The first step towards de-mythifying Nehru – Anirban Ganguly

Dr Anirban Ganguly“The book’s manner of discussing Nehru’s shortcomings directly and unequivocally, and basing the discussion on solid primary and secondary sources, and its way of linking Nehru’s legacy to the challenges of the present Indian polity make the study even more interesting. The predominant Nehruvian narrative has almost always depicted him as a great democrat, liberal, man of vision and an indefatigable administrator. Singh’s work challenges each of these assumptions and through a complex web of arguments and analysis proves the hollowness or unilateralism of these.” – Dr Anirban Ganguly

Jawaharlal Nehru was the archetypical Indian brown sahib.When he had just been two years in office, Prime Minister Nehru once wrote to a close colleague expressing a view which would, 15 years later, in a sense define the decadent political legacy he would eventually leave behind. “I have repeatedly made a mess of things, but, I hope, I have not forgotten the major ideals which Gandhiji taught us…. His (Gandhiji’s) face comes up before me, gentle and reproachful, sometimes I read his writings, and how he asked us to stick to this or that to death, whatever others said or did. And yet these very things we were asked to stick to slip away from our grasp. Is that to be the end of our labour?” Indeed, after an uninterrupted 17 years of steering the ship of the Indian state, Nehru had led the nation “up the blind alley”.

R. N. P. SinghIn his new book, Nehru: A Troubled Legacy, R.N.P. Singh, a former officer of the Intelligence Bureau and author of a number of books on modern India who is presently a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation, examines in some detail Nehru’s legacy and weaves a narrative that looks at his other dimensions, shorn of all hagiographic sentimentalism.

Nehru, argues Singh, “left behind a confused and anaemic legacy of political culture, with the result that the foundation of Independence laid by him affected not only the present and the future generations of Congress party, but the entire political spectrum of the country…. His arbitrary, autocratic and impulsive decisions shaped India’s political culture in such a way that it diverted the course of politics to the point of systemic failure for the first six decades of Independence”. Singh asks to “ponder as to what went wrong with the foundation of independent India”. Did the “pillars of freedom” go “to the hands of incapable architects?” This book provides significant points to ponder over these questions.

Arranged in eight chapters and with a large appendix section that brings together, for the benefit of the lay reader and serious researcher, a collection of letters that essentially deal with crucial issues in the Nehru era, Singh’s book comes as an important intervention in the process of dismantling the Nehruvian consensus. Chapters such as ‘Seeds of Dynastic Democracy’, ‘Betrayal of Democratic Values’ and ‘Defence Policy in Post-Independence India’ (1947-62) introduce dimensions that are bound to generate a greater interest and certainly aid in making a fresh start to the assessment of India’s first Prime Minister and his complex legacy.

Nehru: A Troubled LegacyThe book’s manner of discussing Nehru’s shortcomings directly and unequivocally, and basing the discussion on solid primary and secondary sources, and its way of linking Nehru’s legacy to the challenges of the present Indian polity make the study even more interesting. The predominant Nehruvian narrative has almost always depicted him as a great democrat, liberal, man of vision and an indefatigable administrator. Singh’s work challenges each of these assumptions and through a complex web of arguments and analysis proves the hollowness or unilateralism of these.

In the end, the author observes that with the passage of time and with the “advent of genuine academic freedom one can be certain that many more tomes will follow to add to what we know about Nehru, the man and the politician. This will make for a more credible and dispassionate assessment of Nehru and for robust research in our universities”. And when this happens, argues Singh, “our view of Jawaharlal Nehru will change, the gap between history and truth will stand bridged” and the “coloured versions produced over the last sixty years … will cease to be relevant”.

Singh’s book is a decisive first step towards bridging that gap between “history and truth”; it is a major contribution to the de-mythification of Nehru. – The New Indian Express, 19 July 2015

» Dr Ganguly is Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. Email


Preview: An Atrocious Biography – R. Y. Deshpande

Peter HeehsR. Y. DeshpandeThis is a book critiquing Peter Heehs’s attempted biography The Lives of Sri Aurobindo published by the Columbia University Press, US, in May 2008.

There are any number of acceptable and authentic biographies of Sri Aurobindo, but it is also true that none can come to the expectation rising to the greatness of the person they are trying to portray. Can a life-account of an exceptional Mahayogi be really grasped and presented by anybody? It cannot. Sri Aurobindo himself had said that his life was never on the surface for men to see. If a biography had to be written he himself would do it—he would write an autobiography. And indeed he has done it through his symbolic epic Savitri.

Yet we have a few accounts which are in a general sense not only adequate or satisfactory but also inspired and intuitive. Sri Aurobindo’s own long associate and personal attendant A. B. Purani writes about early life-accounts which had appeared at places: “I had occasion to An Atrocious Biography by R. Y. Deshpanderefer to Sri Aurobindo all the doubtful points of these books for correction or corroboration. This gave me the correct ground for his biography. I had been collecting material myself since 1923.” This was as early as 1958, but indeed it was inspiring.

Then Sri Aurobindo—His Life Unique by Rishabhchand written during the decade from 1960 carries in it the seal and sanction of the Mother herself. It restricts itself entirely to the pre-Pondicherry period up to 1910.

M. P. Pandit’s Sri Aurobindo in the Builders of Modern India sponsored by the Government of India is to record the story of struggles and achievements of the eminent sons and daughters of India who have been mainly instrumental for our national renaissance and the attainment of Independence. In it if there are miracles of the human side they are also cherished, cherished to kindle our hearts and souls to the possibilities that we possess.

Srinivasa Iyengar’s official Sri Aurobindo—a biography and a history as the fourth edition of 1985 is a monumental story essentially giving facts after facts in the life of Sri Aurobindo, giving them with the deep and sensitive touch of a deeper and more sensitive perception. The book runs into 800 pages and proclaims that Sri Aurobindo’s writings are not isolable from his life. Does one then need to go anywhere else to read his life if not in his writings?

Georges van Vrekhem’s very extraordinary Beyond Man has as its frontispiece a quotation from Sri Aurobindo: “The changes we see in the world today are intellectual, moral, physical in their ideal and intention: the spiritual evolution waits for its hour and throws up meanwhile its waves here and there. Until it comes the sense of the others cannot be understood and till then all interpretations of present happenings and forecast of man’s future are vain things. For its nature, power, event are that which will determine the next cycle of humanity.” The next cycle of humanity opening into the spiritual—that is the true penetrating sense of insight we get from this European’s account of Sri Aurobindo.

An opening into the dynamic spiritual—that is what we experience in Satprem’s Sri Aurobindo or The Adventure of Consciousness. It looks as though Sri Aurobindo himself was standing behind this Adventure. The author says: “This book has been written from a Western point of view and for those who yearn for a truth of Life and not only a truth with eyes closed.” Perhaps in it one will find “perfect harmony of inner freedom and outer mastery”. If the luminous intuitive can be the possible way of presenting the Yogi’s ‘life’, then it is here.

