Evidence from Gandhara
When Alexander the Great led his conquest of India in 326 BC, few would have expected his legacy’s influence on the culture of the fourth largest religion in the world to be felt today. The iconic statuary depictions of the Buddha have become synonymous with Buddhism itself and there is historical evidence to show that this practice resulted from the infusion of ancient Greek culture into local traditions following the arrival of Alexander the Great in modern day Pakistan. However, the history of Buddhism and the lack of availability of primary textual sources has made it difficult to determine exactly how influential a role the Hellenistic culture played in transforming the culture of Buddhism in the region of Gandhara. This issue is further exacerbated by decimations of some of the oldest artefacts in history - most notably the recent destruction of the ancient but monumental statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, however, it has recently been resurrected, albeit in 3D light projection).
The region of Gandhara, northwest of Pakistan and east of present day Afghanistan, echoes of the Hellenistic aspects of art and culture in the Indian context. The coins recovered from the first century A.D. for example, had both Greek and Buddhistic impressions, signifying Greek influence in the region. Traditionally, narratives based on the Buddha describe events occurring in his previous lifetimes, instead of documenting the life of the Buddha as himself.
The concept of reincarnation and afterlife was not mainstream in the Indo-greek narrative until two centuries later in Gandharan artwork. Local influences were intertwined with Gandharan features in the entire frontier region along with regional polity bringing in their characteristics.
In fact, the early images of the Buddha were never conceived in anthropomorphic form but were represented with symbols, while capturing the essence of his worshippers. Statues meant for idolisation, an early form of the Hellenistic society had their own imagination of the Buddha, and his followers wore tunics and robes (like toga). They also borrowed both Buddhist and Hindu symbols like the lotus. The relics of the Buddha for this period have curly hair, are draped, and have vertically upright postures. Au contraire, it is a common practice for Buddhist monks to shave their head, by way of emulating the Buddha’s teachings and initial appearance. Eizel Mazard while writing for New Mandala mentions how this practice is “exclusively associated with monasticism” due to embedded cultural misconceptions and practices. Therefore, the Gandharan visualisation of Buddha with Greco-Roman features has been widely accepted even in Southeast Asian art, despite these inconsistencies. Furthermore, the Indo-Greek interpretation of Buddhism was similar to the disposition of the human form in Greek and Roman Gods. Often referred as “Gandhara Buddhism” by scholars, the Hellenic representation of the Buddha digressed from the iconoclastic views of Buddhism which does not practice idol worship. According to Belgian Scholar Etienne Lamotte, orthodox Buddhism viewed Buddha as a sage, however, archaeological sources and surviving Buddhist texts from Gandhara period depicted him as a supernatural being.
To add more, the first century CE witnessed the origin of a distinctive portrayal of Buddha in Mathura independent of the Gandharan art. The Mathura art did not come under strong Greek influence. This is evident in these contrasting depictions of the Buddha. Under the Kushana and Gupta dynasties, Mathura art (from 2nd century B.C.) bore a resemblance to Hindu sculptures, thus suggesting dynastic differences in art than before. In the sculptures and reliefs stemming from the Mathura school, we find more locally embedded traditional features such as shaven, protuberant heads, as opposed to those of Gandharan Buddhas where beards, wavy-haired statue with large foreheads and sculpted ears were common (these features were manifestations of prominent Greek traditions, in which baldness was regarded as shameful). Other depicted differences can be seen in dress codes: in Gandhara tradition, Buddha wears less and loose clothing, including the covering just one shoulder and leaving the other exposed (a common appearance of ancient Greeks and as a result it was a common portrayal of Hellenistic Gods). This differs from the Mathura culture in which Buddha’s clothing is illustrated as being worn tightly and the style is visibly more indigenous.
Additionally, Gandharan artists also represent in images the chronological order Buddha’s mythical journey from birth to his death. Cities built on Hellenistic attributes in the Indo-Greek empire were mostly centres of economic activity and opportunity. Both these Buddhist arts extended to regions of Central Asia and South East Asia as well. Currently, the Peshawar museum (founded in 1907) and Taxila museum (founded in 1918) host thousands of Gandharan artefacts where both Hellenistic and local elements have been found beginning from the Greco-Indian period, Kushana, Parthian, and finally to Indo-Scythian culture and life.
However, understanding the importance of Greek influence on Gandhara art in Buddha’s conception has often caused disagreement between historians, where a few scholars have argued that Gandharan art was in fact influenced from the Mathura school of thought. Nonetheless, the schism between Gandhara and Mathura art are both significant to the development in the practice of Buddhism. The gradual infusion of Hindu elements in Gandhara art is indicative of receding Greek influence towards later centuries. Despite scarce literature, it can be argued that the adoption of Buddhism by the Indo-Greek nobility brought a radical change in how Buddhism was perceived in later centuries.
(Views expressed are strictly personal)