Greco-Buddhism: A Brief History


“Walk, monks, on tour for the blessings of the many folks, for the happiness of the many folks, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, blessings and happiness of gods and men. Teach the Dharma that is lovely in its beginning, lovely in its middle, and lovely in its culmination.”

— Lord Buddha


Buddhism as it spread through many cultures in the world have always coexisted and adapted to the local religion and culture. Buddhism never dominates over the indigenous cultures or religions. Buddhism true to the core aim of ending suffering and bringing benefit and happiness to all has been known to illuminate on local practices that are harmful but at the same time will emphasize and encourage local practices that brings goodness and benefit to all.

In Japan Buddhism existed and works so well alongside Shintoism to the point the general practice of Buddhism in Japan is called Japanese Buddhism. In China Buddhism coexisted and harmonized with the native Confucian, Taoist and ancestral worship religion to the point Buddhism in China is called Chinese Buddhism. In Thailand Buddhism embraced the native spirit worship to the point Buddhism in Thailand is called Thai Buddhism. In Sri Lanka Buddhism has adapted alongside the practice and culture of the Sinhalese and Tamils resulting in Ceylonese Buddhism.

Yet the central teaching and approach of all these forms of Buddhism remains the same. This is because the human condition remains the same exactly the same wherever one goes, and thus the teachings of Buddhism remains the same.

When the Buddha first made known the Buddha Dharma to men he made it known in the cultural context of Vedic and Brahmanic India. That was because his audiences were from Vedic and Brahmanic cultural backgrounds from beside the Ganges River. However the Buddha notably adapted his method of teachings and even devised different method of preaching to different people depending upon their level of understanding, their social needs, sensory impairment, their personality types etc..

The Buddha once chided a monk who said that he has given up preaching to one particular village because the people did not get his analogies. The Buddha then asked what was it the people understood. The monk said that the people understood simple and crude analogies. The Buddha said that then one should use simple and crude analogies to teach the people.

The Buddha also encouraged people to continue to practice their cultural rites so long as it harmed no one and brought benefit to oneself and others.  The classical case was with a recent convert who every morning would observe a fire ritual with his family. He asked the Buddha if he could still practice this. The Buddha asked him if the rite harmed anyone or any being. The next question that also needed to be asked is does the rite brings benefit to anyone or any being. Given that the rite harmed no one and the rite united the family every morning the Buddha gave the man his blessings.

The Buddha sometimes even grafted on meaning to certain practices so that people can contemplate on the sublime meanings when they perform it next. In the Sigalovada Sutta Sigala, the main character in this sutra promised his father on his deathbed that he would continue on a family custom daily. The custom involved throwing a pinch of rice in the six directions so that that the Gods will be delighted because he is paying respects to the Gods from the Six Directions. By delighting the Gods he will be free from all harms.

The Buddha did not oppose his practice to honor the Gods but told the man that respecting the six directions actually meant the following. He said that the east represents the parent, the south the teacher; the west the spouse; the north ones friends; above, religious teachers, and below, employees. The six directions represent the six types of human relationships, namely those between parent and child, teacher and pupil, husband and wife, friends, religious teacher and disciple, as well as employer and employee. Honouring the six directions meant fulfilling the reciprocal duties in all these relationships. By fulfilling these one is likely to be free from harm at least from these “directions”.

Buddhism spread across India due to the active missionary work of the monks. Buddhism came quite early to a group of people known as the Yonas in Buddhism. They are better known to modern readers as Greeks in India. Since their arrival to India under Alexander the Great in 326BCE they have established their presence in the urban areas around present day Punjab and the Hindu Kush. Alexander the Great himself established at least five known sizeable Greek settlements in the subcontinent. One is Alexander of the Caucasus which is actually built on the then town of Kapisa. The second town is Taxila when their king surrender to Alexander the Great. The third is Boukephala. The fourth is Nicaea and the fifth is Alexandria on the Indus. In India until the time of the Indo-Greeks most Greeks stayed in Alexandria in the Caucasus or Taxila.

Buddhism was received well and spread quite rapidly among the Greeks of Alexandria of the Caucasus and Taxila to the point that in Asoka’s time these were main Buddhist centres. In the Mahavamsa one of the high monks present in the devotion of the high Thupa was a Yona ( Greek ) monk called Dharmarikkita who brought 30,000 Greek monks from Alexandria on the Caucasus to join him. A monk with the same name was sent North by Asoka to spread the Rock Edicts in the Greco-Bactrian lands. On an interesting note early Buddhist in Sri Lanka base upon the Mahavamsa went to Alexandria of the Caucasus to learn Buddhism.

Yet despite the rise and rise of Buddhism in these cities we also find that in both cities there was a strong following of the traditional Hellenic religion.

The Indo-Greek period starting from 180BCE marked a period of the expansion of the Greeks in India but also the rapid spread of Buddhist philosophy and belief amongst the Greeks in Bactria and India. This is evident from the coin markings of the Greek Kings and the conversion of various Greek kings to Buddhism. It is also evident from the number of stupas that were built during this period. The rise of Greco-Buddhist art is another sign of the popularity of Buddhism among the Greeks, with the Buddha rupa, the Buddha represented in the human form. It was the Greeks who first depicted the Buddha as a human.

Yet at the same time as time the old Greek religion remained. As much as people took refuge in the Dharma they also continued to worship the Greek Gods. In fact with the rise of Greco-Buddhist arts we suddenly see representation of the Greek Gods either acting as guardian to the Buddha or are represented as Devas present during the great event in life of the Buddha’s, like the Devas in support of the Buddha during the Great Departure.

The religion that is practiced by the Indo-Greeks who followed Buddhist philsophy but who continued to adhere to the Greek nomos arkhaios ( customs and cultures ) is known as Greco-Buddhism, also known as Hellenic Buddhism.

What is Greco-Buddhism/Hellenic Buddhism

Greco-Buddhism or Hellenic Buddhism can be seen in two ways. It can be seen as the cultural and religious syncretism between the Hellenic culture and Buddhism. Alternatively it can be seen as the adoption of the Buddhist philosophy by a person with a Hellenic background in the same way as they would adopt Stoicism or Epicureanism for example.

As stated above Buddhism is an inclusive religion. That means it embraces people regardless of their race, culture, ethnicity, gender etc.. Buddhism is also a religion that seeks to co-exist with an existing culture. That is because the human condition is similar regardless of culture or race or religion.

What of the ancient Greek religion then? How does it view embracing a secondary religion or philosophy on top of it? Before we begin, we must remember that the ancient Greek religion was mostly an orthopraxic religion. Orthopraxic means adherence to a common practice. This practice covers both religious rites and also covers other aspects of nomos arkhaios like morality, ethics, customs and conduct. This differentiates the Greek religion from modern religions of the world that emphasizes a lot on orthodoxy, that is adherence to a common faith, belief and thinking. The Greek religion had a slight orthodoxy with regards to theology due to the level of influence of the Iliad and the Odyssey and the work of Hesiod. However theology and cosmology is known to differ from one city to the next, one school to the next and was actually a subject of intense questioning by the philosophers.

The ancient Greeks would therefore have no compulsion learning a new philosophy or worshiping a God unknown to the Greek pantheon if they were to go to a different country. What they would be unwilling to do however would be to break nomos arkhaois or customs. Therefore even though in Classical Greece we had Epicureans openly believing that the Gods did not interfere with the world of men Epicureans still participated in the religious rites of their polis. Because nomos arkhaois is so tied in with the concept of the Gods most Greeks would regard atheos which basically means not honouring the Gods or severing ones relationship with the Gods with trepidation.

Greco-Buddhism therefore is a form of Buddhism where the Buddhist religious and philosophical belief is practiced and integrated alongside Greek customs and reverence to the Greek Gods but also Greek philosophies. In fact as Buddhism became more and more integrated into the life of the Indo-Greeks some Greek Gods like Herakles and Tykhe became seen as guardians of the Buddha and thus Guardian Gods of Buddhism.

