What Does Alexander the Great Have to Do with Buddhist Imagery?
When Alexander the Great arrived in Pakistan and India two very different civilizations confronted and were influenced by each other.
The first anthropomorphic representations of Buddha were developed between the 2nd and 1st century AD. Before then, the only depictions of Buddha appeared through the use of symbols like: The Bodhi tree, stupas, empty seats, footprints, and the wheel. But, after the invasion of the Hellenistic army, which conquered the territory of Bactria, human images of Buddha appeared.
Footprint of Buddha with Dharmacakra and Triratna, 1st century, Gandhāra. (Public Domain)
The innovative anthropomorphic Buddha appearance was obviously inspired by the style of Hellenistic artists, and it immediately reached a very high level of sculptural sophistication. The monuments and sculptures of Buddha from this period influenced Buddhist art and transformed it forever.
The Buddha of this time looked much like the Belvedere Apollo (330 AD), beautiful and dressed in Hellenistic style. He is shown in a light toga, with a halo, the contrapposto stance of the upright figures, classical Mediterranean curly hair, and the top-knot. Some of the Buddha statues were also made using the Greek technique of creating the hands and feet in marble. Nowadays, many researchers wonder, do any of the Buddha’s represent the face of an ancient king who changed the image of Buddhism forever?
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Standing Buddha, Gandhara, 1st century AD. (Public Domain)
The Great Macedonian King on the Buddhist Trail
In 326 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the northern territory of India. A few years earlier, in 332 BC, Alexander invaded Bactria and Gandhara when this territory was under śramanic influence (perhaps Buddhist and Jain). Legends say that two boys from Bactria, Tapassu and Bahallika, visited Buddha and became his students. When they returned home, they were instructors of his wisdom.
This Buddhist center was a safe bubble until the army of the Macedonian king arrived. Alexander fought an epic battle against King Porus of Pauravas in the Punjab (at the Battle of the Hydaspes) in 326 BC. Later he encountered a religion which influenced Alexander, and he too was inspired by the abundant culture he found in these parts of Asia.
Porus awaits the attack of Alexander on July 326 BC. (Public Domain)
According to historical resources, several philosophers, like Anaxarchus, Pyrrho, and Onesicritus, had been chosen by Alexander as his company during the eastern campaigns. They traveled through the land of modern India for about 18 months. There they met monks, but also Indian ascetics known as the “naked philosophers” – Gymnosophitis.
Onesicritus was a Cynic who, according to Strabo, learned in India that nothing that happens to a man is good or bad. Opinions are presented as merely dreams, and the greatest philosophy is the one which liberates the mind from pleasure and grief.
Pyrrho was a Skeptic who created the school named Pyrrhonism. He too wrote after his stay in India that nothing really exists, but said that human life is governed by convention. These two statements are purely Buddhist - showing the connection between the religions of the ancient Greeks with Buddhism. It also shows how attractive Buddhism was to other religions at the time.
The Hellenistic Protectors of Buddha
Greco-Buddhism is a religious and cultural syncretism between the Hellenistic culture and the Buddhism which existed until 5th century AD. It was not only a Greek belief system, but it also influenced parts of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. In later times, symbols and details connected with it were also adopted in the countries of Central and Northeastern Asia - like China, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Siberia, and Vietnam.
Indo-Greek territory. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The most visible influence of the Hellenistic take on Buddhism is connected with the symbolism of heroes, cupids, and other protectors that were characteristic of Greece. The most surprising detail is perhaps a Herakles, who became a part of Buddhist representation of Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha. The Greekwind of Boreas became the Japanese wind god Fujin through the Greco-Buddhist Wardo. The Hariti, mother deity, was inspired by Greek Tyche. Atlas appears in Greco-Buddshim as well. He tends to be involved as a sustaining element in the architectural elements.
Hariti with infant. Gandhara, 2nd-3rd century, now in the British Museum. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Another popular motif became the winged cupids who usually fly in pairs, holding a wreath over Buddha as a symbol of victory and kingship. The scenes of cupids holding rich garlands, adorned with fruits are strongly connected with Hellenistic art. Archaeologists also discovered some friezes representing groups of donors or followers, characteristic of Greece but not Asia.
Additionally, there were fantastic animal deities - something that is unusual for Buddhist culture, and surely had its origins in the Hellenistic world. These animals were used as decorative elements in Buddhist temples. Among the most popular motifs of fantastic animals are centaurs, sea monsters and tritons.
The Remains and Echoes of Old Bactria
Bactria remained under direct Greek control for more than two centuries. The Greco-Bactrian kingdom existed from the conquest of Alexander in 332 BC through to 125 BC. During this period, the territory of the kingdom was almost perfectly Hellenistic. Results of archaeological excavations show that cities like Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum), contained numismatic art of the Greco-Bactrian kings, often considered as the best of the Hellenistic world. It was also a rich part of the empire, where the largest silver and gold coins in the history of Greece were made.
Buddhism expanded into Central Asia in the 1st century AD and it stayed strong until the Islamic invasion. The most impressive monuments connected with Greco-Buddhism are the great Buddha’s of Bamiyan. They were created between the 5th and the 9th centuries AD. Their monumental beauty is strongly connected with the style of Hellenistic culture.
Most of the art of Bactria has been destroyed from the 5th century onward. Some pieces survived until the 7th century in monasteries, which displayed a strong Hellenistic influence combined with Indian decorativeness, and some were also inspired by the Sassanid Persians.
During the Afghanistan War in the 20th century, many of the ancient artifacts were destroyed. Later, in 2001, the most famous and precious Buddha’s of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban regime. This treasure, once protected by UNESCO, has been lost forever.
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Destruction of a Bamiyan Buddha by the Taliban. (Fair use)
The words and feelings of Alexander the Great still ring in the hearts of people in Asia. The destruction of the Buddha’s of Bamiyan were a painful loss for millions of people all over the world. On June 7, 2015, fourteen years after the destruction by the Taliban regime, a Chinese couple Xinyu Zhang and Hong Liang filled the empty cavities where the Buddhas once stood with 3D laser light projection technology. About 150 local people went out to see the unveiling of the holographic statues, ignoring the possible risks.
Taller Buddha of Bamiyan in 1963 and in 2008 after destruction (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Top image: Hellenistic culture in the Indian subcontinent: Greek clothes, amphoras, win,e and music. Detail from Chakhil-i-Ghoundi Stupa, Hadda, Gandhara, 1st century AD. (Public Domain)
Puri, B.N., Buddhism in Central Asia, 2000
Tarn, W.W., The Greeks in Bactria and India, 1966.
Cartledge, P., Alexander the Great, 2004.
Green, P., Alexander of Macedon: 356-323 BC., 1992.
Hammond, N., The Genius of Alexander the Great, 1997.