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The Influence of Greek on Indian Art[1]


Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter, 1974). © World Wisdom, Inc.

WHEN, in the study of Sinhalese decorative art, I first met with certain peculiar types of ornament, forcibly recalling early Mediterranean forms, I assumed the common view as to the extent, permanence and importance of the influence of Greek on Indian Art, and endeavoured to explain the presence of these decorative forms in Ceylon on those lines[2]. At that time I accepted such statements as those of Grünwedel[3] that the ideal type of Buddha was created for India by foreigners. I also assumed that decorative forms such as the continuous branch, palmette, honeysuckle, etc., being known from the Mediterranean area long before their earliest known occurrence in India, must have originated where they are first found, and travelled thence to India; accepting, for example, Riegl’s statement that neither intermittirende nor fortplanzende Wellenranke (‘interrupted’ and ‘continuous branch’) borders were known in the East in pre-Hellenic times.[4] I have since seen reason to doubt these somewhat simple solutions of the difficulties, and have come to believe that the influence of Greek on Indian Art, however extensive at a certain period, was ultimately neither very profound nor very important. It is the concentration of attention upon the effeminate and artistically unimportant work of the Gandhāra school that has given undue prominence to the Greek influence.[5] It must be admitted also that a certain prejudice has led European investigators to think naturally of Classic Greece as the source of all art, and to suppose that the influence of Classic Art must have been as permanently important in the East as in the West. At the same time, it is to be remembered that it is not generally realised by Western scholars, who are not always artists, that Eastern Art, whether Indian or Chinese, has a value and significance not less than that of the Western Art of any time. The main difficulty so far seems to have been that Indian Art has been studied only by archaeologists. It is not archaeologists, but artists, or at any rate students of art rather than of archaeology, who are best qualified to judge of the significance of works of art considered as art, and to unravel the influences apparent in them. No artist, familiar with the true genius of Indian art, could suppose that the work of the Gandhāra school was the real foundation of Indian figure sculpture, or that Indian art could have been founded on such a decadent Graeco-Roman basis.

So far from foreigners having given to India the ideal type of Buddha, the Gandhāra sculptures should perhaps be regarded as the work of late Graeco-Roman craftsmen striving in vain to interpret Indian ideals. The sculptures themselves show how little of value in art the Western world had at this time to offer to the East. History repeats itself: the result of foreign influence on Indian art during the first few centuries of the Christian era, was not, perhaps, of any more value than the influence of Western art on India at the present day.

The zenith of Greek art was in the fifth century B C., if not earlier, while the zenith of Indian art was certainly later than the third century A.D. The sequence of cause and effect would be hard to trace; it was not of the decadence of the one that the achievement of the other was born.

The question, however, depends essentially upon religious and philosophical considerations. The philosophies of Greek and Indian Art are poles apart. Putting aside a few rare and beautiful fragments of archaic art, the Greek representations of the gods belong entirely to the Olympian aspect of Greek religion;[6] Greek art, as has been said, has in it no touch of mysticism. The gods are but grand and beautiful men; sometimes, as in the case of many Apollos, it is uncertain even whether the representation is of a god or of an athlete. Indian art is essentially transcendental.[7] Indian art is concerned, not with the representation of perfect men, but with the intimation of Divinity. Its greatest manifestations have, though perhaps not always so conspicuously as in Egyptian art, that sense of ‘Being beyond Appearance’ which we miss in the Greek representations of beautiful Olympians. Without saying that this or the other aim of art is the greatest, it is obvious to those acquainted with both that the genius of Greek, and the genius of Indian, art are so different that it is difficult, and even impossible, to imagine a dependence of the one upon the other. Beside the recognition of this fact, the question of just how far Classic influence can be traced in the outward detail of Indian art becomes of little moment.

