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Herakles/Vajrapani, the companion of Buddha

Karl Galinsky

University of Texas, Austin

His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono (Aeneid 1.278) – Jupiter’s prediction about the Romans applies even more aptly to his son Herakles. As other papers in this panel make clear, his temporal range by now is extending to the twenty-first century. I want to complement that aspect with a spatial and geographic one, that is by looking at Herakles’ furthest extension to the east: his role in Gandhara Buddhist art primarily in the second and third centuries of our era. His appearance there as companion of Buddha is well attested by a remarkable number of reliefs and while the name of the companion is Vajrapani rather than Herakles, the iconography is clearly that of the Greek hero, with varying degrees of hybridization. The basic premise, shared by all scholars on this subject, is that more is involved than a purely formal transfer of Herakles’ iconography. There must be some meaning, but given the multiplicity of Herakles’ meanings, what is it and how does it relate to Vajrapani and the Buddhist context in the empire of the Kushans, who succeeded the Greco-Bactrian kings?

            In terms of the chronology of Buddha’s life, Herakles/Vajrapani is not on Buddha’s side from birth but reliably appears as his quasi bodyguard from the time of the Great Departure of the young prince Siddharta. Vajrapani essentially means “holder of the vajra” i.e. the thunderbolt; in the reliefs, Vajrapani as Herakles sometimes keeps the vajra and other times exchanges it for the club; in at least one scene he wields both. He is never shown, however, as using it for an attack, let alone a killing; this accords with the relevant texts that mention him as a protector who can threaten and intimidate, but who rarely kills. He does save Buddha from attacks by rival teachers. In the process, the vajra becomes less of an emblem of physical power than the instrument of the victorious power of knowledge; coincidentally – and I am not positing any connection – the same happens to Herakles’ club in Lucian’s description of the Gallic Hercules (that was revived in the Renaissance).

            In Alexander’s wake, Herakles had an extensive presence in the east in cult and iconography, from Dura, Palmyra, and Hatra to Ai Khanoum and the coins of the Bactrian kings. There is sufficient evidence, much of it artistic, to indicate that he and many of his qualities (including his penchant for drinking) were well known in Gandhara and that artists approached him with insight and understanding. As for his connection with Buddha, Heracles’ renown for strength and endurance can reasonably be surmised to be a major factor along with his record of victory and travel to foreign lands. Some scholars have advanced more specific agendas, such as an appeal to the Kushan kings that Buddhism was a religion of royalty, given Herakles’ association with the Bactrian and other kings. A variant is that this appeal may have risen to a higher dimension: not only is Herakles the model and prototype of the ideal sovereign, but the connotations go beyond earthly kingship and there is an assertion of the cosmic and spiritual kingship of Buddha.

            Such associations may certainly have been operative, but they should not be considered exclusive. I argue that the principal reason for Vajrapani’s assimilation with Herakles lies in the wide range of dimensions of both characters. They both played many roles and both were highly adaptable. It was left to the viewers to decide what aspect they would privilege and that is one reason for the choice of the figure of Herakles/Vajrapani by Gandhara artists.

Session/Panel Title

Re-evaluating Herakles-Hercules in the Twenty-first Century

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