Greeks in India Before Alexander

31 Aug

Greece and India Before Alexander

In his speech at a banquet hosted in his honor by Greece President Karolos Papoulias and in his address at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, on 26 April 2007, the President of the Indian Republic. Shri A. P. J. Abdul Kalam referred to exchanges between India and Greece that began well before Alexander’s march into India in 326 BC. Let us take a look at what these exchanges were.

Pre-historic era
Were there Greeks in India before the advent of Alexander the Great? Was Alexander the first Greek to conquer India?
The ancient Greek historians Pliny (VI..xxi.4-5), Solinus (52-5) and Arrian (Indica, I. ix) all assert that Alexander was not the first Greek to invade and conquer India.  Their accounts are a mixture of myths and history; and it is not easy to separate the one form the other.
According those historians, with some variations, Dionysus was the first Greek King to invade India. And, an incredibly long period of 6451 years and 3 months separates Dionysus from Alexander’s conquest of India. During that interval about 153 0r 154 kings reined. Diodorus Siculus (60 – 30 BCE) another historian mentions that there were three kings bearing the name Dionysus separated by long periods of time.  According to Diodorus it was the first Dionysus, the eldest – Dionysus of India (Indos) who conquered India.And, after his conquest he reigned over India for 52 years and died of old age,  thereafter his sons ruled in unbroken succession. Arrian (Indica, I. vii) drawing from the book of the Greek Ambassador Magasthenes writes “Dionysus founded cities and gave laws to those cities and introduced the use of wine among the Indians as he had done among the Greeks, and taught them to sow land, himself supplying the seeds….It is also said Dionysus first yoked oxen to the plough and furnished them with implements of agriculture, and also made husbandmen of the Indians He also mentions lot of other things introduced by Dionysus.
Dr. Nagendra Singh in his monumental Encyclopedia of Hinduism (pages 1712-15) after a lengthy discussion surmises that Dionysus the eldest, the Indos is the nearest equivalent to Prithu Vainya – Prithu the son of Vena in Indian mythology. Prithu is celebrated as Adiraja the first anointed monarch and the starter of royal dynasties. He is also the earliest among the monarchs to be hailed as Chakravarthin who ‘at the head of his army marched to every part of the world’. It was figuratively described that Prithu chased and conquered the earth which was fleeing from him like a cow. He was ‘Raja daivyena sahasa’ King with God-force. .It was after his name that the earth we live came to be known as Prithvi. The Atharva Veda( 8.10.24) credits Prithu with introducing the art of ploughing; leveling the whole arable earth; encouraging cultivation, cattle –breeding, commerce; building of cities and villages. Prithu is also said to have released the rapture of wine (Soma) from the earth for the delight of the gods.

It appears Prithu the Indian monarch runs parallel to the Greek Dionysus the Indos. I hesitate to suggest that both refer to one and the same person.

In case the the claim of the Greek historians that Dionysus marched in to India about 6451 years before the time of Alexander is taken seriously , it then throws the whole chronology of the Indian history as it is now acepted into a vortex.

[There are several other versions of the Dionysus legend. In one of the versions (Diodorus Library of History, Book III, 62-74) Dionysus is described as : “ The most ancient Dionysus was an Indian, and since his country, because of the excellent climate, produced the vine in abundance without cultivation, he was the first to press out the clusters of grapes and to devise the use of wine as a natural product, likewise to give the proper care to the figs and other fruits which grow upon trees, and, speaking generally, to devise whatever pertains to the harvesting and storing of these fruits. The same Dionysus is, furthermore, said to have worn a long beard, the reason for the report being that it is the custom among the Indians to give great care, until their death, to the raising of a beard. ….Furthermore, there are pointed out among the Indians even to this day the place where it came to pass that the god was born, as well as cities which bear his name in the language of the natives; and many other notable testimonials to his birth among the Indians still survive, but it would be a long task to write of them.”

Another version of the legend mentions that Dionysus did not die in India. It says: “ Then he made a campaign into India, whence he returned to Boeotia in the third year bringing with him a notable quantity of booty, and he was the first man ever to celebrate a triumph seated on an Indian elephant..And the Boeotian and other Greeks and the Thracians, in memory of the campaign in India, have established sacrifices every other year to Dionysus

Let us now turn to recorded history



A.Sindhu –Hindu _ India

Persia, in the ancient times, was the vital link between India and the Greeks of Asia Minor . In the Avesta of Zoroaster, what we today  call as India is named as  Hapta Hendu,   the Avesthan for the Vedic Sapta Sindhavah– the Land of Seven Rivers, that is, the five rivers of the Punjab along  with the Sarasvati ( a river which has since disappeared) and the Indus. The word “Sindhu” not only referred to the river system but to the adjoining areas as well. 

