The modern country called Greece in the continent of Europe is generally referred to as ‘Island of Hellas’.
This reference is found in all ancient literatures and inscriptions. So Greek culture is otherwise known as Hellenic culture to the rest of the world.
Though India had maintained its trade and commercial contacts with other parts of the world, a new dimension was added by the invasion of the great Greek hero Alexander in the last quarter of 4th century B.C.
Alexander did not prefer to remain confined within the state of Greece. He dreamt of ruling over a large empire. So he came in direct conflict with the Persian emperor. In 330 B.C. Alexander brought an end to the powerful Persian rule in the battle at Arbela. After the Persian defeat the traffic between India and the West slowed down.
After Persia, Alexander’s next programme was to march towards India. He had already heard a lot about the Indian riches. Besides he had an insatiable desire to conquer new lands. So Alexander marched up to the north-western frontiers of India. He fought the Battle of Hydaspes with the Indian King Porus in 326 B.C. But Alexander did not march into the interiors of Indian sub-continent for its harsh climatic condition and because of his other domestic engagements. But even after his short stay in India he left behind a rich legacy of Greek culture. This legacy not only influenced India but also brought new manifestations in different spheres.
During the time of Alexander, Greece had reached the pinnacle of glory in the realms of art, literature, philosophy and science. The Greeks were also aware of the richness of Indian culture. It is also believed by some scholars that Alexander did not venture to enter India seeing the high cultural life of the Indians. However, when these two culturally rich countries came close to each other a cultural synthesis emerged whose magnificent results were felt in all spheres.
The Hellenic influence was considerably felt first in the realm of political life. When Alexander returned from India he left the charge of the conquered Indian territories among his generals which ultimately paved the way for the rise of Maurya dynasty in Indian history. The young and ambitious Indian hero Chandragupta Maurya liberated the north-western frontier of India from the clutches of the Greeks and founded the Maurya dynasty.
The first three Maurya kings Chandragupta, Bindusara and Ashoka maintained intimate relationship with the Greeks. Indeed, Chandragupta had married the daughter of Seleucus Nikator, a Greek king of Syria and a former General of Alexander’s army. This friendship was cemented by the arrival of Meghasthenes and Daimachus as ambassadors of Seleucus. Meghasthenes’s account of India in his book Indica refers to a great extent the cultural interactions between the two countries.
This relationship was strengthened further during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya’s son Bindusara who had asked the Greek King Antiochus to send Greek wine and raisins that were in great demand in India. The diplomatic relationship between India and the West are recorded in the Rock Edict XIII of Ashoka where Ashoka had referred to the names of five Greek rulers in whose kingdoms Buddhist missionary activities were undertaken.
Due to the increase of commercial as well as political intercourse the number of visitors between India and the West also increased. Such contacts are recorded in great detail in works like Strabo’s Geography, Arrian’s Indica, Pliny’s Natural History, The Periplus of Erythrean Sea and Ptolemy’s Geography. Moreover, there are also references to conversion of many Greeks to Hinduism. Many Greeks adopted Hinduism with open hearts. The conversion of the Greek King Menander to Buddhism is a glaring example. Some Greeks also offered donations in the Buddhist caves at Karle.
The Garuda Pillar at Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh was the work of Heliodorous, son of Dion, a Greek envoy. Thus India had come to occupy an important position in the Greek world. The other side of the story is equally fascinating. The Greeks also asserted tremendous influence on the cultural life of India in the fields of art and architecture, philosophy, coinage, drama and science.
Art and Architecture:
The Hellenic impact on Indian art tradition was tremendous. It manifested itself in the form of an entirely new school known as Gandhara School of Art. As the name suggests this school of art developed from the particular region of Gandhara in the north-west, now in Afghanistan. Later it spread over to Taxila, Mathura and Sarnath. This style of art chiefly concentrated on images and relics of Buddha. They were made of either stone or stucco. Most of the ruins of this form of art found at Bimaran, Dehri, Sakra and Hastanagar are now preserved in the museum of Peshawar in Pakistan.
It is otherwise called as Graeco Buddhist School of Art. Gandhara art is generally considered as an eastern expansion of Hellenic civilisation mixed with Indian elements or a western expansion of Indian culture. Prof. R.C. Majumdar has rightly remarked, “The Gandhara artists had the hands of a Greek and the hearts of an Indian.” This form of art actually originated in Bactria and Parthia under the Greek rulers. In course of time the local artists began to construct Buddhist images applying Greek techniques but with Indian spirit and style.
The chief characteristics of Gandhara School of art are as follows:
1. Anthropomorphic representation of Buddha and Bodhisattvas that is the emergence of Buddhist images on sculpture.
2. The images had more resemblance with the Greek god Apollo with heavy ornamentation, drapery and headdress which were alien to Indian concept.
3. Refinement and polish of the images were of high order.
4. The images were seated in the typical Indian Yogic posture. It was an actual observation of Indian ascetics rather than on any western prototype.
Thus, with Hellenic influence, Gandhara school of art established itself firmly on Indian soil. At the same time to counterbalance and supplement the trends of this school, an indigenous school of art also developed known as the Mathura School of Art.
In the realm of philosophy the cultural interaction between the two countries was more marked. Scholars have found similarities among different branches of philosophy professed in India and Greece.
They are explained in the following manner:
1. Greek mystical philosophy of Orphic and Pythagoran schools have Indian resemblances.
2. Similarities between the philosophy of Eleatics and the theory of Thales with the doctrines of the Upanishads of India.
3. Indian theory of Karma and rebirth had influenced Plato’s Republic and Pythagorian ‘tabus’.
4. Influence of Indian conception of Vach on the idea of Logos in Neo-Platonism.
5. Indian philosophy of monasticism also influenced the philosophy and lifestyle of monks in Greece.
Indians were acquainted with the system of coinage for quite long because a large number of coins have been found from different parts of the country. All these coins are punch-marked coins made of copper and silver. But the Greeks introduced a new dimension to the art of coin making.
The idea of striking both the obverse and reverse sides of the coins was learnt from the Greeks. One side contained the picture and symbol of the ruler while the other side had a picture of some other devices. Further, the technique of die cutting with refined polish was also learnt from the Greeks.
By introducing such new Hellenic techniques to the previously rude Indian coinage system, the Indians were able to produce coins of finer variety. In course of time the Sakas and the Parthians adopted this Greek technique which got further impetus under the Imperial Guptas.
Prominent scholars like Weber, Windisch and Schroder are of the opinion that Indian stage drama was very much influenced by Hellenism. According to them the idea of using screens and curtains and the presence of a clown were mainly of Greek origin though play writing was exclusively done by the Indian authors.
In the field of literature, however, the Greeks borrowed the concept of folklore from the Indians. The Panchatantra stories of Indian tradition appeared in numerous Greek stories and fables. At the same time it is also true that in the sphere of language and script very few references of Hellenism have been found. Neither a single inscription in Greek language nor any linguistic or scriptural documents have been found so far. So Hellenism had insignificant influence on Indian language, script writing and other techniques of dramatic presentation.
Indian science came under tremendous influence of Hellenism, especially in the field of astronomy. The Greeks were the inheritors of a glorious cultural heritage. Their advanced way of thinking with high pedigree influenced the Indians to a large extent.
Though the Greeks were treated as Yavanas or outsiders by the Hindus, their outstanding astronomical knowledge compelled the Indians to follow their methods. Gargi Samhita openly appreciates their intellectual superiority in astronomy. The sign of zodiac, the seven day week and the hour concepts were brought from the Greeks. The existence of planets, change of lunar appearances in relation to the stars was made known to the Indians through this Hellenic channel.