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Indian Sources of Hellenistic Ethics


by Socrethics   First version 2008   Last Version 2018





Table of Contents


1.      Historical Background

1.1  Cyrus (600-530 BC) and Darius I (550–486 BC)

1.2  Buddha (480-400 BC)

1.3  Socrates (469-399 BC)

1.4  Alexander (356-323 BC)

1.5  Greco-Buddhism (ca.300 BC-400 AD)


2.      Hellenistic Ethics

2.1  Basics

2.2  Cynicism (from ca.400 BC)

2.3  Pyrrhonism (from ca.320 BC)

2.4  Epicureanism (from ca.310 BC)

2.5  Stoicism (from ca.300 BC)






1. Historical Background



1.1 Cyrus (600-530 BC) and Darius I (550-486 BC).


The cultural transfer between East and West existed within the Persian Empire before and after the time of Buddha and Socrates.



Cultural transfer

Philosophy has an international and multicultural origin with influences from Indo-Europe (Greeks and Indo-Aryans), Near East (Mesopotamian culture), the Orient (Phoenician trade, Babylonian mathematics and astronomy). All these influences came together in the Persian Empire [McEvilley, 1-6].

In the sixth century BC direct Greek-Indian contacts occurred in the Persian Empire which was erected on the ruins of the (Neo-)Assyrian Empire (…) Almost at once the Persian kings, extended their realm in both directions, mounted wars of conquest against the Greek border on the West and the Indian border on the Southeast. At the time of Cyrus the Great – founder of the Achaemenic Empirethe Ionian Greek city states of Asia minor where the pre-Socratic philosophers would very soon be active were brought under Persian rule. In virtually the same years, Bactria, the area just north of the Hindu Kush, and Gandhara, the area just south of it, were annexed to the Persian Empire. [McEvilley, 6-7].

For about a generation and a half after Cyrus’s conquests the most advanced parts of Greece and India were in the same political entity and for a generation after Darius I, when the imperial court scene got fully underway, this relationship was even closer. During these years Greek and Indian functionaries of various types sat down together at the Persian court, where there was a growing multicultural milieu that promoted diffusion contacts [McEvilley, 6].

In 517 BC the Greek Scylax of Caryanda was sent by Darius I to explore the Indus River valley and his now-lost book Ges Periodos is the earliest known first-hand account of India by a Greek. [Kuzminski, 35-36]

For a period of about a thousand years – from the invasion of Darius I to the sack of Rome by the Goths, India was in more or less constant communication with the West [McEvilley, 1].


The Western world and the Western civilization must be considered the product of both Greek and Indian thought, both Western philosophy and Eastern philosophies. Trade, imperialism and currents of migration allowed cultural philosophies to intermingle freely throughout India, Egypt, Greece and the ancient Near East (Thomas McEvilley, Wikipedia)






Picture from the internet (author unknown)




Pre-Socratic philosophy

The period of unimpeded contact through the medium of Persia lasted approximately from 545 till 490 BC. These dates include the heart of the brief moment of pre-Socratic philosophy. The work of Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Parmenides, and others falls between them. Only the work of Thales seems clearly to have preceded this period, and even before the conquest trade routes between Greece and India were open and in use. Due to these circumstances, there is a relationship between early Greek philosophy and early Indian philosophy as clear as that between, say, early Greek sculpture and Egyptian sculpture. [McEvilley, 18].

         There seems to be a connection between Heraclitus (535 – 475 BC) and the Upanisadic doctrine [McEvilley, xxxi]. Heraclitus uses the same image of a changing river, as the central Buddhist doctrine of impermanence (Heraclitus, Wikipedia)

         Overall more is known about Persian relations with Greeks than with Indians, primarily since the Greeks wrote a great deal about it and the Indians, who basically did not write history in antiquity, did not (…) Pre-Socratic philosophy began at the Persian court at Susa [McEvilley, 7]. At Persepolis twenty-three nations are portrayed in the reliefs [McEvilley, 9].

         In the very heart of the pre-Socratic period there were Indians resident at the Persian court (…) The cities that lay between Greece and India were polyglot [McEvilley, 11].




1.2 Buddha (480-400 BC).




For the traditional biography and legend see Gautama Buddha.

         Christopher Beckwith maintains that Buddha was a Scythian (Saka):

We have no concreted datable evidence that any other wandering ascetics preceded the Buddha. The Scythians were nomads who lived in the wilderness and it is thus quite likely that Gautama himself introduced wandering asceticism to India. [Beckwith, 5-6]. Beckwith argues that Early Buddhism resulted from the Buddha’s rejection of the basic principles of Early Zoroastrianism, while Earl Brahmanism represents the acceptance of those principles [Beckwith, 43].

