Hellenic influence on Buddhism

31 Aug


Buddha in conversation

Hellenic influence on Buddhism

The interaction between Hellenistic Greece and Buddhism started with Alexander’s expedition into during 334 BCE. Following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE his empire fragmented with each of his generals assuming charge of a portion of the empire. In the process, Seleucus became the king of the land that stretched into India. In the succeeding periods, spread over three hundred years, this kingdom again split into smaller ones. However, Buddhism flourished all along under these Indo-Greek kings. The friendly relations between Greek and Buddhist cultures continued until about 5th century.

During these long years, just as Buddhism spread its influence in the Hellenistic world particularly around Alexandria , the Greek culture in turn exerted its influence on Buddhism.

Some scholars opine that Greek-Buddhist interaction lead to evolution of Mahayana branch of Buddhism, introducing the “man-god” treatment of the Buddha as is done with Hellenic gods. Further, the representation of Buddha in human form also appeared to be an offshoot of Hellenic influence on Buddhism.

Buddha with hercules Procter

Until around the first century, the Buddha was represented by a pair of footprints .The human image of the Buddha was not projected either in sculptures or in paintings. It was only after the advent of Ghandhara art (of Greco-Roman origin that flourished largely during the Kushan dynasty) the image of the Buddha as we know today took shape. Those artists, while retaining their classical conceptions of the human form presented to the world a Greek-featured Buddha, dressed in a toga and seated in yoga pose. Thus, the Gandharan style represented a union of classical Indian and Hellenic elements

Apart from this ,while interpreting the Buddhist legends (Jathaka tales), the Gandhara School incorporated many motifs and techniques from classical Roman art, including vine scrolls, cherubs bearing garlands, tritons, and centaurs. The Gandhar craftsmen thus made a significant contribution to Buddhist art in their depiction of events in Buddha’s life. The basic iconography, however, remained Indian

Albert Gruenwedel (1856 -1935), a German Indologist, thought that Hellenic deities were traceable in Ghandara art. According to him, Apollo served as the model for Buddha images. The Gandhara school , he said , drew upon the anthropomorphic traditions of Roman religion and represented the Buddha with a youthful Apollo-like face, dressed in garments resembling those seen on Roman imperial statues .He also remarked that the types of Ghandara school were traceable in Buddhist religious paintings of Tibet , China and Japan.

Buddha gandhara 3 to 5 bce

[ There is a counter point to this argument.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877–1947) in his relentless search for the non-derivative or ‘original’ nature of Indian art is typified in the debate on the Indian origin of the Buddha image, where he also establishes its development from early Indian yakña prototypes, as a counterpoint to Foucher’s thesis that accorded an exclusive Gandharan (and hence Greco-Roman) derivation to the Buddha image .  ]

There is interesting similarity here, though not directly related to the Buddha subject. Until Christianity took root in Greece , there was no representation of Christ in human form. The early Christian scrolls etc. indicated Christ with the figure of a fish. Some scholars (LaTourette 1975: 572) consider the mage of Christ Pantocrator (“Christ, Ruler of All”) is modeled after the great statue of Zeus enthroned at Olympia and it remains a central icon of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Christ Pantocrator

Statue of Zeus at Olympia


Posted by on August 31, 2012 in Buddhism, History


Tags: , ,

4 responses to “Hellenic influence on Buddhism

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 22, 2015 at 3:44 am

    dear sreenivasrao,
    very interesting blog!
    emperor asoka, on his change of heart and conversion to buddhism, is also said to have converted many oh his greek soldiers and staff to the new religion. perhaps this was also an influence the intertwining of the two threads of culture?
    at the end there is an important omission which i wish you would fill in.. it says “christianity took root in, ….” but it isn’t clear where it is you mean.
    ~ajit bhide

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 22, 2015 at 3:48 am


      that should read” in greece “. then the para would read as ….
      there is an interesting similarity here, though not directly related to the buddha subject. until christianity took root in , there was no representation of christ in human form. the early christian scrolls etc. indicated christ with the figure of a fish. some scholars (latourette 1975: 572) consider the mage of christ pantocrator (“christ, ruler of all”) is modeled after the great statue of zeus enthroned at and it remains a central icon of the eastern orthodox church.

