A bygone era forgotten in Western circles but preserved in the histories of Buddhist traditions tells the story of the Greek contribution to Buddhism. Enshrined in the daily prayers of the Theravāda followers of Sri Lanka is a vivid throwback to this long-lost chapter of Greek Buddhism:
“I bow my head to the footprints of the silent saint (Buddha) which are spread on the sandy bank of the Narmada River, on the Mountain Saccabhadda, on the Mountain Sumana, and in the city of the Yonakas (Greeks).”
Who were these mysterious practitioners of Greek Buddhism? How and why did they become venerated in a foreign religion?
Buddha in Polonnaruwa temple in the medieval capital of Ceylon whose history the Mahavamsa describes, in which Greek Buddhism is mentioned. ( Freesurf / Adobe Stock)
References to Greek Buddhism In Ancient Sri Lankan Texts
From the same Pāli (Indian) text in which the above prayer is preserved, The Mahavamsa, multiple references are made to Greek Buddhism and the monks who evangelized in Yona (Greek) lands and Yonas themselves. One of the countries includes Yonakaloka (country of the Greeks), which received the monk Maharakkhita, who converted “170,000 living beings.”
The text continues, “…to Aparantaka (was sent) the Yona named Dhammarakkhita,” where the Greek monk converted 37,000 living beings.”
Furthermore, this time the Mahavamsa lists a thera Yona (elder Greek) named Maha Dhammarakkhita. The text tells us that he originated from “Alasanda, the city of the Yonas,” likely Alexandria in the Caucasus.
Maha Dhammarakkhita traveled with 30,000 followers to the foundation ceremony of the Great Stupa at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
The number of converts may, in fact, be an exaggeration in the abovementioned examples. However, these references attest to the “popularity” or knowledge of Greek Buddhism and to the zeal with which Yonas participated in their newfound religion.
According to Buddhist texts , like the Mahavamsa, Yona Buddhists were sent as missionaries to their own sphere of influence. Even more impressively, they held positions of prestige within the Buddhist religious hierarchy .
The names of monk that practiced Greek Buddhism were of Greek extraction, which suggests that they were naturalized entirely in their new Indian religion. The word “ dharma” recuring in the names of Yona Buddhists.
Seldeslachts, in his 2007, Final Frontier , argues that these great missionary works occurred after the Third Buddhist Council at the time of Ashoka the Great , who presided over the gathering in 250 BC. Maha Dhammarakkhita likely joined the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms after the decline of the Mauryan Empire.
The Greek Buddhism influenced art of Gandhara typifies Buddhism’s Hellenistic connections. Herakles-Vajrapani amongst monks, schist relief, issued (circa 100-200 AD) . Herakles-Vajrapani stands frontally in a relaxed “Praxitelean” (Greek style) posture. His head is slightly inclined, facing left, and covered with a lion skin with paws tied on his chest in a typical knot. ( The Trustees of the British Museum )
Emperor Ashoka the Great and His Links to the Greek World
Although there’s little written about Ashoka in Indian texts due to his Buddhist preferences, Pāli, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan sources note that he was the most significant Buddhist patron from India.
Ashoka inherited the Mauryan Empire from his grandfather and founder, Chandragupta (Sandrokottos in Greek texts), who carved out his domain in the late 4th century BC. In addition to the Indic Kingdoms he conquered, Chandragupta further expanded his empire by annexing what is now Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan, including the Greek-style cities Alexander had established.
Chandragupta secured these acquisitions by signing a treaty with Seleucus I Nicator (c. 358–281 BC). The Seleucids received 500 war elephants in exchange for ceding these eastern satrapies (states). The Mauryan-Seleucid pact was sealed with a marriage between Helen, Seleucus’ daughter, and a member of the Mauryan Imperial House.
Woodcock argues in his 1996, The Greeks in India , that since the Seleucid princess was of royal lineage, she would have been married to an Indian emperor: either Chandragupta or his son Bindusara. This could conceivably make Ashoka either half or a quarter Greek.
The ancient historian Strabo writes that both Chandragupta and his son Bindusara maintained an intimate correspondence with the Greek world. Seleucus I sent Megasthenes as his ambassador to Chandragupta’s court.
His successor, Antiochus I, sent Deimachus as an ambassador to Bindusara’s court, who likewise requested from Antiochus sweet wine, figs, and a philosopher.
As well as the Macedonian representatives in his grandfather’s and then father’s courts, Ashoka, serving as a governor in Taxila (modern-day Pakistan), would have been acquainted with the Greeks that dominated the region since Alexander’s expedition. Old Kandahar (possibly Alexandria in Arachosia) lay the westernmost point of the Mauryan Empire.
The city of Kandahar (modern-day Afghanistan) was the location of the once-standing Edicts that were written in Greece.
