In this article we will discuss about the invasion of Alexander in India and its effects.
Alexander ascended the throne of Macedonia in 336 B.C. and after consolidating his authority in Greece, set forth for the conquest of the world. Alexander proved himself the most capable commander of his age, created an extensive empire in the East and has been rightly called Alexander, the Great. His first victim was the Persian empire.
Within four years Alexander conquered Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Babylonia and Persia. Darius III, the incompetent ruler of Persia was defeated in the battle of Arbella (333 B.C.), fled and was finally murdered by one of his own Satraps (provincial governor). Alexander pursued his march towards the East and conquering all countries in between crossed the Hindukush in May 327 B.C. certainly with a view to conquer India as well.
When Alexander attacked India, its north-western boundaries and the territories of Punjab were parcelled out into a number of petty states — monarchies, oligarchies and republics which constantly fought with each other.
In the North-West and Western Punjab were the kingdoms of Aspasioi (Asvayana), Assakenoi (Asvakayana), Abhisara, Pushkalavati, Nysa, Ursa, etc. Here was also the kingdom of Taxila ruled by Ambhi, the kingdom of Porus, (the elder one) between the rivers Jhelum and Chenab and the kingdom of younger Porus between the rivers Chenab and Ravi.
South of the juncture of rivers Jhelum and Chenab were mostly the republican kingdoms of Sivis, Agalassois, Malavas, Kshudrakas, Ambashthas, Sudras. Mushikas, Pattal, etc. Thus, divided amongst themselves and further weakened by their mutual rivalries, none of these states was powerful enough to resist the aggression of a strong invader. Yet, the resistance which most of them gave to Alexander was heroic and definitely demoralised the army of Alexander.
Probably, there were several reasons which prompted Alexander to invade India. A part of north-western India formed the eastern boundary of the Persian empire and Alexander decided to occupy that part of the Persian empire in India. India was a country known for its fabulous wealth.
That also attracted Alexander. The ruler of Taxila, the father of Ambhi, sent an invitation to Alexander to attack India while he was still in Bokhara. But none of these reasons was so effective as the personal ambition of Alexander to establish a grand empire in the world and to get fame by his Indian conquests.
The invading army was divided into two parts by Alexander, one led by himself up to the Kunar or Chitral river to the hilly region in the north and east and, the other led by his two commanders passing through Khyber Pass towards the river Indus. The rulers of Astakenoi, Assakenoi (Asmakas with their capital Massaga or Masakavati) and Pushkalavati gave a heroic resistance to the invader but were defeated. However, the city-state of Nysa offered submission.
In 326 B.C. Alexander crossed the Indus and was welcomed by Ambhi, the then king of Taxila, who had invited him to India with a view to subduing his neighbouring rival, Porus. Porus, when asked, refused to submit even when he had come to know that Ambhi and the younger Porus has submitted to the enemy and the friendship of the king of Abhisara was doubtful. One night, Alexander succeeded in crossing the river Jhelum at a point seventeen miles up the river.
The advance party of the army of Porus under his son was defeated by Alexander. Next day, the battle of Jhelum was fought. Porus fought gallantly and received nine wounds on his person before he was captured. From the outset, the battle had gone against Porus. The heavy rains overnight had rendered the ground slippery. The Indians, therefore, could not usefully engage their chariots in the battle and their archers could not fix their long bows on the muddy ground and aim properly.
Their elephants also could not face the charge of the Greek swords and fled creating further confusion in the army of Porus. Porus was brought before Alexander who asked him how he would like to be treated. Porus replied, “Act as a king towards a king.” Alexander was pleased with him and not only reinstated him in his kingdom but also added further territories to it. Alexander, then, marched further towards the East.
The younger Porus fled without fighting and his kingdom was given to the elder Porus. A few other small republics surrendered to Alexander while the Kathas were conquered. Alexander had reached the bank of the river Beas beyond which was the powerful empire of Magadha.
There, his soldiers refused to move forward. Of course, the Greek soldiers were worn out with years of hard campaigning and were anxious to return to their homeland while there seemed no end to the ambition of their king.
But, they were equally impressed by the reckless courage of the Indian soldiers and were not prepared to face the emperor of Magadha who was reported to be waiting for the invaders with an army of 80,000 horses, 20,000 foot soldiers, 8,000 war chariots and 6,000 fighting elephants. Alexander appealed to his soldiers, but in vain. Then, after raising twelve columns at the bank of the river Beas, he retreated.
He left Porus to rule over the entire territory between the Beas and the Jhelum and Ambhi to rule over the west of Jhelum and the king of Abhisara to rule in Kashmir with the state of Urasa added to his kingdom. He retreated by the river route but again stepped on the ground at the confluence of the Beas and the Jhelum.
A few republican kingdoms submitted to him while others like Malavas, Kshudrakas, Agalassois, Ambashthas gave him a fierce resistance, though they were defeated. Ultimately, he reached the city of Pattala (near modern Karachi) where the Indus divided itself into two.
It was deserted by its rulers at the approach of Alexander. From Pattala in September 325 B.C., he sent back a part of his army by the sea- route and himself retreated by the land-route and reached Babylon where he died in 323 B.C.
