Sadhus & Yogis of India
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India and the Greek World; A study in the transmission of culture.

Sedlar, Jean W.

New Jersey, 1980.

III Classical Notes on India

[10] The name of India, so far as is known, first appears in Greek literature in the 5th century B.C. in the works of Hekataios and Herodotos. The word is derived from the Indus river (Sanskrit sindhu means "river"), and in the Greek as well as the Persian language 'India" originally meant only the Indus region, which then belonged to the Persian empire. Herodotos, however, already used the term in a wider sense to denote the whole country; and classical Greek usage followed his example.

Prior to the time of Alexander, Greek knowledge of India was acquired on the whole by way of Persia. King Cyrus, founder of the Persian empire and of the Achaemenid dynasty (reigned 559-530 B.C.), added to his territories the region called Gandhara, directly south of the Hindu Kush mountains. About 518-515 B.C. Dareios I extended this conquest southward as far as the Indus river. Thereby the Indus became the easternmost boundary of the vast Persian colossus, which sprawled across all of western Asia to include, after 546 B.C., most of the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor. Communications between the extremities of this huge polity were now unimpeded by political frontiers. Moreover, Persian policies served inadvertently to promote that mixture of nationalities which so frequently provides intellectual stimulus. Large-scale deportations of peoples occurred on occasion, while slaves captured in war of often came to reside in portions of the empire far removed from their original homes. The skills and labor power of all of Persia's subjects, Greeks included, were employed in imperial building projects. Many Greeks served as officials or mercenaries in the various Achaemenid provinces; on occasion Greek physicians were employed at the Persian royal courts Conversely, Indian troops formed a contingent of !he Persian army which invaded Greece in 480 B.C., and of the army which opposed Alexander at Gaugamela in 331 B.C. Unquestionably the requirements of war, administration and commerce in the far-flung Persian empire produced numerous encounters between Indians and [11] Greeks. Most of these, no doubt, were inconsequential; but even genuine exchanges of ideas will ordinarily have left no trace for posterity.

One Greek in Persian employ who allegedly both travelled to India and wrote a book on the subject is Skylax of Karia, a mercenary soldier and subject of King Dareios I. At the command of this ruler, who wished to know at what point the Indus flows into the ocean, Skylax reputedly took a fleet of ships from the headwaters of the river down to its mouth, thence westward across the ocean and into the Red Sea as far as Suez. As described by Herodotos, this voyage was exploratory in nature, and was later followed by Dareios' conquest of the Indus territory. Unfortunately, there is good reason to question whether Skylax really made this voyage, or published an account of it which was available in the Greek world. In view of the warlike tribes whom Alexander the Great later encountered along this route, it is difficult to imagine a small explorer's party making this journey successfully. At the same time, extant evidence scarcely permits the alternative conclusion that Skylax‘s expedition formed part of Dareios' conquering army. More importantly, a genuine voyager cannot have believed that the Indus flows eastward, as Herodotos reports, or that the trip required two and a half years. The latter notion is explainable only upon the historian's assumption that the expedition involved the circumnavigation of India.

Herodotos (484-425 B. C.)

Knowledge communicated via Persia was doubtless also the source for those few Indian names which appear in surviving remnants of Hekataios of Miletos' Geography (ca. 500 B.C.). Unfortunately, the small number of the fragments makes it nearly impossible to tell precisely what Hekataios did know about India. By contrast, information is plentiful concerning his successor, Herodotos of Halikarnassos (484-425 B. C.), whose Histories have survived in their entirety. The work of Herodotos provides an enormous variety of data about many countries - some of it in fact derived from Hekataios. Although it is probably safe to assume that Herodotos himself never visited India, he was an indefatigable collector of anecdotes from many sources. He knew, for example, that India embraced diverse peoples of widely varying physical appearance, customs and language. Some Indians were nomadic an ate raw flesh; others refused to kill any living creature. Apparently he also recognized the distinction between the Aryan and Dravidian races; the latter he compares to the Ethiopians in skin color and notes that they "dwell far away from the Persians southwards, and were no subjects of King Dareios." However, Herodotos clearly exaggerates India's population, saying that the Indians are "more in number than any nation known to me.” He emphasizes the country's wealth in gold; according to his information, India supplied a larger tribute than any other province of the Persian empire. Indian birds and beasts he regards as much bigger than those existing elsewhere, except for horses; Indian clothing he describes as [12] made from wool growing on trees (i.e. cotton). Herodotos' notions of geography were understandably inaccurate: for instance his belief that the Indus flows eastward, and that India constitutes the easternmost inhabited region of Asia, with only desert wastes beyond. Interestingly, nothing in his remarks gives the impression that India possessed much in the way of civilization, let alone the philosophic and religious eminence for which it became noted in Hellenistic times.

Herodotos' most famous statement about India-that gold is produced in the Indian desert by fierce ants larger than foxes-appears at first sight utterly fantastic.

Ktesias (405-397 B.C.)

[] Finally, the last of those Greeks before Alexander who are known to have written about India was Ktesias of Knidos, who ought to have known more about the subject than any of his predecessors. A medical doctor by profession, he served for eight years (405-397 B.C.) as personal physician to the Persian king Artaxerxes Mnemon. Living thus at the Achaemenid court, he had unexampled opportunities to communicate with Persians of high rank and acquire an insight into the workings of the Persian empire. Upon his return to Greece Ktesias wrote a book called Persika, covering the entire history of the Near East from its beginnings down to his own time, as well as a much smaller work called Indika. Both of these have disappeared; but a number of fragmentary citations remain extant, together with extensive excerpts made by the Byzantine patriarch Photios in the 9th century.

Ktesias' credibility as a historian was already questioned by Aristotle, [13] and has remained a disputed issue. His books were full of entertaining stories and descriptions, including undoubted exaggerations if not pure fantasy in some cases. Thus he has been described as a founder of the historical novel. He claimed to have used Persian royal archives in gathering his material, though this seems unlikely, given the legendary character of so much that he relates. Unfortunately he had slight critical sense, and superimposed improbable stories upon what may originally have been genuine traditions. But he was a popular author, as the survival of his works into the 9th century demonstrates. Until the age of Alexander the Great he was a standard authority on Persia and India. With respect to India the information Ktesias has to offer is occasionally accurate, though more often exaggerated. Even from the vantage-point of the Persian court at Susa, India was still a strange and virtually unknown country; at such a distance, marvels become credible. He did take care, nonetheless, to distinguish between things he had seen himself and information he had only acquired by hearsay. He never claimed to have visited India, though we may suppose that he sometimes had occasion to meet Indians, or Persian officials who had served in the empire's Indian territories. Presumably he had seen articles of tribute or presents offered by Indian princes to the powerful Persian monarch. Thus he knew that India contained elephants, little monkeys with long tails, huge birds and talking parrots, and silver and gold in the mountains. But with equal assurance he describes Indian wonders: a fountain which fills with liquid gold each year; dogs large enough to fight lions; a river consisting of honey: a spring in which the water curdles like cheese, and if drunk becomes a truth serum; people who live as long as 200 years, and others having eight fingers on each hand and ears long enough to cover their shoulders. He does not examine such tales according to any standard of verisimilitude - except to say that he has omitted to relate even more extraordinary matters for fear he will not be believed! If we may judge from the wide dissemination of his books, Greek. readers did not expect a sceptical approach to the marvels of the Orient.

What the Greeks actually knew about India, therefore, was not very much and not very accurate. As the fruit of writings like those of Hekataios, Herodotos and Ktesias, educated Greeks of the period undoubtedly possessed some rudimentary awareness of India's existence. Presumably such information did not remain totally without effect. Knowledge of foreign peoples was a prime stimulus in causing the Greeks to examine their own traditions in a critical spirit; and this in turn had enormous importance in the development of Greek intellectual life. Herodotos himself gives evidence of how foreign contacts might produce a relativistic point of view: he notes that while each nation possesses its own customs, each also considers its own to be superior. As an example [14] he cites certain Indians at the court of Dareios of Persia, who considered it normal to eat their own fathers' dead bodies, but abhorrent to cremate them. The Greeks, of course, held precisely the opposite view.

Not totally to be discounted is the possibility that Indian religious ideas filtered into Greece through the agency of wandering holy man. The itinerant ascetic has been a familiar figure in India since the beginning of that country's recorded history. Buddhist missionary impulses in particular may have inspired occasional monks to proselytize beyond the Himalayas, though this becomes more likely from the 3rd century B.C. onward, when Buddhism experienced its first great age of expansion. One edict of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka (3rd cen. B.C.) actually records that he sent envoys into various Hellenistic countries to propagate the "Law of Piety." The fact that no Buddhist writings of this period have ever been discovered on Hellenistic territory is not, in itself, conclusive evidence to the contrary: the Indian guru typically exerts his influence by means of speech and example rather than by written texts. Nonetheless, pre-Hellenistic sources totally fail to mention the presence of Indians of any kind among the Greeks.

Sokrates (469-399 B.C.)

On this theme, however, a curious anecdote is told about the philosopher Sokrates (469-399 B.C.). According to the story, Sokrates in Athens once conversed with an Indian, who inquired what sort of philosopher he was. When Sokrates replied that he "investigated human life," the Indian laughed, saying that "no one was able to observe human affairs if he was ignorant of divine affairs." This incident is reported by the Christian historian Eusebios (260-340 A.D.), who cites it at two removes: from Aristokles, who in turn is quoting the musicologist Aristoxenos (fl. 320-300 B.C.). But even if the citation is accurate, the incident as recorded is highly improbable. Certainly a stray Indian holy man may have wandered somehow as far as Athens in the classical period, and even learned Greek along the way, though the probabilities are against it. But it is virtually unthinkable that such a man, once arrived, would have been regarded as a sage. Not only had the Greeks of Sokrates' time no inkling that the Indians might possess a philosophy; their contempt for “barbarians” (i.e. all non-Greeks) would have profoundly hindered any mutual understanding. Furthermore, it is beyond belief that a Greek of the 4th century B.C. (Aristoxenos) would have permitted an Indian to have the last word - the final laugh - in a discussion with so revered a personage as Sokrates. Conceivably the idea of an Indian's encounter with Sokrates was invented by Aristoxenos, who lived in the period just after Alexander's Indian expedition, and whose imagination may well have been aroused by that extraordinary adventure. But even if the meeting (unlikely as it is) did in fact occur, the contents of the conversation would seem to belong to a much later century. The late-Hellenistic age, unlike its classical predecessor, held a notably high [15] opinion of Indian wisdom. Eusebios himself may well have been glad to cite the alleged remark of an Indian in confirmation of the Christian conviction that divine concerns take precedence over human ones.

Despite the classical Greeks' ignorance of India, some significance presumably attaches to the fact that Greek philosophy originated in the cities of lonia on Asia Minor's western shore - that portion of the Greek world in closest touch with the Orient. Admittedly, this circumstance scarcely permits any inferences regarding Indian influence upon the Greeks. But the inter-cultural communication which the policies of the Persian empire facilitated certainly gave impetus to intellectual creativity - an impetus which cannot have remained without effect upon the life of Greece.

V Soul-Wandering

[20] The notion that spirits or souls of dead persons may inhabit or "possess" animals or plants is widespread among both ancient and modern peoples in many parts of the world. But the belief that the life-force or soul of the individual passes from life to life, inhabiting a different physical body in each existence, is a much rarer doctrine. Known as metempsychosis or transmigration of souls, it is found in developed form in the ancient world only in India and Greece. Metempsychosis appears in rudimentary form in the Upanishads, and subsequently became incorporated into the ethical teaching of all the major Indian thought-systems down to the present day. Though vastly more important in Indian than in Greek religion, it was nonetheless known in Greece as early as the 6th century B.C., and played a significant role in Orphism and Pythagoreanism. Plato in the early 4th century B.C. could already refer to it as "an ancient tradition."

The earliest known mention of metempsychosis in any extant source occurs in a verse of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, which probably dates from the 7th or 6th century B.C., though an earlier reference in the Rig Veda may hint at it. The development of this doctrine in India is apparently connected with the growth of monistic tendencies in religion, as the period which produced the ritualistic Brahmana literature passed into that of the more philosophical Upanishads, and then to the devotional Bhagavad Gita and the bhakti (i.e. faith) cults. The numerous gods and goddesses of the older Vedic hymns were gradually brought into a single system, each becoming identified with others, until eventually all were considered to be manifestations of Brahman, the world-essence. Likewise all earthly beings came to be linked through the idea of transmigration of souls. However, in the few instances where transmigration is mentioned in the Upanishads it is not associated with any theory of ethics. These texts are quite clear on the point that the soul of a person is freed from further transmigration only through mystic knowledge, not through "works" or actions of any sort.

[23] But in both India and Greece, metempsychosis in its characteristic and fullest development was a decisively ethical doctrine. The present status of every living being - whether human or animal, man or woman, high- or low-caste, happy or miserable - was believed to be the direct result of the quality of its behavior in previous earthly existences. Certain Greek mystery-cults apparently held that the soul becomes purified only through a series of successive rebirths. In India, metempsychosis was taught as an ethical doctrine by Buddhists and Jains, Vishnuites and Shivaites, adherents of the Sankhya and Vedanta philosophies, and by the practitioners of Yoga. Formulated as the law of karma (i.e. "act" or "deed"), ethical metempsychosis served to sanction traditional mores, inasmuch as proper behavior was defined according to custom. Strange from the Western viewpoint is the fact that karma was believed to operate as a kind of natural law, not requiring the intervention of any personalized form of deity.

The earliest Indian religion in which karma is known to have occupied a central place is Jainism, whose traditional founder, Parshvanatha, probably lived about the 8th century B.C. Jainism, which survives today as the faith of some two million Indians, first came to history's attention in the person of Mahavira (ca. 540-468 B.C.), its greatest exponent. Jain doctrine teaches that each living creature possesses a material soul (jiva) which is originally pure and colorless, but through the activities of life becomes contaminated by karmic matter. Every act committed by man or beast is believed to produce karmic coloring on the soul - light colors for virtuous deeds, medium tones for minor offenses, with the darkest shades being reserved for serious transgressions. Since dark-colored stains are supposed to weigh down the soul, while lighter ones allow it to rise, the light-colored souls will be reborn correspondingly as gods or humans, the darker ones as animals or plants, or as inhabitants of Hell.

