What were the consequences of Alexander the Great's invasion of India?

A coin commemorating Alexander’s conquests in India

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest conquerors in history and the equal of any general who has ever lived. He campaigned successfully in Europe, Asia, and Africa and he was victorious in every battle. Perhaps his most audacious campaign was in modern Pakistan and north-west India. His conquests in this region proved to be fleeting. However, Alexander’s Indian campaign was one that was to have significant repercussions for both the Hellenistic and the Indian World. The invasion of India by the great Macedonian was to lead to the establishment of a Greek population in India, increased contacts between the two great cultures and significant cultural exchanges, which influenced both the development of Hellenistic philosophy and Buddhism.

Background

In 333 BC Phillip II of Macedonia was assassinated, and Alexander became king. He campaigned in Greece and the Balkans, and after securing his kingdom’s borders, he launched an invasion of the Persian Empire. Alexander portrayed himself as avenging the two earlier invasions of Greece by the Persians.[1] In a series of devastating campaigns, he seized the Persian Empire and ended the Achaemenid Dynasty. Alexander then campaigned to extend his control over the former Persian satrapies in modern Uzbekistan and Afghanistan (328-327 BC).

The Achaemenids had also established some satrapies in modern Pakistan, and Alexander wanted to add these to his Empire. The Macedonian monarch was first drawn to the Indian sub-continent by the desire to complete the conquest of the Persian Empire. However, it seemed that at some date that he decided to invade India, which he like other Greeks, believed was the end of the world.[2] At this time, India referred to the territory occupied by the modern state of that name and also the present-day nation of Pakistan. It was one of the most populous and urbanized parts of the Ancient World and had a culture every bit as rich as that of Ancient Greece. There were a series of large of sophisticated states in the subcontinent. Much of Northern India was controlled by the powerful Nanda Empire, while in what is now Bengal, the Gangaridai Empire, reputedly could field a force of 3,000 war-elephants.

Alexander’s Invasion of India

An example of Greco-Buddhist sculpture

The invasion of India was a logical step following the Macedonian’s king’s campaigns in Bactria. There had been a major rebellion launched against Alexander by a local warlord.[3] After the conqueror suppressed this revolt; he turned his attention to war-like tribes in Afghanistan, who had aided the rebellious Bactrians. Alexander attacked tribal confederations in the Hindu Kush valleys of Afghanistan and Pakistan.[4]

He conquered these tribes, with great loss of life and ravaged their lands and then marched his forces down the Indus River and he entered the powerful kingdom of King Paurava (or Porus to the Greeks). This king had a vast army and many war-elephants, and he took up a defensive position on the River Hydaspes in what is now modern Punjab. Heavy Monsoon rains swelled the river, but Alexander was able to cross the river and surprise the Indians in the rear. There then followed a terrible battle, which Alexander won, but it came at a terrible human cost. Alexander made Paurava a subordinate ruler, and he absorbed much of Punjab into his realms.[5]

The great conqueror was determined to press on to the Indian heartland, the Gangetic plains, However, the Macedonian king, was forced to overcome war-like tribes in his rear and he captured the almost impregnable mountain fortress of Aornos (326 BC). After securing his rear and flanks, the king decided to invade Northern Indian. His soldiers were becoming restless, they had not seen their homes in years and were fearful of the powerful Nanda and Gangaridai armies, with their many war-elephants. His army mutinied at the Hyphasis River (the modern Beas River) and demanded that Alexander turn back and abandon the campaign.

The king attempted to persuade them to continue but he failed, and after a stand-off, he relented.[6] He retreated into modern Pakistan and began to campaign against the powerful Malian tribe, who lived near modern Multan in Pakistan. After a siege, he subdued the Malians but received a near-fatal wound during the fighting. This wound is believed by many to have led to his death. Despite his severe wound Alexander conquered a large number of tribes and reached the Indian Ocean coast of modern Pakistan. He then returned to Persia via the Great Gedoresian Desert, during which he lost much of his army to thirst and hunger. He divided his conquests into four satrapies, and he left behind a considerable army under Peithon. [7]

After Alexander the Great’s death, his generals fought a series of civil wars, as they tried to carve out independent states out of his Empire.[8] The Greek armies in India returned to the west to take part in these wars sometime in 316 BC. Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha founded the Maurya Empire after he overthrew the Nanda Empire in 321 BC.

The course of events after this is not certain, because of the fragmented nature of the sources. It appears that Chandragupta invaded the Macedonian territories in the Punjab and Sind. At this time Seleucus was the most powerful general in the eastern regions of the Alexandrine Empire, sought to reconquer the satrapies lost to the founder of the Mauryan dynasty. There followed the Seleucid–Mauryan War fought between 305 and 303 BC. Details of the war are not known, but it appears that Chandragupta emerged as the victor. Seleucus ceded most if not all of the Alexandrine conquests in India to the Mauryan Empire, and in return, he received 500 war elephants[9]. Seleucus used these elephants in his great victory at Ipsus (301 BC). Later there were extensive diplomatic and trading contacts established between the Hellenistic and Indian world.

The Greeks in India

A portrait of Meander I Soter c 160 AD

Several Indian sources indicate that Alexander left a large number of Greek colonists in his newly acquired territories, who are referred to as Yavanas. It appears that there were a large number of Greek settlements in India. They continued to speak Greek and remained a distinct ethnic group in Northern India. The great Buddhist Emperor Asoka issued edicts in Greek. It is also believed that many Greeks were active in the government of this great Emperor. The descendants of the colonists transplanted by Alexander into India continued to flourish for many years. In 180 BC an army of Greeks returned to India, these were the descendants of the colonies established in Bactria. The Mauryan Empire fell after the death of Asoka and his left a power vacuum in north-west India. A powerful Greek Bactrian king Demeter 1 conquered a large area of Afghanistan.[10]

Later kings ruled parts of the Punjab and Gujarat in the second century AD. The greatest Indo-Greco king was Meander I who ruled a large kingdom in what is now Pakistan and the Indian Punjab. After his death little is known about the Indo-Greek kingdoms, the last known was that located in eastern Punjab, that was ruled by a monarch called Strato I (10 BC). However, some small Indian Greek statelets endured in remote areas until the 1st century AD. Alexander’s invasion had resulted, directly and indirectly in the establishment of a Greek presence in North-West India for over 300 years.