The name of Sindhu reached the Greeks in its Persian form Hindu (because of the Persian etymology wherein every initial s is represented by h).The Persian term Hindu became the Greek Indos/(plural indoi) since the Greeks could not pronounce “h” and  had no proper “u”. The Indos in due course acquired its Latin form – India . . Had the Sanskrit word Sindhu reached the Greeks directly, they might perhaps have pronounced it as Sindus or Sindia

B.The Great Persian Empire

3. King Cyrus, the founder of Persian Empire and of the Achaemenid dynasty (559-530 B.C.), added to his territories the region of Gandhara, located mainly in the vale of Peshawar . By about 516 B.C., Darius son of Hystaspes annexed the Indus valley and formed the twentieth satrapy of the Persian Empire . The annexed areas included parts of Punjab . This became the twentieth satrapy, the richest and most populous Satrapy of the Persian Empire . In the inscription at Nakshi–e-Rustam(486.BCE) a reference is made to the  tributes paid  to Darius by Hidush and others vassal such as Ionians, Spartans, Bactrians, Parthians, and Medes. 

4. Thus, the Indus region became the easternmost boundary of the vast Persian Empire, which sprawled across all of western Asia to include, after 546 B.C., most of the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor. The skills and labor of all of Persia ‘s subjects, Greeks included, were employed in imperial building projects. Many Greeks served as officials or mercenaries in the various Achaemenid provinces. Indian troops formed a contingent of the Persian army that invaded Greece in 480 B.C. Indian troopers were also a part of the army that faced Alexander at Gaugamela in 331 B.C. 

The Greeks and Indians were together thrown into the vast Persian machinery. The requirements of war, administration and commerce in the far-flung Persian Empire provided numerous occasions for the Indians and Greeks to work together. Most of such interactions may have been inconsequential; but it is likely some genuine exchanges of ideas might have taken place. 

C.Scholars and Historians

-Hekataios and Herodotus

5. The term Indos(India) first appeared in Greek literature in about 5th century B.C. in the works of Hekataios of Miletos (B.C. 549–486) and Herodotus of Halikarnassos (484-425 B. C.), The word  Inder or India,  in Greek and in Persian, originally referred only to the Indus region, which then   was under the Persian Empire. Herodotus, however, used the term in a wider sense to denote the whole country and classical Greek usage followed his example.

6. Long before Alexander’s march into India, Greek writers, such as Hekataeos and Herodotus, possessed some information about India . This information however was not gained directly by visit to India or by study of its texts. Most of what the Greeks knew of India came to them by word of mouth, percolated through Persia , from its soldiers, merchants and officials in the Persian Empire . That perhaps explains why the early Greek writings of India look like a strange concoction of facts and fantasy. Hekataeos mentions the river Indus, Herodotus speaks of the Gandarioi race, perhaps inhabitants of the Peshawar valley, whose town was Kaspapyros( Peshawar ?). Herodotus mentions the name of one of the deities, worshipped in common by the Vedic Indians and the Persian Zoroastrians, namely Mitra; but he takes Mitra for a female deity. The knowledge so gained through Persia was also the source for those few Indian names that appear in the surviving remnants of Hekataio’s Geography (ca. 500 B.C.) Unfortunately, his work is now in fragments and it is nearly impossible to tell precisely what Hekataios did know about India . Like his predecessor, Herodotus also did not visit India , but he was a tireless collector of anecdotes from many sources

 -Ktesias (405-397 B.C.)

7. The last of those Greeks, before Alexander, who wrote about India, was Ktesias of Knidos. He had a better access to information on India than his predecessors did.  Ktesias was a medical doctor by profession; he served for eight years (405-397 B.C.) as the personal physician to the Persian king Artaxerxes Mnemon (404–358 B.C.), son and successor of Darius II. . He did not claim he visited India . He may have had occasions to meet Indians or Persian officials who served in the empire’s Indian territories. Even from the vantage point of the Persian court at Susa , India still seemed  a strange and virtually unknown country. Upon his return to Greece , Ktesias wrote a book called Persika, covering the entire history of the Near East from its beginnings down to his own time, as well as a much smaller work called Indika, about India . With respect to India , the information Ktesias has to offer is occasionally accurate, though more often exaggerated. He did take care, nonetheless, to distinguish between things he had himself seen and the information he acquired by hearsay.

Both his works have disappeared; but there are a number of citations, together with extensive excerpts made by the Byzantine Photios – Patriarch of Constantinople in the 9th century. 

8. What the early Greeks knew about India did not amount to much and it was not accurate either. Nevertheless, the writings of Hekataios, Herodotus and Ktesias did not only evoke some awareness of India ‘s existence among the educated Greek but also added a very important chapter to cultural history of India and Greece . Presumably, these histories  had some effect on the Greek intellectual life. Herodotus explained in his works how foreign contacts might produce a relativistic point of view.

 D.Explorers and travellers.

9. The first Greeks to set foot in India were probably servants of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550-330 B.C.) – that vast polity which touched upon Greek city-states at its western extremity and India on the east. Most of the persons who made the trip to India are unknown to us. They are the anonymous seamen, merchants and hangers-on who followed the sea-lanes from the Red Sea to the Malabar Coast (?).However, despite these rather extensive contacts, Hellenistic literature provides incredibly few accounts of such travels. 