By the time of Gautama the Buddha, who was a contemporary of Mahavira, metempsychosis and the law of karma seem to have become widely accepted in India as virtually self-evident truths. It would otherwise be difficult to explain their acceptance in the Buddhist metaphysics, which declares all earthly phenomena to be in a state of continuous flux, and denies the existence of any permanent entity whatever. To Buddhists the notion of soul is self-contradictory - an opinion which (at least in the view of some critics) ought to exclude the idea of karma, since there is no soul or subtle material body to provide continuity from one life to the next. But as far as we can judge from the extant scriptures, early Buddhists were not unduly disturbed by this difficulty. Gautama himself discouraged all metaphysical speculation on the ground that it hindered the true goal of the religious life - namely, relief from earthly suffering. Only several centuries after the Master's death did the second great branch of Buddhism, the Mahayana, attempt to reconcile the ideas of [24] karma and universal flux. The Mahayana school explains karma as a kind of psychic energy, not as a material appendage to the soul. Karma is transferred from one person's life to the next through the chain of "dependent origination" which governs the workings of the universe.

A variation of metempsychosis was taught by the Sankhya philosophy, numerous schools of which are known to have flourished in India in the first half-millennium A.D. Sankhya in some form may actually be older even than Buddhism, though as a dualist and atheist system the earliest known exposition of it - the Sankhya-karika of Ishvarakrishna - dates only from about the 4th century A.D. Like Jainism, Sankhya assumes the existence of a plurality of souls; but it differs by its assertion that the soul (purusha) is a purely spiritual entity, incapable of being affected by material qualities such as color. In spite of this, the Sankhya notion of karma remains materialistic. It assumes that the visible living creature contains a subtler (but still material) inner body composed of the sense faculties, the breaths (which are the source of life), and the mind. This subtle body, rather than the soul, is the bearer of karmic influences and the basis of the reincarnated personality. Though the visible body dies, the subtle body persists and is reborn in human, animal or plant form according to the number and depth of the karmic scars upon it. Liberation from the otherwise endless succession of births and deaths is possible only when the person fully recognizes (through a kind of mystic intuition) that the soul is essentially pure and free, its bondage to matter (prakriti) being merely the produce of ignorance.


In Greece metempsychosis is not directly attested by any source before Plato, though its presence at an earlier date can probably be inferred. The doctrine is linked to the Orphics; we hear of "Orphic" holy men who wandered about seeking adherents and conducted religious ceremonies; but it is unclear just what their teachings were. The dramatist Euripides criticized some of these persons as unscrupulous practitioners claiming magical powers. The Orphics lived as vegetarians; they refused to sacrifice animals and used only bloodless offerings at their rites, possibly on the ground that human souls may migrate into animals. Orphic ceremonies were designed to purify the sinner of guilt, to assuage the anger of the gods, to cure disease, or to facilitate the soul's passage into the lower regions after death. Probably they included reading from books; all sources agree on the importance the Orphics attached to the written word. Plato could be referring to Orphics - though he does not say so expressly - when he speaks of the persons who equate the body with a prison or tomb of the soul, which is undergoing punishment for some reason. Likewise he mentions "certain priests and priestesses" - perhaps Orphics - who claim that the soul is immortal and will be reborn, and that therefore human beings on earth should lead a holy life. Surviving sources hardly permit us to judge whether or not a [25] distinct sect of Orphic believers, as distinct from mere practitioners of cult ceremonies, ever existed in Greece. However, the worship of the god Dionysos was sometimes associated with the rites of Orpheos; some texts also connect these rites with the Eleusinian mysteries.

The origins of Orphism too are wholly enshrouded in myth. As seen from the 4th century B.C., Orpheos was a personage both distant in time (allegedly pre-Homeric) and remote in origin: his home was semi-barbarous Thrace. Reputedly he was one of the great classic poets, equal to Homer and Hesiodos. Various poems circulated under his name, though sceptics denied his authorship: e.g. Ion of Chios says that the true source of some "Orphic" poems was Pythagoras. According to legend Orpheos had been a gentle lyre-player who could charm the most fearsome beasts by his music, and had initiated the mystic ceremonies (teletai) conducted in his name. Allegedly he had once visited the underworld seeking the soul of his dead wife, Eurydice, and afterward returned again to earth. Indeed, in many respects Orpheos resembles the typical shaman - a type of magician and miracle-worker known since ancient times in Central Asia and Siberia. The shaman is able to bring about a connection with the souls of the dead, with demons and nature-spirits; he experiences ecstatic trances in which his soul leaves its body and journeys to heaven or to the nether regions. Thus he serves as mediator for the living in their relations with the gods. The Orpheos of legend bears many characteristically shamanistic features: his journey to the underworld; his function as guide for the soul in its descent to Hades; his love of music and animals; his ability to heal disease, and his magical and soothsaying powers. Even the legend of his singing head - allegedly cut off by priestesses of Bakchos and thrown into a river in Thrace, where it floated as far as Lesbos and became an oracle - has analogues in Central Asia: the skulls of Siberian shamans are considered capable of prophecy.

Orphism remained a nebulous kind of religious underground in Greece, difficult to link with particular individuals or dates. But its most famous doctrine - namely, metempsychosis - was certainly taught by several identifiable persons of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. One of these was Pherekydes of Syros, who composed a mythological account of the workings of the universe, the functions of the gods, and the fate of souls after death. All this he is supposed to have learned through revelation or secret books, probably Semitic in origin; his own forebears seem to have come from Asia Minor. Pherekydes asserted that the human soul passes from one body to another; apparently he also taught that the souls of the righteous and of the wicked will undergo divergent fates after death. Pherekydes was reputed to have been Pythagoras' teacher. Though there is no good evidence for this, the Pythagoreans of later times studied his book; and the teachings of the two men are similar in certain [26] respects.

Pythagoras (6th cent. B.C.)

Pythagoras too taught soul-wandering; this is attested by the oldest traditions about him. Founder of a religious brotherhood in Kroton in south Italy (6th cent. B.C.), he reputedly could remember four of his own previous existences: namely as Aithalides son of Hermes, as the Euphorbos who was killed in the Trojan war, as a certain Hermotimos, and as a Delian fisherman. He believed in a psychic connection among all forms of life, claiming that his own soul was constantly passing into animals and plants; he claimed also to have visited Hades. Pythagoras' name is linked to that of Orpheos: a number of classical sources agree in placing the two side by side. His followers shared many features of the Orphics' way of life, especially the prohibition of meat eating and the employment of mystic rites to purify the soul. Music constituted a further bond between them: Orpheos' music supposedly could soothe even the guardians of Hades, while Pythagoras allegedly had discovered the mathematical relations of the notes on the musical scale. The differences between Orphics and Pythagoreans apparently lay in the realm of cult and social status, rather than doctrine: Pythagoreans were aristocratic, Orphics usually not; Pythagoreans honored Apollo, the Orphics Dionysos. Finally, the Orphic doctrine remained on a mythological plane, interpreting the universe in terms of personalized deities and procreation; while the Pythagoreans developed in the direction of rationalism. They became philosophers and mathematicians; their number-philosophy is an important source for Plato's theory of Ideas.

It is not always easy to separate the later Pythagorean philosophy from its more primitive antecedents. The historical Pythagoras, like Orpheos, was a shaman-like figure. His connection with gods and spirits, his rule over animals, his ecstasy, his presence in more than one place at a time, are all shamanistic traits, as is his periodic residence underground (in the underworld?), from which he periodically emerged looking like a skeleton – i.e. after fasting. Even his golden thigh, considered a sign of divinity, may derive from a practice typical of shamanistic initiations, in which the holy man's body is allegedly chopped into pieces and reassembled. Various other Greek religious figures shared these shaman-like characteristics. For instance there was Aristeas of Prokonnesos, who appeared in various places at once and accompanied Apollo in the form of a crow (a bird symbolizes the shaman's heavenward journey). Hermotimos of Klazomenai allegedly abandoned his body for years at a time; during this long ecstatic journey he traveled about prophesying. Epimenides of Crete reportedly slept for a long time in Zeus' cave on Mount Ida (retreat into a cave being a classic form of shamanistic initiation), where he fasted and fell into ecstatic trances. Thereafter he performed miraculous cures, announced the future, interpreted the past, [29] and exorcised demons. Plato recounts the legend of Er the Pamphylian, who fell in battle; his soul passed into the underworld. After twelve days it returned to earth to report what it had seen; Er's body still lay on the funeral pyre. Other similar tales are recorded in Greek classic literature. While untypical of Greek religion as a whole, they are not entirely uncommon.

Such stories of soul-wandering lead by a rather small conceptual step to a full-fledged doctrine of ethical metempsychosis. A soul which can leave its body and travel about at will - as the souls of shamans supposedly do - can reasonably be expected to choose its own situation. Thus in Plato's myth, Er observes how Fate directs the souls in the mysterious Beyond to select their own future lives. Various patterns of lives are laid out on the ground: human as well as animal ones. The soul makes its choice; henceforth it must cleave by necessity to the life it has selected. Though legendary in form, this is clearly a doctrine of ethical metempsychosis. Nor did the tale originate with Plato, who begins it with "once upon a time.” Presumably it represents an older mythological and philosophical tradition.

Empedokles (early 5th cent. B.C.)

A whole century earlier, the philosopher Empedokles (early 5th cent. B.C.) taught metempsychosis. His poem Katharmoi deals with the fall of the soul from an original state of blessedness, and the ways by which it may regain its original purity. Empedokles regarded the soul as a divine being which had sinned, and which as an exile from the gods must wander about for thrice ten thousand years. In the meantime it must pass through all kinds of mortal shapes on land, sea and in the air. Empedokles himself claimed to have been a boy and a girl, a bird, a fish and a bush in previous incarnations. But in his current existence he evidently considered himself pure: in his native city of Akragas (if his own statement on the matter may be believed), he was honored as a god in his own lifetime. Significantly, Empedokles' philosophy of nature rests upon principles analogous to his doctrine of metempsychosis: it assumes the same periodic association and disassociation of elements which characterizes his concept of bodies and souls. He believed that the world is eternal: nothing has either a beginning or an end. The elements intermingle and cohere, then separate, then re-integrate, and so on forever.



Plato too, apart from his tale of Er, refers to metempsychosis in several of his dialogues. In the Kratylos he mentions "some persons" who consider the body as a prison or tomb of the soul. In Phaidon he describes metempsychosis, though not as if he believed it himself, but rather as a pious hope or ethical desideratum. He presents the doctrine in the form of a myth, or as hearsay, while stating at the time that he finds no philosophical objection to it. Certainly the doctrine harmonizes well with his dualistic concept of the universe: namely his division of the human being into mortal body and immortal soul, and his division of the cosmos into the world of the senses and the world of Ideas.

Like the Jains of India, Plato describes wickedness as a corporeal weight or appendage upon the deathless soul: "The soul which is pure at departing draws after her no bodily taint," he says, whereas "the corporeal is burdensome and heavy and earthly and visible. And such a soul is weighed down by this and is dragged back into the visible world.” Moreover, the "corporeal" is the product of sens-al desire - a view reminiscent of the Indian notion that purity requires the subduing of bodily appetites. Finally, Plato's concept of metempsychosis agrees with the Indian doctrine in its inclusion of all living beings, not merely human ones. Thus he thought that men who had indulged in gluttony, violence and drunkenness might pass into the bodies of asses; persons who had chosen injustice, tyranny and robbery could become wolves and hawks, while those who had chosen moderation and justice might become social animals like bees or wasps, or even human beings once more.

Widely-discussed though it was, the metempsychosis-idea presented problems for the classical Greeks. Clearly they felt the doctrine to be foreign; thus they discussed its possible place of origin. According to Herodotos (mid-5th cent. B.C.), the Greeks first learned about metempsychosis in Egypt. Modern scholarship is sceptical of this claim: nothing discovered as yet in the texts of ancient Egypt suggests that metempsychosis, at least as the Greeks understood it, formed any part of [31] the ancient Egyptian religion. Nonetheless, Herodotos' opinion cannot be dismissed as pure error. Historical logic does not require that alien ideas be adopted either intact or not at all. The Egyptians did in fact believe in soul-wandering under certain special circumstances, which is to say that if the Greeks did borrow the idea from Egypt, they at some point altered its essential significance. Metempsychosis in Greek thought, as in Indian, is inseparable from the idea of reward or punishment for one's deeds in previous earthly lives. The Egyptian concept was different: occasional favored souls in heaven (i.e. the souls of deceased Pharaohs and high officials), if they knew the appropriate spells, were believed capable of taking up residence in their own tombs, or in the bodies of birds or animals: i.e. they could assume any form they desired. Aware as he was that the civilization of Egypt antedated that of Greece, Herodotos may easily have decided that Greek metempsychosis was indebted to Egyptian antecedents. Whether the Greeks themselves preserved any historical memory of an Egyptian origin for this doctrine is very doubtful.


Pythagoras too is linked by Greek writers with Egypt, and with India besides - apparently because he too taught metempsychosis. According to a tradition already current in classical times, Pythagoras had lived for a while in Egypt, where he presumably consulted the priests concerning their ancient sacred lore. Our earliest evidence for this notion is a remark by Isokrates (4th cent. B.C.), who is probably recounting accepted belief. However, Herodotos too may have had Pythagoras in mind when he referred to "certain Greek writers" who, he claimed, had learned metempsychosis in Egypt, but whose names he mysteriously refused to divulge. Quite possibly this alleged connection of Pythagoras with Egypt represents an attempt to legitimize his ideas by linking them with hoary tradition. In any event, a Greek philosopher's visit to Egypt even as early as the 6th century B.C. is in no way incredible. Graeco-Egyptian trade relations certainly existed at that time, and long before. Indeed, the Egyptians' reputation as originators of the arts of civilization may well have encouraged educated Greeks to seek them out.

But Pythagoras' alleged connection with India is far more dubious. The extant statements that he visited that country - all made by authors removed from Pythagoras' own lifetime by an interval of five to seven centuries - are unsupported by any credible evidence. In the late-Hellenistic age informed Greeks were aware that the Indian Brahmins believed in metempsychosis; thus the conclusion was not far to seek that Pythagoras had acquired his ideas in India. The intellectual fashion of the day undoubtedly played a role here: it was common in the Hellenistic period to attribute Greek ideas to remote and exotic sources. The assertion that Pythagoras in the 6th century B.C. visited India - a country of which barely the name was known in those days in Greece - is unlikely [32] in the extreme. We are probably safe in attributing this curious notion to the Hellenistic (but certainly not classical) Greek view that the philosophers of India possessed some special wisdom.

Another possible source for the metempsychosis-idea was Thrace, the wild country north of the Aegean. Inhabited in the interior by semi-civilized tribes, it bordered the Hellespont and held occasional Greek settlements along its littoral. Various indications do point to Thrace in connection with metempsychosis. The geographer Pomponius Mela reported  - albeit in a later period - that some of the Thracian tribes believed in it; the doctrine may well have been much older among them. The god-poet Orpheos reputedly came from this country; and metempsychosis was Orphic doctrine. Pythagoras too was given a link with Thrace. According to a curious story told by Herodotos, the Thracian tribe of Getae believed in a powerful demon called Zalmoxis who lived in an underground dwelling; every fourth year they sent him a "messenger" in the form of a human sacrifice. Herodotos' informants - Greek settlers in Thrace - claimed that this Zalmoxis had once been a man, a slave of Pythagoras in Samos. The basis for the connection appears obscure, until we recall that undoubtedly it was the soul rather than the body of the sacrificial victim which journeyed to Zalmoxis; and Pythagoras was famous for his belief in soul-wandering. Herodotos, who had his own theory about the origin of metempsychosis, did not fully believe the story: he thought that Zalmoxis had lived long before Pythagoras.