But in contrast to all this what do we have in The Lives of Sri Aurobindo authored by Peter Heehs and published by the Columbia University Press in May 2008? It is utter falsification of the vision and work of Sri Aurobindo. It revels in lurid details. About spiritual experiences it voices half-truths. It calls Sri Aurobindo’s main work Savitri a “fictional creation”. There is the constant doublespeak in the biography. Everywhere the intention is to denigrate the Master-Yogi. Peter Heehs travels Freud’s royal road deeper into the unconscious. In this presentation he is actually toeing the line of the Chicago School of Wendy Doniger to downgrade Indian tradition and all that is noble and Indian. Its objective seems to be to offer to a certain brand of intellectuals sleazy soap-operas that can provide aberrant entertainment. Yet why should one like Mr Heehs? ‘Cause he can cause more drama than a “naked chick in the Vatican” or, for that matter, in the editorial room of Auroville Today. It is regrettable that a certain type of American scholarship should have fallen into such a terrible pit of rationality that always keeps itself shut from things noble and creative and elevating. By becoming too rational it becomes vitalistically infrarational when the new horizons are trying to stretch into the suprarational for the growing soul of man, when post-human destinies are awaiting with new faculties of cognition.

“Sri Aurobindo is one of the greatest thinkers of Modern India,” said Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland. He is “the most complete synthesis achieved up to the present between the genius of the West and the East…. The last of the great Rishis holds in his outstretched hands, the bow of Creative Inspiration.” But disappointingly this fallacious American scholarship is not aware of that bow of Creative Inspiration. That is perhaps its misfortune.

In contrast to this Times Literary Supplement, London, looks at Sri Aurobindo as follows: “Of all modern Indian writers Aurobindo—successively poet, critic, scholar, thinker, nationalist, humanist—is the most significant and perhaps the most interesting…. In fact, he is a new type of thinker, one who combines in his vision the alacrity of the West with the illumination of the East. To study his writings is to enlarge the boundaries of one’s knowledge…. He is a yogi who writes as though he were standing among the stars, with the constellations for his companions. Sri Aurobindo is no visionary. He has always acted his dreams…. So from individual self-discipline he has gone to the life of humanity. The Psychology of Social Development, Ideals and Progress and The Ideal of Human Unity should be carefully considered by all those who are busy preparing blue-prints for the future.” Can by any stretch of imagination this be called hagiographic, as the author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo would rush to broadcast?

If the Indian Renaissance as a large collective began in the early decade of the last century in it Sri Aurobindo had a major part to play. For holding the principle of free speech as his right and the Doctrine of Nationalism he had to suffer the ignominy of an undertrial prisoner for one year, 1908-09. But good sense of justice prevailed in the colonial masters and he was acquitted. His defence lawyer C.R. Das perorated: “Long after this controversy will be hushed in silence, long after this turmoil, this agitation will have ceased, long after he [Sri Aurobindo] is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone, his words will be echoed and re-echoed, not only in India, but across distant seas and lands.” For Sri Aurobindo India was always the Mother to whom he would adore and worship. He had even the certitude that he would redeem her fallen lot. God had sent him to this world to accomplish that great mission, he wrote in the confidence of a god.

If a biography of Sri Aurobindo takes a perfunctory view of these outstanding events it would only go to show the dark and calamitous malaise that is present in the soul of the biographer. In fact his whole intention seems to denigrate all that is noble and Indian. An Atrocious Biography critiques systematically and with incisive scientific thoroughness this misgiven Lives of Sri Aurobindo. Running into 700 + pages it covers a few aspects to establish the deep-rooted predisposition and prejudice the author—a school dropout—of the Lives holds towards India and things that belong to the noble traditions of its civilisation and spirituality. This is symptomatic of a certain brand of American erudition and American learning which in fact is causing a much greater harm to its own psyche than these perpetrators of values would realise. If the Atrocious Biography can drive that message home its purpose will be more than served, served in the possibilities of post-human destinies that are waiting for us to dynamically live in and progress. – Savitri Cultural, 13 September 2014

About R.Y. Deshpande: Born in 1931 R.Y. Deshpande did his science studies from Osmania University, Hyderabad, India, and joined as a research physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai in 1955. Later he worked at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Berkeley, California USA, and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai. He has some fifty research papers published in national and international scientific journals. In 1981, Deshpande joined Sri Aurobindo Ashram Pondicherry where he taught physics and a few other subjects such as Astrophysics, Savitri, The Future Poetry, Science and Society for thirty years. During the same period he was for eight years the editor of Mother India, a monthly review of culture, published by the Ashram. During 2007-2008 Deshpande was a senior editor of Science-Culture-Integral Yoga Web-Magazine, SCIY founded in Los Angeles. Presently he runs two websites [Savitri & Mirror of Tomorrow] devoted specifically to Sri Aurobindo’s epic Savitri and cultural matters of national and international interest. He gave on different fora, including radio and TV, interviews, talks and seminars dealing with social, spiritual, scientific and literary aspects. Deshpande’s literary activities include writing poetry, essays, articles, book reviews, comments which have been published in a few cultural periodicals. He is a published author of some three dozen books of poetry, literary criticism, Aurobindonian philosophy and culture, two reflective books on science and related social matters. 

Get the book here

An Atrocious Biography
Price Rs 750.00
First Edition 30 August 2014
ISBN: 978-93-82547-71-6
Published by Savitri Foundation
10, Jorbagh, New Delhi – 110 003
Ph: 011-43001448
Websites: Savitri & CreateSpace at Amazon

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Alexander vs Porus: Beyond the fog of war – Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh Krishnan Simha“At the Battle of Hydaspes, the Macedonians realised they were dealing with an enemy of uncommon valour. Sensing defeat they called for a truce, which Porus accepted. The Indian king struck a bargain – in return for Ambhi’s territories, which would secure his frontiers, Porus would assist the Macedonians in leaving India safely.” – Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Alexander the GreatMarshal Gregory Zhukov, the legendary Russian commander, said the Macedonians had suffered a catastrophic defeat in India. In the final part of this analysis, fact and fiction are separated.

After defeating Persia in the year 334 BCE, Alexander of Macedon was irresistibly drawn towards the great Indian landmass. However, the Persians warned him the country was no easy target; that several famous conquerors had fallen at the gates of India.

The Persians told him how their greatest king, Cyrus, who had conquered much of the civilised world, had been killed in a battle with Indian soldiers exactly two centuries before Alexander.

And in an earlier antiquity, the Assyrian queen Semiramis, who had crossed the Indus with 400,000 highly trained troops, escaped with just 20 troops, the rest being slaughtered by the Indians.

In his book, Foreign Influence on Ancient India, Krishna Chandra Sagar says 150 years before Alexander, Indian archers and cavalry formed a significant component of the Persian army and played a key role in subduing Thebes in central Greece.

Alexander, however, knew no fear. More than anything else, he wanted to invade India. It would prove to be a strategic blunder.

Marshal Georgy ZhukovZhukov’s take

“Following Alexander’s failure to gain a position in India and the defeat of his successor Seleucus Nikator, relationships between the Indians and the Greeks and the Romans later, was mainly through trade and diplomacy. Also the Greeks and other ancient peoples did not see themselves as in any way superior, only different.”

This statement by Russia’s Marshal Gregory Zhukov on the Macedonian invasion of India in 326 BCE is significant because unlike the prejudiced colonial and Western historians, the Greeks and later Romans viewed Indians differently. For instance, Arrian writes in Alexander Anabasis that the Indians were the noblest among all Asians.

In fact, Arrian and other Greeks say the Indians were relentless in their attacks on the invaders. They say if the people of Punjab and Sindh were fierce, then in the eastern part of India “the men were superior in stature and courage”.

All this is glossed over by Western historians, in whose view the one victory over king Porus amounted to the “conquest of India”. But the Greeks made no such claim.

Battle of Hydaspes – Hardest ever

Greek contemporary writers describe the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) as the hardest fought of all Alexander’s battles. Frank Lee Holt, a professor of ancient history at the University of Houston, writes in his book, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions: “The only reference in Arrian’s history to a victory celebration by Alexander’s army was after the battle with Porus.”