10. The first Greek who is supposed to have actually visited India and to have written an account of it was Skylax of Karyanda in Karia. He lived before Herodotus, who tells that Darius Hystargus (512–486) led a naval expedition to prove the feasibility of a sea passage from the mouth of Indus to Persia . Under the command of Skylax, a fleet sailed from Punjab in the Gandhara country to the Ocean. 

Skylax later wrote a book of geography titled Indika apparently a report of his expedition that set out to follow the Indus from its headwaters to its mouth.

Herodotus did not appear to have a high opinion of Skylax as a historian.


11. Alexander’s expedition to India was a landmark in the History of the region and it vastly increased the Greeks’ knowledge of India . A number of his associates – Callisthenes, Onesikritos, Aristobulos, Nearchos, Ptolemaios – wrote about India ; their works remained standard sources on the country for centuries afterward. The picture of India that Alexander’s companions and successors presented to the Greek world, helped historians to reconstruct events in ancient India , though partially. Greek’s association with India has left a indelible mark on India ’s cultural, artistic and political history. 

12. In comparison to Greek sources, the Indian sources are very scanty. There is hardly any writing concerning the events of those times. While Alexander’s invasion of India opened the way to further Indo-Greek relations, Indians do not appeared to have entered the Greek world until nearly the Christian era. There is also no evidence of Indian Ambassadors being in the courts of Egypt or Roman Empires, except in the Ashoka’s edits where the emissaries to Syria , Egypt , Macedonia and Libyaare mentioned .



India and the Greek World; 
A study in the transmission of culture 
Sedlar, Jean W. 
New Jersey, 1980

 Encyclopaedia of Hinduism (pages 1712-15) By Dr.Nagendra Singh

 Please also read : Some other Greeks in India

Posted by on August 31, 2012 in History


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7 responses to “Greeks in India Before Alexander

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    fascinating. but as you commented, race issue is a sticky one.


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 4:28 pm

      dear bharatborn

      yes race is a sticky one and a bit messy too.

      earlier , i got into a long debate on the question of the race of the egyptian people . there are a variety of views on this issue.finally i summed up the assortment of opinions and concluded by saying

      i tend to go along with eva nthoki mwanika (ancient egyptian identity ) who says that the emphasis on the ancient egyptians’ physiognomy is an imposition of a modern term “race” on a people who had a different world view; and that the ancients had a non-racial self-perception . further , it is a question that is best left to egyptians themselves to decide.

      i saw your other comment on egypt. no. i am not a historian. i am just an old guy who spends time with a pc( that is not his pc too).

      i am interested in a number of things , but not commited to any thing . it is a problem , many times.
      apart from history , i am interested in other issues too. please see my posts on those subjects.
      i was about to post “concept of rna in indian tradition”. would you care to read that?

      thanks for the comments.
      pl keep in touch

  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    i have read some references to dravidians originating in the mediterranean and gradually migrating towards india long before the aryans came…but i read that many many years ago…

    since you asked, i hunted the internet, but could not gather too many articles…would try to – but for the time, look at this sentence:

    the dravidians originate from the mediterranean and they were the largest community in india.
    in this site:

    i also came across (now – while hunting) that such theories are nearly redundant…


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 4:32 pm

      dear riverine
      please take a look at this

      david napier= “masks and metaphysics in the ancient world: an anthropological view.” (1998), shows how the forehead markings of the gorgon and the single-eye of the cyclops in greek art are indian elements; a byproduct of the interaction with the indian foot soldiers who fought for the persian armies.

      the influence was through the 2nd millennium bc south indian traders in greece. this is supported by the fact that the name of the mycenaean greek city tiryns– the place where the most ancient monuments of greece are to be found– is the same as that of the most powerful tamilian sea-faring people called the tirayans.

      does it sound ok?


  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Dear Srinivasa Rao Sb,

    Very informative blog. “In case the claim of the Greek historians that Dionysus marched in to India about 6451 years before the time of Alexander is taken seriously , it then throws the whole chronology of the Indian history as it is now accepted into a vortex.”

    Indeed Greeks coming to India around 6772 BC may be true. Typical Western – Eurasian mt DNA, haplogroups H, I, J, T, X and subclusters U1, U4, U5, (inherited from females) were found in India though at low level (6% in Uttar Pradesh and 4% in Andhra Pradesh.) at an estimated time of 9300 + or – 3000 years. The estimated time is consistent with the arrival of cereals domesticated in the Fertile Crescent.

    [1] Kivisild, T., “Deep common ancestry of Indian and Western – Eurasian mitochondrial DNA linages, Current Biology, 1999, 9:1331 – 1334

    DMR Sekhar

  4. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Dear Shri Sekhar, By the way please click on: Tantra, Its Mystic and Scientific Basis by Lalan Prasad Singh. On pages 16-19, he speaks about Indus Valley civilization and its relations to Dravidian culture, Aryans, Vedas and Tantra etc. He says that the Dravidians had the script while the Aryans did not have. And, that the Vedas emanated from non-Aryan Tantra.

    You may not agree with all that Shri Singh says; but you may find it interesting.



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