         A competing thesis, maintained by Johannes Bronkhorst, says that Gotama was born, grew up and taught in areas of the eastern Gangetic basin, which had its own distinctive culture, one that was not influenced by Brahmanical social or religious ideas [Batchelor, 197].




Buddhism regards itself as presenting a system of training in conduct, meditation, and understanding that constitutes a path leading to the cessation of suffering. Everything is to be subordinated to this goal. And in this connection Buddha’s teachings suggest that preoccupation with certain beliefs and ideas about the ultimate nature of the world (i.e. metaphysics) and our destiny in fact hinders our progress along this path rather than helping it. If we insist on working out exactly what to believe about the world and human destiny before beginning to follow the path of practice we will never even set out [Beckwith, 35].

Buddha used the following metaphor to explain ethical priorities:


It is as if there were a man struck by an arrow that was smeared thickly with poison; his friends and companions, his family and relatives would summon a doctor to see to the arrow. And the man might say, “I will not drew out this arrow as long as I do not know whether the man by whom I was struck was a Brahmin, a ksatriya, a vaisya or a sudra …as long as I do not know his name and his family…whether he was tall, short or of medium height…” That man would not discover these things, but that man would die [Gethin, 66].


Buddha did not deny the existence of a soul (psyche) he just denied the existence of an eternal, unchanging soul. Sectarianism and contradicting doctrines were abundant in the times of Buddha [Baus 2006, 36], a fact which may have supported the acceptance of Buddha’s metaphysical agnosticism.




Buddhism may have been influenced by Samkhya, the philosophy of the Indian sage Kapila [Baus 2006, 10]. Kapila – a member of the Ksatriya caste [Baus 2006, 22] – was probably born in Kapilavastu, the home town of Buddha, long time before Buddha’s ministry. Samkhya is a soteriological philosophy which maintains that suffering can be defeated by means of knowledge. In the words of Sariputra, a chief disciple of the Buddha:

“Not knowing the experience of suffering, not knowing the cause of suffering and not knowing the path to its avoidance – that is fatal ignorance”.

Buddha strongly opposed the doctrine of Makkhali Gosala, who claimed that men cannot influence their fate [Baus 2006, 11].

Samkhya – which is the philosophical basis of Yoga – is mentioned in the Arthasastra (ca. 300 BC) as one of the three oldest brahmanist philosophies [Baus 2006, 17].

Buddha opposed the radically skeptic and nihilistic Carvaka philosophy. His anti-fatalistic charisma could have been a major factor for the worldwide proliferation of ancient Buddhism [Baus 2006, 29, 36].




Ascetism becomes more common and systematic in India with the rise of the sramans in the sixth century BC. (…) Sramanism was inspired by a reaction to traditional brahmanist culture as represented by the Vedas and reformed in the Upanishads. One means to respond to the hereditary privileges of the brahmans was to reject completely the customary status of “householder” adopted by males and to resort to a very simple life “in the forest”. Although the brahmans may have responded to the revolution by adding renunciation as a fourth stage of life for all, extreme forms of ascetism, such as those promoted by the Jains, arose and should be compared to the less severe monastic practices of the Buddhists. [Sick, 261]


According to Christopher Beckwith, the original meaning of the term sramana is “Buddhist practitioner”:

         Megasthenes stresses that the Sramanas were divided into two basic forms of practice: the “rural” Sramanas, who lived out in the open, and whom he calls the “forest-dwellers”, and the “urbon” Sramans, whom he calls the “physicians, healers”. Little attention has been paid to this bifurcation, which could have originated only when Buddhism spread outside the South Asian monsoon zone, allowing the more ascetically inclined Sramanas to live in the open all year round. In the monsoon zone the early Buddhist needed shelter during the monsoon season. Such a temporary shelter is called an arama. Individuals who practiced Buddhism, including Buddha and his followers, were called Sramanas, a term that specifically and exclusively meant “Buddhist practitioners”. [Beckwith, 68-69, 94, 102, 104]

         Unlike many Buddhist lay believers and also unlike the Brahmanas, at least some Sramanas did not themselves believe in “Hades”, and therefore did not believe in karma and rebirth. [Beckwith, 80]. The Buddha says not a word about God or about Heaven and going there, he rejects the idea of inherent personal identities (including the “soul”), and he talks about nirvana instead (…) here on earth, in this life. [Beckwith, 105]

         The Sramanas, unlike the Brahmanas, did not exclude women from their “philosophical” studies, they only excluded sex [Beckwith, 80].

         It is significant that the followers of the suicide cult are never called Sramanas “Buddhists” [Beckwith, 85].



Early Buddhism

         According to Christopher Beckwith the Trilaksana (three marks of existence) is characteristic for Early Buddhism [Beckwith, 26-32]. Exactly as with Hume, the Trilaksana negates the characteristics of God (as well as Heaven) presumably the Early Zorastrian and Early Brahmanist God: an uncaused, perfect, eternal being, in a perfect world [Beckwith, 151-152].

         A competing thesis says that the earliest examples of Buddhist teaching are four eight-verse discourses in the Pali Canon. What is immediately apparent on reading these discourses is that they are strikingly devoid of any classical Buddhist doctrines. They represent a skeptical and pragmatic ethics, in contrast to a metaphysical doctrine [Batchelor, 202-203].



Normative Buddhism

         It is now known that organized monasteries did not exist anywhere – at least outside of Central Asia – before the Saka-Kushan period, and were introduced in India quiet suddenly in the first century AD. (…) The new monastic ideal contrasts very sharply with the earlier ideal, going back to the time of the Buddha himself, of the solitary, wandering “forest” Sramana and of the less ascetic, but still solitary “urban” Sramana, as  described by Megasthenes. [Beckwith, 96]

         Normative Buddhism flowered in the Saka-Kushan period, when the old solitary ascetic ideal was replaced (though not completely) by the communal, organized monastic ideal [Beckwith, 104-105].

         Normative Buddhism says that the Buddha was born a prince, but after witnessing the troubles of human life he left the palace and his family to become a sramana and a bodhisattva. After he finally achieved his goal under the Bodhi tree, he taught the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the Chain of Dependent Origination. His followers, members of the Sangha, were monks and nuns who mostly lived in highly distinctive structures called monasteries. [Beckwith, 170-171].




1.3      Socrates (469-399 BC)




Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian hegemony to its decline with the defeat by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens sought to stabilize and recover from its humiliating defeat, the Athenian public may have been entertaining doubts about democracy as an efficient form of government. Socrates appears to have been a critic of democracy and some scholars interpret his trial as an expression of political infighting.(…) Claiming loyalty to his city, Socrates clashed with the current course of Athenian politics and society. He praises Sparta, archrival to Athens, directly and indirectly in various dialogues. One of Socrates’ purported offenses to the city was his position as a social and moral critic. Rather than upholding a status quo and accepting the development of what he perceived as immorality within his region, Socrates questioned the collective notion of “might makes right” that he felt was common in Greece during this period.(…) His attempts to improve the Athenians’ sense of justice may have been the cause of his execution (Socrates, Wikipedia)




Perhaps his most important contribution to Western thought is his dialectic method of inquiry, known as the Socratic method or method of “elenchus”, which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts such as the Good and Justice. It was first described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues. To solve a problem, it would be broken down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill the answer a person would seek. The influence of this approach is most strongly felt today in the use of the scientific method, in which hypothesis is the first stage. The development and practice of this method is one of Socrates’ most enduring contributions, and is a key factor in earning his mantle as the father of political philosophy, ethics or moral philosophy, and as a figurehead of all the central themes in Western philosophy.

To illustrate the use of the Socratic method; a series of questions are posed to help a person or group to determine their underlying beliefs and the extent of their knowledge. The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. It was designed to force one to examine one’s own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs.

An alternative interpretation of the dialectic is that it is a method for direct perception of the Form of the Good. Philosopher Karl Popper describes the dialectic as “the art of intellectual intuition, of visualizing the divine originals, the Forms or Ideas, of unveiling the Great Mystery behind the common man’s everyday world of appearances.” In a similar vein, French philosopher Pierre Hadot suggests that the dialogues are a type of spiritual exercise. (Socrates, Wikipedia)






Diagram from the internet (author unknown)




Hypothetical relation to Indian philosophy

         There is some reason to believe that Indian ascetics traveled a trade route from Central Asia to the Black Sea and interacted at the northern end of it with Black Sea shamans, ultimately influencing Greek philosophy through Diogenes of Sinope, who seems to have brought India–derived ascetic practices into the Athenian philosophical milieu. It is perhaps through this route that an Indian yogi came to Athens to talk with Socrates [McEvilley, 10]

         Socratic statements like “No one errs or does wrong willingly or knowingly” and “Virtue – all virtue – is knowledge” are reminiscent of the rationalist Hindu philosophy Samkhya, which could be at the root of Buddhism [Baus 2006]. Socrates and Buddha both turned away from metaphysical speculations and concentrated on ethics, a turn which is often associated with the separation of theoretical and practical philosophy.

         Buddha – similar to Socrates – was familiar with the social class of the warriors (Kshatriyas) and challenged the class of the priests (Brahmins) by his social and moral criticism.