Alexander’s army did not indulge in celebrations after the Battle of Gaugamela where they defeated 200,000 Persians. No wild festivities were announced after the Battle of Issus where they defeated a mixed force of Persian cavalry and Greek mercenaries.

The fact they celebrated after the Battle of Hydaspes suggests they considered themselves extremely lucky to survive after the clash with the Hindu army, with its elephant corps.

King Porus (Puru) & Alexander at the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum)If Porus lost, why reward him?

According to the Greeks, Alexander was apparently so impressed by Porus he gave back his kingdom plus the territories of king Ambhi of Taxila who had fought alongside the Macedonians.

This is counter-intuitive  Ambhi had become Alexander’s ally on the condition he would be given Porus’ kingdom. So why reward the enemy, whose army had just mauled the Macedonians?

The only possible answer is at the Battle of Hydaspes, the Macedonians realised they were dealing with an enemy of uncommon valour. Sensing defeat they called for a truce, which Porus accepted. The Indian king struck a bargain – in return for Ambhi’s territories, which would secure his frontiers, Porus would assist the Macedonians in leaving India safely.

Alexander’s post-Hydaspes charitable behaviour, as per Greek accounts, is uncharacteristic and unlikely. For, in battles before and after, he massacred everyone in the cities he subdued.

Why pay off a vassal?

Before the battle, Alexander gave king Ambhi 1000 talents (25,000 kilos) of gold for fighting alongside the Macedonians. The only explanation is Ambhi was driving a hard bargain. He knew the rattled Macedonian army was seeking to quickly exit India. He thought he could use the Macedonians to remove his rival Porus. However, Porus’ decision to offer Alexander combat checkmated those plans.

Porus's elephant cavalry.Tired of fighting: Lame excuse

Greek sources say Alexander retreated from India because his soldiers were weary, homesick and close to mutiny. Imagine if German soldiers had told Hitler they were tired of fighting? They would have been summarily shot. In Alexander’s time, the punishment was crucifixion.

The Macedonian army had a system of rotation where large batches of veteran soldiers were released to return home (with sufficient gold and slaves). In their place, fresh troops eagerly poured in from Europe.

If they were weary of constant warring, it is inexplicable why these soldiers chose to fight their way through obstinately hostile Indian territories. The homesick soldiers would have preferred the garrisoned northwestern route they took while coming in. Why would a brilliant commander subject himself and his troops to further violence when all they wanted was a peaceful passage home?

Clearly, the Macedonians were in a mess and not thinking straight. Not the sign of a victorious army.

Alexander's route into India and out again.Need for glory

David J. Lonsdale, a lecturer in Strategic Studies at the University of Hull, writes: “Alexander’s invasion of India and Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 both appear reckless and unnecessary from a strategic perspective. Therefore, perhaps they can both be explained by the sheer naked ambition of the two commanders.”

Alexander’s tragedy was he was in a Catch-22 situation. The Macedonians and Greeks welcomed the wealth from the conquered lands, but the man who ensured this flow was persona non grata.

In Greek eyes a Macedonian was hardly an equal. The Greeks hated Alexander for sacking their cities and enslaving their people. In his own country, he was an outsider for being half-Albanian, from his mother’s side. The common people suspected him of murdering his father.

So in order to retain the loyalty of his troops, Alexander had to wage constant war while also taking great personal risks in battle. For, he could not be seen as weak, let alone beaten.

A few years before the Indian campaign, a large part of the Macedonian army was massacred by the [Indo-]Scythians (Hindu StraboShakas, the Buddha’s clansmen) at Polytimetus, present day Tajikistan. Alexander warned his surviving troops not to discuss the massacre with other soldiers.

Strabo, the Greek historian wrote: “Generally speaking, the men who have written on the affairs of India were a set of liars…. Of this we became the more convinced whilst writing the history of Alexander.” – Russia & India Report, 3 June 2013

» Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based writer. According to him the only inspiration he needs is outrage – when he sees propaganda masquerading as journalism. He, therefore, writes on stuff the media distorts, misses or ignores. He can be contacted on

Indian war elephant against Alexander’s troops (1685).

See also

Roots: What Sanskrit has meant to me – Aatish Taseer

Aatish Taseer“It is safe to say that no ancient culture thought harder about language than India, no culture had better means to assess it. Nothing in old India went unanalysed; no part of speech was just a part of life, no word just slipped into usage, and could not be accounted for. This was the land of grammar and grammarians. And, if today, in that same country, men were without grammar, without means to assess language, it spoke of a decay that could be measured against the standards of India’s own past.” — Aatish Taseer

I had come to Sanskrit in search of roots, but I had not expected to have that need met so directly. I had not expected my wish for a ‘historical sense’ to be answered with linguistic roots.

Aged twenty-seven or so, when I first began to study Sanskrit as a private student at Oxford, I knew nothing about the shared origins of Indo-European languages. Not only did I not know the example given in my textbook—that the Sanskritãrya, the Avestan airya, from which we have the modern name Iran, and the Gaelic Eire, all the way on the Western rim of the Indo-European belt, were all probably cognate—I don’t even think I knew that word, ‘cognate’. It means ‘born together’: co + natus. And natus from gnascor is cognate with the Sanskrit root jan from where we have janma and the Ancient Greek gennaõ, ‘to beget’. Genesis, too.

And in those early days of learning Sanskrit, the shared genesis of these languages of a common source, spoken somewhere on the Pontic steppe in the third millennium BC, a source which had decayed and of which no direct record remains, absorbed me completely. Well, almost completely. The grammar was spectacularly difficult and, in that first year, it just kept mushrooming—besides three genders, three numbers and eight cases for every noun, there were several classes of verbs, in both an active and middle voice, each with three numbers and three persons, so that in just the present system, with its moods and the imperfect, I was obliged to memorise 72 terminations for a single verb alone.

And still I found time to marvel at how the Sanskrit vid, from where we havevidiã, was related to the Latin videre—to see—from where, in turn, we have such words as video and vision; veda too, of course, for as Calasso writes in Ka, the ancient seers, contrary to common conception, did not hear the Vedas, they saw them! Or that kãla, Time and Death, should be derived from the Sanskrit kãl, ‘to calculate or enumerate’—related to the Latin kalendarium, ‘account book’, the English calendar—imparting, it seemed to me, onto that word the suggestive notion that at the end of all our calculations comes Death. Almost as if kãla did not simply mean Time, but had built into it the idea of its passage, the count of days, as it were.

These thrills were so self-evident that I did not stop to ask what lay behind them. But one day, a few months into my second term, the question was put to me by a sympathetic listener. An old editor at Penguin. I was in London assailing him over dinner, as I now am you, with my joy at having discovered these old threads, when he stopped me with: But what is this excitement? What is the excitement of discovering these old roots?

An oddly meta question, it should be said, oddly self- referential, and worthy of old India. For few ancient cultures were as concerned with the how and why of knowing as ancient India. And what my editor was saying was, you have the desire to know, fine—you have jijñãsa, desiderative of jña: ‘to know’—but what is it made of? What is this hunting about for linguistic roots? What comfort does this knowledge give? And, what, as an extension, can it tell us about our need for roots, more generally? It was that most basic of philosophical enquiries: why do we want to know the things we want to know?

