Below is a sculpture of the Buddha, dating back from the 1st to 2nd century CE, found in what is today eastern Afghanistan (but what was then called Gandhara).
Courtesy of Wikimedia.
Notice the resemblance to a traditional Greek sculpture? That’s not a coincidence: this unique piece reflects a rare art form known Greco-Buddhist style.
This remarkable fusion of Greek, Indian, Persian, and Buddhist culture developed between 300 BC and the 400 AD in what is now modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It was the result of a long chain of interactions begun by Greek forays into India that began with Alexander the Great. Even though his empire collapsed almost right after his death, what most people don’t know is that it broke into various Greek-ruled kingdoms that remained for centuries and fused local cultures with Greek (also called Hellenic) culture.
Examples include Greek rulers claiming to be reincarnations of previous local leaders, certain Buddhist figures being portrayed as Greek gods (and visa versa), a combination of clothing styles, transmission of rituals, and even the creation of new languages and philosophies.
In fact, to this day, you can still find some Afghans, Pakistanis, and Indians who are descended from Greeks. It’s claimed that Buddhism may have influenced Western thought through Greece too: some have found similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the Stoics with that of the Buddha (though the connection is disputed and difficult to trace).
Below are more fascinating examples of this unexpected cultural syncretism, the influence of which has reached as far as China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Read more about it here.
The bodhisattva Vajrapani depicted as Hercules as the protector of the Buddha, 2nd century.
The Greek Titan Atlas, supporting a Buddhist monument.
Casket depicting the Buddha in Greek-style (contrapposto pose, Greek himation, bundled hairstyle, realistic execution) flanked by Indian gods.
Gandhara frieze with Buddhist devotees, holding plantain leaves, in purely Hellenistic style, inside Corinthian columns, 1st-2nd century CE. Buner, Swat, Pakistan.