Colombo Telegraph

Greek Toga & Buddhist Robe – Links & Cultural Significance

By Lionel Bopage

Dr Lionel Bopage

Greek invasion of India

In the 4th century BC, the Greek invasion of India led by Alexander the Great opened a new dimension to the trade, commercial and cultural links in the Indian sub-continent.[1] He was said to be “unusually open to foreign religious influences”, “embraced many non-Greek deities and practices” and promoted “cross-cultural integration aimed at preventing and pacifying ethnic tensions in his settlements.”[2] Long before his arrival on India’s north-western border, there are references in early Indian literature calling the Greeks “Yavanas”.[3] This word appears in the Mahabaharata. For seventy-five years after Alexander the Great’s death, Greek immigrants poured into the East. The new Hellenistic culture spread as far east as India. Throughout the Hellenistic period, Greeks and Easterners became familiar with and adapted themselves to each other’s customs, religions, and ways of life.

Cultural synthesis

In India, the Pali word “Yona” and an equivalent word “Yavana” were used to designate Greek speaking people. This is thought to be a transliteration of the Greek word for “Ionians”, the first Greeks probably known to be in the East. For example, “Alexandria” is referred to as “the city of the Yonas” in the Mahavamsa, Chapter 29 (4th century CE). The debatable concept of Hellenization[4] denotes the spread of Greek language, culture, and population into the former Persian Empire after the conquest by Alexander. When the rich Greek (Hellenic) culture met with the rich Indian culture, the occurrence of a cultural synthesis would have been obvious.

The presence of Indo-Greek kings has been known through analysis of coins and study of ancient inscriptions. The Indo-Greek Kingdoms in the northern frontiers of India were partly Greek, ruled consecutively by more than thirty kings and would have covered various parts of the Indian Subcontinent.[5] Indo-Greeks would have been involved with many local faiths such as Hinduism and Zoroastrianism and particularly with Buddhism. The Hellenic cultural influence on early Buddhist culture is well known, apparently influencing the first images of the Buddha. The early representation of the Buddha wearing robes in the Hellenistic style is said to have originated in India. So, it is reasonable to assume that under Greco Buddhism, the Greek toga would have influenced the monks’ dress code.

The Greek conquest of parts of India led Maurya King Chandraguptha to fight back and liberate the parts of India Greeks had captured. Yet, he married the daughter of a Greek King. King Ashoka was the third successor of the Maurya dynasty. In fact, King Ashoka had referred to five Greek kingdoms where Buddhist missionary activities had been undertaken. As illustrated by the Greek King Menander, known also as Milinda, who converted to Buddhism and became a great benefactor of the religion.[6]

Imperial action and activities of Buddhist monks spread Buddhism beyond the Indian sub-continent, into areas where the Greeks were “politically, culturally and economically prominent”. Buddhists had defended their religious views while in contact with other faiths. The Yonas had laid the foundations for “a cultural market” that not only reflected a fusion of cultures, but a celebration of their newly acquired faith. King Asoka is said to have sent “dhamma missionaries” to “the Greek rulers in Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Cyrene and Epirus”.[7]

Images of the Buddha

The Buddha passed away at the age of eighty, sometime between the years 486 and 473 BCE. He would not have intended to set up a new religion, but his followers raised him to divinity while conducting rituals and worshipping symbols he himself rejected in principle. In the third century BCE, King Ashoka uncovered his ashes and dispersed them, creating stupas all over India. All the Buddhist sculpture of that period do not show the image of Buddha, but was depicted in the form of an emblem such as a Dharma Chakra (Wheel of the Dharma)[8], a throne, a pair of footprints or a Bo (or bodhi or papal) tree.

For example, the wheel symbol on some of King Menander’s coins is thought to be depictive of Buddhism. The Coin of Menander II (90–85 BCE) had “King Menander, follower of the Dharma” in Kharoshthi script. In addition, some rare Buddhist coins (only six are known) show the great Kushan King Kanishka (128–151 CE) on the obverse and the standing Buddha on the reverse with the words “Boddo” in Greek script, holding the left corner of his cloak in his hand and forming the Abhaya Mudra[9].

