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.

Was Moses the Pharaoh Akhenaten?

Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and into the Holy Land. The bible acknowledges that Moses was born and raised an Egyptian in elite circles. But some have wondered whether he rose to the very top and was indeed the Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Indulge me for a moment!

This is an intriguing theory about an enigmatic pharaoh who rejected the Gods of ancient Egypt and established a monotheist (one-God) cult around the Sun. Or the Aten to be more precise.

Some, even in academia, have argued that this one-God worshipping king of Egypt may have either been Moses or inspired him in some way. The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, even believed that Moses had been a priest in the cult of the Aten who had to flee with his other believers when the old religion was restored and Akhenaten overthrown.

Akhenaten (or Moses if you prefer!) was famously married to the incredible Nefertiti whose beautiful bust is displayed at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Their depictions are almost touchingly domestic with the queen tending the children while Akhenaten sits nearby.

I was at the Neues Museum just a fortnight before it closed because of the Coronavirus. And I filmed some of the very distinctive artwork that was created under Akhenaten. It’s almost like the artist’s rule book was thrown out under his reign and new styles developed – reflecting his revolution in religion.

You’re not allowed to take photos or film the Nefertiti bust but I found an unfinished bust dating back over three thousand years. In some ways, this object was more alluring because you could see the artist’s smudges and tracing. Enjoy the little film I made below because it may be a long time before any of us get to see these treasures again.

One key difference between Akhenaten and Moses is, of course, that we know for 100% certainty that Akhenaten existed. We have his statues, his mummy (vandalised after death) and cartouches. Of Moses, we have the story but no confirmed grave or contemporary images.

Muslim Spain – heaven or hell for Jews and Christians?

For seven hundred years, all or part of modern day Spain and Portugal was under Muslim rule. In the year 711 CE, an Arab and Muslim led army crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain and conquered a Christian kingdom advancing across Spain and up into central France before being stopped.

This was in the decades immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when the new Muslim religion had conquered north Africa, Arabia, the Levant, Persia and reached China and India.

The kind of caliphate that emerged in Spain has traditionally been seen as remarkably tolerant and reaching a very high level of cultural and philosophical sophistication.

It was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed along together in what has been termed the ‘convivencia’. Churches, synagogues and mosques existed side by side in contrast to Christian run medieval Europe where Jews in particular were brutally oppressed.

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But this view has been trashed in a new book called The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Dario Fernandez-Morera. He argues the following points:

  • It’s not true that Spain before the year 711 was a barbaric, underdeveloped post-Roman kingdom run by uncouth Visigoths but an emerging civilisation synthesising Roman and Goth culture with a high level of learning and architecture
  • The Arab/Muslim caliphate absorbed the civilisation of the Roman and Persian empires it conquered but independent of those influences, it was an arid desert faith with little culture
  • The conquest of Spain was a militaristic ‘jihad’ and modern scholars, embarrassed to say so, have downplayed the religious element of the invasion
  • Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians in Spain were reduced to ‘dhimmi’ status forced to pay a special tax and often subject to pogroms and persecution – the much vaunted tolerance is mythical
  • Just because there was liberal thinking among the Muslim elite that ruled Spain doesn’t mean that applied to the general population who were subject to rigid control by Muslim clerics

I have been reading the book as a much needed corrective to some of the muddle-headed thinking about ‘convivencia’ in medieval Spain and Portugal. But I do wonder if the author has pushed his point too hard. I tend to agree with this blogger that at times, Fernandez-Morera is being as dogmatic as those he is criticising.

His targets are orientalist scholars over the last century in particular who have wanted to prove that under Muslim rule, tolerance and free thinking was not only possible – but happened in contrast to savage crusader and church run medieval Europe. Those crude stereotypes should be demolished but I was left wanting to know:

  • Where is the evidence for a great Visigothic civilisation?
  • Why did Jewish populations co-operate so readily with the Muslim invaders if Visigoth rule was so enlightened?
  • Weren’t there way more scholars coming out of Muslim ruled Spain than the Christian kingdoms in the north – Leon, Castile and Aragon?

It’s a fascinating and very topical discussion and despite my reservations, I recommend you read this book.