India and Greece have historically had a phenomenally long relationship. They are two great countries with numerous similarities. Greece is known for its system of democracy in ancient times, introduced by Cleisthenes. On the other hand, the Shanti Parva in the Indian epic Mahabharata, provides a detailed narration about the features of republics (called ganas) in India.
Diodorus Siculus, the Greek historian, writes that at the time of Alexander’s invasion in 326 B.C., most cities in northwestern India had democratic forms of government. This is also mentioned by the historian Arian.
In his address at the opening of the international conference on the Greek world and India at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the foreign minister of Greece, Nikos Dendias, said:
From the Hellenistic period to modern times, we need to build the relationship of the future. [It is] a relationship that aspires to become strategic, as Greece and India see many things in a very similar way.
Both Greek and Indian philosophy inspired the two respective continents, namely Europe and Asia, respectively. While Greece expanded its reach with Hellenized satellite states in Egypt and Syria, India presided over areas in Indo-China. Greece and India also crossed paths in terms of development trajectories. For example, the message of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, was spread throughout the ancient world predominately by the Greeks of India, and Indian astrology actually has Greek origins.
Furthermore, in a recent conference organized by India on India-Greece relations, Professor Efstratios Stylianidis, the vice rector for research of the Thessaloniki Aristotle University, also pointed to other parallels between the two countries. He spoke of the striking similarities between the Sanskrit and Ancient Greek languages as well as Byzantine and Indian astronomy.
Exploring our shared past
The aforementioned conference, “The Greek World and India: History, Culture and Trade from the Hellenistic period to Modern Times (4th c. BCE – 18th c. CE),” was organized by the “Dimitrios Galanos” Chair for Greek Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post Byzantine Studies in Venice, and the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki under the auspices of the Embassy of Greece in India.
The conference focused particularly on specific areas of research by means of distinct panels consisting of specialized scholars and researchers. These focus areas included history and contacts, numismatics, art and archaeology, science and philosophy, commerce and economy, and geography. It also included specialized focus on the Hellenistic period in India as well as the Greek Kings of India, Greeks in Indian literature, and Indians in Ancient Greek, Byzantine, and post-Byzantine literature.
Moreover, there was also a digital exhibition of a rare unique Byzantine manuscript with a large number of miniatures depicting the life of Alexander the Great. The organization of this international conference was part of the steady course of strengthening and developing the relations between Greece and India. It was proposed by Nikos Dendias during his visit to India in March 2022.
The formerly mentioned manuscript is a rare gem from the collection of the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post Byzantine Studies. Its digital journey to India bears testimony to the efforts undertaken by our countries to honor and further explore their cultural bonds and shared heritage.
Greece and India and their close friendship
In a recorded address, Dendias quoted intellectual and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore of India on Indo-Greek relations. He said:
As the prominent Indian Poet Tagore had stressed during his visit to Athens in 1926, “We, the younger generations of both Greeks and Indians must always strive to live up to the level of our glorious past. But it is not enough to reflect only on our past. We must walk in modern reality. We must contribute to the promotion of the culture of our countries and make this culture a lasting value.”
Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Culture Meenakshi Lekhi, who was the chief guest of the conference and exhibition and also inaugurated it, said that from an Indian perspective, Greece was never considered a country of the West but a bridge between East and West. She also referred to the Indo-Greek Bactria that was right on the edge where India came upon other civilizations and stressed that the two civilizations were connected and in touch even two centuries prior to the arrival of Alexander the Great in Asia.
Lekhi also mentioned there were references to the Greeks in great Indian epics such as the Mahabharata. She maintained that “Greece and India had some fantastic exchanges in old times, [and] they were competing but understanding each other as well.” Of course, the international mindset has begun changing, and countries such as India and Greek are required to work together to “decolonize history.”
Lekhi made quite a significant proposal and called for Greece and India to work closely together in the framework of UNESCO in order to promote and preserve common tangible and intangible heritage.
Professor Vasileios Syros of the JNU Greek Chair said that both Greece and India possess a tremendous cultural capital and can play a pivotal role in fostering mutual understanding and a peaceful symbiosis among the world’s nations. He added that the JNU Greek Chair aspires to be part of this unique process of enhancing Greek-Indian relations.
