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.


Michael Clifford said...


I found the connection between Alchemy and Tantric thought very thought-provoking. Here is a good book on Alchemy I found that gives a wonderful overview and details of the tradition is a series of essays:

Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde by Aaron Cheak

Freedomji said...

The main idea of your article is something I have thought about a lot. I will share a few additional thoughts:

Quick correction: “seven-day week was a union of Greek and Egyptian concept”
The seven day week is first seen with the Sumerians and the foundation of Babylonian reality. This was transmitted from them to the old testament- and most likely influenced the creation story which has a Babylonian planet lordship scheme in it (for example, compare the first day (Sun-day with light) and the fourth day Mercury-day with the creation of the Sun-Moon-stars for the calendar- while Mercury was the Babylonian calendar maker).

Check out “Chasing Shadows” by Clemency Montelle; its focus is on eclipse calculations but it also shows how the Babylonians and Indians were sharing mathematical/astronomical knowledge before the Hellenistic time period (which geographically is common sense).

I am not a fan of Pingree. I see him as the remnants of a biased colonial consciousness that was trying to prove colonial India received its astrology from Europeans. I definitely believe there was a mixing of cultures and sharing, but if we look at the texts, astrology showed up almost completely developed in Hellenic world- which means it was developed by the Chaldeans or Egyptians previous to being learned by Hellenist authors. Pingree’s Yavanjataka theory is geographically naïve, and his own notes to the text can be used to prove his theory incorrect.

That aside. When I visited the various temples in Egypt (like Luxor from 1400BCE), they have ritual manuals carved into the walls. I have not seen good research on this, but they are almost exactly the same rituals performed in standard Hindu/Tantra puja. Trade between India and Egypt is in the archaeological record as far back as remains have been found. I think both Hinduism and tantra were impacted by the imaginal and ritualistic Egypt (more than the rationalistic Hellenism). Similarly, in the Hellenist astrology texts, you can see them struggling with the concepts of fate that had been imported from the creators of the science.

Even just looking at the art history of Egypt and Greece (on a timeline)- you can see that so much was inherited from Egypt which white culture has ignored (and I am white- just admitting the bias in historical storylines). Hindu/Tantric deities have animal and human blends not common to the Greeks and Romans. There are many other similarities with Hinduism and Tantra with the older cultures that differ from the Hellenistic approach. In this way, I see an influence of Hellenism on Tantra, but the real influence I think goes back to cultures that pre-existed Greek and Roman rationalism.

Paulo Oliveira said...

I would like to know if I could translate your text to portuguese?
The site I am talking about is: hellenismo.net

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Yes, Paulo, please do.