Graeco-Buddhism

The Mauryan Emperor Asoka was keen to spread the Buddhist faith, and he sent missionaries to the Greeks who lived in his realms and Bactria. It seems that many descendants of Alexander’s colonists and soldiers became followers of the Buddha and that there are even documented examples of Greek Buddhist monks. Following the collapse of the Mauryan Empire, a unique Greco-Buddhism developed, a combination of Hellenistic and Indian elements.[11]

This syncretic religion influenced the development of the Mahayana tradition in Buddhism and its pantheon of deities. The Indo-Greek kingdoms became important centers of Buddhism, and they were instrumental in the spread of the religion into Central Asia and ultimately into China. The long-term consequences of Alexander’s invasion were a chain of events that decisively influenced the development of Buddhism and helped the spread of that faith.

Greek impact on India art

The Greeks influenced every people that they encountered. The also had a profound impact on India culture especially its art and architecture. It seems that the Greeks continued to use architectural styles’ such as the Ionian and this was to influence Indian designs. Columns found in the ruins of the Mauryan Palace owe a debt to the Yavanas. There have even been suggestions that Greek temples influenced the development of Indian temples. The influence of Greek sculpture on Indian art is evident.

Many Yavanas became Buddhists, and they developed a unique artistic style, known as Greco-Buddhist. This was highly influential in the development of Indian artistic styles. It is widely held that the Bactrian Greeks were the first to represent the Buddha in human form and began a tradition that exists to this day. The Greeks in India were master of the numismatic art. Their coins are spectacular and influenced Indian coinage for many centuries. Some of the first representations of Hindu deities were represented on Greco-Bactrian coins, and this has established a precedent that also exists to this day.

India and Greek Philosophy

India is home to several major religions, which have strong traditions of metaphysical speculation. For example, it was the birthplace of Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. There is a strong tradition of asceticism in Indian thought, and it has produced sophisticated theories of ethics and epistemology. Ancient histories inform us that the Greeks who invaded India were impressed by local ascetics and holy men, whom they called gymnosophists [12] Alexander, who had been tutored by Aristotle, had an interest in philosophy and he was accompanied by his invasion by a number of philosophers.

One of these was Pyrrho, and Buddhist notions of epistemology influenced him. This led him to adopt a philosophical skepticism, and his theories have been very influential. It is often held that Indian doctrines influenced the Cynic school of thought. There are undoubtedly many similarities between Cynics and Indian philosophies such as Jainism, especially in their rejection of society and materialism. However, the Cynics had developed in Athens before Alexander’s invasion. The Cynic philosopher Onescrithes recorded his conversation with a Brahmin and possibly Jain monks and, it is possible that this influenced the development of later Cynics thought, which remained influential, in Antiquity, until the Christianization of the Empire.[13]

Conclusion

Alexander had failed to achieve his objectives in India, and his conquests were fleeting. The Macedonian’s campaign was to have far-reaching consequences. The Alexandrine invasion was to result in a Greek presence in Northern India for at least three centuries. Greek communities and later Indo-Greek Kingdoms played a critical role in the history of the region for centuries. The presence of Greeks was to have a profound cultural impact on India and influenced it in a crucial period. This is evident in the art, coinage, and architecture of, first the Mauryan and later the Gupta Empires.

However, the Greeks in India and nearby Bactria came to be influenced by Indian culture and especially its religion. Many Greeks first in India and later in Bactria became Buddhists, and this led to the creation of a distinct form of Buddhism. Greco-Buddhism was decisive in the development of the creed first preached by the Buddha and helped to spread it into Central Asia. Finally, it seems that Indian philosophy influenced Hellenistic philosophies, including that of Cynicism and Scepticism.

Further Reading

Sidky, Homayun. The Greek Kingdom of Bactria: From Alexander to Eucratides the Great. (University Press of America, New York, 2000)

"The Edicts of King Asoka: An English Rendering" by Ven. S. Dhammika (The Wheel Publication No. 386/387)

Heckel, Waldemar, ed. Who's who in the Age of Alexander the Great: Prosopography of Alexander's Empire. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Seldeslachts, E., 2005. The end of the road for the Indo-Greeks?. Iranica Antiqua, 39(0), pp.249-296.

References

  1. Plutarch. Life of Alexander, 5, 17
  2. Plutarch, 6. 4
  3. Arrian. Campaigns of Alexander, 12, 56
  4. McCrindle, J. W. The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great as Described by Arrian, Q Curtius, Diodorus, Plutarch, and Justin. Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co, 1893), p 67
  5. McCrindle, p 118
  6. Plutarch, 7, 6
  7. McCrindle, p 115
  8. Bosworth, Albert Brian. Conquest and Empire: the reign of Alexander the Great (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), p 398
  9. A. B. Bosworth, The Legacy of Alexander (Oxford University Press, 2008), p 156
  10. Singh, Upinder A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Pearson Education India, 2008), p 118
  11. Singh, p 118
  12. Plutarch, 5. 8
  13. Mc Evilly, Thomas. The shape of ancient thought. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian philosophies” (Allworth Press, New York 2002), pp 290-298


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