This post brings together current American politics with Victor's recent post on wrestling terminology, by quoting a passage from Jack Watherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, about a debate staged by Mongke Khan in September of 1254.
The Mongols loved competitions of all sorts, and they organized debates among rival religions the same way they organized wrestling matches. It began on a specific date with a panel of judges to oversee it. In this case Mongke Khan ordered them to debate before three judges: a Christian, a Muslim, and a Buddhist. A large audience assembled to watch the affair, which began with great seriousness and formality. An official laid down the strict rules by which Mongke wanted the debate to proceed: on pain of death “no one shall dare to speak words of contention.”
Rubruck and the other Christians joined together in one team with the Muslims in an effort to refute the Buddhist doctrines. As these men gathered together in all their robes and regalia in the tents on the dusty plains of Mongolia, they were doing something that no other set of scholars or theologians had ever done in history. It is doubtful that representatives of so many types of Christianity had come to a single meeting, and certainly they had not debated, as equals, with representatives of the various Muslim and Buddhist faiths. The religious scholars had to compete on the basis of their beliefs and ideas, using no weapons or the authority of any ruler or army behind them. They could use only words and logic to test the ability of their ideas to persuade.
In the initial round, Rubruck faced a Buddhist from North China who began by asking how the world was made and what happened to the soul after death. Rubruck countered that the Buddhist monk was asking the wrong questions; the first issue should be about God from whom all things flow. The umpires awarded the first points to Rubruck.
Their debate ranged back and forth over the topics of evil versus good, God’s nature, what happens to the souls of animals, the existence of reincarnation, and whether God had created evil. As they debated, the clerics formed shifting coalitions among the various religions according to the topic. Between each round of wrestling, Mongol athletes would drink fermented mare’s milk; in keeping with that tradition, after each round of the debate, the learned men paused to drink deeply in preparation for the next match.
No side seemed to convince the other of anything. Finally, as the effects of the alcohol became stronger, the Christians gave up trying to persuade anyone with logical arguments, and resorted to singing. The Muslims, who did not sing, responded by loudly reciting the Koran in an effort to drown out the Christians, and the Buddhists retreated into silent meditation. At the end of the debate, unable to convert or kill one another, they concluded the way most Mongol celebrations concluded, with everyone simply too drunk to continue.