20.) What did the Ancient Indians Think of the Ancient Greeks?

Much has been written on what the Greeks thought and said about the Indians. It might be of equal interest to know what the Indians thought of the Greeks. The point is of special interest as an early exercise of this kind, carried out by Albīrūnī in the eleventh century, locates this perspective in the context of Hindu xenophobia. For Albīrūnī writes: “on the whole, there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves; at the utmost, they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy, on the contrary, all their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them – against all foreigners.”[1] Again, to say that “the Hindus believe that there is no religion like theirs, no kings like theirs, no country like theirs.”[2] He then digresses to note that “their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generations. One of their scholars, Varāhamihira, in a passage where he calls on the people to honour the Brahmans, says: “the Greeks, though impure, must be honoured, since they are trained in sciences, and therein excelled others. What, then are we to say of a Brahman, if he combines with his purity the height of science.[3]

Albīrūnī sees in this statement not a mitigation but an exacerbation of Hindu chauvinism, for he remarks: “but from this passage of Varāhamihira alone you can see what a self-lauding man he is, whilst he gives himself airs as doing justice to others.”[4] It is therefore worth examining what the Indians thought of the Greeks in the fourth century B.C. as recorded in history.

We have an interesting description of how foreigners were treated, most of whom were presumably Greeks at the time, in the following account:

Among the Indians officers are appointed even for foreigners, whose duty is to see that no foreigner is wronged. Should any of them lose his health, they send physicians to attend him, and deliver over such property as he leaves to his relatives. The judges also decide cases in which foreigners are concerned, with the greatest care, and come down sharply on those who take unfair advantage of them. What we have now said regarding India and its antiquities will suffice for our present purpose.[5]

This is confirmed by the Arthaśāstra, while “Diodorus, quoting Iambulus, speaks of the king of Palibothra as a lover of the Greeks,” according to Apollonius.[6] More direct testimony of the attitude of the Indians towards the Greeks comes from the following account, which summarizes Onesicritus’ encounter with an Indian philosopher whose Hellenized name appears as Mandanis:

At all events, all he said, according to Onesicritus, tended to this, that the best teaching is that which removes pleasure and pain from the soul; and that pain and toil differ, for the former is inimical to man and the latter friendly, since man trains the body for toil in order that his opinions may be strengthened, whereby he may put a stop to dissensions and be ready to give good advice to all, both in public and in private; and that, furthermore, he has now advised Taxiles to receive Alexander, for if he received a man better than himself he would be well treated, but if inferior, it would improve him. Onesicritus says that, after saying this, Mandanis inquired whether such doctrines were taught among the Greeks; and that when he answered that Pythagoras taught such doctrines, and also bade people to abstain from meat, as did also Socrates and Diogenes, and that he himself had been a pupil of Diogenes, Mandanis replied that he regarded the Greeks as sound-minded in general, but that they were wrong in one respect, in that they preferred custom to nature; for otherwise, Mandanis said, they would not be ashamed to go naked, like himself, and live on frugal fare; for he added, the best house is that which requires least repairs.[7]

Finally, we have the following account of the meeting of an Indian with Socrates:

Eusebius preserves a tradition, which he attributes to a contemporary, the well-known writer on harmonics Aristoxenus, that certain learned Indians actually visited Athens and conversed with Socrates. They asked him to explain the object of his philosophy, and when he replied, ‘an inquiry into human affairs’, one of the Indians burst out laughing. ‘How’, he asked, ‘could a man grasp human things without first mastering the Divine?’ If Eusebius is to be believed, we must revise many of our preconceived notions about early intercourse between the two countries.[8]

It is clear therefore that, at least in the fourth century B.C.E., the relations between Indians and foreigners were quite cordial.

[1] Ainslie T. Embree, ed., Alberuni’s India (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1971) p. 19.

[2] Ibid., p. 22.

[3] Ibid., p. 23. The passage actually appears in the Gārgī Sahitā, see R.C. Majumdar, ed., The Age of Imperial Unity (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1951) p. 628.

[4] Anslie T. Embree, ed., op.cit., p. 23.

[5] R.C. Majumdar, op.cit., p. 238.

[6] Ibid., p. 411.

[7] Ibid., p. 278, emphasis added.

[8] H.G. Rawlinson, “India in European Literature and Thought”, in G. T. Garratt, ed., The Legacy of India (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937) p. 8.


3 Responses to “20.) What did the Ancient Indians Think of the Ancient Greeks?”

  1. Jiten Roy Says:

    Ancient Indian Hindus received Geeks with kindness because of theological similarities between these two cultures and their scientifical superiority, which probably mesmerized ancient Indians. This trend continued with the Persian also. Middle-eastern invaders, on the contrary, had nothing to impress Indians, except sword, which they used effectively to conquer India and impose middle-eastern culture in that region.

  2. Sarada Says:

    This is a nice article.
    If you are Prof. Anil Sharma’s son (Trinidad), please do send me an e-mail.

  3. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    If you want to hear a reader’s feedback :) , I rate this article for 4/5. Decent info, but I have to go to that damn google to find the missed bits. Thank you, anyway!

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