Printer Friendly

India in Early Greek Literature.

It has been very encouraging to witness during the last three decades a new interest in examining afresh relations between "India" and the Graeco-Roman world in ancient times. Several books dealing with the subject have lately been published. Klaus Karttunen's is one among the latest I have seen.

This book, as the author states, is a study of "the early Greek accounts of India and some related problems" and his task is to "reach some kind of evaluation of these sources." "But" he adds, "in order to understand the accounts properly it is also important to know something of the world which they reflected, and the role India played within that scheme" (p. 9). The book contains nine chapters, including introduction and conclusions. The references cover twenty-seven pages, followed by four pages of Index locorum citatorum and twenty-four pages of general index. In the end there are three maps.

The book does not provide a narrative, in a historical sequence, of the Greek literary sources, nor does it offer any systematic treatment of the major topics of interaction between the "Indian" and "Greek" civilizations. But, the author has, instead, produced a mixed bag of assorted items of varied interest often lacking any logical relation. For example, chapter II, on "Historical Perspectives" includes, among others, sections on the "Ships of Meluhha," "King Solomon and the Gold of Ophir," "Incense and Aromatics," "Mesopotamia and the Re-establishment of the Northern Route," etc. Chapters VII and VIII, entitled "Northwestern India in Greek and Indian Sources," in which the author claims to have offered something constructive, include, among others, such sections as "The Idea of India," followed by "Falconry," "Indian Dogs," "Fat-tailed Sheep," "Rhinoceros," "Fabulous Peoples in Indian Sources," "Cannibals," "Pandava," "Wine," "Heracles and Dionysius," "The Sun Cult," etc. In spite of this sporadic list of fantasy and fact, the author has succeeded in producing a book which brings old controversies on the nature and content of early Graeco-Indian relations back to life again and has updated research in the field drawing attention to new information and ideas.

In the introduction, the author makes a survey of the studies on India by classical philologists and Indologists from the earliest times to the present and comes to the disappointing conclusion that "the bulk of classical accounts on India does not deal with the same country and culture we know from Sanskrit literature," and therefore "it is a task of the present study to examine the circumstances by concentrating upon the earliest Greek sources" (p. 6). Karttunen defines "early Greek literature" in practical terms as forming "the first phase of the Greek awareness of India," but according to him "its oldest phase still contains nothing useful for us (see ch. IV), the first notice about India appearing only at the end of the sixth century B.C." (P. 7). "Alexander's campaign in India is often and with good reasons chosen as the boundary between the early phase, mostly relying upon hearsay, and new, direct information" (p. 7). But, the author goes beyond this boundary for "several reasons." He sees in "the histories of Alexander (together with Megasthenes)" a marked tendency to continue a literary tradition and a "geographical continuity." For "it was not India proper, but the northwestern country, now belonging mostly to Pakistan, which had been an Achaemenian possession in the fifth century and was the field of Alexander's campaigns in India." But the author admits, "though some historians of Alexander (for instance Onesicritus) had a notion of India as a larger unit - and of course there was a time when Alexander himself eagerly cast glances over Hyphasis - a definite change took place only with Megasthenes, who already had a clear idea of the new Mauryan state. But even he wrote much about the northwest, borrowing and sometimes polemizing the information given by his predecessors" (p. 7). Karttunen therefore states that "it is this North-west India we must study in connection with the early Greek sources." He admits "this kind of study is rather complicated as there are no other direct sources than archaeological excavations," and though he attempts "to command both Greek and Indian materials," the disciplines themselves have grown so extensive that it has "become virtually impossible for one scholar to grasp all of them." He frankly admits his "limitations as an Iranist." This circumstance forms his "personal frame of reference" and is the main reason for the fact that he speaks freely of northwest India as more or less the same country that some scholars call easternmost Iran. But then one of the ideas of this study is to show that "this country was not part of either India or Iran" (p. 7). Karttunen feels that he is an "intruder" in Assyriology and a "layman" for the disciplines of numismatics and archaeology (p. 8). He states that "delving into fields with which one is not entirely familiar makes (or at least should make) one cautious. In addition to this caution one should also be aware that many of the ideas we do have are actually construed on weak or erroneously interpreted evidence. It has become one of my purposes to find out how much we can actually say we know when the various hypotheses and fantasies are cleared away. The probable result is that I will be considered hypercritical but I think I must take the risk" (p. 9). But these remain only as good resolutions.