I grew up in late 20th century India, in a deracinated household. I use that word keeping in mind that racine is ‘root’ in French, and that is what we were: people whose roots had either been severed or could no longer be reached. A cultural and linguistic break had occurred, and between my grandparents’ and my parents’ generation, there lay an imporous layer of English education that prevented both my father in Pakistan, and my mother, in India, from being able to reach their roots. What the brilliant Sri Lankan art critic, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, had seen happening around him already in his time had happened to us (and is, I suppose, happening today all over India).

‘It is hard to realize,’ Coomaraswamy writes in The Dance of Shiva, ‘how completely the continuity of Indian life has been severed. A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots—a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West.’

This is an accurate description of what we were. And what it meant for me, personally, as an Indian writer getting started with a writing career in India, was that the literary past of India was closed to me. The Sanskrit commentator, Mallinatha, working in 14th century Andhra, had with a casual ‘iti-Dandin: as Dandin says’, been able to go back seven or eight hundred years into his literary past. I could go back no further than fifty or sixty. The work of writers who had come before me, who had lived and worked in the places where I lived and worked today, was beyond reach. Their ideas of beauty; their feeling for the natural world; their notion of what it meant to be a writer, and what literature was—all this, and much more, were closed to me. And, as I will explain later, this was not simply for linguistic reasons.

I was—and I have T S Eliot in mind as I write this—a writer without a historical sense. Eliot who, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, describes the ‘historical sense’ as: a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense, he feels, compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but that [for him]—I’m paraphrasing now—the whole literature of Europe from Homer onwards to that of his own country has ‘a simultaneous existence’.

My problem was that I had next to nothing in my bones. Nothing but a handful of English novels, some Indian writing in English, and a few verses of Urdu poetry. That was all. And it was too little; it left the bones weak; I had no way to thread the world together.

The place I grew up in was not just culturally denuded, but—and this is to be expected, for we can only value what we have the means to assess—it held its past in contempt. Urdu was given some token respect—though no one really bothered to learn it—but Sanskrit was actively mocked and despised. It was as if the very sound of the language had become debased. People recoiled from names that were too Sanskritic, dismissing them as lower class: ‘Narindar,’ someone might say, ‘what a driver’s name!’ They preferred Armaan and Zhyra and Alaaya. The Sanskrit teacher in most elite schools was a figure of fun. And people took great joy at having come out of a school, such as The Doon School, say, without having learnt any more Sanskrit than a derisive little rhyme about flatulence.

What was even more dismaying was that very few people in this world regarded Sanskrit as a language of literature. In fact, Sanskrit, having fought so hard historically to escape its liturgical function and become a language of literature and statecraft, had in the India I grew up been confined once again to liturgy. And an upper-class lady, on hearing that you were learning Sanskrit, would think nothing of saying: ‘Oh, I hate all that chanting-shanting.’

Sanskrit was déclassé; it was a source of embarrassment; its position in our English-speaking world reminded me of the VS Naipaul story of the boy among the mighty Mayan ruins of Belize. ‘In the shadow of one such ruin,’ Naipaul writes in The Enigma of Arrival, ‘a Mayan boy (whatever his private emotions) giggled when I tried to talk to him about the monument. He giggled and covered his mouth; he seemed to be embarrassed. He was like a person asking to be forgiven for the absurdities of long ago…’

To have Sanskrit in India was to know an equal measure of joy and distress. On the one hand, the language was all around me and things that had once seemed closed and inert came literally to be full of meaning. ‘Narindar’ might have sounded downmarket to the people I had grown up with, but it could no longer be that way for me. Not when I knew that beyond its simple meaning as ‘Lord of Men’, nara—cognate with the Latin nero and the Greek anér—was one of our oldest words for ‘man’. Some might turn their nose up at a name like Aparna, say, preferring a Kaireen or an Alaaya, but not me. Not when it was clear that parnawas ‘leaf’, cognate with the English ‘fern’, and aparna, which meant ‘leafless’, was a name Kalid ¯a sa had himself given Paravati: ‘Because she rejected, gracious in speech though she was, even the high level of asceticism that is living only on leaves falling from trees of their own accord, those who know the past call her Aparna, the Leafless Lady.’

My little knowledge of Sanskrit made the walls speak and nothing was the same again. Words and names that had once seemed whole and complete—such as Anuja and Ksitaja—broke into their elements. I saw them for what they were:upapada compounds, which formed the most playful and, at times, playfully profound compounds. Anuja, because it meant ‘born after’, or ‘later’, was a name often given to the youngest son of a family. And ksitaja, which meant ‘born of the earth’—the ja being a contraction of jan, that ancient thread for birthing, begetting and generating—could be applied equally to an insect and a worm as well as the horizon, for they were both earth-born. And dvi|ja, twice born, could mean a Brahmin, for he is born, and then born again when he is initiated into the rites of his caste; it could mean ‘a bird’, for it is born once when it is conceived and then again from an egg; but it could also mean ‘a tooth’, for teeth, it was plain to see, had two lives too.

So, yes: once word and meaning were reunited, a lot that had seemed ordinary, under the influence of the world I grew up in, came literally to acquire new meaning. Nor did the knowledge of these things seem trifling to me, not simply a matter of curiosity, not just pretty baubles. Because the way a culture arrived at its words, the way it endowed sabda with artha, gave you a picture of its values, of its belief system, of the things it held sacred.

Consider, for instance, sarıra or ‘body’. One of its possible derivations is from√srr, which means ‘to break’ or ‘destroy’, so that sarıra is nothing but ‘that which is easily destroyed or dissolved.’ And how could one know that without forming a sense of the culture in which that word emerged and how it regarded the body? The body, which, as any student of John Locke will tell you,[1] had so different a significance in other cultures.

I thought it no less interesting to observe the little jumps of meaning a root made as it travelled over the Indo-European belt. Take vertere, ‘to turn’, from the old Latin uortere: we have it in Sanskrit too: vrtvartate: ‘to turn, turn round, revolve, roll; to be, to live, to exist, to abide and dwell’. It is related to the German werden—‘to become’. From where we have the Old English wyrd—‘fate, destiny’; but also werde: ‘death’. That extra layer of meaning restored, it was impossible ever to think of Shakespeare’s ‘weird sisters’ from Macbeth in the same way again.

What Sanskrit did for me was that it laid bare the deep tissue of language. The experience was akin to being able to see beneath the thick encroachment of slum and shanty, the preserved remains of a grander city, a place of gridded streets and sophisticated sewage systems, of magnificent civic architecture. But to go one step further with the metaphor of the ruined city, it was also like seeing Trajan’s forum as spolia on people’s houses. The language was there, but it was unthought-of, unregarded, hardly visible to the people living among it: there as remains, and little more. There are few places in the world where the past continues into the present as seamlessly as it does in India, and where people are so unaware of it.

Neither is the expectation of such an awareness an imposition of the present on the past. Nor is it an import from elsewhere; not—to use the Academic’s word—etic, but deeply emic to India. For it is safe to say that no ancient culture thought harder about language than India, no culture had better means to assess it. Nothing in old India went unanalysed; no part of speech was just a part of life, no word just slipped into usage, and could not be accounted for. This was the land of grammar and grammarians. And, if today, in that same country, men were without grammar, without means to assess language, it spoke of a decay that could be measured against the standards of India’s own past.

