Indo-Greek Culture and Colonial Memory, or, Was Alexander a European?

Tuhin Bhattacharjee, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, West Bengal


Alexander’s conquest of northwest India in the fourth century BCE was often cited by the British in post-Enlightenment England to trace their own identity as conquerors back to the Greeks. Taking a revisionist approach, this paper endeavours to show that the invocation of Alexander’s memory to legitimize European hegemony over the Indians was enmeshed in imperialist ideology and involved a distortion of the past. The contexts and motives of the two types of colonization, the Greek and the British, were fundamentally different. The state of Greek thought in Alexander’s time could not have sustained the notional binary between India and Greece, ‘reason’ and ‘unreason’, to justify a thoroughly hostile form of colonization. The Greeks engaged constructively with the cultural life of the Indians, and the resultant Indo-Greek civilization involved a rich fusion of Indian and Hellenistic influences. Modern European historiography has been extremely averse to acknowledging any fruitful dialogue between ancient Greece and non-Western cultures. This paper will strive to locate the genesis of Indo-Greek culture in the complex intermingling of ancient peoples and ideas.

[Keywords: Alexander, ancient Greece, Indo-Greek, imperialism, historiography]

Introduction: Ideological Contexts

In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837/2004), Hegel defines history as “none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom” (Hegel 19). In this teleological view of history, India is ahistorical, in other words not part of the dynamics of rational progress that is essential for the self-manifestation of the Spirit. The tensions that have driven European rationality from its Greek beginnings in the polis through the evolution of the free human subject to the upheavals of the French revolution have been lacking in India. So lost has India been since ancient times in the “Substantial Unity” of the Brahm (or brahman) that everything has been “stripped of rationality” (141) and “the Spirit wanders into the Dream-World, and the highest state is Annihilation” (148). Comparing India with the “almost unearthly beauty” to be found in women – “a transparency of skin, a light and lovely roseate hue … in which the features… appear soft, yielding, and relaxed” – Hegel claims that “the more attractive the first sight of it had been, so much the more unworthy shall we ultimately find it in every respect” (140). The spread of Indian culture is “only a dumb, deedless expansion”, since Indians “have achieved no foreign conquests, but on every occasion vanquished themselves” (142). Just as “Alexander the Great was the first to penetrate by land to India”, the English are now “the lords of the land”, for it is the “necessary fate” of Asia to be subjected to Europeans (ibid.).

Hegel was not alone in this regard and many of his European contemporaries reiterated this stance. The alleged absence of an argumentative tradition in India coupled with the perceived lack of an independent self-consciousness gave Europeans a model, a projected Other, against which they could define their own rational (hence, superior) selves. It is intriguing that even Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society in 1784, who was otherwise so enthusiastic about a common Aryan heritage between Indians and Europeans, does not fail to privilege Europe when it comes to what he considers to be useful knowledge. He remarks that “whoever travels in Asia, especially if he be conversant with the literature of the countries through which he passes, must naturally remark the superiority of European talents: the observation, indeed, is as old as Alexander” (Jones 3). As in Hegel, the time of Alexander’s conquest is cited to give validity to British claims. In Jones’ view, therefore, Aristotle seems perfectly in the right when he “represents Europe as a sovereign Princess, and Asia as her handmaid” (12). Jones’ approach was, nevertheless, by and large sympathetic towards Indian culture. In the later decades, England’s colonial strategy towards India was to become far more rigid. Edmund Burke prosecuted Warren Hastings on charges of misgovernment; Hastings was allegedly too sympathetic to the natives.

The ideological construction of an undeveloped India became a vehicle for justifying its annexation by Britain as part of ‘the white man’s burden’. In his highly influential History of British India, James Mill (1858) reiterates the Hegelian view of India as a land mired in its past, in its fantastical legends, and therefore, as a place devoid of any sense of history. Only an external, superior power could shake it out of its perpetual stupor. Mill infers from his research that the Indians have never been fit to rule themselves, and that the Indian civilization has never prospered except under foreign rule. Here too, Mill supports his claim by invoking the memory of Alexander. He quotes Captain Francis Wilford, who contributed several articles on Indian history in the journal Asiatic Researches:

“According to Plutarch, in his life of Alexander, Chandra-Gupta had been at that prince’s camp, and had been heard to say afterward, that Alexander would have found no difficulty in the conquest of Prachi, or the country of the Prasians, had he attempted it, as the king was despised, and hated too, on account of his cruelty” (Mill 136).

Going on to highlight the natural passivity of Indians, Mill remarks that they “have always allowed themselves to be conquered in detail” (141) and that they now need the British to infuse in them a sense of history and help them attain a higher level of civilization. For the utilitarian Mill, the measure of civilization is scientific progress, an aspect in which he sees the Indians as singularly lacking. He writes:

Exactly in proportion as Utility is the object of every pursuit, may we regard a nation as civilized. Exactly in proportion as its ingenuity is wasted on contemptible and mischievous objects, though it may be, in itself, an ingenuity of no ordinary kind, the nation may safely be denominated barbarous (105).

The overblown literary style of the ancient Hindus is therefore nothing more than the extravagant outpourings of a barbaric race: “It has several words to express the same thing. The sun has more than thirty names, the moon more than twenty” (63). Mill dubiously claims that this excessive verbosity contrasts with the clarity of Greek and Latin which supposedly have “one name for everything which required a name, and no more than one” (64).

Mill never visited the subcontinent. He derived his supposed objectivity of ancient India by reading “the scattered hints contained in the writings of the Greeks”, from which he concluded that “the Hindus, at the time of Alexander’s invasion, were in a state of manners, society, and knowledge, exactly the same with that in which they were discovered by the nations of modern Europe” (107). The intervening two millennia had passed by without leaving a trace on Indian culture, Mill inferred. The British must therefore step in to complete the ‘civilizing mission’ that Alexander had left unfinished. They should, however, maintain an appropriate distance with the natives lest they too get stuck up in the quagmire of Indian traditions. Unlike Jones’ belief in a shared tradition between the ancient cultures of Asia and Europe, Mill defined the two cultures in terms of binaries which he thought he derived from the Greek distinction between rational and irrational, progressive and static, nomos and physis.

Bruce Lincoln (1989) has shown how the repeated invocation of select moments from the past can be used to construct social identities. By repeatedly referring to Alexander’s conquest, the British tried to identify themselves as the last in a long tradition of European conquerors. This claim to an Alexandrian heritage was, however, deeply enmeshed in British colonialist ideology and, to use a phrase by Romila Thapar (2007), was ‘historical memory without history’ (Thapar: web). This memory was founded on the belief in a shared European connection with Alexander, a view entirely anachronistic. As Gotthard Strohmaier puts it, “The Greeks were no Europeans” (cited in Toner 16). Strohmaier refutes a widely held misconception that there is an exclusive cultural continuity between ancient Greece and modern Europe. Europe as a cultural and political entity is a modern construct that took shape after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in the fifteenth century. The ancient Greeks never saw themselves as Europeans. Moreover, it is not just Europe that can claim a cultural continuity with antiquity; the interactions between ancient Greece and non-Western cultures, as Martin Bernal (Bernal 210) has influentially shown, have been no less potent. In fact, Britain had hardly any connection with the Mediterranean world until it became a part of the Roman Empire. The invocation of Alexander’s memory in an attempt to legitimize British hegemony over the Indians was, therefore, spurious and involved a distortion of the past. In order to revise such narratives, it is important to look back and read the interactions between ancient cultures in the light of current theoretical perspectives…Access Full Text of the Article

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