(Last Updated on : 31/08/2013)
Greek civilization influenced India in the period after Alexander's Indian campaign (circa 326 BC). Greek influences on Indian sculpture, literature and astronomy persist to this day and have become part of India's cultural heritage.
The Greeks left important influences on Indian culture after Greco-Bactrian warrior kings from Central Asia overran parts of northern India (and modern day Pakistan). Greek artistic techniques influenced Indian art via the Gandharan School of art and sculpture. Indian classical texts like the Mahabharata and the Yuga Purana make special mentions of the Greeks referring to them as the Yavanas (a term used also in the Hebrew Bible). The Greeks also influenced Indian astronomy- notably by introducing the signs of the Zodiac.
The Greeks in ancient India
Several Greco-Bactrian kingdoms were established in the wake of Alexander's conquest of Central Asia. Alexander's invasion of India was reportedly motivated by a desire to conquer the known world, but mutiny in the army and the approaching monsoons prevented a conquest of India. Following the Mauryan empire's decline, the Greeks were able to overrun sections of north India, facilitating a strong Greek influence in Indian culture.
The Greeks and Classical Indian literature
The Greeks find mentions in Indian Classical texts like the Yuga Purana and the Mahabharata, and Buddhist texts were also influenced by the Greek presence in Ancient India. The Greeks were known as Yavanas to the ancient Indians.
The Yuga Purana (composed circa. 250 BCE), describes the Indo-Greek invasions in detail. The text singles out Demetrius, a Greco Bacterian King for especial praise, referring to him as Dharmamitra, or 'Friend of Dharma'. The Mahabharata, 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.
Greek influences on Indian Sculpture
Greek artistic techniques influenced Indian art largely via the Buddhist tradition and endured into the later Gupta period. The Greeks are notable for pioneering the anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha in Indian sculpture.
The Buddhists, oppressed by the eastern Sunga dynasty, sided with the Greeks in their campaigns, leading also to much artistic commerce between the two cultures. The Gandharan school of Buddhist art hence grew under strong Greek influences.
The Greek innovation of sculpting the Buddha in human form grew to become a major part of 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 Herakles, who became equated to Vajrapani, the mythological protector of the Buddha.
Greek techniques survived into the Gupta period, whose realistic anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha reflect the legacy of the Greek artistic influence.
The Greeks and Indian Astronomy
Indian astronomy is indebted to that of the ancient Greeks. The Gargi Samhita of the Yuga Purana credits the Greeks as the originators of astronomy, and Aryabhata attributes the Zodiac to the Greeks.
The Greek astronomical tradition introduced other innovations in Indian astronomy, like giving names to the days of the week and a more precise calculation of the year's length
The Greeks influenced Indian culture thanks to a complex of social and political factors. Some of these influences persist to this day: the Milindapanha is a valued Buddhist text, Milind is a common Indian name, and the Zodiac is widely known in Indian astrological practice. Ancient Indian temples and especially Buddhist stupas are major Indian heritage sites. The Greek influence is now a prominent part of India's cultural heritage.