Kandahar and the Greco-Buddhists

Long long ago, before Afghanistan was a battleground for Soviet and then American forces, the famed Buddhist Emperor, Ashoka, instituted a series of pious inscriptions across his vast empire. One of these inscriptions exists in the city of Kandahar, the same city known these days as the birthplace of the Taliban.

source: Kandahar Bilingual Rock Inscription on Wikipedia

Afghanistan has been a point of fascination for me since 2001, when all eyes turned to it after September 11th. I knew nothing about the country, and then found a fascinating book (which I’ve long since lost) about its history and realized there was a lot more there than most Westerners were aware of. Afghanistan has a rich history of cultural interchange that stretches very far back in human history as the above inscription hints at.

The Macedonian-Greeks under Alexander the Great were among a long line of conquerors who came to northwest India, but after Alexander abruptly died at the age of 33, his bodyguards and generals strove to carry on his legacy, first as satraps, nominally loyal to the throne in Macedon, and later outright kings of their own better known as the Diadochoi, next as the Seleucid Empire, and finally as a local, independent kingdom called Bactria.

Beginning with Seleukos I Nikator who took over Mesopotamia and the Persian lands, founding the Seleucid Empire, the Greeks had a lively cultural interchange with the new Mauryan Dynasty, first as adversaries, then as allies. and later forged a lasting treaty with the Mauryan emperors. The Seleucids benefited from this exchange in the form of war elephants, and an influx of Buddhist missionaries propagated by Emperor Ashoka, Chandragupta’s grandson. You can see in the inscription above, the inscription has Greek at the top and Aramaic, the other major language in the region (also the same language that Jesus spoke natively).

A second inscription, written in particularly sophisticated Greek, and possibly containing the Edicts of Emperor Ashoka has also been found in Kandahar, though it’s whereabouts are unknown now:

Source: Kandahar Greek Edicts of Ashoka on Wikipedia

But the Indian-Buddhist-Greek interaction wasn’t limited to inscriptions. For example, there exists a Buddhist text called the Questions of King Milinda (example text hosted here) represents a detailed dialogue between King Menander I of Bactria and a Buddhist monk named Nagasena that was recorded around the first century CE. It includes some excellent dialogue on various Buddhist topics. A great example is King Menander asking Nagasena about the Buddhist notion of rebirth, and its rejection of reincarnation (transmigration):

The king asked: “Venerable Nagasena, is it so that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn?”

“Yes, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”

“How, venerable Nagasena, is it that one does not transmigrate and one is reborn? Give me an analogy.”

“Just as, your majesty, if someone kindled one lamp from another, is it indeed so, your majesty, that the lamp would transmigrate from the other lamp?”

“Certainly not, venerable sir.”

“Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”

“Give me another analogy.”

“Do you remember, your majesty, when you were a boy learning some verse from a teacher?”

“Yes, venerable sir.”

“Your majesty, did this verse transmigrate from the teacher?”

“Certainly not, venerable sir.”

“Indeed just so, your majesty, one does not transmigrate and one is reborn.”

“You are clever, venerable Nagasena.”

Miln III.5.5: Transmigration and Rebirth {Miln 71}, translation by John Kelly
Tokyo National Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Next, we should talk about Greco-Buddhist artwork. Long after, Bactria as a Greco-political entity gave way to the Kushan Empire, Greek culture was still cultivated and applied to the Buddhist culture at the time. This confluence of Greek artwork, Indian Buddhist teachings and Kushan patronage led to a flowering of Buddhist art in the region of Gandhara that we still benefit from today.

The statue of Shakyamuni Buddha to the right shows strong similarities to Greek artwork revering various heroes, gods and goddesses, but the subject matter is obviously Indian-Buddhist. Note that prior to this, Buddhist artwork tended to avoid depicting images of people, instead using symbols such as the Buddha’s footprints, the eight-spoked wheel, etc. So, depicting Buddhist figures as lifelike statues was a new innovation, and was gradually proliferated to East Asia where such images continued, but using a more “asian” style. Those “garden buddhas” you see at your local store are descendants of this artistic style. 😉

Finally, let me touch upon one last topic: Greek philosophy. The Hellenistic Period of Greek history was a flowering many different schools of philosophy, but one of them, Pyrrhonism. I highly recommend the podcast episode by the Hellenistic Age Podcast on the Skeptic philosophies at the time, including Pyrrhonism. One interesting theory is that Pyrrho had spent some time in India, and that Pyrrhonist philosophy has notable similarities to the Madhyamika school of Indian-buddhist philosophy. The relationship between the two is unclear, and it’s not even clear if the story of Pyrrho traveling to India with Alexander the Great is even true. It is a frequent trope in biographies at the time for great minds to “travel to India”, though that could mean anywhere east of the Greco-Roman world, so the evidence for Pyrrho’s travels to India are sketchy, but intriguing.

However, if there is indeed a link, Pyrrhonism would probably represent the closest analogy in Western culture to Buddhism.

Anyhow, all this is to say that places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and such have a long and rich history, far more than can easily be understood at a glance. Its interactions from both West and East, the confluence of cultures, and so on mean that there is a lot of fascinating stuff under the surface. I personally regret that I will probably not be able to travel to Afghanistan in my lifetime, but I hope that in more peaceful times further research can be done once more and shed light into this often misunderstood history.

Also, it’s important to recognize that while Greco-Buddhist culture existed for a short time and had only limited influence on subsequent Buddhism, it still made its mark, and was a shining example of cultural exchange and flourishing.

P.S. More examples of Greek literature found in Kandahar.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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