Alexander founded several cities in his new territories in the areas of the Oxus and Bactria, and Greek settlements further extended to the Khyber Pass, Gandhara (see Taxila) and the Punjab. These regions correspond to a unique geographical passageway between the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush mountains, through which most of the interaction between India and Central Asia took place, generating intense cultural exchange and trade.
Following Alexander's death on June 10, 323 BCE, the Diadochoi (successors) founded their own kingdoms in Asia Minor and Central Asia. General Seleucus set up the Seleucid Kingdom, which extended as far as India. Later, the Eastern part of the Seleucid Kingdom broke away to form the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (3rd–2nd century BCE), followed by the Indo-Greek Kingdom (2nd–1st century BCE), and later the Kushan Empire (1st–3rd century CE).
In 326 BCE, Alexander invaded India. King Ambhi, ruler of Taxila, surrendered his city, a notable center of Buddhist faith, to Alexander. Alexander fought an epic battle against Porus, a ruler of a region in the Punjab in the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BC.
Several philosophers, such as Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus, are said to have been selected by Alexander to accompany him in his eastern campaigns. During the 18 months they were in India, they were able to interact with Indian religious men, generally described as Gymnosophists ("naked philosophers"). Pyrrho (360-270 BCE), returned to Greece and became the first Skeptic and the founder of the school named Pyrrhonism. The Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius explained that Pyrrho's equanimity and detachment from the world were acquired in India. Few of his sayings are directly known, but they are clearly reminiscent of eastern, possibly Buddhist, thought:
These contacts initiated the first direct interactions between Greek culture and Indian religions, which were to continue and expand for several more centuries.
Chandragupta's grandson Ashoka converted to the Buddhist faith and became a great proselytizer in the line of the traditional Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism, insisting on non-violence to humans and animals (ahimsa), and general precepts regulating the life of lay people.
According to the Edicts of Ashoka, set in stone, some of them written in Greek, he sent Buddhist emissaries to the Greek lands in Asia and as far as the Mediterranean. The edicts name each of the rulers of the Hellenic world at the time:
Ashoka also claims he converted to Buddhism Greek populations within his realm:
Finally, some of the emissaries of Ashoka, such as the famous Dharmaraksita, are described in Pali sources as leading Greek ("Yona") Buddhist monks, active in Buddhist proselytism (the Mahavamsa, XII).
See also: Greco-Buddhist monasticism.
Alexander had established in Bactria several cities (Ai-Khanoum, Begram) and an administration that were to last more than two centuries under the Seleucids and the Greco-Bactrians, all the time in direct contact with Indian territory. The Greeks sent ambassadors to the court of the Mauryan empire, such as the historian Megasthenes under Chandragupta Maurya, and later Deimakos under his son Bindusara, who reported extensively on the civilization of the Indians. Megasthenes sent detailed reports on Indian religions, which were circulated and quoted throughout the Classical world for centuries:
The Greco-Bactrians maintained a strong Hellenistic culture at the door of India during the rule of the Mauryan empire in India, as exemplified by the archaeological site of Ai-Khanoum. When the Mauryan empire was toppled by the Sungas around 180 BCE, the Greco-Bactrians expanded into India, where they established the Indo-Greek kingdom, under which Buddhism was able to flourish.
Buddhism prospered under the Indo-Greek kings, and it has been suggested that their invasion of India was intended to protect the Buddhist faith from the religious persecutions of the new Indian dynasty of the Sungas (185–73 BCE) which had overthrown the Mauryans.
The coins of the Indo-Greek king Menander (reigned 160 to 135 BCE), found from Afghanistan to central India, bear the inscription "Saviour King Menander" in Greek on the front. Several Indo-Greek kings after Menander, such as Zoilos I, Strato I, Heliokles II, Theophilos, Peukolaos, Menander II and Archebios display on their coins the title of "Maharajasa Dharmika" (lit. "King of the Dharma") in the Prakrit language and in the Kharoshthi script.
Some of the coins of Menander I and Menander II incorporate the Buddhist symbol of the eight-spoked wheel, associated with the Greek symbols of victory, either the palm of victory, or the victory wreath handed over by the goddess Nike. According to the Milinda Pañha, at the end of his reign Menander I became a Buddhist arhat, a fact also echoed by Plutarch, who explains that his relics were shared and enshrined.
The ubiquitous symbol of the elephant in Indo-Greek coinage may also have been associated with Buddhism, as suggested by the parallel between coins of Antialcidas and Menander II, where the elephant in the coins of Antialcidas holds the same relationship to Zeus and Nike as the Buddhist wheel on the coins of Menander II. When the zoroastrian Indo-Parthians invaded northern India in the 1st century CE, they adopted a large part of the symbolism of Indo-Greek coinage, but refrained from ever using the elephant, suggesting that its meaning was not merely geographical.