The first Hellenistic Buddha statues may be representative of the Greek king Demetrius, who is said to have been the prototype for the image of the Buddha. The earliest statues portrayed the Buddha in a style reminiscent of a king. In Gandharan art, Demetrius and images of the Buddha are shown to share the Greek god Herakles, as the symbol of Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha. The figure of the Buddha was incorporated within architectural designs and the Buddha’s life was typically depicted in a Greek architectural and cultural environment.

Cultural confluence

The cultural synthesis, particularly, in the sphere of philosophy had been more marked during this period. For example, the Indian concepts of ‘Karma’ and ‘Rebirth’ are said to have influenced the world outlooks of Plato and Pythagoras and the practice of monasticism had influenced the philosophy and lifestyle of the monks in Greece. Yet, the impact of the Indo-Greeks on Indian thought and religion is relatively unknown. Mahāyāna Buddhism is believed to have started around the first century BC in the North-western Indian subcontinent, during a period when Indo-Greek influence was flourishing.

Pyrrho of Elis, a Greek philosopher credited as being the first Greek sceptic philosopher with his mentor Anaxarchus had been in the entourage of King Alexander. Pyrrho’s ethical doctrines had resonated with the Buddha’s concept of Anathama, of suspecting beliefs and dogmas concerning the self “as a source of true knowledge”. Both Pyrrho and Buddhists employed tetralemma (‘catuskoti’ in Sanskrit), a concept of four-fold negation, to the effect that any logical proposition has the four possibilities of affirmation (it is), negation (it is not), both (it is and is not) and neither it neither is nor is not).[10]

Hinduism and Persian and Greco-Roman theologies that filtered into India from the northwest also appear to have influenced Mahayana Buddhism. Certain Mahayana concepts such as reality and knowledge seem to relate to Greek philosophical schools of thought.[11] Mahayana Buddhism itself is said to have originated in the Greco-Buddhist communities of India. Indian texts refer to King Menander building a stupa in Pataliputra. These stupas had added Hellenistic architectural decorations of that period. Several Indo-Greek kings have apparently used the title “Dharmikasa”, meaning “Follower of the Dharma” in the Kharoshthi script[12].

Schools of Art – Gandhara and Mathurā

The Hellenic impact on Indian art and architecture, philosophy, coinage, drama and science was significant. Gandhara and Mathurā flourished under the Kushan kings. Both are famous as centres of production for images of the Buddha. The Gandhara Schools of art and sculpture (also known as the Greco Buddhist School of Art in Afghanistan) was based in the lower Kabul Valley and the upper Indus around Peshawar in Pakistan. Yet, the Buddha image is believed to have originated at Mathurā, south of Delhi. The influence of the Gandhara School of Art later spread also over to Thakshila and Sārnath.

Indian artists started building Buddhist images, employing Greek techniques but with an Indian spirit and style. One of the main characteristics of this style of art was the anthropomorphic[13] representation of Buddha and Bodhisattvas especially in its sculptural manifestations. In both Gandhara and Mathurā, human images of the Buddha began to appear at about the same time, but can be distinguished from one another. The Gandharan images are “very clearly Greco-Roman in inspiration with the Buddha wearing wavy locks tucked up into a chignon and heavier toga-like robes”. The Mathura images “closely resemble some of the older Indian male fertility gods and have shorter, curlier hair and lighter, more translucent robes”[14].

In the 1830s CE coins of the post-Ashoka period were discovered and in 1838 CE, the Kharosthi script was deciphered. Chinese records provided locations and site plans of Buddhists shrines. The discovery of coins and these records provided necessary clues to piece together the history of Gandhara. In 1848 CE Gandhara sculptures were found in north of Peshawar and the site of Taxila was identified in the 1860s CE. Since then, a large number of Buddhist statues have been discovered in the Peshawar valley.

The Buddhist robe

Essentially Buddhist monks did not have any possessions. The robe they had was easy to clean and mend and usable as a blanket, a groundsheet, a seat-spread, a head-cover or even a windbreak.[15] The robe also symbolised their renunciation of “Samsara”[16] and moral discipline. I recollect learning in the Daham Pasala[17], that during the time of the Buddha, of the practice of gathering rags from charnel grounds to sew into robes. The monks removed, washed and wore them as robes. With natural plant dyes (called ‘kahata’[18]) being used to treat the clothing, the colour varied from grey, brown to yellow.

