8.14.2011

Buddhism, Indian Embassies and Rome

This inscription of Ashoka at Kandahar is now lost. It was written in Greek and Aramaic, and refers to his attempts to spread the "doctrine of piety" - ie Buddhism. Ashoka himself converted to Buddhism around 264 BC and devoted a great deal of energy to converting others. Since he conquered Afghanistan, his interested in what he called the "Yona" or "Yojanas" (Ionians, ie Greeks) there was understandable.

 What was more surprising was Ashoka's attempt to convert Greek kings beyond the fringes of his empire. His Edict Nb13 records messengers send some 4,000 miles:
where the Yona-raja king Amtiyoko rules, beyond there where the four kings named Turamaye, Amtikini, Maka and Alikasudaro rule ...
Amtiyoko was Antiochus II Theos (261–246 BC) of Syria; Turamaye was Ptolemy II Philadelphos (285–247 BC) of Egypt; Amtikini was Antigonus II Gonatas (278–239 BC) of Macedon; Maka was Magas of Cyrene (300–258 BC); and Alikasudaro Alexander II of Epirus (272–258 BC).

Their responses are not recorded, but Pliny (NH, 6. 21) records an embassy led by Dionysius to India sent by Ptolemy II.

Seleucus I had sent Megasthenes to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, the grand-father of Ashoka (Arrian, Anabasis 5.6); Seleucus' realm bordered the Mauryan Empire, so Megasthenes was able to use Bactria as a base to research his Indica. The Seleucids then sent Deimachus to the court of his successor Bindusara (Strabo II, 1, 9 & 14; XV,1,12). There is evidence that Seleucus' daughter married the Hindu Chandragupta Maurya as part of a treaty; Chadragupta sent Seleucus war elephants (Strabo 15, 724; see JSTOR and Appian, Syrian Wars 55):
He crossed the Indus and waged war with Sandrocottus, king of the Indians, who dwelt on the banks of that stream, until they came to an understanding with each other and contracted a marriage relationship. Some of these exploits were performed before the death of Antigonus and some afterward.
Antiochus III followed in Alexander's footsteps and went to Afghanistan:
He crossed the Caucasus (Hindu Kush) and descended into India; renewed his friendship with Sophagasenus the king of the Indians; received more elephants, until he had a hundred and fifty altogether; and having once more provisioned his troops, set out again personally with his army: leaving Androsthenes of Cyzicus the duty of taking home the treasure which this king had agreed to hand over to him. (Polybius 11.39)
Embassies went both ways. We know of an embassy which came from Indian in the time of Augustus, described by Strabo (15.1.4 and 73, citing Nicholas of Damascus):
But from India, from one place and from one king, I mean Pandion, or another Porus, there came to Caesar Augustus presents and gifts of honour and the Indian sophist who burnt himself up at Athens, as Calanus had done, who made a similar spectacular display of himself before Alexander.
He says that at Antioch, near Daphne, he chanced to meet the Indian ambassadors who had been despatched to Caesar Augustus; that the letter plainly indicated more than three ambassadors, but that only three had survived (whom he says he saw), but the rest, mostly by reason of the long journeys, had died; and that the letter was written in Greek on a skin; and that it plainly showed that Porus was the writer, and that, although he was ruler of six hundred kings, still he was anxious to be a friend to Caesar, and was ready, not only to allow him a passage through his country, wherever he wished to go, but also to co-operate with him in anything that was honourable. Nicolaus says that this was the content of the letter to Caesar, and that the gifts carried to Caesar were presented by eight naked servants, who were clad only in loin-cloths besprinkled with sweet-smelling odours; and that the gifts consisted of the Hermes, a man who was born without arms, whom I myself have seen, and large vipers, and a serpent ten cubits in length, and a river tortoise three cubits in length, and a partridge larger than a vulture.
They were accompanied also, according to him, by the man who burned himself up at Athens; and that whereas some commit suicide when they suffer adversity, seeking release from the ills at hand, others do so when their lot is happy, as was the case with that man; for, he adds, although that man had fared as he wished up to that time, he thought it necessary then to depart this life, lest something untoward might happen to him if he tarried here; and that therefore he leaped upon the pyre with a laugh, his naked body anointed, wearing only a loin-cloth; and that the following words were inscribed on his tomb: 'Here lies Zarmanochegas, an Indian from Bargosa, who immortalised himself in accordance with the ancestral customs of the Indians.'
Most memorable is the Indian who stayed behind and killed himself at Eleusis.

