FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY: Part 10

Emirtaes Business Lounge
Dubai International Airport, 31 March 2013
THE TALE OF TWO INVASIONS
Indian history is a continuous tale of invasions and conquests. Although the arrival of the nomadic ‘Aryans’ from the Iranian plateau perhaps should not be counted as an invasion, from the 5th century BC, the sub-continent has been buffeted by invading armies (and much later, navies) who have come with individual agendas broadly tailored around conquest and plunder, attracted by tales of wealth beyond imagination and of exotic, beautiful and carefree people, lifestyles and places. Irrespective of the reason, India has been host to invasions by myriad cultures and races. However, the noteworthy factor is that regardless of the ferocity of the attacks or the duration of the subjugation, in the end India has always managed to absorb them into itself without losing much of its own identity—only evolving at a steady and stately pace into an independent entity.
The Persian Invasion
The first challenge to the emerging state system in the Indus valley was the invasion of the Persians. The Persians had created the greatest empire the world had yet seen under the leadership of the powerful Cyrus II (ruled 550-529 BC) who is also considered to have established the Achaemenid dynasty. The eastern border of the Persian Empire was close to the west bank of the Indus and a number of Indian States (under disparate chieftains of varying capability) holistically considered eastern Afghanistan within their sphere of influence. When there are two overlapping claims of influence and sovereignty, conflict is inevitable. It is clear that Cyrus II conquered some parts of India, but how much of the North-Western part was actually taken under direct the control of the Persian Empire is unclear. Greek sources [for the most part reliable, since the chroniclers normally embellished only their own perceptions of the land and the people and not the geographic realities in terms of borders etc.] confirm that Gandhara—West Punjab, one of the 16 mahajanapadas—was part of the Achaemenid Empire.
Darius I (ruled 521-486 BC). Verifiable information and evidence of Persian conquest comes from the inscriptions left by the third Emperor Darius I. There are three separate inscriptions that clearly indicate the extent of his kingdom, while also giving details of the Indian lands within the Persian Empire. The first, and most important is the Behistun Rock Inscription (dated between 520-518 BC), written on a cliff face 100 meters above ground along the road between Hamadan in Iran and Baghdad in Iraq. It contains the biography of Darius I and lists the 23 lands (satrapies) of his kingdom. In it is mentioned Gandhara, Arachosia (South Afghanistan), and Maka (the Makran coast of Baluchistan) as being part and parcel of the Persian Empire. The second inscription is a Persian Block Tablet sunk in the wall of the platform in the royal palace of Persepolis (dated 518-515 BC) that mentions his conquest of the Indus Valley. The third inscription is chiselled around the tomb entrance of Darius at Naqsh-i-Rustom in 514 BC and mentions Hindush (Indus basin) as Persian controlled during his reign. What these detailed inscriptions prove is that the Indus basin was fully conquered by the Persians by around 516 BC and along with Baluchistan and Southern Afghanistan formed the eastern geographical limit of the Persian Empire. The Indian possessions—whose wealth was considered legendary—were well integrated into the empire through highways and other trade routes. Herodotus also mentions that Hindush (India), which was the 20th Satrapy, contributed a third of all revenue (mostly in gold) that was generated in the Empire.
Taxila: The Cosmopolitan Centre of Learning
Taxila, the capital of Gandhara, was considered the most important centre of learning of the time and had students arriving there from all the mahajanapadas as well as smaller states for higher studies and to improve their knowledge. The city was a homogenous mix of both Indian and Iranian traditions, culture and even religion, to which was later added information and culture brought by the Hellenic Greeks. Because of this mix and external influence, the orthodox Brahmins of the Gangetic plains considered the Brahmins of Taxila and their rituals to be impure. This situation is ironical. The very same Gangetic Brahmins had themselves forgotten a great deal of the Vedic rituals that originated in the Iranian plateau, which was the foundation from where their own ritual traditions originated. Therefore, their shunning of the Brahmins of Taxila and declaring them ‘impure’ should be seen as the height of hypocrisy. Irrespective of this disdain, Taxila and its mixed culture influenced India in a number of ways—the sigloi type coins of the Persians were copied in the Indian states; the idea of rock inscriptions, later used very effectively by Asoka in the 3rd century BC was initially developed by Darius I; and the script Kharoshti, used extensively in the Indian states, was derived from the Aramaic of the Persian Empire.
