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How Ancient Greeks Spread Buddhism to the Known World

ancient greece buddhism greco-buddhism
How Greeks Took Buddhism to Various Parts of the World. Credit: Greek Reporter illustration

Buddhism, a religion, or according to some, a path towards experiencing ultimate reality, was founded by Siddhārtha Gautama, a man from India also referred to as “The Buddha”. Buddhism is practiced in various parts of the world and the Ancient Greeks played a significant role in the mission of spreading it.

By Arunansh B Goswami

Buddha, after reaching the state of what is called “enlightenment”, remained under the Bodhi tree, a sacred fig tree under which Buddha is said to have gained such awareness, for another seven weeks.

He then traveled to Sarnath and delivered his first sermon at Deer Park. This event is recorded in history as the ‘Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ (Dharma Chakra Pravartana).

Buddhism’s Influence on Greek Philosophy

In his book, Pyrrhonism: How the ancient Greeks reinvented Buddhism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books 2008), Adrian Kuzminski, a scholar, provides plausible arguments to show that Buddhism influenced some of Pyrrho’s central ideas.

Pyrrho was a philosopher who accompanied Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) to India and arrived there around 325 BC.  He returned to Greece and founded the school of thought called Pyrrhonism, which may well have been directly influenced by Buddhist ideas, as findings in the aforementioned book suggest.

Pyrrho Greek philosopher
Pyrrho of Elis, marble head, early Roman copy (2nd century BC). Bronze Greek original was from the 4th century. Archaeological Museum of Corfu. Credit: Zde/ Wikimedia commonsCC BY-SA 4.0

First European Buddhist was Greek

The greatest Buddhist king of India, Ashoka, chose a Greek monk, also known as Dhammarakita, to spread Buddhism in northwestern India around the areas of Maharashtra. The Greek visited Sopara, an important pilgrimage site in Aparanta, the land between the Sahyadri Hills and the sea in northwestern India.

These areas of Maharashtra have attained an eternal significance in Ptolemy’s Periphus Maris Erythraci and in ancient Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist literature. The Greek Thera, sent by the Third Council to Aparantaka, preached and lectured seventy thousand people and converted thirty-seven thousand persons to the newly formed religion.

The city of Junagadh in Western India was, in fact, a city of the Greeks, the Yonas, which they then named Yonagadh or “Citadel of the Greeks.” For phonological reasons, this became Junagadh over time. The Greeks were known by the name Yona in Pali and Yavana in Sanskrit, originating from the word Ionia because the Ionian Greeks were the first to come in contact with Indians.

Greek King of India Menander I Soter

Menander I Soter Drachm Coin
Duo lingual Menander I Soter Drachm Coin Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Milinda Panho ‘Questions of King Menander’ is an ancient and much venerated book of the Buddhists, indeed so highly regarded as to be included by the Burmese in the Pali Canon. Menander was born in Bactria but was brought up in Ariana (the Kabul Valley), and in the early years of his rule, he expanded his father’s kingdom to the Indus Valley and beyond—perhaps later establishing his capital at Sagala (Modern Sialkot).

The Bactrian Greeks were staunchly Greek in every aspect. Their culture, religion, and statecraft were all imports from their homeland in the Aegean. Thus, it is intriguing that Menander became interested in Buddhism. The monk who converted Menander was Nagasena, a disciple of the great Greek Buddhist monk, Dhammarakita.

In Plutarch’s book, Precepts of Statecraft, it is mentioned that “when Menander I, who had reigned graciously over the Bactrians, died afterwards in the camp, the cities indeed by common consent celebrated his funeral; but coming to a contest about his relics, they were [with great difficulty] at last brought to this agreement…that his ashes being distributed… every one of them should carry away an equal share, and they should all erect monuments to him” (p. 148).

The popularity and respect that is attributed to Menander in India can be understood from the fact that many people in India still name their children Milinda (meaning Menander) in his honor.

Greeks lead Buddhist mission to Sri Lanka

In the Mahavamsa, a key historical text of Sri Lanka written in the Pali language, it is mentioned that during the rule of Indo-Greek King Menander I Soter, Mahadhammarakkhita, the Greek monk, had traveled from “Alasandra” (thought to be Alexandria-of-the-Caucasus around 150 kilometers north of today’s Kabul) with thirty thousand monks.

This purpose of this journey was the dedication ceremony of the Maha Thupa (“Great Stupa“) at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, and it was completed shortly after the death of the Dutthagamani Abhaya (r. 161- 137 BC), the Sri Lankan king. Mahavamsa says that Pandukabhaya (pre-third century BC) set apart grounds near the west gate of Anuradhapura for the ‘Yona’ ( Greeks ). That was the first visit.

