Greco-Roman Elements in the Buddhist Art of Far Eastern Countries

Vinay Kumar[*]

(Scroll down for plates after the endnotes)


Buddhist art is the artistic practices that are influenced by Buddhism. It includes art media which depict Buddhas, bodhisattvas and other entities; notable Buddhist figures, both historical and mythical; narrative scenes from the lives of all of these; mandalas and other graphic aids to practice; as well as physical objects associated with Buddhist practice, such as vajras, bells, stupas and Buddhist temple architecture. Buddhist art originated in the Indian subcontinent following the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama around 6th to 5th century BCE, and thereafter evolve by contact with other cultures as it spread throughout Asia and the world.

Alexander’s conquests laid the foundation for the spread of Hellenism, a common cultural and philosophical background that would not be seen again until the spread of Christianity centuries later. “As a result of Alexander, Greek athletics would come to be performed in the burning heat of the Persian Gulf; the tale of the Trojan horse would be told on the Oxus and among the natives of the Punjab; …Greeks would practice as Buddhists and Homer would be translated into an Indian language…[1]”.

The Greek artisans of the Bactrian Kingdom brought about an artistic renaissance that led to the creation of Greco-Buddhist art. Statues and other depictions of the Buddha at the time show him wearing a Greek-style toga and having curly Mediterranean hair. The Buddha also appears in a multitude of Greek Corinthian-style columns that have been found in the area, some of which have the Buddha standing alongside traditional Greek mythological characters such as Heracles. “…in the Punjab, five hundred years after Alexander, Indian Buddhists still carved the tale of the Trojan Horse alongside the life of their Buddha…”[2]. This artistic style also went on to influence neighboring cultures, specifically the Chinese. “Until this time, Chinese reliefs had been merely incised drawings with a flat surface to the figures, but suddenly figures in high relief became common, and the paintings have an appearance of depth. From China the Graeco- Buddhist influences spread to Korea and gave rise in the sixth century CE to Japanese art[3].”

Through art and religion, the influence of Greco-Buddhism in East Asian countries, especially China, Korea and Japan, may have extended further into the intellectual area. At the same time as Greco-Buddhist art and Mahayana schools of thought were transmitted to East Asia, central concepts of Hellenic culture such as virtue, excellence or quality were being adopted by the cultures of Korea and Japan after a long diffusion among the Hellenized cities of Central Asia, to become a key player of their warrior and work ethics[4].

We know that the interaction between Hellenistic Greece and Buddhism in India started with Alexander’s expedition during 334 BCE. Alexander founded several cities in his new territories in the areas of the Oxus and Bactria, and Greek settlements further extended to the Khyber Pass, Gandhara and the Punjab. These regions correspond to a unique geographical passageway between the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush mountains, through which most of the interaction between India and Central Asia took place, generating intense cultural exchange and trade.  When we see Gandhara art, it is classical, in the sense of eternally beautiful. Although originally a derivative from Greek art, it is a powerful, independent and refined artistic expression. Apart from their Gandharan success, certain Hellenistic features had a considerable influence in the fourth to fifth century CE on the Buddhist sculptural tradition of the Gupta, the most eminent Indian art style ever, that in the 6th -10th  century CE, passed some of its Hellenistic elements on to the Buddhist sculpture of India, Thailand, Cambodia, China and Japan. It is true that in Far Eastern art the influence of Greek art is noticeable; but this Greek influence reached the Far East through an Indian channel only and it came through Indian religion Buddhism, which captured the far eastern world as the Graeco Roman world was captured by a Judaic religion, Christianity. The Buddhist arts of China, Korea and Japan adopted Greco-Buddhist artistic influences, but tended to add many local elements as well. What remains most readily identifiable from Greco-Buddhist art are: (i) The general idealistic realism of the figures reminiscent of Greek art, (ii) Clothing elements with elaborate Greek-style folds, (iii) The curly hairstyle characteristic of the Mediterranean, (iv) In some Buddhist representations, hovering winged figures holding a wreath and (v) Greek sculptural elements such as vines and floral scrolls, etc.

