Greco Buddhism was neither any newfound religious ideal and nor was it a sectarian practice of the citizens of Gandhara. Rather, it was the addition of various Hindu and Buddhist elements into the Graeco-Roman art and architecture.


‘Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths’, penned down by prominent author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, is loosely based on the invincible Macedonian warrior Alexander III and a contemporary Indian sage (whom the author prefers to call a gymnosophist) at a discourse, where cross cultural and philosophical interaction takes place between the parties. Although the incidents portrayed in the book are believed to have been fictionalised to some extent, there do exist evidences of the Macedonian King in discussion with Vedic Indian sages, known to the Greeks as Calanus and Mandanes.

Alexander’s conversations with Mandanes (also known by the name Dandamis) are recorded by the Greeks in the famed Alexander-Dandamis colloquy. Seemingly impressed with the spiritual knowledge possessed by Mandanes and his disciples, Alexander took Calanus to the Persian highlands, along with his noblemen and the battle weary Macedonian phalanx. In her book Philo on Jewish Identity and Culture, Prof. Maren Niehoff states that Calanus, to the Greeks, was the epitome of “eastern honesty and freedom”.

After Alexander’s death in 324 BCE, which Calanus is believed to have predicted during his self immolation at Persia a year earlier, the invincible Macedonian army transfigured itself into what Athenian orator and demagogue Demades equated with the blinded Cyclops, owing to the aleatory and shambolic advances that it made.

By the time of the Macedonian overlord’s death, the territorial boundaries of his Empire (as depicted in ‘A History of Greece’ by Dr. George Willis Botsford in 1912) stretched from Macedon in Europe to the Indus River in India, including most of Greece, Crete, Syria, Egypt and Persia and not surprisingly, a contest of succession followed amongst his generals (ones that called themselves the Diadochi).

Out of the division of territories that followed a prolonged war lasting forty long years, were born the four unsurpassed Hellenistic power blocs: Ptolemaic Egypt, Seleucid Mesopotamia and Central Asia, Attalid Anatolia, and Antigonid Macedon.

Meanwhile, in the forty year absence of the Greeks from the northwestern Indian territories, vast changes had seemingly appeared in the subcontinent’s political landscape. The Nanda dynasty (due to the prowess of which the Macedonians are said to have retreated) had fallen by then and the nation had come under the hegemony of the Mauryan kings led by Chandragupta and advised by the shrewd statesman, Chanakya.

Returning back to Gandhara in 305 BCE, Seleucus sought to reclaim the satrapies and prove himself the invincible Greek successor of the East. But, in the two year Seleucid-Mauryan war that ensued, Seleucus found the Mauryans under ‘Sandrocottus’, equal to that of the Greek potency.

Soon after, as hostilities doused between the warring clans, a treaty affirmed the Mauryan sway in the northwestern India and Seleucus returned back to battle in Central Asia with new found allies and war elephants. The Mauryan-Seleucid friendship ties were strengthened by the marital alliance of Chandragupta with a princess belonging to the Seleucid dynasty, although it is speculative and not ascertained.

Centuries after the establishment of this alliance between the Greeks and the Hindus, the Mauryans began to adopt Buddhism as the state religion, something that commenced under the benevolent Emperor Ashoka. When the last Buddhist Emperor, Brihadratha was slain by his staunch Hindu general, the Greeks feared the persecution of the Buddhists of Gandhara and the north western territories belonging to the Hindu Kush region.

This called in Demetrius, the Greco Bactrian king, (whose daughter Berenice is said to have been married to Brihadratha) to lead a full fledged invasion into the subcontinent.

Demetrius’ victories in Gandhara opened a wider scope for the intermingling of the cultural practices and the mythological tales of Ancient Greece and Buddhism.

On this, Italian Orientalist Mario Bussagli popularly quotes, “Obviously, for the Greeks who survived in India and suffered from the oppression of the Shunga (for whom they were aliens and heretics), Demetrios must have appeared as a saviour”.

Thus, Greco Buddhism was neither any newfound religious ideal and nor was it a sectarian practice of the citizens of Gandhara. Rather, it was the addition of various Hindu and Buddhist elements into the Graeco Roman art and architecture and a transmogrification of the native characters of the Indians to the Bactrian Classical form.

Some of the famed depictions of this art form included the representation of people “drinking wine from amphoras and playing instruments” in a classical Dionysiac style, sculptures of Atlas (the Titan who carries the universe on his shoulders), in and around Hadda and various renditions of the Wind Gods of the subcontinent (in accordance with Boreas), that influenced the representations to as far as Japan.

In his book, “The Buddha Image: Its Origin and Development”, Yuvraj Krishan states that, “There is evidence of Hellensitic sculptors being in touch with Sanchi and Bharhut”. “The structure as a whole as well as various elements point to Hellenistic and other foreign influence, such as the fluted bell, addorsed capital of the Persepolitan order, and the abundant use of the Hellenistic flame palmette or honeysuckle motif.”

John Boardman, in his noted work, “The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity” observes that the Kharosthi script (one which was widely prevalent in usage at Gandhara) has been found in Bharhut, in the form of mason’s marks on various relics and remnants of the ancient Stupa, which signify that the builders came from Northwestern India and were greatly influenced in Hellenistic ideals.

The sculpture of the Gautama Buddha, as we know it today, is said to have had its genesis in the 1st or the 2nd century AD at Gandhara and is thus an anthropomorphic image with a high degree of sculptural suaveness, brought into the mainland through the introduction of the rule of the Graeco Bactrian kings and the upheaval of the Hellenistic artists.

Foucher popularly describes these images as, “the most beautiful, and probably the most ancient of the Buddhas”. Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the features of the Hellenistic  Buddha as, “represented in the style of the Greek god Apollo, with a youthful, rather sweet-featured face and wavy hair. The Buddha figures were dressed in garments like those seen on statues from the Roman Empire.”

Besides, vast usages of vine scrolls, stories from Greek myths, centaurs, legendary heroes like Heracles, Tritons, and cherubs are to be found  on the Gandhara relics. Although such extravagant addition could have taken away the basic Indian symbolism, it did not. As an illustration, in a relief from the 2nd century Gandhara, presently kept at the British Museum, Buddha is shown meditating with Heracles (the Greek god of masculinity and the symbol of strength), serving as his protector and assisting Buddha in his objective. Thus arose the concept of Vajrapani, who’s also regarded to be the protector of the Buddha.

The Gandhara art was also widely popularised later, during the rule of the Kushan kings under Kanishka and his successors. By this time, another artistic style called the Mathura School of Art had widely gained popularity, thus equalling itself with the intricacy possessed by the Gandhara Art. Though each continued to develop and upheave their own characteristics, the two schools gradually came to influence each other. Henceforth, in the subcontinent, was born a general trend that, “was away from a naturalistic conception and toward a more abstract image.”

Writer is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London