Clearly the Greeks themselves were puzzled as to where the metempsychosis-idea came from: they agreed only that it was an idea somehow alien to their own mainline tradition. But their successors have not been notably more successful in resolving the problem. The origin of metempsychosis is still a disputed question. In view of the fragmentary preservation of sources from pre-classical times, it may be insoluble.

VI Asceticism: Celibacy and Food Laws

A radical denigration of the physical world of the senses comes occasionally to expression in the literature of classical Greece. On a philosophical level, the best-known case is no doubt Plato's recommendation that the soul be cultivated in preference to the body. But a religiously-motivated asceticism can also be found in Greece even prior to the enormous inflow of exotic influences which occurred in the Hellenistic age. Certain priests. and sometimes also the worshippers of particular deities, were commanded to avoid various foods offensive to the gods, to fast, and to practice se+ual abstinence. Such requirements, to be sure, were exceptional. Taken as a whole, both the theory and practice of asceticism constituted a far more integral part of Indian than of Greek culture during the classical age.


[36] ….. the best-known type of Greek asceticism is purely philosophical, associated with no prescribed form of physical or mental discipline. The body-soul dualism of Plato led naturally to the conclusion that the soul's welfare demanded subjugation of bodily appetites. Plato's attitude toward the body perhaps was influenced by Orphic beliefs that purity of soul brought escape from reincarnation. Thus he suggests, through the mouth of Sokrates, that "those who have indulged in gluttony and violence and drunkenness, and have taken no pains to avoid them, are likely to pass into the bodies of asses and other beasts of that sort." "Desire of the corporeal" causes such souls to wander about until they again become imprisoned in a mortal frame. "Each pleasure or pain nails [the soul] as with a nail to the body and rivets it on and makes it corporeal, so that it fancies the things are true which the body says are true. Escape from constant rebirth is only possible through "beholding that which is true and divine and not a matter of opinion," i.e. through philosophy.

But from a very early period the Greeks accepted certain notions of [37] ritual purity or pollution. Anyone desiring to make contact with the gods, i.e. to enter a temple or perform a sacrifice, had first to free himself of pollution. Exceptional purity was required of priests and priestesses - i.e. those persons who entered the temple regularly and handled sacred objects. The sources of ritual pollution varied widely according to the views of the different cults; most were taboos of a fairly primitive kind. The list of animals which might not be sacrificed, or of food which might not be eaten by the devotees of one or another deity, is a long one. Some metals could not be brought near to certain shrines; contact with murderers, corpses, insane persons, menstruating women or women in childbirth was widely regarded as polluting. Unless the worshipper observed the prohibitions, the god would take offense and withhold his blessings. Pollution could be removed, however, through specified procedures (depending on the cause): by washings or fumigations (frequently with sulfur), or by contact with pure things like laurel or olive branches, or by pig's blood (which was allegedly capable of trapping demons). Analogous concepts of ritual pollution and cleansing – although differing in specific methods and in the items forbidden - may be found in the ritualistic portions of the Indian Vedas or the Laws of Manu.

An act widely regarded as polluting both in ancient India and in classical Greece, was se+ual intercourse. Many Greek cults demanded that the participants in divine worship be chaste. Thus in some cases virgins and youths performed cult ceremonies, or priests and worshippers had to abstain from se+ual activity for a specified time-period before and during worship services. Chaste priests and priestesses served the great virgin goddesses, Athena and Artemis. Participants in the Eleusinian mysteries were required to avoid se+ual acts during the process of initiation. The Pythagorean brotherhood permitted se+ual relations only for purposes of procreation. But on the whole, continence plays a much smaller role in Greek than in Indian religion of the same period. Judging from the references to saints an sages in early Indian literature, Indian holy men frequently practiced a severe asceticism which included life-long se+ual abstinence. By contrast, the Greek type of religious chastity was usually temporary in nature. None of the Greek cults regarded permanent celibacy as an ideal mode of' existence.

The Greeks of historic times explained their regulations concerning continence on the ground that the union of human beings with gods or goddesses was se+ual (not mystic). For this reason such relationships with humans were forbidden to persons aspiring to union with a deity. Anyone sexually polluted had to undergo ritual purification before initiation into the sacred mysteries. But rationalist explanations fail to touch the probable source of the Greeks' feeling that chastity is associated [38] with purity - a feeling which certainly antedates any systematic theology. From the remotest times, both in India and Greece, the opinion was widespread that the se+ual act is polluting, even in wedlock, and that se+ual intercourse constitutes an impediment to holiness.

Another typical feature of classical Greek asceticism is the prohibition of meat-eating. The Orphics, for example, were known for their strict abstention from flesh; Plato says this was because they considered it "unholy to eat [meat] or to stain with blood the altars of the gods." Aristophanes in his drama The Frogs says that Orpheos was famous for teaching mankind not to kill - he does not specify animals, though this is probably what he means. In Euripides' play Hippolytos a father taunts his son with the "lifeless food" he eats since taking Orpheos for his "king." Clearly the prohibition was not uncommon. This abstention from meat must be viewed in light of the fact that animal sacrifice constituted the central act of Greek city-state religion. Through this ritual the citizen reaffirmed his membership in the body politic; and ordinarily meat-eating was inseparable from the sacrifice. Refusal to touch meat thus carried political as well as religious overtones. An ancient myth elucidated the meaning of sacrifice: when the god Prometheos taught mankind the use of fire, he reserved cooked meat to human beings, but left flavors and odors as the food of the gods. Animal sacrifice, which produced the odors of cooked meat, thus supplied the gods with nourishment and established direct communication between them and humankind.


Whether the Pythagoreans forbade meat-eating absolutely is not clear from ancient sources. We know that they sacrificed cereals, raw plants and perfumes (incense, myrrh) instead of meat. In so doing, and in eliminating meat from their diet, they may have sought to reduce the religious distance between themselves and the gods, thereby negating Prometheos' original dichotomy between those who eat meat and those who (being immortal) need not do so. Some ancient authorities claim that Pythagoras himself abstained from meat-eating, though others say that he did not forbid the tasting of sacrificial meat. According to Plato, the Pythagoreans explained their abstention from meat on the ground that animals and human beings have the same type of souls, and that it is impious to act unjustly toward one's own kindred. Pythagoras' near contemporary, Empedokles, took approximately the same line; he abhorred animal sacrifice on the ground that one might thereby slay a close relative.

Certainly Pythagoras held a variety of primitive taboos which date back to a rather early stage of Greek religion. He believed, for example, that it was unlucky to stir a fire with a knife, to step over the beam of a balance, sit on a bushel, leave the imprint of a pan in the ashes, shake hands too eagerly, allow swallows under one's roof, etc. Many more [39] regulations of similar ilk are credited to him - apparently based on fears of demons and evil spirits. Greeks of later times, however, were evidently unable to believe that a renowned philosopher like Pythagoras could have taken such absurdities literally. Thus the historian Diogenes Laertios (2nd cent. A.D.) considered it self-evident that Pythagoras intended many of his rules to be understood only in a symbolic sense. (For example: "Don't step over the beam of a balance" means: "Don't overstep the bounds of equity and justice.")

Among Pythagoras' followers it appears that two schools of thought existed on the subject of meat-eating. Conceivably this division followed the lines of rationalist versus traditionalist. It is scarcely surprising if by the 4th century B.C. - the great age of classical Greek philosophy - some members of the school attempted to dispense with various ancient regulations now regarded as absurd. Thus according to Aristoxenos, the Pythagoreans permitted the eating of goat-meat and pork and forbade only mutton and ox-meat. These exclusions had a certain rationale: not only that the god Dionysos was supposed to assume an ox's form on occasion, but that the sheep and the plow-ox are humankind's close companions and essential to civilized life. By contrast, the pig roots out planted seeds; the goat eats vines and destroys grapes. Greek myths made plain these distinctions in declaring the pig to be the enemy of Demeter, goddess of agriculture, and the goat the enemy of Dionysos, god of vegetation and wine.

The existence of two opposed attitudes toward meat-eating within the same Pythagorean order - i.e. total abstention; or prohibition only of mutton and ox-meat-might also reflect a division between "ascetic" and "political" Pythagoreans. The brotherhood by no means confined its activities to philosophical or mathematical speculation; it was also deeply involved in the reform of the government of Kroton. Clearly, men who totally rejected the central ritual of Greek religious life were unlikely to be effective politically. Perhaps for this reason the "politicals" compromised on the matter of meat-eating, refusing to touch only those animals already recognized by Greek myth as harmful to civilized life. Within the same brotherhood, however, other members may have renounced civic participation in order to follow more consistently their ascetic proclivities. Some such explanation could account for the contradiction in the ancient sources as to whether the Pythagoreans were or were not complete vegetarians.

VIII Alexander's Indian Expedition

[53] A new era in the history of India's relationship to the Greek world begins with the career of Alexander, called "Great" on account of his unprecedented military achievements. In 336 B.C. at the age of 20 he became king of Macedon and overlord of European Greece, inheriting the army created by his father Philip as well as Philip's plans for an invasion of Asia. In 334 B.C. Alexander crossed the Hellespont with a force of Macedonians and Greeks and began his march eastward into the Persian empire. For many of the Greeks this was a war of revenge for Persia's invasion of Greece a century and a half before. They could not have foreseen that the young Alexander would prove to be one of the great generals of history, or that he would lead them eventually to the ends of the known world. However, in several major battles Alexander defeated the Persian armies and overthrew the Achaemenid dynasty. Thereby he became heir to the vast territories of the Persian empire, which extended in the east as far as the boundaries of India. In 327 B.C. he invaded India itself, apparently believing that possession of that country would give him all of Asia.

[56] Regarded even in his own lifetime as a divinity, he soon became the Hellenistic hero par excellence. At least twenty of his own contemporaries published works about him; probably others did also. Some of these authors had personally accompanied the expedition: the best-known of these are Kallisthenes, Aristobulos, Nearchos the admiral, Onesikritos his chief pilot, and Ptolemaios the general and later king of Egypt. None of their accounts have survived whole; they exist only in passages quoted by later writers whose versions are often contradictory. To compound the problem of judging Alexander's accomplishments, his historians had every motive to flatter him while he was alive, and to enhance the interest of their narratives through exaggeration once he was dead. The tendency was also overwhelming to view him through the prism of famous literary parallels. He was described as imitating the heroes of the Trojan war, whose descendant he allegedly was, or the ten thousand Greeks whose march across Asia was so graphically described in Xenophon's Anabasis. Alexander's reputation even influenced geographical preconceptions, because he was believed to have reached the limits of the ecumene. Thus the river where he halted his advance in Iran (actually the Jaxartes) was identified by some writers as the Tanais (Don), the supposed boundary between Asia and the cold, uninhabitable north. The Hyphasis (Beas), where he stopped in India, became the southeastern limit of the world.

Alexander's foremost objective, no doubt, was military glory. This was also the foundation of his rule over the Macedonians and Greeks, not to mention the conquered Persians. But he had another objective as well - a civilizing mission - which became the basis of his posthumous influence. Unlike other famous conquerors - say Attila or Tamerlane - Alexander [57] did not pass through merely to destroy and plunder. He was the descendant of and king over rude Macedonian warriors; but in becoming the pupil of Aristotle he had received the best education the Greek world had to offer. Himself an admirer of Greek culture, who could quote long literary passages from memory, he aspired to conquer Asia through the Greek spirit as well as by Macedonian swords. He intended also to make his expedition into a journey of scientific discovery. By conscious design he included in his entourage literary and scientific men, who were expected not only to record the progress of the army, but also to observe carefully the peculiarities of the countries through which they passed. These activities naturally continued in India, and provided the Hellenistic world with its first reliable information about that distant land.

Like the rest of Alexander's conquered territories, northwest India became subject to Hellenizing influences as an indirect result of his campaigns. The fact that Greeks not only ruled over foreigners, but also themselves represented a highly-developed civilization, led eventually to a far-reaching amalgamation in government, religion, literature, language, art and architecture. This syncretism began with Alexander himself, who was well aware of the need to conciliate those whom he conquered in war. Thus he sometimes wore Persian dress and adopted Persian court ceremonial. He appointed many non-Greeks to administrative positions and took barbarians into his army; he ordered that 30.000 native youths be taught the Greek language and the use of Macedonian weapons. He promoted intermarriage with the Persian nobility, setting the example himself and also giving presents to those of his men who married Asiatics. In many localities, but especially east of the Tigris where settlements were fewer, he founded cities or added colonists to existing ones. These original colonists were mainly old and wounded soldiers, particularly Greek mercenaries, who were intended as permanent garrisons but ultimately became powerful agents of Hellenization. This policy had clear antecedents in the older Greek pattern of colonization, except that the new cities were usually not on the sea, and the settlers came not from a single Greek city but from many.

Clearly this was one of Alexander's most important long-range projects. It is difficult to say whether Alexander truly possessed a vision of uniting all the peoples of his empire in mutual harmony. Certainly his efforts at syncretism motivated in part by the necessities inherent in governing a great empire, and especially of taking the Persians into partnership. Perhaps he was inspired also by some higher ideal of concord among a variety of peoples. In any case, the Greek and mixed Greek rulers who inherited his empire sought deliberately to fuse Greek and Oriental life-styles. They carefully fostered the Greek language and educational system, erected buildings and towns in the Greek style, promoted Greek colonization, and maintained continuing contacts with [60] the Greek homeland. At the same time they adapted in various ways to the native milieu, for instance by treating native deities as identical with whichever Greek ones had similar characteristics. This syncretism was in part deliberate, in part the natural result of the mingling of peoples. While primarily affecting the leading social classes, it also extended downward to a fair degree – for instance to the Oriental proletariats who spoke broken Greek, or those Greeks who worshipped foreign gods in the mystery-religions. The Hellenistic age which Alexander inaugurated was marked by cosmopolitanism, broad tolerance, and receptivity to strange and exotic ideas: i.e. by an attitude quite contrary to that which had prevailed during the Greek classical period.

