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Cultural Ties Between India and the Greco-Roman World

India and the Greco-Roman World

In the ancient world, during the reign of Cyrus the Great (558-530 BCE), a vast and influential empire known as the Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia emerged. This empire stretched from Greece to the Indus River, bridging the gap between two significant civilizations. An inscription at Naqsh-i-Rustam, near Persepolis, the tomb of Cyrus’s capable successor Darius I (521-486 BCE), bears witness to the inclusion of Gadara (Gandhara) and Hindush (Hindus, Sindh) in the extensive list of satrapies under Persian rule.

The Decline of Persian Influence and Alexander’s Campaign

Around 380 BC, the Persian grip on Indian regions began to weaken, leading to the rise of numerous small local kingdoms. In 327 BCE, Alexander the Great launched his ambitious campaign to conquer the Persian Empire, encountering various small political entities within these territories. The following year, a fierce battle unfolded as Alexander faced the Indian monarch Porus near the modern Jhelum River. East of Porus’s realm, near the Ganges River, lay the formidable kingdom of Magadha, ruled by the Nanda Dynasty.

Plutarch’s Insight

Plutarch (46 – 120 CE), a renowned Greek historian, biographer, and essayist, is best known for his works “Parallel Lives” and “Moralia.” He provides an intriguing perspective on these historical events. When Alexander’s army, exhausted and apprehensive about confronting another massive Indian force at the Ganges River, mutinied at the Hyphasis (modern Beas River), they refused to advance further east. Alexander decided to leave Greek forces behind, which ultimately established themselves in the city of Taxila, now situated in Pakistan.

Seleucus and the Eastern Expansion

Following Alexander’s demise in 323 BCE, Seleucus was appointed as the satrap of Babylon in 320 BCE. However, his rule faced challenges, notably from Antigonus, compelling Seleucus to flee from Babylon. With the support of Ptolemy, he managed to return in 312 BCE. Seleucus’s later conquests extended to Persia and Media. In 305 BCE, he embarked on an invasion of what is now Punjab in northern India and Pakistan, further solidifying the cultural and historical ties between the Greco-Roman world and the Indian subcontinent.

Pāṇini’s Allusion to the Greeks

Centuries before the famous arrival of Alexander the Great on the northwestern border of India references to the Greeks as “Yavanas” can be found in early Indian literature. Pāṇini, an ancient Sanskrit grammarian, was already familiar with the term “yavana” in his compositions. In Katyaanaa’s writings, “yavanānī” is explained as the script of the Yavanas, which refers to the Greek people. The life of Pāṇini remains shrouded in mystery, with the scholarly consensus leaning toward the 4th century BCE. Pāṇini’s renowned work, the “Ashtadhyayi,” meaning “eight chapters,” serves as the defining source for classical Sanskrit, implying that Pāṇini lived at the end of the Vedic period.

A noteworthy clue for dating Pāṇini comes from the occurrence of the word “yavanānī” in his writings (specifically in 4.1.49), which could mean “Greek woman” or “Greek script.” While it seems unlikely that there was first-hand knowledge of Greeks in Gandhara before Alexander the Great’s conquests in the 330s BCE, it’s plausible that the name was known through the Old Persian term “Yauna.” This suggests that the use of “yavanānī,” taken in isolation, allows for dating as early as 520 BC, coinciding with the time of Darius the Great’s conquests in India.

Katyayana’s Confirmation

Katyayana, a prominent figure who lived in the 3rd century BCE in ancient India, was not only a Sanskrit grammarian but also a mathematician and Vedic priest. He, too, corroborates the idea that the Old Persian term “yauna” became Sanskritized to refer to all Greeks. In fact, this word even makes an appearance in the epic Mahabharata, further highlighting the early recognition and integration of Greek influences into the rich tapestry of Indian culture and language.

