Greek India: The Sun Rises on the West

India has always been a land of dreams. It is a place where all the world is conceived as a dream in the mind of the creator god Brahma, and it is a place of which all the world dreams for the richness of its culture, the wealth of its land, and the beauty of its women. If today Bollywood has become one of the world’s great manufactures of dreams, this should not surprise us. And if India is now beset by spiritual tourists from the West, come to study at the feet of enlightened masters, they follow in the footsteps of a long heritage of somnambulists, whom we will meet in this article and the nine that follow.

Julian Stupa
Remains of a 300 BC Buddhist monastery built during Maurya emperor Ashoka. Photo from Flickr.

It is in a mist of history, like that of a half-remembered dream, that we find the first Westerners to colonize India. They came in the trail of Alexander who, after taking his vengeance upon the Persian Empire, dreamed of expanding his own kingdom to the east. On the shores of the Indus, however, the Pauravan king Porus determined to check the invader along a tributary of the Indus then called the Hydaspes River (now Jhelum) which, due to its torrential size and swiftness, served as a natural fortification. Alexander forded the river with a small detachment seventeen miles away in an elaborate pincer manoeuvre and encircled Porus, who put up the most devastating defense of any of Alexander’s adversaries. Though Porus was defeated with the loss of 20,000 men, Alexander so admired his courage and skill that he appointed him the governor of his own former kingdom. The Macedonians were so demoralized by Porus’ resistance that they mutinied against Alexander’s plan to push further east, and the great conqueror was forced to march south to the Arabian Sea and back through Persia.

Alexander’s general Seleucus, following his commander’s death, invaded the Punjab in 305 BC. He was checked by the powerful Maurya emperor Chandragupta, with whom he ultimately signed a peace that delivered whole Greek towns into Chandragupta’s possession; the Maurya Empire even opened an entire state department for Greek affairs. Chandragupta’s grandson, the great emperor Ashoka, included Greek among the many languages in which he promulgated his famous Edicts after his conversion to Buddhism and reported proudly that large Greek populations in the northwest of his kingdom had converted also. Ethnic Greeks numbered among the monks he sent as far away as Rome to make Buddhism a true world religion.

Up until the end of the second century BC, however, the Greeks had taken more from India than India had from them. It is said that when Alexander arrived he sent his philosophers to find their local counterparts and bring them to dinner. They found the Indian sages sitting naked on blistering hot rocks and informed them of the great honor of receiving an invitation from Alexander, which did not impress them. So the Greeks proceeded, each after his own school, to elaborate the doctrines of Socrates and Plato, of Zeno and Epicurus, of Democritus and Pythagoras, all of which the local worthies found interesting, but uncompelling. At last, one of the Indians inquired, “These philosophers you have spoken of, did they wear clothes?” The bewildered Greeks replied they had. “Then,” said the wise Indian, “they were no true philosophers, for they were still captive to the customs of men.” It was only after one of the Greeks, a pupil of the Cynic Diogenes, described how his master had lived naked in a jar on the street, that one of the Indians was induced to come to dinner.

Indian interest in Greek things began only with the invasion of the subcontinent by Bactrian Greeks, who were descendents of Alexander’s conquests in what is now Afghanistan. Demetrius I (c. 200-180 BC), a Buddhist, was the first among them to cross the Hindu Kush. His later successor, Menander I Soter (“the Savior”) ruled from 165 or 155 to 130 BC, presiding over the greatest extent of the Indo-Greek kingdom, which came to cover the whole of the Indus Valley, and becoming so great a patron of Buddhism that his name was often spoken in the same breath as Ashoka’s. It was under his rule that the Great Stupa in far away Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka was dedicated by a Greek Buddhist monk named Mahadhammarakkhita.

It was during this golden age of the Indo-Greeks that the Buddhist canon was enriched by the Milinda Panha, or “Questions of King Milinda” (as the Indians called Menander), which records the Greek ruler’s dialogue with the Buddhist sage Nāgasena, by whom he was converted. It was during this time, too, that stupas were first adorned with Greek columns and porticos and that the first depictions of the Buddha in statuary were made, beginning a tradition that is now familiar to all the world through the forms it adopted after some Greek figures were brought to Han China. It may be Greek depictions, patterned after Apollo and other Olympian deities, that led to the inclusion of “curly hair” as one of the traditional “external characteristics of a great being” ascribed to the Buddha in the Pali Canon. The importance of this artistic contribution should not be underestimated; as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has written,

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.”

This art, predicated as it is on the notion that the Buddha may be depicted in the illusory world because the historical Buddha is likewise illusory, has led some scholars to credit Greek thought with a major role in the rise of the Mahayana tradition.

With the arrival of nomadic tribes from the Central Asian steppe, such as the Kushans and the Scythians, the Bactrian kingdoms that had colonized India faded into obscurity almost as quickly as they had risen to prominence. At the same time, the toppling of the Greek-friendly Maurya dynasty in India by the Sungas, who favored Hinduism over the Buddhism to which the Greeks were closely tied, began the inexorable decline of the Greek kingdoms in the Subcontinent itself. By the time of Christ nothing remained of Alexander’s dream of a great Hellenic Empire in India, but in the sculpture and architecture of flourishing cities and, just possibly, in the doctrines propounded in their monasteries, something of the many Greek artists and thinkers who followed in Alexander’s wake lived on.

In the ensuing centuries, Roman ships would trade along India’s shores and Byzantine merchants would wander her long and dusty roads, but no more Europeans would rule in the Subcontinent until the coming of another great sea-faring people from beyond the farthest borders of the old Greek world. It is with these sailors that we will travel next time.

Author: R. Joseph Capet


  1. Pam Brown says:

    Interesting read, India sure has lot of history from various parts of the world.

  2. Great article, India has amalgamation of different cultures from all over the world, Greek is one of them.

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