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What we know as Indian Buddhism today was shaped by Central Asians and Greeks

What is acknowledged as ‘Indian’ now was developed across millennia by people who we don’t consider Indian today.

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When we think of the expansion and spread of Buddhism, the first image that comes to mind is of brave Indians crossing deserts and mountains to bring their religion to willing disciples across Asia. We might imagine them being sent out by noble Indian kings, and we might like to imagine that “Indian” culture was so compelling that it was inevitable that the rest of Asia would adopt elements of it. But neither of those cosy assumptions is borne out by historical evidence.

As we consider the actual mechanisms by which Buddhism spread—involving centuries upon centuries of migration, cultural churn, and religio-political innovation—we’ll see that its expansion challenges our notion that ancient India was the centre of the world.

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Graeco-Indians, Indian Greeks, or something else?

In the second century BCE, about a century after the death of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka—just decades after the empire itself had collapsed—a merchant commissioned an inscription in Kandahar, published in 2005 by historian George Rougemont in Nouvelles inscriptions grecques de l’Asie centrale.

Kandahar was a thriving city, and the merchant had lived a life of risk and considerable reward. His name, he informs us, was Sophytos son of Naratos, and he had an extensive Hellenistic education, though his family had fallen on hard times. He had “cultivated the arts of Apollo the archer and the Muses together with the virtue of wisdom”, and decided that the best course of action was to take out a large loan and seek his fortune in many cities. Returning in triumph to his dilapidated ancestral home, he rebuilt it and renovated his family tomb. All this might not seem particularly surprising—after all, people of Greek descent had had a significant presence in this region since the conquests of Alexander III of Macedon (sometimes known as “the Great”) in 330 BCE. Except Sophytos son of Naratos is actually a Greek rendering of Subhuti, son of Narada. As “Indian” as this sounds to us, Subhuti/Sophytos/Sophytes was a name that was used by many in this heterogenous region, including those of Iranian descent.

While it is certainly true that aspects of South Asian culture spread through Central Asia, as Subhuti illustrates, this was by no means a one-sided process. The mechanisms through which it occurred were quite complex. From the perspective of the 20th and 21st centuries, it is natural to try and project our modern political boundaries of “India” into the distant past, but the world of Subhuti—indeed, the world for most of history—was a multicentric and borderless one. Even his name would not have been considered particularly “Indian”.

Through the borderlands of South and Central Asia at the time, it was quite natural for allegiances to be owed to what was perceived as a “local” cultural complex, rather than to the distant Gangetic Plains, to monarchs who would only be transformed into “Indian” nationalist icons thousands of years later. What his name and his life reveal to us is that just like the medieval peoples of this region (who we saw in earlier editions of Thinking Medieval), many identities coexisted in the ancient world. And people, being complex, could quite seamlessly shift between them.

The same logic applies, also, to Hellenic rulers within the boundaries of the subcontinent. Historian Jason Neelis notes in Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks that the Indo-Greek king Menander Soter (155–130 BCE) is often considered Buddhist because of the Pali text known as the Milinda-Panha, where he is depicted learning from the Buddhist monk Nagasena. However, archaeological excavations reveal that Buddhists were just one among the many groups to which Menander extended his patronage. The Milinda-Panha is most likely a Buddhist attempt to claim him for themselves as part of a strategy of legitimation.

Menander certainly sought to depict himself in terms that his “Indian” subjects would understand, for example using the wheel symbol on his coins to associate himself with emerging concepts of the chakravartin, the wheel-turning or universal monarch. A similar strategy would also be followed by medieval Turkic rulers of the region, who issued Sanskrit coins with depictions of Hindu deities.

But at the same time, Menander also commissioned coins of the goddess Athena, who would have been recognisable to city-dwellers of diverse backgrounds, such as Subhuti

The same applies also to Indo-Greek coins of emerging deities like Vasudeva and Samkarshana, best known today as Krishna and Balarama. Their commissioning reveals that these hero-gods had spread from their original focus of worship in Mathura to new worshippers in the northwest regions. The issuance of these coins, which are the oldest surviving images of the hero-gods, is a snapshot of their evolution, a testament to the fact that they were receiving Indo-Greek patronage as well, contributing to their development and growing popularity.

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Buddhist horse lords

Throughout history, the great Central Asian steppe, like the beating heart of Eurasia, sent out great waves of migration every few centuries. One major wave entered South and West Asia from the 2nd century BCE through the 1st century CE, comprising many groups of peoples including the Scythians, Parthians and Kushans. Once again, it is possible to see a distant parallel to the medieval migratory waves that led to the expansion of the Turks and Mongols into the same regions from the 10th to the 13th centuries CE.

Mere decades after Menander issued his coins, the Indo-Greek kingdom had vanished, replaced by warlike Central Asians called the Shakas or Indo-Scythians.

As Jason Neelis, a professor of religion and culture, puts it, the Shakas controlled territory through “a confederation of regional rulers who established control of major routes connecting Gandhara to Mathura”. Two separate, but related, families ruled in the Gandhara region of present-day Pakistan, as well as the Mathura region of present-day India.

For reasons that are somewhat unclear, the Shakas were tremendous patrons of Buddhism, as revealed by a lion pillar capital excavated in Mathura in 1869. Covered in Kharoshti inscriptions, it describes gifts made by the Shaka queen Ayasia to establish the worship of a relic near a Sarvastivada Buddhist monastery. The Sarvastivada sect was linked to the Mulasarvastivada, covered in last week’s Thinking Medieval. Ayasia expresses a wish that the merit of the donation should extend to all of Shakastan, by which she means the northwest portion of the subcontinent. This suggests that in her eyes, the region was not considered “India”, but rather, a Shaka homeland.

Donations like this helped convert the region to Buddhism. The process had already begun when the Indo-Greeks ruled, as we saw above, but the stability and patronage of the Shakas led to the establishment of many more Buddhist (and early Shaiva) monasteries along the trade routes, encouraging its diffusion from urban centres to the Kashmir Smast and Swat Valleys. Integral to this process were the Odis, a local people who intermarried with the Shakas and who eventually established the ‘Hindu Shahi’ kingdom many centuries later.

The Shakas were tremendously important in shaping South Asian history, and this should be better acknowledged. They inaugurated two dating systems that continued to be used for centuries after, including the Vikrama Era—linked to the reign of the Shaka King-of-Kings Azes (50–25 BCE)—and the Shaka Era, still used by the Republic of India today. As Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock also notes in The Language of the Gods in the World of Men that it was Shaka rulers who inaugurated the use of Sanskrit in royal eulogies—a trend that would spread far and wide and become one of the main modes of royal self-presentation in the medieval period (600–1100 CE).

This fact emphasises the futility of cultural chauvinism in the 21st century. The nature of historical change is so intertwined that we cannot celebrate India’s influence on the world without acknowledging that so much of what is “Indian” was developed through the involvement of peoples who we don’t consider Indian today.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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