Philosophy:Similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism

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According to Edward Conze, Greek Skepticism (particularly that of Pyrrho) can be compared to Buddhist philosophy, especially the Indian Madhyamika school.[1] The Pyrrhonian Skeptics' goal of ataraxia (the state of being untroubled) is a soteriological goal similar to nirvana.

These similarities can be traced back to the origins of Pyrrhonism. Pyrrho, the founder of Pyrrhonism, spent about 18 months in Taxila as part of the court of Alexander the Great's conquest of the east where he studied Indian philosophy and presumably encountered Early Buddhism. Centuries later Pyrrhonism may have influenced the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka philosophy.

Mutual influences between Buddhism and Pyrrhonism

Buddhist influences on Pyrrho

Map of Alexander the Great's empire and the route he and Pyrrho took to India

Diogenes Laërtius' biography of Pyrrho[2] reports that Pyrrho traveled with Alexander the Great's army to India and based his philosophy on what he learned there:

...he even went as far as the Gymnosophists, in India, and the Magi. Owing to which circumstance, he seems to have taken a noble line in philosophy, introducing the doctrine of incomprehensibility, and of the necessity of suspending one's judgment....

The Pyrrhonists promote suspending judgment (epoché) about dogma (beliefs about non-evident matters) as the way to reach ataraxia. This is similar to the Buddha's refusal to answer certain metaphysical questions which he saw as non-conductive to the path of Buddhist practice and Nagarjuna's "relinquishing of all views (drsti)".

A summary of Pyrrho's philosophy was preserved by Eusebius in Praeparatio evangelica, quoting Aristocles, quoting the Pyrrhonist philosopher Timon, quoting his teacher, Pyrrho, in what is known as the "Aristocles passage."[3]

"Whoever wants to live well (eudaimonia) must consider these three questions: First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?" Pyrrho's answer is that "As for pragmata they are all adiaphora (undifferentiated by a logical differentia), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, not measurable), and anepikrita (unjudged, unfixed, undecidable). Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our doxai (views, theories, beliefs) tell us the truth or lie; so we certainly should not rely on them. Rather, we should be adoxastoi (without views), aklineis (uninclined toward this side or that), and akradantoi (unwavering in our refusal to choose), saying about every single one that it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.[4]

According to Christopher I. Beckwith's analysis of the Aristocles Passage, adiaphora (anatta), astathmēta (dukkha), and anepikrita (impermanence) are strikingly similar to the Buddhist three marks of existence,[5] indicating that Pyrrho's teaching is based on Buddhism. Beckwith contends that the 18 months Pyrrho spent in India was long enough to learn a foreign language, and that the key innovative tenets of Pyrrho's skepticism were only found in Indian philosophy at the time and not in Greece.[6]

Pyrrhonist influences on Nāgārjuna

Roman trade in the subcontinent according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei 1st century CE

Because of the high degree of similarity between Madhyamaka and Pyrrhonism, particularly the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus,[7] Thomas McEvilley[8] and Matthew Neale[9][10] suspect that Nāgārjuna was influenced by Greek Pyrrhonist texts imported into India.

According to legend, Nagarjuna said he was influenced by books inaccessible to other people. He was approached by Nagas (semi-divine serpents) in human form. They invited him to their kingdom to see some texts they thought would be of great interest to him. Nagarjuna studied those texts and brought them back to India.[11][12][13] According to Matthew Neale, "Nāgārjuna was a skillful diplomat concealing novel doctrines in acceptably Buddhist discourse... to conceal their doctrines’ derivation from foreign wisdom traditions."[14]

Greek influence on Indian thought

During this era trade between India and the Roman Empire flourished and Greek ideas became influential in India. Although there is no direct proof that Nāgārjuna had access to Greek Pyrrhonist texts, there's ample evidence of other Greek texts that were imported into India and that ideas from those texts were incorporated into Indian thought.

