1150 LESSON 1314 SATURDAY
Rise of Menander
Menander (Milinda), originally a general of Demetrius, is probably the
most successful Indo-Greek king, and the conqueror of the vastest
territory. The finds of his coins are the most numerous and the most
widespread of all the Indo-Greek kings. From at least the 1st century
AD, the “Menander Mons“, or “Mountains of Menander”, came to
designate the mountain chain at the extreme east of the Indian
subcontinent, today’s Naga Hills and Arakan, as indicated in the Ptolemy
world map of the 1st century. Menander is also remembered in Buddhist
literature (the Milinda Panha) as a convert to Buddhism: he became an arhat (Buddhist ascetic) whose relics were enshrined in a manner reminiscent of the Buddha. He also introduced a new coin type, with Athena Alkidemos (”Protector of the people”) on the reverse, which was adopted by most of his successors in the East.
Coming of Buddhism in India
It is necessary to deal with the coming of Buddhism in India as a
turning point in the world of art and culture, philosophy and religion.
More than all other religious faiths, the Greco-Indian approach to the
new dawn across Asia and Europe was mainly due to the Buddhism during the centuries under discussion here.
Buddha passed away at the age of eighty, sometime between the years 486
and 473 BC, probably nearer the former date than the latter. A few
modern authorities believe that Buddha never intended to set up a new
religion and he never looked on his doctrine as distinct from the
popular cults of the time. However questionable this view may be, his
simpler followers raised his status almost to divinity during his
lifetime, and after his death, worshipped him through his symbols—the stupa, recalling his parinirvana and the Bodhi tree,
recalling his enlightenment. According to tradition, disciples and the
neighbouring rulers divided his ashes, and the recipients built stupas over them. In the third century BC, Ashoka uncovered the ashes from their original resting places and dispersed those, creating stupas all over India.
The carvings on the stupas of Bharhut and Sanchi, crafted in
the second and third centuries BC, show crowds of adoring worshippers
leaning down towards the symbol of the Buddha. Indeed, in all the
Buddhist sculpture of the period, there is no show of the Buddha
himself, but displayed by such emblems as a wheel, an empty throne, a
pair of footprints or a pipal tree.
Gandhara art, exquisite touch of the Buddhism
The Gandhara Schools of art and sculpture in the lower Kabul Valley and
the upper Indus around Peshawar and Mathura, both of which flourished
under the Kushan kings, vie for the honour of producing the first images
of the Buddha. Most Indian authorities, however, believe that the
Buddha image originated at Mathura, south of Delhi.
Around the time of Menander’s death in 140 BC, the Central Asian
Kushans overran Bactria and ended Greek rule there. Around 80 BC, the Sakas,
diverted by their Parthian cousins from Iran, moved into Gandhara and
other parts of Pakistan and Western India. Eventually an Indo-Parthian
dynasty succeeded in taking control of Gandhara. The Parthians continued
to support Greek artistic traditions.
The Kushan period is considered the golden period of Gandhara.
Gandharan art flourished and produced some of the best pieces of Indian
The Gandhara civilization peaked during the reign of the great Kushan
King Kanishka (AD 128–151). The cities of Taxila (Takshasila) at Sirsukh
and Peshawar flourished. Peshawar became the capital of a great empire
stretching from Bengal, the easternmost province of India to Central
Asia. Kanishka was a great patron of the Buddhist faith; Buddhism spread
farther from Central Asia to the Far East, where his empire met the Han
Empire of China. Gandhara became a holy land of Buddhism and attracted
Chinese pilgrims to see monuments associated with many Jataka tales.
In Gandhara, Mahāyāna Buddhism flourished and Buddha was represented in human form. Under the Kushans new Buddhists stupas
were built and old ones were enlarged. Huge statues of the Buddha were
erected in monasteries and carved into the hillsides. Kanishka also
built a great tower to a height of 400 feet at Peshawar. This tower was
reported by Faxian (Fa-hsien), Songyun (Sung-yun) and Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang).
This structure was destroyed and rebuilt many times until it was at
last destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century AD.
