It may seem implausible but there was a group of ancient Greeks who became Buddhist. So how did this happen? Well, you have to go back to Alexander the Great’s conquest of just about everything from Macedonia to the river Indus. His Greek phalanxes proved unstoppable as they bulldozed their way through the Persian Empire and into India.
Ancient Greeks in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan
It’s tempting to think that once Alexander died and his empire fragmented, anything left in India would have fizzled away pretty quickly. So isolated from the beating heart of Hellenism thousands of miles away, how would a Greek polity have survived? The answer is that over the centuries that followed Alexander’s death, the faraway Greeks evolved a culture that blended ancient Greece and ancient India.
Alexander’s empire fragments
Once the huge Macedonian empire had lost its charismatic leader, Alexander, it broke up into several empires. The Seleucid Empire covered modern Iran and the Levant. the Ptolemaic empire was centred on Egypt and would last for three hundred years until Cleopatra committed suicide and the Romans took over. Out in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and western India – the Greco-Indian kingdom of Bactria emerged.
And it would enjoy a surprisingly long lifespan.
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Soon-to-be Buddhist Ancient Greeks get cut off from Europe
Bactria was linked to the Greek world by the neighbouring Seleucid empire for a while until that was forced into a westwards retreat after defeats by Indian armies to the right and Ptolemaic forces to the left. So, the ancient Greeks out east effectively found themselves detached from the Hellenic world. And a man called Diodotus, who had previously ruled on behalf of the Seleucids as a “satrap”, declared Bactria to be an independent Greek kingdom.
And the Bactrians weren’t living in fear of their lives – as I used to assume. Quite the contrary, at times they extended their kingdom back deep into India. In fact, they got further than Alexander. And two important things happened during the second and third centuries BC. The Bactrians influenced Indian art and they adopted Buddhism. Plus the Hellenic influence reached its high point in the region. For example, representations of the Indian gods and of the Buddha point to heavy Greek cultural input.
Greeks made the Chinese terracotta army?
The Bactrians also extended their reach towards China. It’s possible that the first contact between Europeans and the Chinese was facilitated by these Indo-Greeks. It’s certainly not beyond the realms of feasibility. Look at a map and you’ll see what I mean. What is however open to question is the claim that Bactrian sculptors and artists could have helped the first Chinese emperor create the famous Terracotta army.
Could have happened….but needless to say, modern China thinks otherwise.
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Ancient Greek influence on Buddhist thought
It’s been conjectured that the philosophy of the Cynics exercised a huge influence on Christianity in the Levant. But the Cynics and other branches of Greek philosophy could also have helped shape Buddhist theology. And of course Greek thinkers might have absorbed Buddhist precepts so the intellectual traffic went in both directions.
Even the physical depiction of the Buddha shows the Greek love of the human form. Something that was avoided by many pious people in the east. Like the Romans, the Greeks also had a syncretic approach to religion – they mixed their Gods with local deities. So, the Buddha may have taken a de-personalised entity and given it a human body, possibly modelled on Apollo or one of the deified Bactrian kings.
I love this kind of historical mash-up of cultures.
Mainly because it blows apart the lazy assumption that ‘cultures’ develop in some kind of pure, hermetically sealed bubble. The idea that ancient Greeks and Mauryan Indians were not just warring against each other but exchanging ideas should be a lesson to our own time.
This melding of cultures is evidenced by my own collection of Bactrian coins with the one depicted below showing the Bactrian king with a Greek wording on one side and then the local Indian dialect on the other side of the coin.