The Buddha image first appeared in the Gandhara art in the Gandharan region (what is now north-western Pakistan). It combined Greek, Indian and Iranian elements. The Buddha’s face reveals Hellenistic influences, and his eyes, elongated ear lobes, and his oval-shaped face, reveal Indian iconography.  It was Gandharan art, instead of the original Buddhist art of India that brought the message of Buddha into China via the Silk Road and to the Korean peninsula.

The enlarged image of Buddha is shown with straight, sharply chiselled nose and brow, classical lips and wavy hair, all Hellenistic features. He wears a toga like robe instead of a loin cloth. His eyes are heavy lidded and protruding, the lobes of the ears elongated, and the oval shaped face fleshy all characteristics of Indian iconography. This image of Buddha moved along the Silk Road and gradually absorbed new influences in China and Korea (Plate 1 & Plate 2).

Hellenistic Influence on Buddhist Art of China

Greco-Buddhist artistic elements can be traced in Chinese Buddhist art, with several local and temporal variations depending on the character of the various dynasties that adopted the Buddhist faith. Some of the earliest known Buddhist artefacts found in China are small statues on “money trees”, dated circa 200 CE, in typical Gandharan style: “That the imported images accompanying the newly arrived doctrine came from Gandhara is strongly suggested by such early Gandhara characteristics on this “money tree” Buddha as the high usnisa, vertical arrangement of the hair, moustache, symmetrically looped robe and parallel incisions for the folds of the arms[5].” Some Northern Wei statues can be quite reminiscent of Gandharan standing Buddha, although in a slightly more symbolic style. The general attitude and rendering of the dress however remain unaffected. Other, like Northern Qi Dynasty statues also maintain the general Greco-Buddhist style, but with less realism and stronger symbolic elements. Some Eastern Wei statues display Buddha with elaborate Greek-style robe folding, and surmounted by flying figures holding a wreath.

Greek wrestling, boxing, pankration and other games of strength, as practiced by the Greco-Bactrians and the Indo-Greeks, continued to be patronized by the god Heracles in the Kushana Empire. Competitions of wrestling and other combat sports dedicated to Heracles were an entire ethical part of the Kushana aristocracy as Heracles became the Buddhist god Vajrapani (on numerous sculpted weights found in Kushana–Gandhara). Greek heroic tradition seems to have been important among the Central Asian aristocracy, and especially games of strength and combat sports were paired with the philosophical aspect of Heracles, as he was with the Cynics. The famous Shaolin temple, with its fighting monks dedicated to Vajrapani–Jingang, were the result of a Greco-Buddhist athletic-religious tradition mixed with Chinese elements as well. This particular influence was transmitted to Japan, so that, in Nara, the fierce warrior monks of the Kofukuji temple were practicing warfare arts and exercises of strength under the authority of Jingang. Athena, Eros, Heracles, and Zeus were later worshipped by the Kushana as in the former Greco-Bactrian Empire. Boreas, the god of wind, became the god Wardo in the Kushana Empire, and he is still worshipped today in Japan as Fujin, with his most famous representation painted in Kenninji Temple in Kyoto. During their burial ceremonies, the Kushana continued the Greek custom of inserting a coin in the mouth of the dead in order to pay Charon to cross the Styx in the Hades (Tillya-Tepe tombs). The “empty throne” used to worship the Buddha in Gandhara is probably a continuation of the “empty throne,” usually placed within the gymnasiums of the Hellenistic cities and used earlier in order to worship the divine Seleucid rulers. The Greek broadsword named kopis   machaira   or kourikos, worn by the Greco-Macedonians conquerors, had been used earlier by the heroes of the Iliad to slaughter animals for sacrifice. The “Sutra on Mindfulness through Breathing Exercises” (Anpanshouyi jing) was written by An Shigao, the Parthian aristocrat, at Luoyang in 144 CE. This text perhaps indicates as well the original Greek denomination for breathing, “anapneo,” translated as anapana in Indian and anpan  in Chinese. Numerous other Central and East Asian traditions could be added as well to a long list of religious customs and arts totally assimilated by the East Asian populations influenced by Greco-Buddhist traditions.

