"'What do you think about this, Assalāyana, have you heard that among the Yonas and Kambojas and among others of the outlying districts there are only two castes—masters and slaves; and one having been a master may become a slave, and one having been a slave may become a master?' 'Even so, sir. I have heard it.'"
The quote above is from the Majjhima Nikāya (the Assalāyana Sutta, M93). It is a very interesting quote from a historical point of view, because in it the Buddha actually mentions the ancient Greeks. Yona in the Pali language means essentially "Greek"—or, more literally, "Ionian." The Ionian Greeks were the subsection of the Greek people who settled mainly on the west coast of Asia Minor, and who occasionally settled much further east than that. Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his notes to his and ven. Nyanamoli's great translation of the Majjhima, asserts that the Buddha's reference is to the Greeks of Bactria. This may be correct, although there is one complication: in the Buddha's time there very probably were no Greeks of Bactria.
The history of Greeks on the frontiers of India ("India" throughout this article including what is now Pakistan and even most of Afghanistan, in accordance with ancient geography) officially began when Alexander the Great invaded and conquered northwestern India in 326BCE, roughly a century after the time of the Buddha, and he settled colonies of Ionian Greeks there. So if the Sutta is referring to those Greeks, it would be a glaring anachronism. But there are a few other possibilities.
For example, Persia had among its eastern provinces lands inhabited mainly by people of Indian ethnicity; and in 480 BCE the Great King Xerxes of Persia launched a huge invasion force into mainland Greece, which included soldiers from his Indian provinces. So possibly, Indians of the middle Ganges Valley could have heard of Greeks from these soldiers returning from the Great King's miraculous fiasco of an invasion. (The fact that a few tens of thousands of Greeks successfully defeated an army more than ten times its size, maybe twenty, is an amazing and historically extremely important tale in itself, but it lies beyond the scope of this story. It just goes to show the phenomenal strength of freedom, and what people are prepared to do to maintain that freedom. But enough for here.)
Or, there may have been significant Greek colonies near India as a result of some unruly, uppity Greek subjects in Asia Minor (then part of Persia) being relocated to the East as punishment, which the people of the Ganges Valley may have heard about. For instance, according to the ancient historian Herodotus, the Persian king Darius I (roughly 500BCE) relocated the population of a Greek town in Cyrenaica, in North Africa, to Bactria as punishment for refusing to hand over some political criminals. But it would seem unlikely that enough Greek troublemakers would be deported to the Indian frontier to make them common knowledge in the 5th century BCE Ganges Valley. Or maybe merchants or soldiers of fortune had traveled to the opposite end of Persia and met with Greeks, and then told tales of them after returning home to India. But chances are that the reference to Ionian Greeks in M93 really is referring to a kingdom of Bactrian Greeks, or possibly even to a kingdom of Greeks closer than Bactria (Bactria, approximately, being nowadays called Afghanistan). So it's probably a great big anachronism, that is, a relatively late addition to the Pali Canon.
The Yonas are also mentioned elsewhere in the Pali Tipitaka; for example in the Mahāniddesa, an ancient commentary on part of the Sutta Nipāta, not considered to be a product of "primitive" Buddhism. But the reference in M93 is in a core text, and core texts are considered by many to be reliably the oldest Pali texts we've got.
In fact there are many, including a great many Western bhikkhus, who follow the idea that about half the Tipitaka is not really authentic, but that the so-called core texts (first four books of the Vinaya Pitaka, first four Nikāyas of the Sutta Pitaka, and the first several books of the fifth Nikāya—notice Abhidhamma is conspicuously absent from this list) were the texts recited at the first Great Convocation immediately after the death of the Buddha. So the mention of Bactrian Greeks in the Majjhima Nikāya, supposedly by the Buddha himself, is somewhat of an embarrassment. (Incidentally, the Yavanas, as the Ionians are called in Sanskrit, along with the Kambojas too, are also mentioned in the great Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, as members of a standard group of valiant, warlike, troublemaking barbarians who occasionally invade from the northwest—which makes them embarrassingly anachronistic in Hindu literature also.)
The whole idea that ancient Greeks ruled parts of India is fascinating to me, because ancient India is very interesting, and ancient Greece is also very interesting, so a combination of the two is even more so. Plus the very idea of Gotama Buddha discussing ancient Greeks is downright delectable. And so I'll indulge in a very brief outline of the history of the Indo-Greeks.
