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India’s Independence Inspired by Greek Ideas

Greek church in Kolkata
India’s Independence Inspired by Greek Ideas. Credit: Wikimedia commons / Greek church of Kolkata

India’s struggle for independence has been inspired by Greek ideas shared by many of its revolutionaries and philhellenes.

By Arunansh B Goswami*

In his book The Histories, Herodotus mentions ‘Indians’ (‘Indoi-Ινδοι’ in Greek) on page 187. It was the first time Indians were referred to as such in a text. This is, in fact, many centuries prior to their calling their land India. which is derived from the Sindhu (Indus) River.

India’s Independence

August 15th is a special day for Indians because it was on this day in the year 1947 that Indians overcame British rule and imperialism in their country through their collective effort. On August 15th, they proclaimed their independence!

India has been welcoming, hosting, and accommodating people of various backgrounds almost throughout its entire history. While entire groups of people, including the Greeks, Scythians, and Huns among others were never actually seen as colonizers, as a result of their policies, the British were in fact seen as such.

The British drained India of its wealth and robbed it of the riches that had once made her the world’s largest and most powerful economy. It was but natural for the British to call India “the jewel in the crown of the British empire.” After all, Indian wealth fueled the rise of Britain as a global power.

Greeks vs British and Their Methods of Ruling India

The Greeks of India are one of the oldest nationalities that called this country their home. Even after ruling India and their holiest cities such as Ayodhya and Mathura, they never imposed their religious beliefs on the autochthonous population of the land. Rather, they assimilated elements from local belief systems into their own belief system.

Independence is not only related to freedom of  people from a foreign power but also from tyranny and mismanagement in general. Many years ago, Chandragupta, an Indian, guided by his teacher, Chanakya, accepted the help of Alexander’s Greeks in overthrowing the rule of an incompetent and tyrannical Indian ruler, Dhananand of Magadha.

The Greeks gained no political influence in India due to Chandragupta’s accession to the throne of emperor of India. What they did get was a friend in Chandragupta, who then went on to fight against Seleucus Nikator and defeat him. Furthermore, Chandragupta then also married Seleucus’s daughter.

India’s “Machiavelli”

Chanakya was India’s Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. One of the oldest strategic thinkers of India, famous for his treatise the Arthashastra, Chanakya’s Realpolitik continues to guide India’s foreign policy. Furthermore, Chanakya’s work then found its way to Europe by way of Demetrios Galanos, known as “The Athenian” and first Greek Indologist.

Dimitrios Galanos “The Athenian” First Greek Indologist

Dimitrios Galanos
Dimitrios Galanos. Credit: The Gallery of the University of Athens

Born in 1760 to a middle class family living in Athens, a small town under Ottoman rule at the time, Dimtrios’s education began in Athens under the guidance of the well-known teacher Ioannis Benizelos. In 1793, Demetrios Galanos departed for the city of Kashi, also known as Varanasi or Benaras.

Benaras is one of the oldest cities of the world but also one of the holiest for Hindus. In Benares, Demetrios’ counselor and adviser was the administrator of the king of Benares, Sital Prasad Singh. It was through him that Galanos was introduced to the king of Benares, Maharaja Udita Narayana Singh, whose advice and help inspired him. He soon became an outstanding master of the ancient Sanskrit language also known as “the language of the Gods.”

Nicholas Kephalas, a Greek captain from Zante (the island of Zakynthos), who visited Galanos in Varanasi, succeeded in gaining his trust and acquired the manuscript of the translation of Chanakya under the agreement of its being delivered to Greek authorities in the Peloponnese. Kephalas instead delivered the Sanskrit text to the Vatican Library and then initiated its first European publication in 1825.

The wisdom of Ancient India thus reached Europe through the very culture that linked the Orient and Occident Greek. When Indians celebrate their nation’s independence, they thus also pay their tributes to this worthy ‘Athenian.’

On May 3rd, Asiatic—the journal, that is—made reference to Galanos in its ‘Deaths’ section. It was stated that: “At Benares, Mr. Demetrios Galanos, aged 74, was a native of Greece, and for many years he…devoted himself with singular assiduity to the study of the sacred language and literature of the Hindus. He is understood to have left numerous translations from Sanskrit into Greek.”

The Rise of Greek Studies in India

In 1833, when Galanos passed away, the first history of Greece appeared in an Indian language. Written by Khettro Mohun Mookerjea, the Bengali book, which was over four hundred pages in length and titled Greek Desher Itihas was published by the Calcutta School-Book Society. It was a translation of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of Greece (1809).

This was followed by another book titled, Greek Desher Itihas (1857) by Dwarkanath Vidyabhushan, a translation of Leonhard Schmitz’s book, A History of Greece for the Junior Classes. Vidyabhushan was encouraged by the great Indian social reformer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar—who pressed the British authorities to pass the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act in 1856—to translate Greek History written by Leonhard Schmitz.