Finally, after the reign of Menander I, several Indo-Greek rulers, such as Amyntas, King Nicias, Peukolaos, Hermaeus, Hippostratos and Menander II, depicted themselves or their Greek deities forming with the right hand a benediction gesture identical to the Buddhist vitarka mudra (thumb and index joined together, with other fingers extended), which in Buddhism signifies the transmission of Buddha's teaching.
Also the Mahavamsa (Chap. XXIX) records that during Menander's reign, "a Greek ("Yona") Buddhist head monk" named Mahadharmaraksita (literally translated as 'Great Teacher/Preserver of the Dharma') led 30,000 Buddhist monks from "the Greek city of Alexandria" (possibly Alexandria-of-the-Caucasus, around 150km north of today's Kabul in Afghanistan), to Sri Lanka for the dedication of a stupa, indicating that Buddhism flourished in Menander's territory and that Greeks took a very active part in it.
Several Buddhist dedications by Greeks in India are recorded, such as that of the Greek meridarch (civil governor of a province) named Theodorus, describing in Kharoshthi how he enshrined relics of the Buddha. The inscriptions were found on a vase inside a stupa, dated to the reign of Menander or one his successors in the 1st century BCE (Tarn, p391):
This inscription represents one of the first known mention of the Buddha as a deity, using the Indian bhakti word Bhagavat ("Lord", "All-embracing personal deity"), suggesting the emergence of Mahayana doctrines in Buddhism.
Buddhist manuscripts in cursive Greek have been found in Afghanistan, praising various Buddhas and including mentions of the Mahayana Lokesvara-raja Buddha (λωγοασφαροραζοβοδδο). These manuscripts have been dated later than the 2nd century CE. (Nicholas Sims-Williams, "A Bactrian Buddhist Manuscript").
Some elements of the Mahayana movement may have begun around the 1st century BCE in northwestern India, at the time and place of these interactions. According to most scholars, the main sutras of Mahayana were written after 100 BCE, when sectarian conflicts arose among Nikaya Buddhist sects regarding the humanity or super-humanity of the Buddha and questions of metaphysical essentialism, on which Greek thought may have had some influence: "It may have been a Greek-influenced and Greek-carried form of Buddhism that passed north and east along the Silk Road".
By that time they had already been in contact with Greek culture and the Indo-Greek kingdoms for more than a century. They used the Greek script to write their language, as exemplified by their coins and their adoption of the Greek alphabet. The absorption of Greek historical and mythological culture is suggested by Kushan sculptures representing Dionysiac scenes or even the story of the Trojan horse and it is probable that Greek communities remained under Kushan rule.
The Kushan king Kanishka, who honored Zoroastrian, Greek and Brahmanic deities as well as the Buddha and was famous for his religious syncretism, convened the Fourth Buddhist Council around 100 CE in Kashmir in order to redact the Sarvastivadin canon. Some of Kanishka's coins bear the earliest representations of the Buddha on a coin (around 120 CE), in Hellenistic style and with the word "Boddo" in Greek script .
Kanishka also had the original Gandhari vernacular, or Prakrit, Mahayana Buddhist texts translated into the high literary language of Sanskrit, "a turning point in the evolution of the Buddhist literary canon" (Foltz, Religions on the Silk Road)
The "Kanishka casket", dated to the first year of Kanishka's reign in 127 CE, was signed by a Greek artist named Agesilas, who oversaw work at Kanishka's stupas (caitya), confirming the direct involvement of Greeks with Buddhist realizations at such a late date.
The new syncretic form of Buddhism expanded fully into Eastern Asia soon after these events. The Kushan monk Lokaksema visited the Han Chinese court at Loyang in 178 CE, and worked there for ten years to make the first known translations of Mahayana texts into Chinese. The new faith later spread into Korea and Japan, and was itself at the origin of Zen.
Although there is still some debate, the first anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha himself are often considered a result of the Greco-Buddhist interaction. Before this innovation, Buddhist art was "aniconic": the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, the Buddha's footprints, the prayer wheel).
This reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), seem to be connected to one of the Buddha’s sayings, reported in the Digha Nikaya, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body.
Probably not feeling bound by these restrictions, and because of "their cult of form, the Greeks were the first to attempt a sculptural representation of the Buddha". In many parts of the Ancient World, the Greeks did develop syncretic divinities, that could become a common religious focus for populations with different traditions: a well-known example is the syncretic God Sarapis, introduced by Ptolemy I in Egypt, which combined aspects of Greek and Egyptian Gods. In India as well, it was only natural for the Greeks to create a single common divinity by combining the image of a Greek God-King (The Sun-God Apollo, or possibly the deified founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, Demetrius), with the traditional attributes of the Buddha.
