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Ancient Greeks of India and Their Connection to Hinduism

ancient Greek art in India
Ancient Greek Hinduism: From Fighting Indian Gods to Worshipping Them. Credit: World Imaging – Own work, Public Domain,

The religion of the Greeks of India was not that of the Ancient Greek Pantheon. It was also not Christian Orthodoxy, as Christian proselytization had yet to catch on in India.

Cultures, religions, and languages have had an evolutionary past as per modern historians. They have evolved through the assimilation, exclusion, and obliteration of facets of beliefs and lifestyles with which they intermingle. For Greeks of India, it was not Asia Minor, the Aegean Islands, North Africa or even the Levant, Balkans, or Black Sea Coast that was the last bastion of classical Hellenism in the world, nor was it Syria or Central Asia.

In fact, it was India, which is thousands of miles away from the Greek mainland. From the Greeks of India came several rulers about whom we get to know from Hindu and Buddhist sources rather than from Greek sources, which would possibly be dismissed as biased or fictitious accounts.

In the Hindu Religious text, Vayu Purana, it is quoted as saying that there were eight Greek kings who ruled India. These kings included: Demetrius, Eucradites, Appolodotus, Strato I, Strato II, Zoilus, Menander, and Dionysius. However, Vayu Purana’s list of Greek kings in India is only one account amongst numerous others referencing kings of Greek origin within what is today the country of India.

Religion of the Greeks of India

The religion of the Greeks of India was not that of the Ancient Greek gods, Zoroastrianism, Animism, or Shamanism.

It was also not Christian Orthodoxy, as Christian proselytization had yet to catch on in India and was not even a matter of question for decades to come. Specifically, Saint Thomas the Apostle landed in 52 AD at Muziris (Μουζιρίς), an ancient harbor and urban center of Southwest India’s Malabar Coast, while the Indo-Greek kingdom saw its end in 10 AD.

Yet, the question about the religion of the Greeks of India remains. Surprisingly, the Greeks within India predominately followed Buddhism and Hinduism, two Indic faiths that gained popularity in Asia thanks to a large extent to the Greeks themselves.

According to professor and author Upinder Singh, daughter of the former prime minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, “what is even more interesting is that Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador of the Indo-Greek king Antialkidas Nikephoros of Taxila, who erected the famous Heliodorus pillar, described himself as a worshiper (Bhagvata) of the god Krishna.   (A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India by Upinder Singh)

Garuda-standard of Vāsudeva, the god of gods
was constructed here by Heliodoros (Ηλιόδωρος), the Bhagavata (worshipper),
son of Dion (Διον), a man of Takhkhasila (Τάξιλα),
the Greek ambassador who came from the Great King
Antialkidas (Ανταλκίδας) to King
Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior,
prospering in (his) fourteenth regnal year.

– Translation of HELIODORUS Pillar Inscription

Who is Krishna, the Indo-Greek “God of Gods”

Krishna is a prominent Hindu deity who has one of the largest following in India with three of the most holiest pilgrimage spots for Hindus. His followers comprise the third largest religious group in the world with 1.2 billion adherents and followers. Krishna is considered the “avatar” -the material appearance or incarnation- of god Vishnu, the supreme being who creates, protects, and transforms the universe.

As legends have it, Mathura was the birthplace of Krishna. This was also where an inscription was discovered in 1988 that mentions “the last day of [the] year 116 of Greek  hegemony” (Yavanarajya in Sanskrit). In this instance, “Yavanarajya” most likely refers to the rule of the Indo-Greeks in Mathura as late as approximately 70 to 60 BC, or the year 116 of the “Yavana” era. Greeks were called “Yavana” in India, a transliteration of the Greek  word “Ionia” because the Ionian Greeks were the first to come in contact with them.

The rule of the Greeks extended to another holy city of the Hindus, namely Ayodhya, which is referred to by yet another inscription—that of the Ayodhya Inscription of Dhana. Ayodhya has been associated with Rama, the earlier incarnation of  god Vishnu, who later became Krishna.

Indian Statue of Hercules Strangling the Nemean Lion

As per the book The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans, by John M. Rosenfield, the so called statue of Hercules fighting the Nemean lion was discovered many years ago by Alexander Cunningham in Mathura.