“Address to the Greeks”

Henry Luis Vivian Derozio was a philhellene and teacher at Hindu College of Calcutta in the 1820s. Derozio wanted to spread intellectual revolution among young students. This brought about an intellectual revolution in Bengal province in India, famous for it’s anti-British revolutionaries. His followers were also known as Derozians.

Henry Louis Vivian Derozio praised the struggle of the Greeks for Freedom through a series of poems. His epic poem Address to the Greeks was written in January 1826, when the War of Independence against the Ottoman Turks was at its peak.

His emotional connection with Greece and India had a special place in his work, as both countries struggled at the same time for their independence from the foreign yoke. Derozio wanted to shape a new nation by instilling the virtues of patriotism, heroism, and duty to the society. Ancient Greece exemplified these values.

India’s National Poet in Greece

The national poet of India, Rabindranath Tagore, stated in his speech during his visit in Athens in 1926 that “both young Greeks and Indians always have to struggle to live on the level of [their] glorious past. Yet it is not enough to ponder on the past only, [as they] have to live in the modern reality.”

Tagore also added that Indians and Greeks needed to produce the works which would immortalize them as had been the case with their ancestors.

Greek Philosophy, the Real Precursor of Modern Rationalism

In 1914, leading figure and revolutionary Har Dayal was to be extradited to England but managed to flee to Europe, remaining there throughout the First World War. In 1934, he published the book Hints for Self-Culture, which closely reflected the aims of the Humanist Ethical Movement. It proposed the cultivation of personal morality grounded in reason and well-informed by the wisdom of ancient thinkers. “Greek philosophy,” he argued, “is the real precursor of modern Rationalism.”

Menander, the Greek King of India

Menander I Soter Drachm Coin
Greek King of India Menander I Soter. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Greeks were the great champions of Buddhism, the caste-free religion of ancient India, and the Greek King of India, Menander I Soter, was an inspiration to the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a so-called low-caste Hindu by birth, who, together with his disciples, embraced Buddhism.

In fact, Ambedkar came to be called a “Bodhisattva,” a highly evolved Buddhist who could have attained “Enlightenment” but forfeited it as a result of his compassion for the people. Ambedkar was influenced tremendously by the life of the second greatest Buddhist monarch, Menander the Greek, the king of Punjab. This is vindicated by the fact that Ambedkar named a college after him in the state of Maharashtra in India, called the Milind College in reference to Menander. Indians call the great King Menander “Milinda.”

Greek Actor in Indian Parliament

The most prominent of the contemporary Greek descendants of India is the award-winning actor George Baker, who now occupies one of the two reserved seats for the Anglo-Indians (Indian citizens of European descent) in the Indian Parliament (2015-2020). On February 27, 2014, the Bhartiya Janta Party (currently ruling in India), announced Baker as their candidate for the 2014 Indian General Elections. On July 23, 2015, he was appointed to the The Lower House of Indian Parliament.

Greeks of India Help Greek War of Independence

The Calcutta Greeks, who maintained their unity, were a prosperous and well-integrated community of Greeks in the erstwhile capital of British India. Calcutta Greeks are not classical Indo-Greeks, and they did not come before the birth of Christ. Rather, they are migrants from the Greek mainland, the Aegean islands, and Asia Minor who fled Ottoman persecution for the safety of India. In India, and precisely in Bengal, which was a hotbed for activities for Indian independence, it was announced by the Calcutta Greeks that Greece would be liberated from the Ottomans and soon gain its independence. It was proclaimed that:

In the year of our Lord 1802, in the Spring and Easter of our Lord, all the Greek traders residing in Calcutta from Pontos, and Bithynia, and Cappadocia, and Aeolia, and the land of Ionia, and mainland Greece, and islands, and Barbaria (North Africa), and Egypt, and Constantinople, and from all over the world, we gathered in the temple, in the evening after the divine service of the second day of the Resurrection, and took a sacred vow. We shall place in custody in Calcutta our spare money and gold and silver and other property for the resurgence of the race of the Greeks. No one will ever put a hand on them. They will be bestowed to the kingdom of the Greeks so that with the grace of God it will be resurrected.

– From the historical archives of the Greek Orthodox Church, Calcutta.

The Shared Ideas and Common Past of Greeks and Indians

India is celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of its independence, and the country’s saga is defined by a Greek contribution which played a significant role in its liberation. People are pleased with the continued cooperation between Indians and Greeks in maintaining the shared Indo-Greek values of democracy, liberalism, rationalism, and opposition against all types of extremism.

Much like Greeks, Indian Hindus also saw the conversion of their religious places during Turkish occupation from the Mamluk period onwards in India. The Greeks lost Hagia Sophia and the great city of Constantinople to the Turks while Hindus lost Ayodhya, Kashi, and Mathura to the occupiers. However, all should remember that converting places of worship doesn’t necessarily mean the destruction of a belief system, as can be seen in India and Greece. If one wants to proselytize, then the power of arguments is a better way than the force of military. Greeks and Indians both broke the shackles of their slavery and are now on their way to establishing their lost pride on the world stage, something both of them had possessed in ancient times.

*Arunash B. Goswami is a historian and lawyer.

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