The Buddhist robe called “cheevaraya” (cīvara) had no particular design. Reflecting the path of detachment, the robe symbolised modesty, humility, simplicity and non-elaboration. The best robe material was that which had no value to others. The precepts urged monks to wear robes taken from rubbish dumps. The original robe made of discarded clothing was simply stitched together to form three rectangular pieces that could be wrapped around the body and draped over the shoulder to prevent it from becoming undone. The “ticīvara” or ‘triple robe’[19] is the code found in Theravada Buddhism, of which the way of wearing is quite similar to the way the mantle or wrap ancient Greeks had worn, as can be seen in the Greco Buddhist art of Gandhāra.

A symbol of renunciation

The robe, the shaved head and the bowl denoted renunciation of the world and its objects. But then, this simplicity of clothing would have been the reason why at that time, it appeared all over the world, not only in Greece and Asia, but also in ancient Norse and Celtic cultures, throughout the Pacific Islands, and even in South America. The reason for draping the robe over the left shoulder is thought to be due to with the fact that most humans are right handed. When dressing one self, one uses the right hand as it is natural to roll it across the body over the left shoulder.

Among the Abrahamic religions and the ancient Greek traditions dress simplicity had been prevalent. Catholic priests traditionally wore a cassock usually with a clerical collar. The Jewish Orthodox community wore black garments to show a lack of concern for colour and fashion. Dress simplicity was a feature of ancient Hinduism, Jainism and the naga religious. Some of them even went to the extreme of remaining nude. The Buddhist monastic codes[20] allowed using three rectangular pieces of cloth as religious robes. These would have resembled the clothing of the commoners. Hence, colours and materials would have been used to distinguish those who had discarded worldly possessions to embark upon the path to the enlightenment – the Nibbana[21].

Modern society and the Buddhist robe

To digress: A monk’s appearance projects the view that s/he has chosen to remove choices from their lives, adhering to the policy of “no preferences”. Yet, would Buddhism as envisaged by its founders thrive in our modern consumer obsessed society, if monks kept the ancient traditions of using former burial cloths as their robes? On the one hand, if the importance of Buddhism comes down to the kind of clothing monks wear, then something appears to be wrong with its contemporary application. In a neo-liberal individualist and consumerist society, laypeople’s attitudes may have influenced the behaviour of Buddhist monks.[22] Commitment to simplicity and detachment then becomes problematic when faced with the expectations of the mores of society.

If the Buddha was among the living today, instead of teaching the disciples to dress as renunciates, would he have risked offending others by not adopting royal dress codes. According to this school of thought the clothes monks wear are not for themselves, but for their disciples and laymen. At the same time, royal dress codes could become a too expensive habit, which has become in too many instances a status symbol. This can be a distraction as it emphasises an attachment to the material world, rather than renunciation. Does not this also reflect upon the wearers religious understanding and priorities?[23]

The robes, bowl and other few items a monk uses were intended to represent the “Middle Path”[24] and symbolise the practice of simplicity in life. With splits occurring due to diverse interpretations of the Dhamma, many changes have taken place.[25] With increasing elaboration of the Buddhist robe, many people in Sri Lanka that I know, find it difficult to accommodate buying “Ata-Pirikara” as offerings to monks on religious occasions. In modern robes, for example, the patched panels of robes are bordered with a dark material, forming a robe of striking contrasts. The colder climate and dress customs in the East Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea would have led to the use of tailored garments being worn beneath the robe, ultimately paving the way for a single kimono-like garment.

Robes as Symbols of power

Nevertheless, the robe became a symbol of power; subsequently many monks became attached to many material possessions despite Buddha’s teaching against it. Nowadays, the robe symbolises wealth, power and strength. The colours of the robe vary by country, region, sect, position and occasion, they have become symbols to control human culture. Monks of different sects wear clothes of a particular colour, quality and design; in a particular fashion. For example, there is movement from white to saffron in Thailand and from black to deep purple in Japan.

As the above discussion indicates, there are many similarities found between the Roman or Greek “toga” and the Buddhist robe. However, there is no definite evidence to substantiate the statement that the “Ancient Greek Robe has influenced the Robes worn by Buddhist Monks today”. The process of evolution of the Buddhist robe from a humble three piece clothe to the more modern dress codes such as the use of suits by certain Tibetan lamas in the US[26] or wearing robes only during “work hours” in the temple by Mongolian nuns[27], indicates that many factors would have contributed to this evolution. During the time of the Indo-Greek kings and in the process of “Hellenisation” of the Indian culture, it would be reasonable to believe that the ancient Roman or Greek “toga” would have influenced the dress code of Buddhist monks during the ancient times.