Hellenistic Influence on Buddhist Art of Japan

Before the introduction of Buddhism, Japan had already been the seat of various cultural and artistic influences. The Japanese were introduced to Buddhism in the 6th century CE when missionary monks travelled to the islands together with numerous scriptures and works of art. The Buddhist religion was adopted by the state in the following century. Countless paintings and sculptures were made, often under governmental sponsorship. Indian, Hellenistic, Chinese and Korean artistic influences blended into an original style characterized by realism and gracefulness.

Several Buddhist deities may have been influenced by Greek gods in Japanese art. For example, Heracles with a lion-skin, the protector deity of Demetrius I, served as an artistic model for Vajrapani, a protector of the Buddha. In Japan, this expression further translated into the wrath-filled and muscular Nio guardian gods of the Buddha, standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples. According to Katsumi Tanabe, Professor at Chuo University, Japan, besides Vajrapani, Greek influence also appears in several other gods of the Mahayana pantheon, such as the Japanese Wind God Fujin, inspired from the Greek Boreas through the Greco-Buddhist Wardo, or the mother deity Hariti, inspired by Tyche. In addition, forms such as garland-bearing cherubs, vine scrolls, and such semi-human creatures as the centaur and triton, are part of the repertory of Hellenistic art introduced by Greek artists in the service of Eastern courts. Some tiles from the Asuka period, the first period following the conversion of the country to Buddhism, display a strikingly classical style, with ample Hellenistic dress and realistically rendered body shape characteristic of Greco-Buddhist art (Plate 3).

Other works of art incorporated a variety of Chinese and Korean influences, so that Japanese Buddhist became extremely varied in its expression. Many elements of Greco-Buddhist art remain to this day however, such as the Hercules inspiration behind the Nio guardian deities in front of Japanese Buddhist temples, or representations of the Buddha reminiscent of Greek art such as the Buddha in Kamakura[6]. The influence of Greek art on Japanese Buddhist art, via the Buddhist art of Gandhara and India, was already partly known in, for example, the comparison of the wavy drapery of the Buddha images, in what was, originally, a typical Greek style”. Various other Greco-Buddhist artistic influences can be found in the Japanese Buddhist pantheon, the most striking of which being that of the Japanese wind god Fujin. In consistency with Greek iconography for the wind god Boreas, the Japanese wind god holds above his head with his two hands a draping or “wind bag” in the same general attitude[7]. The Japanese wind god images do not belong to a separate tradition apart from that of their Western counter-parts but share the same origins.  One of the characteristics of these Far Eastern wind god images is the wind bag held by this god with both hands, the origin of which can be traced back to the shawl or mantle worn by Boreas/ Oado.

The abundance of hair has been kept in the Japanese rendering, as well as exaggerated facial features. Another Buddhist deity, named Shukongoshin, one of the wrath-filled protector deities of Buddhist temples in Japan, is also an interesting case of transformation of the image of the famous Greek god Herakles to the Far-East along the Silk Road. Herakles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Buddhist temples[8].

Finally, the artistic inspiration from Greek floral scrolls is found quite literally in the decoration of Japanese roof tiles, one of the only remaining elements of wooden architecture to have survived the centuries. The clearest ones are from 7th century CE Nara temple building tiles, some of them exactly depicting vines and grapes. These motifs have evolved towards more symbolic representations, but essentially remain to this day in many Japanese traditional buildings. Thus, we see that there are various Greco-Roman elements that are present in the Buddhist art of far eastern countries.

