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Buddhism and the Roman world

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Title: Buddhism and the Roman world  
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Subject: Buddhism in the West, Buddhist modernism, Buddhism in Denmark, Buddhism in England, Buddhism in France
Collection: Buddhism in the Ancient Mediterranean, History of Buddhism, Roman-Era Philosophy
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Buddhism and the Roman world

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

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


  • Pandion embassy 1
  • Buddhist culture and pre-Christian Greece 2
  • Mauryan proselytizing 3
  • Expansion of Buddhist culture westward 4
  • Western knowledge of Buddhism 5
  • Buddhism and Gnosticism 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9

Pandion embassy

Roman historical accounts describe an embassy sent by the "Indian king Porus (Pandion (?) Pandya (?) or Pandita (Buddhism) (?)) to Caesar Augustus sometime between 22 BC and 13 CE. 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 ) 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[1] Charles Eliot in his Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch (1921) considers that the name Zarmanochegas "perhaps contains the two words Sramana and Acarya."[2] 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."[3] 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

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.[4] 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.[5]

Mauryan proselytizing

Ashoka ascended the throne of India around 270 BCE. 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.

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."[6]

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. 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 CE (see Pandion Embassy section above).

Expansion of Buddhist culture westward

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.[7] 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

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

Some knowledge of Buddhism existed quite early in the West. In the 2nd century CE Clement of Alexandria wrote about the Buddha:

εἰσὶ δὲ τῶν Ἰνδῶν οἱ τοῖς Βούττα πειθόμενοι παραγγέλμασιν. ὃν δι’ ὑπερβολὴν σεμνότητος ὡς θεὸν τετιμήκασι. [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 AlexandriaStromata (Miscellanies), Book I, Chapter XV

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

"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 ("Βραφμαναι")."
Clement of AlexandriaStromata (Miscellanies)

The story of the birth of the Buddha was also known: a fragment of Archelaos of Carrha (278 CE) 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

Early 3rd century–4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 CE 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" ). 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."
Cyril of Jerusalem, "Catechetical lecture 6"

See also


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


  1. ^ Elledge CD. Life After Death in Early Judaism. Mohr Siebeck Tilbringen 2006 ISBN 3-16-148875-X pp122-125
  2. ^ Charles Eliot. Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch vol 1. Curzon Press, Richmond 1990. ISBN 0-7007-0679-8 p 431 fn 4.
  3. ^ Elledge CD. Life After Death in Early Judaism. Mohr Siebeck Tilbringen 2006 ISBN 3-16-148875-X p125
  4. ^ Latourette, Kenneth Scott (1975). A History of Christianity.  p. 274
  5. ^ 1. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Part One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1935), vol. 1, p. 449.
  6. ^ Pliny the Elder, "The Natural History", Chap. 21
  7. ^ "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
  • "Dictionary of Buddhism" by Damien Keown (Oxford University Press, 2003) ISBN 0-19-860560-9
  • "The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity" by John Boardman (Princeton University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-691-03680-2
  • "Living Zen" by Robert Linssen (Grove Press, New York, 1958) ISBN 0-8021-3136-0
  • "National Museum Arts asiatiques- Guimet" (Editions de la Reunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 2001) ISBN 2-7118-3897-8.
  • "Religions of the Silk Road" by Richard Foltz (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010) ISBN 978-0-230-62125-1
  • "The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies" by Thomas McEvilley (Allworth Press, New York, 2002) ISBN 1-58115-203-5
  • "The Times Atlas of Archeology" (Times Books Limited, London, 1991) ISBN 0-7230-0306-8
  • "Japanese Buddhism" by Sir Charles Eliot, ISBN 0-7103-0967-8
  • "Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch" by Sir Charles Eliot, ISBN 81-215-1093-7
  • "The Crossroads of Asia. Transformation in Image and symbol", 1992, ISBN 0-9518399-1-8
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