The author seems to equate hypercriticism with selectivism based on presuppositions. That is where the real risk lies but unfortunately the author seems oblivious to it. The problem becomes more acute when the author strays into the realms of other disciplines of which, he admits, he is not a specialist, and hastily picks up information from secondary works without examining the other side and the relevant primary sources. This betrays his presuppositions blatantly, weakens the credibility of his conclusions and invites negative criticism unnecessarily.

A notorious example is his comment on the date of the Buddha. He states on p. 151, "there was a time when everything seemed to be clear. The death of the Buddha was established, sometimes it has even been called the first fixed date in Indian history. Of course this was an exaggeration, the first fixed date is the expedition of Alexander, which also gives quite a good starting point for the chronology of the Mauryas." This observation smacks of an attitude which I thought dead but unfortunately dies hard. All his information is, after all, based only on some recent papers of Heinz Bechert reopening the controversy without solving it. The author mistakenly calls 486 B.C. the "traditional date" for the death of the Buddha (p. 31), which is well known to be 544/543, if the author is thinking of the Theravada tradition, the target of Bechert's papers, and considers the prevailing date of 486 B.C. as untenable. But Bechert and the seminar he organized at Gottingen have by no means proven the so-called "short chronology," which the author takes for granted as the correct one. The impact of author's selection of a later date of the Buddha can be noted throughout his book (cf, pp. 27, 29, 30, 61, 109, 110, 145, 148, 151ff., 232) as influencing his judgment on many significant issues of Graeco-Indian relations, and yet he has gone out of his way to accept, without a single question, a view which goes against the prevailing date accepted by the majority of scholars and appears in most of the standard books on the subject. In scholarly research, the "latest" is not necessarily the "best" choice. This is not the place to go into the details of this matter. A paper on the date of the Buddha by this reviewer is forthcoming in part II of Bechert's publication and he is himself writing more to show the untenability of the shorter chronology.

There are many other examples of selecting views from secondary works without question, which betray the author's presuppositions. To mention only a few: origin and antiquity of the Punch-marked coinage (pp. 30-31), status of King Pukkusati of Taxila (pp. 61), Achaemenian impact on Mauryan palace and art (p. 63), section on Greek philosophy (pp. 108ff.), date of Panini (p. 145), etc.