         Socrates’ public discussions can be compared with the populist approach of the sramana movement. The sramana movement strongly opposed the philosophies which maintained the hereditary privileges of the Brahmans, and they presented their qualms to a general audience [Sick, 269]. An Indian scholar was not respected, if he was not able to contend about his doctrine. Buddha often disputed with belligerent priests of all kinds of sects [Baus 2006, 16].

         The predecessor of a Socratic-type dialogue can be found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a key scripture to various schools of Hinduism which was composed ca.700 BC [Deussen, 389-534]. The middle part of this Upanishad consists of four conversations, in which Yajnavalkyaone of the first philosophers in recorded history and renowned for his unrivaled talent in theological debate – plays the key role not dissimilar to the role of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato” [Deussen, 444]. The dialogue between King Janaka and Yajnavalkya [Deussen, 475-481] is the prototype of later dialogues between exponents of a worldly and a spiritual mindset. Examples:

-       The Samaññaphala Sutta: A dialogue between King Ajatasattu and Buddha (composed ca.500 BC).

Thanissaro refers to this text as “one of the masterpieces of the Pali canon” [Thanissaro].

-       The Alexander-Dandamis colloquy: A dialogue between Alexander the Great and the gymnosophist Dandamis (composed ca.300 BC).

Diogenes Laertius reports that Pyrrho of Elis – the Greek Buddha [Beckwith] – came under their influence of the gymnosophists while travelling to India with Alexander, and on his return to Elis, imitated their habits; see chapter 2.3.

-       The Milinda Panha: A dialogue between the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Pali Milinda) and the sage Nāgasena (written ca.100 BC).

There are several key portions of this text that connect it to the Greek accounts of Alexander [Sick, 271]. But it uses sources that can be traced back as far as the Samaññaphala Sutta [Sick, 273] and the Upanishads [Hinüber 2000].




1.4 Alexander (356–323 BC)


At the origin of the Hellenistic culture are Alexander the Great’s Asian campaigns.




During his youth, Alexander was tutored by the philosopher Aristotle until the age of 16. When he succeeded his father to the throne in 336 BC, Alexander inherited a strong kingdom and an experienced army. He had been awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch his father's military expansion plans. In 334 BC, he invaded the Achaemenid Empire, ruled Asia Minor, and began a series of campaigns that lasted ten years. Alexander broke the power of Persia in a series of decisive battles, most notably the battles of Issus and Gaugamela. He subsequently overthrew the Persian King Darius III and conquered the entirety of the First Persian Empire. At that point, his empire stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River.

Seeking to reach the "ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea", he invaded India in 326 BC, but was eventually forced to turn back at the demand of his troops. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, the city he planned to establish as his capital (…). In the years following his death, a series of civil wars tore his empire apart, resulting in several states ruled by the Diadochi, Alexander's surviving generals and heirs (Alexander the Great, Wikipedia).




Below picture was taken from the internet (author unknown)





Alexander's legacy includes the cultural diffusion his conquests engendered, such as Greco-Buddhism. He founded some twenty cities that bore his name, most notably Alexandria in Egypt. Alexander's settlement of Greek colonists and the resulting spread of Greek culture in the east resulted in a new Hellenistic civilization, aspects of which were still evident in the traditions of the Byzantine Empire in the mid-15th century and the presence of Greek speakers in central and far eastern Anatolia until the 1920s. (Alexander the Great, Wikipedia)




1.5      Greco-Buddhism (ca.300 BC–400 AD)


Greco-Buddhism is the cultural syncretism between Hellenistic culture and Buddhism which developed between the 4th century BC and the 5th century AD in Bactria and the Indian subcontinent (Greco-Buddhism, Wikipedia).


The interaction between Hellenism and Buddhism began when Alexander the Great began his Asian campaign in 334 BC and later came into direct contact with India, the birthplace of Buddhism. Alexander founded a number of cities in the conquered countries, which established the intensive cultural exchange and trade.

         After Alexander's death in 323 BC, his generals founded their own kingdoms, including Seleucos I, who established the Seleucid empire, which initially maintained its expansion into India.

         The eastern part of the Seleucid Empire - Bactria - broke away as a Greco-Bactrian kingdom (3rd to 2nd century BC),





Picture from the internet (author unknown)



         The Indo-Greek kingdom (2nd to 1st century BC) was established by the expansion of the Greco-Bactrians into the Indian subcontinent (180 BC).

         Followed by the Kushan empire (1st century AD to 3rd century AD).

The resulting Hellenized form of Buddhism expanded from the 5th century to North Asia, China, Korea and Japan, and formed the basis of Mahayana Buddhism, which in turn is the origin of Zen (Greco-Buddhismus, Wikipedia).


Important patrons of Buddhism were:

         Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BC), an Indian emperor (grandson of Chandragupta, founder of the Mauryan dynasty) who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from circa 269 BCE to 232 BCE.