According to David Pingree, there is substantial similarity between ancient Indian and pre-Ptolomaic Greek astronomy.[15] Pingree believes that these similarities suggest a Greek origin for certain aspects of Indian astronomy. One of the direct proofs for this approach is the fact quoted that many Sanskrit words related to astronomy, astrology, and calendars are either direct phonetical borrowings from the Greek language, or translations, assuming complex ideas, like the names of the days of the week which presuppose a relation between those days, planets (including Sun and Moon) and gods.

Hellenistic astronomy profoundly influenced Indian astronomy.[16][17][18][19] For example, Hellenistic astronomy is known to have been practiced near India in the Greco-Bactrian city of Ai-Khanoum from the 3rd century BCE. Various sun-dials, including an equatorial sundial adjusted to the latitude of Ujjain have been found in archaeological excavations there.[20] Numerous interactions with the Mauryan Empire, and the later expansion of the Indo-Greeks into India suggest that transmission of Greek astronomical ideas to India occurred during this period.[21] The Greek concept of a spherical earth surrounded by the spheres of planets, further influenced the astronomers like Varahamihira and Brahmagupta.[22][23]

Several Greco-Roman astrological treatises are also known to have been exported to India during the first few centuries of our era. The Yavanajataka was a Sanskrit text of the 3rd century CE on Greek horoscopy and mathematical astronomy.[16] Rudradaman's capital at Ujjain "became the Greenwich of Indian astronomers and the Arin of the Arabic and Latin astronomical treatises; for it was he and his successors who encouraged the introduction of Greek horoscopy and astronomy into India."[24]

Later in the 6th century, the Romaka Siddhanta ("Doctrine of the Romans"), and the Paulisa Siddhanta ("Doctrine of Paul") were considered as two of the five main astrological treatises, which were compiled by Varāhamihira in his Pañca-siddhāntikā ("Five Treatises"), a compendium of Greek, Egyptian, Roman and Indian astronomy.[25] Varāhamihira goes on to state that "The Greeks, indeed, are foreigners, but with them this science (astronomy) is in a flourishing state."[19] Another Indian text, the Gargi-Samhita, also similarly compliments the Yavanas (Greeks) noting that the Yavanas though barbarians must be respected as seers for their introduction of astronomy in India.[19][22] For example, Numerous interactions with the Mauryan Empire, and the later expansion of the Indo-Greeks into India suggest that transmission of Greek astronomical ideas to India occurred during this period.[21]

Parallels between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism


Catuṣkoṭi is a logical argument that is important in the Buddhist logico-epistemological traditions, particularly those of the Madhyamaka school, and in the skeptical Greek philosophy of Pyrrhonism. McEvilley argues for mutual iteration and pervasion between Pyrrhonism and Madhyamika:

An extraordinary similarity, that has long been noticed, between Pyrrhonism and Mādhyamika is the formula known in connection with Buddhism as the fourfold negation (catuṣkoṭi) and which in Pyrrhonic form might be called the fourfold indeterminacy.[26]

In Pyrrhonism the fourfold indeterminacy is used as a maxim for practice. This maxim is also related to the shorter, "nothing more" (ou mallon) maxim used by Democritus.[27]

Two truths doctrine

McEvilley notes a correspondence between the Pyrrhonist and Madhyamaka views about truth:

Sextus says [28] that Pyrrhonism has two criteria regarding truth:
  1. [T]hat by which we judge reality and unreality, and
  2. [T]hat which we use as a guide in everyday life.

According to the first criterion, nothing is either true or false[.] [I]nductive statements based on direct observation of phenomena may be treated as either true or false for the purpose of making everyday practical decisions.

The distinction, as Conze[29] has noted, is equivalent to the Madhyamika distinction between "Absolute truth" (paramārthasatya), "the knowledge of the real as it is without any distortion,"[30] and "Truth so-called" (saṃvṛti satya), "truth as conventionally believed in common parlance.[30][31]

Thus in Pyrrhonism "absolute truth" corresponds to acatalepsy and "conventional truth" to phantasiai.