IX Greek Civilization in India

[61] The greater portion of the Indian peninsula was never part of the Hellenistic world per se. Only the extreme northwest ever became subject to direct political domination by Greeks; and it was here, naturally enough, that Greek civilization exerted its greatest influence in India. For about two centuries Bactria (just north of the Hindu Kush) was ruled by Greeks - first as part of the Seleukid empire based in Persia and Mesopotamia, later as an independent state. For a time during the 2nd century B.C., Greek kings also dominated the Punjab in India proper. Greek rule then disappeared forever from this region. But for about six centuries more, Shakas, Parthians, Kushans and Huns continued to foster Hellenizing tendencies in Bactria and India.

Alexander of Macedon had certainly intended northwest India to become a permanent part of his empire. Prior to his withdrawal from the country, he established about a dozen satrapies with Macedonian governors and stationed garrison troops at strategic points to support them. As in his other conquered territories, he also founded a number of cities. In India itself, however, these arrangements survived his death by no more than two years. By 321 B.C. the territories lying east of the Indus river had become virtually independent. Presumably most of the Greek troops - loyal to Alexander, but not to his successors, and plagued by dissensions and jealousies even before his death - simply abandoned their posts and went elsewhere. Shortly after this the Indian conqueror Chandragupta Maurya (r. 321-297 B.C.), founder of the Maurya dynasty, incorporated this territory into an empire which ultimately covered more than two-thirds of the peninsula.

In the meantime, Alexander's generals fought over the remainder of his inheritance; India was temporarily ignored. But in 305 B.C. Seleukos Nikator, now firmly established as ruler of Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia, attempted to re-conquer Alexander's former Indian province. By this time Chandragupta was evidently well-entrenched in the northwest. He opposed Seleukos with such a formidable force that the latter was [62] obliged to recognize the Indian king's sovereignty over the Punjab and to cede additional territories (Gandhara, parts of Arachosia and Gedrosia) in exchange for 500 war-elephants and a matrimonial alliance. This defeat was perhaps less disastrous for the Greek side than has sometimes been supposed. Alexander's army in India, and Seleukos particularly, had experienced at first hand the power of elephants in battle. Indeed, elephants afterwards played a decisive part in Seleukos' victory over his rival Antigonos at the battle of Ipsos (301 B.C.) in Asia Minor. Moreover, this alliance laid the foundation for long-standing friendly relations between the Seleukid and Maurya dynasties. Several Seleukid ambassadors at the Maurya court are known by name: two of these, Daimachos and Megasthenes, wrote books about India based on first-hand observation. The work by Daimachos has disappeared almost entirely;' but Megasthenes' Indika, which survives in numerous ancient fragments, ultimately became the best-known and most valuable of all the Greek writings on India.

Meanwhile Bactria, between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus river, was ruled for half a century by the Seleukids. About 250 B.C. it became an independent state under its Greek satrap, Diodotos. About 190 B.C. the kings of Bactria incorporated into their domain a part of the Indus valley, including the great cultural center of Takshasila (Taxila), former administrative capital of the Maurya empire. But twenty years later this newly established realm split into two parts, henceforth to be governed by rival branches of the Bactrian Greek dynasty. A famous scion of this latter house was Menandros (Milinda), who ruled at Takshasila in the late 2nd century B.C., and whose patronage of Buddhism is celebrated in the famous exposition of Buddhist doctrine known as The Questions of King Milinda.

As elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, Greek rule in Bactria and India produced a partial amalgam of Greek and native forms of life and thought. In the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. this region - modern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan - was very far from being an economic and cultural backwater. Bactria under Greek rule was a flourishing country of many towns and cities; its capital, Baktra (modern Balkh) was a great entrepot for trade between Babylon and India. In the 3rd century B.C. Chandragupta's grandson Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Bactria, where he erected rock inscriptions composed in Greek by someone who was obviously familiar with the vocabulary of Hellenistic philosophy. A thousand years later (7th cent. A.D.) the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang counted one hundred Buddhist monasteries and three thousand monks in the city of Baktra alone.

[64] In any case, these kings gave Greek citizenship to Indians; and they were the only Hellenistic rulers to use their subjects' native language on their coinage. Menandros actually issued coins which represent him as a Chakravartin - the supremely wise universal monarch of Indian tradition who is believed to appear only at rare intervals in history. This same Menandros is the protagonist of the famous Questions of King Milinda, probably written ca. 150-100 B.C. This treatise, which has become a Buddhist classic, purports to record his discussions with a Buddhist sage named Nagasena, and concludes with the king becoming the monk's disciple. Whether or not this conversion to Buddhism truly occurred remains a historical puzzle, but in any case is irrelevant to Menandros' Indian reputation. No doubt the king found it politic, if nothing else, to support what was then probably the most influential religion in his domains. Beyond this, it is historically quite plausible that Menandros, who had spent his life in an Oriental country, should accept in perfect sincerity the principal religion of his adopted land. The Questions itself can be regarded as a true product of Hellenistic syncretism: apparently modeled in some respects upon a Greek dialogue, it also employs a typically Buddhist oral and repetitive style. But whatever the truth about Menandros personally, his status as a Buddhist believer is firmly established in Indian popular lore. The king appears in folk tales as the hero of certain stories which originally were told about the Buddha himself, or the emperor Ashoka. In fact Menandros is the only Greek king, not excluding Alexander, to be remembered in Indian tradition. Alexander was principally a conqueror - a type which India has never honored; Menandros was a wise man.

Amalgamation of Greek and Indian motifs is also attested in the layout of at least two ancient metropolises of north India-and perhaps of others yet to be discovered. Cities in India were normally constructed in irregular fashion; but Sakala, Menandros' capital city in the Punjab, is described as having squares and crossroads.

[65] Even under Parthian rule, Greek remained the lingua franca, as well as the language of high culture, in Persia and Mesopotamia.


[66] Ultimately the most striking and influential example of Indo-Greek interaction at any period occurred in the sphere of Buddhist art. Until about the first century B.C., Buddhists considered it totally unfitting to depict the Buddha as a human being. His presence was indicated by symbols only: the Wheel of the Law, his footprints, his umbrella, an empty throne, or the Bo-tree under which he attained Enlightenment. Portrayal of the Buddha in human form came about as the direct result of Hellenistic influences. The new art-form originated in Gandhara, immediately to the south of the Hindu Kush – a region where Greek Indian and even Chinese cultures came into contact. The school was in its formative stages when Parthian rule supplanted that of the Shakas in Gandhara and the Punjab; and it profited fully from the Hellenistic revival associated with Parthian rule. The earliest known statue of the Buddha by a Gandhara artist dates from this Parthian period. Under the Kushans, i.e. from the middle of the first century A.D. onward, the Gandhara school reached its zenith.

This was a period unusually favorable to the diffusion of cultural models; for peace reigned in both the Roman and the Persian (Parthian) empires. Presumably a significant number of Hellenistic sculptors and painters migrated to Gandhara via the central Asian trade routes which crossed that territory, and established workshops to ply their skills. Certainly the larger works of art presuppose either Hellenistic craftsmen in Gandhara or Indians familiar with Hellenistic models. Unlike small trays and dishes, even medium-sized statutes are unlikely to have been carried in merchants' packs all the way from Mediterranean countries. Naturally enough, Greek artists were obliged to adapt their material to the wishes of local patrons; but their techniques remained Hellenistic. Thus the Buddha, formerly not portrayed at all, came to resemble the Greek god Apollo or a Roman emperor in heroic pose draped in a toga. The statues were drawn to classic proportions, following Hellenistic models for the physiognomy, the gestures, and the drapery, while the [67] reliefs employ that narrative style commonly found in western Asia for recounting the life-stories of historical or religious heroes. But in every case the themes were Indian, depicting scenes from the Buddha's life and exemplifying his powers as a saviour. Buddhist painting as well as sculpture seem to have flourished in Gandhara; the Chinese pilgrim Hsüan Tsang remarked upon the painted scenes which decorated the monasteries of that region early in the 7th century when he passed through. Although all the specimens of painting have long since succumbed to the Indian climate and the destructiveness of invaders, presumably here too an extensive synthesis of Indian and Greek forms occurred.

The evolution of this Hellenized art over a period of several centuries indicates that it was increasingly perpetuated by native craftsmen, who were more and more removed from the original Greek stimulus. In the course of the Kushan era the statues of the Buddha became less Greek and more Indian in appearance, while the Buddha himself was portrayed as a more spiritualized figure than previously. The efflorescence of Buddhism associated with the reign of Kanishka led to an enhanced demand for statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Thus a tendency developed toward the mechanical repetition of stereotyped motifs and conventional poses. The high point of this Buddhist art probably came between the early 2nd and the mid-3rd centuries A.D.; thereafter the standard of technical competence declined noticeably. Kushan coinage too decayed, not only in that new types were not presented, but that the images became more and more difficult to recognize, and the Greek legends increasingly difficult to read. Nonetheless this Hellenistic art of Gandhara attained an extraordinarily wide diffusion. Not only did it spread to surrounding regions of northwest India; Hellenized statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were carried along the trade routes throughout most of eastern Asia. The Greek kings, Greek cities, Greek language and lifestyle all disappeared from northwest India and Bactria. But the Greek feeling for proportion and drapery became permanently embodied in the forms of the Indian saviors whose meditative forms are still found today in Buddhist temples and shrines throughout Asia.

X Alexander and the Indian Wise Men

[68] One of the strangest among all the exotic phenomena that Alexander's arm encountered in India was the ascetic life-style. The Indian holy men (Greek sources often refer indiscriminately to all Indian ascetics as "Brahmins." For convenience's sake we shall here do the same, although some of the ascetics in question may easily have been Buddhists or Jains [or 'Hindu' sadhus]; ll of them, needless to say, were regarded as both holy and wise) who engaged in intentional self-mortifications, and received respect and deference from their fellow-citizens as a consequence, had no real counterparts in the Greek world. It was no wonder that the Greeks displayed a vivid curiosity about such persons and made various (generally unsuccessful) attempts to comprehend their motives. The earliest attested conversation between a Greek and an Indian holy man was described in a book by Onesikritos, the pilot of Alexander's fleet. The book has long since disappeared, except for fragments; but the incident with the holy men passed into legend. According to Onesikritos, Alexander had heard reports that Indian holy men went about nČked, bore hardships cheerfully, and as a result enjoyed great social prestige. Apparently always interested in the customs of the peoples he conquered, Alexander despatched Onesikritos to make contact with some Indians of this type. Just outside the city of Takshasila he encountered fifteen holy men standing, sitting or lying in various positions which they maintained without moving until nightfall. He invited them to an audience with Alexander; but with one exception - the man whom the Greeks called Kalanos - they declined, saying that whoever wished to learn about their doctrines should come to them.

It is not easy to judge the extent to which Onesikritos understood the ascetics' remarks, or interpreted them in the light of his own preconceptions. Certainly his report shows some Cynic influence, which is [69] natural enough in a man who had studied the Cynic philosophy in Greece. He also may have wished to flatter Alexander. Thus he claims that the leader of the ascetics, named Dandamis, praised Alexander for his interest in philosophy - an interest he said he had never before observed in a warrior-king. Dandamis also asserted that such a king should persuade or force all his subjects to practice (ascetic) self-control. Onesikritos interpreted this statement, Cynic fashion, to mean that the Indian believed that the best doctrine was "that which removes pleasure and pain from the soul." Obviously the Indian holy man impressed the Greeks favorably by his overt indifference to worldly power and goods. Ordered to appear before Alexander upon the promise of gifts if he complied but punishment if he did not, Dandamis replied that he desired nothing at all and did not fear the king's power. Alexander allegedly was not offended by this answer, but praised Dandamis' attitude and refrained from insisting that he come.

The historical reality of Onesikritos' meeting with the Indian sages is scarcely open to doubt. All the relevant sources agree that it occurred, including those which fail to mention any encounter between Dandamis and Alexander himself. Certainly the conversation must have been limited in scope: three translators were needed (perhaps from Greek to Persian, Persian to Sanskrit, Sanskrit into the local dialect); and Onesikritos says that none were persons of any particular learning. Conceivably he exaggerated his own role, which was apparently to prepare a meeting between Alexander and the ascetics rather than to hold a discourse himself. He may also have put words into Dandamis' mouth which the sage never uttered, especially his alleged words of praise for Alexander. However, this was probably more than just flattery; Onesikritos evidently had a genuine admiration for his king, precisely because he combined political with intellectual powers. Onesikritos' own philosophical interests appear in his tendency to regard the Indian ascetics as prime examples of the recommended Cynic mode of life - albeit the Cynics' motivations had nothing at all to do with the pursuit of holiness. Cynics investigated human life in order to identify the sources of happiness, which they believed required freeing oneself from dependence upon external events or goods. For this reason they concluded that the happy man was the one who restricted his wants to the barest necessities and suppressed all desires. The Cynics despised popular opinion and everything it valued: i.e. wealth, fame, learning, even ordinary bodily comfort. Quite aside from whatever the Indian ascetics may have told Onesikritos, their life-style in its externals conformed well to the Cynic ideal.

Onesikritos' explanation of the suicide of Kalanos also betrays Cynic preconceptions. This Indian ascetic, after accompanying Alexander's army from India to Persia, had himself burned to death upon a funeral [70] pyre at Susa in view of the whole army. Onesikritos gives as reason for this surprising act the fact that Kalanos had fallen ill, and that Indian holy men considered sickness a disgrace. But this is evidently an explanation after the fact, perhaps recalling the death by fire of Herakles, who was a Cynic hero, and anticipating the suicides of several prominent Cynics in later times. A generation after Kalanos' death the Seleukid ambassador to India, Megasthenes, sharply refuted Onesikritos' explanation of it. Modern scholarship tends to agree with Megasthenes that suicide was never a recommended form of death for Brahmins.

Whether or not Alexander ever talked to any Indian ascetics cannot be known for certain; but on the basis of extant sources this appears unlikely. The oldest accounts of the invasion of India fail to mention any such encounter. According to Onesikritos' report it would actually have been impossible because the Indian holy men "did not visit other people when invited," and Alexander presumably considered it beneath his royal dignity for him to seek them out. But Alexander's extraordinary exploits were clearly the stuff of which folk legends are made; and the story of his meeting with Indian wise men became one of the most popular embellishments upon the facts of his career. Numerous Hellenistic and medieval manuscripts describe a direct confrontation between Alexander and a group of Indian holy men, or between Alexander and Dandamis alone. The comparatively late appearance of all these stories in Hellenistic literature and their obvious dependence upon traditions dating back to Onesikritos and Megasthenes renders it unlikely that any of them is true. But only with the revival of Greek scholarship in the age of the Renaissance was this even suspected.

The origin of the legend is not difficult to discover. Presumably it was suggested by Onesikritos' experience with the Indian ascetics outside Takshasila, and by Megasthenes' description of the Brahmins' life-style written somewhat later. In any case, the popularity of the story had little to do with any interest in India per se, or with any genuine impulse to record historical fact. The tale was intended to point a moral - in fact, several mutually contradictory morals.

