The Rajiv Malhotra Interview – R. Jagannathan

Rajiv Malhotra

R. JagannathanRajiv Malhotra, author and Hindu intellectual, is the man who developed the “breaking India” theory in his eponymous 2011 book. Malhotra has written prolifically in opposition to the academic study of Indian history and society, especially Hinduism, as it is conducted by scholars and university faculty of the West, which, he maintains, undermines the interests of India “by encouraging the paradigms that oppose its unity and integrity”.

In an interview with R. Jagannathan, he speaks about the dangers that Indian and Hindu nationhood face today.


• Can you give us a brief history of how you developed the “breaking India” theory? 

The “breaking India” thesis is not something I came up with overnight. It is not a matter of merely coining a term; it is the product of my lived experience in the US for over 45 years. I have been collecting a whole lot of experiences and organising them into a thesis that makes coherent sense. A theory is like an algorithm to make sense of your experiences. I was trying to figure out an algorithm for who is doing what to India. There were some major events in this journey. I found some African-Americans returning from India and talking about an Afro-Dalit movement that they were part of. I came across Marxists, including many Indians, aligned with Maoist forces in India. I came across Christian missionaries sending huge sums of money to India claiming it was about social work.

A few persons in India who studied this were simply tracking isolated data points concerning foreign interventions by Islam, Marxism or Christianity, but nobody was tracking end-to-end into a comprehensive view of these foreign forces. I invested many years chasing data about the forces at work. Then I hired a Tamil speaker in India to translate many of the works being funded by foreign sources, and eventually he became my co-author, (Aravindan Neelakandan, for the book Breaking India). So my project did not start in India. This is how it is different from others. It was a project started in the US to uncover who supported such nefarious NGOs, what agenda was driving them from their home country, whether they were linked to institutions such as CIA, how they were linked to academic people and think tanks, and their links to churches. I found all these links to be present.

I looked at various so-called friends of India in the US, Britain and the EU, and tracking their flow of money to India, tracking how they train leaders in India, how they export ideology to India, how they have conferences in India and abroad to train their sepoys in India. After tracking all this, I realised that there is a huge story that has never been told before. Around the year 2000, I was invited to give a talk at the IISc, Bangalore. But it was very difficult to get my topic selected because these forces were unknown and the term “breaking India” was considered too radical and provocative. In 2005, I was invited to India International Centre, Delhi, to give a talk on two consecutive nights—on “Where is India in the eagle’s eye”—the eagle being the American eagle. This was accepted as a safe and politically correct title, and I used the opportunity. Those two lectures, about 1.5 hours each, are on YouTube, and they are among the most thorough ones on the subject. It gives the whole theory at that point of time.

Then I was invited to deliver the Hegde Memorial Lecture in Delhi, on “Where is India in the clash of Civilisations?” (a term spelt out by Samuel Huntington in a book). This is when I laid out the case that in the “clash of civilisations”, breaking India forces were not local within India; they were global with a footprint in India. I showed that the clash between Islam, Christianity and Left-wing Marxist ideologies was a global one, and India was in their crosshairs. Yet the Indian people didn’t know it. That is why I started the whole project of “breaking India”—to explain such activities that were in the global arena. I connected activities that appeared isolated and local but were part of the global kurukshetra. That was the big breakthrough—bridging the global and the local and bringing the three global forces and their activities in India where Hindu dharma, Indian civilisation and the Indian nation-state has become their common enemy.

I got serious opposition from those who have now joined the bandwagon and like to go around giving talks on breaking India forces. Many people working for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), many people in Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) America, many people in the US Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, and many other custodians of Hindu dharma at that time were opposed to what I was saying. They did not want to be a part of it, because it was too controversial. They thought everything was going well for Hinduism worldwide, and that I was sensationalising things.

So, this was my lone battle for more than two decades, and finally I decided that I was going to turn this into a book. But the book could not get a mainstream publisher and I had to work very hard. The big mainstream publishers did not want to touch it. Finally, I got Amaryllis—because the editor was the same editor at Rupa who had edited my earlier book Invading the Sacred. She agreed to do this book because she knew me. And it became an instant best-seller. They refused to put the cover image of a broken India even though I explained that I found it in the office of an African-American professor in Princeton, who was part of the Afro-Dalit movement. They found it too provocative.

• How do you define a “breaking India force”?

Breaking India forces are centrifugal forces, making things fall apart. Centripetal forces would be those that bring people together. Centripetal (in India’s context) would be things like a positive grand narrative of India, a good economy bringing people together, a good sense of collective identity of who we are, a good sense of who our enemies (outside) are, such as China, Pakistan, and so on. Forces that bind us, like common problems of economy, hunger, etc, are also centripetal. So, centrifugal forces are breaking India forces. The big idea I brought into the limelight was that these forces are not local, they are global.

