Session 4 of Reading Plato comes to the Phaedo’s myth of the soul’s transmigration, where students are often astonished by the similarities with Buddhist doctrine. This raises the question of whether Platonism influenced Buddhism, or whether Plato and Buddhism share a common source.
This question has been raised many times down through the centuries and continues to be asked by modern scholars. Much of the interest centres around the ancient Gandharan civilisation of the northern Indus valley in modern day Pakistan. Gandhara was part of the great Persian Empire until Alexander’s conquest, when it came under Hellenistic influence in its art and culture. But then it turned to Buddhism.
The Hellenistic influence on Gandharan Buddhist art raises the question whether there was also a philosophical influence on the development of Buddhist doctrine. (There is also the question of influence the other way: of Buddhism on Hellenistic philosophy.)
What makes investigations of this question so exciting is that the most ancient surviving Buddhist texts come from this region, written on scrolls of birch bark preserved in jars by the dry desert climate. In recent years new scrolls have appeared amid speculation that some were found hidden in the monuments of Buddhism destroyed by Islamic State, sold and then smuggled out of Pakistan. (For more on these discoveries, listen to this ABC RN podcast.)
As these scrolls are carefully unravelled and translated, early versions of sutras and other texts reveal evidence of Buddhism soon after its transition from an exclusively oral tradition. As yet, no direct textual evidence of transmission from Greek philosophy into Buddhism has been discovered.