Greco-Buddhism left a long lasting legacy on Buddhism. It is because of the Greco-Buddhist that we have the Buddha-rupa or the human images of the Buddha. It is because of the Greco-Buddhist we have such beautiful anthromorphic imagery of the Buddha, Bodhissatvas and Gods.

But more importantly, it is likely because of the Greco-Buddhist and their infusion of Hellenic philosophies into Buddhist philosophies that opened one of the many doors that will lead to a new form of Buddhism. This Buddhism would later spread to China and Japan. It is called Mahayana Buddhism.

Resolving the Differences, Acknowledging the Similarities

Even though the ancient Greek religion was clearly practiced alongside and even integrated into Buddhism, both religions came from different cultural backgrounds and have different emphasis. As a result there are bound to be some differences in both religions.

However despite this there are also many similarities between Hellenism and Buddhism. This article will also address the similarities.

This portion of the article will attempt to point out the differences and resolve those differences. It will also acknowledge the similarities that exist between Hellenism and Buddhism.

Resolving the Differences:-

1.      Gods? I thought Buddhism espoused atheism!!

Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism in general is a non-theistic religion which makes it very different from atheism or theistic religion. Non-theism means that the Gods or supernatural beings are not central to the religion or a requirement to the religion.

That means that in Buddhism one can certainly believe in a God and still be a Buddhist. It also means that in Buddhism one can be uncertain of the existence of the Gods and still be a Buddhist. It also means that one can totally reject the existence of anything remotely supernatural and be a hard core atheist and still be a Buddhist.

In Buddhism our belief does not centre on a God. It centres on the human condition. It centres on reality. Whether one believes that a God exist or not is up to the individual.

The Buddhist doctrine notably does not deny the existence of deities either. There are numerous sutras with stories of Sakka appearing or Devas appearing. How one view it can be either literal or metaphorical, with many Buddhist viewing it as metaphorical. The argument commonly given is that the ancient Indians had a tendency to state the presence of the Gods for what is natural or psychological phenomenon. For example if a lightning followed by a thunder were to occur when a sermon is given the ancient would attribute it to Indra and describe the phenomenon as Indra appearing. However there are Buddhists who take description of the Gods literally pointing out that the ancients actually had words for lightning and thunder and would use it if they think it mundane.

However unlike other major religions in the world Buddhism believe that even if the deities exist they are at the crux of it unable to help us end our personal Dukkha, our personal state of unsatisfactoriliness, our state of suffering. That is because our personal Dukkha at the root of it lies with our craving, and our craving is ultimately born from our own ignorance or self delusion.

Since we are already in Reality, Enlightenment is present at any time. If we can at this very moment wake up to Reality, which is precisely what the Buddha is, a man who has woken up to the Truth, then we will cease to become ignorant and deluded. The moment this happens our craving end and so will our suffering.

Different schools give different explanations as to why we have so much trouble becoming Enlightened. The traditional Theravadin explanation is that owing to a lot of negative causes one gain many negative and wrong views. By applying the Eightfold path, starting off with improving ones wisdom, then improving ones morality then mental discipline ( Panna, Sila, Samadhi ) you will be able to become Enlightened. If one has a wrong view owing to poor wisdom then there is no point even trying to perfect ones conduct because conduct is extremely tied in with ones perception of the world.

The Dhammapadha from the Canto of the Pairs sums this nicely.

Mind precedes all mental states,

Mind is their chief,

They are all mind-wrought,

If with an impure mind a person acts or speaks,

Suffering follows him like a wheel that follows the foot of the ox.


Mind precedes all mental states,

Mind is their chief,

They are all mind-wrought,

If with a pure mind a person acts or speaks,

Happiness follows him like his never departing shadow.

The Mahayana school in general agrees with the above view though it is generally believed that sila, panna and samadhi need to be applied together. It is generally agreed that if a being can perceive the Truth directly they would become Enlightened. There is technically in Mahayana nothing that is stopping any individual achieving Enlightenment even at this very moment except self imposed impediments owing to our own wrong views. As the Zen philosophy goes, the wise reject what they conceive for what they see and observe. The fool rejects what he sees and observes in favour of what he conceives.

As the famous Zen question goes:-

Student:- Master, teach me the way to liberation.

Master:- Who binds you?

Student:- No one master.

Master:- Then why seek liberation?

Given that what binds a person from being Enlightened is actually found within the individual themselves, self imposed upon themselves and not by any other individuals or forces, neither the Buddha nor the Gods can make an individual to become Enlightened if those causes continue to exist. The Buddha can certainly help guide a person towards Enlightenment but cannot grant a person Enlightenment. Only the individual can do that himself.

Therefore to put ones full faith and full devotion into the Gods or to the Buddha with the aim that they will make you Enlightened is in most schools of Buddhism unreasonable.

Note that even in the devotional schools of Buddhism like the Pure Land schools salvation is the Buddha getting the individual to the Pure Land. The mental cultivation and wisdom is still very much for the individual to develop on their own in the Pure Land.

In Theravada Buddhism the Gods are said to be unable to help a person become Enlightened for a second reason. The Gods themselves though far wiser and more ethical than men are not themselves Enlightened and are thus unable to help an individual towards Enlightenment. They can guide an individual towards wisdom and certainly can easily recognize an Enlightened individual but are themselves according to Theravada not Enlightened.

In Mahayana Buddhism however Gods who are Bodhissatvas are able to help beings to become Enlightened by virtue they are beings who are already Enlightened. The only reason they are not Buddhas is that they gave up their Enlightenment so that they may help all beings towards Enlightenment. Note that once again the Bodhissatvas are unable to make a person Enlightened but they can certainly guide an individual towards Enlightenment.

In Buddhism however just because the deities are unable to make us Enlightened should not preclude one from honouring deity if one actually believes in a deity or has an experience that suggest the existence of deities.

As a side note many monks who are openly atheist still encourage people to pray and offer to the Buddha and to the Gods. The reason for this is that they believe that this is a meditative process. The act of praying and lighting a candle or lighting incense is a form of meditation. It focuses the mind as one pray and performs a ritualized action at the same time. The sense of peace and calm that follows from this meditative process is beneficial to both oneself and to others regardless of whether there truly is a deity a not.

In Buddhism if the deities have any role it is as protector of the Buddhist and the Buddhist faith so that they may engage in the path towards Enlightenment unimpeded and unharmed. The Aradhana which is known as invitation to the Gods is traditionally recited during very public sermons in more traditional temples. In it the Gods are welcomed to the sermon and the people then ask the Gods to please look kindly upon the mortals. Then the Gods are asked to please protect the Buddhist in the room from illnesses, cruel and unjust authority, thieves, villains, fire, flood, drought, famine, other natural tragedies, bad spirits, uncivilized beings, tragedies caused by people, ferocious animals, accidents and misfortune.

Theistic and agnostic Buddhist therefore pray to the Gods for our safety, our protection, our well being and the physical portion of our health. We honor them because they continue to watch over us and keep us safe so that we may live our life in peace and continue on our Buddhist practice. We also believe that they can guide us towards wisdom and towards doing good. However, we do not believe that they can grant us Enlightenment or end our ignorance and suffering or make us good because of sheer devotion to them.

The Buddhist religion being one that emerged from a primarily Vedic culture that was deeply theistic ended up adopting a few Vedic Gods as the protectors of Buddhism. The primary two Gods are Indra and Brahma.  In popular belief it is said that all deities from the Trayastrimsa and Tusita heavens are protectors of Buddhism. They are however usually unnamed.

