King Menandros

The good man, O King, perfect in uprightness, is like a medicine to men and gods, an antidote to the poison of evil. He is like water to men in laying the dust and impurities of evil dispositions. He is like a treasure of jewels to men in bestowing upon them all attainments in righteousness. He is like a boat to men in conveying them to the fur her shore of the four swollen streams of lust, egotism, delusion and ignorance. He is like a caravan owner to men in that he guides them beyond the sandy desert of rebirths. He is like a mighty rain cloud in that he fills their hearts with satisfaction. He is like a teacher to men in that he trains them in every good. He is like a skilled guide to men in that he points out the path of peace to them.

Milindapanha IV 4, 14

Menandros, more commonly known by the Latin name Menander, really existed. The Greek kingdom of Bactria which he ruled occupied portions of present-day Afghanistan, Uzbbekistan, and Tadjikistan. Concrete physical evidence of the historicity of Menandros includes the coins minted during his reign, some of which incorporate the Buddhist Dharma-Chakra (Dharma wheel) in their design. That Menandros had a significant involvement with Buddhism is thus beyond serious doubt.

The story related here is found in the early portions and in the likely spurious, final section of one of the major works of Buddhist literature, the Milindapa?ha. Written in Pali (the language of the early Theravadan Buddhist Canon transcribed in Sri Lanka around 80 B.C., the Milindapa?ha may date from the 1st century A.D.

Whether Nagasena was a genuine historical personage is unknown. It is remarkable to think that in the 2nd century B.C., in a place on the globe now completely disregarded by most Westerners, the momentous Socratic dialog between an acutely intelligent Greek monarch and a deeply wise Buddhist monk that the Milindapa?ha records may actually have occurred. It is also impossible not to wonder what the impact on Western civilization might have been if, rather than being written in Pali (a dialect of the language, Old Maghadhi, spoken by the Buddha himself, the Milindapa?ha had been written in Greek.

The Story

Menandros, the greatest monarch of the ancient Greek provincial kingdom of Bactria, reigned from around 155 to 130 B.C. With the death of Ashoka, the ideal of dharmarajya the rule of Dharma passed quickly from Mauryan rule. Though the descendants of Ashoka managed to retain the throne for another half a century, their internecine rivalries and periodic divisions and reunifications of the empire assured a precipitous decline in their fortunes. The last Mauryan emperor, Brihadratha, was deposed by his commander-in-chief, Pushyamitra, who ruled under the title ‘general’. At about the time of Pushyamitra’s ascension, Bactrian Greeks seized Gandhara and conquered Vahika (the Punjab).

Although the succession of Greek kings was as confused as that of the later Mauryans, one monarch, Menandros (Menander to Western historians and Milinda in Buddhist texts), earned a permanent place in the annals of history. As Pushyamitra aged, he supported Brahminical religion and ancient rituals, thereby effectively ending the pervasive influence of Ashoka’s magnanimous concept of Dharma. Menandros occupied much of his territory and even marched as far as Pataliputra, where he remained long enough to build a great stupa. When he returned to his capital at Sakala (commonly assumed to be Sialkot in the Punjab), he took the ideal of dharmarajya with him. Buddhist principles became international, spreading from Bactria and the original capital of Menandros at Taxila to central Asia and beyond.

Menandros was admired by both his Greek and Indian subjects for his military genius, his ability to govern fairly, his even-handed support of Greek, Buddhist, Hindu and Zoroastrian traditions, his preservation of economic prosperity and his devotion to the life of the mind. Known to the Greeks as basileus and the Indians as maharaja, he was acknowledged by both as Dharmaraja, the king of justice. His government was Hellenistic in structure, but even while he increased the prominence of the Greek cities originally founded by Alexander the Great, he ensured that the older Indian cities joined them in importance. In later life he cultivated a deep interest in philosophical discussion and reflection, frequently debating thinkers from different traditions and often confounding them with his urbane wit and penetrating insight.

Menandros met Nagasena in the course of these debates, was convinced by him, and joined the Buddhist Sangha. He encouraged the dissemination of Buddhist thought throughout his kingdom and built a monastery the Milindavihara for Nagasena. According to the Milindapanha (The Questions of King Menandros), Menandros renounced his kingdom in favour of his son, entered the monastic community and died an Arhat, having achieved nirvana. Plutarch wrote that he died in camp during a war, but both sources agree that he became a Buddhist. Near the end of his reign he sent a large delegation of monks from Caucasian Alexandria, his birthplace, to attend the consecration of the great stupa at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.