Whoever now writes on early Graeco-Indian relations faces the problem of identifying "India" and "Greece" (or "the Greeks") for himself and for his readers. For the author, "the very name India is derived from the Indus river or Sindhu and its original meaning was the Indian Satrapy conquered by Darius, perhaps containing only the middle and lower Indus country." By the time of Hecataeus or Herodotus, "India was the eastern end of the Oikoumene, which soon vanished into the unknown." "When Alexander conquered the Indus country, all historians reported that he had conquered India." Only with Megasthenes and the Hellenistic sea trade did "the conception of India acquire more or less the same meaning as it had at least until 1947." The author has discussed the "idea of India" in one full section of ch. VII. He makes it clear that what he means is only northwestern India, now Pakistan. He observes that "the earliest Greek descriptions of India contain very little such information which is familiar to us from Sanskrit sources and this is because they were not describing the same country and culture." Might we not say the same thing about the earliest Indian descriptions (and they were not only in classical Sanskrit), of "Greece" (or "the Greeks") - that what they were describing by using the word Yavana or Yona was not "Greece" (or "the Greeks") but only the Ionians or at best an amalgam of the Ionians and other peoples of the "Greek" city states of Asia Minor (now Turkey), settled in the eastern parts of the Achaemenid empire in what is now Afghanistan? in any case it did not include the Macedonians until the advent of Alexander. And then, these Indian sources are absolutely silent about Alexander, a person without whom many historians and South Asianists cannot even think of early Indian history. Why should one accept Alexander as a Greek? Why not just a Macedonian, from modern Yugoslavia? Were not the Macedonians considered "barbarian" by the Greeks? Historians of Alexander themselves have drawn attention, time and again, to the fact that the Greeks were not friendly with the Macedonians. It would be shocking for some to read were I to write that a Macedonian barbarian from Yugoslavia, named Alexander, ruling over Greece, forced various peoples, who became known by the generic name "Greek" in due course of time, to accept his leadership to settle their old scores with the Persians, who had ruled over them. Once the objective was achieved these people bitterly fought among themselves again and divided the territories they conquered under Alexander's leadership. It would also be perfectly right to say that Alexander did not conquer India, that is Bharat, the present Union of India, which will be very much in keeping with the well-known silence of Indian sources about Alexander. More than once the reviewer has discussed the danger arising out of the "nation-state" concept, an unfortunate gift of 19th-century Europe, and relating it to the ever-changing political boundaries in the world, resulting in books like Prehistory of Czekoslovakia and Five Thousand years of Pakistan. History must be written in terms of movement of peoples and ideas in global perspective and without boundaries. The Great Wall of China did not stop movements, nor has the Berlin wall proved a divider for more than a generation. With a limited geo-political horizon and the clear objective of writing for his own countrymen it was perhaps easy for a Herodotus or a Megasthenes to do so in his own times. But it is not so easy for the modern scholar who writes not only for his own countrymen but also for others in the world at large. It becomes more complicated when he becomes a victim of his will and thinks he is writing for others, though he is writing for his own chosen readers, in a language he would like "others" to understand. Subjectivism versus objectivism has been an eternal issue with all historians. Some have been frank and honest and others have not. But here again the issue has become more complex than it was even a century or two ago. To give only one example: the author does not consider the studies, made by Asthana (1976) and Ratnagar (1981) on early trade, worth discussing because theirs is "the Indian point of view" (p. 14, n. 35). Does he consider his own findings as representing "the Western" or, to be exact, the "Finnish" point of view? When the world is shrinking and boundaries are vanishing, such narrow attitudes of the colonial period are dated and unfortunate, to say the least.

The book is packed with controversial material and naturally not everybody will agree with every conclusion the author makes. It becomes more complex, specially, because of attitudes and perspective. The author agrees with the reviewer about the pre-Alexander Greek settlements in Afghanistan as well as regarding the historicity of the massacre of the Branchidae, "inspite of the stain it gives to Alexander's reputation" (p. 55). But he is doubtful about the Greek settlement in Nysa (p. 56). In regard to the Indian name for the Greeks the author regards Tottosy as having "settled the case" and this reviewer's preference for the Sanskrit Yavana and not Pali/Prakrit Yona, as "unfounded," without giving any reason. Similarly, he has nothing to say against this reviewer's so-called "negative view" on the cities founded by Alexander. (It is curious to note that the author provides reference details to the older views of the reviewer only where he disagrees, and not where he is in agreement.) He rightly thinks "the evidence for a cult of Alexander in an eastern colony (Kandahar/Alexandria in Arachosia) as hardly convincing" and yet immediately adds that "such a cult may very well have been there. Its foundation had already been laid during the Indian campaign" (p. 59), without giving any evidence.

The author has drawn attention to the Mahabharata where Siva is called Gandhara and that the same name is given as a gloss by Hesychius and explained by Tucci as a northwestern god later identified with "Siva" (p. 215). "In the religions of the Northwest known from Nuristani and Dardic traditions the Indian Siva often derives his name from Mahadeva (Mahandeu, Mande etc.)." The author may be right that "it is quite possible that he is originally a local god later identified with Siva, a process common everywhere in India" (p. 215).

There are quite a few mistakes of typographical and other nature, linguistic errors or slips, and omissions of bibliographical details, at the end, of references used. I do not intend to append a list of them here but to give one example of each: "Southerness" for Southerness, on p. 145; "an detailed" for a detailed, on p. 265; "p. 155 ff," for p. 165 ff, on p. 57, n. 411. The bibliographical details of a reference to the reviewer on p. 57, n. 414, are missing on p. 257 under Narain.

Any book to be notable must either provoke criticism or revive interest in the subject. This book does both and is thus a notable contribution in the field of studies on Indo-Greek relations.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Oriental Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Narain, A.K.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Songs of Experience: The Poetics of Tamil Devotion.
Next Article:Nature and Self: A Study of the Poetry of Su Dongpo with Comparisons to the Poetry of William Wordsworth.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters