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Greeks and Buddhists in Afghanistan

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?

–1964.

KENNETH REXROTH, a native of Indiana, became an icon of the San Francisco Beat movement. He was a political anarchist, poet, and gifted translator. Rexroth died in 1982. Many of his writings are available on the excellent Bureau of Public Secrets site.

 

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