Greek influence on Indian culture in Antiquity

The advent of Greeks in India dates back from 6th century (BC) to 5th century (AD) as an outcome of Greek expedition towards Persia.


Their quest is manifested through materialization of long list comprising Kingdoms and Greek rulers who reigned India. Greeks invaded Indus and the Ganges, the Plateaus of the Deccan and the Beaches of Gujrat; However, their infiltration into India remained void of some geographical parts. Greeks came into India as merchants and traded to Malabar Coast of Coromandel, and the mercenaries they served in the places of Tamil kings. Until the British came no European race so thoroughly traversed and explored the great Sub-continent.

The Greeks adapted to Indian climate and customs. Their progenies received eloquent influence of Indian religions and their contribution in Budhism is obvious. Regarding religious contribution and their involvement in Budhism, the role of seer king Menander is most significant. Moreover, the Greeks added value to Indian intellect and cultural heritage in forms of introducing industrial techniques, development of Astronomy, and building the great school of Gandhara sculpture whose influence penetrated into the far corners of Asia.

The role of Greeks in India is largely associated with the invasion of Alexander on India; whereas, the historical accounts suggest arrival of Greeks in India long before Alexander. It can be commented that huge historical coverage of Alexander has eclipsed the contribution of earlier Greek arrivals in India. It is narrated that at the time of the invasion on India through the Passes of the Hindu Kush, Alexander got conversant with the fact that a number of Greeks from Bactria had already established in the fertile mountains that overlooked the valley of the Indus. The historical literature also suggests that Bactria Greeks ruled the parts of India that remained unknown to Alexander. Various historical accounts suggest that the arrival of earlier Greeks in India took place approximately 2 centuries before the advent of Alexander. Their route of travel remained along the trade routes linking India, Persia, Ionian cities of Asia Minor. Some other accounts suggest that these journeys were glorified through expedition tales of Greek gods Dionysus and Heracles. It is narrated that these glorified legendary tales of Greek expedition to India inspired Alexander to campaign for India in search of finding the great Ocean which he believed brought the world to an end somewhere beyond the Hindu Kush.

The Empire of Alexander the Great

The Empire of Alexander the Great

The validation of the claim that Indo Greek interaction took place long before the military campaign of the Alexander can be verified through ancient Greek and Sanskrit literature. Sanskrit literature suggests these people as formidable warriors and conversant with the knowledge of science that was strange to indigenous people.

The contribution of Greeks in Indian knowledge and culture is so profound that it has maintained to survive more than two millenniums. It can be commented that their additions to Indian culture have become integral and considerable part of Indian cultural melting pot. During reign of Greek Bactrians in India, mutual exchange of skills took place that benefitted India with Greek expertise in sculpture making. Gandhara school of sculpture served as guiding institute in that regard. Similarly, Indian astronomy impressed the Greeks enough to innovate Zodiac sign. These inklings can be drawn from classical Indian literature of Mahabharta and Yuga Purana.

The classical Indian literature comprising Yuga Purana, Mahabharata, and Buddhist literature provide historical narrations of Indo Greek interaction in ancient times. The information through these accounts suggests that Greeks were called “Yavanas” by the indigenous people. These accounts are also mentioned in an Astrology book named “Gargi Samhita”. The passages of this work, there we can found more unanimity of interpretation than about the account of Pushyamitra‟s death. This information found from a main source on the Greek invasion of Pataliputra.

Yuga Purana elaborates military campaign of the Greeks mainly mentioning their resistance against Sketa in Oudh, and annexing of Panchalas between the Ganges and the Jumna. Moreover, it gives speculative information about their period of stay in Pataliputra.

Some mentions of Mahabhasya written by Patanjli about siege of „Sketa” and “Madyamika” provide alternative account to substantiate events mentioned in “Yuga Purana”. As the Patanjli was contemporary to those events, hence his writings can be trusted in terms of its oral accounts. These writings have some allusions of war stating: “The Yavana was besieging Sketa. The Yavana was besieging Madyamika”. Patanjali lived in second century B.C, and this time which he used as illustration precisely because they were fresh in the minds of his readers. The reference to the siege of Sketa confirms the information given in the Yuga Purana. But the reference of Madyamika takes us into a quite different area of Greek invasions in India. Madyamika was situated far to the south of Menander’s invasion route to Pataliputra.