Buddhist philosopher Jan Westerhoff says "many of Nāgārjuna’s arguments concerning causation bear strong similarities to classical sceptical arguments as presented in the third book of Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism."[32]

Dependent origination

Aulus Gellius described the Pyrrhonist view which corresponds with the Buddhist view of dependent origination as follows:

...they say that appearances, which they call φαντασίαι, are produced from all objects, not according to the nature of the objects themselves, but according to the condition of mind or body of those to whom these appearances come. Therefore they call absolutely all things that affect men's sense τὰ πρός τι (i.e., "things relative to something else.") This expression means that there is nothing at all that is self-dependent or which has its own power and nature, but that absolutely all things have "reference to something else" and seem to be such as their is appearance is while they are seen, and such as they are formed by our senses, to whom they come, not by the things themselves, from which they have proceeded.[33]

Similarly, the ancient Anonymous Commentary on Plato's Theaetetus says, with a notable parallel with the terms from the Heart Sutra (i.e., "in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no discrimination, no conditioning, and no awareness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, no phenomenon. There is no eye-element and so on up to no mind-element and also up to no element of mental awareness."):

The Pyrrhonists say that everything is relative in a different sense, according to which nothing is in itself, but everything is viewed relative to other things. Neither colour nor shape nor sound nor taste nor smells nor textures nor any other object of perception has an intrinsic character....[34]

Suspension of belief

Suspension of belief (epoche) is the principle practice of Pyrrhonism. Nāgārjuna describes the corresponding practice in Buddhism as, “When one affirms being, there is a seizing of awful and vicious beliefs, which arise from desire and hatred, and from that contentions arise,”,[35] “By taking any standpoint whatsoever, one is attacked by the writhing snakes of the afflictions. But those whose mind has no standpoint are not caught.”[36]

Arguments against personhood

Sextus Empiricus argued that "person" could not be precisely defined. He debunks various definitions of “human” given by philosophical schools, by showing that they are speculative and disagree with each other, that they identify properties (many not even definitive anyway) rather than the property-holder, and that none of these definitions seem to include every human and exclude every non-human.[37] This debunking is similar to the Buddhist arguments against the existence of the “person.” The person is said to lack identifiable entity-hood. A large section of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā[38] is devoted to demonstrating that the experiencing person cannot be established as existing itself.

Good and evil do not exist by nature

Sextus Empiricus argued that by realizing that nothing is by nature more to be striven for than avoided or vice versa, but is instead contingent on occasion and circumstances, that one can live well-spirited and untroubled, not elated (by good things because they are good) and not depressed (by evils because they are evil), and thus accepting occurrences which take place of necessity, be liberated from the distress of beliefs, be they beliefs that something bad is at hand or something good.[39] Nāgārjuna made a nearly identical claim: “By seeing [their] lack of existence by nature, the thirst for conjoining with the good and the thirst for disjoining from difficulty are destroyed. Thus there is release.”[40]

See Also

  • Buddhism and the Roman world
  • Greco-Buddhism
  • Ancient Greece–Ancient India relations
  • Aṭṭhakavagga and Pārāyanavagga


