Buddhism

The links of ancient Greece and India

Although we know the story of how Alexander the Great reached the Indus Valley and befriended King Porus, few know the legacy his conquest would have on ancient India and Buddhism, otherwise known as Greco-Buddhism.

It might seem that Greece and Buddhism seem to be completely independent, but ancient Greek thought and aesthetics actually had a major influence on Eastern religion.

In turn, naturally, Greek philosophy was also affected.

Buddhism originated in ancient India sometime between the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The religion is based on the teachings and life of Gautama Buddha, who was born in Lumbini province in present day Nepal.

The religion spread across much of Asia during antiquity and even became the dominant belief in many parts of ancient India.

Due to the political ties between Greece and India, forged most strongly after the invasion of the Indus Valley by Alexander the Great in 357 BC, Greek thought and Buddhism had many opportunities to interact.

The Indo-Greek kingdom in 150 BCE.

These links led to the development of a cultural and religious mixture of Greek and Buddhist elements in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan between the fourth century BC and the fifth century AD.

Scholars call this mixture of Greek thought, aesthetics, and Buddhism Greco-Buddhism.

While Alexander’s travels in Asia established many strong ties between the Greeks and the people of the region, the ties between the regions dated back even further to Darius the Great.

The Achaemenid or Persian Empire under the reign of Darius the Great greatly expanded its territory during the 5th century BC. His lands stretched from Anatolia, home to many Greeks, to India.

The outer reaches of the empire were quite close to Greece, allowing the Greeks to encounter people and thoughts from West Asia.

Additionally, Darius was known to send Greeks living in Anatolia deep into his domain and even as far as Afghanistan and India if they rebelled against his rule.

Links between ancient Greece and Asia

That is why, when Alexander the Great traveled to these distant lands more than a century later, he encountered many people of Greek descent. He founded many Greek cities across Central and Western Asia.

After Alexander the Great’s death, his huge empire was divided and Seleucus I Nicator, a general in Alexander the Great’s army, took the Mesopotamian region from Babylon in 321 BC.

The general then founded Antioch and expanded his domains to include much of the Near Eastern territories that belonged to the ancient Macedonian Empire.

The Seleucid Empire took control of more territories, including Anatolia, Persia, the Levant, Mesopotamia and present-day Kuwait, Afghanistan and parts of Turkmenistan.

Kandahar Bilingual Rock Inscription (Greek and Aramaic) 3rd Century BC by Indian Buddhist King Ashoka.  This edict advocates the adoption of
Kandahar Bilingual Rock Inscription (Greek and Aramaic) 3rd Century BC by Indian Buddhist King Ashoka. This edict advocates the adoption of “piety” using the Greek term Eusebeia for Dharma. Kabul Museum.

When the empire attempted to expand into India, it faced conflicts with Chandragupta, the ruler of the Maurya Empire, which led to the ceding of a large territory west of the Indus River. .

Although controlled by the Mauryan Empire, areas once ruled by Alexander or Seleucus maintained strong ties to Greek thought and aesthetics.

Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka converted to Buddhism while ruling the Maurya Empire. He spread his religion throughout the empire, resulting in a unique blend of Greek and Buddhist thought.

Unsurprisingly, it was in the Maura Empire under Ashoka that the first Buddha statues were created, probably due to the fact that statuary was extremely important in Greece.

Greco-Buddhism: Ancient Greece and Asia

Even after the fall of the empire in 185 BC, Greco-Buddhism flourished and two important societies were developing, the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (256 – 100 BC) was a Hellenistic society that encompassed much of western Asia, including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and parts of Iran and Pakistan at its height .

Upon the fall of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, a series of successor states, loosely called the Indo-Greek Kingdom, began to flourish. The Indo-Greek Kingdom is renowned for its predominantly Hellenistic language, culture, coins, and aesthetics.

It was during the height of the Indo-Greek kingdom, which ran from 200 BC to 10 AD, that Greco-Buddhist thought and style developed well.

Due to the close ties between ancient Greece and the Orient, countless ancient Greek philosophers were able to travel to India. This interaction between ancient Greek philosophy and Indian thought had a significant impact on both societies.

Philosophers such as Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus all traveled with Alexander the Great to the eastern parts of his domain.

While in India, the ancient Greeks encountered Indian ascetics, or hermits, who lived a restrictive lifestyle.

Pyrrho, on his return to Greece, formed the philosophical school of Pyrrhonism, which focuses on doubt and skepticism. Many scholars believe that Pyrrho was inspired by the Indian ascetics he encountered on his travels while developing his philosophical beliefs.

The ancient Greek philosopher also explicitly mentions Buddhism in his works and even interpreted the three marks of existence, an essential tenet of Buddhism.

A Buddhist coin of Kanishka I, with the legend ΒΟΔΔΟ
A Buddhist coin of Kanishka I, with the legend ΒΟΔΔΟ “Boddo” (= the Buddha) in Greek script on the reverse.

Hegesias of Cyrene, a Greek city in modern Libya, believed that true happiness in life was unattainable and that human beings should focus on avoiding suffering and pain rather than seeking pleasure .

Its philosophies were heavily influenced by Buddhist missionaries, sent by the Mauryan ruler Ashoka, throughout Western Asia and the Middle East.

Perhaps the most visible and notable example of ancient Greek influence on Buddhism comes in the form of Buddhist statuary. As noted earlier, the earliest Buddha statues were built in Hellenized regions, where people were drawn to the art due to Greece’s strong ties to sculpture.

Prior to the creation of the first sculpture of the Buddha figure, he was depicted in art only as symbols rather than as a man.

Hellenistic culture in the Indian subcontinent: Greek clothing, amphoras, wine and music.  Detail of Chakhil-i-Ghoundi Stupa, Hadda, Gandhara, 1st century AD.
Hellenistic culture in the Indian subcontinent: Greek clothing, amphoras, wine and music. Detail of Chakhil-i-Ghoundi Stupa, Hadda, Gandhara, 1st century AD.

Gandharian works of art, or those created in a Hellenistic style in northwestern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan during the Hellenistic period, are striking and feature Buddhist and Oriental elements although inspired by Grecian styles. and western.

Representations of the Buddha in the Gandhara style resemble a Greek god. He is often depicted wearing a distinctive, draped himation or ancient Greek cloak, and is depicted standing in the contrapposto position typical of ancient Greek sculpture.

Herculean depiction of Vajrapani (right), as protector of the Buddha, 2nd century AD Gandhara, British Museum.
Herculean depiction of Vajrapani (right), as protector of the Buddha, 2nd century AD Gandhara, British Museum.

Many depictions of the Buddha also feature a curly hairstyle believed to have been inspired by ancient Greek art.

Greco-Buddhism and Hellenized works of art remained strong throughout Late Antiquity and flourished until the resurgence of Hinduism in India and the Muslim conquest of Central Asia in the 7th and 8th centuries. .

READ MORE: The contribution of the Greeks and Philhellenes of India to the independence of Greece.