Having recently visited a Buddhist temple shortly after reading a bit of Homer, I’ve noticed a parallel which I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone point out before: between the Buddhist bhavacakra (wheel of life) and the shield of Achilles described in the 18th book of the Iliad.
The bhavacakra consists of the following concentric layers:
- The hub, depicting the three poisons (ignorance, attachment, and aversion), symbolized by a pig, a bird, and a snake, respectively
- Two half-circles representing positive and negative karma; depicting happy people moving upward on one side and miserable people moving downward on the other
- Scenes representing the six realms of samsara
- Scenes representing the 12 links of dependent origination
- A huge monster holding the wheel, representing impermanence
The shield of Achilles as described by Homer also has five layers:
- The hub, depicting the earth, sea, sky, sun, and moon
- The constellations (generally depicted as the 12 signs of the zodiac, though Homer doesn’t actually say that)
- Two scenes depicting a city and peace and a city at war
- Six scenes of country life
- The River Ocean encircling it all
Despite the obvious differences, I thought the general scheme of the two symbols was remarkably similar — especially the division of the three middle layers into two, six, and 12 scenes; though I doubt if any specific correspondences exist between the two groups of six and twelve. The scenes of peace and war, though, fit fairly well with the idea of positive and negative karma; and the great River makes a good symbol of impermanence.