      the point you are making is about influance of buddhism on greeks. apart from sooldiers greeks (civilians) were also initiated to dharma. there are various other pointers to the influance of buddhism on greeks and on egypt. for eg.

      dio chrysostum (1st century a. d.) and clement (2nd century a. d) have written that at alexandria, indian scholars were a common sight.

      pliny (78 a, d) mentions that dionysius was ptolemy’s ambassador in the court of ashoka. the emperor’s rock edict records that dionysus was one of the recipients of dharma (buddhism .

      many scholars have pointed to a number of similarities between mahayana buddhism and the gnosticism of the early christian centuries that developed in ancient is a derivative of the sanskrit term jnana both meaning knowledge. in both gnosticism and buddhism, the emphasis is on wisdom, compassion and eradication of the opposite of gnosis/consciousness, that is, ignorance the root of evil.

      in the gospel of thomas (translated by peterson brown), at verse 90, yeshua says come unto me, for my yoga is natural and my lordship is gentle—and you shall find repose for yourselves. it is startling to find term “yoga” in a first century christian document written in egypt perhaps he was referring to sahja yoga.

      there are, therefore, a number of areas where the two have inter -acted. however, in the present post i was focusing on influance of greece over buddhism.ok?

      thanks for the reply. please keep in touch.

  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 22, 2015 at 3:46 am

    is it not ture that mahayana is essentially the way that buddhism tried to come to terms with hinduism the main religion of the day. in mahayana buddha is a god. and there is the concept of bodhisatva. and the nature gods of hinduism like indra etc are taken over into buddhist panteon. also cojmpared to the simple buddhism of teravada, the philosophy of mahayana is terse like the various schools of hindu philosophy. i see mahayana as the way buddhism tried to survive in this country . i may be wrong but how wrong am i ? regards for your wonderful scholarship .

  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 22, 2015 at 3:46 am


    . at the time when the mahayana doctrine was debated in the fourth religious council held in the first century a d, which was nearly 500 after the historical buddha attained nirvana, buddhism had well taken roots in . it was popular among the masses. it also enjoyed the patronage of kings and emperors.

    it was therefore at that time not in dire need of seeking a ruse for survival.

    2. the concept of mahayana came about because of the churning of ideas within the community. a large section of the community strongly felt there was a need for a more emotional, warmer, personal religion adequately disposed to evolution and development. the general tradition connects this evolution with the initiatives of king kanishka and scholars of the time such as ashvaghosha and nagarjuna. it was not as a reaction to hinduism.

    3. even though the concept of mahayana was officially launched at the fourth religious council held in first century a.d. it appears the germ- idea was in circulation even a hundred years earlier, more as a matter of speculation and argument than as a precise statement.

    the evolution of the mahayana concept came about as a gradual unfolding rather than as a sudden development.

    4. the mahayana did not arise as a departure from the doctrines enunciated by the historical buddha. both the schools – theravada and mahayana- accept the fundamental teaching of buddha implicitly and without any questions. both the schools argue that the basic tenets of their school could be traced directly to the teachings of the buddha. followers of mahayana of insist do they have not deviated from the teachings of the buddha. they believe they rediscovered the buddha’s lost teachings. many scholars say that nagarjuna grasped the buddha’s “seed idea” of void sunyata and developed it into a system of thought in his book madhyamika karika

    5. an obvious difference between the two schools was the bodhisattva ideal. both schools accept the three yanas or bodhis but consider the bodhisattva ideal as the highest. the mahayana created many mystical bodhisattvas while the theravada considered bodhisattva as a man amongst men and who devotes his entire life for the attainment of perfection, ultimately to become a fully enlightened buddha for the welfare and happiness of the world. transferred the emphasis from personal salvation to universal salvation, from the ideal of arhat to that of the bodhisattva

    5. during the initial times, it appears the difference between the two schools was not sharp. as the chinese traveler i-ching (635-713 a.d.) put it “those who worship bodhisattvas and read mahayana sutras are called mahayanists, while those who do not do this are called hinayanists”. it was that simple.

    6.however the differences became explicit over a period when (a) each schools adopted its chosen texts –pali texts by theravada and sanskrit texts by mahayana; and;(b)when the two schools moved away to distinct geographical areas like sri lanka ,burma , far east on one hand tibet , china and japan on the other.