The Greek Interlude
(Or Alexander of Macedon’s Indian Adventure)
In 330 BC Alexander of Macedonia (later called ‘the Great’) defeated Darius III, the last Achaemenid Emperor. By this time the once great Persian Empire had gradually fallen prey to the onset of disintegration and effective central control, as it existed in its glory, was considerably diminished. During this Persian campaign, Alexander for the first time encountered Indian soldiers—there was a small Indian contingent with about 15 elephants fighting for Darius III in the Battle of Gaugamela. [However, this was not the first Greek encounter with Indians; according to Herodotus the Greeks had fought Indian soldiers nearly 100 years earlier at Plataea, when they were part of the Persian army.] Alexander subsequently conquered Bactria, the land watered by the River Oxus (modern day Turkestan) and by the spring of 327 BC had crossed the Hindu Kush into Afghanistan. He spent the next year subduing warlike and turbulent tribes around the district of Kabul, then descended the Kabul valley and in 326 BC reached the River Indus in the territory of Gandhara. By this time Gandhara was no longer under direct control of the Persian Emperor and the ruler could be considered independent. The story of Alexander’s raid on India starts from here. [I use the term raid in a very considered manner, since his attack on the western outskirts of the Indian sub-continent in no way can be premised to be anything but small time skirmishes and of almost no consequence to the greater kingdoms further east.]
The king of Gandhara, Ambhi (mentioned as Omphis in Greek narratives) [capital Taxila; Taksasila in Sanskrit] surrendered to Alexander without putting up even token resistance. Ambhi is reported to have been at odds with most of his neighbours, but lacked the military capability and, perhaps more importantly, the strength of character to remedy the situation on his own. It could be surmised that he sought Alexander’s assistance to remedy the situation by surrendering without a fight. [This is the first recorded instance of an Indian king ‘inviting’ external warlords or kings to aid him in tipping scales in his favour during internal power struggles or when in competition with another equally strong state. This calling in of outsiders, to the detriment of all concerned, was to subsequently become a tradition in the Indian polity. Whether or not these kings could be called traitors to the nation is open to debate, although modern nationalistic rhetoric often labels them as such. One must remember that when these actions were initiated by different kings in different times, there was no concept of a united nation-state of India. Therefore, they could have been as patriotic as anybody else and were looking out for the welfare of their sovereign state.] In any case, Ambhi celebrated his surrender (perhaps Alexander’s only bloodless triumph) with the slaughter of about 3000 oxen and a large number of sheep for an enormous feast for his Greek ‘guests’. [This indicates that the Vedic traditions and rituals were still prevalent in the North-West, whereas they had evolved into something completely different in the Gangetic plains.] Beyond the Jhelum lay the territory of King Porus of Punjab, who was greatly feared by Ambhi. [This fear of Porus could also have been a driving factor in his surrender and subsequent joining Alexander in his eastern conquest.] Porus is the Greek iteration for the Sanskrit Paurava (in some texts Pururuvas), sometimes abridged to Puru. He claimed descend from the Kuru tribe whose ruling family was cognomen.
Why did Alexander come to India? This is a question that has been debated for centuries and even during his own time by his biographers. There are a number of possible reasons, all stemming from Alexander’s recorded single-minded focus on gaining immortality as a warrior—having started the conquest of the Persian Empire on one end, he had to go to the other extremity of that empire to proclaim his authority and India happened to be the furthest extreme of the conquered empire; the ocean was considered the ultimate limit of empire and Alexander wanted to reach the ocean, which was, at that time, considered to be at the eastern border of India; by reaching the ocean he would also put an end to the ‘problem of the oceans’ that was a live issue for Greek geographers of the time; knowledge of this great ‘beyond’ was a kind of clichéd enlightenment in the ‘Western’ concept and therefore fervently followed as exemplified in the tale of the Argonauts; and Alexander wanted to outdo the mythical conquests of Heracles and Dionysus. Essentially, this was megalomania and the search for immortality at its most heroic.