         Menander I (165-130 BC), known in Indian Pali sources as Milinda, a king of the Indo-Greek Kingdom. According to tradition, Menander embraced the Buddhist faith, as described in the Milinda Panha, a classical Pali Buddhist text on the discussions between Milinda and the Buddhist sage Nāgasena (Menander I, Wikipedia), see The Socratic Way of Thinking.

         Kanishka I (127-150 AD) was the emperor of the Kushan dynasty. His conquests and patronage of Buddhism played an important role in the development of the Silk Road, and the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism from Gandhara across the Karakoram range to China (Kanishka, Wikipedia).




2. Hellenistic Ethics



2.1 Basics




The word "Hellenism" is used in several distinct ways:

1.      The principal meaning is the emanation outward of culture and ideas from classical Greece to the rest of the world, with classical Greek culture and ideas either replacing local culture and ideas, or amending local customs.

2.      The second meaning of the word refers to the Hellenistic age or Hellenistic period of Ancient Greek (see below)

3.      The third meaning is the general field of study of ancient Greek, which could include both processes just mentioned, plus scholarship since the time of the Greeks. It is also sometimes used as another word for Hellenic polytheism (Hellenism, Wikipedia).



The Hellenistic period

The most common definitions are the following:

1.      The period between the death of Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon) in 323 BC and the annexation of the Greek peninsula and islands by Rome in 146 BC. Although the establishment of Roman rule did not break the continuity of Hellenistic society and culture, which remained essentially unchanged until the advent of Christianity (in the 5th century), it did mark the end of Greek political independence (Hellenistic Greece, Wikipedia).

2.      The period following Aristotle (384–322 BC) until the fall of the Western Roman Empire about 400 AD.

3.      The intensification of the Greek influence during the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) and its continuation as a cultural force up until about 400 AD (Hellenism, Wikipedia)



Hellenistic philosophy

Hellenistic philosophy is the chapter of Western philosophy that was developed in the Hellenistic period following Aristotle and ending with the beginning of Neoplatonism (Hellenistic Philosophy, Wikipedia)

For a list of the most important Hellenistic schools and philosophers see Hellenistic Philosophy.



Scope of this paper

In this paper we focus on some important Hellenistic schools, where an Indian influence is likely, and restrict the investigation to ethics.

Greco-Buddhism is beyond the scope of this paper, including Ashoka’s missionary activities on the philosophy of the Alexandrian School in the late 3rd century BC (Greco-Buddhismus).




2.2 Cynicism (from ca.400 BC)


The story of Cynicism traditionally begins with Antisthenes, (445-365 BC) who was an older contemporary of Plato and a pupil of Socrates (…) Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BC) adopted Antisthenes teachings and embraced the ascetic way of life, adopting a lifestyle of self-sufficiency (autarkeia), austerity (askēsis), and shamelessness (anaideia). He became known as "the Dog" which is the likeliest derivation of the word "Cynic." (Cynic, Wikipedia)


         Thesis 1: The ascetic lifestyle of the cynics is of Indian (but not necessarily Buddhist) origin:

Various Greek philosophers, such as the Pythagoreans, had advocated simple living in the centuries preceding the Cynics (Cynicism, Wikipedia). However, pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales (624 – 546 BC) went to Egypt. Pythagoras (570 – 495 BC) and Democritus (460-370 BC) are said to have gone all the way India. Some also say that Democritus made acquaintance with the gymnosophists in India [Vukomanovic, 164]. The gymnosophists – to which the Calanus sect adhered – was a non-Buddhist sect [Beckwith, 64].

Furthermore there is some reason to believe that Indian ascetics traveled a trade route from Central Asia to the Black Sea and interacted at the northern end of it with Black Sea shamans, ultimately influencing Greek philosophy through Diogenes of Sinope who seems to have brought India–derived ascetic practices into the Athenian philosophical milieu [McEvilley, 10]


         Thesis 2: The ascetic lifestyle of the cynics is of Buddhist origin:

Christopher Beckwith maintains that Buddha was a Scythian (Saka).

We have no concreted datable evidence that any other wandering ascetics preceded the Buddha. The Scythians were nomads who lived in the wilderness and it is thus quite likely that Gautama himself introduced wandering asceticism to India. [Beckwith, 5-6].

Asceticism became more common and systematic in India with the rise of the sramans in the sixth century BC [Sick, 261].

According to Christopher Beckwith, the original meaning of the term sramana is Buddhist practitioner [Beckwith, 68-69, 94, 102, 104].


The Cynics are said to have invented the idea of cosmopolitanism: when he was asked where he came from, Diogenes replied that he was "a citizen of the world” (an indication that he had travelled a lot). Although Cynicism concentrated solely on ethics, Cynic philosophy had a big impact on the Hellenistic world, ultimately becoming an important influence for Stoicism (Cynicism, Wikipedia).