Hellenization: A Cultural Legacy

The commencement of what is often termed the Hellenistic Period is typically dated to 323 BCE, coinciding with the passing of Alexander in Babylon. Over the preceding decade, through a series of military conquests, Alexander had managed to subdue the entirety of the vast Persian Empire, toppling the rule of King Darius. This extensive empire encompassed a wide expanse of territories, including Asia Minor, the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Media, Persia, as well as parts of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and portions of the central Asian steppes. It virtually spanned the entire known world as perceived by the Greeks of that era.

As Alexander pushed further eastward, the sheer distance from the Greek world he had left behind presented him with a formidable challenge: how to maintain communication and supply lines with Greece and Macedonia, both essential for the sustenance and reinforcement of his army. Ensuring he would never be isolated became paramount. To address this concern, he conceived a distinctive strategy.

Alexander initiated the establishment of military colonies and cities in strategically significant locations. In these places, he stationed Greek mercenaries and retired Macedonian veterans who were no longer actively involved in military campaigns. Beyond their role in safeguarding supply routes, these settlements also served to exert control over the surrounding regions.

Aside from their military importance, Alexander’s cities and colonies played a pivotal role in disseminating Hellenistic culture throughout the Eastern territories. Plutarch eloquently captured Alexander’s accomplishments, noting that he founded more than 70 cities among diverse peoples and introduced Greek administrative systems in Asia, effectively transforming the wild and uncivilized way of life prevalent in those areas.

Alexander undeniably opened the gates of the East to a massive influx of immigrants, and his successors upheld this policy by actively encouraging Greek colonists to settle in their realms. Over a span of seventy-five years following Alexander’s death, Greek immigrants flocked to the East. Approximately 250 new Hellenistic colonies were established during this period. This movement of people mirrored nothing seen in the Mediterranean world since the days of Archilochus (680 – 645 BCE), when successive waves of Greeks transformed the Mediterranean basin into a Greek-speaking region, leaving an indelible mark on the cultures and civilizations they encountered.

Ay Khanoum: A Remarkable Hellenistic Outpost

One vivid and exotic illustration of these historical trends emerges from the recently unearthed Hellenistic city of Ay Khanoum. Nestled on the fringes of Russia and Afghanistan, not far from the borders of China, this city bore a predominantly Greek character. It boasted the quintessential features of a Greek city, including a gymnasium, various temples, and administrative buildings. Yet, Ay Khanoum was more than just a Greek enclave; it embodied a captivating fusion of cultures. Within its confines, one could find an oriental temple and artistic remnants that vividly demonstrated how Greeks and native inhabitants had already begun to embrace elements of each other’s religions and traditions.

One of the most intriguing discoveries in Ay Khanoum was an extensive inscription carved in Greek verse, attributed to Clearchus, a pupil of the renowned philosopher Aristotle. This inscription, prominently displayed in a public area, was essentially a compendium of the teachings and principles of renowned Greek thinkers. It served as a form of accessible philosophy for the common people, making a contribution to popular culture. Clearchus’s inscription not only connected the Greek settlers with their distant homeland but also provided a convenient means of introducing elements of Greek culture to the city’s residents.

Alexander’s strategic placement of Greek colonists and the diffusion of Greek culture in the East culminated in the emergence of a distinctive Hellenistic culture, elements of which persisted until the mid-15th century CE. The outcome of these settlements, spearheaded by Alexander and his successors, was the spread of Hellenism across vast expanses of territory, stretching as far east as India. Throughout the Hellenistic era, Greeks and Easterners engaged with and assimilated each other’s customs, religions, and ways of life. While Greek culture did not wholly supplant Eastern traditions, it provided the East with a channel for self-expression that bridged it to the Western world. Hellenism evolved into a unifying force connecting the East, the Greek mainland, and the Western Mediterranean. This pre-existing cultural affinity would later prove invaluable to Rome, itself deeply influenced by Hellenism, as it sought to establish a comparable political unity across the known world.

Hellenization and Trade in the Hellenistic World

The term “Hellenization” was coined by the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen to describe the diffusion of Greek language, culture, and population into the former Persian Empire following Alexander the Great’s conquest. While it is evident that this process occurred, its extent and depth, as well as whether it was a deliberate policy, remain topics of debate. Alexander’s successors, notably his generals, rejected such policies after his death.