Many of the stylistic elements in the representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders (more exactly, its lighter version, the Greek himation), the contrapposto stance of the upright figures (see: 1st–2nd century Gandhara standing Buddhas), the stylicized Mediterranean curly hair and topknot (ushnisha) apparently derived from the style of the Belvedere Apollo (330 BCE), and the measured quality of the faces, all rendered with strong artistic realism (See: Greek art). A large quantity of sculptures combining Buddhist and purely Hellenistic styles and iconography were excavated at the Gandharan site of Hadda. The 'curly hair' of Buddha is described in the famous list of 32 external characteristics of a Great Being (mahapurusa) that we find all along the Buddhist sutras. The curly hair, with the curls turning to the right is first described in the Pali canon of the Smaller Vehicle of Buddhism; we find the same description in e.g. the "Dasasahasrika Prajnaparamita".
Greek artists were most probably the authors of these early representations of the Buddha, in particular the standing statues, which display "a realistic treatment of the folds and on some even a hint of modelled volume that characterizes the best Greek work. This is Classical or Hellenistic Greek, not archaizing Greek transmitted by Persia or Bactria, nor distinctively Roman".
The Greek stylistic influence on the representation of the Buddha, through its idealistic realism, also permitted a very accessible, understandable and attractive visualization of the ultimate state of enlightenment described by Buddhism, allowing it reach a wider audience: "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" (The Dalai Lama)
Several other Buddhist deities may have been influenced by Greek gods. For example, Herakles with a lion-skin (the protector deity of Demetrius I) "served as an artistic model for Vajrapani, a protector of the Buddha" (Foltz, "Religions and the Silk Road") (See). In Japan, this expression further translated into the wrath-filled and muscular Niō guardian gods of the Buddha, standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples.
According to Katsumi Tanabe, professor at Chūō University, Japan (in "Alexander the Great. East-West cultural contact from Greece to Japan"), besides Vajrapani, Greek influence also appears in several other gods of the Mahayana pantheon, such as the Japanese Wind God Fujin inspired from the Greek Boreas through the Greco-Buddhist Wardo, or the mother deity Hariti inspired by Tyche.
In addition, forms such as garland-bearing cherubs, vine scrolls, and such semi-human creatures as the centaur and triton, are part of the repertory of Hellenistic art introduced by Greco-Roman artists in the service of the Kushan court.
See also: Buddhist art
The supra-mundane understanding of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas may have been a consequence of the Greek’s tendency to deify their rulers in the wake of Alexander’s reign: "The god-king concept brought by Alexander (...) may have fed into the developing bodhisattva concept, which involved the portrayal of the Buddha in Gandharan art with the face of the sun god, Apollo" (McEvilley, "The Shape of Ancient Thought").
Lamotte (1954) controversially suggests (though countered by Conze (1973) and others) that Greek influence was present in the definition of the Bodhisattva ideal in the oldest Mahayana text, the "Perfection of Wisdom" or prajñā pāramitā literature, that developed between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. These texts in particular redefine Buddhism around the universal Bodhisattva ideal, and its six central virtues of generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation and, first and foremost, wisdom.
The Buddha Amitābha (literally meaning "infinite radiance") with his paradisiacal "Pure Land" in the West, according to Foltz, "seems to be understood as the Iranian god of light, equated with the sun". This view is however not in accordance with the view taken of Amitābha by present-day Pure Land Buddhists, in which Amitābha is neither "equated with the sun" nor, strictly speaking, a god.
Buddhist monks from the region of Gandhara, where Greco-Buddhism was most influential, played a key role in the development and the transmission of Buddhist ideas in the direction of northern Asia.
At the same time as Greco-Buddhist art and Mahayana schools of thought such as Dhyana were transmitted to East Asia, central concepts of Hellenic culture such as virtue, excellence or quality may have been adopted by the cultures of Korea and Japan after a long diffusion among the Hellenized cities of Central Asia, to become a key part of their warrior and work ethics.
One theory is that these similarities may indicate the propagation of Buddhist ideals into the Western World, with the Greeks acting as intermediaries and religious syncretists.
The story of the birth of the Buddha was well known in the West, and possibly influenced the story of the birth of Jesus: Saint Jerome (4th century CE) mentions the birth of the Buddha, who he says "was born from the side of a virgin". Also a fragment of Archelaos of Carrha (278 CE) mentions the Buddha's virgin-birth.
Early 3rd-4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 AD from where he brought "the doctrine of the Two Principles". According to these writers, Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a "Buddha" ("he called himself Buddas" Cyril of Jerusalem). Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea where he met the Apostles ("becoming known and condemned" Isaia), and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of what could be called Persian syncretic Buddhism, Manicheism. One of the greatest thinkers and saints of western Christianity, Augustine of Hippo was originally a Manichean.
In the 2nd century CE, the Christian dogmatist Clement of Alexandria recognized Bactrian Buddhists (Sramanas) and Indian Gymnosophists for their influence on Greek thought:
The main Greek cities of the Middle-East happen to have played a key role in the development of Christianity, such as Antioch and especially Alexandria, and "it was later in this very place that some of the most active centers of Christianity were established" (Robert Linssen, "Zen living").