Cynics lived among the people and acted as social critics; insofar they did not retreat from society. But they retreated from all kinds of dependencies.




2.3 Pyrrhonism (from ca.320 BC)


Pyrrhonism is commonly confused with (academic) skepticism in Western philosophy. But whereas (academic) skeptics maintain that there is no truth at all, Pyrrhonists leave the question open. Pyrrhonists offer no view, theory, or knowledge about the world, but recommend instead a practice, a distinct way of life, designed to suspend beliefs and ease suffering [Kuzminski, Preface].


Pyrrhonism bears a striking similarity to some Eastern non-dogmatic soteriological traditions, particularly Madhyamaka, a Mahajana school of philosophy founded by Nāgārjuna. [Kuzminski, Preface]


Because of the high degree of similarity between Madhyamaka and Pyrrhonism, Thomas McEvilley and Matthew Neale suspect that Nāgārjuna was influenced by Greek Pyrrhonist texts imported into India. The following theses suggest, however, that this could have been a return of knowledge to its origin (which was Indian):


         Thesis 1: Pyrrho’s philosophy was influenced by Indian (but not necessarily Buddhist) teachers.

According to McEvilley Pyrrho must have imbibed the main attitudes of his philosophy from Greek teachers, before the visit to India. The position he came to teach was clearly in the Democritean lineage. However, there remains Diogenes Laertius’ unambiguous testimony, which we have no reason to question, that Pyrrho was led to “adopt” his philosophy because of his contacts in India. McEvilley offers no evidence for downgrading Diogenes’ testimony [Kuzminski, 49]. Diogenes Laertius in his book Lives of Eminent Philosophers writes about Pyrrho’s encounter with ancient Indian thinkers and mentions even older sources [Kuzminski, 35-36] [Laertius IX 11.2]. The quadrilemma, for example, which was used in the school of Pyrrho can be found in both Greece and India before Pyrrho’s time [Kuzminski, 46] [Laertius, IX 7.2].

There are several excellent comparative studies claiming the direct influence of Indian thought on Pyrrho’s skepticism, led by Flintoff’s Pyrrho and India [Flintoff 1980]. Giovanni Reale, in his Systems of the Hellenistic Age [Reale] has claimed that, through Pyrrho, Indian thought played a shaping, indirect role in reorienting Hellenistic ethics towards inner tranquility (ataraxia or apatheia) as the goal of life [Sharpe, 2].


         Thesis 2: Pyrrho’s philosophy is predominantly of early Buddhist origin:

Pyrrho went with Alexander the Great to Central Asia and India during the Greek invasion and conquest of the Persian Empire in 334–324 BC [Vukomanovic, 164]. Pyrrho’s method of suspending judgment (epoché) exhibits an amazing congruity with the original Buddhist meditation system (dhyâna) [Vukomanovic, 165].

Christopher Beckwith advances the thesis that Pyrrho based his ideas on the teachings of early Buddhism (the Trilaksana) with which he became acquainted during his time in Bactria and Gandhara [Beckwith, 13-21, 26-32]. This thesis is not new. It was first suggested by Friedrich Nietzsche who declared: “Although a Greek, Pyrrho was a Buddhist, even a Buddha.” [Batchelor, 196]. The “three characteristics” are said to apply to everything, and are central in Buddhism. But for Buddha, as for Pyrrho, their reference is exclusively to ethical or moral matters. Like Pyrrho, the Buddha did not even mention metaphysics [Beckwith, 31]. Buddha’s state of being without self-identity is equated with extinguishing passions and the peace that results from it. The result of Pyrrho’s program is exactly the same [Beckwith, 33, 93].


The Buddha, like the Pyrrhonists but unlike the Academic sceptics, took a radically undogmatic stance with regard to metaphysical or speculative beliefs (…) and concentrated instead on practices aimed at easing suffering [Kuzminski, 37]. The goal is achieved by resisting assent to any identification with extreme or dogmatic views or beliefs, whether affirmative or negative, which go beyond what is self-evident. (…) As a practical therapy and antidote to such views, both Buddhists and Pyrrhonists advocate steering a middle course through life, taking experiences at face value and avoiding unsubstantiated beliefs or conclusions. [Kuzminski, 42]




2.4 Epicureanism (from ca.310 BC)


Another early Socratic school, the Cyrenaics, was founded by one of Socrates' associates and admirers, Aristippus of Cyrene, from Libya, North Africa. The Cyrenaics disparaged speculative philosophy and extolled the pleasure of the moment. But, following Aristippus, they maintained that the purest pleasure derives from self-mastery and the philosophic life. The Cyrenaic philosophy, with its understanding of the good life as enjoyment of stable pleasures, led to the development of the Epicurean school (Hellenistic Thought, Forrest Baird).