Hellenistic Cities: Cultural and Economic Hubs

Hellenistic cities shared numerous similarities with modern cities. They served as cultural centers featuring theaters, temples, and libraries. These cities were hubs of learning, home to poets, writers, teachers, and artists. People also sought entertainment and amusement in these urban centers. Economically, Hellenistic cities played a pivotal role by providing a market for agricultural products and produce from the surrounding regions. They functioned as emporiums for trade and manufacturing. In essence, Hellenistic cities offered both cultural and economic opportunities but did not necessarily foster a sense of unified and integrated enterprise.

Trade in the Hellenistic World

Trade in the Hellenistic World

The Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties engaged in trade that extended as far as India, Arabia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Overland trade routes to India and Arabia were primarily managed by Easterners via caravans, and these routes mainly transported luxury goods due to their expensive nature. Greek merchants became involved in the trade once these luxury goods reached the Hellenistic monarchies.

The caravan trade depended on key routes, notably the northern route leading to Dura on the Euphrates River and the southern route through Arabia. Although the desert of Arabia might seem like an unlikely and harsh terrain for trade, it was strategically positioned. To the east of Arabia lay the Iranian plateau, from which trade routes extended southward and further eastward to China. Goods from the East reached Egypt and the excellent harbors of Palestine, Phoenicia, and Syria, from where they flowed into Greece, Italy, and Spain. The backbone of this caravan trade was the camel, known for its shaggy appearance and durability despite its temperamental nature.

The caravan routes primarily transported luxury goods that were lightweight, rare, and expensive. Over time, some of these luxury items transitioned from being mere luxuries to becoming more essential commodities. This shift was partly due to the increased volume of trade during this prosperous period, allowing more people to afford gold, silver, ivory, precious stones, spices, and other easily transportable goods. Notable among the traded goods were tea and silk, with the major route becoming known as the “Silk Road” due to its historical prominence and continued use until early modern times. In return for these luxury items, the Greeks and Macedonians exported manufactured goods, including metal weapons, cloth, wine, and olive oil.

These caravan routes, while having their origins in earlier times, gained greater prominence during the Hellenistic era. Business customs developed and became standardized, enabling merchants from various nationalities to communicate effectively with one another. This facilitated the exchange of goods and the flourishing of trade in the Hellenistic world.

Innovative Years on India’s Borders: The Indo-Greek Kingdom

Between 180 BCE and around 10 CE, there was a succession of over thirty Hellenistic kings, often embroiled in conflicts with one another. This era is recognized as the Indo-Greek kingdom in historical records. The kingdom’s origins can be traced to the invasion of India by the Greco-Bactrian King Demetrius in 180 BCE, leading to the establishment of a distinct entity that separated from the powerful Greco-Bactrian kingdom centered in Bactria (today’s northern Afghanistan). The term “Indo-Greek Kingdom” broadly referred to various dynastic states, and as a result, it had multiple capitals. The city of Taxila in modern Pakistan is considered one of the earliest seats of local Hellenic rulers, although cities like Pushkalavati and Sagala also housed different dynasties at various times.

Over the two centuries of their rule, the Indo-Greek kings initiated a fusion of Greek and Indian languages and symbols, evident in their coinage, and melded elements of ancient Greek, Hindu, and Buddhist religious practices. This cultural syncretism, with no equivalent in history, has left a lasting impact, particularly through the spread and influence of Greco-Buddhist art.

According to Indian sources, Greek (“Yavana”) troops might have assisted Chandragupta Maurya in overthrowing the Nanda Dynasty and establishing the Mauryan Empire. By approximately 312 BCE, Chandragupta had established his rule in large parts of northwestern Indian territories.

In 303 BCE, Seleucus I led an army to the Indus, where he encountered Chandragupta. An alliance was struck, and Seleucus offered his daughter in marriage to Chandragupta. In return, Seleucus ceded territories including Arachosia (modern Kandahar), Herat, Kabul, and Makran. He also received 500 war elephants, which played a decisive role in the Battle of Ipsus.