Search for the Gandhara ruins
In the 19th century, British soldiers and administrators started taking
interest in the ancient history of the Indian subcontinent. In the
1830s coins of the post-Ashoka period were discovered and in the same
period Chinese travelogues were translated. Charles Masson, James
Prinsep, and Alexander Cunningham deciphered the Kharosthi script in
AD1838. Chinese records provided locations and site plans of Buddhists
shrines. Along with the discovery of coins, these records provided
necessary clues to piece together the history of Gandhara. In 1848
Cunningham found Gandhara sculptures north of Peshawar. He also
identified the site of Taxila in the 1860s. From then on a large number
of Buddhist statues have been discovered in the Peshawar valley.
John Marshall performed an excavation of Taxila from 1912 to 1934. He
discovered separate Greek, Parthian, and Kushan cities and a large
number of stupas and monasteries. These discoveries helped to piece
together much more of the chronology of the history of Gandhara and its
Kanishka’s coins from the beginning of his reign bear legends in Greek
script and depict Greek divinities. Later coins bear legends in
Bactrian, the Iranian language that the Kushans in fact spoke, and Greek
divinities were replaced by corresponding Iranic ones. All of
Kanishka’s coins - even ones with a legend in the Bactrian language -
were written in a modified Greek script that had one additional glyph
to represent /š/ (sh), as in the word ‘Kushan’ and ‘Kanishka’.
The Buddhist coins of Kanishka are comparatively rare. Several show
Kanishka on the obverse and the Buddha standing on the reverse, in
Hellenistic style. The standing Buddha is in Hellenistic style, bearing
the mention “Boddo” in Greek script, holding the left corner of his
cloak in his hand, and forming the abhaya mudra ((gesture of
reassurance). Only six Kushan coins of the Buddha are known. The ears
are oddly large and long, a symbolic exaggeration possibly made
necessary by the small size of the coins, but otherwise visible in some
later Gandharan statues of the Buddha typically dated to the 3rd-4th
century AD. He has an abundant topknot covering, often highly stylised
in a curly or often globular manner, also visible on later Buddha
statues of Gandhara. On several design, a moustache is apparent.
Curious touch in the artistic model
The Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I (205-171 BC) himself may have been the prototype for the image of the Buddha.
The earliest Hellenistic statues of the Buddha portray him in a style
reminiscent of a king. Demetrius may have been deified, and the first
Hellenistic statues of the Buddha we know may be representations of the
idealized Greek king, princely, yet friendly, protective and open to
Indian culture. As they often incorporated more Buddhist elements, they
became central to the Buddhist movement, and influenced the image of the
Buddha in Greco-Buddhist art.
Another characteristic of Demetrius is associated to the Buddha: they
share the same protector deity. In Gandharan art, the Buddha is often
shown under the protection of the Greek god Herakles,
standing with his club (and later a diamond rod) resting over his arm.
This unusual representation of Herakles is the same as the one on the
back of Demetrius’ coins, and it is exclusively associated to him (and
his son Euthydemus II), seen only on the back of his coins.
Deities from the Greek mythological pantheon
also tend to be incorporated in Buddhist representations, displaying a
strong blend. In particular, Herakles (of the type of the Demetrius
coins, with club resting on the arm) has been used aplenty as the symbol
of Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha. Other Greek deities freely
used in Greco-Buddhist art are view of Atlas,
and the Greek wind god Boreas. Atlas in particular tends to be involved
as a sustaining element in Buddhist architectural elements. Boreas
became the Japanese wind god Fujin through the Greco-Buddhist Wardo. The
mother deity Hariti was inspired by Tyche.
