The Battle of the Hydaspes between the troops of Alexander the Great and the Indian king Porus

Science History Images/Alamy

The Battle of the Hydaspes, in what is now Punjab, between the troops of Alexander the Great and the Indian king Porus, 326 BC; illustration from the Faits du Grand Alexandre, circa 1470

“They Came, They Saw, but India Conquered,” wrote the historian A.K. Narain in 1957, characterizing the effects of the Greek penetration into “India” (the ancient name included what is today Pakistan and sometimes easternmost Afghanistan). He referred not only to Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Indus Valley in 327 BC—the first large-scale encounter between Greek and Indic civilizations—but also to the era that followed, when Hellenic rump kingdoms ruled by strongmen rose and fell in northwest India and Bactria, its neighbor to the west. The presence in the region of these Hellenic states, and their occasional forays further east, created a zone of Greco-Indian contact, influence, and exchange, as well as occasional conflict, stretching from Central Asia to the Ganges.

Narain was one of the first Indian historians to write about the “Indo-Greeks,” the term he applied to the Hellenes who campaigned or settled in this part of the world. As revealed by his insistence that “India conquered” them, the inquiry into this age of contact has been complicated by issues of race, religion, nationalism, and, for Indian writers especially, the parallels (perceived or real) between Greek invaders and British imperialists. “The noun Indo-Greek…carries within it a restless tension,” the Hellenist Frank Holt recently commented in an address to a New Delhi academic conference. “That little hyphen stretches between Indo and Greek like the tightened rope in a tug-of-war between two great civilizations. It invites us to join a team at either end…to pull for a winning side.” Partisans in this struggle have sometimes taken wildly extreme positions or have reduced the discussion of Indo-Greek contact to polemical questions of which culture has first claim on a given advance or in which direction influences flowed.

Richard Stoneman, an independent scholar and editor who has made a career-long study of Alexander the Great and the legends about him, takes a sensibly moderate approach to such questions in The Greek Experience of India, when he even attempts to answer them. His book contains numerous “who influenced whom” case studies but casts a much wider net, wider even than its title indicates, for he is also interested in the Indian experience of the Greeks, which is much harder to recover. Drawing on a vast array of research, he has compiled a magisterial overview of “the Indo-Greek era,” beginning with Alexander’s crossing of the Hindu Kush mountain range in 327 BC and ending with the severing of contact about three centuries later. His goal is admirably broad-minded: to “peel back these curtains” of distortion that stood between India and its Greek visitors, “to recover their observations and to test them against what we can know from an Indian point of view” (my emphasis).

Conscious that he has his own curtains to peel back, as an Englishman who grew up in the 1960s—a time when a school chum sat with him listening to Ravi Shankar play sitar and, after fifteen minutes, leaned over to ask, “Has he finished tuning up yet?”—Stoneman has steeped himself in Indian literature, both ancient and modern, and spent considerable time exploring the subcontinent. He makes a concerted effort, in this impressive volume, not to play tug-of-war over “Indo-Greek,” even while confronting some of the harder questions surrounding that contentious hyphen.

No one fully understands why Alexander took his army eastward into India in the spring of 327 BC after reaching the Hindu Kush, a plausible eastern boundary for his conquests. Ancient sources romanticized the trip as an instance of his pothos, or “yearning,” to explore the unknown, or to surpass the travels of his mythic ancestor Heracles. More likely, a generous invitation had turned his head. A man named Ambhi—whom the Greeks called Taxiles after Taxila, the Punjabi town he ruled—had sent lavish gifts to Alexander that year, along with an offer to feed and support his 50,000 troops. Ambhi wanted a decisive victory over his eastern neighbor, whom the Greeks called Porus, and saw Alexander’s military strength as his main chance. So despite opposition from some among his ranks, Alexander hauled his huge army, encumbered by pack animals and siege equipment, through the Hindu Kush passes, then down into the Land of the Five Rivers.

Greek lore had led Alexander’s men to expect all kinds of monsters and wonders in India, but in Taxila they found something more surprising: a “university town” where mystics, sages, and scholars grouped themselves around gurus and teachers. Greek intellectuals accompanying Alexander’s army—and by some reports Alexander himself—took a strong interest in these devotees, especially a group they called Gymnosophists (“naked philosophers”), because some went unclothed as a form of ascetic practice (“possibly Jains and/or Ājīvikas,” Stoneman suggests). Alexander sent one of his officers, Onesicritus—significantly, a follower of the famous Cynic ascetic Diogenes of Sinope—to investigate a Gymnosophist gathering; there a sect leader, speaking through an interpreter, explained the group’s doctrines and way of life. This was the first attested meeting between Greek and Indian thinkers, though much has been made of indirect routes, impossible to trace, by which their ideas might have come into contact before this. (Some have supposed that Plato, who died two decades before Alexander’s entry into India, developed his ideas about reincarnation of souls out of Buddhist teachings, but Stoneman’s thorough inquiry helps put this notion to rest.)


Throughout his career, Stoneman has written extensively about this encounter and the long literary and artistic tradition it spawned. The Indian sage who gave the exegesis, identified in Greek accounts as Mandanis or Dandamis, became a Gymnosophist advocate in the fierce diatribes and fictional dialogues of late-antique and early-medieval Alexander lore, berating Greeks and Romans, and later early Christians, for materialism and ambition. Manuscript illustrators returned again and again to the theme of the Greco-Indian colloquy, often substituting Alexander himself for Onesicritus. The ethical code attributed to Mandanis may even have influenced the guidelines for monastic life drawn up by early Christians.

Because this encounter in Taxila has had such an extensive afterlife, it’s noteworthy that Stoneman here revises his views about it. In earlier writings, he surmised that Onesicritus had merely put his own Cynic beliefs into the mouth of a pious Indian; now, he believes that “a good deal of what [Onesicritus] reported is genuine Indian material.” The challenge to Western values that Mandanis came to embody thus had an authentic Eastern source. This shift of opinion, interestingly enough, came after Stoneman’s own encounter with Gymnosophists, modern-day digambara sadhus of the Jain faith, “naked ascetics…in the same tradition as those whom Alexander encountered.”

Onesicritus was not the only Greek sage in Alexander’s train who met with religious devotees in the Punjab. Pyrrho of Elis also accompanied the expedition and, according to one report at least, sought out the company of Gymnosophists. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Pyrrho returned to Greece and became a teacher of the doctrines that collectively bear his name, Pyrrhonism, also referred to as Skepticism. Pyrrho’s radical mistrust of sense perception and rejection of all dogmatism and claims to knowledge have often been traced to Indian teachings, especially the tetralemma, or fourfold negation, of early Buddhism, according to which any proposition can be true, false, both, or neither.

The connection has remained controversial, however: Richard Bett dismissed it two decades ago in his book-length study of Pyrrho, on the grounds that Buddhist ideas could not have been adequately conveyed to the Greeks through interpreters. Thomas McEvilley, whose grandly titled The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002) made an extensive survey of the intersections between Indian and Greek philosophical schools, declared that “there is nothing in Pyrrhonism which requires the hypothesis of foreign input.” Stoneman is more supportive of a Buddhist origin for Pyrrhonism, and even speculates that Pyrrho’s solitary, wandering way of life after he left India—including a curious habit of murmuring to himself—came about in imitation of Buddhist ways. Noting that Pyrrho explained his murmurs as a way of “training to be good,” Stoneman writes, “This looks suspiciously like a description of a man engaged in meditation, murmuring a mantra.”

Along with the renunciants of northwest India, Alexander’s army also (according to Plutarch) encountered a more worldly individual, whom the Greeks came to call Sandrocottus. This was Candragupta, who was a youth at the time of the Macedonian invasion but soon became the founder of the Mauryan Empire, the first centralized state to unite the Indus and Ganges valleys. Little is known of how he accomplished this consolidation and what he learned, if anything, from the Macedonians, who had done something similar in Greece before their invasion of Asia. Stoneman treads cautiously here, barely mentioning the possibility that India learned from the Greeks how to forge itself into a nation-state. He does, however, suggest that Eudamus, one of the officers Alexander appointed to hold the Punjab when he departed in 325 BC, may have been crucially involved in the rise of Candragupta, and that when Eudamus himself headed westward in 319, he left a power vacuum that Candragupta hastened to fill. By 305, when India next confronted a Macedonian attacker, its unity gave it the strength to resist. Seleucus, one of Alexander’s successors, was forced to abandon his designs on India, and Candragupta won a guarantee of autonomy in exchange for a corps of trained war elephants.


