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456 CH APTER THIRT Y-THR EE India and the West Since the beginning of recorded history, the West has been fascinated by India.1 From classical antiquity onward, countless fanciful tales and amusing fables circulated throughout Europe about the peoples of India, its strange animals , and stranger plants, its scorching sun and torrential rains, its sky-high mountains and raging rivers. While most medieval books about the wonderland India were nothing but fancy, accurate descriptions of certain parts of India were available in the writings of some ancient authors who had either accompanied Western adventurers or who had traveled there for trade or out of sheer curiosity. EAR LY CONTACTS BET W EEN EAST AND W EST The greatest single impetus in this direction in antiquity was the Indian campaign of Alexander the Great in 327–326 bce. In his company traveled writers like Aristobulos and Ptolemy, who described the battles Alexander fought, the rivers he crossed and the cities he conquered, the allies he won, and the kings he defeated. The Greeks suffered under the heat of the Indian plains and were awed by the great numbers of war elephants. They marveled at the enormous size of the population and the strangeness of their customs and manners. Even then, the wisdom of Indian holy men was proverbial. One of the first things Alexander did on entering India was to call upon and converse with some of these gymnosophists, in spite of the fact that they were instrumental in encouraging Indian resistance against the Macedonian invasion.2 The Greeks seem to have admired the brusque and incisive manner of these men, and eventually Alexander asked one of them (whom the Greeks called Kálanos) to succeed his preceptor, Aristotle, as his constant companion and counselor. This “naked wise man” probably was a Jain muni of the Digambara sect: he was to end his life voluntarily on a pyre after having discovered that he was suffering from an incurable disease.3 INDI A A ND THE W EST 457 The early medieval fiction Alexander Romance contains an exchange of letters between Alexander and an Indian king called Dindimus in which Alexander asks for, and receives, information about the Brahmins. “We Brahmins,” the king writes, “lead a pure and simple life; we commit no sins; we do not want to have more than what is reasonable. We suffer and sustain everything.” In short, the Brahmins lead an ideal life, they can teach wisdom and renunciation . In his reply to Dindimus Alexander recognizes that “only the Brahmins are good people.”4 This high opinion of Brahmins is still noticeable in the eighteenth century, when the German poet Lessing in his Nathan proclaims that only at the Ganges one can find morally perfect people. For several centuries a lively commerce developed between the ancient Mediterranean world and India, particularly the ports on the western coast. The most famous of these ports was Sopāra, not far from modern Mumbāī. Coins and other objects found on several places suggest maritime contacts between Rome and India till the sixth century. Present-day Cranganore in Kerala, identified with the ancient Muziris, claims to have had trade contacts with ancient Egypt under Queen Hatsheput, who sent five ships to obtain spices, as well as with ancient Israel during King Solomon’s reign. Apparently the contact did not break off after Egypt was conquered by Greece and later by Rome. According to I. K. K. Menon, “there is evidence of a temple of Augustus near Muziris and a force of 1200 Roman soldiers stationed in the town for the protection of Roman commerce.”5 Large hoards of Roman coins were found also on the east coast, near today’s Mahabalipuram; a sign of commerce with Roman traders who must have rounded the southern tip of India to reach that place. Taprobane, identified with today’s Śrī Laṅkā, plays a major role in ancient accounts of India—an island described to be even more wonderful and exotic than India herself. The kings of Magadha and Malwa exchanged ambassadors with Greece. A Maurya ruler invited one of the Greek Sophists to join his court, and one of the greatest of the Indo-Greek kings became famous as the dialogue partner of the great Buddhist sage Nāgasena,6 while in the opposite direction, Buddhist missionaries are known to have settled in Alexandria and other cities of the ancient West.7 These early contacts were not limited to the exchange...


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