Emperor Ashoka and the expansion of Buddhism in the Greco-Indian Kingdoms

King Emperor Ashoka

Megasthenes (early 3rd century BCE), who served as ambassador of the Seleucid king Nicator I at the court of Chandragupta Maurya for 10 years, describes at length in his INDIKA the existing Brahmanical and Sramanic traditions of India without making any specific reference to Buddha and his followers.

This fact leads us to the conclusion that Buddhism at the time of Megasthenes was still a relatively unknown and geographically limited religion.

Buddhism began its transformation into a world religion two generations later under the strong patronage of Emperor Ashoka (c. 304–232 BCE) who established it as the official religion of the Mauryan Empire.

During his reign, the spread of Buddhism seems to have reached the southern regions of Afghanistan which became part of his empire. This position is confirmed by the testimony of Chinese pilgrims who recorded the existence of the first Buddhist monuments (stūpa-s) in the Jalalabad region of Afghanistan.

The Mauryan Empire in the Age of Ashoka.
The Mauryan Empire in the Age of Ashoka.

Ashoka grew up in a society that had close contact with the Greeks ("Yavana" in Sanskrit and "Yona" in the language again). British historians Sir William Tarn and George Woodcock go as far as to suggest that he may have been half or a quarter Greek as Seleucus Nicator's daughter Helen was given in marriage to the house of Ashoka's grandfather Chandragupta and could not have married someone other than the emperor himself or Ashoka's son and father Bindusara.

Megasthenes in Chandragupta's palace, depicting Seleucus' daughter Helen seated next to the Indian emperor.
Megasthenes in Chandragupta's palace, depicting Seleucus' daughter Helen seated next to the Indian emperor.

In the course of historical developments, a number of Greeks became vassals of the expanding Mauryan empire, particularly after the signing of the peace treaty between Seleucus and Chandragupta, which ceded much eastern territory of the Seleucid empire to the Indians.

Greek mercenaries seem to have been used by Indian kings during this era, as suggested by the references in the Indian epics to the Javanese armies, participating in their civil wars. Several Greek artisans, doctors, astrologers and merchants settled in major trading centres of India and the Mauryan emperors hosted Greek ambassadors in their palaces.

The influence of Greek sculpture will become particularly evident three centuries later in the Greco-Buddhist sculptures of Gandhara and Mathura, but there is nothing to prevent us from supposing that Greek sculptors and architects were employed much earlier in India.

The development of stone sculptures, which were little used in India before the time of Ashoka, can be attributed to a certain extent to the Greeks. The lions on Ashoka's columns, for example, are similar to the lions the Macedonians erected as victory monuments.

Greek art was well known to Indians as Greek statues holding lamps were used as decoration by the Shakyas in Kapilavastu, the home of Gautama Buddha.

Column of Ashoka and Leo of Amphipolis.
Column of Ashoka and Lion of Amphipolis.

The close relationship of the Greeks with the Mauryans is further evidenced in the rock paintings of Ashoka. A bilingual inscription in Greek and Aramaic, which came to light in 1958 during excavations in Kandahar (Afghanistan) suggests that the Greeks who settled there were well aware of Ashoka's dharmic (moral and religious) instructions.

The Greek portion of the inscription includes the edict attributed to Ashoka, which forbids his subjects from harming all living things.

Bilingual inscription of Ashoka in Greek and Aramaic
Bilingual inscription of Ashoka in Greek and Aramaic

Similar proclamations, demonstrating Ashoka's compassionate attitude and relationship with the Greeks, are found in other inscriptions of his. In the second inscription, Yona King Antiochus (Aṅtiyako Yonarājā) is mentioned by name.

The fifth and ninth inscriptions mention the Yonas as subjects of the king who were devoted to Dharma (Buddhism). The 13th rock inscription declares that there is no place, except that of the Yonas, where the orders of Brahmins and Sramanas do not exist.

At the end of the same inscription, we read that the king's rule was extended to include different groups of people, including the Yonas.

Dharma teachings prevailed everywhere. Even in the countries where Ashoka's emissaries did not go, the people having heard of the practices and teachings of the Dharma followed it and would continue to follow it in the future.

The names of the Greek kings are mentioned in the context of the expansion of the Dharma within King Ashoka's territory and all its borders, which extended up to six hundred yojanas (one yojana equals 12-15 kilometers), where the Greek king Yonarāja Aṅtiyoko (Antiochus II ' God of Syria,' 260-246 BC) rules beyond him, where four other kings rule ‒ Tulamaye (Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, 283-246 BC), Aṅtekine (Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia 278-239 BC), Makā (Magus of Cyrene, 300-250 BC), and Alikyașudale (Alexander of Epirus or Corinth).

Inscription of Ashoka in Greek (Kandahar, Afghanistan)
Inscription of Ashoka in Greek (Kandahar, Afghanistan)

From the above descriptions, we can conclude that Ashoka, like his predecessors, had received ambassadors from the Greek kingdoms at his court and that he sent his own to them. However, there is no Greek literature of that period that verifies the arrival of these ambassador-missionaries.

Buddha and Buddhism are unknown in Greek texts until the early Christian era. The name of Buddha will be mentioned for the first time in Greek literature by the Christian writer Clement of Alexandria (154-222 AD).

References to missionaries sent to spread the principles of the Dharma to foreign nations, including the Yonas, exist only in Indian inscriptions and ancient Buddhist texts such as the Dīpavaṁsa and Mahāvaṁsa in Sri Lanka.

This suggests that the attraction of a significant number of Greeks to Buddhism took place within the Indian subcontinent and did not extend beyond it.

Most of the Greeks who lived under Indian influence embraced Buddhism and to some extent their contribution to the doctrinal, ritual and aesthetic metamorphosis of Buddhism from the anthropocentric Theravada to the metaphysical Mahayana was significant.

Buddha and Zeus holding thunderbolt (Vajrapani) in Gandhara Greco-Buddhist art.
Buddha and Zeus holding thunderbolt (Vajrapani) in Gandhara Greco-Buddhist art.

Greco-Indian kingdoms continued to issue coins with depictions of the Greek pantheon throughout their rule. But there would be indirect and direct influences through trade, military campaigns and travelers, which would later extend to the great cosmopolitan centres of Damascus and Alexandria influencing the worldview of Neo-Platonism and the asceticism of the Jewish and early Christian religious communities.

* Dr. Dimitrios Vassiliadis is director and professor of Sanskrit, Indian philosophy, history and culture at the Centre for Indian and Greek-Indian Studies in Athens and professor of Hindi at the Department of Foreign Languages ​​of the University of Athens. He has written several studies on Indological and Greek-Indian topics including the books "Greeks and Buddhism - An Intercultural Encounter" (Athens, 2016) and "The Greeks in India - A Retrospective on Philosophical Understanding" (New Delhi, 2000) ) published in the English language. He also contributes to Efsyn.

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This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor