"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Axial Age Syncretism: Ancient Greece Encounters Buddhism

Growing up in the West, my worldview was that Buddhism was an Eastern and foreign religion. I did not know much about Buddhism, which is as much a philosophy and psychology as it is a religion per se, nor did I know too much about early history, European or Asian. I suspect many readers are in the same boat.

The Greek influence is clearly evident
in this statue of the Buddha circa the
1st-2nd century CE.
(Tokyo National Museum)
 
Since then, however, I have learned much more about the so-called "axial age," which saw the birth of philosophy in Ancient Greece, the rise of Judaic monotheism, the emergence of the Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Persia, and Lao-Tze in China (among others). Several historical facts about this pivotal era in the story of civilization had eluded me. First, that the Greek Empire stretched much further into Asia than I had realized. (I had always pictured the frontiers as lying on the border of the Persian Empire, some distance to the west of modern Iran). Second, that Buddhism was not a Far Eastern phenomenon at that time, but rather it had spread across the Indian subcontinent (where it competed with, and was an offshoot of, the Sanata Dharma of ancient Vedic India). Third, that Buddhism(or Buddhist philosophy and influence) had rapidly spread west along the ancient Silk Road. And, fourth, that Indo-Grecian nations were set up along the Silk Road and survived for many centuries following the death of Alexander, facilitating the East-West flow of ideas, technologies and philosophy.

Indeed, I did not know that Alexander had conquered and established colonial cities in what is now modern Afghanistan. Nor did I know that he had pressed further into Kashmir and the Punjab, before being repulsed by strong kingdoms along the Ganges and retreating back into Asia Minor where he fell ill and died in Babylon in 323 B.C.E. Nor, at the time, had I heard of King Ashoka (304-232 B.C.E.), the great unifier of the Indian sub-continent, who subsequently adopted Buddhism and sent Buddhist emissaries far and wide, or that those emissaries had traveled as far as Egypt and Athens, itself. It was, it seems, a much smaller "world" in ancient times than it appeared to be, a factor that was not fully conveyed in the Eurocentric account of history I had been taught.

In the attached videos, the folks at OpenSourceBuddism.org, give an insightful account of the spread of Buddhism, and do a masterful job in describing the extent and effect that Buddhist teachings had on ancient Greek philosophy, as well as describing the Greco-Buddhist syncretism that purportedly played a large role in establishing the Northern School of Mahayana Buddhism (which would later spread to Tibet, China and Japan, even as Buddhism more or less died out in its native India, with the exception of Sri Lanka).











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