The Questions of King Milinda (1)

Speaker: Ven. You Deng

Fo Guang Shan Dong Zen Buddhist College, Malaysia

I. Introduction

Auspicious blessings to all dharma friends. Welcome to Fo guang shan English dharma services channel. This is You Deng from Dong Zen Buddhist College Malaysia. The topic I want to share today is “The Questions of King Milinda”. It is also known as “Bhikkhu Nagasena Sutra.” It is a record of the dialogues between the Buddhist monk Nāgasena and the Greco-Bactrian King Milinda, who ruled the region that is the present-day eastern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and India in the latter half of the second century before the common era.

The questions put by King Milinda to the Bhikkhu Nāgasena, cover a wide range of subjects, such as the nature of self, wisdom and desire, transmigration, karma, the Buddha as a historical figure, the Buddhist Order, the qualifications of monks, the respective roles of monks and lay people, and nirvana.

This work is valued as one of the first recorded encounters between Hellenistic and Buddhist thought and culture. It states that King Milinda dedicated a monastery to Bhikkhu Nāgasena and abdicated the throne in favor of his son, then entered the Buddhist Order and eventually attained the state of arhat.

II. Background of Milinda Panha

First of all, I will walk you through the brief background and related history of this sutra.

It is believed that “Malinda Panha” in Pali Canon (which is also known as the “Bhikkhu Nagasena Sutra” in Chinese Canon) was initially written in Gandhara language, Kharosthi script during between 100 BCE and 200 BCE (Kharosthi language is an ancient Indo-Iranian script used by the Khasa, Saka, and Yuezhi peoples, in present-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. It was used in Central Asia as well).

According to the scholar, Thomas Rhys Davids, this is undoubtedly the masterpiece of classical Indian prose from literary point of view, which had then been produced in any country (Davids, 1890). 

The conversation between King Milinda and Bhikkhu Nagasena possibly took place in Sagala or Taxila. Coins of King Milinda are found all around Gandhara Archeological Site. Where is Sagala in modern day? Sialkot in present day, is believed to be the site of ancient Sagala, a city razed by Alexander the Great in 326 BCE, and then made capital of the Indo-Greek Kingdom by Milinda I (Menander I) in about 160 to 130 BCE—a time during which the city greatly prospered as a major center for trade and Buddhism.

Where is Sialkot? In Pakistan. Why Pakistan? Let’s walk through the history of Buddhism briefly.

III. Buddhism in Pakistan

Dear friends, actually, Buddhism in Pakistan took root some 2,300 years ago under the Maurya Empire (322 BCE – 184 BCE). King Ashoka (reigned from about 268–232 BCE) who sent missionaries around his empire, including the Kashmira-Gandhara region of North-West Pakistan extending into Eastern Afghanistan. Following, the Third Buddhist council in Pataliputra (modern India). 

The decline of the Mauryan Empire left Gandhāra open to Greco- Bactrian invasions. The King of Indo-Greek Kingdom (200 BCE –10 CE), Milinda (reigned from about 155–130 BCE), who was the most important of those Greek kings who continued in Bactria, the dominion founded by Alexander the Great. He became a Buddhist and is remembered in Buddhist records for his discussion with the great Buddhist philosopher, Nagasena in the book Milinda Panha.

Then, the Kushan Empire (30 – 375 CE) under King Kaniṣka (reigned from about 127 – 150 CE) from its capital at Purushapura (modern Peshawar), India expanded into Central Asia. As a consequence, cultural exchanges greatly increased with the regions of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand. Under Kanishka, Gandhāra became a holy land of Buddhism and attracted Chinese pilgrims eager to view the monuments associated with many Jatakas. In Gandhāra, Mahayana Buddhism flourished and Buddha was represented in Human form.

Under the Kushans new Buddhist stupas were built and old ones were enlarged. Kushan ruler Kanishka (flourished c. 78-c. 103 A.D.) controlled an empire covering most of India, Iran, and central Asia in the first and second centuries. With his conversion to and official support of Mahayana Buddhism, the religion underwent a period of substantial growth, gaining converts throughout the Kushan realm, including parts of China. This growth was attended by a blossoming of Buddhist iconography, sculpture, and architecture.

Under Kanishka, the Kushan empire reached its greatest heights. The center of the region was the upper Indus and Ganges river valleys in what is now Iran and India; the Mahayana form of Buddhism was just developing at this time, and by his official support of the religion it enjoyed a rich period of growth. By providing resources for Buddhist practitioners to educate others in the faith, particularly through the spread of religious iconography, Mahayana Buddhism spread throughout central Asia and into China. Acting under Kanishka’s authority, the Sarvastivadin monks, supporters of the new Mahayana Buddhism, held a religious council in which a series of Buddhist canonical writings was drafted. This work also helped to establish the fledgling denomination.