As Buddhism encountered more and more cultures across Asia its list of guardian deities increased. These deities tend to be culture specific or school specific. For example in Chinese Buddhism even though Sangharma ( Guan Gong ) is considered a major guardian God of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism does not even realize that such a guardian god exist in Buddhism. On the other hand Lopon Rinpoche, a Tibetan Guru and Guardian Bodhissatva is totally unknown in Chinese Buddhism.

Despite this cross reverence is common. A Chinese Buddhist in a Tibetan monastery will still pay homage to Lopon Rinpoche as will a Tibetan monk in a Chinese Buddhist temple to Guan Gung.

The Greeks being a culture that adopted Buddhism also had Greek Gods that were associated as guardian Gods of Buddhism. This is perfectly acceptable in Buddhism. From a Hellenic viewpoint the Greek Gods can be guardian over many things, from guardian of cities to guardian of philosophies and for a Greek God to be a guardian of a philosophical and religious idea popular amongst the Greeks is not in contradiction to the general approach of the ancient Greek religion.

2.      Offerings? I thought Buddhist do not kill.

I presume that the above statement is due to the concept of animal sacrifice present in the ancient Greek religion.

Let us get one thing straight. Even though animal sacrifice exist in ancient Greek religion and certainly played a very important role in Greek polis religion, majority of offerings are what is known as bloodless offerings. They consist of libation, burning of incense, offering of grains or non meat based food products.


Animal sacrifice is practiced less frequently in the overall ancient Greek religion as most people would popularly conceive. We think animal sacrifice as common because we focus on the public religion of large cities like Athens. We forget that for most part the Greek religion was actually based on home practices or in small villages and towns that also had their public cult. To perform any animal sacrifice is usually a large undertaking for the average Greek families or poorer and smaller villages. Most offerings in the ancient Greek religion would therefore have been bloodless.


In fact a lot of “animal sacrifices” in ancient Greek family based religious practices was in fact done at the same time when a family is going to have a feast or have a meal with meat. Ancient Greek diet for most of the population was fruit, grain, milk and vegetable based with meat only present once in a while. That is because to raise a cow or a few pigs required people to sacrifice up either land in the case of a cow or food products in the case of a pig to raise them. As a result for most part having meat is not a daily event. As a result animal sacrifice is not a daily event either.


When something like a cow or a chicken is going to be slaughtered for meat usually the families will take the opportunity to then also devote the chicken to a God or a few Gods. However the actual amount of meat that goes to the God is minimal if at all. The ancient Greeks had a few beliefs about what the Gods partook in animal sacrifice. Some believed based upon the influence of Hesiod’s that they partook only in the bones and thus the bones are left out for the Gods, others believe that it is the smell of cooking meat that they partook in whilst others believe that the Gods would have a very small portion of the meat. Either way, animal sacrifice is usually a prelude to a feast, with the animal sacrificed being the feast itself.


The same goes for the major Greek polis sacrifices. After an animal is sacrificed they are usually cooked and then either the bones or a very tiny portion of meat ( one classical philosopher states that the actual amount of meat Apollo got offered from the sacrifice of a cow was a small, thin slice ) get offered to the God. The rest goes to the people participating in the ceremony and a feast ensues not long after. For many people probably the only time they have meat is during such festivities.


So looking at the issue from this viewpoint even though animal sacrifice is part of the ancient Greek religion, animal sacrifice for most part is actually a prelude to a feast in honour of the God. Animal sacrifice is not the animal sacrifice modern people think about. Animal sacrifice is no different in many respects to a modern BBQ party except it has a religious component at the start.


In fact by the Hellenistic era there are many notable philosophers, the most famous being Porphyrys who were against the concept of animal sacrifice altogether and advocated for bloodless offerings only. One philosopher during the Hellenistic era sarcastically pointed out that the same God that is pleased by a hecatomb is also pleased by the burning of a single incense.


Interestingly enough the idea that it is the pious act offering that matters in maintaining a reciprocal relationship with the Gods and not the type or quality of offering already found root in the Classical era. The Oracle of Delphi when famously inquired which is the more pious, a very rich man who offered an ox for the festivity day or a poor farmer who everyday would offer a pinch of barley, the answer was the poor farmer who offered the barley.


So it seems that animal sacrifice is not a core part of the ancient Hellenic religion. What is a core part of the Hellenic religion is offering to the Gods. Performing bloodless offering exclusively does not make one break nomos arkhaios and the reciprocal relationship with the Gods. What is important ultimately is that one offers to the God as part of the process of reciprocity which is the cornerstone of ancient Hellenic worship.


Now let us go to the Buddhist part of the equation. The Precepts ask that all Buddhists refrain from taking life unnecessarily and to treasure the life of all living things. This is because taking of life causes suffering to the creature that it is taken from.


Though majority of lay Buddhist are omnivores most do try their best to increase their vegetable, fruit and grain content and limit their meat consumption. Meat consumption is not per say forbidden to lay Buddhist and even to monks. The Buddha was aware that humans require the occasional small consumption of meat or animal based products like egg or milk in order to remain healthy. In a more scientific term, humans need B12 to survive. B12 can only be acquired from animal based products like meat, egg or milk, with the highest content of B12 being meat. B12 can circulate within the human body for three months before it starts depleting itself out. For some reason the Buddha recognized this phenomenon 2500 years back.


Given this he did not make it a rule as some Jain teachers of his days did for his followers to all be vegans. However he did advocate for the lay Buddhists to limit their intake of meat and to try to keep to a mostly vegetable, grain, fruit, and non meat based animal product diet like milk. This is both for the purpose of health and also for the purpose of sparing the life of animals. For the monks they are allowed to eat meat only if freely offered meat. In fact the Buddha’s last meal from Chunda is speculated to either be some strange mushroom or actually a style of cooking pork!!


Now offering to the living and breathing order of monks versus offerings to the Buddha, Bodhissatvas and the Guardian Gods are two entirely different affairs. Offerings to the monks are meant to fulfil the Buddhist reciprocal obligation to the Sangha. The Sangha provides guidance to the people and spiritual solace to the people. The people in turn provides food and sustenance for members of the Sangha. Both sides benefit from the offering.


Offerings to the Buddha, Bodhissatvas and Guardian Gods on the other hand is different. The Buddha, Bodhissatvas and Guardian Gods are considered an extension of the Sangha but they unlike the living Sangha do not need your food or donations to survive or run an organization. Offering done in this situation is therefore more as a mark of respect and a symbolic gesture of thanks and gratefulness by reciprocating a gift.


However the being who benefits from this symbolic gesture is not the Buddha, Bodhissatva or Guardian Gods, it is the person who offers it that benefits from it. Even if none of the above beings exist the very act of offering is in itself a meditative process and can grant a person a sense of peace, calm and relief. This on its own has much psychological and physical benefit. Focusing on the symbolic meaning behind an act of offering can also provide a sense of peace, hope and relief.  Lighting of a flame on a candle and watching the flame dance to life could represent ignorance and darkness being dispelled by the light. Offering of flower and incense represents transiency of things beautiful and pleasant. A fruit symbolizes the cycle of cause and effect.


In Buddhism however offering of meat or meat based product in rites to either the Buddha, Bodhisattvas or to the Guardian Gods is either strongly discouraged to being outrightly banned in many temples. The symbolism behind it is negative, the taking of life. The greater symbolism behind it is even more negative, perpetuation of suffering.


Offering of meat or meat based product is not a sign of gratefulness or thanks because as any Buddhist would realize the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and the Guardian Gods abhor the taking of life, to which the meat or meat product symbolizes.


Needless to say any form of animal sacrifice is totally out of the question and utterly unBuddhistic.


However as stated above in Hellenismos, bloodless offerings are a perfectly acceptable form of offering to the Gods and there is nothing wrong from a Hellenic point of view to do bloodless offerings exclusively. Offering to maintain the reciprocal bond between mortal and Gods is what matters. Likewise from a Buddhist point of view the act of praying and offering is considered psychologically beneficial regardless of whether one believe that the deities exist or not. So long as the offering is bloodless from a Buddhist viewpoint the offering is fine. From a Hellenic viewpoint the act of offering in itself is pious.