With the rise of the Mauryas, Stoneman’s focus moves eastward from Taxila to Pataliputra on the Ganges, the dynasty’s capital city. Already fortified and improved by earlier rulers, Pataliputra became a metropolis under the Mauryas, with a population of perhaps 400,000 and the earliest known examples of Indian stone buildings. Seleucus sent a Greek ambassador, Megasthenes, to the city around 303 BC, and his written account, the Indica, fixed an attractive and, in some ways, familiar version of India in the Western mind, “the sort of India that the Hellenistic and Roman worlds found it comfortable to imagine.”

The Indica survives only in fragments, but it clearly portrayed Pataliputra as a highly organized city, with sixty-four gates in its stout walls and a huge royal staff, including an all-female bodyguard squadron. A caste system (with seven levels) ensured that everyone kept to their tasks and station, but chattel slavery was unknown. This was a far different picture than that of an earlier Indica, a fantastical account by the Greek physician Ctesias, which spoke of dog-headed Indians who barked at one another and copulated in public. Already perceived as pious and wise thanks to Mandanis, the Indian now also became sophisticated in Greek eyes, a bourgeois who enjoyed imperial prosperity and urban pleasure.

From their hub at Pataliputra, the Mauryas reached out westward to a Greek world they were now more aware of. Bindusara, the son of Candragupta, reportedly asked Antiochus, the ruler of a Hellenic kingdom in West Asia, to send him figs, wine, and a “sophist”; Antiochus declined the last request, explaining that Greeks did not traffic in philosophers. (The same restriction apparently did not apply to Greek women, prized by Indian nobles of this era as imported handmaids.) A more determined approach was made by Bindusara’s son, Ashoka, who sent messengers to Antiochus (or perhaps his son of the same name) and to four other Hellenistic kings, urging them to follow the dharma that he himself had adopted when, early in his reign, he became a committed Buddhist. It’s not known how these messengers were received, but India did win a few Greek converts. A stone pillar standing today near the town of Besnagar, in central India, bears an inscription in Prakrit proclaiming that Heliodorus, the envoy of a Greek king, erected it in honor of Vishnu.

Ashoka’s missions to the West are known today from his famous rock edicts, stone steles inscribed in both Brahmi and Karoshti scripts—forms of writing, and a medium of communication, that first appeared in India at this time. Royal proclamation by rock slab looks like a tradition learned from the Achaemenid Persians, who had ruled northwest India, in the late sixth and fifth centuries BC. But the emergence of writing itself in India, seemingly just subsequent to Alexander’s incursion, has been a matter of great interest to both Hellenists and Indologists. The Greeks thought they had learned to write from Phoenicians who landed on their shores; could the Indians have learned to do so from the Greeks?

Alexander the Great meeting Gymnosophists (naked philosophers) in India

Hellenic Institute, Venice

Alexander the Great meeting Gymnosophists (naked philosophers) in India; illustration from a fourteenth-century manuscript of the Alexander Romance

Stoneman reviews the evidence dispassionately, pointing out the problems of dating the start of literacy, but also noting that Panini’s Sanskrit grammar, the first Indian text to mention writing, refers to it as yavana lipi, “Ionian [i.e., Greek] script.” He reaches no conclusions, though at one point he revealingly refers to writing as a “new technology of the invaders.” A similar thesis surrounding the emergence of drama in India, also linked by some (beginning with Plutarch) to Greek influence, gets a decisive rebuttal: Stoneman presents “a variety of evidence locating dramatic performance and dance in the centuries before the arrival of the Greeks.” (In this he concurs with Jawaharlal Nehru, who in his 1946 book, The Discovery of India, insisted on the independent origin of Indian theater.)

No account of the Greek view of India can ignore the elephant, since that beast quickly came to stand, in the Hellenic mind, for lands beyond the Hindu Kush (the African species was as yet little known). Aristotle was fascinated by the Indian elephant and described it in such detail that some have supposed, fancifully, that Alexander, his former student, had sent him one. Alexander’s army had difficulty with elephant-equipped armies in India, since its cavalry horses would not charge the unfamiliar creatures. New tactics had to be devised, later mythologized by the anonymous Greek author of the Alexander Romance (a patchwork text that evolved in the first three centuries AD). In that fictional biography, metal statues are cast to look like Macedonian soldiers, then heated red-hot, so that enemy elephants scorch their trunks when attempting to seize them.

Alexander also adopted the elephant as a weapon in his own army. A coin minted in Egypt shortly after his death shows him wearing an elephant scalp as a helmet, in place of the iconic lionskin headdress of Heracles; Stoneman might have said more than he does about this coin, later imitated by Demetrius Anicetus, a warrior-king who reinvaded India after the Maurya state had collapsed. Since coins were the ancient world’s means of mass communication, this potent image, with its complex layers of significance, had a wider diffusion in the Greek world than any other linked to India.

