Buddha and Herakles

Buddhism originated from the teachings of Gautama Buddha, a prince from Nepal 2, 500 years ago. He believed in meditation and spiritual uplifting and emphasized right conduct. Right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration is some of the teachings of Buddha that has helped me to stay focused and be disciplined in my sport, bodybuilding.

Wong Hong, Malaysian bodybuilder

After Gautama Buddha died his teachings rapidly spread across what is now India and Pakistan, particularly under the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (304-234 BCE) who converted to Buddhism and followed its teachings in public life, including free university education and veterinary hospitals. His neighbours to the west was the Greco-Bactrian empire, which was the easternmost extent of Greek power in Asia that remained after the conquests of Alexander the Great between the lives of Buddha and Ashoka. In  Mauryan and Greco-Bactrian empires the Greek and Buddhist culture mixed in some interesting ways. Ashoka had many Buddhist edicts written on stone tablets spread around his empire, two existing ones being written in ancient Greek, and one written in Gandharan suggesting that edicts had been sent all the way to Athens. In the sixth century ACE the Gandhara culture produced the two large statues of Buddha carved into the walls of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

These statues show the apparent influence of Greek art on Buddhist imagery. Buddha had not been depicted as a person shortly after his death and it’s not hard to see the robed statues of Buddha drawing some Greek influence. North western Indian art has an interesting history of Greek influence, that may have spread into other Buddhist culture. The Greek influence is obvious in the depiction of Vajrapani, which appears to be based on Herakles carrying a lion cloak, however it may have also influenced the Japanese guardians of Buddha, the Nio.

The first two images are of Herakles, first a Roman bronze, then a Greco-Bactrian coin. In both of these Herakles is carrying his lion cloak. The third image is of Buddha with Vajrapani, his protector, who seems to be Herakles. The last image is of a Nio outside a Buddhist temple. The Nio are the Japanese equivalent of Vajrapani. Thanks to Wikipedia.

It’s also obvious that the Greek gods are heavily muscled where most Buddhist gods appear normal. The bodies of Greek gods are considered an ideal within Western culture. The effect of this has been called the Adonis complex by researcher Harrison Pope, who wrote a book of the same name. This was based on his research on men, such as a study on the ideal male body in the US, France and Austria.

Only slight demographic and physical differences were found among the three groups of men. Modest differences were found between the men’s measured fat and the fat of the images chosen. However, measures of muscularity produced large and highly significant differences. In all three countries, men chose an ideal body that was a mean of about 28 lb (13 kg) more muscular than themselves and estimated that women preferred a male body about 30 lb (14 kg) more muscular than themselves. In a pilot study, however, the authors found that actual women preferred an ordinary male body without added muscle.

-Pope et al. (2000)

Which led to research into comparisons with Eastern men showing that they had more realistic ideals.

The contrast between East and West was even clearer when we examined the difference between the men’s estimate of the muscularity of an “average man” in their culture and their estimate of “women’s preferred man” for muscularity. In the three Western countries, this difference ranged from 2.11 kg/m2 (Austria) to 2.46 kg/m2 (United States), but it was only 0.6 kg/m2 in Taiwan. When we translated these findings into conventional terms, we found that American men think that American women prefer a male body with about 20 lb more muscle than an average American man, whereas Taiwanese men estimate only a 5-lb difference on the same comparison.

-Yang, Grey and Pope (2005)

This paper threw up a few possible causes including western traditions of masculinity. Interestingly this paper also found that Taiwanese women’s magazines had fewer images of undressed men than US women’s magazines. A result of this is perhaps higher levels of muscle dysmorphia and anabolic steroid use in the West. When asked about Asian bodybuilders, Wong Hong says,

If you are talking about Asian bodybuilders not American Asians, then there are only a handful of them. If I am not mistaken, there is a new Japanese pro in the IFBB.

So it seems that the heavily muscled masculine ideal is a particularly Western phenomenon, and that even the cultural influence of ancient Greece and modern America hasn’t greatly changed Eastern masculinity. At the same time Western masculinity has been increasingly associated with this ideal as other traditional masculinities has been challenged.


Chi-Fu Jeffrey Yang, Peter Gray, Ph.D., and Harrison G. Pope Jr., M.D., M.P.H. (2005) Male Body Image in Taiwan Versus the West: Yanggang Zhiqi Meets the Adonis Complex, Am J Psychiatry 162:263-269

Harrison G. Pope, Jr., M.D., Amanda J. Gruber, M.D., Barbara Mangweth, Ph.D., Benjamin Bureau, Ph.D., Christine deCol, M.D., Roland Jouvent, M.D., and James I. Hudson, M.D., S.M.(2000) Body Image Perception Among Men in Three Countries, Am J Psychiatry 157:1297-1301


One response to “Buddha and Herakles

  1. Pingback: Disregard females; acquire currency « machina carnis

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