Hellenism and Buddhism

The Buddha (Gandhāra)
Over a decade ago when I was an undergraduate student I initially spent my first year studying Greek and Latin before changing my major to Asian Studies for various reasons. In my teen years I was especially interested in European medieval and classical history. I remember films like Gladiator (2000) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) fostering a deep interest in history in me. Although I ended up specializing in Buddhology and Sinology, I never lost my interest in Greek and Roman history. This seemingly has been for the best in light of how my studies have unfolded.

Now after about ten years of studying and researching subjects related to East and South Asia, I am back to where I started: reading up on the history of the Hellenistic world, especially with respect to the history of astrology. I am uncovering definite Hellenistic elements in Chinese sources from the sixth to ninth centuries. It ended up there through a variety of mediums: Buddhist monks, Nestorian Christians and Sogdian astrologers.

I imagine some of the Christians in Chang'an in the Tang dynasty might have read Greek, though by that time I imagine a lot of the Greek materials would have been translated into languages like Syriac and Middle Persian. The Sogdians, an Eastern Iranian people, likewise had a significant role to play. I speculate that they were to some degree conveyors of Sasanian traditions, many of which were deeply Hellenistic, though those bodies of literature including their many translations of Greek texts are almost all lost. The Sogdians also practiced a form of astral magic that can be traced back to a Graeco-Egyptian tradition. This was translated into Chinese in the early ninth century or a bit earlier.

Bodhisattva (Gandhāra)
Hellenistic culture in various forms had been introduced into India long before it ever reached China of course. The Sanskrit word for a Greek is yavana (an Ionian). One of the earliest interactions between Greeks and a major state in south Asia was the Seleucid–Mauryan war which started in 305 BCE. The Seleucids fought the early Maurya empire which was then under the leadership of Candragupta. Half a century later Aśoka expanded the Maurya empire and later as the traditional narrative goes became a devout Buddhist before sponsoring the religion and laying the foundation for its expansion across the Indian subcontinent. A few centuries the Milindapañha, which features a Greek king, was written highlighting the status of Greeks in the northwest. Around the same time or shortly thereafter Buddhist statues depicting the Buddha and other figures in full human form appear in Gandhāra in the northwest. The Gāndhārī language, much like their art, reveals those deep Greek influences. For instance, the loanword stratego is found in the language.[1] Gandhāra also celebrated wine festivals in which Buddhist monks might also have consumed the drink (see here for some discussion).

Greek speakers settled in that area after Alexander (356–323 BCE) and thereafter the successor kingdom of the Seleucids thrived for a time in the former territories of the Achaemenid empire, though the Parthian empire which replaced it was by no means hostile to Greek learning either. There was also ongoing trade between the eastern Mediterranean – especially Alexandria – and Indian ports. There were many channels through which cultural interaction could occur between the Greek speaking world and India. The extant ancient literature of both indicate they were mutually well aware of one another.

Hellenism profoundly transformed cultures around the Indian subcontinent. Giovanni Verardi states, “Early Buddhism had interpreted the needs of the merchant class and of the urban manufacturing classes that had come to the fore in the third century BC when India came into contact and became part of the Hellenistic world.” He notes that while such a position might seem problematic and based on outdated paradigms, he points out that the “opening of ancient India to the outside, with the predictable internal reactions, coincided with, and largely depended on the breakout towards the east first by Alexander and his successors and then by the Roman republic and empire.”[2]

This is an interesting position that was also taken by the historian Toynbee. It understandably will be challenged by many to suggest that Indian civilization effectively became part of the Hellenized world, but I would agree that this is valid up to a point. It was due to Greek influences that sculpture – both Buddhist and Hindu – emerged as it did in India. It might also have been the case that Buddhist philosophy as it emerged early on in the form of Abhidharma was in some way a reaction to or emulation of Greek models which demanded a systematized and coherent system of thought, especially when we consider the proximity of the heartland of Sarvāstivāda to Greek colonies in the northwest. Thomas McEvilley in his work The Shape of Ancient Thought (2001) explores this, though admittedly this work has not made much of an impact in academia since it was published. Nevertheless, the influence of Hellenistic knowledge is undeniable in a tradition like jyotiḥśāstra (astrology and astronomy) which uses Greek loanwords (Sanskrit horā for example from Greek horoskopos) while also employing Greek mathematical astronomy.