The Nemean Lion was a vicious monster in Greek mythology that was roaming around Nemea, Greece, and eventually was killed by Hercules as part his twelve labors.

However, in this depiction of the fight, Hercules is already wearing the lion’s skin, the legs of which are tied around his neck. This has been interpreted as proof that the foreign artist lacked full knowledge of the Greek mythology.

Over the head of the Greek demigod appears the formalized representation of a Sal tree not unlike those seen in monuments of early classic art in India. The figure of Hercules, revealing an Indian fullness of bodily form, is reminiscent of a Praxitelean type, such as the Lycian Apollo.

The statue is generally considered as being Hercules, but some authors have suggested that an Indian sculptor, influenced by western art, could have meant to represent Krishna for example. It may also be connected to the cult of Vasudeva, who is thought to have been corresponded to the legend of Hercules. Since early Greek settlers were introduced to the worship of Vasudeva Krishna and later became worshippers of the same, its not impossible that the statue is related to them.

Statue of Hercules slaying the Nemean Lion found in Mathura, India
Statue of Hercules slaying the Nemean Lion found in Mathura, India Credit: British Library Online/Public Domain

Greeks Initially Tried to Kill Krishna

Krishna was not always part of the religion of the Greeks of India. Rather, in the beginning, as per legends, Greeks were enemies of Krishna and his Mathura kingdom. They were purportedly also said to have created a situation that made it quite difficult for Krishna to remain in Mathura, and he left his Kingdom with his people for Dwarka, which is now submerged in the Arabian Sea in Gujarat.

According to Indian religious texts Vishnu Purana and Harivamsa, the Greek king Kalayavana and the King of Magadha and Salva, attacked the city of Mathura at the same time that Jarasandha attempted to attack it for the eighteenth time. Greek king Kalayavana was quite anxious to declare war on a king of the world who would be a suitable combatant for him, but he had not yet identified any.

Being informed about Mathura by Narada, however, he thought its wise to attack this city, and when he did, he brought with him thirty million Greek (Yavana) soldiers. Kalyavana followed Krishna and entered a cave in which the sage Mucukunda, who had been doing penance for a long time and had accumulated mystic powers, resided.

In error, Kalyavana thought Mucukunda, who was fast asleep, was actually Krishna trying to pass off as someone else, so he kicked Mucukunda. Consequently, the sage opened his eyes and burned Kalyavana. Thus, in this way, the Greek king of Bihar was slain.

Worship of Krishna in the Hellenistic World

Although, in the beginning, the Greeks of india fought Krishna, eventually, a time came when they began to worship him as the “God of Gods”. It should be revealed that Krishna was initially represented not on the coins of a native Hindu king of India but, rather, on the bronze coins of Greek King Agathocles (c. 180-165 B.C.), who, along with his brother, Pantaleon, ruled from Taxila over quite a large portion of Indian territory.

This territory over which King Agathocles ruled extended up to the eastern Punjab region, which is a part of modern India. The diadem-wearing Krishna on the coin is holding a circular, disk-like weapon, the chakram, in one hand and a conch in the other. The coins are bilingual, containing both Brahmi and Greek inscriptions.

In conclusion, Krishna images were worshipped at numerous places, and Dr. D.C. Sircar—in The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. 4— says that an image of Hercules which was linked to the god Vasudeva Krishna was being paraded around at the forefront of the Paurava army as it advanced against the Greeks led by Alexander the Great (p. 115).

Quite a number of images depicting Krishna Leela are also found in Rajasthan. Describing an interesting Dan Leela plaque, Dr. R.C. Agrawala states that the milkmaid with whom Krishna is flirting is wrapped up in a Greek dress in the form of a double-fringed skirt.

In August 18th of this year, Hindus worldwide celebrated Krishna’s birthday in a two day celebration, and massive crowds were gathered at the Krishna temples around the world. The faithful came together to pray for the God who was once one of the favorite deities of the Indo-Greeks.

It is said that Greece and India are connected through historical bonds of thousands of years, which, if worked on, can allow Indians and Hellenes to once again rise in prominence as was the case so many years ago.

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