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Thread: Greeks and Buddhists in Afghanistan

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    Post Greeks and Buddhists in Afghanistan

    Greeks and Buddhists in Afghanistan

    (Kenneth Rexroth)

    Once again let me urge you to visit the show of classic sculpture from India now at the De Young Museum. This is an experience not likely to be repeated in your lifetime.

    My colleagues in reviewing the show have mentioned the Greek, or at least Hellenistic, influence which is apparent in several of the pieces. It is not generally known that after Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire to its eastern limits at the Indus River he established a number of Greek, or Greek garrisoned, cities in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. Cut off from the rest of the Greek world, Greeks ruled here until the beginning of the Christian Era.

    This was the Bactrian Kingdom which at one time included most of Afghanistan (Bactria is the Afghan city of Balkh), Turkestan, Pakistan, and even, for a while, a large section of India south of the Indus.

    We know little of the rulers, but they left behind their faces on the coins, the finest examples of portrait coinage ever done. Their subtle, arrogant faces look much like the British gentleman adventurers of the East India Company who were to come after them in 2000 years. Eucratides even wears something remarkably like a pith helmet.

    Here Mahayana Buddhism grew up, flourished, and spread across Asia to Japan. With it went artists and decorators who filled the temples and monastic caves of Further Asia with paintings and sculpture that derive their plastic inspiration from the far away Greek Mediterranean. Their artistic output was incredible: its limitless bulk staggers the imagination. Although I suppose it was what we would call today a kind of commercial art, the product of studios organized on a modern production basis, it is nevertheless unquestionably the finest expression of the Greek genius after the days of Alexander, except possibly for some work done for the Romans during the reign of Augustus.

    This is one of the most fascinating episodes of history, and it is tantalizing because we know so little about it and what we do know is so extraordinary.

    We know that the plays of Euripides were performed in courts that looked out from the Hindu Kush over the deserts of Central Asia. We know that Hercules and Vishnu, Bacchus and Shiva were confused on their coinage. We know that Buddhism, originally a kind of atheistic religious empiricism, was turned into a Mystery Religion of the Mediterranean type.

    A Mahayana Sutra, The Questions of Milinda, has as interlocutor the adventurer Menander who, driven out of Bactria by invading barbarians, conquered a sizable piece of western India. Here and there along the coasts as far south as Bombay are gravestones with Greek names. Some dedicate the dead man’s soul to Buddha and his Bodhisattvas, some to the Hindu gods, some to the deities of the homeland, half a world away.

    All this has little enough to do with the main body of Indian art. Modern Indian critics and historians, intensely chauvinistic, resent any implication that they owe anything whatever to the West, at any time, ever. It is true that the main India tradition in sculpture had its origins northeast of the Ganges and in the non-Aryan south, and in the course of time came to push aside all Hellenistic influence from the northwest.

    Had this been a show of the art of Pakistan, the story would have been different. It is there that most of this Greek-inspired sculpture — called, by the way, Gandharan art, after a place in Pakistan — is to be found.

    A last detail — for a long time philologists were puzzled by an Aryan language spoken by a few savage, murderous, filthy robber bands in the mountains and valleys of the Northwest Border. They were certainly the most debased and intractable of all the inhabitants of an intractable region. Then somebody pointed out that the language was simply a degenerate form of the language of Plato.

    A friend just asked me, “Is this sort of thing good newspaper copy?” Why not? I can’t be controversial three weeks running. I get elastic fatigues, like a tired bridge. It is unusual and fascinating information. And it is relevant and bears pondering. Amongst what sort of savages in what lonely mountains do you suppose English will survive two thousand years hence?

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    Re: Greeks and Buddhists in Afghanistan


    The Buddhist stupas, monasteries and the massive statues carved out of a sand rock at Bamiyan in the heart of Afghanistan were the wonder of tourists, scholars and connoisseurs of art and culture and scholars are no more, devastated by the Islamic Fundamentalists' Taliban terrorist regime of Afghanistan, notwithstanding the international plea against this iconoclasm, unleashed on the cultural heritage of the ancestors of the present day people of Afghanistan.
    Afghanistan, situated in the midpoint of Asia and the cross-roads between the north and south, cast and west and in the famous "Chinese Silk Route" due to its geographical position became in bygone times the rendezvous of different peoples and various civilisations, namely Aryan, (Bactrian or Rivedic), Achaemenian, Greek, Kushan and Buddhist. The cumulative effect of this cross-cultural fertilisation found its expression in different schools of art, embodying techniques borrowed from different lands and climes, but modified and remoulded according to the ethos of the Afghan people. The Greek culture found its paths into Bactrian art in the fourth century BC, when the country became a part of the vast Macedonian Empire and came to be totally influenced by the Greek culture and philosophy.
    In mid-third century BC during the reign of Emperor Asoka of India, Buddhism found its way into Afghanistan. It was in Afghanistan that Greek realism and Surrealism intermingled with Indian mysticism, giving birth to a new school of art now accepted by the world as the Gandhara School of art, which had its epicentre at Hadda, six miles south of modern Jalaalabada (Nangahara of Buddhist era) in Afghanistan. In the second century AD with the ascension of Kanishka to the throne, Afghanistan became a great seat of Buddhist learning and the arts. It was from this pivotal centre that Buddhism reached Sinkiang, China and Mongolia. Kanishka, being intellectually convinced of the realism is and pragmatism of Buddhism became a Buddhist and later became a very liberal, generous and steadfast promoter of Buddhism and Buddhist art and culture.

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