Soon, the figure of the Buddha was incorporated within architectural designs, such as Corinthian
pillars and friezes. Scenes of the life of the Buddha are typically
depicted in a Greek architectural environment, with protagonist wearing
Mathura, 145 km south of Delhi, is by tradition the birthplace of
Krishna, one of the two chief deities in Hindu religion. Mathura is also
famous as one of the first two centres of production for images of the
Buddha, the other being Gandhara. Human images of the Buddha began to
appear at about the same time in both centres in the 1st Century AD but
can be distinguished from one another as the Gandharan images are very
clearly Greco-Roman in inspiration with the Buddha wearing wavy locks
tucked up into a chignon and heavier toga-like robes. The Buddha
figurines produced in Mathura more closely resemble some of the older
Indian male fertility gods and have shorter, curlier hair and lighter,
more translucent robes. Mathuran art and culture reached its zenith
under the Kushan dynasty which had Mathura as one of their capitals, the
other being Purushapura (Peshawar).
The Mathura images are related to the earlier yakṣa (male
nature deity) figures, a likeness mostly evident in the colossal
standing Buddha images of the early Kushān period. The sculptors worked
for centuries in the speckled, red sandstone of the locality and the
pieces carried far and wide. In these, and in the more representative
seated Buddhas, the overall effect is one of enormous energy. The
shoulders are broad, the chest swells, and the legs are firmly planted
with feet spaced apart. Other characteristics are the shaven head; the
usnīsa (knob on the top of the head) indicated by a tiered spiral; a
round smiling face; the right arm raised in abhaya-mudrā (gesture of
reassurance); the left arm akimbo or resting on the thigh; the drapery
closely moulding the body and arranged in folds over the left arm,
leaving the right shoulder bare; and the presence of the lion throne
rather than the lotus throne. Later, the hair began to be treated as a
series of short flat spirals lying close to the head, the type that came
to be the standard representation throughout the Buddhist world.
The female figures at Mathura, carved in high relief on the pillars and
gateways of both Buddhist and Jaina monuments, are truly sensuous in
their appeal. These richly bejewelled ladies, ample of hip and slender
of waist, standing suggestively, are reminiscent of the dancing girls of
the Indus Valley.
Their gay, impulsive sensuality in the backdrop of a resurgent doctrine
of piety and renunciation is an example of the remarkable tolerance of
the ancient Indian outlook on life, which did not find such display of
art and culture improper. These delightful nude or semi-nude figures are
shown in a variety of toilet scenes or in association with trees,
indicating their continuance of the yakṣī (female nature deity)
tradition seen also at other Buddhist sites, such as Bhārhut and
Sānchi. As auspicious emblems of fertility and abundance they commanded a
popular appeal that persisted with the rise of Buddhism.
© Image courtesy of the Ackland Art Museum. All rights reserved.
Infusion of literature
All this did not remain confined in sculptures and statues alone. They
seeped into the language as well in northern India during the Greek
rule. A few common Greek words were adopted in Sanskrit, such as words
related to writing and warfare:
Phraotes, the Indo-Parthian King of Taxila received a Greek education
at the court of his father and spoke Greek fluently. The Greek
philosopher Apollonius recounts a talk on this:
“Tell me, O King, how you acquired such a command of the Greek tongue,
and whence you derived all your philosophical attainments in this
place?” The king replies, “My father, after a Greek education, brought
me to the sages at an age somewhat too early perhaps, for I was only
twelve at the time, but they brought me up like their own son; for any
that they admit knowing the Greek tongue they are especially fond of,
because they consider that in virtue of the similarity of his
disposition he already belongs to themselves.”
Greek was still in official use until the time of Kanishka (AD 120):
“He (Kanishka) issued (?) an edict(?) in Greek and then he put it into
the Aryan language”. …but
when Kanishka refers to “the Aryan language” he surely means Bactrian
…”By the grace of Auramazda, I made another text in Aryan, which
previously did not exist”. It is difficult not to associate Kanishka’s
emphasis here on the use of the “Aryan language” with the replacement of
Greek by Bactrian on his coinage. The numismatic evidence shows that
this must have taken place very early in Kanishka’s reign …” — Prof.
Nicholas Sims-Williams (University of London).
The Greek script was used not only on coins, but also in manuscripts
and stone inscriptions as late as the period of Islamic invasions in the
7th-8th century AD.