The peace treaty included an “intermarriage agreement” (Epigamia), signifying either a dynastic marriage or an agreement for intermarriage between Indians and Greeks—an exceptional achievement at the time.

Megasthenes and the Cultural Exchange

Megasthenes (350 – 290 BCE), a Greek ethnographer from Asia Minor, served as an ambassador of Seleucus I at the court of Sandrocottus, possibly Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra (modern Patna, Bihar, India). Although the exact date of his embassy is uncertain, scholars place it before 288 BCE, the date of Chandragupta’s death.

In his work “Indica,” Megasthenes describes geographical features of India, including the Himalayas and the island of Sri Lanka. He also mentions the older Indians’ knowledge of the prehistoric arrival of Dionysus and Hercules in India, a tale popular among Greeks during the time of Alexander.

Notably, Megasthenes provides insights into the religions of the Indians, mentioning devotees of Hercules (Shiva) and Dionysus (Krishna or Indra) but making no reference to Buddhists. This has led to the theory that Buddhism was not widely spread in India before the reign of Asoka (269 BCE to 232 BCE).

“Indica” served as a vital source for later writers such as Strabo and Arrian. Apollodorus, a Greek historian from the 1st century BCE quoted by Strabo, asserted that the Bactrian Greeks, led by Demetrius I and Menander, conquered India, extending their rule beyond the Hyphasis (modern Beas River) toward the Himalayas. The Roman historian Justin also recounted the Indo-Greek conquests, referring to Demetrius as “King of the Indians” and stating that Eucratides “put India under his rule.” “India” had a broader meaning to the Greeks than it did to Alexander the Great, encompassing most of the northern half of the Indian subcontinent. Greek and Indian sources suggest that the Greeks advanced as far as Pataliputra until they were compelled to withdraw following a coup in Bactria in 170 BCE.

The Emergence of Coins: A Landmark in History

The concept of coinage, defined as a standardized piece of metal with a specific weight and authority’s stamp for use in financial transactions, seems to have independently originated in three different civilizations during the 6th century BCE: Asia Minor, India, and China. Coins were introduced as a means to facilitate trade in everyday goods during this period.

Historically, most scholars agree that the first coins in the world were issued by Greeks living in Lydia and Ionia, regions located on the western coast of modern-day Turkey. These initial coins were small globules of Electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. These crude coins possessed a defined weight and were stamped with punches authorized by local authorities, and they emerged around 650 BCE.

Both literary and archaeological evidence support the idea that coinage was invented in India between the 5th and 6th centuries BCE. Discoveries like the Chaman Huzuri hoard in 1933 CE, containing 43 silver punch-marked coins, which are considered the earliest coins of India, along with Athenian and Achaemenid (Persian) coins, provide clear evidence of coin usage prior to the arrival of Greeks in India. The Bhir hoard, unearthed in 1924 CE near Taxila (modern Pakistan), contained 1055 punch-marked coins along with two well-preserved coins of Alexander. This archaeological evidence establishes that coins were minted in India before the 4th century BCE, preceding the Greek expansion into the region.

Pānini’s “Ashtadhyayi,” written in the 4th or 5th century BCE, mentioned various terms related to coins, such as Satamana, Nishka, Sana, Vimastika, Karshapana, and their subdivisions, for use in financial transactions. This literary evidence further supports the presence of coins in ancient India by 500 BCE. Additionally, the increased availability of silver in India by 500-600 BCE, primarily sourced from Afghanistan and Persia through international trade, is believed to have played a crucial role in coin production.

The first Greek coins minted in India, attributed to Menander I and Apollodotus I, bear the title “Saviour king” (BASILEOS SOTHROS), a highly esteemed designation in the Greek world. The use of this title on coins suggests that Menander and Apollodotus may have been regarded as saviors by the Greek populations residing in India.

