Hellenistic Influence on Buddhist Sculpture

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The great Buddha statue at Bodhgaya in India stands 80 feet tall and is the first of its kind ever built in India. Its construction was completed in 1989 and was consecrated by the 14th Dalai Lama. Pilgrims come from all over the world to see the monument. It was constructed under the slogan “spread Buddha’s rays to the whole world.” What many visitors, pilgrims, and tourists alike probably do not realize is that “the Buddha” at Bodhgaya owes many of its traits to Greek influence; in fact, that a statute was erected to portray the Buddha in human form at all was a contribution by the Greeks over a thousand years ago. The figure of the Buddha originates from the Greco-Buddhist era of central and near eastern Asia. Alexander the Great first conquered the Achaemenid Empire in what is now the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in 334BCE. He established cities such as Bactria and Ai-Khanoum in the region and began to introduce elements of Greek religion, art, and science into the culture. This cultural exchange was strongest in the city of Gandhara in modern northern Pakistan; this period lasted for over a thousand years, first from the Greco-Bactrian kingdom to the indo-Greeks and then the kushans. From Gandhara, Hellenistic influence began to radiate down into India and the rest of southeast Asia, while simultaneously moving northward along the silk road to China and then Japan and Korea.

Almost every facet of Buddhist art and sculpture has some Hellenistic traits. The most prominent, apparent Hellenistic influence is the fact that prior to the Greco-Buddhist era; “the Buddha” was never portrayed in human form. This “iconic” predisposition in Buddhist art was an integral part of “the Buddha’s” teachings; he discouraged any literal or “anthropomorphic representations” of himself after the extinction of his physical body. Prior to the Greco-Buddhist era, the Buddha was portrayed by symbols, often represented by an empty...
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