Therefore from a Greco-Buddhist standpoint bloodless offerings are not only pious, it is acceptable from both the Greek nomos arkhaois viewpoint and the Buddhist viewpoint.


In fact if we move one step further, in Buddhism we believe that seeding a good cause will result in a good outcome as part of the process of cause and effect. From a Greco-Buddhist viewpoint therefore offering to the Theois is in effect sowing another line of good cause as one maintains a good reciprocal relationship with the Gods. Therefore from a Greco-Buddhist practice viewpoint continuous offering and worship to the Theois is yet another method of seeding good cause which will eventually lay the foundations for good results.


3.      Can we still drink wine?


One of the biggest misunderstanding both within Buddhism and outside Buddhism is with regards to wine and alcohol. The Buddhist precept of “Refrain from intoxication” is often thought to be equated to “Do not drink alcohol.”


Yet Buddhist get shocked when they see that in the Buddha Carita the Buddha shared a sip of wine with someone who offered him a small portion of wine.

Refrain from intoxication does not equal to not drinking alcohol entirely. Refrain from intoxication means if you’re to drink alcohol you should do so with no intention of getting intoxicated nor should you get intoxicated from it. If you like the taste of wine, to drink a tiny amount and not get drunk or mind altered from it is permissible in the Buddhist faith.


The injunction remember is against intoxication, not against alcohol.


Interestingly enough the ancient Greeks themselves even though they were tolerant towards the festival associated with drunken revelry like during the Dionysia clearly does not see getting intoxicated on a frequent basis as acceptable. The popular concept that the Greeks tolerated or even celebrated frequent and recurrent drunkardness is clearly untrue. The ancient Greeks in general had a far higher tolerance for drunkardness than the Buddhist but it does not mean that the ancient Greeks condoned recurrent drunkardness.


Dionysius, the God of Wine already clearly stated that only the first three glasses of alcohol goes to him, the subsequent glasses starts going to various kakosdaemons like quarrel.


So Greco-Buddhist by all means can still drink wine. They just should control their intake, to savour the wonderful taste of the wine as opposed to getting hungover the next morning from the wine.


4.      I thought that Buddhism espoused monasticism which is not really tolerated in the ancient Greek culture? How do we reconcile that?


The ancient Greek religion is clearly a religion of the community and thus any attempt to splinter the community apart or draw a subset of people from the community in the case of the Pythagorean monasticism and live in communes outside the flow of normal society is not well tolerated.


Buddhist monasticism and Pythagorean monasticism are two totally separate entities. The Buddhist monks clearly when they withdrew from the world stayed in the monastery to meditate and to contemplate. Monks are however not withdrawn from society, they have to continuously engage with society and contribute to society.


Herein lies the difference between the Pythagorean monastics who ends up creating their own splinter community versus the Buddhist monks are very much part of the society they stay in and live in. The Buddhist monastery is actually seen as an extension of society and in fact the way the monasteries are run is so that they are an integral and reachable part of the local community. Most monasteries have purpose built buildings to be made into orphanages or the shelter for the homeless or those in need in society. The Buddhist monasteries also provided services directly to society that would otherwise be unavailable in their absence.


Since monks were trained to read and write and mostly had access to literatures and medical training the monasteries acted as the local school for the community, local library and also the local clinics.


Monks also provide the psychological support for the people. A monk cannot spend all day meditating by Vinaya ruling. He must spend some of his day doing something either for the monastery or for the society he lives in. Often this is when the monk listen to the problems of the people and try to find a solution. At other times if there are no problems to be found that can include sweeping the streets of the city to keep it clean!!


So in this sense the Buddhist religion is truly a religion of the community and is not in contradiction to the Hellenic view on society.


Acknowledging the Similarities:-


1.      Morality and Goodness is inherent in Man


The ancient Greeks like the Buddhist believed that morality and virtue is something that is inherent to humans. Morality and virtue is part of the individual’s personal development and reflects very much on one’s upbringing, education and personal fibre. Goodness is also believed to be something that is inherent in an individual. All beings by their very tendency have the potential to do Good, and in fact part of the development of the individual will be to nurture a person’s virtue and morality which is a reflection of this Good.


2.      Badness, Wickedness, Lack of Virtue but Not Sin


The ancient Greeks like the Buddhist believe that when a person commit something bad or something wicked it is considered to be due to a lack of virtue, wickedness or badness. It is however not related remotely to the Christian concept of sin.


Such a concept is absent in both Buddhism and ancient Greek thinking.


We must first note what a Christian definition of sin is. Sin is usually taken to mean doing something that is against the Good. This is the way the word sin was used in by the Neoplatonics and was clearly used again and again in Sallustius on the Gods and the World.


Sin has a completely different connotation when it comes to the Christians. Christians though they believe like the Neoplatonics that sin is when one does something against the Good, sin to them is more going against God.


Christians generally assume that the Christian God being a Good God is the source for all Good. Therefore to go against the order of the God of the Christian would be synonymous to going against the Good.


However here is where the problem starts. The Christian God has track record for actions that would not usually be considered either virtuous or good. For example the same Christian God that is the yardstick for all things good according to book of 2 Chronicles of the Bible helped Abijah slain 500,000 Israelites. It is therefore his will and his desire to kill 500,000 Israelite.


Now suppose some mighty individual came forth to halt this slaughter, this person would technically be sinning from a Christian viewpoint as he went against God. Worse this person is technically against the Good because he went against the Christian God. Never mind that half a million people is dying, going against the Christian God is synonymous with going against the Good.


Whereas from a Hellenic and Buddhist viewpoint that individual would be the most virtuous man indeed.  This leads us to another similarity, a fixed concept of Good, not an arbitrary concept of Good.


3.      Fixed Concept of Good, not Arbitary Good


The Hellenic and Buddhist believed in a fixed Good, even though what that Good maybe is interpreted differently from philosopher to philosopher. However this Good is believed to manifest itself in the form of virtues, morality, ethics etc..


Hellenic philosophies that espouses that the Gods are Good like the Neoplatonic belief had to reject the literal interpretation of the myths popular among the uneducated because if the Gods are Good they therefore cannot do what the popular myths scandalously say that they do. Good is believed to manifest itself in the forms of various virtues and also an inability to manifest the disvirtues. If the myths are taken literally many Gods will have trouble being seen as Good. Other philosophers had a second solution to this problem by saying that the Gods love the Good which is why the virtuous and good individuals get blessed. The Gods themselves are not the Good but the Gods love the Good and praise the Good and uphold individuals who are virtuous.


This is different from the Christians who believe that God is Good regardless of what He may do. God can order the death of 500,000 individuals and even participate in it. If anyone tries to stop God woe be to the wicked, sinful man who tries to prevent the carnage and massacre for he is against God and thus against the Good. God can cause people to lie and to twist their tongues and still be good. God can cause brothers to go against brothers and still be Good. God can order his angels to slay the newborn and still be Good. In fact God promises that at the end of days he will unleash more horrors, and woe to the peaceful, kind individual who happens to be around at the time. If that person tries to lessen the horrors unleashed by God that individual will be sinful for he or she is going against God thus against the Good


This is the difference between the fixed Good versus and the arbitrary Good. Our concept of Good does not change based upon the whim of a divinity.


4.      Personal development and excellence as virtues


Hellenism and Buddhism both share the common belief that personal development and excellence in what one does in life as virtues. For a person to develop critical thinking, rational thought, logics, internalized morality and virtue, a strong personal fortitude, leadership skills, debating skills, organizational skills, personal awareness and spiritual understanding which makes a person a better individual is considered very important in both Hellenism and Buddhism. Both pour in a great deal of effort in developing these virtues in the individual which is believed to be a product of education and upbringing.