That decay—growing up with as little as I had—was what lay behind my need for roots and the keenness of my excitement at discovering them. It was the excitement, at a time when my cultural life felt thin and fragmentary, of glimpsing an underlying wholeness, a dream of unity, that we human beings never quite seem able to let go of. But there was something else. In India, where history had heaped confusion upon confusion, where everything was shoddy and haphazard and unplanned, the structure of Sanskrit, with its exquisite planning, was proof that it had not always been that way. It was like a little molecule of the Indian genius, intact, and saved in amber, for a country from which the memory of genius had departed. — Open Magazine, 17 August 2013


[1] ‘Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State of Nature hath provided, and left in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.’

» Aatish Taseer is an author and journalist who divides his time between New Delhi and London. His website is here and he can be contacted at

V.S. Naipal Interviewed – Jonathan Rosen & Tarun Tejpal

V.S. NaipaulFrom The Paris Review 

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on August 17, 1932 in Chaguanas, Trinidad, where his ancestors had emigrated from India—his maternal grandfather, at the turn of the century, had traveled from that country as an indentured servant.

Naipaul, in his essay “Prologue to an Autobiography” from Finding the Center, has written: “Half a writer’s work . . . is the discovery of his subject. And a problem for me was that my life had been varied, full of upheavals and moves: from grandmother’s Hindu house in the country, still close to the rituals and social ways of village India; to Port of Spain, the negro, and G.I. life of its streets, the other, ordered life of my colonial English school, which is called Queen’s Royal College, and then Oxford, London and the freelances’ room at the BBC. Trying to make a beginning as a writer, I didn’t know where to focus.”

After two failed attempts at novels and three months before his twenty-third birthday, Naipaul found his start in the childhood memory of a neighbor in Port of Spain. The memory provided the first sentence for Miguel Street, which he wrote over six weeks in 1955 in the BBC freelancers’ room at the Langham Hotel, where he was working part-time editing and presenting a literary program for the Caribbean Service. The book would not be published until 1959, after the success of The Mystic Masseur (1957), which received the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award. A House of Mr. Biswas was published in 1961, and in 1971 Naipaul received the Booker Prize for In a Free State. Four novels have appeared since then: Guerrillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), The Enigma of Arrival(1987) and A Way in the World. Naipaul received a knighthood in 1990 for his service to literature.

In the early 1960s, Naipaul began writing about his travels. He has written four books on India: The Middle Passage (1962), An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). The Return of Eva Peron andThe Killings in Trinidad (published in the same volume in 1980) recorded his experiences in Argentina, Trinidad, and the Congo. Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia are the subject of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). He returned to those countries in 1995; Beyond Belief, an account of those travels, was published this year.

In conversation with Naipaul, one finds the issues and ideas are always highly subtle and complex—which he keeps reminding you, lest you see things only in monochrome—but the language steers clear of obfuscation and cant. Indeed Naipaul can be a difficult companion. The humbleness of his beginnings, the long struggles, the sheer scale of his artistic beginnings clearly have bred in him deep neuroses—at sixty-six, the neurotic circuitry is still buzzing. Despite the edginess, and the slight air of unpredictability it brings into any interaction with him, Naipaul proved to be an interviewer’s delight.

The interview is culled from a series of conversations in New York City and India. Part of the interview was conducted (by Jonathan Rosen) at the Carlyle Hotel on May 16, 1994. Naipaul spent several minutes rearranging the furniture in the hotel suite in an effort to locate the chair best suited to his aching back. He has the habit of removing glasses before answering a question, though that only enhances his scrutinizing expression and attitude of mental vigilance. The occasion for the interview was the publication of A Way in the World, but despite an initial wish to “stay with the book,” Naipaul relaxed into a larger conversation that lasted several hours and touched on many aspects of his life and career. – The Paris Review, 1998


You travel to India often. You first visited thirty-five years ago and keep coming back, both to write and to holiday. What is the source of your continuing fascination with India?


It is my ancestry, really, because I was born with a knowledge of the past that ended with my grandparents. I couldn’t go beyond them, the rest was just absolute blankness. It’s really to explore what I call the area of darkness.


Do you think it is crucial to your function and material as a writer to know where you came from and what made you what you are?


When you’re like me—born in a place where you don’t know the history, and no one tells you the history, and the history, in fact, doesn’t exist, or in fact exists only in documents—when you are born like that, you have to learn about where you came from. It takes a lot of time. You can’t simply write about the world as though it is all there, all granted to you. If you are a French or an English writer, you are born to a great knowledge of your origins and your culture. When you are born like me, in an agricultural colony far away, you have to learn everything. The writing has been a process of inquiry and learning for me.


You have written three books on India over the last thirty-five years: An Area of Darkness, A Wounded Civilization and A Million Mutinies Now. Your response to the country has varied with each book.


Actually, the three books stand. Please understand that I do not want any one to supersede another. All three books stand because I think that they all remain true. The books are written in different modes: one is autobiographical, one is analytical and the last is an account of the people’s experience in that country. They were written at different times, and of course, like India, people exist in different times. So you could say that An Area of Darkness is still there—the analysis of the invasions and defeat, the psychological wound, is still there. With the Mutinies book, in which people are discovering some little voice with which to express their personality and speak of their needs—that remains true. The books have to be taken as a whole—as still existing, still relevant, still important.

In all of this, you must remember that I am a writer—a man writing a paragraph, a chapter, a section, a book. It is a craft. I am not just a man making statements. So the books represent the different stages of my craft. An Area of Darkness is an extraordinary piece of craft—an extraordinary mix of travel and memory and reading. A Million Mutinies Now represents the discovery that the people in the country are important. It’s a very taxing form, in the way that a lot happens during the actual traveling—a lot happens when you meet people. If you don’t know how to talk to them, if you don’t know how to get them to talk to you, there is no book. You use your judgment and your flair. I look at this and then that person, what he says about himself . . . His experiences lead you to consider something else and then something else and so on. The book happens during the actual traveling, although the writing takes time, as always. So the books are different bits of craft—always remember that I am a craftsman, changing the craft; I am trying to do new things all the time.


Do you use a tape recorder when you interview people for your nonfiction?


I never use a recorder. It shortens the labor and makes the whole thing more precise—it puts me in control. Also, people find it hard to believe, but an hour and a half with anyone is as much as any text of mine can take.


Do you begin an interview as soon as you meet a person?


First I’d meet you and talk to you; then I’d ask to come and see you. In ninety minutes, I can get two or three thousand words. You’ll see me writing by hand and you’ll speak slowly and instinctively. Yet it will be spoken and have the element of speech.


An Area of Darkness suggests a lot of anger, as does much of your journalism about India. Do you think anger works better than understanding for a writer?


I don’t like to think of it as journalism—journalism is news, an event that is important today. My kind of writing tries to find a spring, the motives of societies and cultures, especially in India. This is not journalism. Let me correct that—it is not something that anybody can do. It’s a more profound gift. I’m not competing with journalists.


But does anger work better than understanding?


I think it isn’t strictly anger alone. It is deep emotion. Without that deep emotion there is almost no writing—then you do journalism. When you are deeply churned up, you know that you cannot express this naked raw emotion; you have to come to some resolution about it. It is this refinement of emotion, what you call understanding, that really makes the writing. These two things are not opposed to one another—understanding derives from what you call anger. I would call it emotion, deep emotion. Emotion is necessary to writing.


I want to ask a question that comes from reading An Area of Darkness. You write about the Hindu idea that the world is illusion, which seems enormously attractive and, at the same time, terrifying to you. I’m wondering if I read that right?


I think you put your finger on it. It is both frightening and alluring. People can use it as an excuse for inactivity—when things are really bad and you are in a mess, it can be comforting to possess and enter that little chamber of thought where the world is an illusion. I find it very easy to enter that mode of thinking. It was with me for some weeks before writing A Bend in the River. I had the distinct sense of the world as an illusion—I saw it spinning in space as though I really had imagined it all.