As a result of all these recognized influences and broad adoptions of Hellenistic traditions, I am starting to wondering to what extent we might consider such influences as they could relate to Tantra. The maṇḍala of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, which probably dates to sometime in the seventh century or perhaps somewhat earlier, includes the deities of the twelve zodiac signs. A number of esoteric works translated in Chinese likewise mention the twelve zodiac signs and/or their deities. This is significant because the twelve zodiac signs as they came to exist in India directly came from the Hellenistic world and did not to my knowledge accompany the much earlier transmission of astrology from Mesopotamia before the Common Era.

Both astrology and advanced mathematical astronomy were quite popular in India from at least the sixth century CE onward. This explains why early Tantra readily integrated such elements since they were also practicing astrology and believed to some extent in astrological determinism. This leads me to wonder what else might have been transmitted into Tantra from the Hellenistic world? We know that Graeco-Egyptian iconography of astrological deities was introduced into Sanskrit via the Yavanajātaka, a text detailing Hellenistic astrology. [3] How many figures we otherwise think of as strictly Indian have some connection to iconography imported from further west?

Bodhisattva (Gandhāra)
Recently I’ve been reading Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic (2014) by Stephen Skinner while acquainting myself with the Greek papyri text which were compiled and translated under Betz in Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (1986). There are many shared features between such magic and Tantra, yet both are still different from Vedic sacrifices and older Buddhist devotional practices which were aimed at generating merit or gaining the protection of unseen beings. Tantra empowers statues just as was the case in the Graeco-Egyptian tradition. The sophisticated use of images, incantations and specifically prescribed incense, colors and offerings is common to both traditions.

Returning to astrology, the Indian monk Śubhakarasiṃha (637–735) in his commentary on the Mahāvairocana-sūtra which he wrote together with the Chinese astronomer monk Yixing 一行 (683–727) before 727, briefly mentions the seven-day week and twelve zodiac houses in his explanation of what constitutes an auspicious day for drawing the maṇḍala. He states that rites be carried out according to an astrological schedule which modern analysis reveals as only partly Indian. While the lunar nakṣatra calendar is indeed a domestic creation and likely goes back to the pre-Vedic Indus Valley civilization, the seven-day week was a union of Greek and Egyptian concepts.

Śubhakarasiṃha was from Magadha and his views and explanations in the commentary were likely representative of the Buddhist institution in Magadha in the seventh century. This means that in Magadha in the seventh century authors and practitioners of early tantric works were insisting on following a suitable astrological schedule, part of which was Hellenistic in origin. In Graeco-Egyptian magic, as Skinner explains, the magician had to time rites with similar scheduling concerns in mind. 

Although the vinaya states that poṣadha (the gathering of the sangha for confession and other matters) be held according to the lunar cycle (two or three times during each waxing or waning period), the level of concern for selecting suitable dates and times for rites expressed in the early tantric tradition is of far greater complexity and moreover incorporates foreign elements. Such hemerology appears abruptly in the historical record of Buddhism rather than emerging gradually over time, which suggests a foreign inspiration or source.

So I wonder if Graeco-Egyptian magic might be an overlooked 'missing link' in modern scholarly discussions of Tantra. This is just speculation at this point, but again elements of occidental astrology suddenly appear in the literary record, so clearly there was some sort of transmission of ‘occult knowledge’ into India from Hellenistic sources starting from the fifth or sixth centuries. This is something I want to look at in greater detail in the future in my research and hope others might consider the possibility as well.

bhrada vaga stratego puyaite viyayamitro ya avacaraya maduspasa bhaidata puyita
"brother, the Commander Vaga is honored, and Viyayamitra ( = Vijayamitra), [former] King of Avaca. (His) mother's sister, Bhaidata (BhagTdatta?) is honored."

[2] Giovanni Verardi, Issues in the History of Indian Buddhism (Ryukoku University, 2014), 2.

[3] David Pingree, “The Indian Iconography of the Decans and Horas,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 26, no. 3 (1963): 223–254. Pingree concluded the Yavanajātaka was composed in 269/270 CE by Sphujidhvaja as a versification of a Greek prose work composed by Yavaneśvara in 149/150 CE. Mak has contested this with new manuscript evidence and states it could date from 22 CE to as late as the early seventh century. Bill M. Mak, “The Transmission of Greek Astral Science Into India Reconsidered – Critical Remarks on the Contents and the Newly Discovered Manuscript of the Yavanajātaka,” History of Science in South Asia 1 (2013): 1–20.