A noteworthy feature of most Greek kings’ coins in India was their bilingual nature, with Greek inscriptions on the front and Pali on the reverse. This marked a significant concession to another culture, one that had not been seen before in the Hellenic world. Starting from the reign of Apollodotus II around 80 BCE, Kharoshthi letters began to be used as mintmarks on coins, often in combination with Greek monograms and mintmarks, indicating the involvement of local technicians in the minting process. These bilingual coins were instrumental in the decipherment of the Kharoṣṭhī script by James Prinsep (1799–1840 CE).

The Kharoṣṭhī script, an ancient abugida used to write the Gāndhārī and Sanskrit languages, was in use from the 3rd century BCE until it waned in its homeland around the 3rd century CE. It was also used in regions like Kushan, Sogdiana, and along the Silk Road, with evidence suggesting its survival until the 7th century CE in remote way stations like Khotan and Niya.

The Lasting Influence of Indo-Greek Coinage

The coinage of the Indo-Greeks had a significant and enduring impact on the Indian subcontinent, with various dynasties and kingdoms adopting elements of their coinage practices:

Kunindas (2nd century BCE – 3rd century CE): The Kunindas, a Buddhist kingdom in Punjab, adopted the Indo-Greek weight and size standard for silver drachms. This marked one of the earliest instances in which an Indian kingdom sought to produce coins that could rival those of the Indo-Greeks.

Satavahanas (2nd century BCE – 2nd century CE): In central India, the Satavahanas adopted the practice of representing their kings in profile on coins, often within circular legends. This was likely influenced by the artistic and numismatic traditions of the Indo-Greeks.

Indo-Scythians and Indo-Parthians: The direct successors of the Indo-Greeks in the northwest, the Indo-Scythians, and Indo-Parthians, continued to display their kings within a legend in Greek on their coins. Additionally, Greek deities were depicted on the obverse of their coins.

Western Kshatrapas (1st – 4th century CE): In western India, the Western Kshatrapas imitated the Indo-Greeks by representing their rulers in profile within circular legends. They used a corrupted form of the Greek language on their coinage.

Kushans (1st – 4th century CE): The Kushans initially used the Greek language on their coinage. However, during the reign of Kanishka, they transitioned to the Bactrian language, which was written with the Greek script. This transition reflects the evolving linguistic and cultural landscape of the region.

Guptas (4th – 6th century CE): The Guptas, known for their empire in northern India, followed the Western Kshatrapas’ example by showing their rulers in profile on coins. They also used a form of corrupted Greek in legends on their coins, particularly in their western territories.

The use of the Greek script on coins persisted until the rule of the Turkish Shahi of Kabul, which lasted until around 850 CE. This marks the latest known use of the Greek script on coins in the Indian subcontinent. The enduring influence of Indo-Greek coinage on the region’s numismatic traditions highlights the significance of cultural exchange and diffusion in ancient history.

Menander and the Spread of Buddhism

Menander, also known as Milinda, is regarded as one of the most successful Indo-Greek kings, known for his conquests and the vast territory he ruled. His coins are among the most numerous and widely found of all Indo-Greek kings. The “Menander Mons” or “Mountains of Menander” referred to the mountain range in the far east of the Indian subcontinent, comprising today’s Naga Hills and Arakan. This designation can be seen in Ptolemy’s world map from the 1st century CE. Menander is also featured in Buddhist literature, particularly in the “Milinda Panha,” where he is described as a convert to Buddhism and eventually an arhat (Buddhist ascetic). His relics were enshrined, and he introduced a new coin type with Athena Alkidemos (“Protector of the people”) on the reverse, a design that was adopted by many of his successors in the East.

The Emergence of Buddhism in India

The emergence of Buddhism in India marked a profound turning point in the realms of art, culture, philosophy, and religion. Among all the religious faiths, Buddhism played a pivotal role in influencing the Greco-Indian interaction across Asia and Europe during the discussed centuries.