In 311-310 Epicurus established his first schools and in 307 he founded his famous Garden in Athens (Chronology of Hellenistic Philosophers)


The thesis of a Buddhist influence on Epicurus is based on statements like the following:





Empty are the words of that philosopher

who offers no therapy for human suffering.


For just as there is no use in medical expertise

if it does not give therapy for bodily diseases,

so too there is no use in philosophy

if it does not expel the suffering of the soul.


Epicurus [Long and Sedley, 155]





Also the proposed therapy is the same:

“Suffering can be terminated by ending human desire.” (Siddharta Gautama, 490-410 BC)

“If you want to make a man happy, add not to his riches but take away his desires.” (Epicurus of Samos, 341-270 BC)

Medical analogies were commonly invoked in both Buddhist dharma [Gowans 2010, 17-18] [Burton 2010, 187] and Hellenistic philosophy.


Buddha and Epicurus develop an approach to happiness that is largely overlooked in the contemporary Western world. Roughly speaking, our approach is to take our desires for granted, and strive to accumulate the power and knowledge necessary to shape the world as we want it to be.  In pursuing this strategy, we become hostages to fate, for all too often the world refuses to give way to our demands.  The alternative approach, pursued by Epicureans and Buddhists, is to work in the other direction: instead of conforming the world to our desires, we could conform our desires—and our conception of happiness itself—to the world.  Epicureans and Buddhists equate living well with happiness, but characterize happiness in a negative way. That is, they portray it in terms of what it excludes, rather than in terms of what it includes: essentially, it is the absence of suffering, the absence of any form of mental turmoil (Hedonism: Is the Pleasant Life the Best Life?). Epicurus called this peaceful state of mind ataraxia.


In order to achieve ataraxia, people must scale down their desires, overcome useless fears, and turn to seeking mental pleasures (which have the effect of calming the body; mental health brings about physical health; ideas have consequences). To scale down desires, the Epicureans advocated frugality, living within one’s financial means and needing little. To overcome fear, the Epicureans had two solutions:

1.      Forget about God, as all that exists are an infinite number of atoms arranged without any purpose in the universe. One cannot get free from fear, as long as one doesn’t understand the world and gets worried by myths. It is not possible to become truly happy without knowing nature (compare Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura).

2.      Seek out the company of pleasant, decent people and arrange a social contract to work towards the establishment of just laws that deter those who would harm you and your kind (…). The invention of social contract thinking on the part of the Epicureans represents one of their greatest contributions to ethical theory.

(Greek and Hellenistic Philosophy, T.O’Connor)

An early form of social contract can also be found in Buddhism (in the monastic sangha).




2.5 Stoicism (from ca.300 BC)


The beginnings of Stoicism lie with Zeno of Citium (ca. 334-263 BC) who came to Athens from Cyprus. For many years a student of the Cynic philosopher Crates, Zeno eventually founded his own philosophical school in 300 BC (Stoicism, Crandall University).

Zeno taught in the famous Stoa Poikile (the painted porch) in Athens. He combined the cynical doctrine with concepts of Heraklit and Aristoteles (Zeno of Citium).

Zeno was succeeded as head of the school by Cleanthes and Cleanthes by Chrysippus. According to Diogenes Laertius (not to be confused with Diogenes of Sinope) these three early Stoics wrote many works, but nothing except fragments have survived. Their works were still available, however, to Laertius in the third century AD. Laertius’ summary of Stoic philosophy [Laertius, 149, 195, 217, 225] is the best source of information for early Stoicism. (Stoicism, Crandall University)


         Thesis 1: Stoicism as well as Buddhism was inspired by the Samkhya doctrine of the Indian philosopher Kapila [Baus 2006, 206-221].

Zeno of Citium, the alleged founder of Stoic philosophy, was a Samkhyin, i.e. he taught in Athens a finished philosophical system that came from India. Most likely Heraclitus of Ephesus was already a Samkhyin, because Zeno adopted his materialistic theory of physics [Baus 2010, 13].


         Thesis 2: It is possible that Buddhist thought had an indirect influence on Stoicism, first through Cynic contact with the East and later through trades routes [DuBay]. The Stoic reliance upon the Cynic ethics (which itself markedly resembles some forms of Indian asceticism) had been widely acknowledged in Laërtius time [Vukomanovic, 166]




Picture from [DuBay]



There are remarkable parallels between

1.      the Stoics’ descriptions of unhappiness and its causes, with the Buddhist kleśas (ignorance, attachment, aversion)

2.      the Buddhist conception of what it is we are working on when we undertake meditative practice, and the Stoic philosophy of mind (pathē as reflecting false evaluative assessments of self and world).

