Menander I Soter was the best known among the Indo-Greek kings. He started out as a classic ‘Hellenistic Tyrant’ who cemented Greek rule in Punjab and extended his kingdom from Kabul in the Northwest all the way to Bihar in the southeast. Later in his life, Menander developed an interest in Buddhism and after receiving teachings from the monk Nagasena he finally became a Buddhist himself. Menander was a man who represented the ultimate admixture of East and West and is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of the South Asian Subcontinent.
The Indo-Greek story finds its roots in the older Bactrian Greek kingdom in what is now Northern Afghanistan. Bactria had a colony of Ionian Greeks settled there from the days of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Persians had exiled a group of Greeks from Ionia, the present-day Aegean coast of Turkey, to Bactria – and here they formed the root of Hellenic civilization in southern Central Asia. Following the conquests of Alexander, even more Greeks came to settle in Bactria. The fertile soil and agreeable climate of the region, with warm, dry summers and cold wet winters, seemed to suit the Greeks and their culture flourished with vineyards, olive groves and the worship of the Olympian gods becoming established in this little Greece thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean. Following the Wars of the Diadochi Bactria became part of the empire of Seleucus Nicator, based in Mesopotamia. The Bactrian Greeks soon threw off the Seleucid yoke and founded their own kingdom. This kingdom spread south of the Hindu Kush and encompassed the Kabul Valley and eventually the rest of Gandhara. The Bactrian Greek king Demetrius crossed the Indus sometime after 200 BCE and conquered Punjab from the remnants of the great Maurya Empire. Initially this kingdom continued to be ruled from Bactria but eventually the lands south of the Hindu Kush watershed broke off and became the Indo-Greek kingdom. The three major power centers of the Indo-Greeks were Bagram, near Kabul, Sirkap in Taxila and Sagala, modern-day Sialkot. A probable of relative of Demetrius soon came to power in Sagala: Menander, known in Sanskrit as Menadra and Milinda in Pali.
Menander’s early story is uncertain. He was probably born in the Kabul Valley and rose up the ranks of the Indo-Greek army before taking the throne at Sagala. It is known that he was alive when Demetrius conquered the Punjab but he must have been very young at the time – as all of his images that appear on the many coins he minted, for which he is particularly known, show a young man. It suggests that he took the throne quite early in his life. Menander led many military campaigns far beyond Punjab. He established an Indo-Greek presence in Mathura and from there conquered the Western Gangetic plains. This brought him into conflict with the powerful Shunga Dynasty based in Bengal. Menander was even said to have sacked the Shunga capital, the ancient Magadhan city of Pataliputra.
Following the conquests of Alexander, even more Greeks came to settle in Bactria. The fertile soil and agreeable climate of the region, with warm, dry summers and cold wet winters, seemed to suit the Greeks and their culture flourished with vineyards, olive groves and the worship of the Olympian gods becoming established in this little Greece thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean
By all accounts Menander was a great general, but his military exploits are not what he is remembered for. Menander’s coins have been found far and wide, all the way from Britain to South India. This shows the wealth of the Indo-Greek kingdom and it also illustrates that a proto-Silk Road was already functioning at that time, long before it flourished under the subsequent Kushans. Menander’s coins are wholly Greek in style, bearing images of Menander along with those of the goddess Athena with engravings in Greek and also Kharoshti, the ancient Aramaic inspired script of Gandhara. Menander’s most tangible legacy though lies in the field of religion, the Milindapanha.
The Bactrian Greeks were staunchly Greek in every aspect. Their culture, religion and statecraft were all imports from their homeland on the Aegean. There is evidence that they borrowed from the ancient Iranic culture that existed in Bactria long before them but in essence they remained wholly Greek. Thus it is intriguing that Menander became interested in Buddhism.
Buddhism was at that point a widespread and culturally dominant religion through out South Asia, following its promotion by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. Interestingly Menander’s rivals to the East, the Shungas, were particularly anti-Buddhist, conducting purges against the Buddhist community and promoting the much older Vedic and Brahmanist teachings which we now know as Hinduism. Perhaps it is this military conflict which first inspired Menander to learn about Buddhism?
The Buddhist sage Nagasena of Kashmir was the one who ultimately led Menander to become a Buddhist. The Milindapanha is a Buddhist treatise based on the conversations of Menander and Nagasena. Nagasena mentions how eloquent and well educated Menander was and that his mastery of Sanskrit, Indian philosophy and the Vedas was exemplary. This shows that Menander was not just a traditional Greek but that he had fully imbibed Indic culture long before his conversion to Buddhism.
In the Milindapanha it is written that following his conversations with Nagasena, Menander saw the light of the Buddha’s teachings and became a Buddhist. Two archaeological remains from the rule of Menander which have been found in or are located in Pakistan are also Buddhist in nature. These include the Shinkot Reliquary, a ritualistic container bearing Menander’s name that housed Buddhist relics, which was found in Bajaur and the Butkara Stupa in Swat. The Butkara Stupa was said to have been originally built by the Emepror Ashoka himself but it was later renovated and enlarged by Menander. Thus despite his classically Hellenic origins, Menander embraced the culture of the people he conquered so wholly that he became one of them.
It is interesting to note that no statues of the Buddha or even etchings or engravings of his image are to be found in the Indo-Greek era. The Indo-Greeks still followed the ancient Buddhist principle of not showing physical representations of the Buddha. The beautiful Gandharan icons of the Buddha only began to be made later, in the Kushan era and, oddly, the Classical influences in the Gandharan style seem to have been borrowed from the Romans, not the Greeks!
Menander ruled for several decades and how his rule ended is uncertain. According to the Milindapanha he abdicated the throne and renounced worldly life after becoming a Buddhist but other sources say he died as a king and was succeeded by his minor son. In Menander and the Indo-Greeks we see how conquerors from another continent and an entirely different civilization became infatuated with the land they conquered and ended up becoming part of it. Menander may have been forgotten in what is now Pakistan but the Milindapanha is still a popular item of Theravada Buddhist discourse. Television programs on the treatise are aired in Sri Lanka and Thailand to the present day.
A Greek king who ruled what is now Pakistan and became a Buddhist saint: the ultimate legacy of Menander is that of a foreign invader who ultimately embraced the culture and religion of his subjects and became a legendary figure!