“His motives need a little imagination, … The truth was that Alexander was always straining for more.”
R Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, p. 331

After Ambhi’s abject surrender, other kings send ambassadors with tribute offering submission to Alexander except for Porus. Alexander despatched a message to Porus demanding submission but the reply was for Alexander to come to the borders of Punjab armed for battle. Considering Alexander’s approach to ‘diplomacy’ and his constant chase for glorious immortality, war was inevitable.             

The Battle at Jhelum
By the time the battle lines were drawn on both sides of the Jhelum in June 326 BC, with the Macedonians on the west bank and Indians on the east bank, the Monsoon had already set in. Numerically, the armies were fairly evenly matched; Porus had 4000 cavalry, 300 chariots, 30,000 infantry and 200 war elephants; and although Alexander had a camp of over 120,000 only 35-40,000 were soldiers, the rest being families and camp followers. The Macedonians also possessed few elephants but they were primarily used for transportation and not as war animals. Both sides had their own advantages—Alexander was renowned for his meticulous battle plans and tactical excellence; Porus had a homogenous army fighting for the protection of their homeland, in contrast to the polyglot Greek army made up of a core of Macedonian veterans around whom mercenaries from the conquered lands formed the bulk. Further, it was judged that only about one-third of Alexander’s army would be able to cross the Jhelum to give battle thereby giving Porus a numerical advantage. [Admittedly Porus was defending his kingdom, but to wait for the enemy to attack in itself reflects a thinking process that surrenders the initiative to the adversary without even contesting it. In this particular case, Porus should have been the one to take the offensive and cross the river, especially since the terrain was well known to him. Repeatedly in Indian history one sees this defensive attitude that invariably leads to disaster and subsequent conquest of the nation by the invading force. The defensive mindset is manifest in modern India’s ethos to an extent wherein even its diplomatic initiatives (if they can be called such) are reactive rather than proactive. India also takes pride in proclaiming that it has never been an aggressor or the first to initiate a war, but perhaps it is also worth remembering that no other nation has been successfully conquered so many times by outsiders!]
Porus had hoped that the flooded Jhelum would stop Alexander since the crossing would have been extremely hazardous. However, Alexander duped Porus regarding his intended crossing point through an elaborate ruse and reached the other bank with a sufficiently large and mobile force. Once the battle was joined, Porus’s chariots slithered in the mud and his archers (one of the primary long-range offensive capabilities of the Indians) could not find purchase on the ground to go into action effectively (one end of the bow had to be planted on the ground to fire the arrows). However, the war elephants created havoc with the enemy forces. Here Alexander’s acute tactical skills came into play and turned the battle decisively in his favour. Having faced elephants before, he bided his time and outmanoeuvred the Indians with a concerted cavalry attack from the side and rear of the elephant corps. The elephants were panicked into directionless and indiscriminate trampling that eventually made the Indian infantry go into an uncontrolled retreat, despite the heroic exhortations of their king and his personal example of bravery. As soon as the rout started, the famed and battle hardened Macedonian phalanx with their linked shields and long lances went into action and massacred the exposed troops. The battle was over!             
