News at Tipitaka Network
Buddhism in the Hellenistic world
by Lionel Wijesiri , Daily News (Sri Lanka), Saturday, June 21, 2008
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.
Alexander founded several cities in his new territories in the areas of the Amu Darya River and Bactria, and Greek settlements further extended to the Khyber Pass, Gandhara and the Punjab.
These regions correspond to a unique geographical passageway between the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush mountains, through which most of the interface between India and Central Asia took place, generating intense religious and cultural exchange and trade.
Several philosophers are said to have been selected by Alexander to accompany him in his eastern campaigns. During the 18 months in India, they interacted with Indian holy men. Pyrrho returned to Greece and became the founder of the school named Pyrrhonism.
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.”
Another of these philosophers, Onesicritus, is said to have learnt in India the Buddhist precepts such as: “That the best philosophy is that which liberates the mind from both pleasure and grief.”
These contacts initiated the first direct contacts between Greek culture and Indian religions, which were to continue and expand for several more centuries. After Alexander’s death, Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, was able to drive away the Greek garrisons from the Indus valley and in 321 B.C. he became the ruler of the Magadha kingdom from the capital at Pataliputta.
However, he kept contacts with his Greek neighbours and several Greeks, such as the historian Megasthenes and Deimakos were invited to live in the Indian court.
In 311 BC Alexander’s successor, Seleukos I, led an attack against the Indians hoping to regain the Punjab but he was up against the might of Chandragupta. So, by 304 BC., Seleukos was glad to conclude a treaty with him, ceding large areas of what is now Baluchistan and Afghanistan.
Chandragupta ruled for 24 years and his son Bindusàra, about whom we know very little, ruled for 28 years until his death in 269 B.C.
Ashoka was Chandragupta’s grandson. He took over the Maurya Dynasty in 273 BC. He embraced Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths of the war of Kalinga, which he himself had waged out of a desire for conquest.
He was later dedicated in the propagation of Buddhism across Asia and established monuments marking several significant sites in the life of Gautama Buddha.
Some of the Edicts of Asoka describe the efforts made by him to propagate the Buddhist faith throughout the Hellenistic world, which at that time formed an uninterrupted continuum from the borders of India to Greece.
The Edicts indicate a clear understanding of the political organisation in Hellenistic territories: the names and location of the main Greek monarchs of the time are identified, and they are claimed as recipients of Buddhist missions: Antiochus II Theos of the Seleucid Kingdom (261-246 BCE), Ptolemy II Philadelphos of Egypt (285-247 B.C.), Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia (276-239 BCE), Magas of Cyrene (288-258 BCE), and Alexander of Epirus (272-255 BCE).
Greek populations, (described in ancient times throughout the Classical world as Yona, Yojanas or Yavanas) were under his rule in north-western India. Ashoka says: “Here in the king’s domain among the Greeks... everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods’ instructions in Dharma.”
Some of the emissaries of Ashoka are described as leading Greek (Yona) Buddhist monks, active in Buddhist propagation. Far from just being recipients of Buddhism, they took active roles in spreading the Buddhist faith as emissaries of Ashoka.
Dhammaraksita, the Greek thera, was the leader of the mission to Aparantaka.
The country of Aparantaka has been identified as the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent, and comprises Northern Gujarat, Kathiawar and Sindh, the area where Greek communities were probably concentrated. To this day, a city in Gujarat is named Junagadh, originally “Yonagadh”, (“City of the Greeks”).
Dharmarashita thera preached the Aggikkhandopama Sutra, and 37,000 men and women entered the Order. The thera Mahyantika was sent to Kashmir and Gandhara, also areas with strong Hellenic presence.
Although he is not identified as Greek, his name probably means Maha (great) + Antika (Antiochos), a common Greek first name.
The thera Maharakkhita (Maharaksita in Sanskrit) 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.
It is not clear how much these interactions may have been influential, but some authors have commented that some level of syncretism between Hellenist thought and Buddhism may have started in Hellenic lands at that time.
They have pointed to the presence of Buddhist communities in the Hellenistic world around that period, in particular in Alexandria and to the pre-Christian monastic order of the Therapeutae (possibly a deformation of the Pali word “Theravada”, who may have “almost entirely drawn its inspiration from the teaching and practices of Buddhism).”
In the second century CE, the Christian dogmatist Clement of Alexandria recognised the existence of Buddhist monks among the Bactrians, and even their influence on Greek thought.
Eventually, 50 years after the Asoka’s reign the Greco-Bactrian’s, who maintained a strong Hellenistic culture, expanded into India, where they established the Indo-Greek kingdom in 180 BC, under which Buddhism was able to flourish and it has been suggested that their invasion of India was intended to protect the Buddhist faith from the religious persecutions of a new Indian dynasty.
Menander I (known as Milinda ) was one of the rulers of the Indo-Greek Kingdom in northern India and present-day Pakistan from either 165 or 155 BC to 130 BC.
According to the historical records, during his reign, a Greek Buddhist head monk named Mahadharmaraksita led 30,000 Buddhist monks from “the Greek city of Alexandria” (possibly Alexandria of the Caucasus, 150km north of modern day Kabul in Afghanistan), to Sri Lanka for the dedication of the Maha Thupa built by king Dutugamunu at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka around 130 BC.
This indicates that Buddhism flourished in Menander’s territory and that Greeks took a very active part in it.
Greco-Buddhism influenced the artistic (and, possibly, conceptual) development of Buddhism before it was adopted by Central and North-eastern Asia from the 1st century CE, ultimately spreading to China, Korea and Japan.
Probably not feeling bound by any restrictions, and because of their cults of form, the Greeks were the first to attempt a sculptural representation of the Buddha.
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.
Many of the stylistic elements in the representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulder), the asymmetric pose of the upright figures.
The interaction of Greek and Buddhist cultures operated over several centuries until it ended in the fifth century AD with the invasions of the White Huns, and later the expansion of Islam.
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