Alexander desired to keep Indian territories under his rule. Like his other conquered kingdoms, he divided his Indian territories as well into five satraps (provinces) each under a governor, Indian or Greek, and kept Greek contingents in various cities. But, his desire remained a dream.
After his death, the rivalry of different Greek governors weakened them and none of his successors could pay proper attention to his Indian territories. Most of the Greek commanders left India with their soldiers while Indian counterparts declared independence. And, whatever remained even after that, was wiped out by Chandra Gupta Maurya.
Thus, the conquest of Alexander in India proved short-lived. The reasons were many. The source of the Greek power was far away from India and it was not possible to keep Indian territories under permanent subjugation which were so remote from the base of its operations.
The death of Alexander, the division of his empire between his governors and their mutual conflicts, the temptation of Greek commanders and soldiers left in India to go back to their homeland and the ambition of Indian satraps (governors) left in charge of their old principalities to throw off even the nominal suzerainty of the Greeks were other contributory causes while a final blow was given by the war of liberation fought successfully by Chandra Gupta Maurya.
But, what were the reasons of the defeat of the Indians against the Greeks? Of course, Alexander was the greatest commander of his age and his conquests up to north-western India in the East were creditable. Yet, his success in India cannot be accepted as a brilliant military achievement.
His area of conquests in India remained limited to the north-western frontier and Punjab, which was divided into small principalities, which were definitely weaker in men, material and the art of fighting against Alexander’s forces. Further, these kingdoms of the north-west failed to offer a united resistance to Alexander.
They were jealous of each other. Ambhi, the ruler of Taxila had enmity with the elder Porus and the king of Abhisara while the elder Porus and his relative, younger Porus, were definitely each other’s rivals. Only the Malavas and the Kshudrakas gave a unique example, pooled their resources and offered a combined resistance to Alexander while he was on his back journey. Besides, a few Indian rulers gave substantial help to Alexander in his conquests.
Ambhi helped him against Porus, Sasigupta, ruler of one of the frontier hill states accepted his suzerainty in the very beginning, and even Porus helped him in his further conquests after being defeated by him. All this helped Alexander who was diplomatic enough to draw advantage from the mutual jealousies of the Indian rulers and befriend some of them.
Some historians have assigned the credit of Alexander’s success to the superiority of his arms and skill in warfare. V.A. Smith writes, “The triumphant progress of Alexander from the Himalayas to the sea demonstrated the inherent weakness of the greatest Asiatic armies when confronted with European skill and discipline.”
But this view is not accepted by the majority of historians. Of course, Alexander was a great commander and the Greek phalanx (infantry drawn up in close order) and the horse-archers of Central Asia proved very much effective against Indian chariots, elephants and long bows and arrows, but it did not prove their unchallenged supremacy. Alexander did not fight against an equal match in India. If he had fought against the ruler of Magadha, probably, the result would have been different.
Dr R.K. Mookherjee is nearer the truth when he writes, “The adventure was no doubt creditable, but cannot be regarded as a brilliant achievement… There was really never a fair test between European and Asiatic military skill, as held by some scholars.”
The fierce resistance put up by small Indian kingdoms and republics against Alexander was a sufficient proof of Indian valour and fighting skill. The course of Alexander’s campaigns in India was, by no means, easy or smooth. Yet, the Indians were defeated because they did not unite against the invader, lacked leadership and Alexander met no equal match in India.
The invasion of Alexander brought about no direct influence of any consequence on Indian politics and culture. No Hindu, Jaina or Buddhist text has given any reference of his invasion which suggests that the Indians did not regard it as of any significance. Dr Mookherjee writes, “Nor was Alexander’s campaign a political success, for it did not result in any permanent Macedonian occupation of the Punjab. It left no mark on the literature, life or government of the people.”
According to Dr Mookherjee, the place of Alexander in Indian history is similar to that of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, Tamerlane and Nadir Shah whose invasions brought about untold sufferings to the people of India. He writes- “In spite of the hallo of romance that Greek writers have woven round the name of Alexander, the historians of India can regard him only as the precursor of these recognised scourges of mankind.”
However, the invasion influenced India indirectly. It contributed to the growth of Indian unity and extension of the Maurya empire under Chandra Gupta Maurya by weakening most and consolidating some states of the North-West and Punjab.
Besides, a more permanent result was that it opened up communication between the western world, including Greece, and India. This led to extended trade relations between the two which helped in enhancing the economic prosperity of India.
It also helped in the establishment of cultural relations between the two. There were Greek kingdoms in Afghanistan, Persia, Syria and other parts of western Asia.
The Maurya empire in India kept good relations with them after the defeat of Sellucus by Chandra Gupta Maurya. After the downfall of the Maurya empire, the Greeks were again successful in capturing a part of north-west India which kept the Greeks and the Indians in contact with each other for quite a long time. These mutual contacts helped them both.
The Indians learned something about astronomy and coinage from the Greeks while the Greeks acquired knowledge of Indian religion and philosophy. The Gandhara school of sculpture which developed later on in India was deeply influenced by the Hellenic art of sculpture. The Greek writers described the history of Alexander and gave correct dates of events which helped the Indians to fix correct dates of certain events and also the chronology of Indian history of that time.