Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.32

Christopher I. Beckwith, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia.   Princeton; Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2015.  Pp. xxi, 275.  ISBN 9780691166445.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Jerker Blomqvist, Lund University (


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.

According to Beckwith, Pyrrho’s teaching and early Buddhism share certain features that indicate an interdependence; the crucial evidence is in the structured system of ideas, rather than in individual parallelisms, and in the way in which they are presented in the relevant texts. Beckwith’s detailed analysis of the so-called Aristocles passage1 demonstrates that the main tenets of both Pyrrhonist and Buddhist teaching form the same, unique tripartite structure (“things2 are undifferentiated → we should avoid forming fixed opinions about things → the result will be undisturbedness”). Even the three words by which the Aristocles passage describes the indefinable things (ἀδιάφορα, ἀστάθμητα, ἀνεπίκριτα) have approximately synonymous counterparts in the Trilakṣaṇa, the ‘Three Characteristics’ of all dharmas (anātman, anitya, duḥkha). Beckwith’s chapter 1 (‘Pyrrho’s thought’) is essentially a detailed discussion and analysis of these crucial elements of the two philosophical systems. In an article of 2011 the authhor made a similar argument,3 reproduced here in a revised version as ’Appendix A’. In the following ‘Appendix B’, Beckwith aims to show that the specific roots of Pyrrhonism cannot be identified within the range of earlier Greek philosophy.

On the other hand, certain elements that are generally regarded as essential features of Buddhism are entirely absent from ancient Pyrrhonism/scepticism. The concepts of good and bad karma must have been an impossibility in the Pyrrhonist universe, if “things” were ἀδιάφορα, ‘without a logical self-identity’, and, consequently, could not be differentiated from each other by labels such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘just’ and ‘unjust’. A doctrine of rebirth, reminiscent of the Buddhist one, though favored by Plato and Pythagoras, was totally alien to the Pyrrhonists. The ἀταραξία, ‘undisturbedness’, that the Pyrrhonists promised their followers, may have a superficial resemblance to the Buddhist nirvana, but ἀταραξία, unlike nirvana, did not involve a liberation from a cycle of reincarnation; rather, it was a mode of life in this world, blessed with μετριοπάθεια, ’moderation of feeling’ or ‘moderate suffering’, not with the absence of any variety of pain. Kuzminski,4 whom Beckwith (p. 20) hails as a precursor of his, had largely ignored the problem with this disparity between Buddhism and Pyrrhonism. Beckwith is well aware of it and offers a solution (see in particular chapters 2 and 3 of his book).

According to Beckwith, the doctrines of karma and rebirth are relatively late additions to the original teachings of Gautama Buddha. They are known today from fundamental Buddhist texts of revered antiquity, e.g., the Pali Canon. But, as Beckwith asserts, those texts have come down to us in versions that were canonized hundreds of years after Gautama’s life-time; some portions of them may contain older material but, on the whole, they are unreliable as testimonies to the genuine teaching of the historical Buddha. Beckwith insists that only the oldest available sources could offer correct information on early Buddhism. These are primarily Greek texts with notices on Pyrrho’s teaching and life (mainly those preserved by Diogenes and Eusebius) and Megasthenes’report, quoted in Strabo’s Geography, on the activities of the Śramaṇas and other sects in northern India.5 The major inscriptions of King Devānāṃpriya Priyadarśi6 also belong here but mirror a more popular variety of the doctrine than Pyrrhonism. Beckwith also declares Taoism, just as Pyrrhonism, to be an off-spring of early Buddhism, suggesting (pp. 117–120) that the name of its alleged founder, (Lao) Tan (also called Laotzu) is a Chinese transformation of Gautama’s name. If so, pristine Taoist texts might contain genuine information about the variety of early Buddhism that Pyrrho encountered. If this argument is correct, the Aristocles passage, preserved by a fourth-century AD Christian writer, would paradoxically become a more reliable witness of the teachings of early Buddhism than the Pali Canon and other ancient exponents of the Enlightened One’s doctrines that have been venerated by the Buddhists themselves through the centuries.

