Monday, March 10, 2008


Although there is still some debate, the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha himself are often considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction. Before this innovation, Buddhist art was aniconic, the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, the Buddha's footprints, and the prayer wheel).
This reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), seem to be connected to one of the Buddha’s sayings, reported in the Digha Nikaya, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body.
Probably not feeling bound by these restrictions, and because of their cult of form, the Greeks were the first to attempt a sculptural representation of the Buddha.” Given that in many parts of the Ancient World, the Greeks developed syncretic divinities, that could become a common religious focus for populations with different traditions such as the god Serapis, introduced by Ptolemy I in Egypt, which combined aspects of Greek and Egyptian gods. Thus in India, it was only natural for the Greeks to create a single common divinity by combining the image of a Greek God-King, most likely the Sun-God Apollo, or possibly the deified founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, Demetrius, with the traditional attributes of the Buddha.
Many of the stylistic elements in the representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders (more exactly, its lighter version, the Greek himation), the hellenistic stance of the upright figures, the stylicized Mediterranean curly hair and topknot (‘ushnisha’) apparently derived from the style of the Belvedere Apollo and the measured quality of the faces, all rendered with strong artistic realism. A large quantity of sculptures combining Buddhist and purely Hellenistic styles and iconography were excavated at the Gandharan site of Hadda. The 'curly hair' of Buddha is described in the famous list of 32 external characteristics of a Great Being (mahapurusa) that are to be found along the Buddhist sutras. The curly hair, with the curls turning to the right is first described in the Pali canon of the Smaller Vehicle of Buddhism.
Greek artists were most probably the authors of these early representations of the Buddha, in particular the standing statues, which display a realistic treatment of the folds and on some even a hint of modelled volume that characterizes the best Greek work. This is Classical or Hellenistic Greek, not archaizing Greek transmitted by Persia or Bactria. The Greek stylistic influence on the representation of the Buddha, through its idealistic realism, also permitted a very accessible, understandable and attractive visualization of the ultimate state of enlightenment described by Buddhism, allowing it reach a wider audience. As the Dalai Lama has commented: “One of the distinguishing features of the Gandharan school of art that emerged in north-west India is that it has been clearly influenced by the naturalism of the Classical Greek style. Thus, while these images still convey the inner peace that results from putting the Buddha's doctrine into practice, they also give us an impression of people who walked and talked, etc. and slept much as we do. I feel this is very important. These figures are inspiring because they do not only depict the goal, but also the sense that people like us can achieve it if we try.”
Several Buddhist deities may have been influenced by Greek gods. For example, Heraclles with a lion-skin, the protector deity of Demetrius I, served as an artistic model for Vajrapani, a protector of the Buddha. In Japan, this expression further translated into the wrath-filled and muscular Nio guardian gods of the Buddha, standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples.
According to Katsumi Tanabe, professor at Chuo University, Japan, besides Vajrapani, Greek influence also appears in several other gods of the Mahayana pantheon, such as the Japanese Wind God Fujin, inspired from the Greek Boreas through the Greco-Buddhist Wardo, or the mother deity Hariti, inspired by Tyche. In addition, forms such as garland-bearing cherubs, vine scrolls, and such semi-human creatures as the centaur and triton, are part of the repertory of Hellenistic art introduced by Greek artists in the service of Eastern courts.
The geographical, cultural and historical context of the rise of Mahayana Buddhism during the 1st century in northwestern India, all point to intense multi-cultural influences, especially those from popular Hindu devotional cults, Persian and Greek theologies which filtered into India from the northwest.
As such, Mahayana is an inclusive faith characterized by the adoption of new texts, in addition to the traditional Pali canon, and a shift in the understanding of Buddhism. It goes beyond the traditional Theravada ideal of the release from suffering and personal enlightenment of the arhats, to elevate the Buddha to a God-like status, and to create a pantheon of quasi-divine Bodhisattvas devoting themselves to personal excellence, ultimate knowledge and the salvation of humanity. These concepts, together with the sophisticated philosophical system of the Mahayana faith, may have been influenced by the interaction of Greek and Buddhist thought.
One might regard the classical influence as including the general idea of representing a man-god in this purely human form, which was of course well familiar in the Greece, and it is very likely that the example of Greek’s treatment of their gods was indeed an important factor in the innovation. The Buddha, the man-god, is in many ways far more like a Greek god than any other eastern deity, no less for the narrative cycle of his story and appearance of his standing figure than for his humanity. This supra-mundane understanding of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas may have been a consequence of the Greeks’ tendency to deify their rulers in the wake of Alexander’s reign.