3.      the way that Buddhist meditation and the Stoic askēseis are clearly, undoubtedly recommended and illustrated.

[Sharpe, 6]


Examples of comparative literature:

         Le Retour sur Soi [Laurentiu 2008] compares Roman Stoicism and Zen [Sharpe, 3].

         Roman Buddha [Ferraiolo 2010] is an article which persuasively compares Epictetus and the Buddha [Sharpe, 3].

         The Body in Spiritual Exercise [Yu] considers that in both early Buddhist meditation and Epictetan askēsis, the practice of contemplating the body as it actually is (impermanent), is also a spiritual exercise to understand the phenomenal world and detach from external things [Sharpe, 6]


With regard to the societal function the original Buddhism is certainly closer to early Stoicism (ca. 300-180 BC) than to late/Roman Stoicism (ca. 27 BC-180 AD):

Second-century Stoicism set the standards for acceptable behavior and provided justification not only for traditional Roman mores, but for Roman rule. This represents a drastic change from the values of the Early Stoa [Francis]:

       Roman Stoicism preached "restraint and conformity".

       The original Stoa was a center of "dissident asceticism and social radicalism".

Within four centuries a dissident philosophy with a high affinity to Cynicism was transformed into a tool for imperialistic expansion. Stoicism, which started as a back-to-nature philosophy, turned into a cornerstone of Roman militarism.






1.      Laurentiu Andrei (2008), Le retour sur soi : Stoïcisme et bouddhisme zen, Nagoya (Japon), in Origins and possibilities, 123-139.

2.      Baus Lothar (2006), Die Philosophie des Buddha, in Buddhismus und Stoizismus: Zwei nahverwandte Philosophien und ihr gemeinsamer Ursprung in der Samkhya-Lehre, II. Auflage, Asclepios Edition, Homburg

3.      Baus Lothar (2010), Der stoische Weise – ein Materialist, Asclepios Edition, Homburg

4.      Beckwith Christopher I. (2015), Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton University Press, Princeton

5.      Burton David (2010), Curing Diseases of Belief and Desire, Buddhist Philosophical Therapy, in Philosophy as Therapeia, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, Vol. 66: 187-218, Cambridge University Press, UK

6.      Francis James A. (1995), Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World

7.      Deussen Paul (1897), Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Part 1, Translated by V.M.Bedekar and G.B.Palsule, Motilal Banarsidass, Dehli 1980

8.      DuBay Dave (2017), Did Buddhism influence Stoicism?

9.      Ferraiolo William (2010), Roman Buddha, in Western Buddhist Review vol. 5, Available from http://www.westernbud-dhistreview.com/vol5/index.html 

10.  Flintoff Everard (1980), Pyrrho and India, Phronesis, Vol.25, No.1, 88-108, Brill Publishers

11.  Francis James A. (1995), Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World

12.  Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press

13.  Gowans Christopher (2010), Medical Analogies in Buddhist and Hellenistic Thought: Tranquillity and Anger, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 85, Vol.66: 119-135, Cambridge University Press, UK

14.  Hinüber, Oskar von (1996/2000), A Handbook of Pāli Literature, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

15.  Kapstein Matthew (2013), Stoics and Bodhisattvas, in Philosophy as a Way of Life, pp.99-115, Wiley Blackwell, UK

16.  Kuzminski Adrian (2008), Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, Lexington Books, Lanham, 2008.

17.  Laertius Diogenes, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, William Heinemann, London, 1925

18.  Long A. and Sedley D. (1987), The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, UK

19.  McEvilley Thomas (2001), The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York, Allworth Press

20.  Reale Giovanni (1985), The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, translated by Catan, John R. (1st ed.), Albany, New York.

21.  Robinson Andrew (2016), Forgotten Utopia, New Scientist, 17 September, 31-33

22.  Sharpe Matthew and Leesa Davis (2018), Notes towards a comparison of Buddhism and Stoicism as Lived Philosophies, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

23.  Sick David H. (2007), When Socrates met the Buddha: Greek and Indian dialectic in Hellenistic Bactria and India. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 17:253-278.

24.  Soni Jayandra (2010), Patañjali’s Yoga as Therapeia, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, Vol.66: 219-232, Cambridge University Press, UK

25.  Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2013), Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life, Access to Insight (BCBS Edition)

26.  Vukomanovic Milan (2017), Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein, Assessing the Buddhist Influences on their Conceptions of Ethics

27.  Yu Jiangxia (2014), The Body in Spiritual Exercise: A Comparative Study between Epictetan Askēsis and early Buddhist Meditation, Asian Philosophy, Vol 24, No 2, 158-177