As part of academic sessions at the conference, there were addresses by scholars on a broad spectrum of topics related to Indo-Greek relations. The list of speakers included but was not limited to:
- Dr. Dimitrios Vassiliadis, Professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and President of the Hellenic-Indian Society for Culture & Development (ELINEPA), on “Greek and Indian Inter-religious Contacts in the Post-Alexandrian Era”
- Professor Georgios Pitsinelis, Faculty of Philology at the National & Kapodistrian University of Athens, on “The Reception and the Role of Light in the Byzantine and Hindu Religious Traditions”
- Ms. Athina Ralli, Faculty of Theology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, on “Well-being in the Christian and Hindu Traditions: Searching for Well-being in Religious Culture”
- Dr. Frederick Lauritzen of the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice, Italy on “Diplomatic Literature between Constantinople and India (4th to 11th centuries)”
- Dr. Flora Karagianni, Director of the European Centre for Byzantine and Post Byzantine Monuments (EKBMM) in Thessaloniki on “Alexander the Great in India: The Testimony of Medieval Manuscripts”
- Dr. Delphine Lauritzen from the Centre d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance in Paris, France on “Dionysus/Bacchus in India between History and Fantasy”
- Professor Amfilochios Papathomas, Faculty of Philology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, on “Commercial Routes between India and the Mediterranean and the Muziris Papyrus (SB XVII 13167)”
- Professor Renu Shukla, Faculty of the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture, and Archaeology at Gurukula Kangri University, Dehradun Campus, on “Karmic Retribution in Milindapanha: Intricacies and Explanations”
- Professor Ioannis Poulios from the Centre for Heritage Management at Ahmedabad University in Gujarat, India on “Archaeological Protection and Religious Use in Greece and India: Shared Challenges and Suggestions”
- Professor Michael Kordosis, Professor Emeritus at the University of Ioannina on “The Greek Kings of Bactria and India According to Textual Sources: From Diodotus I to Menander”
- Professor Vinay Kumar, Department of Ancient History, Culture, and Archaeology at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi on “Dionysiac Scene in Indian Art: Journey from the Greco-Roman World to Gandhara”
- Professor Jacopo Mosesso from the Vellore Institute of Technology in India on “Travelogue in India by Tatiana Gritsi-Milliex: A First Glimpse of India for a Generation of Greek Gymnasium Students”
- Professor Naman P. Ahuja, Dean at the School of Arts & Aesthetics, on “JNU One Mother, Many Mother Tongues”
- Dr. Shivalika S. Khopkar from the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Vadodara on “The Ones who ride Ketos and Makaras”
- Professor Manisha Tyagi from the School of Buddhist Studies at Subharti University in Meerut on “Graeco-Roman Traders beyond the Indo-Sri Lankan Boundaries”
- Professor Stefanos Kordosis from the School of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Economics at the International Hellenic University on “From the Black Sea to the Caspian and from there to India: Trade Routes and Distances from Astrakhan to India according to a Late 17th-c. Greek Manuscript”
- Dr. Federico Reggio from the Department of Private Law and Critique of Law at the University of Padua, Italy (Online) on “Dialogue as a Challenge, Dialogue as an Opportunity for Preventing Conflicts and Solving Disputes: A Reading of Some Excerpts from the Milindapanha”
- Professor Tirtharaj Bhoi from the Department of History at Jammu University on “Indo-Greeks in Ancient Jammu Region: Insights from Literature and Archaeological Sources”
- Professor Sima Yadav from the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi on “A Critical Note on the Trade and Economy of India and Greece in the Hellenistic Age”
- Professor Anil Kumar Singh, Greek Chair at JNU on “Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Civilizational Interaction between India and Greece”
While Hellenization as a process has been studied quite thoroughly in different regions of the world, this has not been the case with India, which has unfortunately inaccurately been seen as the fringe of the Hellenistic world. In fact, at one time, India was very much a part of that Greek world, and, when the flame of Hellenism was extinguished in various regions of the world, it kept burning in India.
India had an emperor the likes of Menander (Μένανδρος) who was as much Indian as he was Greek. Menander’s contribution to the propagation of the Buddhist faith was second only to Emperor Ashoka, and the Greek currency was the power currency so to say in ancient Gujarat, which is now the financial powerhouse of India.
Indeed, there is quite an array of Hellenistic themes in India, and this conference on Indian-Greek relations was a step in the right direction. India and Greece have to move forward together in today’s modern world as progressive and tolerant nations with friendly relations.