Several centuries later, in the time of Dutugemunu (167-131 BC), Yona (Greeks) arrived to celebrate the completion of the Mahathupa. That was the second visit. Kabul was under Greek rule at the time and, according to Mahavamsa, was devoutly Buddhist. It had “shone with yellow robes,” it was said. Merlin Peris asserts that it is from the Kabul Valley rather than from southeast India that the Greeks came to Anuradhapura.

These Greeks would have brought a first-hand knowledge of Greek culture into Sri Lanka. The only trace of this today is in the Greek myths that appear in the Mahavamsa.

Bringing Buddhism to Kashmir, Gandhara, and the Greek Mainland

It is said that the elder Mahyantika was sent to Kashmir, the land nestled in the Himalayas and Gandhara and the land of Indo-Greeks. From here, Buddhism spread to China and East Asia via the Silk Road, which were also areas with strong Hellenic presence.

Although he is not identified as Greek in the Mahavamsa, his name probably means Maha, or ‘great’, and Antika, or ‘Antiochos,’ a common Greek first name as per a theory. Maharakkhita is said to have been sent to the country of the Greeks. He would probably have been Greek, as well, due to the nature of his mission, but this is unconfirmed.

Journey of Buddhism from the Greek World to China and East Asia

Though there are ongoing debates, the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha himself are often considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction. Hercules with a lion-skin was the protector deity of Demetrius I and “served as an artistic model for Vajrapani, a protector of the Buddha,” as claimed in Religions and the Silk Road, by Foltz.

Japanese Deities Influenced by Greek Pantheon

In Japan, this expression further translated into the wrath-filled and muscular Niō guardian gods of the Buddha, standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples. According to Katsumi Tanabe, professor at Chūō University in Japan (in “Alexander the Great. East-West cultural contact from Greece to Japan”), besides Vajrapani, Greek influence also appears in several other gods of the Mahayana pantheon.

Such is the case with the Japanese Wind God, Fujin, inspired by the Greek Boreas, the personification of the north wind, through the Greco-Buddhist Wardo, or the mother deity Hariti, inspired by Tyche (the Greek deity of fortune and prosperity).

Kushana succeeded the Indo-Greek rulers in Bactria and were highly Hellenized. They used the Greek language and script and assimilated several Greek gods and goddesses in their pantheon. Kushan monks, such as Lokaksema (c. 178 CE), travelled to the Chinese capital of Loyang, where they became the first translators of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

Two half-brothers from Gandhara, Asanga and Vasubandhu, in the fourth century, created the Yogacara or “Mind-only” school of Mahayana Buddhism, which through one of its major texts, the Lankavatara Sutra, became a founding block of Mahayana and particularly Zen philosophy.

Greco-Buddhist Art

Buddha has been called the “ Light of Asia ” by Sir Edwin Arnold, and, if the question is asked who played an important role in the spread of the message of the Buddha to the world, undoubtedly Indo-Greeks would be among the greatest contributors.

The art of Gandhara evolved from the Greco-Buddhist interaction, and, as per a theory, gave the world the first anthropomorphic statue of the Buddha. It is said that “The Seated Buddha from Gandhara” is an early surviving statue of the Buddha discovered at the site of Jamal Garhi in ancient Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan.

This statue dates to the second or third century AD during the Kushan Empire. The Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were destroyed by the Afghan Taliban, were an example of the Gandhara style of art, also called Greco-Buddhist art. It exhibited the influences of the Hellenistic styles of classical Greek sculptures.

The statues were represented wearing Hellenic tunics, an echo of Alexander the Great’s contribution to the Central Asian mix almost a millennium earlier. From Vajrapani, called Herakles (Hercules) by the Indo-Greeks, guarding Shakyamuni Buddha to other such statues influenced by Greek art, the material remains of Greek Buddhism can still be found in museums across the world.

Buddha Guarded by Vajrapani-Hercules
Buddha Guarded by Vajrapani-Hercules. Vajrapani is usually syncretized with Hercules, but is also sometimes syncretized with Zeus. In one hand he carries a vajra (usually syncretized with Zeus’ lightening and/or Hercules’ sacred club). Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

For Indians, it is a matter of great pride that the Greeks adopted Buddhism and spread it to the world from the Indian subcontinent.

 Arunash Goswami                                                                                             

Historian and Lawyer

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