Altogether, Ashoka commissioned 16 Edicts, 3 of which, the Minor Edict, Edict 12 and 13, were written in Greek.
Although his Greek Edicts don’t survive in complete form, they report on Ashoka’s conversion story and his new Buddhist policies, including vegetarianism and respecting parents, among other laws and accomplishments.
According to Edict 13 and Minor Edict, Ashoka dedicated his life to Buddhism towards the 8 th year of his reign, after his military engagement with his archrival, the Kaliṅga.
His thoughtful devotions were inscribed on polished rock and displayed on public monuments.
Illustration of the original Mahabodhi Temple built by Asoka at Bodh Gaya. At the center, the Vajrasana, or “Enlightenment Throne of the Buddha”, with its supporting columns, being the object of adoration. A Pillar of Ashoka topped by an elephant appears in the right corner. Bharhut relief, 1st century BC. (Sir Alexander Cunningham / Public domain )
Ashoka Promotes Buddhism As Greek Buddhism and More
Expressed in his empire’s official Indic languages, Brāhmī and Kharoṣṭhī, but also Greek and Aramaic, Ashoka likely intended to unveil his revelations to his diverse audience who he believed would be inspired to take up the way of renunciation as he had.
Scholars like Thapar in his 2015, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas , and Sick’s 2007 , When Socrates met the Buddha , contend that Ashoka included references to Greek philosophy and religiosity such as to connect Buddhist ideas with established Greek thought.
Indeed, Seldeslachts, in his 2007, Final Frontier , argues that mass conversion of Greeks that are written in Buddhist texts, happened during the reign of Ashoka.
Remarkably, the completely intact Kalsi version (an Indian language) of Edict 13 states that Ashoka introduced Buddhism to the Greek world by going as far as to send missionaries to Greek rulers in Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Cyrene, and Epirus.
The Edict concludes that his spread of Buddhism was successful in the broader world and in his empire, where people conformed to Ashoka’s dharma.
The Major Rock Edict No.13 of Ashoka mentions the Greek kings Antiochus, Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas, and Alexander as recipients of his teachings. (Author provided)
Were Ashoka’s Greek Missions Successful?
Western records can’t currently verify the missions mentioned in Edict 13. However, their mentions at least indicate Ashoka’s intention to reach the Greek-speaking world.
In addition to Edict 13, Edicts 5 and 9 (non-Greek) mention that Greeks in the Ashoka’s empire, did take up the way of the dharma.
Moreover, in his 1986 Buddhist Attitudes , Scott evaluates that judging by the quality of the Greek Edicts, the Mauryan Empire would’ve likely had a community of Greek Buddhists who had an excellent command of the language and expert knowledge of Buddhist precepts.
Aside from Ashoka’s inscriptions, another fascinating Buddhist text reveals some clues about the Greek history of Buddhism.
The Kandahar Edict of Ashoka, a bilingual inscription (in Greek and Aramaic) by King Ashoka, discovered at Kandahar. ( Public Domain )
King Menander in the Milindapañha
The Milindapañha is a vestige of Greek Buddhism in Western India. The text recounts the Socratic-like dialogue between a Yona (Greek) King Milinda (Menander) and a Buddhist monk from Gandhāra, Nāgasena, who himself may have been of Indo-Greek origin.
The text describes Milinda as being educated in the 19 arts and sciences. Some of which are clearly Indian philosophies, like “Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, and Vaisesika.” Similarly, the text portrays Milinda as an expert in rhetoric, a component of a Greek paideia (education).
One afternoon, the text records that after his kingly duties were completed, Milinda commanded his advisors to find him pandits (Indian sages) to answer his philosophical questions.
However, Melinda’s rhetorical skill was a match for these sages, and he petulantly clapped his hands after his opponents’ defeat, declaring:
“India is indeed an empty thing, as empty as chaff; there is no sraman or brahman (Indian philosophers) who can confer with me to dispel my doubts….”
It is not until Nāgasena arrives that Milinda finds his match. After several days of Milinda’s ongoing inquiries about the soul, attachments, memory, among other topics, the text describes that he ceased having any doubts.
The Milindapañha closes with the remark that the King, removing his pride “like a cobra taking off her fangs,” praised Nāgasena’s wisdom, handed his kingdom to his son, and became a wanderer, later achieving arahantship (enlightenment).
At the conclusion of the Milindapañha, the King abdicated his throne and went to live as an ascetic in the woods. Could an Indo-Greek King really have been a Buddhist monarch?
King Milinda asks questions. From Hutchinson’s story of the nations, containing the Egyptians, the Chinese, India, the Babylonian nation, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, and the Carthaginians, the Phrygians, the Lydians, and other nations of Asia Minor. ( Internet Archive )
Did Menander Convert to Buddhism?