These are not traits considered virtues in many cultures and traits like critical thinking and debating skills were probably not traits treasured during Middle Age Europe for example. In many countries up till today having too strong a personal fortitude is considered a disvirtue. In many very religious countries having too much personal awareness and far too strong a personal spiritual fortitude is still considered a disvirtue.


Excellence is also considered to be a virtue in Hellenism and Buddhism. Excellence in ones job, excellence in ones skills, excellence in ones life, excellence is praise and is seen as a virtue.


Whilst many other cultures delights in the excellence of individuals very few go out to classify it as a virtue like the Buddhist and Hellenist did.


5.      Individual and Society as Coexistant and Reciprocal


Hellenism and Buddhism are unique in that both that place equal emphasis on both the individual and on society. Hellenism emphasizes a lot on an individual’s personal development but also on the individual’s duty to society and also the society’s duty back to the individual.


Hellenism and Buddhism place a lot of onus on parents, teachers, elders, and society in general to develop an individual.


At the same time both view that every individual needs to contribute back and be a functional member of the society they belong to. Individuals at the very least are supposed to participate in the local economy and local civic duties whenever possible and to be good citizens or good community members. They are supposed to ensure local security by first making sure that they do not do things that might harm local security. There is also a hope that the individual will ultimately do something that will better their society they are in. In Buddhism interestingly enough a monk is considered an ultimate expression of contribution back to the society as a monk takes on the duty to solve the most difficult problem society has, emotions and personal issues!!! These are for the monks to resolve.


Finally, both Hellenism and Buddhism believe that society has a duty towards the individual. The duty can come in the form of justice. The duty can come in the form of security. The duty can come in the form of education.


It may surprise many people but most cultures only emphasizes the duty of an individual to society, but not the other way round.


6.      Nothing to Excess, The Middle Way


An interesting aspect of Hellenism and Buddhism is their emphasis on nothing to excess or the Buddhist Middle Way. Nothing to excess is one of the most important Maxim to Hellenism as is the Middle Way to Buddhism. All the Delphic Maxims are to be interpreted in the light of Nothing to Excess. All Buddhist precepts and practices are to be interpreted also in light of the Middle Way.


For example Help Your Friends, one of the maxims even though is good if done to excess can destroy an individual to the point the person who is trying to help is friends would soon require financial or psychological help himself.


The Middle Way likewise tells individuals to be neither too slack or too stringent on their practices. The Middle Way especially applies to some aspect of Buddhist virtues like, “Be sparing in your use of resources”. If someone applied this to the extreme they would become a miser which is harmful to all. Only by applying the Middle Way does a person becomes a person who saves but still spends appropriately.


Note the concept of nothing to excess is once again not present in every culture or religion. Some cultures for example encourage deep religious fervor.



What was the Belief and Practices of the Ancient Greco-Buddhist?


With exception to the Milinda Panha which was probably composed during the end of the Indo-Greek period there is no literary guide to help us discern exactly what the Greco-Buddhist believed.


However based upon the nuministic evidence from coins and sculptures of the era and from the writings of the Milinda Panha we can say safely that they like all Buddhist in the world they adhered to the core tenets of the Buddhist faith that unites both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.


They therefore likely accepted the general idea of the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path, the Three States of Existence, the philosophy of dependent origination, cause and effect, and the Middle Way ( these are the oldest and core Buddhist concepts that were present even during the 2nd Buddhist Council).


They likely adhered in so far as they are able to the Five Precepts, namely to refrain from taking life, to refrain from stealing, to refrain from improper sexual behaviour, to refrain from deceiving, and to refrain from a state of intoxication. They also like took refuge in the Triple Gem, namely the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.


The Greco-Buddhist very much like modern Theravadin and all pre-Mahayana Buddhist believe that the Buddha though a great philosopher, found the way to end dukkha and was free from passion he was still only a man. When he reached Mahaparanirvana  the Buddha expired from the world and what we have left to guide us is the Darma.


However there is evidence that they likely went one step further. They probably also saw the Buddha as a Hero, a concept unknown to Vedic Indians but present among the Greeks. The evidence that they saw the Buddha as more than just a mere mortal but as something quasi divine comes from the dedication of Meridarch Theodorus which calls the Buddha “Bhagavat”, meaning Lord but also implying a certain degree of divinity. This is in fact the first known use of the word Bhagavat with the Buddha. In standard Buddhist literature both Theravadin and Mahayana it will take another century or two before it emerges.


It is in fact more likely that the Indo-Greeks elevated the status of the Buddha to a Hero than any other cultural subgroups who were Buddhist at the time. The Greeks of the Hellenic era were generous in dispensing the status of Hero, most notably to their kings posthumously but also to various classical philosophers like Socrates and even to Homer. When a person gets given a Hero status they are usually given their due in terms of worship.


The elevation of the status of the Buddha from man to a Hero or quasi-divinity likely had a hand in the emergence of concepts like Celestials Buddha and Dhyani Buddhas present in Mahayana but not in Theravada.


We also know that the Greco-Buddhist still honoured the Greek Gods. However they were likely to have modified their rituals to suit the Buddhist faith. Offering which is a central part of worship of the ancient Hellenics continued but this was most likely bloodless.


Whilst there is no direct evidence that all Greco-Buddhist offerings went bloodless we know that this is the usual trend in all other countries Buddhism enters. In Vedic India cities where Buddhist were the majority only performed bloodless offerings to the Gods, a total detraction from the Vedic tradition of the day.  In China the Buddhist population continued to honour the Chinese Gods but performed exclusively bloodless offerings to the Chinese Gods associated with Buddhism.  In Thailand we know that the spirit worship went from one where animal sacrifice was practiced to one where only rice, flower and grains were given. There is no reason to believe that the Greeks who were Buddhist would have buckled the trend.


The ancient Greeks also had a tendency to syncretise a local deity with their Greek deity wherever they went. This is based upon the belief that the Greek Gods are known the world over except under a different guise, name and cult in different places to different cultures. When a local deity has been associated with a Greek deity a cult that celebrates the local guise of the Greek deity would then be established. In Babylon for example a cult for Aphrodite Ishtar was established ( though the Greeks had long held the belief that Ishtar and Aphrodite were one and the same down from the time of Herodotus ) while in Ai Khanoum we know that the worship of Artemis Anahita, Anahita being the local Goddess of the waterway was established.


The Greco-Buddhist applied the same principal to the Buddhist deities. We know that they syncretised two Vedic Buddhist deities, namely Vajrapani and Hariti with two Greek deities that were popular in the Indo-Greek period, namely Herakles and Tykhe. This resulted in the syncretic deity Herakles Vajrapani and Tykhe Hariti.


Other deities were also likely associated with Buddhism. We know that Zeus was depicted with a Buddhist gesture on the coins of many Indo-Greek kings. Usually when a deity is depicted with this gesture he is usually a Buddhist guardian deity. Given that Zeus and Indra has been equated early on in the history of the Greeks in India and given that Indra was seen as a Buddhist Guardian God it is very likely that a syncretic Zeus-Indra was seen as a Buddhist Guardian God by the Greeks. Our support for this come from our only known depiction of Zeus in Greco-Buddhist art outside the coins. This shows a Zeus with the headgear of Indra watching the Buddha.


Boreas is another God that frequently appeared in Greco-Buddhist murals and is also one of the few Gods whose shawl iconography persist in all other later depiction of Buddhist wind Gods. Boreas is frequently depicted in Greco-Buddhist art as watching over the Buddha. Athena surprisingly is another Goddess that frequently appears within a Buddhist context, mostly in the coinage of Kings. In the coins of Menander II and in some coins of Menander I she is depicted performing the Buddhist mudra which indicates that she is once again seen as a Buddhist Guardian deity.