What is probably the oldest account of Alexander's supposed conversation with Brahmins takes the form of a witty question-and-answer exchange. This version gives the impression of an entertaining anecdote rather than any attempt either to discover truth or to promote a point of view. The first manuscript in which it appears dates from about 100 B.C.; in the first century A.D. Plutarchos, the biographer of famous men, incorporated it into his Lives. In this story Alexander has taken prisoner ten Indian wise men who were guilty of persuading their king to revolt against the Greeks. Having heard of these men's ability in debate, he asks each of them one question, with the stipulation that anyone who fails to give a satisfactory answer will be put to death.

[71] Impressed by the Brahmins' sagacity, Alexander gives them all presents and lets them go free.

The second major version of Alexander's meeting with Brahmins exhibits a totally different spirit. Here the Indian sages no longer appear as clever riddle-solvers and worldly philosophers; rather they expound a serious ethical doctrine, austere and individualistic. Dandamis, the chief of the Brahmins, is made to utter opinions perfectly in accordance with the Cynic-Stoic doctrines, which then had attained widespread popularity in the Hellenistic world. The earliest known manuscript to embody this attitude is a papyrus of the 2nd century A. D., discovered in Cairo in 1950 and now in a library at Geneva. The same version is repeated in many subsequent manuscripts, most notably in a 4th-century treatise falsely ascribed to the classical historian Arrianos. The pattern for this form of the story was already established by Onesikritos, who had tended to treat the Indian ascetics as living examples of Cynic doctrine. However, Onesikritos never claimed that Alexander had interviewed any Brahmins himself. Probably a further model for the theme of king admiring philosopher was the popular (though probably spurious) tale of Alexander's confrontation with the Cynic philosopher Diogenes. According to this story, as Diogenes lay in the sun at Corinth Alexander offered him any favor he might desire. Diogenes repeatedly replied, "Stand out of my light!" Despite this rudeness, the king is said to have declared that if he were not Alexander, he would most like to be Diogenes.

In this Geneva papyrus version of the meeting, the Brahmin Dandamis appears as a sharp critic of the Greeks' mode of life. He advocates a [72] simple existence which ignores the refinements of civilization: thus the sage should be free from every desire which is not absolutely required by nature. He tells Alexander:

I have just as much of the earth as you and every other person; even if you gain all rivers, you cannot drink more than I. Therefore I have no fears, acquire no wounds and destroy no cities. I have just as much earth and water as you; altogether I possess everything. Learn this wisdom from me: wish for nothing, and everything is yours.

Among the defects of the Greeks' life-style Dandamis cites the wearing of clothes, meat-eating, drunkenness, carousing, avarice, wastefulness, war, and the subjugation of foreign peoples. He exhorts Alexander to renounce his bloody career and live in solitude like a sage. The king agrees as to the desirability of such a life. Unfortunately, he argues, his ties to his soldiers are too strong; for this reason he cannot renounce the world. Thereby even Alexander, the world-conqueror, accepts the moral superiority of asceticism.

This clearly enunciated contrast between the Greeks' and the Brahmins' way of life obviously lent support to Cynic principles, which in the late-Hellenistic period came to be combined with Stoic philosophy. In both style and content the text of the Geneva papyrus conforms closely to the Cynic-Stoic diatribe, which was a popular oratorical form widely practiced in the 2nd century A.D. and afterward. The conversation between Alexander and the Brahmins, though untrue historically, nonetheless has a certain plausibility. A genuine resemblance is undeniable between the outward forms of Brahmin asceticism, familiar to Hellenistic readers from the Alexander-historians and Megasthenes, and the Cynic-Stoic attitude toward life. On the other hand, if asceticism is defined as the renunciation of earthly satisfactions in the service of some nobler ideal - i.e. spiritual purity or closeness to God - then Cynicism and Stoicism obviously fail to qualify. Both are forms of eudaemonism (although Stoicism also stresses duty). Their prescription for happiness demands an austere life-style so that the adherent of these philosophies may be independent of external forces which can be neither predicted nor controlled.

One more version of the Alexander-Dandamis meeting, similar to that of the Geneva papyrus, appears in a popular Christian paraphrase of the 4th century which is attributed (probably wrongly) to the 2nd-century historian Arrianos. (Thus the author is called Pseudo-Arrianos) This account begins with a discourse by the Brahmins, who advocate a life-style that satisfies only the minimum physical needs; they attack riches, luxury, and the perversions of Greek life. Their [73] fellow-ascetic Kalanos (the same who later burned himself to death at Susa) becomes the target of harsh criticism for having joined the side of "riches" by adhering to Alexander's army. The Brahmins describe their mode of life: they live in forests and dress in leaves, sleep on bare ground, observe chastity and silence, abstain from meat and cooked food, nourish themselves only on fruits of the earth and drink only river water. They continually sing hymns, despise pleasures of the flesh, and fight an uninterrupted war against the senses. The text then describes Onesikritos' visit to Dandamis, who refuses an audience with Alexander on the ground that a wise man desires nothing. Nature already furnishes him with everything he needs, says Dandamis. Threats are unable to change his mind: he does not fear death, which is merely liberation from the flesh. Thereupon Alexander goes personally to meet the holy man, who invites him to abandon the world and find tranquility in a life of renunciation. Again Alexander refuses, citing the responsibilities of his position. Nonetheless he admires the Brahmins and offers them presents, which they refuse. The Brahmins compliment Alexander on his love of wisdom; he in turn praises Dandamis' opinions. The message of the text is clear: Alexander approves of the ascetics' life-style. Only practical considerations prevent him from imitating it himself.

Pseudo-Arrianos' treatise is extant in numerous Greek and Latin manuscripts - sure witness to its wide dissemination. Without question its influence was closely linked to the growing popularity of Christian monasticism in the 4th century. The Brahmins' opinions as given in this text not only conform to Cynic-Stoic ideas, but also to the views of important Fathers of the Church. In fact, Pseudo-Arrianos became favorite reading in Christian monasteries both West and East - welcome support from pagans in defense of a Christian-ascetic mode of life.

Yet the same Alexander-Dandamis story was utilized also for precisely the opposite purpose, namely to deprecate the monastic ideal. In a Latin text known as the Collatio Alexandri et Dindimi, written apparently in the late 4th or early 5th century, the Brahmins with their ascetic philosophy do not win the argument. Actually the Collatio presupposes the prior existence of Pseudo-Arrianos, though it alters various details. This time Alexander and Dandamis do not communicate in person, but rather by letter (recalling the older tradition that they never met). The text's description of the Brahmins' mode of life closely follows Pseudo-Arrianos, as does some of the social criticism, e.g. the invectives against cupidity, false education, and theater-performances. However, Dandamis avoids attacking Alexander directly; instead he criticizes the customs of the Greeks in general. Moreover, Alexander has the last word. He gives his opinion that the Brahmins' life of renunciation is due not to free choice, but rather to the conditions of poverty prevailing in India (a surprisingly modern viewpoint). He then praises the riches of Greece and [74] the high morals of its citizens, apparently in the name of an Aristotelian ideal of moderation.

The sympathies of the Collatio's author clearly lay with the antimonastic movement of the 4th century, which represented a reaction against the extremes of Christian asceticism. Possibly some scepticism was also at work — the feeling that Indian Brahmins could not conceivably be superior to Christian monks in the practice of a specifically Christian virtue like asceticism. Nonetheless the Collatio's revision of the Alexander legend clearly failed to accord with prevailing sentiment, either in its own time or later. In the medieval period the text was again rewritten in a way that served to exalt Dandamis' philosophy of asceticism. In this revised version it became extremely popular in the Latin West, largely replacing Pseudo-Arrianos, and was copied and recopied many times over.

Thus the legend of Alexander and the Brahmins was made to exemplify a variety of changing attitudes in the Hellenistic world. Onesikritos' original account of the incident was colored by his Cynic preconceptions, but apparently represented a fairly straightforward narrative of what actually happened - namely, that Alexander did not himself converse with any Brahmins. But the theme of king versus philosopher offered obvious dramatic possibilities. Thus Plutarchos (first cent. A.D.) and his source (ca. 100 B.C.) permitted the wise men with their riddles to outwit the military man, who nonetheless proved magnanimous and set them free. The author of the Geneva papyrus (2nd cent. A.D.) took the story as a vehicle for Cynic-Stoic criticism of the Greeks' over-refined mode of life. Pseudo-Arrianos (4th cent.) used the legend to advocate the life-style of Christian monks, while the Collatio (late 4th-early 5th cent.) took the opposite approach of discrediting the ascetics' motives. In the end, nearly everyone apparently believed that Alexander had really met the Brahmins; and the legend contributed powerfully to the widespread Hellenistic view that philosophers of India possessed some special wisdom.

XI Pyrrhon the Sceptic (365-275 B.C.)

The earliest Greek philosopher who is likely to have had a direct connection with India was Pyrrhon of Elis (365-275 B.C.), the reputed founder of Scepticism in Greece. According to Diogenes Laertios (2nd cent. A.D.), the principal ancient historian of philosophy, Pyrrhon accompanied Alexander's army to India. This statement in itself is perfectly credible, since Alexander took many learned men with him. But Diogenes claims further that Pyrrhon's encounters with Indian wise men led directly to his love of solitude, to his formulation of the Sceptics' fundamental thesis: namely, that knowledge is impossible and that the truly wise man should therefore suspend judgment on all questions. Unfortunately, Diogenes is late enough to have been influenced by Hellenistic views concerning the priority of Oriental wisdom. However, he claims to rely for his information upon men who were probably Pyrrhon's followers. It is difficult to assess the actual influences upon Pyrrhon, Indian or otherwise, since he apparently wrote nothing himself. His ideas have survived only through fragmentary citations in later authors, so that reconstructions of his thought-system and its intellectual antecedents rest largely upon inference. But there are strong reasons to doubt that Indian doctrines exerted any serious influence upon Greek Sceptic philosophy. Quite possibly Pyrrhon, like his compatriot Onesikritos, did converse with Indian ascetics, and thereby acquired some conception of their thoughts. Nonetheless it is at least questionable whether a mature and well-educated Greek, with ideas presumably well-formed already, could be significantly influenced by talks with exotic and half-nČked foreigners - rudimentary as such exchanges had to be if two or three translators were required. Diogenes Laertios confirms that Pyrrhon in India was no intellectual novice. Prior to the Indian journey he had studied philosophy with a teacher of the school of Megara and then with Anaxarchos, the pupil of [76] Demokritos. Apparently he traveled to India as Anaxarchos' companion. However, as regards life-style, it is at least arguable that the effect of India upon Pyrrhon was important. He could scarcely have failed to notice the mental impassivity and physical endurance of the Indian holy men, which impressed itself so forcibly upon Onesikritos and later Megasthenes. No doubt he either witnessed, or heard vivid reports of the ascetic Kalanos' spectacular suicide upon the burning pyre at Susa - a sight certainly suggesting that a philosophy capable of motivating such extraordinary behavior must be of compelling nature. The burning of Kalanos was a practical object lesson in the tranquility attainable by a sage.

But the hypothesis that Pyrrhon's philosophy was indebted to India requires a corresponding assumption that Scepticism in his lifetime had no serious antecedents within the Greek tradition. However, this is not the case. Already in the 5th century B.C. both Sokrates and the Sophist philosophers practiced a type of sceptical thought - constant re-examination of received opinions in the light of reason - though they did not despair of the possibility of knowledge per se. Demokritos, the teacher of Pyrrhon's mentor Anaxarchos, believed that only atoms and the void are real; all else is mere opinion. Pyrrhon's Scepticism can reasonably be regarded as merely "the negative reverse side to the Socratic-Platonic inference" that virtue results from knowledge of the good. Evidently Pyrrhon held that the true nature of things is unknowable. The logical consequence of this is that virtuous conduct is impossible, because no one can really know what virtue is. For this reason the true philosopher will suspend judgment and refrain from all unnecessary activity.

Certainly it is possible to find analogues to this attitude in Indian formal logic, which is philosophically quite complex. For example, according to Eusebios (3rd cent. A.D.), Pyrrhon considered it inadmissible to say of a thing that it either is, or is not, or is and is not, or neither is nor is not. This choice among four predicates is a logical device known in philosophy as the tetralemma. It is commonly found in ancient Indian texts; in Greece it is apparently unknown except among the Sceptics. But a case for Indian influence upon Pyrrhon can hardly be sustained on the basis of such a simple logical tool, which is scarcely so distinctive as to make independent invention unlikely. Indeed, the Sceptic's nihilistic attitude toward knowledge easily suggests this formulation.

Likewise conducive to Sceptical thought were the circumstances of Pyrrhon's own time. In late 4th-century Greece many competing philosophical systems were current - a fact tending to suggest that certainty is unattainable. The experience of Alexander's companions in Asia, who necessarily observed a vast diversity of peoples, customs and religions, must naturally have provided food for meditation on the relativity of all customs and faiths. As for political life, the once-cherished independence [77] and self-government of the Greek city-states had fallen victim to the party strife unleashed by the Peloponnesian War, the corruption and tyranny of Greek politics, and finally the conquest of Greece by Philip of Macedon, which was reaffirmed by his son Alexander. To assume Indian inspiration for an attitude of disillusion having such obvious prior causes within the Greek world seems gratuitous. In any event the Sceptic philosophy, based as it is upon rationalist premises, is far more characteristic of Greece than of India, where philosophy has usually stood in the service of religious faith.

Moreover, there is serious question whether Pyrrhon was really a Sceptic at all. Some evidence suggests that the Sceptics of a later period called him the founder of their school largely for competitive purposes i.e. to assert the priority of their doctrine over that of the Platonists. Probably the importance of Pyrrhon to his contemporaries lay rather in the sphere of practical conduct than in doctrine. "The Sceptics exaggerated the Scepticism of Pyrrho[n]." Supporting this view is the fact that Pyrrhon's immediate disciple, Timon, praised his teacher primarily not for his opinions, but for his modesty and his tranquil life. At a much later date the Roman orator Cicero spoke of Pyrrhon as a severe and dogmatic moralist who believed in probity and honesty. No uninitiated reader of Cicero's prose would ever suspect that Pyrrhon was supposed to be a Sceptic. Despite the anarchical tendency of his alleged views about the impossibility of knowledge, it is noteworthy that Pyrrhon advocated conformity to the customs of one's time and place. Following this precept, he lived an exemplary if humble life, which included performance of the most ordinary household chores. The calm indifference or even apathy with which he regarded his surroundings struck everyone who knew him. Pyrrhon the man was highly esteemed by his fellow-citizens (who perhaps did not comprehend his philosophy). They elected him a priest, and in his honor declared that philosophers were henceforth exempt from taxes.