Astronomy and astrology
Vedanga Jyotisha is dated to around 135 BC. It is an Indian text on
Jyotisha (astrology and astronomy), compiled by Lagadha. The text is the
earliest groundwork in India to the Vedanga discipline of Jyotisha.
The text describes rules for tracking the motions of the sun and the
moon in horoscopic astrology and advanced astronomical knowledge. Next
to this compilation, one of the earliest Indian writings on astronomy
and astrology, titled the Yavanajataka or “The Saying of the Greeks”, is
a translation from Greek to Sanskrit made by “Yavanesvara” (”Lord of
the Greeks”) in 149–150 AD under the rule of the Western Kshatrapa King
Rudrakarman I. The Yavanajataka contains instructions on calculating
astrological charts (horoscopes) from the time and place of one’s birth.
Astrology flourished in the Hellenistic world
(particularly Alexandria) and the Yavanajataka reflects astrological
techniques developed in the Greek-speaking world. Various astronomical
and mathematical methods, such as the calculation of the ‘horoskopos’
(the zodiac sign on the eastern horizon), were used in the service of
Another set of treatises, the Paulisa Siddhanta and the Romaka
Siddhantas, are attributed to later Greco-Roman influence in India. The
Paulisa Siddhanta has been tentatively identified with the works of
Paulus Alexandrinus, who wrote a well-known astrological hand-book.
Indian astronomy is widely acknowledged to be influenced by the
Alexandrian school, and its technical nomenclature is essentially Greek:
“The Yavanas are barbarians, yet the science
of astronomy originated with them and for this they must be reverenced
like gods”, this is a comment in Brihat-Samhita by the mathematician
Varahamihira. Several other Indian texts show appreciation for the
scientific knowledge of the Yavana Greeks.
Spur on Indian and Greek thought and religion
The impact of the Indo-Greeks on Indian thought and religion is
unknown. Scholars believe that Mahāyāna Buddhism as a distinct movement
began around the 1st century BC in the North-western Indian
subcontinent, corresponding to the time and place of Indo-Greek
The Mahāyāna tradition is the larger of the two major traditions of
Buddhism existing today, the other being that of the Theravāda school.
According to the teachings of Mahāyāna traditions, “Mahāyāna” also
refers to the path of seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of
all sentient beings, also called “Bodhisattvayāna”, or the “Bodhisattva
Vehicle. Among the earliest and most important references to the term
Mahāyāna are those that occur in the Lotus Sūtra dating between the 1st
century BC and the 1st century AD. Seishi Karashima has suggested that
the term first used in an earlier Gandhāri Prakrit version of the Lotus
Sūtra was not the term mahāyāna but the Prakrit word mahājāna in the
sense of mahājñāna (great knowing). At a later stage when the early
Prakrit word was converted into Sanskrit, this mahājāna, being
phonetically ambivalent, was mistakenly converted into mahāyāna,
possibly due to what may have been a double meaning
Intense multi-cultural influences have indeed been suggested in the
appearance of Mahāyāna. According to Richard Foltz, “Key formative
influences on the early development of the Mahāyāna and Pure Land
movements, which became so much part of East Asian civilization, are to
be sought in Buddhism’s earlier encounters along the Silk Road”. As
Mahāyāna Buddhism emerged, it received “influences from popular Hindu
devotional cults (bhakti), Persian and Greco-Roman theologies which
filtered into India from the northwest”.
Many of the early Mahāyāna theories of reality and knowledge can be
related to Greek philosophical schools of thought: Mahāyāna Buddhism has
been described as “the form of Buddhism which (regardless of how
Hinduized its later forms became) seems to have originated in the
Greco-Buddhist communities of India, through a conflation of the Greek
Democritean-Sophistic-Skeptical tradition with the rudimentary and
unformulated empirical and sceptical elements already present in early
Buddhism”. However, this view can hardly explain the origin of the
bodhisattva ideal, already delineated in the Aagamas, which also already
contained a well developed theory of selflessness (anaatman) and emptiness (shunyaata), none of these essential Mahāyāna tenets being traceable to Greek roots.
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