Time was a cycle for the wise ones. The glittering stars of the heavens danced to the rhythm of the gods. A thousand mind-born Manus had birthed a thousand humanities. The Blessed Lord had sung his sacred song to a thousand suns and a thousand Arjunas. The divine comedy of karma had crossed a thousand ironies and a thousand tragedies. So for thousands of years, those believers of this great cycle, the Indians, did not write their histories. Indian history became stories moving from ear to ear. A magical tongue rang around sacred fires as these stories soon morphed into a society.
Soon etchings would erupt along the Indus, the Saraswati, the Ganga, the Yamuna, and more and more rivers. Many were lost with time as the history of India captured in its early construction returned to the soils and sands from whence it came. But some etchings evolved. The Itihasa and Puranas would form a cultural encyclopedia of ancient India. Poetry and prose defined its people.
The successors of these great reservoirs of Dharma were the Sramanas. Lord Mahavir and Lord Buddha would turn the wheel of Dharma as a grand march of fire-cloaked mendicants began across India and beyond into the unknown realms of Asia. India entered the Axial Age with a turning of the mind. In the golden shadows of these Mahatmas, we find some of the first records of those who journeyed to India – of the Greeks and the Romans. This is the India they saw.
A Land of Legends
For ancient Greeks, India was the edge of the world. A frontier of fantasies where ants dug for gold, where beasts with the faces of humans, bodies of lions, and tails of scorpions hunted passersby, where a great snake with eyes the size of Macedonian shields glared at Alexander’s troops. Beyond fantastical Odyssean stories, the Greeks also saw themselves in India. Tales of Lord Shiva were mistaken for the frenzies of Dionysus. Lord Krishna’s Herculean exploits reminded Greeks of the namesake. The ambrosia of the Upanishads had provided a familiar flavor of philosophy to Greeks who were lucky enough to encounter levitating Brahmans and magic-wielding Sramans. The remoteness of India made these mythical accounts ever more real.
Contrary to the politicization of the Indian subcontinent into a mishmashed South Asia today, the Greeks called it how it was. A diamond-shaped country. Extending from the Pamirs and Himalayas in the north, the eponymous Indus in the west, and the endless Indian Ocean in the south and east, Greeks viewed this region as one land with one people, albeit of various shades and customs. Much of what we know about the Greek experience of India comes from an ambassador named Megasthenes.
While details around Megasthenes’ life are unclear, he seems to have been an ambassador of a region known as the “White India” or Arachosia, now in southern Afghanistan, and traveled to the Mauryan court in Pataliputra, now in Bihar, on assignment. Some sources claim he would accompany Alexander into India, which is also how we get some of the admittedly exaggerated bits of the invasion. The details are relatively straightforward: Alexander forays into India and defeats Porus at the Jhelum River in northwest India. Alexander is impressed with Porus’ tenacity and makes him his vassal. The Greeks were at the edge of their understanding of the world. They heard rumors of a land beyond along a great river named the Ganges. Fatigued from their era-defining exploits, Alexander’s troops would nearly revolt at the sniff of his ambition to go further. Alexander would abide, but others would go on beyond.
Much of Megasthenes’ work, Indica, was unfortunately lost to Father Time. But luckily for us, fragments remained. Those fragments would be compiled and researched by later historians such as Arrian who assembled an even greater account also named Indica, as well as other curious Greeks and Romans such as Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Pliny, etc… These accounts comprise from the time of Alexander’s invasion in 327 BCE till a bit before 200 CE. So that is where we shall begin.
Log Kya Kahenge?
Before Alexander, the Greeks claimed conquerors such as Sesostris the Egyptian, Idanthyrsos the Scythian, and Semiramis the Assyrian, amongst others attempted to invade India but all failed. The whispers of the Orient found mention in Herodotus’ writings which he derived mostly from Persian hearsay. India was at the edge of existence and knowledge. But due to that Socratic curiosity. That Platonic embrace of the abstract, the unknown. That ambition of exploration inspired by Alexander’s guru, Aristotle. This trinity of knowledge traditions found adherents in those Greeks who would go where no Greek had ever gone.
