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Dionysus’ Invasion to India in Greek Mythology

Greek God Dionysus Campaign to India
Greek God Dionysus’ Campaign in India. Credit: Dan Sloan / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

According to ancient myths, Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine, invaded India long before Alexander the Great was born.

Dionysus is an Ancient Greek god and also part of the Roman pantheon. He was known as Bacchus to the Romans and was connected with the Italian god of fertility and wine, Liber Pater.

Interestingly, he is also associated with India and is often mentioned in references of classical antiquity. According to myth, Dionysus, the wine god, arrived in India and conquered the lands, founded cities, and established laws.

He also introduced wine to Indians—as he had to the Greeks—and taught them to sow the land while he supplied the seeds.

Dionysus’ relation to India increased in significance after Alexander the Great’s visit in 327 BCE to a city which the Greeks called Nysa, located between the Cophenii River and the Indus River.

In mythology, this is known as Dionysus’ birthplace, where he was born from the thigh of the Greek God Zeus after his own mother, Semele, who had yet to fully develop Dionysus in her womb, was consumed in the lightnings of Zeus when he revealed his divinity to her.

Zeus saved his son by sewing him up in his thigh and keeping him there until he reached maturity. Hence, it is said that he was born twice after which he was entrusted to the care of certain nymphs on Mount Nysa. 

Alexander the Great and Mount Meru, India 

Dionysus Bacchus by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli
Dionysus Bacchus. Credit: Giovanni Francesco Romanelli/ Public Domain

In his work The Anabasis of Alexander: Book VIII (Indica), Arrian of Nicomedia, a Greek historian of the Roman period, who wrote of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, also wrote:

The Nysaeans are not an Indian race, but part of those who came with Dionysus to India; possibly even of those Greeks who became past service in the wars which Dionysus waged with Indians; possibly also volunteers of the [neighboring] tribes whom Dionysus settled there together with the Greeks, calling the country Nysaea from the mountain Nysa, and the city itself Nysa. And the mountain near the city, on whose foothills Nysa is built, is called Merus because of the incident at Dionysus’ birth.

As per Richard Stoneman in his book The Greek Experience of India: From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks, Alexander and his troops placed the location of Nysa on a nearby mountain. They named this Mount Meru because “the infant Dionysos had been concealed in the thigh (Greek: mēros, μηρός) of his father Zeus.”

Mentions of Mount Meru are quite common in Hindu scriptures. The religious texts Kurma Purana, for instance, states that Jambudvipa, a name used in ancient sources in reference to Greater India, lies in the middle of all mortal realms, and in its center is the lofty Mount Meru, bright as gold.

Alexander and his troops regarded the fact that Indians typically wore dapped clothing and played the drums and cymbals as proof “that they were devotees of Dionysus” and even viewed a festival like Holi as “a merry riot that [Dionysus] would have loved.”

Dionysus invades India

Triumph Of Dionysus. Credit: Public Domain

Nonnus of Panopolis was the most notable Greek epic poet of the Imperial Roman era, who wrote Dionysiaca. In the thirteenth book of his literary work, which he composed in the 5th century CE, Dionysus is ordered by Zeus to prepare for war against the impious natives of India.

Rhea, who had cared for Dionysus as a child, is ordered by the god to prepare troops for the conquest. The Dionysian army, comprised of a large contingent of Bacchants, or Maenads, encounters the Indian troops led by Astraeus, an astrological deity in Greek mythology, who is also associated with the winds.

In an expedition against the Indians, Dionysus is said to have disguised the arms with which he equipped his troops. They wore soft raiment and fawn skins, and the spears were wrapped with ivy.

He gave the signal for battle by using cymbals and drums instead of trumpets, and tampered with enemies by giving them wine so as to divert their thoughts from war preparations to dancing. These, and other Bacchic orgies were employed in the system of warfare, and thus India and various parts of the world were “conquered” by Dionysus.

According to Nonnus of Panopolis, the Indian army was annihilated by Bacchic forces, and Dionysus took pity on his enemies. In sympathy, the god transformed the nearby Astacid Lake into wine.

The Indians then quenched their thirst in the lake, and, tasting wine for the first time, they became inebriated and fell asleep. The unconscious Indian troops were then bound and imprisoned by Dionysus’ forces.

While war was raging between the Indians and the bacchants, another conflict was playing out on Mount Olympus between the deities that sympathized with Dionysus and those that supported the Indians.

Hera defeated Artemis, and Athena, who sided with Dionysus, defeated Ares. Apollo confronted Poseidon, but both gods were put at ease by Hermes to prevent any further conflict from erupting.

Once these individual duels were over, Dionysus made his way back to Greece to take his place on Mount Olympus. However, Hera, still enraged, enlisted the help of the Giants to attack Dionysus.

Dionysus once again emerged victorious, making Hera’s final attempt to prevent his ascendancy unsuccessful. This culminates in his final, unobstructed homecoming to Olympus, during which he is enthroned as an Olympian god.

According to Philostratus, “Bacchus (Dionysos) dedicated at Apollo’s famous shrine at Delphi in the heart of Greece a discus of Indian silver with the simple inscription: Dionysos, son of Semele and Zeus, from India, for Delphic Apollo.”

Worship of Dionysus in India

Triumph Of Dionysus. Credit: Public Domain

In quoting Megasthenes, an ancient Greek historian and Indian ethnographer of the Hellenistic period who described India in his work Indica, the Greek geographer Strabo points out that there were several philosophers who were mountain dwellers and worshipers of Dionysus as well as observers of certain Bacchanalian customs. In addition, there were also the Sramanas, who were Buddhist ascetics and abstained from wine.

Sir William Jones authored an essay on the gods of Greece, India, and Italy, suggesting “correspondences between Janus and Ganesha, Saturn and Manu or Satyavrata, Jupiter and Indra, Hermes and Narada, Ceres and Lakshmi, Dionysus and Rama, and Apollo and Krishna.”

As per Allan Dahlquist, author of Megastenes and Indian Religion, A Study in Motives and Types, Dionysus is related to “the non-Hindu Dravidian religion, as exemplified by the religion of the Kotas of South India and the Oraons and others in the Chota Nagpur-Orissa.”

Alternatively, Dionysus has also been connected to Shiva, the Hindu deity. Regardless of the theory to which one is partial or by which one is convinced, India and Greece have undoubtedly had an age-old connection thanks to the Greek god Dionysus. This remained so up until the time of the last classical Greek kingdom in the world, which was located in India. 

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