Friday, June 25, 2010

Greeks In The Tipitaka

Many different tribes and ethnic groups are mentioned in the Tipitaka. One of these is the Yona. In his dialogue with the caste-conscious brahman Assalayana, the Buddha argues that caste must be a social phenomena rather than a divinely ordained reality because amongst the Yona there are only two groups, freemen and slaves, and having been a master one could become a slave and vica versa (M.II,149). The name Yona is derived from Ionia, the ancient name for Greece, or more accurately, the Greek states and people of costal Anatolia. When they were conquered by and absorbed into to Achaemenid Empire they were able to travel throughout the empire as far as its eastern borders. And the eastern border of course was far away as the western edge of India. So when Alexander got to Taxila for example, a delegation of Greek merchants came out of the city to meet him. One of King Asoka’s edicts mentions Ionas as a people on the frontier of his empire and one of his edicts is actually written in Greek. The famous gold coin of Kaniska (120 CE ?) had an image of the Buddha on it with his name (BODDO) written in Greek.
It is unlikely that the Buddha or any Indians in the area where he lived had ever seen a Greek, but the lone reference to them in the Tipitaka shows that a few scraps of information about them had spread east. Interestingly, the Anguttara Nikaya commentary mentions that the Sakyans, the Buddha’s tribe, had Yona statues holding lamps. After Alexander’s conquests large numbers of Greeks migrated to India (modern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan) and went on to have some influence on Indian culture.


Anonymous said...

What about ancient Buddhists in Greece? I've heard that the "Therapeutae" monks were actually "Theravada" monks. Do you agree with that conclusion?


Anonymous said...

...of course I should have said Egypt, not Greece... The Greek word "Therapeutae" confused me. Close enough, right? :)

AdriƔn Montoya Leyton said...

I was going to comment the same thing. Bhante, do you happen to know about these Therpeutaes more deeply?


Shravasti Dhammika said...

The only evidence that Buddhists might have reached Greece is 13th Rock Edict of King Asoka (256 BCE) in which he says he sent missionary monks to the court of Antinogos Gonatos of Macedonia. but of course to be ‘sent’ and then to actually ‘arrive’ are two different things. If they did arrive they had no impact at all as there is no record of them in Greek sources. The theory that the word Therapeutae might be derived from ‘Theravada’ is unsound. The word ‘Theravada’ does not occur in any Indian inscriptions and was probably only used as the name of sect of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. That such a rarely used name would have been used and remembered is highly unlikely. On the first Buddhist monks we know for certain to have got to the West, and pictures of them, see

Anonymous said...

Great article very interesting,

See The Heliodorus pillar erected by Heliodorus approx 110BC, the Greek ambasodor to India. Intresting story he declares himself a Baghavat.

Peace and love

Anonymous said...

Some similarities between early Greek philosophy and Buddhism may suggest a connection of some kind (like the teachings of Pythagoras, Epicurus, and the Stoics for example).
And yet one may say the core of the Buddha's teachings are pure human reason and rationality -- it's just that no-one had had this kind of clarity of insight before! -- so similarities in ideas are merely due to the fact of a shared humanity and human reason.

On another, sort of related, note: Wasn't the King Milinda in the MilindapaƱha Greek? Or at least Indo-Greek? Apparently Milinda was an Indo-nizing of the Greek name Menander.
I read that somewhere, but I wasn't sure of its veracity.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Shantivadin,
While I agree that much of the Buddha’s teaching is rational I am not sure it is ‘purely rational’ and based on reason alone. Insights derived from going beyond thought and reason also play a part. Amongst the means of knowledge considered inadequate in the famous Kalama Sutta is ‘pure reason’ (takka). Some insights are only accessible to us when our mind shuts up. However, these insights are intellectually understandable (as opposed to experientially realized) with reason.
The King Malinda of the Milindapanha was the Menander, successor to Alexander the Great and king of Bactria (Afghanistan, northern Pakistan) and who ruled for about 15 years until 130 BCE. The Milindapanha is of course a literary work, not the record of an actual dialogue between Menander and Nagasena, although it is quite possible that Menander took an interest in Buddhism or was actually a Buddhist.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bhante. You're most definitely right.