Dharmarakṣita (Sanskrit "Protected by the Dharma", Pali Dhammarakkhita), was one of the missionaries sent by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka to proselytize Buddhism. He is described as being a Greek (Pali: Yona, lit. "Ionian") in the Mahavamsa, and his activities are indicative of some Hellenistic Greek following during the early centuries of Buddhism.
Greek communities had been present in neighbouring Bactria and in northwestern India since the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great around 323 BCE, and developed into the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and the Indo-Greek Kingdom 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". They were ardent recipients of Buddhism and the example of Dharmarakṣita indicates that they even took an active role in spreading Buddhism as leading missionaries.
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 historical 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.
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"):
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 miles) from Sri Lanka, putting it somewhere in northern India. (See: )
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.
And Assagutta said to him: "Do thou now go, Nâgasena, to Pâtaliputta. There, in the Ashoka Park, dwells the venerable Dhammarakkhita. Under him you should learn the words of the Buddha." (Milinda Panha, I, 32)
Nâgasena went on to the Ashoka Park to Dhammarakkhita. And after saluting him, and telling him on what errand he had come, he learnt by heart, from the mouth of the venerable Dhammarakkhita, the whole of the three baskets of the Buddha's word in three months, and after a single recital, so far as the letter (that is, knowing the words by heart) was concerned. And in three months more he mastered the spirit (that is, the deeper meaning of the sense of the words).
But at the end of that time the venerable Dhammarakkhita addressed him, and said: "Nâgasena, as a herdsman tends the cows, but others enjoy their produce, so thou too carriest in thy head the whole three baskets of the Buddha's word, and still art not yet a partaker of the fruit of Samanaship."
"Though that be so, holy one, say no more," was the reply. And on that very day, at night, he attained to Arahatship and with it to the fourfold power of that Wisdom possessed by all Arahats (that is to say: the realisation of the sense, and the appreciation of the deep religious teaching contained in the word, the power of intuitive judgment, and the power of correct and ready exposition). (Milinda Panha, I, 35)
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 Tripiṭaka 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 I, 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.