasty). A point relevant to the present discussion is that he states that Western India borders Jibin and Persia. In the year 801, however, Persia did not exist as a polity any longer. The Sassanian empire was conquered by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century.2 Interestingly, Du You was actually aware that Persia no longer existed. He cites the travelogue, titled simply Jingxing ji 經行記 (Travel Account), of the Chinese author Du Huan 杜環, who traveled to the Abbasid Caliphate and returned to China in 762:

[Persia] was destroyed by the Arabs. At the end of the Tianbao reign era [742–756], it had already been over a century.

We actually have another contemporary East Asian from the eighth century who attests to the destruction of Persia by the Arabs. The Korean monk Hyecho 慧超 (704–787) traveled from China to India between 723–729. His travelogue3 has the following comment:

《遊方記抄》卷1:「從吐火羅國,西行一月,至波斯國。此王先管大𥦽。大𥦽是波斯王放駝戶。於後叛,便殺彼王,自立為主。然今此國,却被大𥦽所吞。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2089, p. 978, a27-b1)
Traveling for one month from Tokhara, you arrive in the country of Persia. The king earlier governed the Arabs. The Arabs raised camels for the Persian king. Later there was an insurrection and they killed the king, establishing themselves as rulers. Now this country has been absorbed by the Arabs.

It is clear that the Chinese by the mid-eighth century were aware that Persia as a polity had been eliminated. This is important to bear in mind when we consider the introduction of Hellenistic astrology into China around the turn of the ninth century. 

The Xin Tang shu 新唐書 (New Book of Tang), the revised record of the Tang Dynasty compiled in 1060, lists the following text and account in its bibliographical catalog (fasc. 59):

Duli yusi jing. 2 fascicles. In the Zhenyuan period [785–805] the duli diviner Li Miqian transmitted it from Western India. There was someone [named] Qu Gong who translated the text.

Although this text is not extant, we know from its fragments and later astrological manuals that it was a translation of the work of Dorotheus of Sidon (c. 75), a major Hellenistic astrologer. 

It is curious that the account here states that Li Miqian hailed from Western India because Dorotheus’ work was first translated into Pahlavī (Middle Persian) from its original Greek under the Sassanians between 222–267. Its content was later expanded sometime between 531–578. This Pahlavī version was translated into Arabic around the year 800, which was also around the same time when the Chinese translation was produced (a very curious coincidence).4 

So far as I know, there was never a Sanskrit translation of Dorotheus. Li Miqian was most likely Persian, given his surname Li. Other ethnically Persian men resident in China during these years also had the surname Li, such as the court astronomer Li Su 李素 (743–817). Li Su was actually from Guangzhou, but his ancestors came from Persia. He arrived in Chang'an sometime during the Dali 大曆 reign era (766–779). Li Miqian was clearly Persian and, therefore, most certainly translated Dorotheus from Pahlavī.

This leads me to wonder why he would identify himself, or be identified, as hailing from Western India. As we discussed in an earlier article (see here), Nestorian (East Syrian) Christian clergymen originally identified themselves as coming from Persia in the seventh century, but later from around the year 745, when China was becoming truly aware that Persia no longer existed, started identifying themselves with Daqin, even though it was under the domination of the Arabs. In other words, the Nestorian clerics in China did not want to identify with the Arab Abbasid empire. 

In the case of Li Miqian, we might imagine that he also did not want to identify with the Arab state. Instead, he chose to identify himself with the vague geographical area of Western India. We might even imagine him attempting to explain to the Chinese court through an interpreter that he was not Arab, but actually Persian, even though the Persian state was long gone. By the time he arrived, the court was well aware this fact. If he were Sogdian, he would have probably been identified with Samarkand or Bukhara, and not taken the surname Li.

Of course, I might be mistaken, and, in fact, he did come from Western India, in which case this leads to another interesting point: we would have evidence of a practitioner of Hellenistic astrology originating from the western Indosphere in the late eighth century. 

Abbasid Caliphate c. 850 (Wikimedia Commons)
At present, however, I strongly sense that the expatriates from the Near and Middle East residing in China during the eighth and early ninth centuries probably did not feel particularly inclined to identify with the Abbasid Caliphate, which ruled over territories from the Levant to the borderlands of western India. There would have been multiple religious, linguistic, ethnic and political reasons for such sentiments. This still requires further investigation.

The activities of these men in China have become of increasing interest in my present research. I continually find more and more evidence that these men transmitted a great deal of religious lore and practices, as well as scientific knowledge. The problem, however, is that identifying from where exactly they came is difficult. In the case of Indians, it is sometimes expressly stated in their biographies that they came from definite places such as Magadha, but Iranians (both Sogdians and Persians) and Syrians are seldom identified with specific polities. The Chinese knew the general geographic layout of India thanks to accounts by figures such as Xuanzang, but their knowledge of the areas west of India during the Tang was much less detailed.


1 Nepal, which originally just referred to the Kathmandu valley, was positioned in “Northern India” during the Tang Dynasty. However, this is most certainly referring to the Kashmir valley. For details on Nepal in this period see my earlier article:

2 For a reliable history of the Sassanian empire, see Iranica Online:

3 For a complete translation see vol. 10 of the “Collected Works of Korean Buddhism”. I do not always agree with this translation. I interpret Hyecho's accounts of the Near East as recorded hearsay, rather than being a record of a journey there.

4 David Pingree, “Classical and Byzantine Astrology in Sassanian Persia,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 44 (1989): 229.