Hellenistic Influence on Buddhist Art of Korea

According to I-tsing: Those who respect the cocks are the people of Korea, which is called Kukkutesvara. Korean annals state that a Princess of Ayodhya arrived from India to Korea in CE 48 at Kimhae aboard a ship. She became the founder of the first Korean state of Karak, whose capital was named Gaya. From a tribal order Korea emerged a state. This powerful kingdom with a highly developed culture continued till its defeat by Silla in CE 532. The rocks used as ballast to balance the boat still exist near the Haeundae Temple of Sea Gracei (Plate 4)  built by the King and it is a national treasure today. This monument needs to be studied in its multiple facets and the huge stones have to be identified. The last Indian acarya to visit Korea was Dhyanabhadra (Chikong). He arrived in CE 1340 and established the Juniper Rock Monastery on the pattern of the Nalanda University. Its foundations can be seen near Seoul. An inscription at this monastery dated 1378 CE records the life and work of Dhyanabhadra and informs us that the King of Kanchi was his nephew[9]. The inscription is a veritable history of Buddhism in 14th century India, as he travelled to Buddhist centres at Kanchi, Dvaravati, the capital of Hoysala Ballalas, Gujarat, Bengal, and Jalandhar in Punjab before going to China and Korea. The Monastery deserves to be excavated by a joint Indo-Korean team. Dhyanabhadra was the 108th descendant of Kasyapa, the first patriarch of Dhyana Buddhism. It is a very important inscription for Buddhism in mediaeval India.

Kongorikishi or Nio are two wrath-filled and muscular guardians of the Buddha, standing at the entrance of many Buddhist temples all across Asia including China, Japan and Korea in the form of frightening wrestler-like statues. They are manifestations of the Bodhisattva Vajrapani protector deity and the oldest and most powerful of the Mahayana pantheon. According to Japanese tradition, they travelled with the historical Buddha to protect him and there are references to this in the Theravada Scriptures as well as the Ambatta Sutta. Within the generally pacifist tradition of Buddhism, stories of Nio guardians like Kongorikishi justified the use of physical force to protect cherished values and beliefs against evil. Nio-Vajrapani is also seen as a manifestation of Mahasthamaprapta or the Bodhisattva of Power that flanks Amida in the Pure Land Tradition and as Vajrasattva, the Dharmapala of the Tibetan tradition. Kongorikishi are usually a pair of figures that stand under a separate temple entrance gate usually called Niomon in Japan, hengha er jiang in China and Geumgangmun in Korea. The right statue is called Misshaku Kongo and has his mouth open, representing the vocalization of the first grapheme of Sanskrit Devanagari which is pronounced as ‘a’. The left statue is called Naraen Kongo and has his mouth closed, representing the vocalization of the last grapheme of Devanagari ‘h’ which is pronounced “hum”. These two characters together symbolize the birth and death of all things. (Men are supposedly born speaking the “a” sound with mouths open and die speaking a “hum” and mouths closed.) Similar to Alpha and Omega in Christianity, they signify “everything” or “all creation”.

A manifestation of Kongorikishi that combines the Naraen and Misshaku Kongos (open-mouthed statues, also called Agyo a symbol of overt violence wield a vajra mallet  vajrapani) into one figure is the Shukongoshin at Todai-ji in Nara, Japan. Shukongoshin, literally “vajra-wielding spirit”, is Shukongoshin or Shikkongojin in Japanese, Jip geumgang sin in Korean, Zhi jingang shen in Mandarin Chinese, and Chap kim cang than in Vietnamese. Kongorikishi are a possible case of the transmission of the image of the Greek hero Heracles to East Asia along the Silk Road. Heracles was used in Greco-Buddhist art to represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, and his representation was then used in China and Japan to depict the protector gods of Buddhist temples. This transmission is part of the wider Greco-Buddhist syncretic phenomenon, where Buddhism interacted with the Hellenistic culture of Central Asia from the 4th century BCE to the 4th century CE. This deity is the protector and guide of the Buddha Sakyamuni. His image was modelled after that of Hercules. The Gandharan Vajrapani was transformed in Central Asia and China and afterwards transmitted to Japan, where it exerted stylistic influences on the wrestler-like statues of the Guardian Deities[10] (Nio) (Plate 5 & 6).