The Problem of Astrology in Buddhism

Buddhist Astrological Iconography (Japan)
The existence of 'Buddhist astrology' itself is a curious thing because, according to both vinaya texts and several sūtras, it really should not exist. Nevertheless, we can point to a few major specimens across the centuries in which astrology is unapologetically explained: the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna (second or third century CE), Amoghavajra's Xiuyao jing 宿曜經 (eighth century) and the Kālacakra Tantra (eleventh century). Many Buddhist authors indeed took an interest in astrology and weaved it into Buddhist literature, creating what can be called a 'Buddhist astrology'. Although we can speculate about how extensive it was in India – and I personally think it was quite significant from the eighth century onward – much of it was transmitted and preserved in East Asia and Tibet where it evolved and flourished in the new environments.

But how did the early Buddhist community feel about astrology? Bronkhorst points out that Buddhists did not substantially participate in what would become known as jyotiḥ-śāstra (a field encompassing astrology and astronomy including mathematical astronomy). He states it “may have been inseparably connected with mundane matters, in that those who practised it may often have had to make their living through explaining omens and predicting the future with its help. Such practices were however frowned upon in the buddhist tradition from an early date onward.”1

This helps to explain why the encyclopedic explanation of nakṣatra astrology in the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna is given by the layman Triśaṅku and not the Buddha. Although we might get the sense that the author(s) of this work felt astrology was indeed valid, they were still aware of the prevailing sentiments against it at the time. This work would have been written shortly before Hellenistic astrology was being introduced and spread around India. The representative work in this respect is the Yavanajātaka – the 'jātaka of the Greeks'. The status of astrologers was elevated in the following centuries resulting in well-known figures like Varāhamihira in the sixth century.

The Buddhists were no doubt exposed to these influences and Mahāyāna literature like the Avataṃsaka-sūtra suggests the bodhisattva might study calendrical science and astrology for the benefit of beings, which indicates at least some had reconsidered the Buddha's prohibition on such matters. By the early eighth century a model of hemerology (selection of auspicious days for rites) based on a hybrid of Hellenistic and Indian elements had become essential to the proper execution of maṇḍala-s and initiations within the tantric community.

Again, this stands in contrast to the Buddha's word that such things are inappropriate. The Brahmajāla-sutta in the Dīghanikāya presents the Buddha castigating the wrong activities of some śramaṇa-s and brāmaṇa-s in exchange for food. Pingree states that “some of these activities involve various forms of sacrifices and the expelling of demons and other undesirable beings; but a large number are concerned with various forms of divination. Almost every type of omen mentioned by the Buddha is found in both the earlier cuneiform literature and in the later Sanskrit texts; and the terrestrial omens are numerated in an order – houses, ghosts, snakes, poisons, scorpions, mice, vultures, crows, and quadrupeds – that corresponds almost completely with the order of the Tablets of Šumma ālu. The Buddha also lists in his sermon a number of celestial and atmospheric omens: lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, observations of the stars (nakhatta = nakṣatra, probably including planets here), the Moon's and the Sun's going on and off their paths (probably those familiar from Enūma Anu Enlil, the Paths of Enlil, Anu, and Ea), the stars' going on their paths, the falling of meteors and shooting stars, the 'burning of the directions' (i.e., a glow on the horizon), earthquakes, thunder, and the risings, the settings, the brightness, and the dimness of the Moon, the Sun, and the stars.”2

It is of course most unlikely the Buddha actually said such things given that the Pāḷi canon was formulated long after his death (and moreover, the extant version is arguably from even later), but the Buddhist literature presents him in this light and incidentally also records the ongoing introduction of Babylonian astrology into India, which occurred through intermediaries such as the Achaemenids and Seleucids. The early Buddhist community was witness to this and the architects of the literary tradition found it simply inappropriate for the śramaṇa to practice.

This has led some to suggest that although it was rejected as inappropriate, its validity was not – in other words, you could believe in astrology, but you were not supposed to practice it. This is a simplistic conclusion and ignores another specimen of extant literature which actually expresses skepticism about the effectiveness of astrology and refutes astrological determinism: the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna-sūtra (正法念處經; T 721). The Chinese translation was done by Gautama Prajñāruci between 538–541. In it we find long skeptical discussions of astrology and creative attempts to turn the monk from astrology to orthodox Buddhist practice.