Some scholars, notably Lamotte, controversially suggest that Greek influence was present in the definition of the Bodhisattva ideal in the oldest Mahayana text, the “Perfection of Wisdom” that developed between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. These texts in particular redefine Buddhism around the universal Bodhisattva ideal, and its six central virtues of generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation and, first and foremost, wisdom.
The close association between Greeks and Buddhism probably led to exchanges on the philosophical plane as well. Many of the early Mahayana theories of reality and knowledge can be related to Greek philosophical schools of thought. Mahayana Buddhism has been described as the form of Buddhism which, regardless of how Hinduized its later forms became) seems to have originated in the Greco-Buddhist communities of India, through a conflation of the Greek Democritean-Sophistic-Skeptical tradition with the rudimentary and unformalized empirical and skeptical elements already present in early Buddhism.
The Cynics denied the relevancy of human conventions and opinions (described as typhos, literally “smoke” a metaphor for “illusion” or “error”), including verbal expressions, in favor of the raw experience of reality. They stressed the independence from externals to achieve happiness: “Happiness is not pleasure, for which we need external, but virtue, which is complete without external” (3rd epistole of Crates). Similarly the Prajnaparamita, precursor of the Madhyamika, explained that all things are like foam, or bubbles, “empty, false, and fleeting,” and that “only the negation of all views can lead to enlightenment.” In order to evade the world of illusion, the Cynics recommended the discipline and struggle (“askisis kai machi”) of philosophy, the practice of “autarkia” (self-rule), and a lifestyle exemplified by Diogenes, which, like Buddhist monks, renounced earthly possessions. These conceptions, in combination with the idea of “philanthropia” (universal loving kindness), are strikingly reminiscent of Buddhist Prajna (wisdom) and Karuna (compassion).
Through art and religion, the influence of Greco-Buddhism on the cultural make-up of East Asian countries, especially China, Korea and Japan, may have extended further into the intellectual area. At the same time as Greco-Buddhist art and Mahayana schools of thought were transmitted to East Asia, central concepts of Hellenic culture such as virtue, excellence or quality were being adopted by the cultures of Korea and Japan after a long diffusion among the Hellenized cities of Central Asia, to become a key pa of their warrior and work ethics.
In suprising ways, Buddhism, symblic of Eastern religion and Christianity, symbolic of the West, share many resemblances. Although the philosophical systems of Buddhism and Christianity have evolved in rather different ways, the moral precepts advocated by Buddhism from the time of Ashoka through his edicts do have some similarities with the Christian moral precepts developed more than two centuries later: respect for life, respect for the weak, rejection of violence, pardon to sinners, tolerance. One theory holds that these similarities may indicate the propagation of Buddhist ideals into the Western World, with the Greeks acting as intermediaries and religious syncretists and indeed scholars have often considered the possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity, drawing attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus.
Indeed, the story of the birth of the Buddha was well known in the West, and some parallel it with the story of the birth of Jesus: Saint Jerome (4th century) mentions the birth of the Buddha, who he says “was born from the side of a virgin.” Also a fragment of Archelaos of Carrhae in 278 mentions the Buddha's virgin-birth. Charming relief sculptures exist portraying the Buddha’s mother in a pose reminsicent of the Orthodox iconography of the Annunciation though at this late stage, it is difficult to tell which tradition influenced the other first and considering the early influx of the Syriac St Thomas Christians to India immediately after the resurrection of Christ, it is quite possible that it was the Hellenised Christian tradition that influenced Buddhist mythology once again, with the added admixture of elehpantine traditional Buddhist motifs, that the Buddha’s mother was said to have been impregnated in her side, by a white elephant.
Cultural exchanges persisted. Early 3rd-4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 AD from where he brought “the doctrine of the Two Principles.” According to Cyril of Jerusalem, Scythianus’ pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a “Buddha.” Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea where he met the Apostles (“becoming known and condemned”), and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of what could be called Persian syncretic Buddhism, Manicheism. One of the greatest thinkers and saints of western Christianity, Augustine of Hippo was originally a Manichean.
In a lasting testament to the admixture of cultures, in the 2nd century, St Clement of Alexandria recognized Bactrian Buddhists (Sramanas) and Indian Gymnosophists for their influence on Greek thought:
Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sramanas (Σαρμάναι), and others Brahmins (Βραφμάναι).”
Given then that East meets West, West meets East and Athens has been deluged by a plethora of Indian and even Tibetan restaurants, is it time then to discard the cardinal directions and the compass and embrace syncretism with the knowledge that no culture exists exclusively of others? Perhaps these words by Menander, the first Buddhist Greek King offer some insight:
“When the cause has been utterly destroyed, when there is no longer any cause, any basis left, then the divine eye cannot arise.”

First published in NKEE on 10 March 2008