Buddhism and Hellenic Culture – Alexander the Bodhisattva

I recently picked up some material online about “Greco-Buddhism”. So being of Greek ancestry as well as a practicing Buddhist, this would obviosly strike me as, well, awesome. I summarized some of what I found. If anyone knows of any primary sources that I could go to please let me know in the comments. An interesting thing that I found was that mostly the authors state that Hellenic culture may have had an effect on Buddhism rather than the reverse. This tends to make me believe that it is more of a Western scholarly pursuit rather than an Eastern one. In all likelihood the effects of this cultural mash-up would have effected both sides rather than one dominating.

Greco-Buddhism is the religious combination of the Hellenic culture of Classical Greece and Buddhism, which developed over a period of close to 800 years in Central Asia in the area corresponding to modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, between the 4th century BC and the 5th century AD. Greco-Buddhism seemingly influenced the artistic development of Buddhism, and in particular Mahayana Buddhism, before it was adopted by Central and Northeastern Asia from the 1st century AD, and spread to China, Korea and Japan. Most interestingly is the idea that perhaps that Mahayana tradition was effected and maybe influenced conceptually by the the Indo-Grecian kings that ruled following Alexander the Great’s death.

This interaction between Hellenistic Greece and Buddhism began with Alexander the Great when he conquered Asia Minor and Central Asia in 334 BC, thus creating a direct contact with India (through trade and the establishment of new cities in Oxus and Bactria), well after the establishment of Buddhism. And where goods are traded, so are ideas.

Following Alexander’s death generals founded their own kingdoms in Asia Minor and Central Asia. Eventually forming the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (3rd–2nd century BC), followed by the Indo-Greek Kingdom (2nd–1st century BC), and later still by the Kushan Empire (1st–3rd century AD). The interaction of Greek and Buddhist cultures continued until it ended in the 5th century AD with the invasions of the White Huns, and the later expansion of Islam.
Evidence of direct religious interaction between Greek and Buddhist thought during the period include the Milinda Panha, a Buddhist discourse in the platonic style, held between king Menander and the Buddhist monk Nagasena.
Also the Mahavamsa (Chap. XXIX) records that during Menander’s reign, “a Greek Buddhist head monk” named Mahadharmaraksita led 30,000 Buddhist monks from “the Greek city of Alexander-of-the-Caucasus” (around 150km north of today’s Kabul in Afghanistan), to Sri Lanka for the dedication of a stupa, indicating that Buddhism flourished in Menander’s territory and that Greeks took a very active part in it.

Buddha standing upright in toga….:D

Several Buddhist dedications by Greeks in India are recorded, such as that of the Greek meridarch (civil governor of a province) Theodorus, describing in Kharoshthi how he enshrined relics of the Buddha during the reign of Menander or his successor (Tarn, p.388).
Finally, Buddhist tradition recognizes Menander as one of the great benefactors of the faith, together with Asoka and Kanishka.
Buddhist manuscripts in cursive Greek have been found in Afghanistan, praising various Buddhas and including mentions of the Mahayana Lokesvara-raja Buddha (λωγοασφαροραζοβοδδο). These manuscripts have been dated later than the 2nd century AD. (Nicholas Sims-Williams, “A Bactrian Buddhist Manuscript”).

Buddha with Hercules…XD
The Mahayana movement probably began around the 1st century BC in northwestern India, at the time and place of these interactions, on which Greek thought may have had some influence: “It may have been a Greek-influenced and Greek-carried form of Buddhism that passed north and east along the Silk Road” (McEvilly, “The shape of ancient thought”).

Dharma wheel and palm…:P
Indo-Greek Temple in Pakastan w/(left to right) images of Greek Temple, Indian Temple and Buddhist Stupa…awesome
[All info paraphrased from wikipedia and images too ‘cept this one]
Cheers,
Advertisements

One thought on “Buddhism and Hellenic Culture – Alexander the Bodhisattva

Comments are closed.