There are three great luminaries [graha, i.e., stars or planets], called illness, old age and death. These are greatest and perpetually present in the world. That wicked śramaṇa does not contemplate this, but further contemplates other worldly luminaries. That person is foolish, not having wisdom through hearing, and contemplating the twenty-eight worldly nakṣatra-s [constellations]. One is at fault to contemplate like this and not contemplate the twenty-eight transcendental nakṣatra-s. One will enter the city of nirvāṇa should one be able to contemplate and truly observe them. The twenty-eight are the five skandha-s, five pañcōpādāna-skandha-s and eighteen dhātu-s. One who contemplates these will arrive at nirvāṇa. When there is observation of things as they truly are, detachment from desire and the upholding of precepts, nirvāṇa is consequently attained. It cannot be attained through counting stars.3

This suggests that in fact many bhikṣus were neglecting more orthodox practice in favor of astrology. This is especially noteworthy because a belief in the effectiveness of astrology requires, to some extent, assent to the idea of astrological determinism, i.e., that one's condition, fate and personality are primarily and directly determined by the influences of stars rather than individual action. This effectively undermines the concept of past karma determining one's condition, which would have been objectionable to Buddhists of the scholastic schools. It also brings to mind similar objections to astrology on the part of Christians who saw it as an issue with respect to free will. The text addresses how astrology is incompatible with karma as follows.


This star is further covered by a superior star. That star at a different time is further covered by a different star. Thus it should be understood that astrology is untenable. If there is someone who does astrology, thinking that it is due to the stars that there are sufferings and ease, and that it is not from oneself that there are sufferings and ease, then how is it that when those stars are covered by other stars they can impart sufferings and ease to others? Thus it is understood that [sufferings and ease are] come about due to karma. It is not the stars which can impart the fruits of virtue and non-virtue like this.4

Again, this being a Buddhist text written for bhikṣus, it indicates many such individuals had already adopted a view of astrological determinism and the author of this work felt this was wrong and had to be refuted. However, as the proliferation of astrology in Buddhist culture would suggest, such arguments did not successfully eliminate the heresy.

Incidentally, we might note that the vinaya codes in theory could address the practice of astrology, and perhaps they were used in some monasteries in India to contain the heresy, but I am unaware of any evidence to suggest this happened.

There was, however, a way to skirt the issue of karma and this is provided in a short line from one of Amoghavajra's translations in the eighth century. The *Parṇaśabarī-bodhisattva-sūtra 葉衣觀自在菩薩經 (T 1100) has the following:


Whether king, man or woman, [some] will be difficult to raise and nourish – some will have short lifespans, bound in illness and at unease with sleep and eating. All is due to past karma and causes-conditions, being born under a bad constellational convergence.6 Some often have their birth nakṣatra intruded upon by the five planets, making them uneasy.7

This is saying that a person's ill health and unease are a result of not only karma, but being born under unfavorable astrological circumstances. Another way to interpret this is that being born under such circumstances was a result of past negative karma. Just as someone born with a deformity attributed to past negative karma might be 'locked into' that state for life, so too is the individual stuck with their bad stars. This sort of understanding was arguably only available in a Mantrayāna context which could freely accommodate otherwise foreign and heterodox ideas into the doctrinal fabric of a new Buddhadharma.

This belief in astrological determinism indeed should challenge our understandings of what Buddhists believed or ought to have believed about karma. The various theories of karma discussed at length in the Abhidharmakośa, for example, might have been argued and upheld by a minority of scholastic monks, but alternative views – which were apparently heretical to some Buddhist authors – still withstood the test of time and became accepted by an evidently significant number of elite Buddhist clerics who wrote the relevant canonical texts we have today.

I have never encountered a discussion of Buddhist philosophy in modern scholarship (be it western or Asian) which takes into account the Buddhist concept of astrological determinism. It is simply not recognized in modern scholarship as even existing, even though it was quite influential in the development of Tantric Buddhism especially. This is perhaps because there was no representative school in India, or China or Tibet for that matter, which could be understood as a coherent community with established doctrines and arguments arguing for the truth of astrology. There was of course the Sukuyō-dō 宿曜道 lineage in Japan from the tenth to the fourteenth century, but their history and existence is seldom known today, let alone discussed even in modern Japanese scholarship. Their tradition, however, was far more practical than theoretical.

It is this gap in modern scholarship that my ongoing research addresses. There is much more to be considered and in due time our discussions here will go into more detail as time permits.


1 Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 120.

2 David Pingree, From Astral Omens to Astrology From Babylon to Bīkāner (Rome: Ist. Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente, 1997), 32–33.

3 T 721, 17: 290b12–19.

4 T 721, 17: 290b1– 8.

5 Read mian as mian 綿.

6 This refers to a convergence between the moon and an unfavorable nakṣatra.

7 T 1100, 20: 448b11–13.