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BUDDHISM BY GREEK: how Heracles became the Buddha’s friend and bodyguard

BUDDHISM BY GREEK: how Heracles became the Buddha's friend and bodyguard
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Photo by Marek Okon on Unsplash


When the giant empire created by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. collapsed, it left an incredible cultural legacy. In the new states, the ruling elite were Greeks. They reproduced their familiar world: they built temples for their gods, studied Greek philosophy, spoke Greek… Bactria, located in the area of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan, was no exception. It was here that European culture first came into contact with Buddhism, changing world history and culture forever.




As astudent of Aristotle himself, Alexander was not only interested in the formal side of conquest. In addition to power over conquered peoples, he was interested in their cultural uniqueness.

In India, he was struck by the cult of the local «great sages.» The best philosophical minds were brought in to organize a philosophical «battle» between Greeks and Hindus. It is not known what influence the Hellenes had on the Hindus, but the Greek philosophers Onesicritus and Pyrrho were definitely influenced by Buddhism.

This is evidenced by the ideas they developed on their return to their homeland. But such cases were rare. The epicenter of the mix of ideas and traditions was not Greece and India, but Bactria. And later, the Kushan Empire replaced it. The culture of Greco-Buddhism, when in Greek temples Buddha and karma were spoken in Greek, dominated here for a millennium.

Greek philosophy also came in handy. For example, the Buddhist text «Milinda Pankha» by King Menander was constructed as a typical Platonic dialogue. Buddha and Zeus began to get closer. Buddhist and Greek pantheons merged into a bizarre unity.

Heracles became Gautama’s best friend and protector. First, the hero of Hellas believed in the truth of Buddhist teachings and then began to preach them to the whole world.




In the Buddhist interpretation, Heracles turned into Vajrapani — a fierce divinity whose attributes were a loincloth made of tiger skin turned tail-first, a terrible grin, a snake around his neck, and a thunderbolt in his hand. In this form, he became a symbol of the power of the peace-loving teachings.

Buddhists reject violence. But, if anything, they can complain to the demigod, who, back in Greece, proved that it is not worth messing with him. Heracles became something like a bodyguard of Buddha, who himself was not fond of violence. In case of necessity, Heracles could use a vajra — a scepter in the form of a ball with ten spokes diverging on two sides.

There is a story about a brahman, Ambattha, who insulted and humiliated Gautama. The Buddha humbly warned the lout that if he continued in the same vein, his head would be blown to pieces. Ambattha did not believe and continued his piggish behavior until an enraged Heracles appeared from behind the Buddha.

The Brahman immediately realized his mistakes without waiting for the vajra to crack his skull.




But Heracles-Vajrapani — is not the most radical «modernization» of Buddhism that the Greeks dared to undertake. If it were not for them, we would never have known what Buddha looks like. The fact is that initially, his anthropomorphic images were not welcomed — only symbols and signs were allowed. So the first Christians, wanting to depict Christ, drew fish.

They identified the word «Ichthys» with a monogram — the first letters of the phrase «Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour» in Greek. The prohibition of anthropomorphic images is a common thing in the East; it still exists in Islam today. But could the Greeks, who sincerely loved Buddha and his teachings, resist the temptation to depict their Great Teacher? With their sense of color and form! With their tradition of magnificent sculptures, mosaics, and frescoes!

There is a popular expression nowadays, «as handsome as Apollo.» It did not arise by chance because it is Apollo Hellenes considered the standard of not just male but divine beauty. And if to create an image of an ideal being, which, undoubtedly, in the eyes of the Bactrian Greeks was Buddha, it was impossible to do without borrowing from the appearance of Apollo.




Vitarka mudra in Buddhism is a gesture of imparting wisdom. By joining the tip of the thumb and forefinger and keeping the other fingers straight, the Buddha imparted true knowledge to his disciples. In Bactria, the vitarka mudra was beautifully combined with the Greek tunic and laurel wreath.

This blessing gesture was learned not only by the rulers but also by Zeus himself. The Greeks’ fascination with Buddha was so popular that tens of thousands of Hellenes were counted among the Buddhist monks. Blue-eyed, tall, and red-bearded people in orange robes wandered across the vast territory of Alexander’s former empire.

Their service was so jealous that in Sri Lanka, there is a stupa, which was built by as many as 30 thousand Greek monks. But there was a point: Greek culture was «agonal» and competitive, and it was not easy to reconcile it with Buddhist non-denial and peace.

As a result, the restless Greeks provoked a religious split in peace-loving Buddhism. Many centuries later, their sad experience would be repeated by Christians, which suggests that it was the Greeks who prescribed religious wars in the European cultural code long before the Abrahamic tradition.


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Kanishka I, the ruler of the Kushan Empire that took over the lands of the Indo-Greek kingdom, was not just a Buddhist but a true religious fanatic. We know of the dramatic events that sometimes unfolded at the ecumenical councils convened by Byzantine emperors and Roman popes. But Kanishka, who ruled from 103 to 125 A.D., was the first to think of organizing something similar.

Almost immediately after the Buddha’s death, his teachings took a path that Christianity and Islam would later repeat. Out of 12 Buddhist schools that disagreed with each other, two primary schools — Mahayana (big chariot) and Hinayana (small chariot) — emerged.

The latter is today politically correct to be called Theravada (the teachings of the ancients). Theravada is much more demanding of its followers. It believes that the way to nirvana is closed for laymen and women. It can be reached only by a monk, a saint, who strictly follows the Buddha’s path.

In Mahayana, the ideal is not a saint but a bodhisattva who could have selfishly gone to nirvana but, out of love for people, decided to help them in this world.




In Theravada, the Buddha, though prominent, is a human being. In Mahayana, he is practically deified. Emperor Kanishka, like all his Greek-Buddhist monks, liked the latter option better. So they called a Great Council, where they demanded that the assembled people recognize their correctness.

Not everyone agreed with this formulation of the question. And the adherents of Mahayana and Hinayana, who had previously co-existed relatively peacefully with each other, went into a radical religious split. Mahayana was more fortunate, as the Kushan Empire supported proselytizing at the state level. It is believed that even Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, the Chinese version of Buddhism, was an ethnic Greek.

But be that as it may, the red-bearded monks with Greek noses managed to charm vast China and neighboring countries with their Mahayana. The Hinayana version of Theravada exists today mainly in three countries — Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.




In the 3rd century A.D., the Kushan kingdom collapsed. Today, its territories are dominated by Islam. However, the descendants of Alexander the Great’s warriors who conquered Bactria in 327 BC still live here. According to some sources, they number up to 200,000 people. They are a motley collection of «small nationalities» scattered across the Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains.

Their appearance is completely uncharacteristic of Asia — many have blond hair, red beards, and blue or green eyes. In Gorno-Badakhshan, the natives still build houses similar to those we find in ancient Greece.

There is no trace left of the Greco-Buddhism that once changed the world and the history of the East forever in these territories. Most of the descendants of Alexander’s warriors now practice Islam. However, ethnographers claim that it coexists strangely with pagan rituals reminiscent of the beliefs of the ancient Hellenes.


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