What Did India Learn from the Greeks?

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…

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