Greek explorers noted the diversity of India while still recognizing a cultural continuity across the land. They remarked that northern Indians resembled Egyptians while southerners had Ethiopian shades but similar facial features to the northerners with all the world’s skin tones in the country. A savage, dog-headed people were said to descend from the mountains from time to time; most likely a war-like tribe donning the skins of animals. In the middle of India were echoes of Eklavya – tribals, some described as pygmies, who were excellent archers employed by kings. They spoke a similar language to other Indians signaling Sanskritization.
The Mauryan era Indian would be clad in a blinding white cotton, a white turban, and pierced his ears with white ivory. To cut this white canvas, many would dye their beards colors such as blue, red, purple, green, or complete the color coordination with white as well, each as a mark of rank. Soldiers were well-equipped acolytes of war with a colossal bow the size of a man that could loose arrows penetrating almost any defense. An oxhide shield, sometimes a javelin too, and a sword for close combat would round out the retinue. In general, Indians were observed to have a larger though sometimes slimmer stature compared to the Greeks, supposedly due to the abundance of the land.
Beyond physical descriptions, what interested Greeks was the Indian mind. In the typical fashion of antiquity, both Greeks and Indians viewed each other as barbarian cultures; nonetheless, a bonding over science and philosophy birthed respect among contemporary Indian and Greek writers. Greeks would record the downstream culture from Indian high philosophy with gusto.
Various peculiarities of India stuck out to the Greeks. For one, they immediately noticed the higher preponderance of vegetarians in India, mainly amongst the philosopher groups of Brahmins and Sramans, but also extending to some amount in the general populace. Much of this was conduced due to the abundance of grain, fruits, and vegetables. Meat was of course eaten as well, but it was the popularity of vegetarianism that stood out in the earliest Greek accounts from Herodotus’ time. Famous assertions were the lack of slavery and the presence of dharmayuddha, as Indian armies were said to mostly leave alone non-combatants, especially farmers, and not ravage lands like other peoples. We know from local Indian sources that both slavery and excesses of war did occur, but the reconciliation here may be that slavery in India was either rare or not as harsh as that of the Mediterranean. Ditto for the comments on war.
Caste is mentioned surprisingly sparingly by most Greek accounts with Megesthenes mentioning a 7-sectioned system. The 7 were the philosophers, farmers, shepherds, artisans, soldiers, bureaucrats, and high political counselors. Chroniclers did not seem to pay as much attention to it as it appeared as just another system to organize society and was much less rigid than the version that developed later, though some level of endogamy does seem to be observed. What they did take particular notice of was the life of Brahmins.
The Brahmin lifestyle was compared to the rigorous Spartans. Rigid, uncompromising, and punishing, Brahmins lived a life of asceticism with barely any possessions, only accepting those given to them by others for performing their duties. Priestly affairs, granting education, and honing philosophy were the main vocations observed. Brahmins were expected to refrain from meat consumption and sexual affairs, an obvious ode to ahimsa and brahmacharya still revered today in contemporary India. Parallel to these settled Brahmins were bands of roaming philosophers in the woods, the Sramans. Adhering to ahimsa and brahmacharya as well, Sramans traveled across the country begging for food and imparting their philosophy. Additionally, they would function as medicine men considering they cultivated many of the wild plants used in traditional Indian medicine. Curiously, amongst both Brahmins and Sramans, there were examples given of women studying philosophy among them, a call back to rishikas such as Gargi and Maitreyi of the Upanishads. The Greeks noted no discord between the white-robed Brahmin and ochre-draped Sraman, nor any general religious discord amongst the people. However, they did notice an interesting familiarity…
Tales of the Gods
Born under the canopies of now long-gone Indian forests, the crown of Indian philosophy took shape in the magnificent Upanishads. At the turn of the Common Era, a Greek geographer by the name of Strabo noted the similarities between Greek philosophy and what seems to be an Upanishadic proto-Vedanta. A world that is destined to be destroyed and reborn, one that is invigorated and inhabited wholly by a supreme deity. A century later, a Greek sage by the name of Apollonius of Tyana journeyed to India. Apollonius would be labeled as an anti-Christ for his similarities and contemporary life to Jesus Christ. A too familiar yet false prophet. An ascetic, a vegetarian, a celibate, and a mystic, Apollonius learned much from his journey to India. In a conversation with an Indian sage named Iarches, Apollonius was told of the transmigration of the soul via reincarnation and a notion akin to “Aham Brahmasmi” or being one with God.