Within Bactria was the celestial city of Sagala, surrounded by forested mountains, filled with beautiful rivers, lakes, lotus ponds, parks, and pleasure gardens. Protected by thick ramparts and high watchtowers, Sagala was graced by outstanding architecture: wide boulevards and public squares; elegant homes, shops, and religious shrines; and a strikingly beautiful palace with pale white walls encircled by a deep moat. A center of commerce and of learning, Sagala reveled in its diverse mix of peoples and cultures.

The farms outside the city enjoyed abundant harvests nearly every year. Its markets overflowed with flowers, perfumes, fine fabrics, stoneware, bronze, silver, jewels, and every kind of food and drink. Free from oppression, its handsome population, including warriors, nobles, spiritual adepts, merchants, and working people, went about their business with good cheer, greeting each other with friendly salutations as they encountered one another in the busy streets.

One day Menandros was informed by his aide Demetrios that the mendicant Buddhist monk Nagasena, previously unknown to him, had made his way to a place near Sagala, where he was staying with a retinue of 80,000 followers. Eager for a new opportunity to initiate one of his celebrated dialogs on spiritual matters, Menandros immediately set out in his magnificent chariot, accompanied by 500 of his troops. As they rode within sight of the pavilion where Nagasena sat in the midst of a vast company of ascetics, Menandros was momentarily confused and asked Demetrios who they were. When Demetrios replied that they were Nagasena and his fellow monks, Menandros was awestruck and felt his hair stand on end, his thoughts in turmoil. He turned and said to Demetrios, “Don’t tell me which one is Nagasena, I will know without his being pointed out.”

Drawing closer, Menandros quickly recognized Nagasena: the one “like a maned lion devoid of fear and dread, devoid of terror, devoid of fear and trepidation."* The king thought to himself that although he had seen many spiritual leaders, and engaged them in intense discussion, he had never felt the panic he now knew. “I will be defeated today,” he said quietly.

Approaching Nagasena, the king greeted him courteously and sat down at a respectful distance. Soon the two were deep in conversation, with Menandros asking his usual penetrating questions. Nagasena easily turned back his most searching inquiries with answers more profound than any Menandros had heard before. As he reluctantly concluded their first encounter, the king realized that they had much more to talk about, and asked Demetrios to see if Nagasena would agree to visit him the next day in his private quarters at the palace. Nagasena accepted the invitation and, after a good night’s sleep, proceeded with his huge party of monks to Sagala and the palace.

Nagasena and a few dozen of his companions were directed to the king’s quarters, where Nagasena took his seat at the indicated place of honor. Then Menandros himself served a delicious meal to Nagasena and the others. The king also presented each monk with a new robe, and gave three fine robes to Nagasena. When Nagasena and his friends had finished eating, all but ten monks withdrew. Menandros then sat down below Nagasena and respectfully resumed his questioning of the holy man. In this way the process of the king’s enlightenment began.

The dialog between the two keen minds continued through many days and hundreds of questions, of which only a partial record remains. According to the Milindapanha, Menandros asked Nagasena three hundred and four different questions, which resulted in his complete acceptance of the Teachings of Buddha. Whether he became a monk near the end of his life, as the Milindapanha declares, or remained a lay disciple, as Plutarch implies, he ruled with a wisdom and detachment that earned him a unique place in Greek and Indian history.

Nothing is known of Nagasena after his lengthy encounter with the king. This seems altogether appropriate, for he had been called into mortal existence for the sake of the Dharma, and, having performed his task, he vanished from the attention of history. Yet he left behind a method of explicating the Teaching of Buddha which became the archetype of subsequent elucidation. His subtle blend of metaphysics and ethics, argument and example, produced a model of useful discourse and an encouragement to practice. The Milindapanha is unique in being revered by Hinayana and Mahayana alike. Its depictions of the Path and the Goal have been relevant to every succeeding generation, for it is above all a portrait of the Arhat.

He strives with might and main along the Path, searches it out, accustoms himself to it; to that end does he make firm his self-possession, to that end does he hold fast in effort, to that end does he remain steadfast in love towards all beings in all worlds; and still to that does he direct his mind again and again, until gone far beyond the transitory, he gains the Real, the highest fruit. And when he has gained that, the man who has ordered his life aright has realized nirvana.

Milindapanha IV 8, 84


Milinda’s Questions, Vols. 1 & 2, I. B. Horner, trans. (Sacred Books of the Buddhists, Vol. XXII), Pali Text Society, Oxford, 1990.

The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed., N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, eds., The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1970.

Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

Michael W. Dwyer, Menandros and Nagasena ?Copyright 1998

Encyclopedia ?Britannica