The Greco-Buddhist being Greeks were also likely to be students of the various Hellenic philosophies like Epicureanism, Stoicism, Scepticism etc.. There is a possibility that they integrated these philosophies into their Buddhist belief. In fact modern day historians suggest there is a good chance that it is this integration of various Greek philosophies into Buddhism was another contributing factor to the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, though this is another issue entirely with some historians favouring this while others rejecting this.



The Very Rough Guide to Reconstructing Hellenic Buddhism




This is a general guide only and by no means should ever regarded as authoritative. This is a guide only. It is written only from the perspective of the author and the understanding of the author on the Greco-Buddhist practice. This guide is meant to help in practice but is only a guide.


Please also keep in mind that Reconstructionism is not a re-enactment. It is about adapting the wisdom, philosophy and spirituality of the past into modern lifestyle. Reconstructionism is not about reading 100 books or finding a particular day to re-enact. Greco-Buddhism is a form of Hellenism which adapts Buddhism into itself, or a form of Buddhism that embraces the Hellenic culture.


Remember the words of the Buddha which goes:-


“He who reads the sutra much but does not practice teachings therein is like a cowherd who only counts the cows of others. He does not partake in the Holy Life.”




First and foremost I assume that you are already a practicing Buddhist and you regard adhering to the Precepts, Taking Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha ( Sangha here meaning you will support the various Sangha be they Theravadin, Mahayana and Vajrayana )  and understanding and applying the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path, the Three Marks of Existance, Dependent Origination, Karma ( Cause and Effect ) and the Middle Way as what is necessary to becoming a Buddhist. You like all Buddhists seek to end ignorance because you know through ignorance craving is born and through craving dukkha, roughly translated as suffering.


You like all Buddhist realize that Enlightenment can be now as Enlightenment is the ability to see and realize Truth and Reality, which is all around us and within us. What holds us back is the human condition.


As a side note, regardless if you are a Mahayana, Theravadin or Vajrayana Buddhist or adhere to the various Abhidhamma philosophies this guide can still be used. I write this guide in a non sectarian way and keep things to the core principles that all Buddhist agrees. This is mean to keep the guide universal to all Buddhists. You may modify some ideas here based upon your specific view of the Buddha and the teachings of the Buddha. For example if you believe in the Dhyani Buddhas and the Celestial Bodhissatvas and Buddhas in keeping with the philosophy of nirvana with remainder then it is likely you will not see the Buddha as a mere Hero but as something greater than a Theoi.


Buddhism in terms of philosophy and form has expanded since 100BCE and all modern Buddhist and that includes anyone who practices Greco-Buddhism should learn of those. Reconstructionism is not about living in the past. Reconstructionism is adapting the wisdom and culture of the past to modernity.


(As a disclaimer, my Buddhist tradition is that of Mahayana, with my teachings coming from the Tiendai school and the Ch’an school. My inherent belief on top of the core Buddhist teachings is that the Buddha Nature is inherent in all beings, ( Compassion and Love ) is essential towards Bodhicitta and in the concept of Sunyata. From a Hellenic viewpoint I am a Neoplatonic Hellenic with a Stoicist leaning. )


This guide also assumes that you are either a follower of Hellenismos or are interested in the Hellenic religion and culture and wants to honor the Theoi. However you want to keep it consistent with the Buddhist context and want to make sure that you only honour Hellenic deities known to be Guardians of Buddhism and not some deity that is utterly averse to Buddhism.


Reconstructing Greco-Buddhism/Hellenic Buddhism:-


The Human Condition that pervades humans in 2008AD is exactly the same Human Conditions that afflicts humans in 150BCE. Even though our physical problems have changed, the cause that give rise to so many things that causes Dukkha in humans remain the same.


Dukkha is often translated to the word suffering yet this meaning is not exactly what the Buddha had in mind. Dukkha in fact translates to unsatisfactorily state of affairs. It is not necessarily suffering, it is not necessarily happiness. It is akin to a wheel that is out of kilter. Instead of spinning smoothly it is spinning with a wobble. That is in fact the meaning of Dukkha.


Dukkha is the end result of two other causes. Dukkha is born from craving. Craving to be near or having more of something one desire. Craving to be away or have none of what one does not desire. Craving for existence. Craving for non existence.


If one does not get or has not fulfilled what one craves for then personal suffering follows. Suffering can also be inflicted upon others as one strikes out to reach for what one craves for. Most human actions, including psychotic actions are all done because an individual is reacting to some form of craving, however transient it may be.


Now what is the cause for craving? Craving is born from ignorance of reality, ignorance of the situation, ignorance of cause and effect, ignorance of dependent origination, and deluding oneself about reality.


Now if this sounds preposterous think on this. Most of us in our childhood really love sweets. Our parents in fact learnt that to control our behaviour they can use sweets both as punishment and rewards. At the first sight of sweets you can have children practically eating a tenth of their body mass in terms of sweets over an hour.


Yet as adults we no longer behave as such. Most sane adults do not guzzle down one kilogram of sweets in one standing nor can we be so easily tempted by sweets. If there is a packet of sweets in our cabinet we do not look upon at every few minutes with the aim of having one. Why?


Is it because sweet now taste bitter to us? I think not. Most of us still find sweet tasty and delicious. Is it because we dislike sweets? I think we will be hard pressed to find a person who genuinely disliked sweets.


The reason we no longer crave sweets in the same way as a child is because of our deeper understanding of reality. We know that when we take sweets as regularly as a child would ideally want to we fill up our body with a lot of unnecessary sugar. We subject our teeth to decay. We make ourselves more prone to diabetes. We make ourselves more prone to obesity.


Unlike children as well we know of “dependent origination”. Children inherently believe that they can “get away” from rotten tooth from eating sweets. As adults we know that if we eat a packet of sweets daily we cannot ultimately get away from the ultimate consequence of obesity and diabetes. If a cause has been sown a consequence must arise.


This is why we no longer crave. We no longer crave not because the sweet is any less tasty. We no longer crave because we have a deeper understanding of reality and we also know cause and consequence.


And thus because of this we do not suffer dukkha originating from sweets. You can take away the two sweets from my table at work or put two sweets on my table. It neither overjoys me to see to sweets on my table, nor does not make me sad to see no sweets on the table. Dukkha has been extinguished in this respect.


This shows that Dukkha can indeed be extinguished.  Dukkha finds its root in craving and craving finds its origination in ignorance and delusion of reality Buddhist therefore seek to end ignorance by seeking to wake up to Reality. By perceiving things as they really are, and not as we conceive of them we become Enlightened and thus ending Dukkha.


Buddhist thus strive to follow the Eightfold path, by cultivating panna ( Wisdom ) which encompasses right view and right intention, by cultivating sila ( Morality ) which encompasses right speech, right action and right livelihood and by cultivating Samadhi ( Mental Discipline ) right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.


We also seek to ensure that we in our life do not seed more cause for Dukkha both for ourselves and for others. Therefore we practice the precepts in our daily life. The precepts are not a series of “Do nots”. Rather they are a guide to tell us what we should in general not do.


The Precepts are not hard and fast rules however. The precept that tells us to refrain from taking life should not stop a Buddhist shooting a tiger that is going on a rampage in a village and eating up people. Letting a tiger eat up people and causing rampage unhindered is a cause for more suffering. To take down the tiger in the event that restraining, sedating or chasing away the tiger is impossible is the only right action to prevent more suffering and harm to other people.


Likewise the precept of not taking what is not given does not mean that during a major disaster where all food, power and water supply are cut off for days you hold the high horse and make yourself and your family starve just because you refuse to take fruits from the apple tree in the park, saying that it is council apple. The precepts have to be taken in context.


