Sunday, January 9, 2022

Ancient Greek Buddhists in Central Asia + India

Dr. Garrett Ryan, Ph.D.,* Sam Dresser (ed.), Psyche (, Aeon Media Group, Jan. 5, 2022); edited and expanded by Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson (eds.), Ellie Askew, Wisdom Quarterly

Southeast of Mumbai (Bombay, India), in a range of rugged hills, a winding path ascends to the mouths of the Karla Caves.

On weekends and holidays, when pilgrims crowd the neighboring temple, the caves echo with footsteps and chatter. But when monsoon clouds shadow the valley and waterfalls rush from the surrounding cliffs, it’s easy to imagine the solitude that drew Buddhist monastics to this place 19 centuries ago.

Although there are other Buddhist cave complexes nearby (e.g., Bhaja Caves, Patan Buddhist Cave, Bedse Caves, Nasik Caves), nothing in India (like Ajanta) compares with the Grand chaitya or meditation shrine hall at Karla (aka Karli).

It plunges deep into the cliff, with a soaring ceiling ribbed with age-blackened teakwood, the richly ornamented pillars along its walls marching toward the reliquary (stupa) at the distant end, where monastics once walked endless circumambulatory circles around a sacred relic of the Buddha.

High on the pillars, neat lines of Brahmi script commemorate the donors who contributed to the hall’s construction. The inscriptions are terse: name and native place.

But in six cases, they mention an additional detail: that the donor was a Yavana – a Greek.

The Greeks first entered India two centuries before the Karla Caves began to be carved out of solid rock, when Alexander the Great descended into the Punjab at the head of his invincible army.

The conqueror spent a year and a half in the subcontinent, defeating local kings, subjugating cities, and leaving a string of garrisons in his wake. Then he was gone. It seemed, at first, that the Greek presence in India would be fleeting.

Within a few years of Alexander’s death, his Indian satrapies were absorbed into the growing empire of Chandragupta Maurya, whose successors would rule much of India for more than a century. But when the Mauryan Dynasty began to crumble, Greeks were waiting on the frontiers.

Just northwest of India, in what are now formerly Buddhist Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics, lay the Greek kingdom of Bactria, famous for its wealth and its "thousand cities."

The Bactrian kings were almost at constant war, sparring with their Seleucid overlords, raiding the upstart Parthians (of Greater Iran), and pushing back incursions from the steppes. So when a political vacuum developed in northern India, they were quick to exploit it.

Many wealthy [Buddhist] Greeks, like the benefactors at Karla, were commemorated as donors in Buddhist cave temple-monasteries.
Buddha in Greek Gandhara art, 2nd-3rd cent.
The exact sequence of events is unclear, but it seems that the Bactrian King Demetrius I invaded India in the early 2nd century BCE, conquering a large territory in the northwest.

Soon after, probably as a consequence of civil war, the Indian province became an independent Greek state. The rulers of the new Indo-Greek kingdom soon governed more of India than Alexander had ever conquered. Although their fortunes fluctuated, parts of Northern India would remain under their rule until the 1st century CE.

Too few and too isolated to remain a class apart, the Greeks in India soon began to adopt local customs.

Towards the end of the 2nd century BCE, Heliodorus, ambassador of the Indo-Greek King Antialcidas, set up an imposing stone pillar beside a Hindu temple honoring the deity Vasudeva. Most of the Greeks in India, however, were attracted to a different Indian religious tradition: Greek Buddhism.

Buddhism was already widespread in Northwestern India (Gandhara) by the time Alexander arrived, and it continued to gain converts through the Mauryan era.

Buddhist Emperor Ashoka
Buddhist King Ashoka (aka Asoka) became leader of the whole Mauryan Empire.
Buddhist King Ashoka, the greatest of the Mauryan emperors, was an energetic Buddhist patron, founding Buddhist monasteries, building sacred burial mounds (stupas), and sending Buddhist missionaries to every neighboring people – including the Greeks.

King Ashoka became an emperor and commissioned dozens of monumental inscriptions outlining the ethical precepts of Buddhism.

Two of these were written in elegant and sophisticated Greek, a sign that at least a few Greeks were involved in the king’s proselytizing project.

Blue-eyed, red-haired Buddhist monk
The inscriptions claim that Buddhist missionaries were sent to all the Greek kingdoms of the east. According to later Buddhist tradition, some of these Buddhist missionaries were Greeks themselves.

By the time the Bactrians conquered Northwestern India, in short, many Eastern Greeks were familiar with Buddhism.

Within a century of the conquest, some of the most important men in the Indo-Greek kingdom identified themselves as Buddhists: a provincial governor named Theodorus, for example, is known to have dedicated a Buddhist reliquary, and another Greek governor established a stupa.

Many wealthy Greeks, like the benefactors at Karla, were commemorated as donors in Buddhist cave temple monasteries.

Menander I [the King Milinda of the Buddhist text the Milinda Panha or The Questions of King Milinda], the ruler who brought the Greek kingdom in India to the pinnacle of its strength and prosperity, was almost certainly a Buddhist.

The Buddhist Dharma wheel found on coins
He patronized Buddhist shrines, put the eight-spoked Dharma wheel on some of his coins, and even appeared -- though long after his reign -- as the protagonist of a Buddhist text, in which he shrewdly debates the learned (and possibly enlightened) Buddhist monk Ven. Nagasena.

Upon his death, King Menander’s ashes were enshrined in stupas [which are reserved for world monarchs and enlightened beings in the various stages of progress], where they were revered like the relics of the Buddha himself.

King Menander’s successors seem to have imitated his pro-Buddhist policies. Most of the later Indo-Greek kings describe themselves as "followers of the Dharma" on their coins.

At Taxila, their capital [ancient Gandhara], a Buddhist shrine and stupas stood beside temples to Indian and Greek gods. More

: Garrett Ryan has a doctoral degree in Greek and Roman history from the University of Michigan and has taught in the history and classics departments of several universities. He lives in Chicago and is the author of Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants (2021) and presents the Toldinstone Channel.

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