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Hellenistic culture in the Indian subcontinent: Greek clothes, amphoras, win,e and music. Detail from Chakhil-i-Ghoundi Stupa, Hadda, Gandhara, 1st century AD.

What Does Alexander the Great Have to Do with Buddhist Imagery?

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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.

Footprint of Buddha with Dharmacakra and Triratna, 1st century, Gandhāra. (Public Domain)

Seeing Buddha

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?

Standing Buddha, Gandhara, 1st century AD.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Destruction of a Bamiyan Buddha by the Taliban.

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

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)

By Natalia Klimczak


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.



Actually, the assistant to Alexander the Great converted to Buddhism. The Greeks brought back scholars from both Hinduism and Buddhism to the Middle East and Egypt. Actually, the Romans complained that the Buddhist monasteries were attracting too many women (nuns) and men into their ranks. You also find that the New Testament is filled with references to Buddhist and how the lily is to be regarded as the highest ideal, begging from community to community with little material provisions, eat what the people provide you in whatever community to go to, and even the titles given to Jesus were all the titles and history from the stories that predate the common era with the Buddha, like forgiver of sins, creator of the world, power over evil, temptation by the devil, from a virgin birth of royality all were powerful messages to the pagans in the Greek-Roman eras. The influence of Buddhist monks and Hindu priests became the models for early Christian monasteries and hermit life in the deserts of the Holy Land and Egypt. Even the life after resurrection is found easily in the Egyptian religion as well as the Greek-Buddhist philosophy (read the Book of the Dead from the Egyptians--you die, you lie in wait for three days--then judged, then resurrected). As a note, the Egyptians did not believe in cremating their bodies after death and wore a ankh (a cross) as a medical alert symbol to be buried by those that find their body). Islam is not lost here--their writings show the influence of the Greek-Buddhist-Hindu-Roman-Egyptian mixture throughtout the Koran. Then throw in Zoroastrian and the Mithra religions and the only way of life that was protected by corruption of their books and history were the Jews, whom were teaching the Noahide laws (which are found in the book of Acts of the NT and in Buddhist, in the Koran and even some constitutions of various countries) as a means for everyone to be accepted as righteous equals under the true Creator's laws for mankind. Because of the huge respect philosophers had for the long-established, ethical way of life among the Jews, all the religions between 2nd century before the common era to well into the 10th century of the common era--relied on their scholars to prove they were a replacement for the long-revered Jewish way of life through their own selected "prophets". When Jews refused to accept the so-called "replacement" theories, the love of the Jew turned to hate. Islam could not tolerate their people wanting to be Jews over Islam. Same happened in Christianity with even worse consequences. Early Church Fathers were all in favor of attacking Judaism. The NT is a statement in total, a bid to disavow the Jewish link to the Noah laws and reinvented by the various churches by slandering the very mother of their own Jewish son they embraced as the new creator of the world. Read the history of Martin Luther--he first wrote good things about Jews to lure them to his reinvention of Christianity. When Jews refused he wrote: "Jews and their Lies"--this booklet became the outline to how to deal with Jews by the monster Hitler and continues today with fake news and fake books about Jews, like "The Elders of Zion"--which is revered by millions of Muslims today. While many believe that Jews changed their Bible to eliminate the messages from Christianity and Islam--this is not the case. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the library from Cairo--both have Hebrew Bibles that date from the time of Ezra the Great--long before the common era--and are the same Hebrew today as it was then--actually, a Hebrew Bible from China or Iran or Japan or Brazil or Peru or Russia or Sweden, etc. are globally the same today as it was over 2500 years ago. The political, material, monetary influences to make changes within the various cultures that spread their view of religion around the globe is a shadow that falls not far from modern scholars and historians.

I wouldn't trade the truth of Political Islam for all the Buddhists in Afghanistan!
Ohhhh riiiiight, there aren't any.
Not anymore..

I wonder why you mention Pakistan. India before 1947 was simply know as India, not India & Pakistan. The last Empire in India was the British Indian Empire commonly known as British India, not British India & Pakistan. India and its variants -Hindu, Hindustan, Hindistan, Al-Hind, Hind (depending on the language) were used in historic documents from prehistoric to modern era. So just say India.


Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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