The transcendentalism which is the essential character of true Indian art, is not of late classic origin. That is not, of course, to say that Classic influence was non-existent, but that its limits have not been defined, and that its importance has been over-rated. It would be idle to deny that the Gandhāra and the Amarāvati sculptures exhibit the results of the strongest classical influence. The Greek influence at Sānchi Barāhat, and Mahābodhi is much less evident. It is, however, true to say that the early schools are compounded of Assyrian, Persian, Hellenistic and Indian elements. The point is not that classic influence was absent, but that it was itself decadent, and at best un-Indian, and that nearly all that is good in later Indian art is there in spite of it. Of course, if it be said, as Mr. Vincent Smith says,[8] that “After A.D. 300 Indian sculpture properly so-called hardly deserves to be reckoned as art,” the whole question is begged But no artist familiar with the Indian art of all periods would for a moment accept such a statement; the sculpture dealt with by Mr. Havell,[9] for instance, is all of a much later date.[10] It may rather be doubted whether any of the most beautiful or important Indian sculpture can be certainly assigned to a date earlier than 300 A.D. It would be truer to say that not until the direct effects of the foreign influence had been forgotten, could the truly Indian schools of sculpture have arisen.

The main outlines are thus quite clear. The more detailed aspects of the question may also be considered, without laying undue stress on minor points.

More than the merely negative evidence of the absence of surviving work in stone would be needed to convince an unprejudiced student that in India alone, the Aryans possessed their share of all Early Aryan culture, except the power and the will to shape a log or mould clay into the forms of human or divine beings.

The Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana contain frequent references to “storeyed towers, galleries of pictures, and castes of painters, not to speak of the golden statue of a heroine, and the magnificence of personal adornment”. “Indeed,” continues Okakura, “it is difficult to imagine that those centuries in which the wandering minstrels sang the ballads that were later to become the epics, were devoid of image worship, for descriptive literature, concerning the forms of the gods, means correlative attempts at plastic actualisation. This idea finds corroboration in the sculptures of Aśoka’s rails, where we find images of Indras and Devas worshipping the -tree. These things point to the early use of clay, paste, and other impermanent materials, as in ancient China.”[11]

Golden images, made by the ‘chief smith’ and the king, are mentioned in the Kusa Jātaka, in such a way as to suggest that such images were well known at the time of the composition of the story,[12] which in its present form has preserved the tradition of the third century B.C. We pass next to references to the construction of images in Buddha’s own time. The Kosala Bimba Varnanāva states that a gilt sandal-wood image of Buddha was erected with his consent, to compensate for the disappointment felt by those who came from afar to visit him, if they should find him absent.

It is also related in the Divyāvadāna that Bimbisāra, king of Magadha desired to have a representation of Buddha painted upon a cloth. Buddha let his shadow fall upon it, commanding that the outlines should be filled in with colour, and that the chief articles of the faith should be written on it. This slender evidence Grünwedel condemns, rightly enough, as unauthentic, but he still claims it as showing that there was no desire to create an ideal type.[13] It seems unlikely that a teacher such as the Buddha should have countenanced the construction of images of himself in his own lifetime; and he is represented at Barāhat and Sānchi by the feet or the wheel.

There are also literary references to images in post-Buddhist and pre-Gandhāra times. Thus the Mahāvamsa informs us that in the relic chamber of the Ruvanveli Dāgaba, King Dutta Gāmani (161-137 B.C.) placed a resplendent golden image of Buddha, in the attitude in which he achieved Buddhahood. The features and members of that image were represented in their several appropriate colours, in gloriously resplendent gems. Figures of the gods were also set in the relic chamber.

There is thus some literary evidence, tending to show that images were believed, in later times, to have been made long before the Gandhāra period.

It will be noticed that the literary references speak always of precious metals, or impermanent materials such as wood or cloth. Had they spoken of early stone images, the anachronism would be evident. This adherence to actual possibilities is a point in favour of the literary references.

A different line of argument may now be followed, based on observation of surviving methods, where impermanent materials are employed.

