Buddhism: Details about 'Dharmaraksita'
Dharmaraksita (Pali: Dhammarakkhita) was one of the missionaries sent by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka to proselytize the Buddhist faith. He is described as being a Greek (Pali: "Yona", lit. "Ionian") in the Mahavamsa, and his activities are indicative of the strength of the Hellenistic Greek involvement during the formative centuries of Buddhism.
Greek communities had been present in neighbouring Bactria and in nortwestern India since the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great around 323 BCE, and developed into the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms until the end of the 1st century BCE. Greeks were generally described in ancient times throughout the Classical world as "Yona", "Yonaka", "Yojanas" or "Yavanas", lit. “Ionians".
It seems they were ardent recipients of the Buddhist faith and the example of Dharmaraksita indicates that they even took an active role in spreading Buddhism as leading missionaries.
A Greek Buddhist missionary
The efforts of Emperor Ashoka to spread the Buddhist faith are described in the Edicts of Ashoka carved during his reign on stone pillars and cave walls:
Ashoka also claimed to have sent emissaries beyond his borders, as far as the Greek kings of the Mediterranean:
Dharmaraksita is then described in important Buddhist Pali historial texts, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, as being a Greek Buddhist missionary, in charge of propagating the faith to the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent.
The country of Aparantaka has been identified as the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, and comprises Northern Gujarat, Kathiawar, Kachch, and Sindh, the area where Greek communities were probably concentrated. To this day, a city in Gujarat is named Junagadh, originally "Yonagadh", lit. "City of the Greeks".
Dharmarashita is said to have preached the Aggikkhandopama Sutra, so that 37,000 people were converted in Aparantaka and that thousands of men and women entered the Order ("pabbajja"):
Dharmaraksita and Punabbasukutumbikaputta Tissa Thera
In another Pali reference, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka named Punabbasukutumbikaputta Tissa Thera is said to have been to India in order to study with "the Yonaka Dhammarakkhita", whereupon he attained the "patisambhida" (analytical knowledge). (VibhA.389, Sammoha-Vinodaní, Vibhanga Commentary).
The place where Dharmaraksita resides is also said to be around 100 leagues (around 700 hundred miles) from Sri Lanka, putting it somewhere in northern India. (See: )
Dharmaraksita and the Milinda Panha
The Milinda Panha is another famous non-canonical Pali Buddhist text that describes the religious dialogues between the famous Indo-Greek king Menander, whose kingdom was in Sagala in today's Punjab, and a Buddhist monk called Nagasena, around 160 BCE. It is today one of the texts of reference of Theravada Buddhism.
According to the Milinda Panha (I 32-35), the monk Nagasena, before his encounter with Menander, was once a student of Dharmaraksita and learnt Buddhism and reached enlightenment as an arhat under his guidance in Pataliputra.
This event took place roughly a hundred years after the missionary efforts of Ashoka, and it would suggest that Dharmaraksita was a young man under Ashoka, became a respected elder settled in the Ashokan capital of Pataliputra, and then trained a young Nagasena in the Tripitaka and towards enlightenment, before Nagasena himself met Menander at a venerable age .
The Milinda Panha therefore seems to relate the dialogue between a great Greek king, Menander, with a monk trained in Buddhism by the great Greek Buddhist elder Dharmaraksita, tending to suggest the importance of Greeks during the first formative centuries of Buddhism.