Buddhism and the Roman world

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Extent of Buddhism and trade routes in the 1st century AD.

Several instances of interaction between Buddhism and the Roman world are documented by Classical and early Christian writers.

Pandion embassy[edit]

File:Statuetta indiana di Lakshmi, avorio, da pompei, 1-50 dc ca., 149425, 02.JPG
The Pompeii Lakshmi ivory statuette, found in 1938 in the ruins of Pompeii (destroyed in 79 CE), is thought to have originated in Bhokardan, Satavahana Empire . It testifies to the intensity of Indo-Roman trade relations at the time.[1]

Lua error in Module:Hatnote_list at line 44: attempt to call field 'formatPages' (a nil value). Roman historical accounts describe an embassy sent by the "Indian king Porus (Pandion (?) Pandya (?) or Pandita (?)) to Caesar Augustus sometime between 22 BC and 13 AD. The embassy was travelling with a diplomatic letter on a skin in Greek, and one of its members was a sramana who burned himself alive in Athens to demonstrate his faith. The event made a sensation and was described by Nicolaus of Damascus, who met the embassy at Antioch (near present day Antakya in Turkey) and related by Strabo (XV,1,73 [2] [archive]) and Dio Cassius (liv, 9). A tomb was made to the sramana, still visible in the time of Plutarch, which bore the mention:


("Zarmanochegas from Barygaza in India")

Strabo also states that Nicolaus of Damascus in giving the details of his tomb inscription specified his name was "Zarmanochegas" and he "immortalized himself according to the custom of his country." Cassius Dio (Hist 54.9) and Plutarch cite the same story[2] Charles Eliot in his Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch (1921) considers that the name Zarmanochegas "perhaps contains the two words Sramana and Acarya."[3] HL Jones' translation of the inscription as mentioned by Strabo reads it as "The Sramana master, an Indian, a native of Bargosa, having immortalized himself according to the custom of his country, lies here."[4] These accounts at least indicate that Indian religious men (Sramanas, to which the Buddhists belonged, as opposed to Hindu Brahmanas) were circulating in the Levant during the time of Jesus.

Buddhist culture and pre-Christian Greece[edit]

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From the time of Jesus or soon after: a statue of Siddartha Gautama preaching, in the Greco-Buddhist style of Gandhara, present-day Pakistan

By the time of Jesus, the teachings of the Buddha had already spread through much of India and penetrated into Sri Lanka, Central Asia and China.[5] They display certain similarities to Christian moral precepts of more than five centuries later; the sanctity of life, compassion for others, rejection of violence, confession and emphasis on charity and the practice of virtue.

Will Durant, noting that the Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries, not only to elsewhere in India and to Sri Lanka, but to Syria, Egypt and Greece, speculated in the 1930s that they may have helped prepare the ground for Christian teaching.[6]

Mauryan proselytizing[edit]

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Ashoka ascended the throne of India around 270 BC. After his conversion to Buddhism he dispatched missionaries to the four points of the compass. Archeological finds indicate these missions had been "favorably received" in lands to the West.[citation needed]

Ptolemy II Philadelphus, one of the monarchs Ashoka mentions in his edicts, is recorded by Pliny the Elder as having sent an ambassador named Dionysius to the Mauryan court at Pataliputra: "India has been treated of by several other Greek writers who resided at the courts of Indian kings, such, for instance, as Megasthenes, and by Dionysius, who was sent thither by Philadelphus, expressly for the purpose: all of whom have enlarged upon the power and vast resources of these nations."[7]

Records from Alexandria, long a crossroads of commerce and ideas, indicate that itinerant monks from the Indian subcontinent may have influenced philosophical currents of the time.[citation needed] Roman accounts centuries later speak of monks traveling to the middle east, and there is mention of an embassy sent by the Indian king Pandion, or Porus (possibly Pandya), to Caesar Augustus around 13 AD (see Pandion Embassy section above).

Expansion of Buddhist culture westward[edit]

Lua error in Module:Hatnote_list at line 44: attempt to call field 'formatPages' (a nil value). Meanwhile, the Buddha's teachings had spread north-west, into Parthian territory. Buddhist stupa remains have been identified as distant as the Silk Road city of Merv.[8] Soviet archeological teams in Giaur Kala, near Merv, have uncovered a Buddhist monastery, complete with huge buddharupa. Parthian nobles such as An Shih Kao are known to have adopted Buddhism and were among those responsible for its further spread towards China.

Western knowledge of Buddhism[edit]

The birth of Siddhartha Gautama, Gandhara, 2nd–3rd century AD.