Even if it is true that Pyrrhon was inspired by Indian holy men, nothing in either his philosophy or his life-style suggests that he understood their conduct for what it meant in an Indian context. The Indian ascetic is not indifferent to earthly circumstances because he considers knowledge impossible, but because he finds worldly involvement a hindrance to final salvation. Disinterest in mundane surroundings is preliminary to the mental concentration required for the yogic trance - the ultimate mystic experience. It likewise discourages the action (karma) which inevitably prejudices one's chances for a favorable reincarnation, and ultimately for total liberation from rebirth. Pyrrhon, so far as we know, offered no positive doctrine of other-worldly salvation, but merely a technique for making this present life more endurable. His attitude [78] differed only in degree from that of the Stoics, who professed indifference to worldly advantages (while failing to renounce them), or of the Cynics, whose rejection of earthly pleasures was accompanied by a liberal dose of scorn. Evidently Pyrrhon was more consistently indifferent, more genuinely tranquil, than either of these.

XII Travelers Indian and Greek

Indians to Greece

[79] While Alexander's invasion of India opened the way for future Indo-Greek encounters, it is not likely that Indians in any great numbers entered the Greek world until nearly the Christian era. To be sure, the movement of people and goods from northwest India to Persia presumably increased in scope during the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., when Greek dynasties ruled both regions. But for the Mediterranean area in this period the evidence of an Indian presence is minimal. Commercial contacts between Egypt and India apparently brought Indian sailors and merchants no farther than the mouth of the Red Sea. Very exceptional are those Indians whose appearance at Alexandreia receives mention in the pre-Christian era: namely, the ship-wrecked sea-captain who inspired Eudoxos of Kyzikos' journeys, or the Indian women in Ptolemaios III’s triumphal procession. In Greece too, except perhaps for the lone Indian who allegedly disputed with Sokrates, a single contingent of soldiers in Xerxes' army of invasion (480-79 B.C.) represents the only known instance of Indians setting foot in the country. No Indian embassies to Rome are recorded before the Augustan age. Perhaps war captives and slaves from India were sometimes sold in Mediterranean markets; specific information on the matter is lacking. This general absence of evidence, though common enough in ancient historiography, nonetheless suggests that any Indians who reached the Mediterranean prior to the Christian era were rare creatures indeed. But occasional such persons there must have been. The sea-journey from India to Alexandreia in Egypt (and by extension to Antiocheia, Athens or other centers of the Greek world) was technically feasible, even if rarely undertaken. Willingly or otherwise (as in the case of lost seamen or slaves), a few Indians must have arrived in Mediterranean countries from time to time - no less real for the fact that writers of history failed to notice them. Apart from trade, diplomacy, or sheer accident, the motive most likely to have brought Indians into the Greek world was religion. But in actual fact, most of the faiths native to India failed to spread very far beyond the [80] borders of the sub-continent. Certainly this was true of ancient Brahminism (the ritualist faith of the Indian Aryans) and of the heretical Jainism, whereas the post-Christian Hindu devotional cults dedicated to the gods Vishnu and Shiva expanded mainly in the direction of southeast Asia. But Buddhism was another matter. In principle a missionary religion, Buddhism was open to adherents of every class and nation. Unlike Brahminism or the later Hindu cults, it rejected the idea of inherited class status (i.e. caste), which ensured the social dominance of the Brahmin priests and the automatic inferiority of everyone else. Within Buddhist monastic orders the rank which counted was spiritual, not hereditary. The universalist nature and missionary tendencies of the Buddhist religion impelled it eastward into Southeast Asia, China and Japan and northward into Central Asia. No obvious barrier prevented its expansion westward as well.

Possible evidence of Buddhist proselytizing in Hellenistic countries may be found in one of the edicts of the Indian emperor Ashoka (r. 274-236 B.C.) grandson of that Chandragupta Maurya who defeated Seleukos' attempt to restore Alexander's Indian empire. The inscription in question records that Ashoka despatched envoys to the Hellenistic kings of Syria, Egypt, Macedonia and Cyrene — all of whom are cited by their correct names. The edict states expressly that the emperor commanded his emissaries to propagate the "Dhamma," i.e. the Law of Piety. The term "Dhamma" (Sanskrit: Dharma), of course, is not exclusive to Buddhism; it comprehends such general moral principles as avoidance of killing (ahimsa), good family relationships, and concern for others' welfare. However, Ashoka personally was a professed Buddhist, at least toward the latter part of his reign. While expressly promoting religious toleration, he apparently also used the apparatus of the Maurya state to promote Buddhist doctrine.

Thus it is at least conceivable that the embassies mentioned in Ashoka's edict were Buddhist missions. The fact that no extant Western source takes note of Buddhist proselytizing in any country west of Bactria, either in Ashoka's own time or later, is no real argument to the contrary. The edict itself does not claim successful results; the Ashokan envoys perhaps failed to reach their destinations; and official documents in Hellenistic countries are not likely to have recorded the presence of missionaries for a foreign religion. In general, on those points which can be corroborated from other sources, the information contained in Ashoka's edicts has proved accurate. The possibility of course remains that the envoys were primarily diplomats, not missionaries. But the edict itself says otherwise; and nothing is more natural than that the Buddhist emperor should have attempted to promote the spread of his religion in every conceivable direction.

The appearance of occasional Indians in the Hellenistic world begins to be noticed in Greek and Latin sources from the reign of Augustus [81] (27 B.C.-14 A.D.) onward. The orator Dion Chrysostomos (ca. 70 A.D.) makes brief reference to such persons in his discourse "To the People of Alexandreia": he mentions "a few Indians" among the men of many nationalities who listened to his speech. Dion's statement that the Indian merchants at Alexandreia belonged to a class held "in low repute" by the rest of their countrymen, who "say harsh things about them,'" may perhaps indicate that they were Buddhists or Jains [or 'Hindu' ascetics, sadhus] – heretics from the orthodox Brahmin viewpoint. Tending to support this identification is the fact that in this period good Brahmins were forbidden to cross the sea on pain of incurring ritual pollution and possible expulsion from caste membership. No one knows whether this prohibition already applied to non-Brahmins in the first century A.D. (as it unquestionably did in recent centuries); it is belied by the incontestable fact of Hindu expansion into southeast Asia in the first several centuries A.D. Thus a possible reason for the low status of the Indians in Egypt might be simple caste prejudice - the fact that merchants (i.e. Vaishyas) ranked beneath Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors) in the traditional class structure of Hindu society. Additional evidence for the presence of Indians at Alexandreia is supplied by the Greek geographer Ptolemaios (early 2nd cent. A.D.), who provides data on the latitude and longitude of many places on the route between Egypt and India. Much of his information, he claims, was derived from the written and oral accounts of merchants and travelers, which might logically have included natives of India. From the Indian side, both Sanskrit and Pali literature make frequent reference of sea-voyages, while ancient Indian paintings and sculptures often depict boats or ships. For example, the Laws of Manu (2nd cent. B.C.-2nd cent. A.D.) discusses marine insurance and the permissible interest rates on money lent for shipping enterprises. The Buddhist jatakas - popular tales dealing with the alleged previous incarnations of the Buddha - describe the adventures of merchants in strange lands. However, no known Indian text is so specific as to mention Buddhists present at Alexandreia.

Over a period of more than five centuries, diplomatic missions from India or Ceylon appeared occasionally at the courts of Roman emperors: Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, Septimius Severus, Elagabalus, Aurelian, Constantine, Julian (the Apostate), and Justinian. Ancient sources fail to tell us what the purpose of these missions was, though probably both commercial and political motives played a role. Certainly there was need to regulate the trade between India and the Roman empire, and to coordinate opposition to Parthia, the enemy of them both. However, Roman observers naturally interpreted these embassies as tributes to Rome's imperial greatness. Thus the emperor Augustus saw fit to include on his Ancyra inscription, summarizing the achievements of his reign, the fact that "to me were sent embassies of the kings from India who had never before been seen in the camp of any [82] Roman general." The poet Horatius spoke in one of his odes (17 B.C.) of "Indians and Scythians" as peoples "recently disdainful" who now awaited the "answer" of Rome! Despite such smugness, the major purpose of the Indian embassies was probably to specify the harbors and towns within the Roman empire and in India where foreign merchants might establish residence, practice their own customs and religions, and freely conduct their business.

One of these Indian missions came to Augustus from a ruler called Poros, or Pandion - the latter name almost surely a reference to the Pandhya country of south India. Pandion's envoys brought with them a letter to the Roman emperor written on a skin in the Greek language - clear evidence of previous encounters with Greeks in the Pandhya domains. Their journey had been hazardous; according to the letter, many men had begun the journey to Rome, but only three survived the trip. Pandion described himself as the suzerain over 600 lesser kings, but expressed a desire for friendship with the Roman emperor, offering him passage through his dominions at any time. "Passage" can probably be interpreted as permission for merchants from the Roman empire to travel throughout the country on business. Pandion sent Augustus some curious gifts: a man born without arms who could stretch a bow and shoot missiles with his feet; various animals, including vipers, a serpent, a river tortoise, and a partridge, all of unusual size. Pandion's ambassadors were accompanied by a holy man who subsequently burned himself to death upon a pyre in a public place in Athens. This event undoubtedly caused a great stir among the onlookers, who were at a loss to account for its motivation. The epithet engraved on the dead man's tomb called him Zarmanochegas, i.e. shramanacharyas, or "teacher of the philosophers," [rather, teacher of ascetics] a name he had evidently chosen for himself. What sort of "philosopher" he was remains unclear. Possibly he was a Buddhist, since Buddhism at that time was in process of widespread expansion. [probably not, for acharya is a more Hindu term, vaishnavite even]  On the other hand, Buddhist scriptures specifically prohibit suicide, though cases of this practice among Buddhists are known nonetheless; and Gautama himself is supposed to have condoned the act in one celebrated instance. Quite possibly St. Paul had Zarmanochegas in mind when he penned the famous passage to the Corinthians: "though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing."

Intermittent though they were, the official Indian embassies sometimes contributed significantly to an increased knowledge of India in the Hellenistic world. A case in point is the Ceylonese mission to the emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 A.D.), which originated under curious circumstances. According to Plinius, this embassy came about because one of Claudius' tax-collectors was blown off course in the Red Sea, eventually landing in a port of Ceylon. After learning the Ceylonese language, [83] this official was able to give the local king a description of Roman life. Interestingly enough, the fact which most impressed the king was the honesty of the Roman coinage, as proven by the discovery that all the denarii found on the tax-collector's person were equal in weight, although coined under several different emperors. Allegedly out of admiration for a country possessing such standards, the Ceylonese king resolved to establish friendly relations with Rome. The resulting mission supplied Plinius with nearly everything he knew about Ceylon's geography. The information thus acquired is recorded in his Natural History - one of the most widely consulted scientific works of the Hellenistic age.

Although certainly no very large migration from India into the Greek world occurred in either classical or Hellenistic times, it is clear that those Indians who did arrive sometimes made a great impression. Their strange appearance (by Greek standards), the exotic gifts brought by their ambassadors, and their incomprehensible habits - Zarmanochegas' fiery suicide recalling that of Kalanos in Alexander's time - obviously gave the Greeks some food for thought. These Indians certainly had an influence far greater than sheer numbers would indicate.

It is significant, however, that virtually the only sources concerning either Indian or Greek travelers to each others' countries are Greek. The Indians have left us almost no record of their foreign adventures, except in an overwhelmingly religious context where specific information is purely incidental to the story. The Buddhist Jataka literature furnishes a case in point: while occasionally mentioning the existence of merchants in faraway countries, the principal object of the tales is to illustrate some point of doctrine. On the other hand, from the time of Alexander onward occasional Greek visitors to India saw fit to record their experiences. This difference is no doubt attributable in part to the Greeks' scientific interests, which prompted them to make notes on the geography and customs of foreign peoples, while their Indian contemporaries - whose literature is chiefly spiritual in character - considered such mailers too trivial to record.

Greeks to India

The first Greeks to set foot in India were probably servants of the Persian Achaemenid empire (550-330 B.C.) - that vast polity which touched upon Greek city-states at its western extremity and India on the east. The explorer Skylax, if he really did travel to India for King Dareios, was presumably not the only person of this kind: we know that Persia utilized Greeks in various capacities. However, the few Greek authors of classical times who mention India almost certainly never visited the country. Thus Alexander's invasion represents a turning-point: not only did it bring an army of Macedonians and Greeks into India; it also led to a considerable literature on the subject.

A generation afterward, Megasthenes became Seleukos' ambassador [84] to the Maurya empire - a happy choice which resulted in the most famous and influential of all Greek books about that country. The complete Indika is no longer extant; however, fairly extensive citations from it have been preserved in other Hellenistic writings. Megasthenes resided for several years at Pataliputra, the capital of the Maurya state. Thus unlike Alexander's companions, he knew a portion of India beyond the Indus valley. Though the reliability of his account has been questioned in both ancient and modern times, scholars now regard most of his observations on Indian life as essentially accurate. This fact - given the virtual absence of indigenous Indian historical sources from this era - makes Megasthenes a prime authority for the history of Maurya India.

Indeed, by comparison with later periods, the 3rd century B.C. is rich in surviving reports of Greeks who traveled to India. The Hellenistic rulers of both Persia and Egypt sent ambassadors there. An officer named Patrokles visited the country and returned with useful geographical information. In the same century King Ptolemaios II of Egypt (r. 285-246 B.C.) attempted to extend his power down the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean. This extension of Egyptian influence presumably resulted in occasional voyages to India, though specific instances are unknown. Significantly, the only extant individual account of such a voyage in the Ptolemaic period stems from no ordinary sailor or merchant, but from Eudoxos of Kyzikos, a highly cultured sea-captain who arranged for the story of his expedition from Egypt to India to be preserved for posterity.

For the 2nd and most of the first century B.C., classical sources reveal almost nothing about contacts between India and the Greek world - either overland, where the Parthian empire (successor to the Seleukids) now blocked the route, or via the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, in which sea-captains had not yet learned to utilize the monsoon winds. Nonetheless the 2nd century saw the expansion of Hellenistic states into India proper, as the rulers of Bactria moved into the Indus valley. Here, even if nowhere else at the time, Greeks and Indians rubbed shoulders. The evidence of Greek artistic and architectural influence in both Bactria and India gives sure testimony to the Greek presence.