You have been to so many places—India, Iran, West Africa, the American Deep South. Are you still drawn to travel?


It gets harder, you know. The trouble is that I can’t go places without writing about them. I feel I’ve missed the experience. I once went to Brazil for ten days and didn’t write anything. Well, I wrote something about Argentina and the Falklands, but I didn’t possess the experience—I didn’t work at it. It just flowed through me. It was a waste of my life. I’m not a holiday taker.


Didn’t Valéry say that the world exists to be put in a book? Do you agree?


Or to be thought about, to be contemplated. Then you enjoy it, then it means something. Otherwise you live like a puppy: woof woof, I need my food now, woof woof.


Your new book, Beyond Belief, returns to the subject of Islam, which you also examined in Among the Believers. Do you anticipate any trouble from the prickliness of Islam’s defenders with the book’s publication?


People might criticize me, but I am very careful never to criticize a faith or articles of a faith. I am just talking now about the historical and social effects. Of course, all one’s books are criticized, which is how it should be. But remember this is not a book of opinion. This goes back to my earlier point about all one’s work standing together: in the books of exploration that I have been writing, I’ve been working toward a form where, instead of the traveler being more important than the people he travels among, the people are important. I write about the people I meet—I write about their experiences and I define the civilization by their experiences. This is a book of personal experiences, so it will be very difficult to fault in the way you said because you can’t say that it is maligning anything. I looked at personal experiences and made a pattern. In one way, you might simply say that it is a book of stories. It is a book of tales.


Much in the way of A Turn in the South and A Million Mutinies Now?


Absolutely, yes. This book was a different challenge because I am very particular about not repeating a form, and here there were thirty narratives, which I tried to do differently—each one differently so that the reader would not understand the violation that was being done him. I didn’t want the stories to read alike.


Are you drained when you finish a book?


Yes, one is drained. These careers are so slow—I write a book, and at the end of it I am so tired. Something is wrong with my eyes; I feel I’m going blind. My fingers are so sore that I wrap them in tape. There are all these physical manifestations of a great labor. Then there is a process of just being nothing—utterly vacant. For the past nine months, really, I’ve been vacant.


Does something begin to agitate you to get back to writing?


I actually find myself being agitated now. I want to get back to my work.


Do you have a new project in mind?


I’m unusual in that I have had a long career. Most people from limited backgrounds write one book. I’m a prose writer. A prose book contains many thousands of sentiments, observations, thoughts—it is a lot of work. The pattern for most people is to do a little thing about their own lives. My career has been other. I found more and more to write. If I had the strength, I probably would do more; there is always more to write about. I just don’t have the energy, the physical capacity. You know, one can spend so many days now being physically wretched. I’m aging badly. I’ve given so much to this career for so long. I spend so much time trying to feel well. One becomes worn out by living, by writing, by thinking.

Have you got enough now?




Do you think I’ve wasted a bit of myself talking to you?


Not, of course, how I’d put it.


You’ll cherish it?


You don’t like interviews.


I don’t like them because I think that thoughts are so precious you can talk them away. You can lose them.

» For the complete interview, called “V. S. Naipaul, The Art of Fiction No. 154,” go to The Paris Review here.

King Porus’ defeat of Alexander at the Battle of the Hydaspes (Jhelum) – N.S. Rajaram

N.S. Rajaram“Indian history has been distorted to meet the ideological needs of the ruling powers, a situation that continues to the present day. The pattern though is startling: just as the myth of the Aryan invasion was created to make Vedas and Sanskrit foreign imports, the myth of Greek superiority beginning with Alexander’s victory in India was concocted to make Greek learning superior to Indian. It was a claim the Greeks themselves never made. It was not for nothing that Napoleon called history a ‘fable agreed upon.'” – Dr. N.S. Rajaram

Alexander & BucephalusAccording to colonial British historians and their Indian followers, Alexander’s campaign in India (actually West Punjab now in Pakistan) was one of the most important episodes in Indian history. The reasons given are two. First it allowed scholars to establish a chronological marker for Indian history by identifying Sandracottos of Greek records with Chandragupta the founder of the Maurya Empire. This made him a contemporary of Alexander whose dates are known from other sources. This equation, known as the ‘Greek Synchronism’, is hailed as the sheet anchor of Indian history and chronology. All other dates are derived assuming it to be correct.

No less importantly, Alexander’s ‘victory’ has been used as evidence of European superiority over Indians even in ancient times. This soon led to the claim that all Indian achievements from astronomy and mathematics to Sanskrit drama and epic poetry must have been borrowed from the Greeks. (like: Ramayana was a copy of the Iliad!) It is commonplace among Western Indologists to claim that all Indian science and mathematics were borrowed from the Greeks after Alexander. (If so why didn’t the Greeks have the decimal place value system for another thousand years, which they got from India?) Some even claim that Indian writing was borrowed from the Greeks. Anyone who questions this is immediately denounced as a chauvinist incapable of logic.

Chandragupta MauryaThe idea is fantastic. Alexander entered India in the winter of 327 — 326 BC and left when a mutiny of his soldiers forced him to retreat with heavy losses. As we shall see later his stay was brief and troubled. Philip, the satrap he left in charge of the garrisons was murdered by the locals and his garrisons swiftly overrun. Seleucus who tried to recover them was defeated and driven out. But to go by the accounts of colonial scholars, Alexander must have brought an army not of soldiers but scholars and scientists who taught Indians everything from writing to astronomy — all in a matter of months!

Contrast this with the British experience. Their rule lasted two centuries, and at its height included all of India. And yet India retained its identity and knowledge, learning from the British of course but adapting them to Indian conditions. The Greeks were in control, if at all of a remote corner of India for a few months. How could they achieve so great a transformation in so short a time that the British couldn’t in centuries? But such questions are dismissed as chauvinistic and unworthy of debate. So it is best to leave these claims alone and look at what the records have to say.


Greek and Indian records

Before we examine these claims, especially Alexander’s supposed military success against the Indians a few facts should be kept in mind. No Greek records from the period survive; we know about them only from later, much later accounts that refer to them. This includes the Indica of Megasthenes which is only known from references in later works by writers like Strabo, Diodorus, Plutarch and a few others. And none of them mention the word Maurya. Several scholars have suggested that Sandrocottos of the Greek records could have been Samudragupta of the later Gupta dynasty. This would topple the Greek synchronism and place the Maurya dynasty including Chandragupta and Ashoka several centuries before Alexander.

The point to note here is that the whole of Indian chronology rests on the correctness of this linguistic similarity between Sandrakottos and Chandragupta (Maurya). There is no technical or inscriptional evidence to support it. Ashoka’s inscriptions don’t mention Alexander even though other kings are mentioned by name. Nonetheless historians for the most part have taken it as proven although a few dissident scholars are questioning it citing some recent archaeological finds. It is important to note that Ashoka’s date, as well as the dates of his inscriptions are deduced from this Greek Synchronism and not based on any scientific grounds like radiocarbon tests. (Recent archaeological data relating to stratification seem to cast doubt on it, but this line is not pursued here.)

