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What Did India Learn From the Ancient Greeks?

Ancient Greek India
A woman from India in traditional clothing. Ancient Greece and India interacted in antiquity. Credit:Amitsah8888 /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The interaction of the two great ancient civilizations of Greece and India, which began with the invasion of Alexander the Great in 327 BC and lasted for more than two centuries, has been the subject of numerous books by Indian and Western scholars over the years.

While visiting Greece in 2018, Ram Nath Kovind, the then President of India, praised the contributions of Alexander the Great to the history of his nation.

“The most famous Greek to come to India was of course Alexander the Great. He arrived at the head of an invading army in 326 BC—but he left as a friend,” Kovind wrote on Twitter.

alexander the great
Mosaic of Alexander the Great in Pompeii, c. 100 BC. Credit: Public domain

The historical presence of Greeks in India and the way the two civilizations interacted has always been controversial, says Dr. Richard Stoneman, a scholar and the author of a book on the subject in a recent interview with Greek Reporter.

“The British scholars who were the first to really look at the art of ancient India in the middle of the nineteenth century assumed that there was wholesale influence from the Greeks on India. Then there was a big reaction among Indian scholars, who said that actually India invented everything without any outside influence whatsoever,” he explains.

An influential book, “They Came, They Saw, but India Conquered,” written by the historian A.K. Narain in 1957, is characteristic of this later line of scholarly thought.

But Stoneman maintains that one must find a happy medium between these two extreme theoretical positions.

Ancient Greek IndiaHis book, titled “The Greek Experience of India—Two Centuries of Greek Presence,” attempts to do just that. “I hope that my book provides a middle gound which would help someone understand the two-way interaction between the Greeks and the Indians, during those last centuries BC.”

Stoneman, an honorary visiting professor at Exeter University in the UK, says that his new book is “focused on how the ancient Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, set about understanding India.”

His work delves not only into Alexander’s invasion of the Indus Valley in 327 BC—the first large-scale encounter between Greek and Indian civilizations—but also into the era that followed, when Hellenic-style successor kingdoms ruled by strongmen rose and fell in northwest India and Bactria, its neighbor to the west.

The presence of these Hellenic states in that region of the world and their occasional forays even further east created a zone of Greco-Indian contact, influence, and exchange, as well as occasional conflict, stretching from Central Asia to the Ganges.

Stoneman argues that the two civilizations influenced each other in the arts and philosophy, but as he points out “in many ways the influence primarily went the other way, from India to the Greeks, although of course, there are many instances where Greek influences are very perceptible.”

“This happened chiefly in painting and sculpture,” the researcher says. He relates that large-scale sculpture began to be created in the city of Mathura in the third century BC, and about two centuries later, another school of sculptural art, heavily influenced by Hellenistic models, developed in Gandhara in today’s northern Pakistan.

Ancient Greek India
An Indo-Corinthian capital with a palmette and the Buddha at its centre. Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Public domain

Art is “most important, evident” Ancient Greek influence on India

Stoneman declares that “Art is the most important, the most evident, and the most lasting feature of the Greek influence in India.”

“From the very first moment that Western scholars and visitors set eyes on Gandharan art, they were immediately struck by the stylistic similarities to Hellenistic art, the kind of relative realism of the depictions and the style in which the figures are depicted,” the author notes.

“I think you can see the same in the earlier art of Mathura,” says Stoneman, “which is particularly interesting because until the third century BC there was no large-scale sculpture in India. All there was were small scale, mainly clay, figurines, and bronze workings the size of one’s hand.”

“But when the Greeks arrived in northwestern India suddenly they started making life-size or even larger statues out of stone,” Stoneman explains to Greek Reporter.

Ancient Greek India
The story of the Trojan Horse was depicted in the art of Gandhara. This shows interaction between Greece and India. British Museum. Photo Source: Wikimedia commons/ Public domain

“There are many similarities to Greek statues. Gandhara is very widely recognized as being very much influenced by Greek and Roman art. The Mathuran style is stiffer, not as flexible or fluid as Greek sculpture, but still there are similarities because they are of large size and they are in important respects realistic,” he states.

The British scholar notes that there are also small details, such as how the subjects’ drapery is depicted with the naturalistic folds, as well as the knots in their tied sashes, which also proves the extent of the influence of Hellenistic art in India.

Stoneman also points to a second area analyzed in his book which is the interaction between the two civilizations in the realms of philosophy and the sciences, saying “Indian scholars are very ready to admit that sciences in the early centuries of the AD era were much influenced by Greek mathematicians and astronomers.”

But what is really interesting is the way these philosophical ideas interacted, he notes. The Greek philosopher, Pyrrho of Elis, who traveled with Alexander, was himself influenced by Indian philosophy. Soon after that, he says, we find a great deal of interaction of ideas and theories between the two cultures.

“The philosophical ideas of Democritus and Epicurus have remained a living tradition in Sanskrit philosophical thought for a thousand years,” Stoneman argues, referring to the primary sacred language of Hinduism which has been used as a philosophical language in the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

During the two centuries of the Indo-Greek era, the philosophical interaction between Greece and India was very productive for later civilizations, states the author, who points to its influence on the development of the philosophy of skepticism.

The author refers, as an example of this, to “The way that skepticism seems to be rooted in a Buddhist perceptive, which denies permanence to anything at all. We see very interesting echoes of that in the philosophy of Epicurus. We also know that later Greek philosophers were interested in Indian thought. This kind of mystical perspective on the universe is very much shared…”

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