Marc documents the little-known interactions between Greece and India 2,000 years ago: East meets West, West meets East.

Greco-Buddhism refers to the cultural melting between the Hellenistic culture and Buddhism, which developed between the 4th century BCE and the 5th century CE in the Indian subcontinent, in modern day Aghanistan, India, and Pakistan. It was a cultural consequence of a long chain of interactions begun by Greek invaders into India from the time of Alexander the Great, carried further by the establishment of the Indo-Greek Kingdom and extended during the flourishing of the Hellenized Kushan Empire. Greco-Buddhism influenced the artistic, and perhaps the spiritual development of Buddhism.

The human representation of the Buddha
The first representations of Buddha himself are often considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction. Before this innovation, Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, Buddha’s footprints and the Wheel of Dharma.

Probably not feeling bound by these restrictions, and because of their cult of form, the Greeks were the first to attempt a sculptural representation of the Buddha. In many parts of the Ancient World, the Greeks did develop syncretic divinities that could become a common religious focus for populations with different traditions. 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 Buddha.

Standing Buddha
Standing Buddha, ancient region of Gandhara, eastern Afghanistan, 1st century CE

Many of the stylistic elements in the representations of Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders, the Mediterranean curly hair and topknot and the measured quality of the face, all rendered with strong artistic realism.

A large quantity of sculptures combining Buddhist and purely Hellenistic styles and iconography were excavated at the Gandharan site of Hadda in Afghanistan.

The Greek stylistic influence on the representation of Buddha, through its idealistic realism, also permitted a very accessible, understandable and attractive visualisation of the ultimate state of enlightenment described by Buddhism, allowing it to reach a wider audience. One of the distinguishing features of the Gandharan school of art that emerged in north-west India is that it has been clearly influenced by the naturalism of the Classical Greek style. Thus, while these images still convey the inner peace that results from putting the Buddha’s doctrine into practice, they also give us an impression of people who walked and talked, and slept much as we do.

Buddha with Hercules as protector
Heracles (aka Hercules) depiction of Vajrapani as the protector of Buddha, 2nd century CE Gandhara (British Museum)

Philosophical influences
Numerous parallels exist between the Greek philosophy of the Cynics and, several centuries later, the Buddhist philosophy of the Madhyamika and Zen. The Cynics denied the relevancy of human conventions and opinions (described as typhos, literally ‘smoke’ or ‘mist’, a metaphor for ‘illusion’ or ‘error’), including verbal expressions, in favour of the raw experience of reality. They stressed the independence from externals to achieve happiness.

Similarly the Prajnaparamita 1), precursor of the Madhyamika, explained that all things are like foam, or bubbles, “empty, false, and fleeting”, and that “only the negation of all views can lead to enlightenment.” In order to evade the world of illusion, the Cynics recommended the discipline and struggle of philosophy, the practice of autarkia (self-rule), and a lifestyle exemplified by Diogenes, which, like Buddhist monks, renounced earthly possessions. These conceptions, in combination with the idea of philanthropia (universal loving kindness), are strikingly reminiscent of Buddhist Prajna  (wisdom) and Karuṇā (compassion).

Intense east- and westward exchange of goods and ideas at that time along the famous Silk Road is confirmed by the Roman craze for silk that started during the 1st century BCE to the point that the Senate of Athens issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds.


1) Osho speaks on the Prajnaparamita in the discourse series The Diamond Sutra

Related article Cynicism

Source credit to Wikipedia


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