R.C. MajumdarIn all this there is an implicit assumption that Western sources are always reliable and objective and should be accepted without question. But the trustworthiness of Greek accounts on which much of this version of history is based, including those of Megasthenes and his successor Deimachus, has been questioned from the earliest time. The late R.C. Majumdar pointed out that we must give up any notion that they were somehow more reliable than others — a view propagated by colonial historians. Even the ancient Strabo (c. 65 BC — c. 24 AD) wrote: “Generally speaking, the men who hitherto have written on the affairs of India were a set of liars. Deimachus holds the first place in the list, Megasthenes comes next…. Of this we became the more convinced whilst writing the history of Alexander. No faith whatever can be placed in Deimachus and Megasthenes.”

ChanakyaIn contrast to the paucity of Greek records, we have ample records from Indian sources — Hindu, Buddhist and Jain — from the periods before and after Alexander. The most famous of these is the Arthashastra of Kautilya who was a contemporary of Chandragupta Maurya and hence of Alexander if his identification with Sandrakottos is correct. While they know nothing of Alexander, they do note invasions by others like the Scythians (Shaka), Huns (Huna), Persians (Parasika), Parthians (Prithu-Parthava) and others. The word ‘Yavana’ (Yona in Prakrit) is fairly common in the late ancient age, but does not always mean the Greeks (or Ionians) much less Macedonians.

The first identifiable reference to Alexander in an Indian work is found in Banabhatta’s Harshacarita written almost a thousand years after Alexander’s invasion. In this Bana refers to an Alikasundara and his campaign against a country ruled by women (stree-rajya) or ‘Amazons’. They are probably the same as the Massagetae whose warrior queen Tomyris defeated and killed the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great around 535 BC. Their country corresponds to modern Kazakhstan, so Alexander would have encountered them on his march towards Afghanistan (or Bactria).

AristotleThis suggests that the impact of Alexander’s march on India has been exaggerated out of all proportion to reality by historians of the colonial era. In order to get a truer picture it is necessary to have some idea of the historical and political background to Alexander’s campaign which was part of Macedonia’s expansionist policy and not just a bolt from the blue. Alexander was the son of King Philip II of Macedonia and Olympias, the fourth of Philip’s seven (or eight) wives. As Macedonians, they were looked down upon by the Greeks as half-barbarians. Probably to counter this, Philip engaged Aristotle to tutor Alexander in Greek learning.

It was Philip who initiated an expansionist policy by invading and occupying Athens and other parts of Greece proper. To this end Philip introduced a military innovation known as the ‘phalanx’ — a compact and disciplined infantry formation that could fight as a unit. This proved successful against the tribes of Asia Minor and Central Asia, as well as the once mighty but now disintegrating Persian Empire. These were pitched battles in which Alexander’s disciplined phalanxes proved superior. They proved less effective in India where he needed to move against large formations over vast areas.

PhalanxPhilip was assassinated in 336 BC, plotted by Alexander’s mother Olympias according to some historians. Alexander III (to give his official name) inherited his father’s kingdom as well as the powerful army that he had created. He continued Philip’s policy of subduing the Greek states, which they intensely disliked, and expanded east and south until his forces were in Asia Minor (East Turkey). Egypt, which was chafing under Persian rule threw off its yoke and greeted Alexander as liberator. In 334 BC, he turned his attention to the wealthy but decaying Persian Empire.

Alexander’s campaign against the Persian Empire consisted of a series of raids in which he plundered wealthy cities like Issus, Susa and Persepolis, the last of which he reduced to ashes. They were not unlike Mahmud of Ghazni’s raids into India 1300 years later. Darius III, the unworthy bearer of a great name, proved both incompetent and unpopular. He was captured and killed by one of his own subordinate rulers, Bessus of Bactria. In his Persian campaigns Alexander was greatly helped by his general Parmenion (c. 400 — 330 BC) who had loyally served his father also. Alexander repaid hiDarius IIIs loyalty by having the seventy year-old general executed on false charges of disloyalty. (This shows that Alexander was not the kind of man to reward a defeated adversary like Porus.)

By 330 BC, Alexander found himself in Central Asia and Bactria (Afghanistan), trying to consolidate his hold over what were once parts of the Persian Empire. He was now near the border of India. He, like his contemporaries had heard a great deal about the country and its legendary wealth. Whether it was his love of plunder or imperial ambition that attracted him, he descended into the plains of Punjab in the winter of 327 BC.

This shows that Alexander was not the first foreigner to take an interest in India. There were others — traders, mercenary soldiers and adventurers before and after Alexander. Some even set up kingdoms, or tried to until uprooted or assimilated into in the region of the northwest. They are referred to as the Indo-Greeks. They should be seen as part and parcel of long standing encounters between India and the people to the west though most of them were not military in nature. We need to have some idea of this to get a truer picture of Alexander’s campaign and its impact.


“History — a fable agreed upon”

Links between India and the West, including the Mediterranean world of Greece, Ionia, Egypt and Rome is of untold antiquity. It is important to recognize that the ancient Greeks did not see themselves as Europeans, but as one with other people of the Mediterranean region that included Egypt, Babylonia and Persia. To them Europe and its people were barbarian. As previously observed, Alexander and his fellow Macedonians were seen by the Greek elite as barely a step removed from being barbarians.

Other than a few questionable references in the Old Testament, the earliest Western work to mention India appears to be the Histories of Herodotus (c. 484 — 425 BC). His writings indicate that there were others before him who had visited India including possibly Pythagoras (c. 570 — 495 BC). It is not known if Herodotus himself was ever in India. His writings (or those ascribed to him) do not suggest any great familiarity with India of the time. But they do show that India and its people were already familiar to the Greeks centuries before Alexander.

Until the campaigns of Alexander, there was no large scale Greek presence in India though a few Greek colonies did exist in the northwestern regions of the subcontinent. Following his failure to gain a position in India and the defeat of his successor Seleucus Nikator, relationships between the Indians and the Greeks and the Romans later, was mainly through trade and diplomacy. Also the Greeks and other ancient peoples did not see themselves as in any way superior, only different. Herodotus in fact is full of admiration for Egyptians, Persians and the Ethiopians (Africans). The notion of Greeks as superior to Indians and other non-Europeans was a conceit introduced by Europeans of the colonial period.

Alexander & PorusTo preserve this conceit of ‘European’ superiority, colonial officials made the Greeks all but the bringers of knowledge to India — a claim the Greeks themselves never made. As a first step, these ‘scholars’ turned what was Alexander’s disastrous defeat into a victory that somehow resulted in his ‘defeated’ opponent ending up with more territory! Alexander also had to face a mutiny by his supposedly ‘victorious’ army and forced to beat a hasty retreat that resulted in the near destruction of his army and his own premature death. Further, his position became so weak that Alexander dared not return by the northern route by which he had come but took the forbiddingly inhospitable southern desert route where water is very scarce. (This is reflected in the legend of how Alexander on his deathbed gave the last cup of water he was about to drink to a thirsty soldier.)

This historically realistic picture was first brought to light — to Indians at least — by the famous Russian general and military thinker Marshal Georgy Zhukov. In his convocation address delivered at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun, Zhukov stated that Alexander’s conduct in the aftermath of his battle with Porus showed that he had suffered a catastrophic defeat. According to Zhukov, Alexander in his Indian campaign had fared far worse than Napoleon in Russia. A careful examination of Greek and Roman sources like Plutarch reinforces Zhukov’s analysis who was undoubtedly familiar with them. In particular it shows that his supposed victory over Porus was a later fabrication.