Porus was captured and escorted to Alexander. The story goes that, although wounded, he fought on till the last and then left the battlefield on his elephant. Alexander send Ambhi to bring Porus to him but Ambhi was driven away with Porus throwing a spear at him. A second messenger (the Greeks call him Meroes and some scholras are of the opinion that it was Chandragupta Maurya) who was a friend of Porus, approached and convinced him to surrender. [This mention of friendship with Porus is also in alignment with subsequent history of Chandragupta Maurya’s own conquests. (to be published in Part 11)] Porus was a handsome man and although he had been wounded nine times and was a captive, he conducted himself regally. It is popularly reported that when asked by Alexander how he should be treated, his famous reply was, ‘treat me as befits me, as a King.’ To the Greeks, with no understanding of the Indian philosophical bend of mind, this sounded extraordinarily noble and courageous. [Porus’s answer is the essence of the Hindu philosophy contained within the advice given to Arjuna by Lord Krishna on the eve of the famous Battle of Kurukshetra. He advised that each individual must live according to Dharma; and that the Dharma of the Kshatriya was to fight and embrace the consequences. Therefore, in this instance Porus was not appealing for clemency but merely stating his Dharma.] Alexander magnanimously restored Porus to his throne, embellishing his already large holdings with more land, making him the unquestioned king of the whole of Punjab. It was the Greeks, through their admiration for his regal conduct, who immortalised Porus—otherwise he rates no mention in the Indian chronicles (other than as a footnote that records his assistance to Chandragupta Maurya during his western conquests). Porus was actually unknown to Indians till he was brought back to their collective memory by the Europeans at a much later date. [Much later the nationalistic movement made him into a hero as the first one to stand up to foreign invasion through song and folklore.] This underlines two facts; first that Porus was a king of very little consequence, which translates to his kingdom being relatively small; and second that ‘India’ by now was centred on the Gangetic plains and the outlying areas to the west were of very little significance.
Alexander continued his march in a south-easterly direction, crossing both the Chenab and the Ravi, subduing a number of petty tribes with countless ‘cities’ capitulating or being conquered. He reached the banks of the Beas in a triumphant mood. Further to the east lay the Sutlej, the last of the Punjab Rivers, beyond which lay the territories of the kingdom of Magadha. At this stage credible information reached Alexander of the great strength of the forces of the Nanda king of Magadha. Alexander’s reaction to this information was distinctly different to that of his forces. It whetted Alexander’s appetite for further battle and according to his biographer Arrian, the prospect of encountering such a vast army, far from daunting Alexander, only ‘excited … [in him] an ardent desire to advance further.’ His troops however had other ideas. On the banks of the River Beas, somewhere near the modern town of Gurdaspur, they refused to advance any further. They were overawed by the reputation of the Nanda troops and having witnessed the capability of the forces of Porus, who was considered only a minor chieftain within the broader Indian context, this is not surprising. Plutarch writes, ‘The Battle with Porus depressed the spirits of the Macedonians, and made them most unwilling to advance further into India.’ Further, they were venturing into unknown territory—so far they had been reconquering the erstwhile, and known, Persian Empire. No amount of exhortations, taunts and abject pleading by their invincible commander could change their decision. Reluctantly Alexander returned to the Punjab, defeated only once in his life—by his own men!
In order to mask his failure to convince his men to continue the victorious conquest further east, he sailed down the Jhelum in late 326 BC rather than backtrack the way he had come. There was stern opposition from the riverine people called the Mallavas and having overcome them the Greeks reached the Arabian Sea, at the mouth of the Indus, in September 325 BC. Here Alexander divided his army into two; sending one by sea to Mesopotamia and himself leading the other overland through the desolate Makran coast. The two armies met up at the Euphrates, immediately after which Alexander died of hepatoma in Babylon in the year 323 BC. It is obvious that Alexander intended to retain control of the conquered territories because he had set up a string of garrisons with satraps to rule these areas. However, his death was immediately followed by local revolts that made control untenable and the last of Alexander’s generals, Eudamus left Indian territory in 317 BC. Alexander’s campaign in North-West India had lasted two years and left no lasting impression.
