Encounters at the Crossroads

Arts & Culture

Encounters at the Crossroads: Exploring the Intersection of Greek Mythology and Gandhara Buddhist Imagery
Text | Jeanne H. Tuan


Gandhara was a very important place on the Silk Road, a trade route that connected different parts of the world. People from different cultures went there to trade and exchange ideas. It was also important for Buddhism and attracted many people who wanted to learn and share insights. The art from Gandhara was amazing and blended different cultures and Buddhist principles. The art style started during Alexander the Great's conquest of the region and was a mix of existing Buddhist art and a new style. It continued to evolve and reached its peak during the Kushan Empire in the 1st century CE. Even though the Islamic conquest changed the direction of Gandharan art, it still shows its unique blend of styles and is very appealing.

Pic | The Kushan Empire at the time of Kanishka I (ca. 127–150 CE) and the most important international trade routes

Previous studies recognize the cosmopolitan appearance of Gandharan Buddhist art, which presents various symbols, ideas, and gods from diverse civilizations. This artistic fusion shaped the distinct characteristics of Gandharan art.   Now, let us approach the traits of Gandharan Buddhist imagery by tracking their Hellenistic source.

Transformation from Non-Human to Human-Like Figures of Buddha Representations

In the past, artists and craftsmen refrained from portraying Buddha as a human figure until the 1st century CE. The Ekottara Āgama, literally "Numbered Discourses", an important Buddhist text from India, emphasized that the physical appearance of Buddha couldn't be captured by measurements or size and portrayed. As a result, Buddha was represented through aniconic forms such as symbols and non-human figures. These symbols included his footprints, the Dharma Wheel, and the Bodhi Tree (shown in Figure 2). One well-known symbol was the Buddhapada, featuring swastikas on each toe. In the first century CE, Buddha started to be portrayed as a human instead of a non-human in Asian Buddhist communities. This change was influenced by the artistic and cultural traditions of regions like Greece, Persia, and Egypt, where human figures were often depicted. As a result, this transition led to unique and recognizable representations of Buddha.
Pic | Aniconic Representations of Sakyamuni Buddha: Bodhi Tree (left), Dharma Wheel (middle),  Buddhapada or footprints (right)

There is a widely held belief that the Bimaran Casket was the earliest dateable depiction of the Buddha in human form.  With some coins buried, the casket dates back to the 1st century CE in the Gandhara region.  This casket has a bas-relief of Buddha in a mix of Greek and Indian styles, such as the Greek cloak, contrapposto pose, top knot hairstyle, mustache, and lifelike features.  The Buddha is in the middle, making the gesture of dispelling fear.  On either side of Buddha, he has two Indian deities, Brahma and Śakra, positioned in arched niches that resemble the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, known as "homme arcade" or caitya.  The casket, adorned with rubies, features two individuals with their palms joined in a gesture of respect.  These figures represent the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, symbolizing devotion and reverence.
Pic | The Bimaran reliquary casket made of gold and inset with garnets. 75 CE

It is clear that Greek art had a significant impact on the early Buddha images found in Gandhara, as evidenced by the Bimaran casket. The figures and objects on the casket display distinct Greek traits, such as facial features, hairstyles, and clothing styles similar to those of Greek gods, like Apollo. The high resemblance to Greek art highlights the strong link between Greek art and the artistic representations of Gandhara during this time.  Looking at the casket, you might wonder what a typical Greek god statue in the Hellenistic style looks like.  The answer may lie in the statues of Apollo (Figure 4) and Athena (Figure 5).  The sculptures of Apollo and Athena exemplify the Hellenistic art.  They show the gods as humans and how powerful they are.  Both statues take a contrapposto stance.  This artistic choice adds a sense of movement and balance to the statues, making them visually captivating.  The intricate attention to detail in their clothing is equally remarkable.  Apollo's statue has realistic drapery, while Athena's shows her body and adorned apparel.  These statues are impressive examples of Greek imagery art to highlight the importance of the gods in Greek mythology. 

The impact of Greek culture on the Gandharan civilization can be seen in the lifelike depictions of the Buddha. Presented in Figure 6 is an artwork that features a serene standing Buddha with a tranquil expression. The sculpture is impressive for its realistic portrayal of the Buddha's body, demonstrating the strong influence of Greek art. Despite this, the sculpture maintains a sense of spirituality and holiness, capturing the essence of the Buddha. In addition, the intricate drapery of the Buddha's clothing adds a lifelike quality to the statue.
Pic | Limestone statue of Apollo (left), Athena, goddess of wisdom and just war (middle), Standing Buddha (right)

It is worth noting that the face of the Buddha in this sculpture bears a striking resemblance to Apollo, a Greek god. Figure 7 shows similarities between the two, such as the well-defined nose, curly hair, full lips, almond-shaped eyes, and serene aura. This likeness highlights the influence of Greek culture on the portrayal of the Buddha in Gandharan art. The sculpture skillfully blends these features to create an intriguing and harmonious representation that illustrates the remarkable fusion of Greek and Gandharan artistic traditions.
Pic | Marble head from a statue of Apollo (left), Face of Lord Buddha (right)

The Incarnation of Greek Gods into the Buddhist Guardians

Some deities from Greek mythology play the roles of protectors or guardians in Buddhist art. One of the most famous figures from Greek mythology is Heracles, a demigod known for his bravery and strength. Let's explore how sculptures modeled after the Hellenistic styles portray Heracles. Figure 7 shows Heracles taking a break, leaning on his club, which is covered in the skin of the Nemean lion. He holds the stolen golden apples from the Hesperides in his right hand. The statue highlights Heracles' robust and masculine physique, including his prominent beard and genitalia. His tired expression and posture indicate that he is exhausted from his Twelve Labors, which is why the sculpture is commonly called "Weary Heracles."  As Greek culture spread to Asia through Alexander the Great's conquests and intertwined with Buddhist traditions, the image and role of Heracles were transmitted to Central Eurasia. The mighty Greek hero took on the form of Vajrapani, serving as the guardian and protector of Buddha. In essence, Vajrapani's origins can be traced back to the metamorphosis of the Greek hero Heracles.

In "The Buddha at Jamal Garhi" (Figure 9) and a 2nd-century panel (Figure 10), we can see examples of cultural fusion. Both show Vajrapani, a strong, naked male figure standing next to the Buddha. Vajrapani holds a vajra in one hand and a chamara in the other, which resembles the gnarled club that Heracles is known for. Vajrapani's muscular body is realistically depicted, similar to Heracles. This transformation from Heracles to Vajrapani highlights universal themes of heroism and protection, demonstrating the importance of blending cultures in art.

Pic | The Buddha and a naked Vajrapani in a frieze at Jamal Garhi, Gandhara

Let's re-examine the picture of Buddha in this Gandhara Buddhist artwork (Figure 10). He has a calm and peaceful face with a gentle smile. The way he sits is called padmāsana, and his hands show that he is protecting and comforting others. His face looks young and smooth, and his eyes are shaped like almonds, showing that he is wise and caring. The eyebrows are nicely curved and arched, adding to the overall expression. Also, the Buddha's attire is drapery clothing that gracefully swirls around his body, creating an elegant and flowing effect. This peaceful picture shows that Buddha has reached a state of enlightenment, bringing deep inner peace and spiritual awakening. The artists wanted to capture his unique qualities and teachings of kindness, wisdom, and calmness through their artwork.

Unlike Heracles and his renowned heroic deeds, Atlas is depicted as a minor character in the hierarchy of the Greek pantheon.  Atlas, a Titan in Greek mythology, was punished by the Olympians to bear the weight of the heavens (Figure 11).  He is commonly depicted as a strong, naked figure, crouching with his hands raised to support architectural elements.  Atlas can also be seen on the bases or tiers of sarcophagi (Figure 12).  Even in the Roman era around the second century, he was still depicted supporting figures on certain metropolitan sarcophagi and funerary monuments (Figure 13).

In the region of Gandhara, where Greek and Buddhist cultures met, artisans drew inspiration from the Greek figure of Atlas to adorn the bases or drums of stupas and monuments. These depictions featured strong men seated or crouching, with their hands raised to support Buddha stupas (Figures 14 & 15) or Buddhist monuments (Figure 16). Some Atlas figures had wings on their backs (Figures 17 & 18), which in Greek mythology symbolized divine beings or messengers that could travel between gods and humans. Adding wings to Atlas depictions in Gandharan art may have represented divine power, transcendence, and the elevation of the human spirit. These Atlas figures held symbolic and decorative meanings that emphasized the stability and strength of the stupas and structures. It is fascinating to see how these designs combined elements of Greek and Buddhist art, demonstrating the blending of diverse cultures during that time.
Pic | Gandharan “Atlas” figure carved in schist stone Frieze (left), Gandharan Atlas supporting a Buddhist stupa (right)


Gandharan art is a fascinating blend of cultures that flourished along the Silk Road. It reflects the diverse influences and ideas in this vibrant trading hub. The specific art presentations beautifully combine elements from Greece, India, and Buddhism, creating a unique and captivating style.

One crucial aspect of Gandharan art is its portrayal of the Buddha. Inspired by Greek and Persian artistic traditions, the artisans and craftsmen gradually shifted from representing the enlightened one as non-human to human-like figures.  This change brought a sense of realism and naturalism to the artwork, making it visually stunning and relatable.

Gandharan art goes beyond Greek influences. It includes symbols, ideas, and gods from different civilizations, showing the cultural exchange along the Silk Road. In this mix of cultures, Heracles, a famous hero from Greece and Rome, transformed into Vajrapani, the Buddha's loyal protector, in Buddhist art. This transformation highlights themes of heroism and loyalty. Similarly, the Titan Atlas not only carries the weight of the heavens but also supports stupas and monuments in Gandhara. These Atlas figures in Gandharan art have symbolic and decorative meanings, emphasizing the strength and stability of the sacred Buddhist structures and reflecting the Buddhist worldview.

The legacy of Gandharan art styles continues to inspire and fascinate people. Its sculptures, reliefs, and iconography serve as a bridge between cultures, promoting understanding and appreciation. The art of Gandhara reminds us of the transformative power and impact of cultural encounters and the beauty that arises from the blending of artistic traditions.