So, there are global breaking India forces and their local footprints exist in the form of sepoys and NGOs and so on. The local and the global are connected ideologically in terms of funding. The interesting thing is that globally there may be a war between Christianity and Islam, but locally they have been aligned because they both fight against a common enemy. So, imagine two predators that are fighting each other, but they are collaborating to kill an elephant since this brings food for both. Until they have killed the elephant, finished him off, they are collaborating to kill a common prey. Only after they have finished it off will they fight each other. This has happened in many parts of the world where two global predators work against a local opponent and destroy him. When they have finished off the local opponent, once the food is gone, they turn against each other for increased territory. That is what breaking India forces are like.

• Is there anything common between one kind of breaking India force and another? After all, the Kashmiri separatist is not the same as the evangelical church activist in South India or the jihadis in Kerala or West Bengal?

Many breaking India forces seem independent of each other. But a person could have many diseases that may be independent of one another; yet they have the collective effect of killing the person. Let’s say a person has cancer, and he has fallen down the stairs, and the two causes are independent. He may have been attacked from the outside, which is a third force, and he may be starving as he has no food to eat. Each of these forces challenges his vitality. All these forces that are breaking the person’s life may not be aligned with each other, they may not all be from a common cause.

Similarly, if there are Islamist breaking India forces, Christian breaking India forces and Marxist breaking India forces, they may all be independent of each other. But they tend to make practical alliances. These may not be strategic alliances, and merely tactical alignments for local projects. So, in the Maoist belt in India, ISI is helping local Islamist forces undermine the Indian state. There is collaboration between radical Islam with a Pakistani nexus, and radicalised Maoists, some of them with a nexus based in Nepal, some in China, and some who may just be supported by Marxists worldwide. Radical Islam and the radical Left are in alliance even though you may wonder why the Left should support Islam which is hardly a Marxist ideology. Rival predators will often make tactical alliances and so we must think of them as breaking India forces.

The important insight your question raises is that patriotic Indians should exploit the conflicts between these rival predators. We should exploit the conflicts between Christianity and Islam and Maoism among their global headquarters. Globally they are fighting each other, and we are not even aware of that. Our people are not taking advantage of the fault lines on the enemy side. Even though in India they seem aligned, globally they are at war with each other.

• To reverse the idea, are not violent forces like gau rakshaks, who sometimes lynch people, and Karni Sena, which has vandalised film sets, also not some kind of breaking India forces?

Yes, you are right. All violent forces in India that are undermining the Indian state, the unity of the Indian people, are in fact playing into the hands of breaking India forces. One of the things breaking India forces want to do is divide and conquer. They want to pit Indian people against each other, be it along the lines of caste, religion, class, or north versus south. Whoever is creating divisiveness is facilitating breaking India activities. They should be called breaking India forces.

The problem with a lot of Hindus, a lot of nationalists, is that they do micro-optimisation, which means a very localised optimisation of some interest that they have—it could be a political interest, an ethnic interest. They are optimising (their local interests) in a way that compromises the macro interests of India. So the interests of India as a macro entity are often being undermined by people with a narrow-minded view; they don’t have a wide-angle lens. They have narrow, tunnel visions. Through this lens they can see certain things that they should do from a very narrow short-sighted (perspective). In doing so they are undermining the bigger interests of India. So, yes, you do have breaking India forces which think they are actually helping to build India. But they are not.

• What is the common ground between breaking India forces based in India and the western democracies?

India is the world largest territory, both geographically and by population, that is up for grabs by the expansionist, predatory ideological movements in the world. By that I mean pan-Islam, right-wing expansionist Christianity, and left-wing forces which include post-modernism, Marxism and “liberalism”. These predators are expansionist and they want a global footprint. India is where the “clash of civilisations” is going to play out. The western democracies have interests of various kinds in other countries; there are government/state interests which want a footprint in several countries; there are churches acting autonomously in their own separate interest; there may be the imams and mosques that have interests separate from their own governments; and then there are these intellectuals and pseudo intellectuals, and extreme left intellectuals. They have their own funding and NGOs. If you look at ideological camps within the US, Britain and Germany, there are multiple competing ideological perspectives. These are often fighting each other. There are many different points of view fighting in their own countries. In India they want their own sepoys, so the Left will create its sepoys, the Christians their sepoys, and Muslims their own. These sepoys will sometimes collaborate because they realise they have a common interest in fighting against India.

What we must do is make the India-based Muslim, Christian and radical Leftist understand that in their HQ they are at war with one another. Only in terms of exporting their ideologies in India are they in a tactical alliance.

• In the US, the Left and Right are at daggers drawn on matters of religion and bigotry. But on India and Hinduism they seem to have united. Your comment?

In the US, the Left and Right are bitter enemies, and I have addressed this issue in my book.

• There also seems to be a nexus between the Indian Lutyens elite and US academics who control many of our historical narratives. How is this nexus nourished, and why do Indians think they are better served by aligning with foreign universities?

The Indian elites often go overseas for patronage, funding, prestige and political funding from private agencies, governments, CIA, all kinds of things. This is a very old game and has been happening since British times when an Indian raja or leader would seek British help to fight his fellow Indian rival. Sometimes, this is an Indian initiative, and they will seek a travel grant or a position in a university. Sometimes it is initiated by western agencies. The Lutyens elite is a term applicable not only to people in Lutyens Delhi; you find them all over India. I find them in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, everywhere. They are mercenaries for sale at the right price.

I say that India is for sale by its own elites. There is a global market that wants positioning in India for vote banks of the future, consumer marketing, as well as leverage over separatist movements so they can chip off parts of India like Nagaland for Christian Baptists and Kashmir for Islamists in Pakistan.

There are huge business opportunities in such anti-India global-local collaborations. These global-local activities are very dangerous.

• Even though there are many Hindu organisations, from the RSS to Baba Ramdev to Sri Sri to Ramakrishna Mission, and even individual groups are doing various things like fighting the case of temples in courts, why is it that these efforts seem uncoordinated, and they are often found fighting among ourselves?

Well, the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, which was started by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, was to bring together various Hindu groups. It was doing a great job during Swamyji’s life; he made a huge amount of progress. Unfortunately, after Swamyji left, his successors have lost momentum. I don’t want to be judgmental but what I can tell you is that the new leaders of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha have compromised the momentum that Swamyji built so carefully. This is partly because the stature that Swamyji had is not there among his successors, and so they don’t command the same respect. The different Hindu organisations thus don’t look up to them as they looked up to Swamyji. This is one of the reasons why a whole lot of activities among Hindu groups are falling apart in terms of collaboration.

There is not enough civic leadership, or spiritual leadership. There is not competent kshatriyata to create a strong Hindu coalition.

You could say that a Hindu government ought to do this, but the Hindu government is also busy trying to establish its secular credentials. So, you really have a vacuum at the top of the Hindu renaissance movement.

• There is a charge that “Hindu” is different from “Hindutva”, and that “genuine” Hinduism is different from Hindutva, even if it is not violent. Your comment?

Well, within the Hindu sanatan dharma tradition, as recorded in its shastras, there is definitely a political dimension. There is a political dimension in the Mahabharata and in the Ramayana. You must take on enemies, both external and internal. In the case of the Ramayana, there was the external enemy in a separate geographical area. In the Mahabharata, there was the internal enemy, your own cousins.

So, this business of having to fight adharma as a political kind of activity is not something non-Hindu. It is at the centre of Hindu itihaas. So, Hindutva could be considered as a modern version of political Hinduism and you can’t say political Hinduism is not Hindu. If you say Hinduism must be non-political, you will also be distancing yourself and denouncing itihaas, which is full of political activity.

But there is also bhakti Hinduism, there is yoga-meditation Hinduism, there is Hinduism of the type I’ll-do-my-karma-helping-neighbours-helping-poor-people. Non-political karma is also Hinduism. There are many margas  in Hinduism, and you don’t have to be political, but there is a need for and legitimacy in political Hinduism. This has been forgotten because of 1,000 years of slavery. The masters told the slaves to stop being political because politicised slaves are very dangerous—they will learn to work together, they will undermine their master, they will bring him down, disrupt him. Politically awakened slaves can be dangerous. Obedient slaves are better, as they keep to themselves, they mind their own business. They are given space, do their little puja, do their yoga and meditation. They can thrive below the glass ceiling as long as they mind their own business and stay below the glass ceiling.

This business of assertive Hinduism is about a Hinduism that is combative against its enemies. Let’s forget the brand name Hindutva, for a moment, since that brings up a particular political party, and use terms like political Hinduism, assertive Hinduism. Assertive and political Hinduism are very much a part of Hinduism. They are necessary, and they have always been there. Just the coinage of the term Hindutva is new and is seen as something owned by a particular political party. I don’t necessarily use the term, Hindutva. I prefer to call it political Hinduism, assertive Hinduism, kshtriyata to show that this is important for Hindu dharma. It always has been.

• There is also a suggestion that the more radical Hindu groups are trying to make Hinduism take on an Abrahamic character. Is this charge correct?

I don’t think that assertive Hinduism should be denounced as having an Abrahamic character. After all, would you say that the kshatriya in our ancient texts is Abrahamic? By saying that you are telling Hindus that you should not be a kshatriya, you must get rid of all kshatriyata. That is a way to keep us as slaves, keep us weak, keep us dependent. I don’t buy that.