Some knowledge of Buddhism existed quite early in the West. In the 2nd century AD Clement of Alexandria wrote about the Buddha:[3] [archive]

Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'Module:Lang/ISO 639 synonyms' not found. [Among the Indians are those philosophers also who follow the precepts of Boutta, whom they honour as a god on account of his extraordinary sanctity.]

— Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (Miscellanies), Book I, Chapter XV

He also recognized Bactrian Buddhists (Sramanas) and Indian Gymnosophists for their influence on Greek thought:[4] [archive]

"Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Sramanas among the Bactrians ("Σαρμαναίοι Βάκτρων"); and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour's birth, and came into the land of Judaea guided by a star. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sramanas ("Σαρμάναι"), and others Brahmins ("Βραχμάναι")."

— Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (Miscellanies)

The story of the birth of the Buddha was also known: a fragment of Archelaos of Carrha (278 AD) mentions the Buddha's virgin-birth, and Saint Jerome (4th century) mentions the birth of the Buddha, who he says "was born from the side of a virgin". Queen Maya came to bear the Buddha after receiving a prophetic dream in which she foresaw the descent of the Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) from the Tuṣita heaven into her womb. This story has some parallels with the story of Jesus being conceived in connection with the visitation of the Holy Spirit to the Virgin Mary.

Buddhism and Gnosticism[edit]

Lua error in Module:Hatnote_list at line 44: attempt to call field 'formatPages' (a nil value). Early 3rd century–4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 AD from where he brought "the doctrine of the Two Principles". According to Cyril of Jerusalem, Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a "Buddha" ("He called himself Buddas" [5] [archive]). Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea ("becoming known and condemned"), and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of Manichaeism:

"But Terebinthus, his disciple in this wicked error, inherited his money and books and heresy, and came to Palestine, and becoming known and condemned in Judæa he resolved to pass into Persia: but lest he should be recognised there also by his name he changed it and called himself Buddas."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Strabo on the immolation of the Sramana in Athens, Paragraph 73 [archive]
  2. ^ Clement of Alexandria "The Stromata, or Miscellanies" Book I, Chapter XV [archive]
  3. ^ Clement of Alexandria "The Stromata, or Miscellanies" Book I, Chapter XV [archive]
  4. ^ Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 6 [archive]
  5. ^ Porphyry "On abstinence from animal food" Book IV, Paragraphs 17&18. [archive]


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  1. State Intervention and Popular Response: Western India in the Nineteenth Century, Mariam Dossal, Ruby Maloni, Popular Prakashan, 1999, p.46 [1] [archive]
  2. Elledge CD. Life After Death in Early Judaism. Mohr Siebeck Tilbringen 2006 <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css" />ISBN 3-16-148875-X pp122-125
  3. Charles Eliot. Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch vol 1. Curzon Press, Richmond 1990. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css" />ISBN 0-7007-0679-8 p 431 fn 4.
  4. Elledge CD. Life After Death in Early Judaism. Mohr Siebeck Tilbringen 2006 <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css" />ISBN 3-16-148875-X p125
  5. Latourette, Kenneth Scott (1975). A History of Christianity.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 274
  6. 1. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Part One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1935), vol. 1, p. 449.
  7. Pliny the Elder, "The Natural History", Chap. 21 [archive] Archived [archive] 2013-07-28 at the Wayback Machine.
  8. "The Silk Road city of Marv (Grk. Margiana), situated in the eastern part of the Parthian Empire, became a major Buddhist center" Foltz, "Religions of the Silk Road", p47

Further reading[edit]

  • Keown, Damien (2003). Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860560-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Boardman, John (1994). The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03680-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Linssen, Robert (1958). Living Zen. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3136-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Adamson, John; Musée Guimet (Paris); et al. (2001). National Museum Arts asiatiques- Guimet (in French). Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux Nationaux. ISBN 2-7118-3897-8. OCLC 469081697 [archive]. Explicit use of et al. in: |last2= (help)CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Foltz, Richard (2010). Religions of the Silk Road. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-62125-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McEvilley, Thomas (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth Press. ISBN 1-58115-203-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • The Times Atlas of Archeology. London: Times Books Limited. 1991. ISBN 9780723003069. OL 7865163M [archive].<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Eliot, Sir Charles. Japanese Buddhism. ISBN 0-7103-0967-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Eliot, Sir Charles. Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch. ISBN 81-215-1093-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Errington, Elizabeth; Cribb, Joe, eds. (1992). The Crossroads of Asia: transformation in image and symbol in the art of ancient Afghanistan and Pakistan. with Maggie Claringbull. Cambridge: Ancient India and Iran Trust. ISBN 0-9518399-1-8. OCLC 27386749 [archive]. OL 1482548M [archive].<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

http://indiafacts.org/india-as-india-has-existed-since-antiquity-in-greek-and-roman-accounts-sorry-mr-saif-ali-khan/ [archive]

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