Ancient Greeks Buddhist

Ancient Greeks who became Buddhist

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.

lunatic asylum

Inside a British lunatic asylum

One building dominated the horizon near where I grew up in north east London. It had the distinctive, squat, red-brick water tower common to the Victorian era British lunatic asylum. This was Claybury Hospital, a vast complex covering 290 acres for treating the mentally ill of east London and the Essex suburbs.

Both my parents were on the medical staff at Claybury in the 1960s and in fact, it’s where they met – in the cafeteria. However, my father decided psychiatry wasn’t his bag and changed careers but my mother was there until the asylum closed in the late 1980s. Despite all the criticism and misinformation levelled at psychiatric hospitals, as well as the fear they inspired, she loved the work.

To go inside a lunatic asylum

As a child, I got a privileged look at life in an asylum. And it fascinated me. Every weekend, I’d accompany my father in the car to pick up my mother as she came off her Saturday and Sunday shifts. As with many psychiatric hospitals, the grounds were idyllic. Beautifully landscaped with pristine lawns, chestnut trees, a large willow, an eighteenth century manor house incorporated into the hospital, tennis courts and two big old churches – Anglican and Catholic.

As children, my sister and I would go and practice our serve on the tennis court, which I think was for staff, while outside the wire fence, patients would walk around in their dressing gowns in what could often look like a mildly zombified state. I assumed this is what they meant by a “chemical straitjacket”. Quite frequently, patients would wander out of the main gates and into the local town and then be returned by police officers or locals.

It’s hard to convey the scale of Claybury. But it was like a self-contained village even generating its own electricity up to 1929. The hospital was a combination of closed, semi-closed and open wards. There was therefore a large cohort of permanently resident patients for whom Claybury put on a detailed calendar of social and sports activity. In 1964, a Social and Recreational Centre was opened that put on dances with a small orchestra providing the music.

From lunatic asylum to therapeutic community

In the 1960s, the hospital pioneered what was called the ‘therapeutic community’ approach to its 2,000 patients. Patients and staff collaborated on day-to-day functions. And former patients were employed to work with nurses on the domestic chores to keep the wards clean and functioning. This was termed the “Claybury revolution” and not all staff, used to a more authoritarian regime, liked the new way. But it was mandated by two charismatic and reforming managers at Claybury – Denis Martin and John Pippard.

They wanted to break with the old stereotypes of the Victorian asylum. Decisions on treatment would be made through democratic discussion and, as far as was possible, patients were encouraged to take responsibility for their own behaviour. The therapeutic community approach at Claybury become an international talking point in mental health circles.

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I was always taken by the personal relationship that my mother had with patients at the asylum. She would bring their artwork and even cookery home to share. I’ll be honest, as a child I was reticent to eat the cakes made at Claybury. I remember blurting out: “What if they put a razor blade in there?” Seriously ignorant comment. And I’d get a telling off for saying such a thing. When a patient passed away, my mother was genuinely upset. There were strong bonds between some of the patients and medical staff.

Controversial treatments

In terms of the controversial aspects of Claybury – one can’t ignore the use of lobotomies for a period. My mother was present at one and the nurse next to her fainted during the procedure. This awful operation was thankfully discontinued but not before it had ruined many lives. What still continues to this day is the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). That is sending an electric current through the brain, normally to address severe depression.

I’m always amazed at the number of people who think ECT doesn’t happen anymore. It very much does. But way more sparingly than fifty years ago. I once asked my mother how ECT worked and she told me that a consultant had once summed it up to her: “We have now idea what it does but it seems to do the job”. In other words, ECT is based purely on the empirically observed, surface results without much idea of what it’s doing beneath the surface.

Contrary to what many people think, it’s performed under general anaesthetic – though in the old days that was not always the case. Having sadly lost a friend to depression (he jumped off a motorway bridge head first), I realise that for some people any cure is grabbed at when all else has failed. My mother recalled being on ‘suicide watch’ at Claybury when a patient in bed during the night tore a button off his pyjama bottoms, split it in half, and managed to slash his wrists. My mother told me this to illustrate how suicidal feelings can overwhelm some poor souls.