Would one be able to find a response to the query whether the Greek toga has influenced the Buddhist robe, based on tetralemma: the concept of four-fold negation?


[1] Bondada, G 2015, The Role of Monetary Networks in the Trade between India and the Roman Empire, In Südasien-Chronik/South Asia Chronicle, Michael M 2015, 5, 402

[2] Halkias G 2014, When the Greeks Converted the Buddha: Asymmetrical Transfers of Knowledge in Indo-Greek Cultures, In Wick P and Rabens V 2014, Religions and Trade: Religious Formation, Transformation and Cross-Cultural Exchange between East and West, 73-74, Brill.

[3] Andrade N J 2017, Drops of Greek in a Multilingual Sea: The Egyptian Network and its Residential Presences in the Indian Ocean, In The Journal of Hellenic Studies Cairns D, 2017

[4] Hysi, L 2014, The Hellenic Axel: The Greek Hellenization of Central Asia and its Impact of the Development of Buddhism, University of Central Florida, 55

[5] Tyagi M 2017, A Commercial Dialogue between North India and Sri Lanka in Ancient Period, In Innovation The Research Concept, October 2017, 2(9), 133-135.

[6] Thomas G & Kumari N 2010, Buddhism and Social Work, In Thomas G 2010, Origin and Development of Social Work in India, Indira Gandhi Open University, New Delhi, 227

[7] Halkias G 2014, When the Greeks Converted the Buddha: Asymmetrical Transfers of Knowledge in Indo-Greek Cultures, In Wick P and Rabens V 2014, Religions and Trade: Religious Formation, Transformation and Cross-Cultural Exchange between East and West, 90, Brill

[8] The wheel symbolises the endless cycle of samsara, or rebirth and the eight spokes the Noble Eightfold Path set out in the Buddha’s teachings.

[9] The gesture of reassurance.

[10] Halkias G 2014, Ibid, 75.

[11] Zhang J 2012, Buddhist Diplomacy: History and Status Quo, In CPD Perspectives on Public Diplomacy 2012, 7, 15, Figueroa Press, Los Angeles

[12] An ancient script used in ancient Gandhara and ancient India (primarily modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) to write the Gandhari Prakrit and Sanskrit.

[13] Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behaviour to inanimate entities.

[14] Sanujit 2011, Cultural links between India & the Greco-Roman world, In Ancient History Encyclopedia, Accessible at: https://www.ancient.eu/article/208/cultural-links-between-india–the-greco-roman-worl/

[15] Buddha Dharma Education Association & BuddhaNet 2008, The Monastic Robes, Accessible at: https://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/robe_txt.htm

[16] The endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth

[17] A school of Learning Buddhism at Jinendraramaya in Weligama, Sri Lanka

[18] Literally meaning impure referring to a reddish or brownish-yellow saffron or ocher colour.

[19] Griswold A B 1960, Five Chieng Sèn Bronzes: Of the Eighteenth Century, In Arts Asiatiques 7(1), 15, École française d’Extrême-Orient.

[20] Graumans R 2016, Stories, Symbols and Selves: Female Conversion Experiences in Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist Monasticism, Doctoral Thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 115.

[21] Release from the cycle of rebirth and the extinction of all desires and aversions with the attainment of enlightenment.

[22] Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive 2005, Sangha Dress Code, Accessible at: https://www.lamayeshe.com/advice/sangha-dress-code

[23] Kirichenko A 2012, Atula Hsayadaw Shin Yasa: A Critical Biography of an Eighteenth-Century Burmese Monk, 3-4. See the reference to the robe wearing controversy of Atula in the “one shoulder” vs. the “two shoulder” debate, and the identity markers in the nineteenth century between the Burmese Sulagandi and Dwaya monastic groups and the Rāmañña Nikāya in Sri Lanka.

[24] The eightfold path of Buddhism: a golden mean between self-indulgence and self-mortification.

[25] Zhang J 2012, Ibid, 8.

[26] Midal F 2004, Chogyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision, 308-309, Shambala, USA

[27] Havnevik H et al 2017, Buddhist Modernities: Re-inventing Tradition in the Globalizing Modern World, 123-127

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