Buddha passed away around 486 to 473 BCE, and while some modern authorities suggest that he didn’t intend to establish a new religion and viewed his doctrine as aligned with the popular cults of his time, his followers elevated his status, almost to divinity, during his lifetime. After his death, they worshipped him through symbols, such as the stupa (commemorating his parinirvana) and the Bodhi tree (representing his enlightenment). Tradition holds that his ashes were divided among disciples and neighboring rulers, with stupas built to house them. Emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century BCE, unearthed and redistributed these ashes, leading to the creation of stupas across India.

The carvings on stupas like those at Bharhut and Sanchi, dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, depict crowds of devout worshippers venerating symbols associated with the Buddha, such as the wheel, an empty throne, footprints, or the pipal tree. These early representations did not directly depict the Buddha himself.

Gandhara Art: The Influence of Buddhism

The Gandhara School of Art and Sculpture, which thrived in the lower Kabul Valley and upper Indus region around Peshawar, played a significant role in producing some of the earliest images of the Buddha. While there is some debate regarding the origin of the first Buddha image, many Indian authorities believe it began in Mathura, south of Delhi.

Around the time of Menander’s death in 140 BCE, the Central Asian Kushans took control of Bactria, ending Greek rule there. Later, the Sakas and Indo-Parthians moved into Gandhara, with the latter dynasty particularly supportive of Greek artistic traditions.

Gandhara Art: The Influence of Buddhism

The Kushan period, especially during the reign of King Kanishka (128–151 CE), is considered the golden era of Gandhara. Buddhism flourished, and the region produced exceptional pieces of Indian sculpture. Cities like Taxila and Peshawar prospered, with Peshawar serving as the capital of a vast empire stretching from Bengal in eastern India to Central Asia. Kanishka was a patron of Buddhism, and his empire facilitated the spread of Buddhism from Central Asia to the Far East, reaching the Han Empire of China. Gandhara became a significant center for Buddhism, attracting Chinese pilgrims eager to witness monuments associated with various Jataka tales.

During this time, Mahāyāna Buddhism thrived in Gandhara, and the representation of Buddha in human form became prominent. New stupas were built, and older ones were expanded. Colossal statues of the Buddha were erected in monasteries and carved into hillsides. Kanishka’s monumental tower in Peshawar, which reached a height of 400 feet, became famous. This tower was noted by travelers like Faxian, Songyun, and Xuanzang. Although it was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, it ultimately met its demise at the hands of Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century CE.

Discovery of Gandhara Ruins and Artifacts

In the 19th century, British soldiers and administrators began to take a keen interest in the ancient history of the Indian subcontinent. During the 1830s, coins from the post-Ashoka period were unearthed, and Chinese travelogues were translated. Figures like Charles Masson, James Prinsep, and Alexander Cunningham played pivotal roles in deciphering the Kharosthi script in 1838 CE. Chinese records provided valuable information about the locations and site plans of Buddhist shrines. The discovery of coins, along with these records, provided essential clues for reconstructing the history of Gandhara. In 1848 CE, Cunningham discovered Gandhara sculptures north of Peshawar. He also identified the site of Taxila in the 1860s CE. From that point on, a significant number of Buddhist statues were unearthed in the Peshawar valley.

Excavations and Discoveries

John Marshall conducted extensive excavations in Taxila from 1912 to 1934 CE. His work revealed separate Greek, Parthian, and Kushan cities, along with numerous stupas and monasteries. These findings played a crucial role in enhancing the understanding of Gandhara’s history and art.

Kanishka’s Coinage and Influence

Kanishka, a prominent Kushan king, issued coins at the beginning of his reign with legends in Greek script and depictions of Greek deities. Later coins featured legends in Bactrian, the Iranian language spoken by the Kushans, along with corresponding Iranic deities. Despite the Bactrian language, all of Kanishka’s coins used a modified Greek script with an additional glyph to represent /š/ (sh), as seen in words like ‘Kushan’ and ‘Kanishka.’

