India & Greece – A long, deep and ancient relationship

Sanskrut and Greek are the two oldest Indo-European languages. So, it is difficult to figure out when the relationship between India and Greece began. The first contacts we know of occurred in the Mahabharat Era.  

The Mahabharat War (The Great War of the Bharats) is considered to be the end of the post-Vedic age in Indian History. By many accounts, this war took place somewhere around 1400 BCE, though archaeoastronomy has produced estimates of 3500-3000 BCE, the most prominent of which is Aryabhatta’s estimate of February 18, 3102 BCE. It is said that Demosthenes counted
130 generations between the Mahabharat War and Alexander of Macedon.

The reference to Demosthenes is particularly relevant to this article. There is evidence to suggest that ancient Greece had a substantive relationship with India during the Mahabharat period. According to scholars, there is substantial similarity between the social and religious structures in Greece and Mahabharat period India.  It is believed that the concept of a chariot drawn by horses was carried by the Aryans from India to ancient Egypt, Babylon and Greece.

Given its length, the Mahabharat War was probably the most destructive war in History. Approximately 2 million soldiers died in a span of 18 days in this war.  Arjun, the greatest Ati-Rathi (ultimate Charioteer) of that war, is said to have annihilated one Akshouhini himself in a single day (One Akshouhini consisted of 21, 870 Chariots, 21,870 Elephants, 65,610 Cavalry, and 109, 350 infantry).

The Ati-Rathis had access to Astra (types of missiles) of great destructive capability. The greater the Ati-Rathi, the greater the power of his missiles. Knowledge of these weapons was very highly restricted and. The great sages gave the expertise to only a few carefully chosen students.  

The ultimate Astra was the Brahmastra (the Weapon of the Creator – the explosion of Brahmastra on impact was described at that time as “brighter than a thousand suns“).  Dr. Oppenheimer (builder of the 1945 Atomic bomb) is said to have recited the description of the Brahmastra when he saw the first explosion of his atomic bomb. In fact, Dr. Oppenheimer’s biography is titled “Brighter than a thousand suns”.

These Astra have not been described in Indian history or literature after the Mahabharat War. In fact, Indian society seems to have undergone a tremendous change within a few generations after the Mahabharat War. It appears that the destruction of an entire generation made the society more pacifist and led the way to first wave of outside incursions in to India. It is later in this period that one sees the emergence of Persian influence and their migration westward towards Greece.

The next major Indo-Greek event is the invasion of North-West India by Alexander. His celebrated battle in India was against King Parvateshwar (called Porus by the Greeks) of today’s Peshawar (the city on today’s Afghan- Pakistan border). This victory opened the door to North-Western India (today’s Pakistan) to Alexander’s army. 

According to Plutarch, “..the last combat with Porus took off the edge of Macedonians’ courage and stayed their further progress into India…” Plutarch was correct. The Parwateshwar army defeated by Alexander was about 20,000 soldiers strong with about 2000 cavalry and elephants. In contrast, the army of the  Nanda Empire  of India was 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8000 chariots and 6,000 war elephants. But, the Nanda empire had become old and complacent.

In an epic story, one single teacher, Chanakya, organized all of North India and led Chandragputa (called Sandrocottus by the Greeks), a young man in his teens, to lead a rebellion against the complacent Nanda Emperor. With Chanakya as his advisor and Guru, Chandragupta united the smaller kingdoms in to a centralized regime, defeated the Nanda army and founded the great Maurya Empire. At that time, he was 20 years old.

After Alexanders. death, Selecus I Nicator, reconquered most of Alexander’s former empire including Mesopotamia, Arabia, Persia, Bactria. Then he faced Chandragupta in 305 BCE on the banks of the Indus river in today’s Pakistan. Selecus was defeated and settled for loss of all territory captured by Alexander in greater India. He gave away his daughter to Chandragupta in marriage. The ancient Greek author, Caius Plinius Secundus, or Pliny the Elder, describes Chandragupta’s army as one with 600,000 infantry, 30,000 cavalry and 9,000 war elephants.

If you visit the Harvard Business School, you will see in the lobby, a map of the empire of Selecus I.
Below is the map of Chadragupta’s empire.





Ashok, the grandson of Chandragupta, is considered as one of the greatest emperors of all time. His symbol, the Ashok Chakra ( The wheel of Ashok) is at the center of the Indian flag. Ashok converted to Buddhism and was responsible for the spread of Buddhism to China, Japan and all of South-East Asia up to Korea,  to Sri Lanka in the south and to Persia beyond in the west.

The descendants of Ashok were mainly interested in preaching Buddhism and its values of non-violence. Within 50 years of the death of Ashok, the Maurya empire collapsed in to smaller kingdoms. This paved the way for the conquest of North-West India (which includes today’s Afghanistan and Turkmenistan) by Indo-Greek kingdoms in the 2nd century BCE. The most-famous of Indo-Greek kings was Menander I or Milind.

The Indo-Greek influence on North-west India continued until 1st century BCE , when they were vanquished by Indo-Scythian kingdoms. This we believe signaled the end of the close Indo-Greek relationship that had lasted for a thousand years.

I was delighted to learn recently that Bollywood was the lead agent for reestablishing the Indo-Greek cultural link in the 1950s.  Dr. Madhav Chavan, a contributor to this blog and an old friend, introduced me to Dr. Helen Abdazi, a Senior Evaluation Officer at the World Bank.  Dr. Abdazi has done pioneering work on the influence of Bollywood music on Greek songs. We are delighted to present her work in our next article.


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