Thus the Precepts are as follow:-

1.      I refrain from taking life

2.      I refrain from taking what is not given

3.      I refrain from sexual misconduct

4.      I refrain from deceiving/false speech

5.      I refrain from being intoxicated


Every Buddhist should also take refuge in the Triple Gem. The Triple Gem is the Buddha, the teachings of Buddha known as the Dharma and the Sangha, the order of monks. Every Buddhist accept that the Buddha is our primary teacher and his teaching which guides us is found with the Dharma. The Sangha are the extension of the brotherhood and sisterhood first established by the Buddha two and a half millenias ago to help support fellow Buddhist in need.


Now for a Greco-Buddhist the issue is how to view the Buddha?


Different schools of Buddhism have diverse views on how to perceive the Buddha. It is universally agreed that the Buddha is Enlightened and that he was free from Dukkha and that he taught us the way to end Dukkha. It is also agreed that while he was walking and was alive as Siddhartha Gautama he was a man who is awake to Reality.


It is what happened to him after his Mahaparanirvana that is the cause of the differing views between the schools. Whether the Buddha is still active in the world, whether there is a whole cohort of Celestial Buddhas out there or whether the Buddha is now the Buddha force etc.. differs from school to school. I will however discuss how the ancient Greeks in India likely saw the Buddha.


Like all early Buddhist they likely saw the Buddha as a very wise philosopher and person who is free from dukkha. The initial Greeks who became Buddhist very much like their Indian counterpart probably saw the Buddha upon his Mahaparanirvana has no longer any influence on this world barring through the Buddha Dharma.  This is known as Nirvana without remainder. Upon Nirvana the Buddha is no more. This is by the way is still the official view of Theravada.


This view changed sometime during the rule of the Indo-Greek kingdoms that by the early first century BCE the Buddha is described as someone who is divine and has some influence on the world. This is based upon the relic vase of Meridarch Theodosus. The relic vase constituted an offering and the verse was written in a prayer format. This means that on top of the Buddha being divine he is now worshiped as well. This is a clear departure from the previous trends.


We know this belief and view later gained ground in the Buddhist world as in Mahayana Buddhism, barring Ch’an, the Buddha is seen as remaining active in this world and has become a Celestial Buddha. The Buddha in some schools of Mahayana Buddhism is effectively worshiped the in same way one would worship a deity and in some schools have effectively become deities. This is known as Nirvana with Remainder.


We also know that among lay Theravadins Buddha worship is very popular and indeed once again is viewed as something like a God among the lay Theravadin. This view is not shared by the monks, not officially anyway. In Theravada the Buddha had Nirvana with Remainder whilst he was alive but upon Mahaparanirvana entered Nirvana without Remainder, a permanent and final state of affair.


The only explanation for this change from human to divinity assuming that this change did not happen in India before this ( of which we have no evidence, our earliest evidence of bhakti of the Buddha in India is over a century after Meridarch Theodorus vase ) is that the Greeks in India saw the Buddha as a Hero.


This probably explains why so many relics of the Buddha got enshrined and why the Buddhist scrolls say a lot of Buddhist relics under the Sunga got transferred to Ghandarha and Western Punjab which is the seat of the Indo-Greek rule.


Heroes to the ancient Greeks are individuals who has done something amazing in life or has lived an overall outstanding life or has made a significant contribution to society or died in an amazing way that when they die they became divine. These outstanding individuals received public worship usually around areas that are believed to house their body or relics associated with them. They are believed to be able to influence and protect their worshipers. Even though they were generally believed to only be able to influence a limited area some forms of Hero worship like that of Alexander the Great and Achilles indicates that the rule was neither hard nor fast.


In Classical Era for example Socrates was clearly revered as a Hero as was individuals such as Pindar. The Buddha it seemed received the same honours and was worshiped as a Hero. This could explain why so much effort was made to recover the relics of the Buddha. The Indo-Greek stupas served not only as a traditional Buddhist shrine, it also served as a heroon or the sanctuary to a Hero, the Hero being the Buddha.


For a modern day Greco-Buddhist reconstructionist to see the Buddha as a Hero is in fact a perfectly legitimate view. It is consistent with the core Buddhist belief that the Buddha was only a man and it is consistent with the Hellenic belief that great people upon death can become Divine. This in fact is consistent as well with the Mahayana teaching of Nirvana with Remainder.


Thus to look upon the Buddha as a hero and to honour him as such from a Greco-Buddhist point of view is legitimate.


This now leads us to the Hellenic part of the Greco-Buddhist religion. The Buddhist Greeks would have no problem integrating their native ethical system and virtue systems into Buddhism.


The Buddhist Greeks were however still Greeks and definitely wanted to honour and venerate the Gods of Greece. The Greeks likely saw from a Buddhist/Greek context that honouring the Gods is a form of sowing good cause as offering to the Gods secured a reciprocal relationship with the Gods. Interestingly enough the same view is taken by modern day theistic Japanese Buddhist and Chinese Buddhist who honours the Gods.


Now whether the Greco-Buddhist continued to honour all the Greek Gods no one knows. Among theistic Chinese and Japanese Buddhist there are individuals who honour exclusively the Chinese Buddhist deities or Japanese Buddhist deities. There are also many others still who honours their indigenous deities regardless of whether they are associated with Buddhism or not.


The commonest reason given by theistic Buddhist who does not honour non-Buddhist Gods is, who knows if those Gods are hostile to Buddhism. Given the high prevalence of this concern amongst a large portion of modern theistic Buddhist one can safely presume this concern must be systemic throughout the ages. Part of the reason some local deities get associated as Buddhist Guardian deities relatively quickly wherever Buddhism spread in Asia may be due to this concern.


Now here is my advice. For those who are now are now practicing Hellenismos I would strongly recommend that you continue to venerate of the entire pantheon. There is no evidence to suggest that the Greco-Buddhist only venerated the Greek Gods associated with Buddhism. Nor are there any injunctions within the Buddhist religion to not venerate deity. If we take the general assumption of the Buddhist doctrine all Gods are pro-Buddhism. When the Indo-Greeks went to war with the Sacea or against Eucratides it is very likely that they would still pray and honour Ares, a very non-Buddhist God but very Hellenic God

For parallel assessment of practices many modern Buddhist from China and Japan still honour their entire cultural pantheon with little regards as to whether they are Buddhist Gods or non-Buddhist Gods. A lot of theistic Chinese Buddhist would often tell you that just because a God has not yet been associated is more a reflection of human ineptitude than the God not being a guardian of Buddhism.


I will now focus on Greek deities that we know are strongly associated with Buddhism and were likely seen as guardian deities of Buddhism.


The first deity I will speak of is Herakles. Herakles was strongly syncretized with Vajrapani to the point Vajrapani was depicted exclusively as Herakles by the Greco-Buddhist and this tradition continued late into the Kushan period. His association with Vajrapani was at the time Vajrapani was still seen by most Buddhist as a Yaksha or a Deva and a protector of the Buddha. He was not yet seen as the Bodhissatva who manifested the full power and strengths of the Buddhas. However his fusion with Herakles likely spurred his change from a powerful Yaksha to the Bodhissatva that manifested the full strength of the Buddhas.


Vajrapani as Herakles is alluded to in the Samyaktuvastu, first composed in the 2nd century CE. In the Samyaktuvastu the demoness Hariti went to the palace of Indra on Mount Meru but got pushed back by the very mighty god who guarded the gate to the palace of the God Indra. This god is described as mighty enough to push back all of Hariti’s five hundred children. This God is Vajrapani.


Now this is an interesting piece as Vajrapani was never associated in Buddhism to be guarding the gates of Indra’s palace. In fact until he became a Bodhissatva he was never associated with Heaven. The Samyaktuvastu is talking about Vajrapani the Yaksha in the Heavens.