But who were these Indians who visited Augustus? That the embassy was at Antioch suggests it was taking an overland route via Syria and Iran. Pandion is believe to be a corruption of the Pandyan Dynasty of Tamil, but given that the sea route between Southern India and the Suez was well documented under Augustus, one must question this. The writer of the letter they carried is given as king Porus, also the name of the king of Paurava that Alexander the Great had fought in what is today the Punjab. We also know of Barygaza, the spelling from the inscription given by Plutarch, from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea so can identify it as modern Bharuch in Gujarat, a city where according to the Periplus (49) gold coins from Bactria with Greek inscriptions were used - not surprising since the city was the terminus of a trade route through Bactria into Tajikistan. Because it was written in Greek, on skin, it seems more likely to have been written by one of the last Philhellene Indo-Greek rulers of Bactria, who were at the time losing ground to the Yuezhi forming the Kushan Empire.

Dio Cassius (54.9.10) also describes the Indian from the embassy that visited Augustus at Samos:
One of the Indians, Zarmarus, for some reason wished to die,— either because, being of the caste of sages, he was on this account moved by ambition, or, in accordance with the traditional custom of the Indians, because of old age, or because he wished to make a display for the benefit of Augustus and the Athenians (for Augustus had reached Athens);— he was therefore initiated into the mysteries of the two goddesses, which were held out of season on account, they say, of Augustus, who also was an initiate, and he then threw himself alive into the fire.
Because the passage is framed by Julia giving birth to Gaius and a statement that Gaius Sentius Saturninus was consul that year, we can date the embassy precicely to 20 BC.

The name of the Indian, Zarmanochegas, is taken to be a transcription of the Sanskrit S'ramanacharya ("teacher of S'ramanas"), meaning that he was a monk though not necessarily a Buddhist one.

Though the passage sounds strange, there is a similar tale of an Indian throwing himself onto a pyre at Babylon in the time of Alexander, preserved by Arrian (Anabasis 7.3) and Plutarch (Alexander 69).

We also have evidence of trade between Rome and Indian in the form of this Buddhist ivory from Afghanistan excavated at Pompeii.

By the early Christian period there is evidence for knowledge of Buddhism, although no proof that any Buddhists settled in the West. Clement of Alexandria (c AD 150 - c  215) knew about monasticism in the East (Stromata 1.15):
Some, too, of the Indians obey the precepts of Boutta; whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours.
The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sarmanae, and others Brahmins. And those of the Sarmanae who are called Hylobii neither inhabit cities, nor have roofs over them, but are clothed in the bark of trees, feed on nuts, and drink water in their hands. Like those called Encratites in the present day, they know not marriage nor begetting of children. Some, too, of the Indians obey the precepts of Buddha; whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours.
In the 3rd century Refutation of All Heresies (Philosophumena) ascribed to Hippolytus of Rome (+ AD 235), the author is aware of the Brahmins of India. Porphyry (died 305), is aware of both Hindus and Buddhists (On abstinence from animal food, IV, 17&18):

By the fourth century Christian writers such as Marius Victorinus and Jerome  were quite aware of some of the teachings and history of Buddhism (Against Jovinianus I, 42): "To come to the Gymnosophists of India, the opinion is authoritatively handed down that Budda, the founder of their religion, had his birth through the side of a virgin."

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