The Hellenistic Buddhism of Asia

Religious Proselytism in Intellectual History

The methodological orientation of this work takes the intercourse between Hellenism and Buddhism as a reciprocal, synchronic process of conversion that extended in the spheres of religion, politics, philosophy and culture. The formation of Hellenistic Buddhism constitutes a unique conceptual, geographical and historical event, and a diachronic unfolding of developments of considerable complexity spiralling from Alexander´s campaigns in India to post-Alexandrian times. The historical evidence reveals that the Indo-Greek heirs of Alexander, the diadochoi, encountered Buddhism as a state religion with sophisticated doctrines and ritual infrastructure. It has been suggested that the Indo-Greek converts to the new faith may have fused their cultural and philosophical expertise with the development of Abhidharma and Mahāyāna dialectic, while others may have supported early Tantric movements in their resemblance of Paleo-Balcanic mystery cults equipped with spells, initiation rites and secret rituals. While these claims need to be investigated further, Hellenistic styles in Buddhist art in Afghanistan, Gandhāra and Taxila attest to a dynamic exchange of material, linguistic and cultural expertise. Resident and transient Greeks consisted of wealthy merchants, artisans, converts and even royal patrons of Buddhism, like the Indo-Greek king Menander (150-135 BCE). While conversions of places, events and people abound in religious chronicles, historians of intellectual history have neglected theorizing on the tropes of proselytism vis-à -vis the formation, diversification and institutional expansion of religious traditions. Proselytism in the wider sense of the term and without its negative connotations, should take into account a variety of processes like, the erection of material structures and symbols, monasticism, patronage, canonization, indoctrination and so forth ”and while religious traditions may legitimize their conversion strategies soteriologically, tactically, they may come against competing or compatible systems of knowledge. There is no reason to believe that Greek converts to Buddhism had to renounce their Hellenic paideia, anymore than the Buddhists who favoured Hellenic representations and philosophical reasoning. The public genius of Buddhism was distinguished for its intellectual tolerance and acumen; not to mention its being outwardly desirable and successful to channel lay forms of devotion. The Buddhist heritage of the Greeks betrays an eclectic, relational set of correspondences that ensued in various empirical forms across geographical, cultural and historical contexts.

This project aims to contextualize the historical attraction between Hellenism and Buddhism by consulting Indic and Greek literary sources and material findings in an effort to reconstruct the dynamic mechanisms that contributed to this remarkable fusion between East and West in Asia. We acknowledge that while landscapes, sacred sites, material objects and religious scriptures function as instruments of proselytism, abstract systems of knowledge, modes of representation and ethical disciplines are equally informative in the process. Furthermore, we recognize that religious conversion is not always a symmetrical process or a singular event transpiring in one direction. Some of the questions we ask to frame our discussion ”what is the role of proselytizing narratives in Buddhist texts and what conclusions can we draw about the converted? How can proselytism which is employed by states, groups and individuals aid the process of religious densification? What criteria can we posit to evaluate the attractiveness, the trading currency of Hellenistic and Buddhist systems of "knowledge and "representation in the cosmopolitan markets of Central Asia? How compatible is the concept of religion in Hellenism with that understood by non-European cultures, and how can we measure the translatability and adaptation between the two in the hybrid cases of Gandhāri and Kuṣāṇa Buddhism? What types of religious experiences could transpire across cross-cultural contexts, for example, between "Hellenistic paideia and Buddhist monasticism? and "Buddhist casteless societies and the organization of the Greek polis? Extending over to the Mediterranean side, we may ponder how compatible are the ideas of Hellenistic thinkers like Pyrrhon (c.365-275 BCE), Epicurus (341-270 BCE) and Plotinus (205-270 CE) with Buddhist tenets?

Affiliated Persons


Dr. Georgios Halkias

Individual Researcher