Buddhist coins from Kanishka’s reign are relatively rare but significant. Some depict Kanishka on the obverse and the Buddha standing on the reverse, in a Hellenistic style. The standing Buddha in these coins is portrayed in a Hellenistic manner, featuring the word “Boddo” in Greek script, holding the left corner of his cloak and making the abhaya mudra (gesture of reassurance). Only six known Kushan coins depict the Buddha. Notably, the Buddha’s ears are depicted as unusually large and long, a symbolic exaggeration that may be due to the coins’ small size but can also be seen in later Gandharan Buddha statues typically dated to the 3rd-4th century CE. These statues also exhibit an abundant topknot, often styled in a curly or globular manner.

Artistic Influence: Buddha’s Resemblance to Demetrius

The Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I (205-171 BCE) is believed to have been the prototype for the image of the Buddha. Early Hellenistic representations of the Buddha depicted him in a kingly style, possibly inspired by the deification of Demetrius. As these representations incorporated more Buddhist elements, they became central to the Buddhist movement and influenced the portrayal of the Buddha in Greco-Buddhist art.

Another interesting connection between Demetrius and the Buddha is their shared protector deity. In Gandharan art, the Buddha is often shown under the protection of the Greek god Herakles, depicted with a club (and later a diamond rod) resting over his arm. This unique representation of Herakles is also seen on the reverse of Demetrius’ coins, and it is exclusively associated with him (and his son Euthydemus II), appearing solely on the back of his coins.

A blend of Greek and Buddhist Deities

In Greco-Buddhist art, Greek mythological deities are frequently incorporated into Buddhist representations, creating a harmonious blend. Herakles, represented in the style of the Demetrius coins with a club resting on his arm, often symbolize Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha. Other Greek deities, including Atlas and the wind god Boreas, are also featured. Atlas is often portrayed as a supporting element in Buddhist architectural designs, and Boreas evolved into the Japanese wind god Fujin through Greco-Buddhist influence. Additionally, the mother deity Hariti was inspired by Tyche.

Mathura Art: Birthplace of Krishna and Buddhist Sculptures

Mathura, located about 145 km south of Delhi, is traditionally considered the birthplace of Krishna, one of the two principal deities in the Hindu religion. Mathura is also renowned as one of the earliest centers for producing images of the Buddha, alongside Gandhara.

The human representations of the Buddha began to appear in both Mathura and Gandhara during the 1st century CE. However, the artistic styles of these regions differed. Gandharan Buddha images exhibit clear Greco-Roman inspiration, with the Buddha depicted wearing wavy locks gathered into a chignon and draped in toga-like robes. In contrast, the Mathura Buddha figurines more closely resemble older Indian male fertility deities, featuring shorter, curlier hair and lighter, more translucent robes.

During the Kushan dynasty’s rule, Mathura reached its artistic zenith. The Kushans had Mathura as one of their capitals, alongside Purushapura (Peshawar). The sculptures from Mathura, particularly the colossal standing Buddha images from the early Kushan period, exude tremendous energy. These statues feature broad shoulders, a swollen chest, and firmly planted legs with spaced-apart feet. The Buddha is depicted with a shaven head, a tiered spiral usnīsa (knob on top of the head), a round smiling face, the right arm raised in the abhaya mudrā (gesture of reassurance), and the left arm either akimbo or resting on the thigh. The drapery closely adheres to the body, forming folds over the left arm while leaving the right shoulder bare. The lion throne is often used instead of the lotus throne. Over time, the hair on the Buddha’s head began to be represented as a series of short, flat spirals close to the head, becoming the standard representation across the Buddhist world.

In addition to Buddhist sculptures, Mathura is also known for its sensuous female figures, which adorn the pillars and gateways of both Buddhist and Jain monuments. These figures, richly adorned and sensually posed, harken back to the tradition of yakṣī (female nature deities). Their presence reflects the remarkable tolerance of ancient Indian culture, as these figures of fertility and abundance coexisted with the rise of Buddhism. These female figures are often depicted in various toilet scenes or alongside trees, carrying forward the yakṣī tradition seen in other Buddhist sites like Bhārhut and Sānchi.

