when east and west were one

(Washington, DC) I am highly skeptical of distinctions between “eastern” and “western” thought, considering the enormous diversity within both domains, the thousands of years of interaction between the two, and the arbitrariness of any border. (Why, for example, should a body of water less than 2,000 feet across be considered to divide two continents, Europe from Asia?)

But if you are committed to the distinction, it’s worth taking a look at the Milinda Pandha.¬† This is a dialogue written originally in Sanskrit or Pali before the year 200 CE. It describes a dialogue between a Greek king of India named Milinda (who is probably Menander I) and a Buddhist sage named Nagasena.

Menander I is well attested in Greek and Indian texts and archaeological evidence as a Greek king who converted to, and patronized, Buddhism. Here he is on a silver coin that reads “King Menander the Just” in Greek on one side and “Great King Menander, follower of the Dharma” in the Kharosthi script of South Asia on the other.

Nagasena is not known outside of this dialogue, wherein he is described as the son of a Brahmin who, having quickly exhausted the Vedic scriptures, studied Buddhism under a Greek monk named Dhammarakkhita (“Protected by the Dharma”).

Compared to a Platonic dialogue, the Milinda Pandha includes more fantastical details. The gods, for example, are directly involved. But it paints appealing portraits of the human characters. Menander goes around stumping sages with metaphysical paradoxes until he meets Nagasena, who bests him on a couple of those exchanges. Then the King simply asks questions about Buddhist doctrine and Nagasena answers with illustrative similes. The King replies after each one, “Very good, Nagasena!”

I can read the text only through the 19th century English translation of T. W. Rhys Davids. As far as I can tell, the perspective of the original document is orthodox Theravada Buddhism. Thus I am glimpsing Menander I through layers of interpretation, Asian and English; and it is hard to imagine how this European-born king of ancient India might actually have thought. But he and Nagasena seem to share the same social and cultural horizon, and the differences between them stem only from their respective roles as monarch and sage:

The king said: ‘Reverend Sir, will you discuss with me again?’

‘If your Majesty will discuss as a scholar (pandit), well; but if you will discuss as a king, no.’

‘How is it then that scholars discuss?’

‘When scholars talk a matter over one with another then is there a winding up, an unravelling; one or other is convicted of error, and he then acknowledges his mistake; distinctions are drawn, and contra-distinctions; and yet thereby they are not angered. Thus do scholars, O king, discuss.’

‘And how do kings discuss?’

‘When a king, your Majesty, discusses a matter, and he advances a point, if any one differ from him on that point, he is apt to fine him, saying: “Inflict such and such a punishment upon that fellow!” Thus, your Majesty, do kings discuss.

‘Very well. It is as a scholar, not as a king, that I will discuss. Let your reverence talk unrestrainedly, as you would with a brother, or a novice, or a lay disciple, or even with a servant. Be not afraid!’

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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