The absence of images from ancient sites, as Barāhat, is taken as proof of the non-existence of an early school of sculptors or imagers. This negative evidence is, however, insufficient to prove that images of impermanent materials or the precious metals were not made. Even at Anurādhapura we find no statues of Buddha associated with the great stūpas, the only figure sculpture being in low relief on stelœ as at Barāhat. But it does not certainly follow that wood, clay, or stone images were not worshipped in the neighbouring vihāras. Had wooden or clay images been worshipped in Aśoka’s day, we should have no trace left to show it, yet the negative evidence would be misleading. And even if, as is probable, images of Buddha himself were unknown until several centuries after his death, this would not in itself be a proof of the non-existence of images of any sort.

The use of impermanent materials is probably the true explanation of the difficulty. It can be specially illustrated by survivals in Ceylon. The Sāriputra states that images may be made from “gold, copper, clay, stone, wood, burnt clay[14] (brick) or lime”. And, in fact, we find that a majority of images in mediæval and modern vihāras are of brick, metal, or clay, very few of stone. Even when of stone they are always covered with plaster and painted, so that one cannot tell by inspection of what material the image is really made; only metal images are, as it were, naked. How thoroughly this idea was associated with images is suggested by the description of one of the 32 Maha purusha-lakshana or superior beauties or attributes of the Buddha: “His skin was soft and smooth, as an image polished by the tooth of a tiger.”[15] One does not polish stone images with tigers’ teeth; the comparison, moreover, has an air of antiquity; an early Chinese artist would have understood it. No doubt the early stone statues of Ceylon (Anurādhapura, Kalaveva, Polonnaruva) were also once under cover, plastered and painted. Contrast with their appearance that of stone sculpture intended to stand as it were naked out of doors, like the elaborately carved dvarpals at Anurādhapura; or of statues executed in marble (like that of ‘Duttha Gāmanī’ on the Ruvanveli Dāgaba platform), which certainly were not intended to be covered by plaster, but only to be painted; in both these cases the detail and finish of the work is very different and much finer.

There are other examples of the survival of the early use of impermanent materials. In the sixteenth century A.D., the Portuguese at Devundara in the Southern Province, “proceeded to destroy the idols (of the Vishnu dévāle) of which there were more than a thousand of diverse shapes, some of clay, some of wood, some of copper, and several of gilt”[16]. None of stone are mentioned; what should we know of the existence of those idols, had we not the Portuguese record to inform us?

The use of impermanent materials survives also in the most primitive form of image-making in Ceylon—the wax images of Riri yaka used in huniyan ceremonies; and in the mud images, sometimes with a wicker foundation, used in bali and yak ceremonies.

An instance of the use of precious metal and impermanent material combined is afforded by the gold-plated clay images from an old dāgaba near Kurunegala, now in the Colombo Museum.

Thus we are able to trace in Sinhalese art, as known to us, a survival of the Early Asiatic use of impermanent materials (wood clay, or brick), or of metal, but not stone, for making images; we trace it not only in the present use of those materials to construct entire images, but also in the fact that even stone images are covered with plaster and painted. Similar survivals, such as colossal mud images, floor diagrams, etc., can also be traced in India.

It becomes, therefore, unreasonable to say, as Grünwedel does,[17] that all Early Buddhist sculpture was colossal and in stone, and only in the Middle Ages became “a miniature manufacture in different materials—wood and clay in place of stone, and later in metal casts”. It would be much truer to say that just as wooden building preceded stone construction, so also the use of wood and brick and clay for figure sculpture must in general have preceded that of stone; and even in the case of images of Buddha, these materials must have been made use of from the beginning, and also, as at present, contemporaneously with the use of stone. The absence of stone statues is no more evidence of the absence of statues of wood or clay than the absence of stone buildings is evidence of the absence of buildings of wood or mud.

One interesting point of distinction between the technical methods of East and West is found in the Indian canons of proportion. The ‘face’, and not the ‘head’, is taken as the standard of measurement. The generally recognized standard for a human or divine figure is a height of nine ‘faces’ (equivalent to about 7 ⅓ ‘heads’ in European terminology). The whole artistic canon (Silpa Sāstra) of India appears to be independent of Western influence, both in its insistence upon the importance of meditation, in the manner of describing the details of the proportions, and in the technical methods of pointing (use of a horizontal framework with suspended plumb lines, as a pointing machine).