Very shortly after Alexander conquered Bactria and the area of the Punjab, the great Indian emperor Chandragupta conquered it back from Alexander's successor in the east, Seleucus I—or else he simply traded for the territory with a princess and 5oo war elephants. Either way, Bactria remained in Greek hands, but the Indian territory south of it, along with the Greek colonists there, came under the governance of Indian monarchs. Some time after this the Parthians defeated the Seleucids and re-established an independent kingdom of Persia, which isolated the Bactrian Greeks from the rest of the Greek world in the West. This encouraged a Greek satrap named Diodotus, with the help of Parthian allies, to rebel against the Seleucid king and set himself up as king of an independent Greek Bactria in around 250BCE.
Bactria under the Greeks became very prosperous and powerful, and they extended their territory to the west and north, gaining territories in Persia and in Central Asia (what is now called Uzbekistan), reaching as far as the ancient western frontier of China. These Greeks were generally on friendly terms with the Mauryan Empire of India. The Greeks and Indians seem to have gotten along rather well. The Mauryas even had a special state department for attending to the welfare of the Greeks living within their boundaries, and entertained Greek ambassadors. Some of the edicts of Ashoka (the grandson of Chandragupta) are inscribed in the Greek language.
Around the end of the third century BCE the Mauryan Empire began to collapse, and for various reasons, maybe in part to protect Greek colonists still settled in India, a Bactrian king named Demetrius I invaded Indian territory, sometime around 185BCE. Demetrius, known to the Indians as Dharmamitra, began the Indo-Greek period proper, as opposed to the Greco-Bactrian. He may have invaded as far as the Ganges Valley, but civil war in Bactria caused him to return quickly, before he could consolidate his gains, and he left behind relatively small numbers of troops to secure the territories. He was promptly defeated by a usurper to the throne of Bactria, and was killed. This separated the Greek territory in India, whose leaders pledged no allegiance to the Bactrian usurper Eucratides.
Eucratides attempted to conquer the new Greek territories deeper in India, and succeeded as far as the Indus, where he was finally defeated and stopped by the most famous Indo-Greek king of all, Menandros I (called "The Savior King"), who may have been originally a general of Demetrius. The Greek territories in India were united and expanded by Menandros, who may have invaded as far as the old Magadhan capital of Pataliputra, on the Ganges, and his established frontier almost certainly extended as far east as Mathura. There will be more to say about Menandros (alias Milinda) momentarily.
After the reign of Menandros the Greek territories in India became fragmented and weakened, and were finally wiped out around the first century CE by invading Sakas, or Scythians, a large tribe of nomadic horsemen who spoke an Iranian language, and who conquered the area for themselves, adopting much of the Greek culture they found, including worship of Zeus, Athena, and Gotama Buddha. (Their invasion of India was part of a huge chain reaction, started when the Chinese and their allies drove some particularly nasty nomadic tribes away from the western Chinese border, which resulted in a domino effect, radiating warlike nomads to the west and south. This culminated a few centuries later with the Huns invading ancient Rome, thus doing their part to put an end to classical culture…But that's a whole different story.) Greeks continued to live in India as Indian Greek subjects for a few centuries longer, until they finally were absorbed into the Indian mainstream and lost their Hellenistic cultural identity.
The Greek invasion of India after the Mauryan collapse may have been partly due to the fact that the Bactrian Greeks by this time had largely converted to Buddhism, whereas some of the new Indian governments replacing the collapsed empire favored Brahmanism and were unfriendly to Buddhists. So the Greek kings were mostly well-liked by their Buddhist Indian subjects.
Getting back to Menandros I, he is probably best known as King Milinda of the Buddhist text Milinda-Pañha, which is included as part of the 40-volume Burmese Pali Tipitaka. I won't give a synopsis of the text, but it is considered by Western scholars not to have been originally Theravadin. Other schools of Buddhism had their own Questions of Milinda, and the Theravadin version is said to have extensive additions. The area ruled by Menandros/Milinda was not Theravada Buddhist territory anyway, but was a stronghold of the Sarvastivada school. But that is not conclusive of anything.