There is another famous source which expresses the Greek military actions in north central India. Malavikagnimitra, was a play written by Kalidasa and it expressed the tradition shortly before the birth of Christ. The Mahabharta is a major Indian epic, features Bhagadatta, described as a Yavana king; who plays a prominent role in the epic’s climactic war. King Menander, a successor of the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius, conquered large parts of northern India and features in a major Buddhist text, the Milindapanha (Questions of Milinda). A philosophical dispute about Buddhism, between Milinda and the Buddhist sage Nagasena, comprises the bulk of the text.

Actually Buddhism in India is a very turning point in the world of art and culture, as well as in philosophy and religion. The Greek- Indian Buddhist religious thought appeared as the new dawn across Asia and Europe more than all other religious faiths.


The Greek artistic approaches largely influenced on Indian art by the Buddhist tradition and persisted into the later Gupta period. The Greeks are very famous for their innovative and the anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha in Indian sculpture.

The Ghandhara School of Buddhist art grown up under the great influence of the Greeks. The Greek initiation of sculpting the Buddha in human form matured and it became a major part of the Buddhist iconography.

The Greeks also introduced their own architectural and sculptural forms, like cupids, friezes and Corinthian columns into the Buddhist school. Several Greek mythological figures were incorporated into Buddhist architectural works, including Heracles, who became equated to Vajrapani. The Greek skills and techniques were endured till the epoch of Gupta. Gupta’s realistic anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha reflect the legacy of the Greek artistic influence.

During the reign of Kushana Kings, the Gandhara School of art and sculpture much flourished in the area of lower Kabul Valley and upper Indus side around Peshawar and Mathura. This geographical belt earned status of founding the place to honor the Buddha‟s images. Mostly Indian dynamic regimes regard that the presentation of Buddha images originated at Mathura, South of Delhi. Around 140 B.C. after the death of Menander, the Central Asian Kushana infested with Bactria and terminated the Greek rule there. Around the 80 B.C. the Sakas were desported by their Parthian cousins from Iran. They moved into Gandhara and in different parts of Pakistan and in West India. After a time an Indo-Parthian dynasty succeeded to accede to governance control at Gandhara. And thus the Parthians continued to give favor to the Greek artistic traditions. Gandhara art largely expanded in Kushana‟s reign, thus the Kushana‟s era is considered the golden period in the development of Gandhara civilization. In this epoch Gandhara art produced some of the best pieces of Indian sculpture. The Gandhara Civilization reached its epitome in the period of great Kushan King Kanis (128-151 A.D).

The Buddhist faith was most significant for Kanishka, and it quickly spread from central Asia to the East. From this point Kinshka‟s empire met with the Chinese Han Empire. The Buddha’s sculptures and the Buddhist beliefs gravitated the Chinese pilgrims to visit the monuments that were associated with tales and Jatkas. In this way, Gandhara turned from profane to sacred land of Buddhism.

In Gandhara, Mahāyāna Buddhism flourished and Buddha was represented in human form. Under the Kushan supervision, new Buddha stupas were built and old ones were enlarged. Huge statues of the Buddha were erected in monasteries and carved into the hillsides. Kanishka also built a great tower to a height of 400 feet at Peshawar. This tower was reported by Faxian (Fa-hsien), Songyun (Sung-yun) and Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang). This structure was destroyed and rebuilt many times until it was at last destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni, in 11th century AD.

The golden period of Gandhara civilization expired in White Huns dynasty. It is narrated that the white Huns under their ruthless king Mihirakula, brought the tradition of Greek-o-Buddhist art in India to an abrupt end. Many of the Buddhist monasteries were deserted forever, and the bodies of the massacred monks of Texila were left lying in the debris of their chapels. The scenes of desolation are narrated by a Chinese envoy Hsuan-tsang who happened to cross this region a century later than the Han invasion. He narrated almost absolute desolation and depopulation of the area with small communities of the surviving monks. Their golden age seemed expired. The very sites of the former Greek cities were abandoned; the sculptures, workshops destroyed and the artists either killed or dispersed, and the last period of Greek influence had come to an end.

Interestingly, however, a vestige survived in one Indian region where the Greeks had never ruled; In Kashmir until the tenth century A.D. temples with Corinthian pillers were still being built in a degenerated Gandhara style.