Certain conclusions drawn from the study of decorative art may also be referred to. With reference to the important ‘branch’ (‘Wellen-ranke’) motif, there is no reason to suppose it to be of Greek origin in Eastern art. It first appeared in Mediterranean art on certain Mykenean and Rhodian vases[18] in a very simple form still found in Sinhalese art and not far removed from the most primitive possible forms of the kind. In the East, it appears first at Barāhat,[19] in a fully developed and quite un-Greek form, in the earliest Indian art preserved in lasting materials. As its first appearance in Mediterranean art is in late pre-historic times, a period of admitted Oriental influence on Greek art, the discovery of this motif cannot be credited to classic Greece; it is much more likely to be of Eastern origin, like the lotus flowers and buds, palmettes, spirals, etc., and the mythical animals[20] which first appear in Mediterranean art at the same time, succeeding the geometrical forms which represented indigenous design. It is not likely that the ‘branch’ was invented about this time in more than one area. If it was invented in any one place, there is not sufficient evidence to show that this was not in Western Asia or Persia, whose art was the inheritor and continuator of Egyptian. There need, however, be no antagonism between the claims of East and West. The Mediterranean in early times was so much an integral part of the Oriental world that it is easier and truer to explain resemblances by common origin, than by borrowing.[21] The reason for the resemblances may be sought in the existence of a “common early Asiatic art, which has left its uttermost ripple marks alike on the shores of Hellas, the extreme west of Ireland, Etruria, Phoenicia, Egypt, India and China”.[22] The real home of this art may have been in Mesopotamia. It owed much to Egyptian influence. The sources of Mediterranean and Indian decorative art are thus due rather to a common origin, than borrowing in either direction. It might still be argued that Indian art had borrowed from or been influenced by the later developments of Greek decorative art. As regards Barāhat and the decorative art generally, there is no evidence of this, and certainly there was no need for it. For Greek decorative art, compared with Egyptian or Early Indian, is unsympathetic in its treatment of vegetable form, “a hopeless divergence from any rational type”, as Flinders Petrie calls it.[23] The Greeks invented nothing dynamic in decorative art; the fact that the particular forms of their decorative art are still imitated is by no means evidence to the contrary; what they did do was to take conventionalized vegetable forms, and make them lifeless, changing lotus flowers into ‘honeysuckle’ and ‘acanthus’, and lotus petals into ‘egg and dart’.

Their decorative art was so different in spirit from Indian, that it could have given little to it; they had very little regard for any aspect of nature except man himself; they had no conception of ideal art in relation to any but the human form; whereas the Indian love of nature, and sense of unity with it, led the Indian artist to cover surfaces with all sorts of idealized vegetable, as well as animal forms. The idealistic rendering of trees, at Barāhat, reached a perfection which the Greeks never at any time attained. Even the figure sculpture at Barāhat has little affinity with Greek sculpture of the same date, but only a kinship[24] with the archaic Greek sculpture of centuries earlier. And history shows at the same time how slight the intercourse with Greece at this time had been; Alexander’s influence on Indian culture must have been of the slightest : “within three years of his departure ... all trace of his rule had disappeared . . . India was not Hellenized. She continued to live her life of ‘splendid isolation’, and soon forgot the passing of the Macedonian storm”[25].

It is such reasons as the foregoing, and especially a consideration of the fundamental difference in the spirit and aims of Classic Greek and true Indian art, that make it necessary to reconsider the question of the extent and nature of Greek influence on Indian Art. The result of’ such a reconsideration will be to show that the concentration of attention upon the period of strongest and undoubted Classic influence has magnified out of all proportion the importance of the foreign elements. Early India did not, alone in all the world, lack all knowledge of the arts; the period of strong Graeco-Roman influence was not of great artistic importance; and it was not until this influence had largely, if not entirely, faded, that the really great achievement of Indian art was attained.