Amongst the lay, a plethora of beliefs populated the land, all seemingly linked in some unspeakable way. Worship of Lord Shiva, whom the Greeks mistook for Dionysus, was common in the mountains. The mountain men were said to partake in a local “wild vine” that put its consumers in a Dionysian state. Those who lived in the plains were more likely to be worshippers of Heracles or should we say, Lord Krishna. Ritual worship of the sun, moon, and snakes is also noted. A stunning iconography of Ardhanariswhar, or a half Shiva, half Shakti form of Lord Shiva is recounted in the Deccan, complete with the Ganga on the idol’s head, a sign of the sacred geographic consciousness spread inside India.
Strangely, there is no mention of Lord Buddha or Lord Mahavir, though there are plenty of accounts of the aforementioned Sramans as well as austere yogis. The Greeks could not distinguish between Dharmic religions, rather rightly recognizing them as a syncretic system. Later Greek kingdoms in northwest India would bow to the Shakyasimha and create an entire artistic school around Lord Buddha’s worship.
The Golden Bird
The river valley empires of the Bronze Age were no strangers to international commerce. Thousands of years before Alexander set foot at the Indus, the Indus Valley Civilization was a key component in the export of minerals, animals, and materials west to the Fertile Crescent and beyond. Empires rose and fell. Peoples disappeared and were reborn. But commerce was constant. Wealth always finds a way.
To the Greeks, India was the embellished and exotic East. Indian textiles, spices, and minerals were in high demand across the trade networks of the ancient world. Upon visiting, the Greeks marveled at the abundance of the land and displays of wealth that contrasted with the extreme asceticism they also encountered.
Ports would adorn the Indian coastline from Sindh across the west coast rounding the tip of India in Tamil Nadu. Finished goods and raw materials from the rich inlands of India in places such as the Gangetic basin and Deccan would find their way to seaside cities such as Barbarikon (near Karachi in Sindh), Barugaza (Bharuch in Gujarat), and Mouziris (Muchiri in Kerala). Chroniclers such as Pliny lamented the massive trade imbalance between Rome and India as luxury Indian goods were all the rage amongst the Roman elite. Pliny would record an extensive catalog of Indian precious stones with different types of diamonds, emeralds, rubies, etc… only found in very specific regions in India. Pliny’s other notes would be compiled by an unknown author in a text dubbed Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which further zeroes in on the variety of plants used for export in trades such as dyes, spices, and medicine. In the ancient world, Indian goods were the premium commodity.
Ultimately, what is so striking from these accounts is the level of continuity you see across Indian history and even today. Whether in the age of the Mauryans or modernity, a fundamental thread connects Indians across eons. Whether in 223 BCE or 2023 CE, you will witness Indians giving up the world and wrapping themselves in saffron in the pursuit of transcendence. They chant the same mantras around the same fires, worshipping the same Gods. Vegetarianism was held in high esteem then and today. This doesn’t mean India has been static. India has ebbed and flowed with time, rising and falling as a people and civilization. But there is something that has kept India as “India” through all these ages. Indivisible, unbreakable, and captivating, what the Greeks encountered millennia ago is still very much alive in India today, and that is Dharma.