Numismatic evidence suggests that Milinda from the Milindapaña may likely have been Menander I of the Indo-Greek Kingdom ( c.155–130 BC). Menander inherited much of the Mauryan Empire, including Gandhara and Taxilla.
Furthermore, numismatic evidence suggests that the Indo-Greek King followed his predecessors’ policy, like Ashoka and Agathocles, of extending patronage to Indic cults, including Buddhism.
One of Menander’s bronze square issues (shown below) depicts what has been interpreted as the dharma chakra (the wheel of dharma). What is more, unlike Ashoka’s accounts of Greek conversion, there is a western source that appears to verify Menander’s conversion.
What is riveting is that Plutarch independently reports that Menander was buried like a Buddhist Monarch ( Cakkavattin), thus corroborating Menander’s conversion.
In the Praecepta, the ancient historian Plutarch writes that Menander was cremated, his remains were equally distributed, and that monuments ( stūpas?) were erected in his honor.
Although Macedonian burial involves the cremation and disposal of the remains in burial chambers, the division of the ruler’s ashes bears no similarity to standard Macedonian burial practices.
It echoes more the division of Siddhartha’s (the historical Buddha) remains, which was carried out to avoid violence by his followers’ rival claims to his body.
Considering how religious the Greek world was and provided that Plutarch’s account is reliable, it is unlikely that Menander would’ve agreed to be buried according to a foreign tradition, had he not actually held Buddhist beliefs.
A coin of Menander I (r.160–135 BC) with a dharmacakra and a palm. ( Public domain )
(Left) With Greek legends ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΟΝΤΟΣ ΑΓΑΘΟΚΛΕΟΥΣ ΔΙΚΑΙΟΥ “Of the Reign of Agathocles the Just. (Right) Either Vishnu, Shiva, Vasudeva, Buddha, or Balarama. (Author provided)
Additionally, a Buddhist shrine from Bajaur with the inscription Mahārāja Minedra (The Great King Menander?) may further support the notion that Menander’s burial was conducted with Buddhist rites.
However, Menander’s conversion to Buddhism is contentious, and scholars like Vassiliadis in his 2004, Greeks and Buddhism , points out that parts of the text are dubious.
Instead, as an Indo-Greek who appears versed in his Greek heritage but in close contact with Indic culture, Menander may have styled himself as a Buddhist Monarch to harmonize his diverse subjects.
Yet, even if we take the stance that Menander never converted to Buddhism, the Indo-Greek King is treated in canonical texts with great reverence .
If not, then, historically a Wheel Turning Monarch, the Milindapañha may have been inspired by the historical mass-conversion of Greeks in the region.
Buddhist records can’t always be trusted as accurate historical records. However, as Halkias contends in his 2014, When the Greeks Converted the Buddha, the triangulation of other texts, epigraphy, numismatics, as well as archaeological finds, makes it the advent of Greek Buddhists a convincing possibility,
Thanks to Ashoka’s universal approach, the Indo-Greeks became exposed to a familiarized form of Buddhism. They found that this “alien wisdom” was in dialogue with many of the same concerns as the Greek intellectual tradition.
These reverberations not only gave Buddhism an air of intellectual familiarity but instilled in the Indo-Greek converts, a universalistic notion that Indians and Greeks were engaging in comparable philosophical and spiritual topics in opposites parts of the globe.
Top image: A Kushan empire (30–375 AD) frieze showing the Buddha flanked on the left by a Greek-inspired Vajrapani that clearly highlights the aesthetic nuances of Greek Buddhism. Source: Goldsmelter / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Thanos Matanis
Halkias, G. T. 2014. When the Greeks Converted the Buddha: Asymmetrical Transfers of Knowledge in Indo-Greek Cultures . Wick, P., & Rabens, V.
Horner, I. B. 1963-4. Milindapañha: Milinda’s Questions . PTS
Mahānāma, Wilhelm, G., and Mabel Haynes, B. 1912. The Mahāvaṃsa: or The great chronicle of Ceylon. Translated into English by W. Geiger, assisted by Mabel Haynes Bode . Pali Text Society
Plutarch, Dryden, J. & Clough, A. H. 2001. Plutarch’s lives . Modern Library.
Scott, D. 1986. “ Buddhist Attitudes to Hellenism: A Review of the Issue .” Study in Religion/Sciences Religieuses
Seldeslachts, E. 2007. ” Greece, the final frontier? the westward spread of Buddhism ” Spread of Buddhism / Ed. by Ann Heirman
Strabo, Jones, H. L. & Sterrett, J. S. 1917. The geography of Strabo . Harvard University Press.
Vassiliadis, D. 2004. “ Greeks and Buddhism: Historical Contacts in the Development of a Universal Religion .” The Eastern Buddhist
Woodcock, G. 1966. The Greeks in India. Faber & Faber.