Infusion of Greek Words into Sanskrit:

During the period of Greek rule in northern India, there was an infusion of Greek words into Sanskrit, particularly in areas related to writing and warfare. Some examples of Greek words adopted into Sanskrit include:

  • “Ink” (Sanskrit: melā, Greek: μέλαν “melan”)
  • “Pen” (Sanskrit: kalamo, Greek: κάλαμος “kalamos”)
  • “Book” (Sanskrit: pustaka, Greek: πύξινον “puksinon”)
  • “Bridle,” referring to a horse’s bit (Sanskrit: khalina, Greek: χαλινός “khalinos”)
  • “Centre” (Sanskrit: kendram, Greek: κενδρον “kendron”)
  • “Siege mine,” used to undermine the wall of a fortress (Sanskrit: surungā, Greek: σύριγγα “suringa”)
  • “Barbarian,” “blockhead,” “stupid” (Sanskrit: barbara, Greek: βάρβαρος “barbaros”)
  • “Shell” (Sanskrit: cambuka from σαμβύκη)
  • “Flour” (Sanskrit: samita from σεμίδαλις)

Phraotes, the Indo-Parthian King of Taxila, received a Greek education and spoke Greek fluently. This cultural exchange is reflected in his ability to converse in Greek. He shared insights into his upbringing with the Greek philosopher Apollonius, highlighting how he was raised by sages who were particularly fond of those who knew the Greek tongue.

Greek remained in official use in the region until the time of Kanishka (120 CE). Kanishka issued an edict in Greek before translating it into the Aryan language, which likely referred to Bactrian. The transition from Greek to Bactrian on coinage happened early in Kanishka’s reign. The Greek script continued to be used on coins, manuscripts, and stone inscriptions until the period of Islamic invasions in the 7th-8th century CE.

Astronomy and Astrology:

The exchange of knowledge extended to the fields of astronomy and astrology. The Vedanga Jyotisha, dating to around 135 BCE, is one of the earliest Indian texts on Jyotisha (astrology and astronomy). It provides rules for tracking the motions of the sun and moon, as well as advanced astronomical knowledge.

The Yavanajataka, titled “The Saying of the Greeks,” is another early Indian text on astronomy and astrology. It is a translation from Greek to Sanskrit, attributed to “Yavanesvara” (“Lord of the Greeks”), dating to 149–150 CE during the rule of the Western Kshatrapa King Rudrakarman I. This text offers instructions on calculating astrological charts (horoscopes) based on one’s birth time and place. It reflects astrological techniques that had developed in the Greek-speaking world, particularly in Alexandria.

Other treatises like the Paulisa Siddhanta and the Romaka Siddhantas are also attributed to Greco-Roman influence in India. These works incorporate Greek technical nomenclature and methods related to astronomy and mathematics. The influence of the Alexandrian school is evident, and Greek terminology played a significant role in Indian astronomy.

Impact on Thought and Religion:

The impact of the Indo-Greeks on Indian thought and religion remains a subject of debate among scholars. Mahāyāna Buddhism, a distinct Buddhist movement that emerged in the 1st century BCE in the northwestern Indian subcontinent, coincided with the Indo-Greek presence in the region.

Mahāyāna Buddhism encompasses the path of seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, often referred to as the “Bodhisattva Vehicle.” The Mahāyāna tradition and its teachings, as seen in texts like the Lotus Sūtra, have been influenced by various cultural and philosophical sources, potentially including Greek thought. However, the origins of Mahāyāna Buddhism also draw from earlier Buddhist texts and traditions.

It’s worth noting that while some elements of Mahāyāna Buddhism may show influences from the Hellenistic world, fundamental tenets such as the bodhisattva ideal, the concepts of selflessness (anaatman), and emptiness (shunyaata) are not traceable to Greek roots. Instead, they are inherent to earlier Buddhist teachings.

Overall, the Indo-Greek cultural exchange likely played a role in the development of certain aspects of Mahāyāna Buddhism and the exchange of knowledge in fields like astronomy and astrology, but it is just one of several factors contributing to the evolution of Indian thought and religion during this period.

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