Then the very late first century B.C. saw a great upsurge in travel via the sea-routes between India and Egypt. For more than two hundred years - until disturbed by the political upheavals within the Roman empire in the 3rd century - numerous Greek merchants voyaged to India. Some of them came to reside on a long-term basis in Indian port-towns. Certainly the unknown author of the Periplous of the Erythraean Sea (ca. 75-90 A.D.) had access to first-hand information about the ports of western India, to judge from the exactness of his reports. But despite these rather extensive contacts, Hellenistic literature provides incredibly few accounts of such travels. Most of the persons who made the trip to [85] India are unknown to us by name. They are the anonymous seamen, merchants and hangers-on who followed the sea-lanes from the Red Sea to the Malabar coast, perhaps also occasional Christian missionaries. While the supposed voyage of Jesus' disciple Thomas to south India in the mid-first century A.D. remains unsupported by solid evidence, other Christians at a somewhat later date may well have accompanied the merchants from Egypt to Malabar.


The Alexandrian philosopher Pantainos is reported to have preached Christianity in India in the late 2nd century A.D. Certainly the presence of a Christian community on the Malabar coast - precisely that region of India in closest contact with Mediterranean countries - suggests that missionaries from the Greek world probably contributed to its establishment.

Following the hiatus of the 3rd century, the 4th witnessed a resurgence in the Indo-Egyptian trade. Several accounts of Greek travelers to India survive from this period. A certain Frumentios of Tyros, who as a child accompanied his uncle to India on what seems to have been a tourists' trip, remained there for many years afterward as household superintendent to an Indian king. Returning finally to Alexandreia, he was appointed bishop of India in the year 336, and presumably returned to that country to spread the Christian gospeI. A Christian called Theophilos, described as an "Indian" from the island of Sokotra near the Red Sea mouth, undertook several missionary journeys on behalf of the Roman emperor Constantius in the mid-4th century. Theophilos visited Axum and south Arabia as well as India, where on the Malabar coast he discovered a Christian community which traced its origin back to Jesus' disciple Bartholomew. Likewise in the mid-4th century an anonymous Roman official from Thebes in Egypt apparently fled to India - for reasons now unascertainable. After spending some years in captivity on the Malabar coast he returned to tell his story. The Theban's rather fantastic adventures may well be based on fact, though we cannot be certain.

In the mid-6th century the Alexandrian merchant Kosmas Indikopleustes (i.e. the "India-navigator") is reputed to have visited the Malabar coast and Ceylon. Kosmas was the author of a world-geography and a book on astronomy: however, his only surviving work is the Christian Topography, which attempts to prove upon Biblical authority that the world is rectangular and flat. In this book Kosmas makes occasional references to India and Ceylon, causing some scholars to conclude (from the alleged vividness of his descriptions) that he had personally been there. A close reading of what he actually says, however, indicates that this is probably not the case. In Kosmas' time, as in medieval Europe, the name "India" was indifferently applied to south Arabia or even east Africa as well as to India proper; Kosmas' reputation as the "India-navigator" presumably rests upon this confusion.

XXVI India's Image in the West: 1000 Years from Alexander to Muhammad

[252] Alexander's expedition to India necessarily marked a vast increase in the Greeks' knowledge of that part of the earth's surface. A number of the conqueror's associates - Kallisthenes, Onesikritos, Aristobulos, Nearchos, Ptolemaios - wrote about India; their works remained standard sources on the country for centuries afterward. Modern scholarship can reconstruct only partially the picture of India which Alexander's companions presented to the Greek world. But aside from assorted notes on the progress of the army, Indian flora and fauna, geography, customs, etc., it is clear that these men gave currency to what later became the dominant view of India as a gigantic land of many marvels, noted especially for its ascetic nČked philosophers.


Even more than the works of Alexander's companions, the book by the Seleukid ambasador Megasthenes (early 3rd cent. B.C.) dominated the Greek picture of India throughout the Hellenistic age. Megasthenes' Indika attained a circulation which was large by contemporary standards; it became the primary source for most subsequent Greek authors who had occasion to discuss Indian affairs. Megasthenes' range of interests was broad: he reported upon Indian geography and customs, the splendor of the Maurya capital, the variety of the Indian peoples, and the strange animals and plants of the country. Significantly, he noted that Indian society was divided into seven classes. (early evidence for the antiquity of the Indian caste system). He remarked also upon the presence of numerous ascetics, who he said were held in great esteem by their countrymen and consulted even by kings.

A more favorable political climate would presumably have led to additional Greek writing about India. But within less than a century of [253] Alexander's death, the route which he had taken across Asia became virtually closed to traffic. The reason was the rise of Parthia. In 248/47 B.C., nomadic tribes from northeast Iran defeated the Greek Seleukid king and set up the independent state of Parthia upon what had formerly been the eastern provinces of the Seleukid empire. This non-Greek kingdom now interrupted the former geographic continuity between the Greek-ruled state of Bactria, just beyond India's northwest frontier, and the Hellenistic lands of the West. The Parthian rulers (248 B.C.-226 A.D.) sometimes prevented trans-Asiatic traffic from crossing their domains altogether; alternately, they taxed it almost out of existence. Henceforth until the 3rd century A.D., when disorders within the Roman empire rendered Rome unable to police the sea-routes in the Arabian Sea, travelers from the Greek world to India generally took the water- rather than the land-route. In Mediterranean countries the very existence of the Indo-Greek kingdoms came to be almost forgotten. Most of the information we now possess about them - full of lacunae though this is - stems not from Hellenistic sources, but rather from archaelogical excavations done in the 20th century. For instance, the territory of ancient Bactria has yielded a rich treasure of old coins; and much may be learned from the legends they bear. But only a few isolated remarks concerning the Greek-ruled states of Bactria and northwest India can be found in the entire corpus of classical literature.

Hellenistic sources contain widely divergent estimates of the size and geographical configuration of India. Thus a reader of that period could hardly have known which authorities to believe. The general tendency was to exaggerate India's size. A few authors, e.g. Megasthenes, Eratosthenes and Ptolemaios, (this is the 2nd-century A. D. astronomer and geographer, not to be confused with the Ptolemaios who accompanied Alexander to India and later became king of Egypt) quoted reasonably accurate figures; but no one considered the country smaller than it really was. Already in the 5th century B.C. Ktesias, presumably relying on Persian sources, had declared that India was as large as all the rest of Asia together. Onesikritos, the companion of Alexander, believed that the land beyond the tributaries of the Indus constituted an entire continent. Apparently he wished to make the Indus into the boundary of Asia, and thus justify Alexander's turning back at the Beas river. As for distances, Megasthenes gave a virtually perfect figure for the length of the royal road from Pataliputra (the Maurya capital) to India's northwest border; obviously he used the measurements of Maurya administrators.

[255] India's wealth and good fortune were proverbial among the Greeks. Diodoros of Sicily (late first cent. B.C.) reported that the country possessed large and fertile plains, supplied with water by numerous rivers; the land yielded two crops every year. Fruit trees of every variety grew there. Indian birds and animals were notable for their great size and strength; Indian elephants were more powerful than those of Africa, and trained for warfare. The subsoil contained every kind of ore, including much silver and gold, copper and iron. In addition to wheat the country produced an abundance of millet, irrigated by water from many rivers. Famine never visited the country, since in wartime the contending armies left farmers inviolable. Inhabitants of India were of unusual height and bodily strength; no one of them was allowed to be a slave. No foreign king had ever subjugated the country (so Megasthenes had reported).

Evidently the Greeks were willing to believe many strange tales about [255] India. Plinius quoted Onesikritos to the effect that in some parts of India no shadows existed. Arrianos, Dion Chrysostomos, Philostratos and Clemens of Alexandreia, among others, took at face value the story of the gold-digging ants. Chrysostomos claimed in addition that the rivers of India flowed with wine, honey and oil, giving as his source the statements of Indians then resident at Alexandreia (who perhaps recognized his predilection for marvels). Still, India was at least a definite place to the Greeks of those days - hardly the vague and almost legendary country known to Europe in the medieval period. A fair amount of tolerably accurate information on Indian geography, customs, religion and social organization was available to anyone interested in obtaining it.

But even Greek writers who were not normally credulous or prone to exaggerate sometimes failed to examine their sources in a critical spirit. Megasthenes offers a case in point. Although his eyewitness descriptions of India have since been confirmed as substantially correct, he nonetheless accepted as literally true some fantastic stories - the evident product of hearsay rather than direct observation. For example, he stated that in the mountains of India there lived people whose feet were turned backwards and who had eight toes on each foot. In many cases the people had dogs' heads, and barked instead of speaking. Moreover, members of one Indian border tribe had no mouths: therefore they ate and drank nothing, but lived merely by breathing odors. Like Herodotos, Megasthenes mentioned gold-digging ants in India, which he located on a plateau in the eastern mountains. Significantly, all these exotic creatures were supposed to inhabit regions of India which Megasthenes himself had not personally visited. Presumably his descriptions of them reflected the prejudices current in court circles at the Maurya capital: civilized Indians have often regarded the primitive (or even merely remote) tribes of their country with contempt. (Witness the Ramayana epic’s characterization of the dwellers of Ceylon as "monkeys.") But Megasthenes' authority in the Hellenistic world was such that often other authors trustingly repeated his most improbable statements together with more plausible assertions.

Perhaps Megasthenes was the original source for the opinion, common in Hellenistic times, that India had somehow influenced Greek civilization. He gave currency to the notion that the Greek god Dionysos had once visited India. Hearing of an Indian legend that in remote antiquity a certain god had appeared in the country, conquered it, and subsequently introduced the arts of civilization there, he concluded that this mythological figure was identical with the Greek god Dionysos. More surprisingly, he stated expressly that on certain philosophical subjects the Indians and the Greeks held similar opinions. Both peoples, he claimed, believed that the universe "was created and is destructible," that it is spherical, and that the god who created it also pervades it; that [257] there are four elements, water being the primal one; but there is a fifth element of which the heavens and the celestial bodies are composed; and that the earth is situated at the center of the universe, and originated from an egg. In identifying as Greek the idea that the creator of the world pervades his own creation, Megasthenes evidently had in mind the Orphics and Pythagoreans. But particularly noteworthy, because so specific, are two other correspondences: the assertion that the Indians believed the universe to have been formed through water (the opinion of Thales of Miletos in the 6th century B.C.), and the idea of a "fifth nature" (equivalent to the Greek ether). Certainly in Megasthenes one finds no trace of the earlier Greek prejudice that all non-Greeks are "barbarians" beyond the pale of civilization. This Greek ambassador approached India in a sympathetIc spirit and (if anything) minimized the differences between Indian society and his own.

Megasthenes' writings show that India under the Maurya dynasty enjoyed a high level of political development. He mentioned many types of government officials: commissioners to maintain the rivers, re-measure the land, inspect the canals from which water was distributed into irrigation conduits, to collect taxes, superintend craftsmen, protect foreigners, construct roads, and place pillars every ten stadia to show byroads and cross-roads. The Indian judiciary had a reputation for energy and probity. An official spy-service was well-developed, making use of courtesans as informants. Armies were numerous; the cavalry employed elephants as well as horses; the foot-soldiers used bows and arrows, swords, javelins and shields, and went to war accompanied by trumpet and drum music. The entire country belonged to the king (this last point is not corroborated by other sources). But most of Megasthenes' information about the political life of Maurya India is confirmed by the Arthashastra, that classic Indian political treatise of perhaps the first century B.C., which is believed to reflect the practices of the Maurya state. 

Megasthenes also understood the principle of caste (The more accurate term is varna (i.e. "class")[rather, “color”]; "caste" refers to any of the several hundred subdivisions within the varna.) - namely that this was a hereditary division within Indian society, and that intermarriage between the castes was forbidden. He named seven such classes (varna), however, rather than four (the usual number, i.e. Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra); why he did so has never been satisfactorily explained. The first and most respected class was that of the "philosophers." Farmers were second in honor; the third was that of the shepherds, hunters and animal breeders. Fourth came the artisans, tradesmen and day-laborers; fifth the warriors; sixth the government inspectors; seventh, advisers and counselors in the [258] king's service. Several centuries later Plinius described Indian social structure much less accurately, dividing it in terms of occupations rather than hereditary social cIasses.

Among the "philosophers" Megasthenes noted a distinction between "Brachmanai" (i.e. Brahmins) and "Sarmanai" (Sanskrit: shramana = “ascetic"). The Brachmanai he described as priests or teachers of the Indian religion; they were more highly esteemed than the "Sarmanai”, allegedly because of the superior consistency of their doctrines. In another place he remarked that some "philosophers" presided at sacrifices, made offerings to the dead. and gave advice to kings; this obviously referred to Brahmins. He noted also that the Brahmins' children were given prudent advice and suggestions from childhood onward; as they grew older they were sent to teachers for instruction. The men did not share their philosophy with their wives, for the illuminating reason that "no person who has contempt for pleasure and toil, and likewise for life and death, is willing to be subject to another" (i.e. to a husband) - eloquent testimony to the subordinate status of Indian women. Certainly these statements accurately reflect Brahmin practices as known from somewhat later sources, as well as the reverence traditionally rendered to Brahmins in Indian society.

But subsequent authors who quoted Megasthenes failed to comprehend his distinction between Brachmanai, i.e. members of a hereditary social class, and Sarmanai, i.e. persons who adopted an ascetic life-style. No doubt the ascetics Megasthenes encountered in India were sometimes Brahmins but might also have been Buddhists or Jains [or 'Hindu' sadhus] - adherents of religions [or low castes] which rejected the traditional class division of Indian society. It was probably out of this confusion that the Greeks drew their erroneous equation of "Brahmin" and "ascetic," believing that Brahmins were by definition ascetic wise men. However, Megasthenes himself seems to have used the word shramana in approximately its correct sense - to denote ascetics of any class or sect. There is no reason to suppose that he meant it to describe any single religious group.

Because Megasthenes referred to the Brachmanai and Sarmanai as distinct categories, some scholars have concluded that they were therefore mutually exclusive, and accordingly the Sarmanai must have been Buddhists or Jains. But no such simple explanation accords with the extant evidence. [They were probably 'Hindu' sadhus]  Firstly, in Megasthenes' time the principal language of the Buddhists was Pali, not Sanskrit, so that any reference to ascetics derived from Buddhist sources should have called them “samana" rather than "shramana”. Moreover, in the early 3rd century B.C. Buddhism was not yet a major faith in India; it would become so only during the reign of the emperor Ashoka (ca. 274-236 B.C,), who lent the weight of his government to promoting it. Certainly Megasthenes never mentioned Buddha or Buddhists by name, As for Jains, it seems likely that he [259] recognized them as a separate group. Much later Strabon in his Geography reported that "writers” (meaning Megasthenes?) contrasted the "Brachmanai" with the “Pramnai," who were "a contentious and disputatious sect." Some of these latter were called "Mountain" Pramnai. others “Naked" Pramnai and still others "City" Pramnai - a terminology which corrresponds approximately to the ancient division between the nČked, or Digambara ("sky-clad"), and the clothed, or Shvetamba ("white-clad") Jains. [Sedlar is all wrong here. These are not Jains, but the Giri (mountain), Naga (nČked), and Puri (city) sects of Shaiva sadhus, i.e. the “contentious and disputatious sect”. I wonder what “Pramnai” means, though. Paramhans, maybe?]

