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Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with…

Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia

by Christopher I. Beckwith

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The idea that Greek philosophy derives its origin from India turns up every now and then. In particular the thinking of Pythagoras and Plato has been thought to contain traces of wisdom learnt from the East by the Greeks, although decisive evidence for such influence is hard to find. Even some of the ancient Greeks themselves believed that philosophy had originally been practiced by the peoples of the East and imported into Greece from there. This is apparent from the very first sentence of Diogenes Laertius’ Vitae philosophorum, which states that “some people” (ἔνιοι) claimed that “barbarians” were the first to practice philosophy and counted the Indian gymnosophistai among the examples of such early philosophers. Diogenes himself does not agree but, after a brief discussion, asserts that “philosophy started with the Hellenes”.

However, at the same time it is Diogenes who provides crucial textual evidence for a possible dependence of a certain Greek philosophical school on the wisdom of Indian sages. In the section on Pyrrhonism/scepticism (9.61) we are told that Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of that school, with his teacher Anaxarchus belonged to Alexander’s entourage. Reportedly, they followed the Macedonian army all the way to northern India and met with Indian gymnosophists and magi. According to Diogenes (or his source, Ascanius of Abdera), this “led him [Pyrrho] to adopt a most noble philosophy” (Hicks’ translation).

In the book under review here, it is Christopher I. Beckwith’s ambition to show that the gymnosophists whom Pyrrho met with were practitioners of an early variety of Buddhism and that the philosophy that Pyrrho began teaching after his return to Greece had been decisively influenced by what he experienced among the Gandhāra philosophers.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691166447, Hardcover)

Pyrrho of Elis accompanied Alexander the Great to Central Asia and India during the Graeco-Macedonian invasion and conquest of the Persian Empire in 334-324 BC, and while there met with teachers of Early Buddhism. Greek Buddha shows how Buddhism shaped the philosophy of Pyrrho, the famous founder of Pyrrhonian scepticism in ancient Greece. Identifying Pyrrho's basic teachings with those of Early Buddhism, Christopher I. Beckwith traces the origins of a major tradition in Greek philosophy to Gandh?ra, a country in Central Asia and northwestern India.

Using a range of primary sources, he systematically looks at the teachings and practices of Pyrrho and of Early Buddhism, including those preserved in testimonies by and about Pyrrho, in the report on Indian philosophy two decades later by the Seleucid ambassador Megasthenes, in the first-person edicts by the Indian king Dev?n??priya Priyadar?i referring to a popular variety of the Dharma in the early third century BC, and in Taoist echoes of Gautama's Dharma in Warring States China. Beckwith demonstrates how the teachings of Pyrrho agree closely with those of the Buddha ??kyamuni, "the Scythian Sage." In the process, he identifies eight distinct attested philosophical schools in ancient northwestern India and Central Asia, including Early Zoroastrianism, Early Brahmanism, and several forms of Early Buddhism. Beckwith then shows the influence that Pyrrho's brand of scepticism had on the evolution of Western thought, first in Antiquity, and later, during the Enlightenment, on the great philosopher and self-proclaimed Pyrrhonian, David Hume.

Greek Buddha demonstrates that through Pyrrho, Early Buddhist thought had a significant impact on Western philosophy.

(retrieved from Amazon Sat, 25 Jul 2015 23:29:15 -0400)

Presents a history of early Buddhism based solely on dateable artefacts and archeology rather than received tradition, much of which data is provided by studying Pyrrho's history.

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