Thus, it can be seen that by the third century CE, Buddhism had become well established in northern India, and with the sponsorship of the emperor Ashoka the faith spread to other countries. Buddhism was particularly successful in attracting merchants as converts. When they travelled, Buddhist merchants observed their faith among themselves and explained it to others. Gradually, Buddhism made its way along the silk roads to Iran, central Asia, China, and Southeast Asia. Buddhism first established a presence in the oasis towns along the silk roads. The oases depended heavily on trade for their prosperity, and they allowed merchants to build monasteries and invite monks and scribes into their communities. Because they hosted travellers who came from different lands, spoke different languages, and observed different religious practices, the oasis towns became cosmopolitan centres. As early as the second century CE, many residents of the oases themselves adopted Buddhism, which was the most prominent faith of silk roads. From the oasis communities Buddhism spread to the steppe lands of central Asia and to China via the nomadic peoples who visited the oases to trade. In the early centuries they increasingly responded to the appeal of Buddhism, and by the fourth century CE, they had sponsored the spread of Buddhism throughout much of central Asia. Foreign merchants also brought their faith to China in about the first century BCE. Although the religion remained unpopular among native Chinese for several centuries, the presence of Buddhist monasteries and missionaries in China’s major cities did attract some converts. Then, in about the fifth century CE the Chinese began to respond enthusiastically to Buddhism. Indeed, during the postclassical era Buddhism became the most popular religious faith throughout all of East Asia, including Japan and Korea as well as China. Hence, it was mainly the silk route which helped in transmission of Hellenistic elements in the art of far eastern countries. Many artistic influences transited along the Silk Road, especially through the Central Asia, where Hellenistic, Iranian, Indian and Chinese influence were able to interact.


[*] Assistant Professor, Centre of Advanced Study, Department of AIHC & Archaeology, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, U.P, Mobile:+919811473663,Email:

[1]  Lane Fox, Robin, Alexander the Great, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 1973, p.25.

[2]  Ibid.

[3] Robinson, Jr., Charles Alexander, Alexander the Great: Conqueror and Creator of a New World, Franklin Watts, Inc., New York, 1963. p.412.

[4] Robinson, Jr., C. A. 1949, “The Greeks in the Far East.” The Classical Journal (The Classical Association of the Middle West and South) 44, no. 7: 405-412.

[5]  Errington, Elizabeth, Joe Cribb, and Maggie Claringbull, The Crossroads of Asia: transformation in image and symbol in the art of ancient Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ancient India and Iran Trust, Cambridge, 1992, p.209.

[6] Tatsuhiko Maeda and Katsumi Tanabe (eds.). Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural Contacts from Greece to Japan, NHK Promotions and Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo,  2003, p.19.

[7] Tatsuhiko Maeda and Katsumi Tanabe (eds.), op. cit., p. 21.

[8] Tatsuhiko Maeda and Katsumi Tanabe (eds.), op. cit., p.23.

[9] Gandhi Kishor. (ed.), The Transition to a Global Consciousness, Allied Publishers, New Delhi,2007, p.76.

[10] Tatsuhiko Maeda and Katsumi Tanabe (eds.) ,Opp. Cit.

plate 1

Plate 1: Buddha, 8th century, Kyongju, Korea

plate 2

Plate 2: Buddha, 5th century, India

plate 3

Plate 3: The Buddha, Asuka period, 7th century CE, Japan.

plate 4

Plate 4: Haeundae Temple of Sea Gracei, Busan, South Korea

plate 5

Plate 5: Vajrapani depicted as Herakles,  3rd century CE, Gandhara

plate 6

Plate 6:  Shukongoshin manifestation of Vajrapani, as protector deity of Buddhist temples, Todai-ji in Nara, Japan.