An Honest Analysis
Alexander’s Indian adventure cannot be classified as an invasion; it was only an intrusion, and from a military point of view a minor affair—more a border skirmish and that too not a very successful one. Greek writers mention Alexander’s meeting with a princeling in exile called ‘Sandracottus’ in the early part of his campaign who offered friendly relations. In later years ‘Sandracottus’ has been identified as Chandragupta Maurya. [There is a school of thought that this overture was intended to make Alexander invade Magadha from where the Maurya had earlier been exiled. Ironically, in 305 BC Chandragupta Maurya was to repulse and defeat one of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus Nikator, (who had declared himself King of Babylon after Alexander’s death) when he attempted an Alexander-like invasion of north-west India.] Greeks wrote about India in a mixture of fact and fable, at times indistinguishable from each other, a perception of India coloured by their own preconceived notions of the exotic East, than reporting actual facts. Later writings corrected some parts, but essentially the more exotic parts continued to be extolled, imprinting the idea of a mythical, wealthy India in the European mind. From a Greek point of view, the Indian invasion was Alexander’s Moscow Campaign. Although he triumphed in all the battles, he encountered nothing but loss at the strategic level, including his own reputation of invincibility. It also resulted in the loss of his own health, brought on by the rigours of continuous campaigning and his on excesses. Alexander invaded India and won battles, but in a broad manner India conquered him. The towers that he had erected at the banks of the Beas and the strategic garrisons developed along the trail of conquests have all disappeared and no material to commemorate his ‘invasion’ remains. Further, there is no trace of any Greek influence to be seen in the sub-continent.
The First Indian Expat?
When Alexander went back from India an ascetic, called in Greek ‘Calanus’, from Taxila accompanied him. [Could he have been the first Indian expat? I believe that today there is not a single country in the world where there are no Indian expats.] The philosophy that he followed is uncertain, but it has been reported that he went about naked and therefore, he could have been a member of the Nigrantha Jain sect. He is said to have immolated himself on a funeral pyre and could have been suffering from pneumonia brought about by his naked wanderings in the Persian winter chills. It is believed that the Greek term ‘Gymnosophists’, meaning ‘naked philosophers’ originated from the interaction with this naked ascetic from India. [Perhaps more importantly, the Western image of India as a land of ‘naked fakirs’ could also have originated from this episode.]
For India, Alexander’s ‘invasion’ was a brief and passing event in a geographically remote corner and a minor and insignificant episode in the long haul of its history. It made no impression either politically or historically and there is no mention of this episode in any of the older Indian sources. The Greeks left no lasting impression on the Indian mind through philosophy, culture or art. The Greeks were called Yavana in Sanskrit (from the Prakrit yona derived from Yauna meaning Ionia mentioned in Achaemenid inscriptions), which subsequently became a generic term for all people from the West. In later Brahminical texts, the term is used in an uncomplimentary manner presumably because Alexander (and the Greeks) was not well-disposed towards Brahmins. The Buddhists seemed to have looked at the duality of the Greek society—that of master and slave—as a manifestation of a different caste system.
The real significance of Alexander’s intrusion or raid is not the fact of his conquest of the north-west, but of his reaching there and the return through a different route. He opened a practical route between the West and India, both through the land and sea. There are two other significant factors that come out of this intrusion. First, it increased the infusion of Persian influence into India; and second, the Greeks documented and left behind a large amount on information regarding the state of north-west India at that time. It is from these chronicles that we learn that Vedic customs continued to prevail here even when it was on the wane in the Gangetic plains; that the Punjab was a prosperous place; but that politically a chronic state of warfare and near anarchy prevailed in the region. We also know from Alexander’s historian, Arrian, that, ‘no nation is fonder of singing and dancing than the Indian.’ [Despite the innumerable hardships, the Indian nation must have been a happy place.] From this point onwards India had to change from within as well as in its perceptions of the outside world. Its inherent insularity had been breached once and for all.
“Alexander the Great’s Indian adventure, although a subject of abiding interest to generations of classically educated European historians, is not generally an episode on which historians of Indian nationality bother to dwell. They rightly note that it ‘made no impression historically or politically on India’, and that ‘not even a mention of Alexander is to be found in any [of the] older Indian sources.”
John Keay, India: A History, p. 70.     
              
 

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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