Pyrrho’s acquaintance with Buddhism took place in the region of Gandhāra, which Beckwith claims to be the approximate birthplace of Buddhism, rather than the Ganges valley, as is generally assumed. Buddhism’s origin thus becomes Central Asia rather than India proper and, ethnically speaking, Gautama would be of Central Asian descent. Beckwith interprets Gautama’s honorific epithet Śākamuni as ‘the Scythian Sage’ (Śāka = Scythian) and, in the chapter ‘Prologue: Scythian Philosophy’, classifies him as one of “two great Scythian philosophers”. The other one is the half-mythical Anacharsis who, according to Herodotus and other Greek authorities, visited Greece in the early sixth century and made a lasting impression on the Greeks with his wisdom and astute remarks.

In addition to this the geographical setting, Beckwith also prefers a chronology of Indian philosophical and religious history that is radically different from current opinion. He describes the emergence of Buddhism as a reaction against early Iranian Zoroastrianism, which became known in Gandhāra when the Persians under Darius I conquered the region about 520 BC. Brahmanism and Jainism had, at that stage, nothing to do with the development of Buddhism. On the contrary, Buddhism is the oldest of all philosophical systems originating in India. It antedates and has influenced both Jainism and Brahmanism; textual sources that claim an early date of origin for these philosophies are late and unreliable.

The history of Pyrrhonism/Buddhism in the modern era is discussed briefly in a chapter on David Hume and his relationship to these philosophies, as it appears from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding of 1772. Beckwith describes Hume’s acquaintance with ancient scepticism as indirect and superficial. A large and thought-provoking portion of the chapter consists of Beckwith’s attempt to answer a question like Burnyeat’s “Can the sceptic live his scepticism?”7

Beckwith’s book is rich in content, and a short review cannot do it full justice. Many of the conclusions are controversial, and they are not all likely to endure a detailed scrutiny by the academic community. However, the book should not be discarded off-hand; it certainly deserves attentive reading. Beckwith argues in depth for his theses, with much learning and dexterity. He has a remarkably wide linguistic competence, which enables him to analyse and evaluate texts and lexical items in both Greek and a considerable number of Asian languages; the texts are quoted in the original scripts or in careful transliterations. His ambition always to consult the earliest available textual sources is highly recommendable. The rich bibliography and the copious footnotes testify to his familiarity with modern scholarly literature. This is a book that a serious student of Hellenistic or ancient Indian philosophy cannot afford to ignore.


1.   Pyrrho himself wrote nothing. His teachings were presented to a wider public by his follower Timo of Phlius in the dialogue Pytho. Aristocles of Messene (first century AD) quoted from it in his Peri philosophias; a passage on Pyrrho from that work has been preserved–probably verbatim, according to Beckwith–by Eusebius (Praeparatio evangelica 14.18.3–4).
2.   “Things” (πράγματα), as Beckwith points out, refers not only to physical entities but also to “human affairs, matters, business, troubles”, etc.
3.   ‘Pyrrho’s Logic’, Elenchos 32:2, 2011, pp. 287–327.
4.   Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, Studies in comparative philosophy and religion. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008 (cf. BMCR 2009.05.44).
5.   Megasthenes was the ambassador of King Seleucus I to King Chandragupta/Σανδράκοττος of the Maurya Kingdom in northern India in the years around 300 BC. His report is fragmentarily known from Strabo, Pliny the Elder and Arrian.
6.   The “major” inscriptions are the first-person edicts of Devānāṃpriya Priyadarśi, whose reign Beckwith dates c. 272–261 BC. From these Beckwith distinguishes the “minor” inscriptions, many of which mention a King Devānāṃpriya Aśoka who is not to be identified with Priyadarśi but reigned at a later, not precisely definable date and in some other part of the country. See further Beckwith’s Appendix C (pp. 226–250).
7.   Myles F. Burnyeat’s article by this title first appeared in the collective volume Doubt and Dogmatism (Cambridge 1979, pp. 20–53); reprinted in Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy (Vol. I, Cambridge 2012; Cambridge Books Online).

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