    7. the challenges that mahayana buddhism faced in distant lands and diverse cultures called upon it to innovate. buddhism that took root in these countries was not the same as the one practiced in at the time. for instance, in order to be acceptable to the populace of it was necessary buddhism evolve itself into a new form by letting in bon practices and ideas while firmly retaining its basic buddhist tenets. in the process, buddhism took in materials and attitudes native to the soil, lent them a new sense of direction and grafted them with the mahayana doctrines. it allowed many bon attitudes, ideas, tribal gods, goddesses, and the associated rituals and instilled in them the spirit of piety (karuna). thus, while the form was traditional to the soil, the soul was buddhist. bon at the same time also adopted numerous buddhist practices, attitudes and ideas

    a similar process took place in china and japan where buddhism imbibed the rituals, practices, attitudes and even deities of the native religions (tao and shinto) while retaining the essential buddhist doctrines at heart. those religions intern also modified them selves. it was/is a dynamic process.

    8. thus, mahayana buddhism became an umbrella concept for a great variety of sects, from the tantric sects found in and (secret yoga teachings), to the pure land sects found in , and japan (reliance on simple faith). the mahayana of also gave birth to inward-looking chan buddhism (), which then crossed the straights to japan and flowered as japanese zen. for chan and zen followers, the path to enlightenment is meditation.

    in fact, some scholars go further and say the mahayana is not a single vehicle but rather a train comprising many carriages of different classes.

    9. despite this proliferation in beliefs, mahayana buddhism tapers down to two general branches — the madhyamika and the yogacara. madhyamika represents the middle view, the middle road, a path of relativity over extremes (e.g., extremes like existence vs. nonexistence, self vs. non-self). the emphasizes yoga — the practice of meditation. in either case, the path to enlightenment is long and arduous, requiring followers to build up merit in this life to be reborn in the next life with better karma.

    10. now, before coming to issue of hindu influence we can digress a bit. while discussing the similarities among various indian languages prof. emeneau, a well-known american scholar, in his classic paper, ‘ as a linguistic area’, came up with the concept of linguistic area for explaining the underlying indian-ness of apparently divergent cultural and linguistic patterns. resemblances between two or more languages (whether typological or in vocabulary), he said, can be due to genetic relation (descent from a common ancestor language), or due to borrowing at some time in the past between languages. he also saidessentially different but geographically and physically proximate languages often exhibit shared linguistic features.

    we can perhaps extend this view to cover various religions that took birth or took root in .. amanda coomaraswamy , the great scholar, once said “the more superficially one studies buddhism, the more it seems to differ from brahmanism in which it originated; the more profound our study, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish buddhism from brahmanism, or to say in what respects, if any, buddhism is really unorthodox.”. the buddha did not fight the religion of of his time .he had a benevolent view towards it and its scholars. he however objected to the ritualistic aspect of that religion. buddhist rahula walpole wrote that” the buddha was trying to shed the true meaning of the vedas. buddha is a knower of the veda (vedajña) or of the vedanta (vedântajña)[ (sa.myutta, i. 168) and (sutta nipâta, 463] .” hindus scholars have also accepted buddhism as a fulfillment of sanatana dharma .hinduism owes a debt of gratitude to buddhism. accordingly,the systems of buddhism and hinduism are not either contradictory to one another or completely self contained.

    11. we may say that in the first few centuries following the nirvana of the buddha, buddhism was an integral and significant part of that complex religious character of the indian subcontinent, which the outsiders called as hinduism. however over a period thereafter buddhism crossed the boundaries of the indian subcontinent and went on to play a much greater role in the whole of . in the process, it developed a very complex sectarian, theological and geographical diversity and a tradition of its own to become one of the most significant and influential religions of the world. many people who are not familiar with the history of the indian subcontinent fail to understand the deep connection that existed between hinduism and buddhism in the earlier days and the significant ways in which they enriched each other.

    12. thus, the birth of mahayana was not as a reaction to hinduism .it was a concept that emerged out of churning of ideas within the buddhist community. perhaps it was the need of the time. the various forms that mahayana assumed in different geographical and cultural contexts were a part of the dynamics of its growth. the mahayana in any country has to be viewed against the broad canvas of that region’s cultural and religious uniqueness. this is true in the indian context too.

    13. what happened to buddhism in after 8 th century and muslim invasion is another story.

    i thank your patience.

    pl keep in touch.



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