Megasthenes' remarks possibly also reflect some awareness of the traditional Indian theory of life-stages (ashrama), whereby men of the three upper classes were directed to spend the latter part of their lifetimes as ascetics after having been students and householders. [But ‘Ashrama’ is also a designation for a (now Brahmin) sect of Shaiva sadhus] He noted that the most respected among the Sarmanai were called "hylobii" - a term derived from vanaprastha, or "forest-dweller." This is the Sanskrit designation for someone who has completed the student and householder stages of life, abandoned his family, and entered the third stage - namely, a moderately ascetic existence in preparation for becoming a sannyasin or wandering monk (the fourth stage). The term "vanaprastha" cuts across class distinctions: any man of the "twice-born" classes can become one. The Laws of Manu, written somewhat after Megasthenes' time, but probably reflecting more ancient practices, speaks of "Brahmins . . . or [others] of the twice-born who reside in the forest." "Twice-born" refers specifically to members of the three upper classes of traditional Brahminic society. If Megasthenes used the term "hylobii" in Manu's context, he must have meant that Brachmanai were included among the vanaprastha, who in turn were the most respected of the Sarmanai. The greater esteem they enjoyed was perhaps owing to the fact that they were socially orthodox, not heretical like the Buddhists and Jains. [Rather, of higher caste than the other ‘Hindu’ sadhus]  In short, Megasthenes recognized that "Brahmin" and "ascetic" were different, but not mutually exclusive categories.

Megasthenes' descriptions of the Indian Sarmanai are more detailed than the remarks of Alexander's companions (insofar as these are extant), but not inconsistent either with them or with much later reports on the subject. In discussing Indian asceticism all Hellenistic accounts are remarkably consistent. The existence of men leading lives of strict renunciation, esteemed by their countrymen and reputed to be wise, received mention in nearly all ancient accounts of India. The original Greek term for such men was "gymnosophists," i,e. nČked philosophers. Already in Alexander's time, Aristobulos and Onesikritos told of gymnosophists whom they observed lying nČked all day on ground scorching hot from the sun, or standing for entire days first on one leg and then on the other. Megasthenes reported that both the Brachmanai and Sarmanai spent their time in a grove near the city (Pataliputra?), abstaining from animal food and se+ual intercourse, speaking only of serious [260] matters, and communicating with anyone who wished to listen to them. After 37 years of this life they became householders, married as many wives as possible in order to have many children, and were permitted to eat certain meats. Thus Megasthenes anticipated the prescription of the Laws of Manu which decreed that a student should study the Vedas for 36 years before becoming a householder. Moreover, he stated that the Brahmins' principal topic of conversation was death, which they regarded as "birth into the true life, that is, the happy life." Towards present existence they maintained a detached attitude, asserting that nothing on this earth is inherently good or bad but merely a matter of opinion. As for the Sarmanai; they lived in forests, subsisting on leaves and wild fruits, clothed with the bark of trees, and abstaining from wine and se+ual intercourse. Kings communicated with them through messengers and used their services in public worship. In addition to the ascetic forest-dwellers ("hylobii") he mentioned “physicians" who lived indoors, eating what other people gave them; they practiced sorcery and cured diseases. Both forest-dwellers and physicians engaged in difficult feats of asceticism, e.g. standing all day in one posture without moving. Women sometimes studied together with the ascetics: they too were chaste. Interestingly, seven centuries later a Roman official from Thebes in Egypt, after some years of imprisonment on the Malabar coast, gave (apparently independently) a picture of Indian asceticism which agreed in its essentials with that of Megasthenes. He noted that the Brahmins of Malabar lived nČked beside a river, subsisted on fruits and wild vegetables, rested on leaves in the woods, engaged constantly in prayer, and possessed some higher form of knowledge.

The extant travelers' reports about Brahmin asceticism were reinforced by the well-attested instances of two Indian holy men who burned themselves to death in public laces before an audience of astonished Greeks. The first of these was Kalanos, who accompanied Alexander's army as far as Susa and then immolated himself on a funeral pyre in Alexander's presence. Another was Zarmanochegas (or Zarmaros), a member of the Indian embassy to Augustus, who burned himself to death at Athens in sight of the emperor. Clearly amazed at such spectacular suicides, Hellenistic writers failed to agree upon the reasons for them. Onesikritos thought that the Brahmins regarded physical disease as a disgrace. However, Megasthenes asserted (correctly, as we now know) that suicide was not a regular practice among Indian ascetics, but that only persons of an especially ardent temperament indulged in it. Strabon, commenting on the case of Zarmanochegas, offered the rather forced explanation that the holy man had heretofore enjoyed a happy life, but feared a change in fortune if he should go on living. More plausibly, the Roman senator Dio Cassius attributed Zarmanochegas' suicide either to the Indian's ambition to die a philosopher's death, to [261] advanced age, or to his desire to make a display in front of Augustus. As the number of extant literary references indicates, these two fiery deaths were common knowledge among educated people of the period. Plutarchos noted that in his day (late first cent. A.D.) the tomb of Zarmanochegas was still displayed at Athens. And the historian Iosephos related that during the Jewish war against Rome (66-70 A.D.) the hero Eleazar exhorted his troops to be as willing to die as the Indians who "commit their bodies to the fire."

The physical feats of the Indian ascetics were by Greek standards extraordinary and incomprehensible, far surpassing the comparatively moderate forms of religious philosophic self-denial found in the Hellenistic world. Undoubtedly it was this sensational aspect of Indian asceticism, rather than its underlying justification, which made so vivid an impression upon the Greeks. The chief sources of Greek knowledge about Indian holy men remained the writings of Alexander's companions and the Indika of Megasthenes. No reports on the subject by travelers to India are extant from the most active period of Indo-Greek trade - the first and 2nd centuries A.D. But in the meantime the "Brahmins" had become legendary in the Greek world. Especially the remarkable indifference to pain shown by these ascetics excited the admiration of persons not otherwise concerned with India. For example Cicero, the Roman orator and Stoic, praised them. The Church Father Clemens of Alexandreia compared the Brahmins' alleged contempt for death by fire with the recommended attitude of a true Christian toward martyrdom.

Moreover, the number of prominent Hellenistic thinkers who demonstrated an interest in India clearly shows that Indian philosophy. as well as Indian ascetic prowess, eventually acquired a considerable reputation in the Greek world. Among the relevant examples were men of widely differing religious and philosophical persuasions: the Neo-Pythagorean Apollonios of Tyana; Gnostics like Basileides and Bardaisan; the Neo-Platonist Plotinos; his disciple and biographer Porphyrios; and Mani, the founder of Manichaeism. Even to the moderately educated person of those days the name of India must have conjured up definite associations. The dialogues of Lukianos of Samosata, for example, bear witness to this fact. Lukianos (2nd cent. A.D.) was a popular satirist, writing for a broad (though not an unlettered) audience; it is not likely that he alluded to esoteric matters of which his public had no knowledge. He mentioned "Brahmins" in a perfectly offhand manner, suggesting that his audience knew well enough who they were. Thus in his satire "The Runaways" the goddess of philosophy tells Zeus, king of the gods, that "the Brahmins. . . are mine to a man." His dialogue "Toxaris," relating the adventures of two Greek students in Egypt, reaches its culmination when one of the young men, having resolved to seek wisdom, goes "off to India to visit the Brahmins." Such popular examples indicate better [262] than any scholarly treatise could do the widespread equation of "India" with "wisdom" in the later Hellenistic period.

On the other hand, an anonymous Greek popular comedy from approximately the same period (late first-early 2nd cent. A.D.) gives a much less flattering picture of India. Dealing with the adventures of a young Greek woman imprisoned by an Indian king, this theater-piece describes the Indian chieftains as "barbarians" who engage in wild dances and speak gibberish. The plot turns on the notion that Indians are unfamiliar with wine: this was an impression reported by Megasthenes. When the heroine's brother arrives to rescue her, she outwits her captors by making them drunk and thereby effects her escape. This minor comedy, though definitely addressed to a less cultured audience than Lukianos' satires, nonetheless assumed some vague awareness of India's existence on the part of its intended audience.

In view of the Greeks' at least occasional interest in India - which extended from the most highly educated circles far down into the general population - it is at first sight surprising that their picture of India owed so much to Alexander's companions and Megasthenes, and so little to the far more extensive Indian contacts which demonstrably flourished in the first and 2nd centuries A.D. The reason obviously was not the absence of more up-to-date information, since existing trade relations must have made this abundant, but rather an archaizing state of mind which caused such information to be ignored. To the educated person of the Hellenistic age, the greatest achievements of the human spirit belonged to the era of Greek history which ended with Alexander. The literature of all later periods was judged principally by the standard of faithfulness to 5th- and 4th-century models and themes. Moreover, India perhaps more than any other foreign land was associated with the name of Alexander; it represented the farthest extent of his extraordinary conquests. Apparently for such reasons, the writers of Alexander's generation (including Megasthenes) enjoyed supreme authority with respect to India.

All later Hellenistic writers on India who could lay claim to literary excellence - and this includes Arrianos, Quintus Curtius, Strabon, Plinius, Philostratos - depended for their view of India primarily upon the Alexandrian tradition, which was three to five centuries old in their time. They totally ignored south India - that part of the country having the closest real ties to the Greek world from the late first century B.C. onward. Alexander and his companions had known only the north. A major geographer like Strabon made very sparing use of contemporary travel reports in compiling his own account of India. He quoted frequently from the Alexandrian sources on India, but omitted to mention the pioneering journeys of Eudoxos of Kyzikos (almost certainly known to him through the writings of Poseidonios). Where Strabon referred to contemporary authors at all, it was chiefly to discredit their veracity.

[263] Plinius did mention a few sea-travelers of recent vintage; Ptolemaios used their reports extensively. However, both these men were more concerned with mathematical geography - i.e. ascertaining the true locations of places - than with descriptions of land and people, which had chiefly interested the writers Alexander's time and Megasthenes.

Clemens of Alexandria

Given this rigid classicizing attitude, it is clear why Hellenistic writings on India included almost no specific references to what was then probably the chief religion of the country - Buddhism. Alexander's companions and Megasthenes had not mentioned Buddhists by name; the great efflorescence of this religion occurred after their time. But not until the 3rd century A.D. do we find a single explicit mention of the Buddha in any Greek writer. This was Clemens of Alexandreia, who as a Christian was not totally beholden to classical prejudice (with its inevitably pagan associations). Repeating Megasthenes, Clemens spoke of Brachmanai and Sarmanai as "barbarian" (i.e. foreign) philosophers; but he added to this list "Samanaioi of Bactria" and worshippers of "Boutta." Bactria meant the Kushan realm which at that period included portions of India; the "Samanaioi" were undoubtedly Buddhists. Clemens presumably did not suspect that the terms "Sarmanai" and "Samanaioi" were derived from variant forms of the same Indian word. Nor was he aware of any connection between Bactrian "Samanaioi" and the worshippers of "Boutta." But he obviously did not scorn contemporary sources, even if these were non-prestigious in a literary sense. His information about the Bactrians apparently was derived from overland contacts with the Kushan realm, his knowledge of the Buddha from south Indian sources. [Clemens had been to India himself, see Benz.]

Aside from the works of Alexander's companions and Megasthenes, we really do not know what writings about India may have circulated in the Hellenistic period. Certainly it is doubtful that any genuinely Indian texts were available even in the greatest libraries, such as Alexandreia or Pergamon. Our only extant note upon this subject comes from a very late source, the Christian writer Epiphanios (4th cent. A.D.), who claimed that in founding the Museum of Alexandreia King Ptolemaios I - who had served in India as one of Alexander's generals - ordered his librarian to gather books from the entire known world, including India. We do not know whether the librarian carried out his orders. But even if Indian books were available in the Hellenistic world, the likelihood is strong that no one would have read them. The sad fact is that Greeks rarely if ever learned foreign languages; they expected other peoples to learn theirs, which they confidently regarded as the only possible tongue for a civilized and educated person. Although they had long since ceased to regard foreign civilizations as "barbarian," the Hellenistic Greeks nonetheless lacked the genuine scholarly interest in foreigners' civilizations which only a solid knowledge of languages would have rendered possible. As far as we can tell, no Greek ever read the Zoroastrian,….. [264] the Egyptian wisdom books, not to mention the Upanishads or the Buddhist scriptures. Whatever information they possessed about these alien religions was many times removed from its primary sources.

Had they possessed a real desire to understand the country, Greek scholars could scarcely have been content for so many centuries to draw their view of India from the antiquated Alexander-tradition. But genuine investigation of the facts about India existed only where this was indubitably necessary for practical reasons, e.g. in the travelers' log-books which described the routes between places. Such documents were beyond the pale of respectable literature, even as source material (except for mathematical geographers). Obviously something more than mere faithfulness to the classical tradition was at work.

The truth seems to be that the Greeks of the Hellenistic age had a deeply felt need to assume the priority and the superiority of Oriental wisdom - not only Indian, but also Zoroastrian, Egyptian, Babylonian and Hebrew. With respect to their own political and religious institutions, they were men of little faith. Politically they had become Roman subjects; the Romans learned to speak Greek (which no doubt was an important ingredient in their successful imperialism), but did not restore the ancient Hellenic liberties. In religion, many educated Greeks clung desperately to the pagan deities, which were inseparable from the great tradition of classical Greek literature (though even some writers of the classical age had treated the gods with indifference or scepticism). The less educated turned in great numbers to alien faiths, until even philosophers came to believe that Oriental religion (though not Oriental civilization in general) was superior to the indigenous variety.

The high respect accorded to Indian wisdom in the Hellenistic age was not an isolated cultural phenomenon. The same attitude prevailed toward Zoroastrian and Egyptian tradition. But it is doubtful that Greeks would have reacted in this fashion to foreign religion - much of which had to do with life after death, astrology and the occult world - if they had read its primary literature and understood it on its own terms. The cultural gap was too wide; in many respects they would have been repelled. Instead they constructed an imaginative picture of foreign spirituality. The Hellenistic reputation of the Persian Magi or the Egyptian god Hermes Trismegistos was in fact largely the product of forgeries done by Greeks themselves, aided certainly by natives who told them what they wished to hear. The Greeks' estimate of Brahmin wisdom was similarly contrived: an imaginative creation anchored upon a few observed facts concerning Indian ascetics. This blind faith in foreign speculation was a clear sign that the Hellenistic Greeks profoundly lacked confidence in their own religious heritage. Precisely this attitude, and the felt need for an idealized replacement, made it impossible for them to seek a true image of the real India.

For comments: Dolf Hartsuiker