Marshal Georgy ZhukovHere is how Plutarch described Alexander’s ‘victory’: “This last combat with Porus took off the edge of the Macedonians’ courage and stayed their further progress in India…. Alexander not only offered to Porus to govern his own kingdom as satrap under himself but gave him also the additional territory of various independent tribes whom he had subdued.” So Porus emerged from his war with his territory doubled and his gold stock augmented. This can only mean that Alexander had to buy peace with Porus to ensure a safe passage for himself and his troops. How this constitutes victory is known only to colonial historians and their gullible Indian followers.

Worse fate awaited Alexander and his army on their way south. As he was trying to withdraw, Alexander nearly lost his life in a battle near Mulasthana (the modern Multan), and managed to escape thanks to the bravery of his friend Peucestas who sacrificed his life to save Alexander. Alexander and what was left of his army beat a hasty retreat towards Babylon through Sind only to be decimated. The ‘world conqueror’ died in Babylon — a shadow of his arrogant self. All this is recorded by Plutarch who goes on to add, “Alexander left deceptive monuments to exaggerate the scale of his successes in India.”

This should give an idea of how seriously Indian history has been distorted to meet the ideological needs of the ruling powers, a situation that continues to the present day. The pattern though is startling: just as the myth of the Aryan invasion was created to make Vedas and Sanskrit foreign imports, the myth of Greek superiority beginning with Alexander’s victory in India was concocted to make Greek learning superior to Indian. It was a claim the Greeks themselves never made. It was not for nothing that Napoleon called history a “fable agreed upon.”

Prithviraj Kapoor (To balance this it should be added that the 1941 movie Sikander with Sohrab Modi as the brave but defeated Porus and Prithviraj Kapoor as the victorious Alexander chivalrously restoring the defeated Porus to his kingdom did as much to seal the myth of Alexander and his nobility as any colonial era history book. It was released at the height of World War II when the nationalist sentiment was running high. It captured the mood of the people.)

In conclusion we may say that while ancient records may not give us a full picture of the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum River) between Alexander and Porus, they certainly tell us it was far from being a victory. Of one thing we can be sure: like Napoleon’s march on Moscow, it was the beginning of the end of Alexander’s career as world conqueror. After a disastrous retreat through Sindh and Makran, Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, broken in health and spirit. – Folks Magazine, 2 March 2012

» Dr. Navaratna S. Rajaram is a mathematician and historian who publishes with Voice of India.

See also

Did Prophet Muhammad really exist? – Robert Spencer

Robert Spencer“There is compelling reason to conclude that Muhammad, the messenger of Allah came into existence only after the Arab Empire was firmly entrenched and casting about for a political theology to anchor and unify it.  Muhammad and the Qur’an cemented the power of the Umayyad caliphate and then that of the Abbasid caliphate.” – Robert Spencer

Did Muhammad Exist?Why would it matter if Muhammad never existed?  Certainly the accepted story of Islam’s origins is taken for granted as historically accurate; while many don’t accept Muhammad’s claim to have been a prophet, few doubt that there was a man named Muhammad who in the early seventh century began to claim that he was receiving messages from Allah through the angel Gabriel.  Many who hear about my new book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry Into Islam’s Obscure Origins ask why it would matter whether or not Muhammad existed — after all, a billion Muslims believe he did, and they are not going to stop doing so because of some historical investigations.  Yet the numerous indications that the standard account of Muhammad’s life is more legend than fact actually have considerable implications for the contemporary political scene.

These are just a few of the weaknesses in the traditional account of Muhammad’s life and the early days of Islam:

  • No record of Muhammad’s reported death in 632 appears until more than a century after that date.
  • The early accounts written by the people the Arabs conquered never mention Islam, Muhammad, or the Qur’an.  They call the conquerors “Ishmaelites,” “Saracens,” “Muhajirun,” and “Hagarians,” but never “Muslims.”
  • The Arab conquerors, in their coins and inscriptions, don’t mention Islam or the Qur’an for the first six decades of their conquests.  Mentions of “Muhammad” are non-specific and on at least two occasions are accompanied by a cross.  The word can be used not only as a proper name, but also as an honorific.
  • The Qur’an, even by the canonical Muslim account, was not distributed in its present form until the 650s.  Casting into serious doubt that standard account is the fact that neither the Arabians nor the Christians and Jews in the region mention its existence until the early eighth century.
  • We don’t begin to hear about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and about Islam itself until the 690s, during the reign of the caliph Abd al-Malik.  Coins and inscriptions reflecting Islamic beliefs begin to appear at this time also.
  • In the middle of the eighth century, the Abbasid dynasty supplanted the Umayyad line of Abd al-Malik.  In the Abbasid period, biographical material about Muhammad began to proliferate.  The first complete biography of the prophet of Islam finally appeared during this era-at least 125 years after the traditional date of his death.

MohammadThe lack of confirming detail in the historical record, the late development of biographical material about the Islamic prophet, the atmosphere of political and religious factionalism in which that material developed, and much more, suggest that the Muhammad of Islamic tradition did not exist, or if he did, he was substantially different from how that tradition portrays him.

How to make sense of all this?  If the Arab forces that conquered so much territory beginning in the 630s were not energised by the teachings of a new prophet and the divine word he delivered, how did the Islamic character of their empire arise at all?  If Muhammad did not exist, why was it ever considered necessary to invent him?

Every empire of the day had a civic religion.  The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire was Christian.  Its rival Persia, meanwhile, was Zoroastrian.  The Arab Empire quickly controlled and needed to unify huge expanses of territory where different religions predominated.  The empire was growing quickly, soon rivalling the Byzantine and Persian Empires in size and power.  But at first, it did not have a compelling political theology to compete with those it supplanted and to solidify its conquests.  It needed a common religion — a political theology that would provide the foundation for the empire’s unity and secure allegiance to the state.

Toward the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth, the leaders of the Muslim world began to speak specifically about Islam, its prophet, and eventually its book.  Stories about Muhammad began to circulate.  A warrior-prophet would justify the new empire’s aggressive expansionism.  To give those conquests a theological justification — as Muhammad’s teachings and example do — would place them beyond criticism.

This is why Islam developed as such a profoundly political religion.  Islam is a political faith: the divine kingdom is very much of this world, with God’s wrath and judgement to be expected not only in the next life, but also in this one, to be delivered by believers.  Allah says in the Qur’an: “As for those disbelieving infidels, I will punish them with a terrible agony in this world and the next. They have no one to help or save them” (3:56).  Allah also exhorts Muslims to wage war against those infidels, apostates, and polytheists (2:191, 4:89, 9:5, 9:29).

Muhammad rides Al-BuraqThere is compelling reason to conclude that Muhammad, the messenger of Allah came into existence only after the Arab Empire was firmly entrenched and casting about for a political theology to anchor and unify it.  Muhammad and the Qur’an cemented the power of the Umayyad caliphate and then that of the Abbasid caliphate.

This is not just academic speculation.  The non-Muslim world can be aided significantly in its understanding of the global jihad threat — an understanding that has been notably lacking even at the highest levels since September 11, 2001 — by a careful, unbiased examination of the origins of Islam.  There is a great deal of debate today in the United States and Western Europe about the nature of Islamic law; anti-sharia measures have been proposed in at least twenty states, and one state — Oklahoma — voted to ban sharia in November 2010, although that law was quickly overturned as an infringement upon Muslims’ religious freedom.  Others have been successfully resisted on the same grounds.

If it is understood that the political aspect of Islam preceded the religious aspect, that might change.  But that will happen only if a sufficient number of people are willing to go wherever the truth may take them.

» Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and author of the New York Times best-sellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad.  His latest book, Did Muhammad Exist?, is now available. – American Thinker, 23 April 2012