All You Need to Know about Greco-Buddhism

by Ane Krstevska

All You Need to Know about Greco-Buddhism

Sometimes spelled as Graeco-Buddhism, Greco-Buddhism is a term referring to cultural syncretism between Buddhism and the Hellenistic culture, which developed somewhere between the fourth century BCE, and also the fifth century CE. It developed in the Indian subcontinent and Bactria, corresponding to some territories of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

It appeared as the cultural consequence coming from the interactions started by some Greek forays in India, also from the period of Alexander the Great, and it was carried further on by establishing the Indo-Greek Kingdom, extending during the best days of the Kushan Empire. Then, Buddhism was adopted in Northeastern and Central Asia, right from the first century CE, spreading to Korea, China, Japan, Siberia, Philippines, and Vietnam.

Buddhism and Hellenistic Greece started interacting at the time Alexander the Great has conquered Central Asia and Asia Minor in 334 BCE, also going further to the Indus, in that way establishing direct contact and connection with India, which is Buddhism’s birthplace.

Alexander the Great founded a few cities located in his newly discovered territories in places around Bactria and Oxus. Then, the Greet settlements extended to Gandhara, Khyber Pass, and Punjab. These particular regions correspond to the authentic geographical passages between the Hindu Kush Mountains, and the Himalayas, through which the interaction which was happening between Central Asia and Himalayas took place, in that way generating the intense cultural trade and exchange.

After the death of Alexander on the 10thof June, 323 BCE, his generals or Diadochi founded their kingdoms in Central Asia and Asia Minor.

The interaction between Buddhists and Greeks operated more than a few centuries, and it ended somewhere in the fifth century AD, as the so-called White Huns invaded, and Islam expanded too.

A lot of works belonging to the Greco-Buddhist artwork portray the mixture of Buddhist and Greek influences, present around creations centers like Gandhara. The Gandharan art’s subject matter was Buddhist for sure, while most of the motifs came from Hellenistic or Western Asiatic origin.

Buddha’s anthropomorphic representation

greek buddha style

Even though there are debates still present, the primary anthropomorphic Buddha representations are usually considered as the result of interaction between Greeks and Buddhists. Before the innovation, the art of Buddhists was “aniconic.” Buddha was simply represented through the symbols belonging to him, such as his footprints, empty throne, or the tree called Bodhi, and the wheel of prayer.

The reluctance towards Buddha’s anthropomorphic representations, and also the aniconic symbols’ sophisticated development to avoid it, appears to have a connection with one saying of Buddha, reported in Digha Nikaya, which discouraged representations related to himself after his body is extinct.

The Greeks have been the first ones that tried to create some kind of sculptural representation of Buddha, as they weren’t feeling connected by these particular restrictions. In different Ancient World’s parts, the Greeks developed syncretic divinities which could be a constant religious focus, particularly for those populations that have different traditions. One such example represents the syncretic God Sarapis, who is introduced in Egypt by Ptolemy, and which combines aspects of Egyptian and Greek Gods. Also, in India, it has been just natural for Greeks to simply create one common divinity, with combining the God-King’s image of Greece with Buddha’s traditional attributes.

Most of the stylistic motifs and elements in such representations point to the influence of the Greek culture. A significant number of sculptures which combine purely Hellenistic and Buddhist iconography and styles were also excavated at Hadda’s Gandharan site. Buddha’s curly hair was described in one famous list which has about 32 external characteristics of the Great Being which is found along with Buddhist sutras.

Some artists from Greece were maybe the ones that created the early Buddha’s representations, especially the beautiful standing statue, characterizing some of the best artworks of the Greek people. This is Hellenistic or Classical, and not an archaizing Greek which is transmitted by Bactria or Persia, or distinctively Roman.

The stylistic influence of the Greeks on Buddha’s representations, through the idealistic realism even allowed quite an easy, attractive, and understandable visualization of the state of enlightenment which Buddhism describes, permitting it comes to a wider audience.

During the next centuries, Buddha’s anthropomorphic representations defined Buddhist art’s canon but also evolved to include more Asian and Indian elements.

Ane Krstevska



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