Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Buddhism in ancient Greece (King Milinda)

Amber Larson and Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly, "The Questions of King Milinda" [Menander] (Miln), Milindapañha (
Ancient Greek influence expanded to ancient India's northwestern frontier (Indo-Greeks)
Greek King Menander I (Milinda) engages Ven. Nagasena on the Dharma in Bactria
Gold Greek Buddha coin (
Because of his Greek (Western) heritage, the king of Bactria asks many questions that occur to Westerners today, which makes this work particularly valuable to modern readers. These are not normally raised in an Indian (Eastern) context.

As a consequence of the conquest of the Persian empire, the Greeks gained control of Bactria -- modern Afghanistan -- together with northern India. The local Greek rulers managed to establish their independence from the Seleucid Empire, which first held control over the area. 
Greek rule of Bactria continued until about 165 BC when the Shakas destroyed the Bactrian kingdom. Greeks continued to rule, however, in southern Afghanistan and northwestern India (Gandhara) for another 150 years. The most important of these kings was Menander I, known as "Milinda" in Buddhist sources, who ruled about 115-90 BC. Buddhism had reached the area [due to early converts in the Shakya clan, the Buddha's extended family, which was likely from this wealthy frontier area along the Silk Road even as the Buddha taught far to the east in India (Afghanistan has Buddhist art and architecture such as monastic complexes and statues as old as Buddhism, such as Mes Aynak)]. In addition, missionaries [were sent out by the Buddha] and later by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka more than a century earlier.

Buddhists in ancient Greece
Afghan Buddhist artifact from Mes Aynak, Afghanistan. This archaeological site is set to be destroyed by Chinese miners eager to extract mineral deposits (Jay Price/Getty Images/TheGuardian co uk)
Why did Ven. Nagasena go to Bactria? In the land of the Bactrian Greeks there was a city called Sagala, a great center of trade. Rivers and hills beautified it, delightful landscapes surrounded it, and it possessed many parks, gardens, woods, lakes, and lotus-ponds. Its king was Milinda, a man who was learned, experienced, intelligent, and competent. At the proper times he carefully observed all of the appropriate Brahminical rites with regard to things past, future, and present. As a disputant he was hard to assail, hard to overcome, and he was recognized as a prominent sectarian teacher.
One day a large company of enlightened disciples (arhats) of the Buddha living in a well-protected area in the Himalayas sent a messenger to Ven. Nagasena, who was then residing at Ashoka Park in Patna, asking him to come, as they wished to see him. Nagasena immediately complied by vanishing and miraculously appearing before them.
The arhats said to him: "That King Milinda, Nagasena, constantly harasses the Sangha (monastic order) with questions and counter-questions, with arguments and counter-arguments. Please go, Nagasena, and quench him!" 
"Save Mes Aynak" demonstration, UCLA/Westwood Federal Building, summer 2013 (WQ)
Nagasena replied: "Never mind one king, this King Milinda! If all of the kings of India would come to me with their questions, I could well dispose of them, and they would be no more trouble after that! You may go to Sagala without any fear whatsoever!" The elders (theras) went to Sagala, lighting up the city with their saffron robes, which shone like lamps, and bringing with them the fresh breeze of the sacred mountains.
Ven. Nagasena stayed at Sankheyya Hermitage together with a great number of monastics. King Milinda, accompanied by a large retinue of Greeks, went to him, greeted him in a friendly and courteous manner, and sat respectfully to one side. Nagasena returned these kind greetings, and his courtesy pleased the king's heart.

The king said, "Ven. Nagasena, will you converse with me?"

"Your majesty, if you will converse with me as the wise converse, I will, but if you converse with me as kings converse, I will not."

"Ven. Nagasena, how do the wise converse?"

"Your majesty, when the wise converse, whether they become entangled by their opponents’ arguments or extricate themselves, whether they or their opponents are convicted of error, whether their own superiority or that of their opponents’ is established, nothing in all this can make them angry. Thus, your majesty, do the wise converse."

"And how, venerable, do kings converse?"

"Your majesty, when kings converse, they advance a proposition, and whoever opposes it, they order that person’s punishment, saying, ‘Punish this person!’ Thus, your majesty, do kings converse."

"Venerable, I will converse as the wise converse, not as kings do. Let your worship converse in all confidence. Let your worship converse as unrestrainedly as if with another monastic, novice, lay disciple, or a keeper of the monastery grounds. Be unafraid!"

"Very well, your majesty," said the elder in assent. More

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