19.) What Should One Think of Alexander the Great?

Perhaps the clue to what we should think of Alexander the Great is provided by the dual etymology of the word itself: (1) the ruler of men and (2) the repeller of men. It is understandable why the first etymology should have appealed to the British, virtually to the point that they identified themselves with the Greeks. Vincent Smith devoted almost a ninth of his book On the Early History of India, to recounting his exploits, and E.R. Bevan, in his chapter “India on Early Greek and Latin Literature”, in the first volume of The Cambridge History of India, edited by E.J. Rapson under the title Ancient India (1922) starts using the word Europeans to refer to the Greeks, which suggests a degree of identification with the subject which would otherwise remain only a matter of speculation. Indeed, the British could find a precursor to their own imperialism, and even its justification, in harking back to Greek imperialism although they were more prone to invoke the Roman. As Plutarch notes:

Those whom Alexander subdued would never have become civilized unless they had been brought under submission. Egypt would not have had Alexandria, nor Mesopotamia Seleukeia, nor the Sogdians Prophthasia, nor India Boukephalia nor Caucasus Hellenic cities in its neighbourhood, by the influence of which barbarism was crushed and a better morality superceded a worse. [1]

If, however, Alexander is viewed without the distorting spectacles of Western imperial historiography, a somewhat different picture begins to emerge. Attention may be drawn to the three devices of imperialism which one might have difficulty calling noble or even dignified. First is the use and abuse of Indian mercenaries. A good example of this is provided by what was done to them at Massaga. Accounts differ as to motive, but not as to the gruesome outcome: “Arrian justifies the massacre of the Indian mercenaries at Massaga on the ground that they had treacherous intentions, but, according to Diodorus, Alexander treacherously attacked the mercenaries, being actuated by an implacable enmity against them.”[2] Were the killings in the Indian Mutiny a replay of this on a grand scale? The second is the proleptic genocidal elimination of groups which might turn hostile, which in this case seem to be the Kṣatriyas and the Brāhmaṇas. Thus, while he was at Taxila, according to Plutarch:

As the Indian mercenary troops, consisting, as they did, of the best soldiers to be found in the country, flocked to the cities which he attacked and defended them with great vigour, he thus incurred serious losses, and accordingly concluded a treaty of peace with them; but afterwards, as they were going away, set upon them while they were on the road, and killed them all. This rests as a foul blot on his martial fame, for on all other occasions he observed the rules of civilized warfare as became a king. The Philosophers gave him no less trouble than the mercenaries, because they reviled the princes who declared for him and encouraged the free states to revolt from his authority. On this account he hanged many of them.[3]

The third is the imperial projection of one’s powers. When Alexander withdrew, according to Q. Curtius Rufus, “he ordered…couches of a size larger than was required for men of ordinary stature to be left, so that my making things appear in magnificent proportions he might astonish posterity by deceptive wonders”.[4] So also Plutarch: “he first, however, contrived many unfair devices to exalt his fame among the natives, as for instance, causing arms of men and stalls of bridles to be made much beyond the usual size, and these he left scattered about”.[5]

Is Alexander in these respects too the precursor of Western imperialism, inclining one to some partiality towards the second etymology of his name? What the Indian philosopher, whose name in its Hellenized form is given as Mandanis, thought of Alexander may not be irrelevant here as anticipating India’s struggle against British imperialism centuries later.

For when Alexander’s messengers summoned Mandanis to visit the son of Zeus and promised that he would receive gifts if he obeyed, but punishment if he disobeyed, he replied that in the first place, Alexander was not the son of Zeus, inasmuch as he was not ruler over even a very small part of the earth, and, secondly, that he had no need of gifts from Alexander, of which, there was no satiety and, thirdly, that he had no fear of threats, since India would supply him with sufficient food while he was alive, and when he died he would be released from the flesh wasted by old age and be translated to a better and purer life; and that the result was that Alexander commended him and acquiesced.[6]

[1] R.C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India (Calcutta: Firma KLM Private Ltd., 1981) p. 204.

[2] Ibid., p. xxi.

[3] Ibid., p. 195.

[4] Ibid., p. 135.

[5] Ibid., p. 199. The Arthaśāstra also seems to recommend similar measures at some places.

[6] Ibid., p. 280.


2 Responses to “19.) What Should One Think of Alexander the Great?”

  1. S.P. Attri Says:

    By S.P. Attri ( USA )
    1. At this point in time, in the 21st century, the popular Hindu attitude is not in favor of Reciprocity, it is in favor of peacefulness, compromise, and Ahimsa. For the last 12 centuries, this attitude of the Hindu has brought, colossal slaughter of the Hindu, and enormous destruction of Hindu temples & Hindu Examplars, and utter humiliation & disgrace of the Hindu & his Hinduism. Even though this attitude clearly has not worked for the Hindu, still most Hindus prefer to stay glued to this bootless & useless method.

    2. What most Hindu fail to realize is this that:
    a. Ahimsa is Buddhism & not Hinduism
    b. Showing the other-cheek is Christianity ( even the Christians do not practice it ), and not Hinduism.

    Hindu Dharma is based on Vedas. Lessons of both Ramayana & Mahabharat tell us that:
    We need to confront the Rakshishas & destroy them.
    If we are not willing to deliver a knock-out punch to the Rakshishas ( Sullas & Kharistas ), then we are not following the principles of our Vedas.

    3. Ahimsa & Cheek-Turning is the most idiotic thing to do for the Hindu, in the face of predatory forces of Islam & Christianity, both of which have a PHD in Aggression, Barbarism, Crime, & Violence, against the Kafirs of this world. The lessons of history of 12 centuries, tell us clearly that our methods of the past, have not worked for us. It is total insanity to do the same thing, over & over again, and expect different results. Unless we Hindus have some kind of death-wish, or prefer to be losers, it is just plain commonsense that, we have to go in for newer & different methods
    4. This time around, we Hindus have to turn the page, and write a brand new chapter, for the good of our Hindu Order. We have to get away from methods of Hindu-Defeat ( methods of the past ), and embrace the methods of Victory. These are the methods that Hindus deserve, especially those Hindus who desire dignity & respect for themselves & for their Hinduism. We must put an end to the methods & politics of defeat & humiliation of the Hindu. We must take advantage of the opportunities, that are available to us. We must use our areas of strength. There is an enormous need to energize the Hindu Community, and to unite the Hindus.

    5. Those Hindus who hunger for Hindu-Success & Hindu-Respect, would welcome this challenge, and would be willing to go in the trenches. They will join with us in this worthy and virtuous task.

    Surinder Paul Attri

  2. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    The style of writing is very familiar to me. Have you written guest posts for other bloggers?

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