Monday, November 19, 2007


There have been three seminal Oriental moments for me while visiting the metropolis of Western Democracy. The first was listening with fascination to the mystical mantras of Manolis Rasoulis’ syncretistic melody: «Πότε Βούδας, πότε Κούδας, πότε Ιησούς και Ιούδας,» Then there was my visit to the Satyananda ashram in Paeania, as incongruous and anachronistic as an air bubble on the lustrous surface of a Japanese lacquered table or a dog defecating on the last invisible stone of a Zen garden. Viewing the good housewives of Paeania, clad in voluminous versions of a leotard in various stages of threatening to turn into a burkha, stretch and strain to assume the asana of a lotus, simultaneously lending unsettling connotations to the mantra: “the jewel is in the lotus,” while their younger and infinitely more nubile counterparts effortlessly contorted themselves in emulation of the Swan, the Warrior and the Shooting Bow, (the Shooting Bow is particularly fascinating for the viewer), and chatted about charkas, proving their credentials as partakers of a global culture, was an enlightening and yet disconcerting experience. As Swami Sivamurti of Mount Hymettus states: “Everything happens for one’s good; nothing is negative,” and Satyananda Yoga truly is a remedy for constipation. Then, walking through the streets of Ioannina, one day, the bastion of all that is good, foustanella-clad and fez-wearing Hellenic, I came across an institute of Chinese studies and my internal clockwork mechanisms ground to the cog-shattering, historic conclusion that the aeon-old East-West dialectic commenced by the Trojan War had finally been resolved.
Yet to consider the Greek embracing of Oriental culture as a modern phenomenon symptomatic of xenomania is to decontextualise the topos of the Greek identity, founded in reaction to the East and whose culture has historically acted in bi-valvular fashion as a conduit of Eastern culture to the West and to a lesser extent, as a window of ‘Western’ culture upon the East. This can no moreso be seen than in the unlikely and yet tantalizing ancient relationship between Greek culture and Buddhism.
We can safely term the cultural syncretism between Hellenistic culture and Buddhism, which developed between the 4th and 5th century BC in the area now covered by Afghanistan and Pakistan as Greco-Buddhism. This was a cultural consequence of a long chain of interactions begun by the Greek forays into India from the time of Alexander, carried further by the establishment of Indo-Greek rule in the area for several centuries, and extended during flourishing of the Hellenized empire of the Aryan Kushans. Greco-Buddhism influenced the artistic and the conceptual development of Mahayana Buddhism, before Buddhism was adopted in Central and Northeastern Asia, from the 1st century CE, ultimately spreading to the Far East.
When Alexander conquered the Bactrian and Gandharan regions, these areas may already have been under Buddhist influence. According to a legend preserved in Pali, the language of the Theravada canon, two merchant brothers from Bactria, named Tapassu and Bhallika, visited the Buddha and became his disciples. They then returned to Bactria and built temples to the Buddha. Thus in 326 BC when, Alexander invaded India, King Ambhi, ruler of Taxila, surrendered his city, a notable center of Buddhism.
Several philosophers, such as Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus, are said to have been selected by Alexander to accompany him in his eastern campaigns. During the 18 months they were in India, they were able to interact with Indian religious men, generally described as Gymnosophists (“naked philosophers”). Pyrrho returned to Greece and became the first Skeptic and the founder of the school named Pyrrhonism. The Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius explained that Pyrrho's equanimity and detachment from the world were acquired in India.Few of his sayings are directly known, but they are clearly reminiscent of eastern, possibly 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, a Cynic, is said by Strabo to have learnt in India the following Buddhist-sounding precepts: “That nothing that happens to a man is bad or good, opinions being merely dreams,” and “That the best philosophy is that which liberates the mind from both pleasure and grief.” These contacts initiated the first direct interactions between Greek culture and Indian religions, which were to continue and expand for several more centuries.
Around 322 BC, the Indian emperor Chandragupta, (Gupta by the way is the root of the Greek word Gyftos, another tantalising link with Indian culture) reconquered some of Alexander’s Indian territory. However, contacts were kept with his Greek neighbours in the Seleucid Empire. Seleucid king Seleucus I came to a marital agreement as part of a peace treaty, and several Greeks, such as the historian Megasthenes and Deimakos resided at the Indian court. According to Strabo, Megasthenes sent detailed reports on Indian religions, which were circulated and quoted throughout the Classical world for centuries:
“Megasthenes makes a different division of the philosophers, saying that they are of two
kinds, one of which he calls the Brachmanes, and the other the Sarmanes.”

Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka converted to the Buddhist faith and became a great proselytizer in the line of the traditional Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism, insisting on non-violence to humans and animals and general precepts regulating the life of lay people. According to the Edicts of Ashoka, set in stone, some of them written in Greek, he sent Buddhist emissaries to the Greek lands in Asia and as far as the Mediterranean. The edicts name each of the rulers of the Hellenic world at the time:
“The conquest by Dharma has been won here, on the borders, and even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos (Antiyoga) rules, and beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy (Turamaya), Antigonos (Antikini), Magas (Maka) and Alexander (Alikasu[n]dara) rule..”
Ashoka also claims he converted to Buddhism Greek populations within his realm:
“Here in the king’s domain among the Greeks…everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods' instructions in Dharma.”
Finally, some of the emissaries of Ashoka, such as the famed Dharmaraksita, are described in Pali sources as leading Greek ("Yona") Buddhist monks, active in Buddhist proselytism.
Eventually, the Greco-Bactrians, who maintained a strong Hellenistic culture in Afghanistan, 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. Thus, it appears that as a result of the Indian contacts, Buddhism had already pervaded the Greek civilization of Bactria. According to Ptolemy, numerous Greek cities were founded by the Greco-Bactrians in northern Pakistan. A large Greek city built by Demetrius and rebuilt by Menander has been excavated at the archaeological site of Sirkap near Taxila, where Buddhist stupas were standing side-by-side with Hindu and Greek temples, indicating religious tolerance and syncretism.
Some of the coins of the Greco-Indian kings, such as those Menander I fascinatingly incorporate the Buddhist symbol of the eight-spoked wheel, a variant of which is now proudly displayed on the modern Indian flag, associated with the Greek symbols of victory, either the palm of victory, or the victory wreath handed over by the goddess Nike. According to the Milinda Panha, an ancient Buddhist text, at the end of his reign, Menander I became a Buddhist arhat (a spirutual practitioner who had achived nirvana), a fact also echoed by Plutarch, who explains that his relics were shared and enshrined. The ubiquitous symbol of the elephant in Indo-Greek coinage may also have been associated with Buddhism, as suggested by the parallel between coins of Antialcidas and Menander II, where the elephant in the coins of Antialcidas holds the same relationship to Zeus and Nike as the Buddhist wheel on the coins of Menander II. When the Zoroastrian Indo-Parthians invaded northern India in the 1st century, they adopted a large part of the symbolism of Indo-Greek coinage, but refrained from ever using the elephant, suggesting that its meaning was not merely geographical but also religious.
Finally, after the reign of Menander I, several Indo-Greek rulers, notably Amyntas, Nicias, Peukolaos, Hermaeus and Hippostratos, depicted themselves or their Greek deities forming with the right hand a benediction gesture identical to the Buddhist vitarka mudra (thumb and index joined together, with other fingers extended), which in Buddhism signifies the transmission of Buddha’s teaching.
Evidence of direct religious interaction between Greek and Buddhist thought during this period include the aforementioned Milinda Panha, a Buddhist discourse in the platonic style, held between king Menander and the Buddhist monk Nagasena.
Further, the Mahavamsa records that during Menander's reign, a Greek (“Yona”) Buddhist head monk named Mahadharmaraksita (ie “Great Teacher of the Dharma”) 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 a stupa, indicating that Buddhism flourished in Menander's territory and that Greeks took a very active part in it. Several Buddhist dedications by Greeks in India are recorded, such as that of the Greek meridarch (civil governor of a province) named Theodorus, describing in Kharoshthi how he enshrined relics of the Buddha. The inscriptions were found on a vase inside a stupa, dated to the reign of Menander or one his successors in the 1st century:
“Theudorena meridarkhena pratithavida ime sarira sakamunisa bhagavato bahu-jana-stitiye.” (The meridarch Theodorus has enshrined relics of Lord Shakyamuni, (Buddha) for the welfare of the mass of the people.)
This inscription represents one of the first known mention of the Buddha as a deity, using the Indian bhakti word Bhagavati (“All-embracing personal deity”), suggesting the emergence of Mahayana doctrines in Buddhism.
Buddhist manuscripts in cursive Greek have been found in Afghanistan, praising various Buddhas and including mentions of the Mahayana Lokesvara-raja Buddha (Λωγοασφαροραζόβοδδο),dated later than the 2nd century. Some elements of the Mahayana movement may have begun around the 1st century in northwestern India, at the time and place of these interactions. According to most scholars, the main sutras of Mahayana were written after 100 ΒC, when sectarian conflicts arose among Nikaya Buddhist sects regarding the humanity or super-humanity of the Buddha and questions of metaphysical essentialism, on which Greek thought may have had some influence: Mahayana Buddhism thus may have been a Greek-influenced and Greek-carried form of Buddhism that passed north and east along the Silk Road.Of particular note are the numerous and remarkable works of Greco-Buddhist art displaying the intermixing of Greek and Buddhist influences, around such creation centers as Gandhara. The subject matter of Gandharan art was definitely Buddhist, while most motifs were of Western Asiatic or Hellenistic origin. Sadly, the destructive mania of the Taliban blighted the most extensive collection of such art, in the Kabul museum.

To be continued.....


First published in NKEE on 19 November 2007