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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hellenistic Greek influence in Buddhism

Hellenistic Greek influence in Buddhism

Buddhism, as it propagated through many countries in the world in the past centuries, had always coexisted and adapted to, and never dominated, the local cultures. In Japan Buddhism existed well alongside Shintoism.

An aniconic representation of Mara’s assault on the Buddha, 2nd century BC, Amaravati, India

In China it coexisted and harmonized with the native Confucians. In Thailand Buddhism embraced the native spirit worship. In Sri Lanka, too, Buddhism has adapted alongside the practice and culture of the Sinhalese and Tamils.

The interaction between Hellenistic Greece and Buddhism started when Alexander the Great conquered Asia Minor and Central Asia in 334 BC, going as far as the Indus, thus establishing direct contact with India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

The length of the Greek presence in Central Asia and northern India provided opportunities for interaction, not only on the artistic, but also on the religious plane.

When Alexander conquered the Bactrian and Gandharan regions, these areas were under Buddhist and Jainist influence. Several philosophers, such as Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus, are said to have been selected by Alexander to accompany him in his eastern campaigns.

During the 18 months they were in India, they were able to interact with Indian ascetics. Pyrrho returned to Greece and became the founder of the school named Pyrrhonism.

The Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius explained that Pyrrho’s equanimity and detachment from the world were acquired in India. Few of his sayings are directly known, but they are clearly reminiscent of Buddhist, thought:

“Nothing really exists, but human life is governed by convention” “Nothing is in itself more this than that” (Diogenes Laertius IX.61)

Another of these philosophers, Onesicritus, is said to have learnt in India the following precepts: “That nothing that happens to a man is bad or good, opinions being merely dreams” “That the best philosophy [is] that which liberates the mind from [both] pleasure and grief” (Strabo, XV.I.65)

These contacts initiated the first direct interactions between Greek and Buddhist philosophy, which were to continue and expand for several more centuries.


Since their arrival to India under Alexander, Greeks have established their presence in the urban areas around present day Punjab and the Hindu Kush. Alexander himself established at least five known sizeable Greek settlements in the subcontinent including Taxila and Caucasus.

Buddhism was received well and spread quite rapidly among the Greeks of Alexandria of the Caucasus and Taxila to the point that in Asoka’s time (269 BC) these were main Buddhist centres.

For example, Mahavamsa says that one of the high monks present in the devotion of Ruwanweliseya to the Sangha in 137 BC was a Yona (Greek) monk called Dharmarikkita who brought 30,000 Greek monks from Alexandria on the Caucasus to join him.

Yet despite the rise and rise of Buddhism in these cities we also find that in both cities there was a strong following of the traditional Hellenic religion. As much as people took refuge in the Dhamma they also continued to worship the Greek gods.

In fact with the rise of Greco-Buddhist arts we suddenly see representation of the Greek gods either acting as guardian to the Buddha or are represented as Devas present during the great events in life of the Buddha’s, like the Devas in support of the Buddha during the Great Departure.

The Buddha, in Greco-Buddhist style, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara (Modern Pakistan)


During the two centuries of their rule, the Indo-Greek kings combined the Greek and Indian languages and symbols, and blended ancient Greek and Buddhist religious practices, as seen in the archaeological remains of their cities and in the indications of their support of Buddhism, pointing to a rich fusion of Indian and Hellenistic influences.

The Greeks in India even seem to have played an active role in the propagation of Buddhism, as some of the emissaries of Ashoka such as Dharmaraksita or the teacher Mahadharmaraksita, are described in Pali sources as leading Greek (“Yona”) Buddhist monks, active in Buddhist propagation (the Mahavamsa).

It is also thought that Greeks contributed to the sculptural work of the Pillars of Ashoka, and more generally to the blossoming of Mauryan art.

Although there is still some debate, the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha himself are often considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction. Before this innovation, Buddhist art was “aniconic”: the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (the Bodhi tree, the Buddha’s footprints).

In many parts of the Ancient World, the Greeks did develop divinities that could become a common religious focus for populations with different traditions: a well-known example is God Sarapis, introduced by Ptolemy I in Egypt, which combined aspects of Greek and Egyptian Gods.

In India as well, it was only natural for the Greeks to create a single common divinity by combining the image of a Greek God-King , with the traditional attributes of the Buddha.

Historians believe that many of the stylistic elements in the representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders, the stance of the upright figures. A large quantity of sculptures combining Buddhist and purely Hellenistic styles and iconography were excavated at the Gandharan sites..

Hellenic Buddhism

To understand the true perspective of this issue, first we must understand what ancient Greek religion was? The ancient Greek religion was mostly an orthopraxis religion: a system which adheres to a common practice. This differentiates the Greek religion from modern religions of the world.

The ancient Greeks would therefore have no determent learning a new philosophy or worshiping a God unknown to the Greek pantheon if they were to go to a different country. What they would be unwilling to do however would be to break customs.

Greco-Buddhism therefore is a form where the Buddhist religious and philosophical belief is practiced and integrated alongside Greek customs and reverence to the Greek Gods but also Greek philosophies.

In fact as Buddhism became more and more integrated into the life of the Indo-Greeks and some Greek Gods became seen as guardians of the Buddha and thus Guardian Gods of Buddhism.

The Greeks being a culture that adopted Buddhism also had Greek Gods who were associated as guardian Gods of Buddhism.

From a Hellenic viewpoint the Greek Gods can be guardian over many things, from guardian of cities to guardian of philosophies and for a Greek God to be a guardian of a philosophical and religious idea popular amongst the Greeks is not in contradiction to the general approach of the ancient Greek religion.

Hellenism and Buddhism are unique in that both that place equal emphasis on both the individual and on society.

Hellenism emphasizes a lot on an individual’s personal development but also on the individual’s duty to society and also the society’s duty back to the individual. Hellenism and Buddhism place a lot of onus on parents, teachers, elders, and society in general to develop an individual.

At the same time both view that every individual needs to contribute back and be a functional member of the society they belong to. Individuals at the very least are supposed to participate in the local economy and local civic duties whenever possible and to be good citizens or good community members.

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