The seizure by Demetrius of a Bactro-Indian rump state around 185 BC marked the beginning of what one Indian inscription refers to as the Yavanarajya, the two-century “era of Greek rule.” Whereas Alexander’s army had sacked, slaughtered, and quickly departed, the Greek warlords who now occupied the Punjab and surrounding regions seemed determined to stay and to expand their holdings. Taxila once again became a Hellenic town (as seen today in the nearby archaeological site of Sirkap), and Greek arms advanced as far east as Pataliputra, perhaps under Menander I, the greatest of the Indo-Greek kings. In Indian literature, Yavanas became increasingly reviled; the Mahabharata speaks of them as Yonas and derives the term from the yoni of the cows from which they were born.

But Menander was a different story. Under a slightly altered name, he became the truth-seeking hero of the Milindapanha, or Questions of Milinda, a Pali text still regarded as canonical by some modern Buddhists. In this dialogic work, Menander, aka Milinda, poses doctrinal questions to a wise monk, Nagasena, at first seeking to trip up his interlocutor but later gratefully absorbing his lessons. Thus did India conquer, as Narain claimed, by ideas if not by force of arms. Historically, Menander was indeed a convert to Buddhism; a relief sculpture found in a stupa at Bharhut, representing a Hellenic king whose sword is adorned with Buddhist symbols, may well be an Indian portrait of him.

Stoneman reserves until near the end of his study the topic of visual arts, perhaps because of the difficulties he encounters there. Like the medium of writing, neither stone sculpture nor narrative painting can be shown to have existed in India before the Alexander era, but both began to flourish around that time. In sculpture, even before the emergence of the so-called Gandharan style—widely regarded as a fusion of Indic and Greek elements—elaborate stone friezes had appeared on temple complexes at Mathura and Sanchi in north-central India. At around the same time, a set of man-made caves at Ajanta, further south, were covered in elaborate, naturalistic wall and ceiling paintings depicting episodes from the life of the Buddha. All three sites are far removed from the region occupied by Yavanas, but their techniques are so advanced and so lacking in antecedents that Greek influence has often been discussed.

These art forms stand at the very center of the issues that provoke the tug-of-war over the Indo-Greek hyphen. As Stoneman makes clear in a series of well-chosen quotes, the Victorians who “discovered” India were also great admirers of classical Greece, and in their eyes, Indian art stood higher in value the more it could be Hellenized. In one statement exemplifying this bias, Henry Cole, who surveyed northwest Indian architecture for the British government in the late 1800s, wrote that the “exceptional excellence” of a set of bas-reliefs suggests “that Greek masons, or possibly designers, may have been called in to assist.” Stoneman is careful not to fall into such Hellenocentric thinking, but he’s also aware of more recent biases tending the opposite way. “The dominant mode in scholarship on Indian art is to be ‘Greek-blind,’” he asserts.

This crucial section of Stoneman’s study proceeds methodically and reaches cautious conclusions, but in general supports the thesis of Greek influence. Stoneman notes that among the musicians depicted on the eastern frieze of the Sanchi temple, one plays a double-reeded aulos that seems unmistakably Greek; in Mathura, female figures wear girdles tied in the distinctive Heracles knot used in Greek wedding garments. Sculptural depictions of the lion—at this time, a West Asian beast—borrow motifs from Greek or perhaps Persian exemplars. “Any assessment is bound to be subjective,” Stoneman concludes, but the evidence he himself has adduced appears to have objective force. In the case of painting, he sallies forth more boldly, pointing out links between the Ajanta murals and those found in Macedonian tombs of the same era, presumably painted by Greeks. “To my eye the paintings at Ajanta could have been made by a Greek (Macedonian) observing intently the Indian life around him,” Stoneman ventures. “At present it seems impossible to do more than speculate.”

“India is the inner state of every man,” reads one of the epigrams with which Stoneman prefaces his first chapter (there are more, and many delightful ones, under each chapter heading). Both the sentiment and the source—the writer Bill Aitken, a Scotsman who emigrated to India as a young man and lives there still, decades later—are revealing of the spirit that guides this intriguing and valuable book. It seems Stoneman has been able to find India in the ancient Greek soul because, after decades as a committed Hellenist, he has found it in his own.