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There is no doubting the asylum system was flawed and you wouldn’t re-invent it. However, nobody believes that we spend anywhere near enough on mental health or that ‘care in the community’ and the closure of the asylums was driven as much be cost saving as a desire for better therapies. And sadly, there is a high representation of mentally ill people in another institution these days: prisons.

Claybury – or the ‘loony bin’ as my schoolmates used to term it – is now a luxury housing estate. The wards of the one-time lunatic asylum are now bedrooms and dining rooms. One of the Victorian churches has a swimming pool in what was previously the nave. I own one of the pews, which I took with the vicar’s permission before the hospital gates closed for the last time. And the patients and staff are ghostly memories.

Lisbon earthquake

Catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755

The city of Lisbon was for centuries the gateway to the Americas, Africa and Europe. A cosmopolitan city of palaces, opulent churches and people from all corners of the globe. In front of the royal residence, was the river Tagus clogged with ships bearing spices, precious metals and….slaves. But this picture of unbridled wealth came to a sudden end in November 1755 when the city was hit by an earthquake, tsunami and fire.

The day when hell rained down on Lisbon was the 1st November. This was All Saints Day when the city’s mainly Catholic population was in church. By all accounts it was a sunny and very pleasant morning when at 9am, citizens heard an ominous subterranean thunder. Lisbon shook for about three minutes with buildings collapsing everywhere and people crushed beneath the rubble.

Then the sea retreated far from the harbour. It returned with an immense wave of about fifty to sixty feet in height. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people had rushed to the harbour to escape toppling structures in the downtown area. But sadly, they’d dashed headlong into the tsunami.

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The scene in churches across the city was utter carnage. At the Igreja do Carmo, a massive convent, overlooking the city, hundreds of worshippers died during mass when the church roof collapsed on their heads. The ruins have been kept to the present day as a grim reminder of what happened.

Because so many churches had candles burning that day, fires spread very quickly. It was also claimed that robbers and other criminals engaged in widespread arson to distract from acts of theft. Whether deliberately caused or not, the inferno raged in the city for six days. In every corner of Lisbon there were half-burnt bodies lying around for long afterwards.

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The Lisbon earthquake literally rocked 18th century opinion. On one side, it bolstered the arguments of those who saw a divine hand in natural events. Lisbon was being punished for its hubris. On the other side were the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. People like Voltaire who penned a sarcastic satire titled Candide where he mocked the idea that we lived in the best of all possible worlds – as the horror in Lisbon only too clearly evidenced.

On the plus side, the Lisbon earthquake gave a big boost to the study of earthquakes leading to our modern day understanding of these deadly phenomena.

Daniel Defoe

When the public loved not hated journalists

The view of journalists today among the public is at an all time low. This is not good for democracy. Especially when that hatred is fuelled by populist politicians who resent being scrutinised….by journalists. But this is a new phenomenon – journalists in the past were loved, not hated by the public.

I have to declare an interest here. I’m a former journalist (BBC News, Sky News, Financial Times magazines, etc) and still a paid up member of the National Union of Journalists. And it depresses the hell out of me to see ill-informed people on Twitter writing BS about the so-called MSM. So I’m writing this blog post as a well overdue corrective.

The public loved journalists – even in the pillory

The path to creating a free press was a treacherous one. Not for nothing does the US Constitution protect the right of free speech. Because in the Old World – that right was non-existent or permitted at the whim of an absolute monarch.

Into the early 19th century, British journalists and publishers were literally placed in the pillory for producing work that offended the establishment. Just to be clear – they were put on trial and then taken to a wooden post with a yoke and fixed by their head and hands to be pelted by the mob.

But in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – the ‘mob’ often didn’t comply. They came out and supported the hapless journalist in the pillory. They loved them for defending liberty and exposing corruption and vice. How different from today!

Daniel Defoe – journalist loved by the public

One of the many journalists placed in the pillory was the author of Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe. Aside from writing a great yarn (based on real events) about a castaway, Defoe was essentially a tabloid journalist. He was also a bit of a spin doctor for the government.