A parallel school of Buddhist art to that of Gandhara had arisen during the second century A.D. Among the native Indian artists of Mathura, one of the chief deities in Hindu religious center beside Jumna. It is situated almost 145 KM in the south of Delhi. Mathura and Gandhara had both formed the part of the realm of Menander. Besides this the Mathura art is considered as one the first two centers of production for images of the Buddha and the other being Gandhara. And in the second century A.D they both were under the control of Kushana Kings, who established a winter palace in Mathura and patronized Buddhism there as strongly as they had done in Taxila and Pashawer.

Texila And Mathura were rival holy cities and their rivalry passed into the realm of art when Mathura became a center of Indian sculpture in the second century; and it began to distribute over Northern India the large numbers of Buddhist images which its workshops produced from the mottled red stone of the local quarries. It could be seen that in this era the Mathura’s native Indian art reached maturity; but many historians thought that this development was much influenced by the contemporary movement of Greek- Buddhist Art. Both centers, Gandhara and Mathura, started to make human images of Buddha in first century A.D. yet maintaining their artistic distinction.

The two strains of Mathura and Gandhara are finally combined in the greatest school of Indian Buddhist art. During the last century of Greek-o-Buddhist era, the Gupta Empire arose in central India. In Gupta’s sculptures, an ideological resonant of classical Greece took place. The physical existence of Mathura, the intellectuality of Gandhara, gave place to a quality of pure spirituality. The Greek influence at this point was finally absorbed and transcended. It gave to Indian Art its techniques, its plasticity, mind its most sublime image; it has helped to liberate it from the primitive and uncouth images and forms of the ages before Alexander.

With the merging Greeco-Buddhist art into the general tradition of Indian art, the last outward sign of the Greek presence in India disappeared. The Greeks themselves were lost in the mass of the Indian population, and their contributions to the culture of the country had been absorbed absolutely leaving no major Hellenistic strain visible after the fifth century. The Greek community failed to maintain their mosaic in India unlike Parsee and the Muslims. The reason lies that the ancient Greeks were by nature an undogmatic people. They carried with them to Asia a culture but not a creed. They set out to inquire, not to convert, and in the end it was they who, like their king, Menander were converted.


In the earlier ancient Indian culture, the advancement of astronomy in India came from the practice of astrology and the recognition of Indian astronomy is due to that of the ancient Greeks. The Gargi Samhita of the Yuga Purana accredits as the mastermind of astronomy to the Greeks as well as the Aryabhata ascribes the Zodiac to the Greeks. The Indian astronomy found many innovations by the influence of Greek astronomical tradition. In the earlier era the astronomical texts were found in Rigveda, approximately  written during 1700 to 1100 B.C. The Greek astronomers, too, enjoyed and further imminent approaches gained from the Indian Vedas with two great ancient civilizations mostly glad to learn from each other in the interest of scientific progress, and the study of Indo-Greek astronomical knowledge and queries became more visible on post-Vedic tradition.

In 5th century A.D. the Siddhanthic period, is considered the Golden age of Indian astronomy. In this era the mathematical solutions to astronomical issues were gathered into astronomical texts. The famous astronomers Aryabhatta (476 A.D), Varahamihira (505 A.D), Brahmagupta (598 A.D) and Bhaskara (1114 A.D) belong to this period.

AryaBhatta considered the first great mathematician and astronomer as well. In ancient Greek astronomy he introduced some extraordinary progress, such as the calculation and rotation of the Earth related to the specific stars as twenty three hours, fifty-six minutes and 4.1 seconds (actual 23:56:4.091) and the length of the year was 365 days 6 hours, 12 minutes 30 seconds was just 3 minutes 20 seconds out of the length of the year.

There is a variety of discoveries that have been attributed to the origin of ancient Greece. As an example we can mention here that Anaxogoras (510-428 B.C) explained first time that the Moon shines due to the reflected sunlight. The Earth spins are attributed to Philolaus. Nevertheless, the involvement through the astronomical sciences by such Indian astronomers as AryaBhatta and Brahma gupta were invaluable and, historically, second only to those of the ancient Greeks.

(Source: “The Influence of Greek Classics on Indian Culture in Ancient Era”, by Shumaila Firdos, Yu. Wenjie, Xu. Sangyi, 2017)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: T.M.

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