[1] Read at the Fifteenth International Oriental Congress, Copenhagen, August 1908. Fifty copies were printed at the Essex House Press, in the Norman Chapel at Broad Campden, Gloucestershire, and finished 2nd October 1908. Revised Edition.

[2] J.C.B.R.A.S., Vol. XIX, 1906, pp. 72-89.

[3] Buddhist Art in India, p. 68.

[4] Stilragen, p. 125. The ‘continuous branch’ first appears in India at Barāhat (Cunningham’s Bharhut Stupa, Pl. XL).

[5] Mr. Vincent Smith truly remarks : “The way in which Indian sculptors of the Kushān period adopted Graeco-Roman fashions and mixed them up with the familiar Persian forms may be compared with the modern practice of mingling European and Asiatic designs without much regard to congruity”; but the artistic result was of equally small value in both cases. Perhaps, too, the sculptors, or some of them, were not Indian, but themselves “Graeco-Romans”.

[6] J. E. Harrison, in the Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Ch. I, etc.

[7] A. K. Coomaraswamy, The Aims of Indian Art, Campden, 1908.

[8] Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1908, II, 121. How completely it is possible for the archaeologist to misunderstand the true significance of Indian art is indicated in the two sentences which immediately follow that quoted in the text—“The figures both of men and animals become stiff and formal, perception of the facts of nature almost disappears, and the idea of power is clumsily expressed by the multiplication of members. The many-headed, many-armed gods and goddesses whose images crowd the walls and roofs of mediaeval temples have no pretensions to beauty, and are frequently hideous and grotesque”. Such sentences show that the greatest archaeological knowledge is no guarantee of any comprehension of the true problem of Indian art—the study of the development of the Indian ideal, and its emancipation from the fetters of borrowed art-formulas little adapted to its expression. Until artists and archaeologists together have attacked this problem with the patient care hitherto devoted to the study of the Classic influence at an earlier period, it cannot be pretended that the study of truly Indian art has been seriously undertaken.

[9] E. B. Havell, Indian Painting and Sculpture, London 1908. This is the only important work on the subject of Indian art, considered as art, and not merely as material for the archaeologist.

[10] Mr. Havell would place the zenith of Indian art in the seventh or eighth centuries A.D.

[11] Okakura, Ideals of the East, 1904 ed., p. 75.

[12] The Jataka, Cambridge, V, 531.

[13] Grünwedel, Buddhist Art in India, p. 68.

[14] Cf. Tennent, Vol. 1, p. 477: A still more common expedient, which is employed to the present time, was to form the figures of Buddha with pieces of burnt clay joined together by cement, and coated with highly polished chunam, in order to prepare the surface for the painter”.

[15] Hardy, Manual of Buddhism, 1853, p. 368.

[16] De Couto, Dec. X, trans. by P. E. Pieris, Galle, 1905.

[17] Buddhist Art in India, p. 2.

[18] Riegl, Stilfragen, Figs. 50, 76.

[19] Cunningham, Bharhut Stupa, PI. XL.

[20] Grünwedel (p. 18) regards the mythical animals in Indian art as borrowings from Western Asia or Greece; and then proceeds to explain the success with which they were used, by supposing that indigenous types of the same character already existed. No doubt they did; and if so, what need to postulate a borrowing? The sphinxes, griffins, chimaras, and sirens, etc., in Greek art were as much Oriental in origin as the lotus buds and rosettes and palmettes.

[21] See Burrows, The Discoveries in Crete, 1st ed., 1907, pp. 134, 135, etc.

[22] Okakura, Ideals of the East, Introduction by Sister Nivedita.

[23] Egyptian Decorative Art, p. 72.

[24] Both as regards conceptions, and in respect of the manner of execution, viz., in low relief.

[25] Vincent Smith, Early History of India, 2nd ed., 1908, p. 110.