In 1703, he wrote a satirical pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. It was intended to be a ribald commentary on the attitude of the Church of England to Protestant dissenters on the one side and Catholics (or “Papists”) on the other. The CofE was likened to Christ with a dissenter thief on one cross and a Papist on the other. All pretty silly and Defoe wrote the whole thing tongue in cheek.

But the Church of England and government took the pamphlet very seriously and he was charged with sedition. The pamphlet was burned by the public hangman and Defoe went into hiding. However, he was discovered and put in three separate pillories around the centre of London for maximum humiliation.

The public, though, admired Defoe for his literary bravery and instead of throwing rotten vegetables at him – brought flowers and sang songs. Including a song he’d written for the occasion!

Public loved journalists who stuck it to the king!

Even though Daniel Defoe was cheered by the public – the experience of the pillory undoubtedly freaked him out. So much so that he agreed to spy on another journalist, Nathaniel Mist. Mist’s early 18th century weekly journal was hugely popular and it poked fun at the new German speaking king of Britain – George I.

Mist described the great grandfather of George III (who lost the American colonies) as a “cruel, ill-bred uneducated old tyrant”. He served a short prison sentence and like Defoe was sent to the pillory. Also like Defoe, the public cheered him on as a free spirit. But then Mist fled to France unable to handle the pressure and threats from the government.

Edmund Curll – also loved by the public

Edmund Curll was another early 18th century figure in the publishing world. This time, a publisher as opposed to a journalist. His sin in the eyes of the church and state was to publish both radical political works and pornographic tracts. Almost as if to cause maximum rage in respectable society.

One publication, Venus in the Cloister, alleged that while the church was prudish, Jesus Christ had believed in sexual exploration. This was a translation of a French work that went on to influence the notorious Marquis de Sade.

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Curll eventually earned a place in the pillory where, like Defoe and Mist, he was treated rather kindly by the crowds. And the list of pilloried and prosecuted journalists loved by the public – in Britain particularly – goes on and on.

What a sad contrast with today when many of the public would rather side with power against free speech. Or, worse, take the word of YouTube charlatans and hucksters as the truth ahead of people who are on the front line trying to report what is happening in the real world.

Below is the arrest of CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez in 2020 while reporting on protests following the death of George Floyd. A modern pillorying of a member of the ‘fourth estate’.

Teen diet in the 1940s – pigging out, staying slim

The teen diet in 1940s America at the end of the Second World War was surprisingly generous. I mean, young people seemed to have been pigging out and staying slim. What was the secret?

I found an old copy of Life magazine in my vast collection of old publications dating back three hundred years. This was the 11 June 1945 edition of Life with plenty about the ongoing war between the US and Japan (Germany had already surrendered) and a front page picture plus feature story on teen diets.

It followed an American kid called Richie in Des Moines whose 1940s teen diet was truly epic. I mean, he just didn’t seem to stop eating. And yet – he was not clinically obese as so many young people today are – regrettably.

Here is Richie’s June 1945 daily intake!

Dairy products, red meat, bread and some fruit – but not much by way of green vegetables. Meals eaten at home but also down at the Drug Store. Sandwiches are a staple with peanut butter and jam. Snacks involve ice cream, biscuits and soda.

Sliced bread features heavily and the lunch Richie gets at the Drug Store looks like something your Mum would make today as a school packed lunch. Dinner was still a three-course affair eaten at the dining room table. A ritual that might yet be revived following the Coronavirus lockdown.

We can see processed food creeping into the teen diet but nothing like the scale we witness today. And there’s no burger bars with super portions. Also – deep fried chicken was not a feature of every street corner.

The teen diet in the United States in 1945 is pretty much along the lines of what we think about young people eating throughout the 1950s. But in the UK and Europe, the picture was very different. Hearty food was not so readily available after the Second World War. And there was rationing through the late 40s and early 50s.

Plus unlike Richie – there wasn’t a vast continent pumping out farm produce on anything like the scale of the US. Europe was also battle scarred and recovering from a massive loss of human life. So, diets were pretty austere for everybody including your average teen.

This is a clever video below on 1950s teen diet reality in the United Kingdom.