Between the 320s and the 130s BCE, there were kingdoms in what is now Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan that had monarchs with Greek names who communicated in both Greek and Pali, who honored both Olympian gods and Buddha, and who had diplomatic relationships, marriages, and wars with both Mediterranean and South Asian neighbors. Here, for example, is a coin of king Strato I and his consort Agathokleia. They are named on one side in Greek. On the other side, in the Kharosthi script, it says, “King Strato, Savior and of the Dharma.” The figure is Athena, but other coins from the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms show the Buddhist wheel.
These kingdoms are fascinating because they may have influenced the ideas and art of Mahayana Buddhism, on one side, and Hellenistic philosophy and Judeo-Christian monasticism, on the other. Discussing them, however, can be politically sensitive. Ever since they were rediscovered, scholars–both Indian and European–have identified the Greek aspects of these communities with Europe, with colonialism, and with whiteness, and the Indian aspects of these communities with Asia, with independence, and with darker skin. Thus proponents of the British empire have accentuated the Greeks’ contribution to “Hellenistic India,” whereas anti-colonial scholars have either dismissed it or viewed it critically. This is a helpful overview of the historiography by Rachel Mairs.
I’m no expert, but I have a strong instinct that these categories are false and misleading. I happen to be white (of European extraction) and I studied some Greek. But the Greek cultural aspect of the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms is deeply alien to me. In their militarism, monarchism, paganism, misogyny, and peculiar metaphysics, the ancient Hellenes are far more remote than modern Indians are. If I had to choose between the ethics of a Greek circa 200 BC and a Buddhist of the same time, I would select the latter as both more persuasive and more familiar. The British imperialists who came to dominate South Asia in the late 1700s were not much more similar to ancient Greeks than I am, although they thought they belonged to the “classical tradition.”
The Greeks themselves distinguished between Europe and Asia and named “India” as that part of Asia that lay beyond the Indus River. But those are arbitrary distinctions, as my family and I recalled when we stood on either side of the Europe/Asia border in Turkey several times this summer. Ancient Indians tended to call the Greeks “Yona,” which refers to the Ionian Sea. It lies between Italy and Greece, but if Indians had called the Greeks “Aegeans” instead, that name would have encompassed both Asia and Europe (per the Greeks’ own distinction.)
Race is a hugely influential category today, but ancients did not divide people up that way. When the Greek emperor Seleukos and the Indian emperor Chandragupta sealed a peace treaty by arranging a marriage between their children, no one thought that a white person was marrying a person of color. Some Greeks may have thought that the marriage involved a barbarian, but that meant someone who couldn’t speak Greek. Barbarians were people who said “bar bar bar”: unintelligible foreign words. The important divisions involved language, not skin color.
If you can drop the association of Greeks with Europe and Mauryans with India, what really jumps out is the continuity of culture and history from North India to southern Italy in that era. The philosophical milieu of Siddhartha Gautama resembled that of Socrates. Both men lived in city-states that would be overrun in the late 4th century BCE by monarchical empires. In both cases, a polytheistic background culture allowed reflection on abstract fundamentals that yielded agnostic and atheist ideas. In both circumstances, the essential question was how to achieve equanimity despite the intrinsic cruelty of life. And both regions traded intensively with each other. Once we drop the division between East and West, we can learn to read Sextus Empiricus and Marcus Aurelius as guides to meditation and Nagarjuna as a systematic metaphysician much like Aristotle.