  1. Conze, Edward. Buddhist Philosophy and Its European Parallels. Philosophy East and West 13, p.9-23, no.1, January 1963. University press of Hawaii.
  2. "The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers". Peithô's Web. Retrieved March 23, 2016. 
  3. Bett, Richard; Zalta, Edward (Winter 2014). Pyrrho. Retrieved February 19, 2018. 
  4. Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 9781400866328. 
  5. Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press. p. 28. ISBN 9781400866328. 
  6. Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press. p. 221. ISBN 9781400866328. 
  7. Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism 2008
  8. Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought 2002 pp499-505
  11. Lex Hixon Mother of the Buddhas: Meditations on the Prajnaparamita Sutra ISBN:0835606899 1993 p.xii
  12. Thomas E. Donaldson (2001). Iconography of the Buddhist Sculpture of Orissa: Text. Abhinav Publications. p. 276. ISBN 978-81-7017-406-6. 
  13. Tāranātha (Jo-nang-pa) (1990). Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 384. ISBN 978-81-208-0696-2. 
  14. Matthew Neale Madhyamaka and Pyrrhonism 2014 p. vi
  15. Pingree, David (1976). "The Recovery of early Greek Astronomy from India". Journal for the History of Astronomy (Science History Publications Ltd.) 7 (19): 109–123. doi:10.1177/002182867600700202. Bibcode1976JHA.....7..109P. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Highlights of Astronomy, Volume 11B: As presented at the XXIIIrd General Assembly of the IAU, 1997. Johannes Andersen Springer, 31 January 1999 – Science – 616 pages. page 721 [1]
  17. Babylon to Voyager and Beyond: A History of Planetary Astronomy. David Leverington. Cambridge University Press, 29 May 2010 – Science – 568 pages. page 41 [2]
  18. The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy. James Evans. Oxford University Press, 1 October 1998 – History – 496 pages. Page 393 [3]
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Foreign Impact on Indian Life and Culture (c. 326 B.C. to C. 300 A.D.). Satyendra Nath Naskar. Abhinav Publications, 1 January 1996 – History – 253 pages. Pages 56–57 [4]
  20. Pierre Cambon, Jean-François Jarrige. "Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés: Collections du Musée national de Kaboul". Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2006 – 297 pages. p269 [5]
  21. 21.0 21.1 Pierre Cambon, Jean-François Jarrige. "Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés: Collections du Musée national de Kaboul". Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2006 – 297 pages. p269 [6] "Les influences de l'astronomie grecques sur l'astronomie indienne auraient pu commencer de se manifester plus tot qu'on ne le pensait, des l'epoque Hellenistique en fait, par l'intermediaire des colonies grecques des Greco-Bactriens et Indo-Grecs" (French) Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés", p269. Translation: "The influence of Greek astronomy on Indian astronomy may have taken place earlier than thought, as soon as the Hellenistic period, through the agency of the Greek colonies of the Greco-Bactrians and the Indo-Greeks.
  22. 22.0 22.1 D. Pingree: "History of Mathematical Astronomy in India", Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 15 (1978), pp. 533–633 (533, 554f.)
  23. Williams, Clemency; Knudsen, Toke (2005). "South-Central Asian Science". in Glick, Tomas F.. Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 463. ISBN 978-0-415-96930-7. 
  24. Pingree, David "Astronomy and Astrology in India and Iran" Isis, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Jun. 1963), pp. 229–246
  25. "Varahamihira". Encyclopædia Britannica. "Varāhamihira's knowledge of Western astronomy was thorough. In five sections, his monumental work progresses through native Indian astronomy and culminates in two treatises on Western astronomy, showing calculations based on Greek and Alexandrian reckoning and even giving complete Ptolemaic mathematical charts and tables.". 
  26. McEvilley, Thomas (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought. Allworth Communications. ISBN 1-58115-203-5. , p.495
  27. "Leucippus". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2016. 
  28. Sextus Empericus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, II.14–18; Anthologia Palatina (Palatine Anthology), VII. 29–35, and elsewhere
  29. Conze 1959, pp. 140–141)
  30. 30.0 30.1 Conze (1959: p. 244)
  31. McEvilley, Thomas (2002). The Shape of Ancient Thought. Allworth Communications. ISBN 1-58115-203-5. , p. 474
  32. Jan Westerhoff Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction ISBN:0195384962 2009 p93
  33. Aulus Gellius Attic Nights Book XI Chapter 5 Sections 6-7*.html
  34. George Boys-Stones Anonymous Commentary on Plato's Theaetetus 2019 p 21
  35. Nāgārjuna Yuktiṣaṣṭikāand 46
  36. Nāgārjuna Yuktiṣaṣṭikāand 51
  37. Against the Logicians I: 263-282; Outlines of Pyrrhonism II: 22-28
  38. MMK IX-XII
  39. Against the Ethicsists 118
  40. Ratnāvalī 363

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