Buddhism entered China via the Silk Road. Buddhist monks traveled with merchant caravans on the Silk Road to preach the Dharma. Why was this route called the Silk Road? Because the lucrative Chinese silk trade along this trade route began during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), and direct contact between Central Asian and Chinese Buddhism continued throughout the 3rd to 7th centuries, much into the Tang period. From the 4th century onward, Chinese pilgrims like Faxian (395–414) and later Xuanzang (629–644) started to travel to India in order to get improved access to original scriptures.

Master Faxian & Xuanzang walked through the Gandhara region, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, the region is as follows:

1. Udyana 烏菖國

2. Swat 斯瓦特國

3. Gandhavat 香行國/犍陀衛國

4. Taxila 賢石國/竺剎尸國

5. Purusapura (Peshawar) 丈夫城/弗樓沙國

6. Panjab 小雪山、羅夷國、跋那國、 毘荼國等

7. Nagarahara 那竭國-阿富汗

Pakistan is an important country of silk road. It was the channels of the silk road Gandhara that spread Buddhism from the lands of Pakistan to central Asia, China and far east. Here is the cradle of Mahayana Buddhism as well. According to the scholars, the first Buddha statue was found here and the first Mahayana sutra in written form was produced here. The famous archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein found the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in the world in Gilgit. And the scholars agreed that it was the most venerated Mahayana, Prajnaparamita sutra of the Buddhist.

The modern town of Taxila is 35km from Islamabad. Most of the archaeological sites of Taxila are located around the Taxila Museum. For over two thousand years, Taxila remained famous as a center of learning Gandhara art of sculpture, architecture, education and Buddhism in the days of Buddhist glory (600 BC to 500 CE). There are over 50 archaeological sites scattered in a radius of 30 km around Taxila.

Some of the most important sites are: Dhamarajika Stupa and Monastery (300 BC – 200 AD), Bhir Mound (600-200 BC), Sirkap (200 BC – 600 AD), Jandial Temple (c.250 BC) and Jaulian Monastery (200 – 600 AD).

Taxila, the main center of Gandhara, has for centuries been an abode of peace and knowledge. The city once flourished as the hub of Buddhism and a great center of learning.


Dharmarajika stupa was established by the Maurya emperor Ashoka in 268–232 BCE to house the relics of the Buddha. It is located 3kms east of Taxila Museum. It is one of the eight shrines and considered to be the earliest Buddhist monument in Pakistan. Beside stupa, it also has a monastic area located in the north.

The partially ruined stupa was once coated with lime plaster and gilding. The seven-tier umbrella stone crowned the top of the stupa while the main monastery and the series of annexing chapels were inhabited by monks. Findings from the site included a wealth of silver and gold coins, gems, jewelry, and other antiques. It reached the heights of size and fame in the 2nd century A.D.


Julian site in Taxila is an impressive site in Haripur, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan located at a fair altitude. It comprised of several erections consisting of two main parts – The main stupa and the monastery & the University of Julian. It was believed that Master Fa Xian had stayed here for 6 years and Master Xuan Zhuan 2 years.

The famous “healing Buddha statue” is also located in Julian. Believers put their finger in the naval whole and pray for the ailment or fulfillment of wishes.

The main stupa comprises 21 votive stupas and some of the stupas are believed to be tombs of revered monks.

The monastery consists of 28 students’ rooms, a stone staircase for second-floor rooms with the same setting, and statues of Buddhas in front of some of the rooms surrounding a pool for washing. The monastery also has a spacious assembly hall, a kitchen, storerooms, and bathrooms. Moreover, there is a stone for grinding spices for the preservation of food. The other two stone mills were used to grind different types of grains. The hole made in one of the brick stones of the kitchen wall was used for placing large spoons.

The monastery was burnt in 455 CE by the White Huns and thus destroyed.

Mohra Moradu

Mohra Moradu is another well-preserved monastery located between Sirkap and Julian. It was heavily damaged for treasure and the main stupa was split apart. However, the lower portion was protected. The monastery once served as a place of meditation. The monastic cells surrounding stupa are badly damaged.

Jahanabad Buddha

On the way from Taxila to Swat Valley, When we were approaching the remaining site of the Jahanabad Buddha, we were greeted by a vast forest of peach blossom trees that were blooming beautifully.

Jahanabad Buddha was built in the 6th to 7th centuries. It was carved along the rocks of the mountains. It is about 7 meters in height and has a unique design. Aside from the Bamiyan Buddha of Afghanistan, Jahanabad Buddha is also one of the most important Buddha statues in the South Asia region. Unfortunately, both the Bamiyan Buddha and the Jehanabad Buddha were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 and 2007 respectively.

Since 2012, a team of archaeologists, led by Italian archaeologist Dr Luca Maria Olivieri has been restoring the Buddha of Swat in stages. With the help of advanced 3D technology and instruments, and with the full support of the University of Padova, The Buddha was finally successfully restored into its original state in 2016. The Buddha that survived from the catastrophe, is something that we should treasure more.

IV. Conclusion

Thank you for listening.

Let us join our palms and redirect the joy and merits from this session, to all sentient beings, may all be well and happy.

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See you next week. Omitofo.