According to the text itself, Milinda not only converted to Buddhism after his public interview with the monk Nāgasena, but he actually abdicated, renounced the world, was ordained as a bhikkhu, and even eventually became fully enlightened, with his relics being entombed in a number of pagodas after he died. On the other hand, the Greco-Roman biographer Plutarch also mentions this same Menandros in his Precepts of Statecraft (or Praecepta Gerendae Reipublicae), offering him as an example of wise and benevolent rule, and claimed that he died still a king in an army camp, probably while on a military campaign. Nevertheless, both accounts, Eastern and Western, agree that Menandros/Milinda was well loved by his people, and that his relics were divided and entombed in burial monuments with great reverence. He apparently really did convert to Buddhism, even though his coins continued to show Greek deities on the reverse ("tails") side, especially Athena, which design was copied by some of his successors. The Indo-Greeks apparently combined Buddhism with their traditional paganism, which apparently is the way most cultures adopt a new system, including the modern West.
In a way the existence of Greek Buddhist kingdoms in ancient India is just an interesting but not particularly useful bit of information. Knowing it very probably won't help our meditation; and one can pretty obviously reach high spiritual levels while being utterly clueless on the topic. But it is nice to know, and the Indo-Greeks apparently did have a significant influence on the path of world Dharma. The Milinda-Pañha is an obvious example, but the influence extended much further.
For example, the Greeks' acceptance of Buddhism opened the way for Dharma to enter Central Asia, and from there China as well. Some of the early Buddhist missionaries were also Greeks; for example a Yona monk named Dhammarakkhita is mentioned as an important missionary in the Sinhalese chronicle Mahāvamsa.
Perhaps more obviously significant than this is the effect that Greek culture had on Buddhist art and architecture. Some of the very first Buddha statues were made in the Greek fashion. In fact it has been hypothesized that the strange knob on the head of Buddha images began as a topknot of hair, as Greek sculptors modeled the Buddha on the god Apollo, who at the time was usually depicted with his hair in an aristocratic Greek topknot. The meaning of it was lost, and it evolved into a symbolic flame of wisdom, or just a peculiar lump. Some say that the first Buddha images were made in Mathura, not in more Greek-influenced areas to the northwest, but Mathura itself was included in the Greek sphere of influence, and was probably part of the territory of King Menandros at least. So there's a good chance that Greeks caused the first Buddha statues to be made, directly or indirectly. (The earliest Buddhist art deliberately omitted an image of the Buddha, showing only an empty seat, a footprint, or perhaps a Bodhi tree or leaf, to emphasize the fact that the Buddha was no longer of this world. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if the situation had remained that way, but it didn't.)
There are even some who see Greek influence in the origins of Mahayana Buddhism. For example the scholar Thomas McEvilley claims that Mahayana is "the form of Buddhism which (regardless of how Hinduized its later forms became) seems to have originated in the Greco-Buddhist communities of India, through a conflation of the Greek Democritean-Sophistic-Skeptical tradition with the rudimentary and unformalized empirical and skeptical elements already present in early Buddhism." I think this may be pushing it, but it's an interesting idea, and may be at least partially true.
But it seems to me that one of the most important lessons to be had from the Indo-Greek Buddhists is that it proves that an essentially European, Western culture can adopt Buddhism. It is proof that seriously adopting a Buddhist philosophy and way of life is not necessarily just an Asian thing, with a few weird Westerners becoming monks, and some more simply adopting some ideas and techniques while ignoring the bulk of the system. We may be more sophisticated than the ancient Ionian Yonas, having left Athena (not to mention slavery and chariots) behind long ago, but still I like to imagine it—a whole country of Western Buddhists! A Western Dharmic nation! At least it happened once.
ancient Indian silver drachma, with King Menandros and Greek letters on the obverse,
and the goddess Athena and Indian Kharosthi letters,
allegedly expressing the Pali language, on the reverse
(My main sources of information and inspiration for this article were:
Tarn, W. W., The Greeks in Bactria and India, second edition (Ares Press, 1985), which I read many years ago
Warder, A. K., Indian Buddhism, third revised edition (Motilal Banarsidass, 2004), an encyclopedic source of information on the subject of Indian Buddhism in general
Wikipedia, "Indo-Greek Kingdom" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Greek_Kingdom)
Last but not least, the fact that I once owned a European-looking Buddha head from ancient Gandhara, which my Aunt Betty, an archeologist, dug up in Afghanistan. Once I told a friend that I owned a Gandhara Buddha head, and a few days later a different person came up to me with a cynical, incredulous look and said, "What's this about you saying you owned a gun the Buddha had?")