To make things more peculiar many earlier Indian Buddhists actually thought Vajrapani to be the same as Indra. Buddhist Indian iconography barely differentiates the two. Yet the composer of the Samyaktuvastu obviously thought that Indra and Vajrapani were two separate deities.


This peculiarity can only be resolved if we acknowledge that Herakles, whose image is used to depict Vajrapani by the Indo-Greeks actually guarded the gate to Olympus in popular Greek belief, which is the home to Zeus. The author of the Mahayana sutra the Samyaktuvastu is over two centuries removed from the Indo-Greeks yet retains memories of the syncretic deity Herakles Vajrapani.


The second deity I will speak of is Tykhe who was strongly syncretized with Hariti. All the Tykhes with a cornupcia in Greco-Buddhist art is meant to represent Hariti. Tykhe Hariti is frequently associated with the Buddha as his guardian but also representing the transformation of wickedness to compassion and good.


In the Indo-Greek context on the coins of various Kings we have depictions of Tykhe with a Buddhist mudra. Here we have a clear association of Tykhe with Buddhism but not as Hariti. This further seals Tykhe’s role as guardian of Buddhism to the Indo-Greeks.


Hariti in the Buddhist sutras is usually associated with protection of children specifically small children. This remains true wherever her modern religion remains practiced. Her modern religion still focuses a lot on the welfare and protection of small children.


However oddly enough in actual religious practice like in Nepal where she is still worshiped as Hariti or in Japan where she is worshiped as Kishimongen she is also popularly seen and worshiped as well as protector of the town and also as a bringer of good fortune ( in Nepal she is also believed to heal smallpox ).


Haritis role as protector of towns and cities were likely present in her pre-Buddhist form as a mother Goddess. Interestingly enough this is theorized to be reason why she was syncretized with Tykhe in the first place. Tykhe is the Goddess who is supposed to guide the fate of town and cities and during the Hellenistic era Tykhe was often worshiped as the protector of cities and towns. Given the two very similar role of these Goddesses Tykhe-Hariti got syncretised.


Which likely explain why Hariti is popularly worshiped as a bringer of good fortune till today, not in terms of money but in terms of luck. The people still remember a time when she was Tykhe-Hariti and clearly the iconography indicates that the Greco-Buddhist associated her strongly with Tykhe. Hariti through her association with Tykhe also became the luck bringer and lady of fortunes.


The third deity I will discuss is Zeus Indra. Zeus-Indra should not be a surprising syncretism. Zeus has long been associated with Indra even during Alexander’s invasion of India. Indra is one of the earliest Guardian God of Buddhism and practically every culture that adopts Buddhism syncretises one of their local deity with the Buddhist Indra. The coins of the Greco-Buddhist king clearly shows Zeus performing a Buddhist mudra of blessing indicating that he is considered a Guardian God of the Buddhist faith. In the Hellenized mural of the Great Departure a Zeus with Indra’s hairdress is found, further indicating that the two deities were syncretised.


The wind God Boreas was definitely associated with Buddhism and is likely a guardian deity of Buddhism. He appears on many Greco-Buddhist art often in context with the Buddha. There is no scriptural evidence or later sutra that attempts to explain why Boreas is so closely associated with Buddhism. Interestingly enough the various wind Gods associated strongly with Buddhism in Asia all maintains the shawl of Boreas. Boreas in classical Greek art was frequently depicted either with a pair of wings or a shawl. In India Boreas was most frequently depicted with a shawl. This shawl later became the iconography for every Buddhist wind God down to Fujin in Japan who though an old Shinto deity was associated strongly with Buddhism.


The most unexpected deity to be associated with Buddhism is Athena. She was clearly the deity favoured by the very Buddhist Menander II and also Menander I who was the convert to Buddhism and is depicted on the coins as making a Buddhist mudra gesture. Though no actual religious iconography of her survive the various coins from various kings depicting her in mudra indicates that she was associated with Buddhism.  This is interesting as Athena is the only Greek deity to have never been syncretised with any Indian or Bactrian deity but oddly enough to be associated as a guardian of the Buddhist teachings. A Goddess depicted in the form of Athena was later worshiped by the Kushans as a deity associated with Buddhism as well. This was after they conquered the Indo-Greeks.


I will not mention other deities here as I have little numistic or literary evidence of their association as guardian Gods of Buddhism.


Now if you are a Buddhist interested in Hellenism but are fearful that you may be worshiping Gods who are not Buddhist the above five Gods were definitely regarded by the Greeks as Guardian Gods of Buddhism.


Now from a Hellenistic viewpoint I would recommend that you start off any offering ritual to the Guardian Gods of Buddhism with a candle or a flame to Hestia. In fact the central flame to which all other flames are lit and all incense are burnt which forms the start and end of most Mahayana devotional ritual should be the flame that is devoted to Hestia. Though there is no nuministic evidence that Hestia was popularly worshiped by the Indo-Greeks there is also little nuministic evidence that Hestia had popular worship either in Greece.


Yet Hestia as we know from historical and literary sources of the time was in fact one of the most popularly worshiped Goddesses. She was rarely depicted, barely had any myths associated with her yet she is in public rites and in family practice the Goddess to receive the first of offerings in any religious rites.


Now if you fear that Hestia may not be a Buddhist Goddess let me tell you there is probably no Greek Goddess more Buddhist than Hestia.


Hestia is considered by the Greeks to be a merciful and kind Goddess who watches over the home, family and city. Hestia is the selfless Goddess in Greek myth who stepped down from her position as an Olympian so that she can be close to men in their home. She is the protector of the supplicants and the weak and no one is allowed to hurt people on either the public or private hearth. Hestia is also a chaste Goddess and is unaffected by lust or passion. She despises conflict and stays far from it.


Now with regards to offering most Buddhist knows that the usual offering given to both the Buddha and the Buddhist guardian gods tends to be either 1.  a burning candle, representing both the dispelling of ignorance by the light of wisdom but also self sacrifice of the individual to light the way 2. Flower to represent the transiency of beauty 3. Incense to represent the transiency of fragrance 4. Fruit, to represent cause and effect 5. Water to represent purity.


Though other offerings can be given, the offering has to be bloodless. Offering should not contain meat or any meat product or result in the killing of any living creature.


This is to respect the sanctity of life. Hellenics who wants to embrace Buddhism should know precious all life is seen in Buddhism. Many devout theistic Chinese Buddhist who worships many non-Buddhist Chinese Gods would not offer any meat to the Gods and would not participate in any public rites that involves killing of a creature or meat offering.


I hope this essay proves itself helpful for anyone who is interested in practicing Greco-Buddhism.


May all be well and happy. May be blessing of the Theois be upon all.



7 Responses to Greco-Buddhism: A Brief History

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on syncretism « A Young Flemish Hellenist

  2. Apollodorosh says:

    A very interesting essay 🙂 I enjoyed reading it 😉

  3. sam webster says:

    Greetings in the Dharma and the Way of the Gods,

    Thanks for this fine summary of the Buddha-Dharma and most excellently applying It to Hellenic practice.

    I’ve done some work as well with this you might enjoy:

    (and a book, but I don’t want this to be an advertisement)

    My work is not so centered on one culture such as the Hellenes and comes more from a Vajrayana view learned among the Tibetans so it works a bit differently in detail, but it is a delight to see such a fine approach to the worship of our ancient Gods in line with the Dharma.

    If you care to dialogue, please be in touch.

    Peace and Blessings to you,
    sam webster

  4. Pingback: Paganism and Buddhism - Religious Education Forum

  5. Lincoln says:

    I really enjoyed this, what sources did you draw this information from as I would like to explore this topic more.

    • Aidan says:

      Its mostly cultural beliefs I believe to be, maybe from wikipedia. I recommend studying Greco-Buddhism, then studying the basics of Theravada Buddhism as well. It gives you a clear cultural difference as well. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Hellenic Buddhist Syncretism | Bearing His Light

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