Abrahamic metaphysics is incompatible with dharma though it has its own rationale and basis for assertiveness and aggression. But dharma definitely has its rationale and basis for political assertiveness.

The best way to understand the nature of kshatriyata is illustrated in the Mahabharata. These are people fighting for dharma, and that is about using assertiveness. It has nothing to do with Abrahamism.

The difference between Abrahamic and Dharmic is not a difference between assertiveness and passivity. The real difference is explained in my book Being Different. It has to do with the metaphysics of history-centrism versus the metaphysics of embodied knowing. Each of the six chapters gives you a major area of difference between the Abrahamic system and the dharmic system and there is nothing like aggressive versus passive as a difference. We are not supposed to be slaves sucking up to some masters, sitting passively at their feet. The Mahabharata shows how to be very active and assertive, and this is something we need to reignite in our people. Those who say that by reigniting that you are being Abrahamic are actually doing a disservice to our people.

• Hinduism has traditionally been difficult to define. We are Hindu largely by self-definition. Various Hindu denominations are also difficult to categorise as one distinct religion, and some are seeking separate status (like Lingayats in Karnataka). Is it time to agree on putting together come common elements so that this gap is bridged?

In my book Being Different, I give half a dozen major ways in which dharmic systems are aligned with each other through sheer commonality and (this is) very different from non-dharma systems.

Dharmic unity is determined by the common elements we have and these elements are different from the Abrahamic systems. Further, in my book Indra’s Net, I discuss the idea of Hinduism’s open architecture and how it is open enough to accommodate a whole lot of the diversity. At the same time, there are minimum principles of compliance. I give the example of the Internet. The Internet has an open architecture and allows a lot of diversity, but at the same time it will not tolerate people who are subverting it by bringing viruses. They have mechanisms like the anti-virus to keep it clean, keep it from being subverted.

Hinduism needs a balance. The open architecture is very inviting and new forms can come and take root in Hinduism. At the same time it needs an anti-virus against those who are projecting exclusivity and being subversive. By projecting exclusivity they are not giving space to other parts of the open architecture. They are trying to hijack the open architecture and make it closed. This has been important part of my work, to show the unity and diversity of Hinduism in a manner that is responsible, that is dynamic and vibrant and stays competitive. It is not passive.

• You yourself have written that some poison pills need inserting into Hinduism to prevent hijacking of cultural properties. Is this not another way of trying to Abrahamise Hinduism? In any event, is there anything wrong in Abrahamising Hinduism, if that is what is needed today?

Poison pills do not change the character of Hinduism. Inserting poison pills mean taking the quintessential qualities of Hinduism and demanding that the other person must accept them as part of appropriating from our tradition. If someone wants to appropriate yoga, you have to tell them that the Samkhya system of yoga, karma and reincarnation is also necessary. There are constructs required for understanding how yoga works beyond a superficial level. So, when you are saying karma and reincarnation are a poison pill, you are not Abrahamising Hinduism at all but doing just the opposite. The whole purpose of a poison pill is that when the Abrahamic swallows it to get the benefit of yoga, if he swallows the poison pill along with it, he cannot be Abrahamic any more. He will have created a contradiction in his own metabolism.

A poison pill is that which is necessary for Hinduism and which is not digestible into an Abrahamic stomach. When you couple it with what is delicious and tasty in Hinduism like yoga, so when they swallow yoga, they are also swallowing the karma and reincarnation poison pill along with it.

The poison pill will gradually dismantle the metabolism of the Abrahamic system. That is how it works.

• Between predatory jihadi Islam and aggressive evangelism and conversion practices, which is a greater threat to India?

I feel that radical Islam and radical evangelical Christianity are both equally dangerous. One invites the other. One weakens, and the weakened body is then vulnerable to the other. Which is why the two of them in combination are a deadly thing for India, and Indians haven’t realised this. Most Indians, even Hindus, aren’t even clear in their thinking in this matter. If you align with western Christian forces to fight radical Islam, it may look very good in the short-term, but note my prediction—such an alliance will very soon lead to a radical Christianisation of India, a radical digestion of Hinduism into Christianity, and make us a second-class, second-tier, below-the-glass-ceiling kind of Christian colony. Hinduism will become a Christian colony and tolerated and allowed to live there. But it will be gradually sucked dry, with each generation being made more Christian.

And some foolish Hindu gurus will love it. They are so confused. They are marketing sameness already, and they will get a lot of marketing opportunities; they will be given more support by the west to expand their ideas because these ideas are softening Hinduism, weakening it. An outright alliance with the West is to be discouraged. India should have a tactical alliance with the Christian West, tactical in the sense that we should know we have our own selfhood to protect. We cannot let our defences down, we can’t let our guard down with these guys, but outwardly we should be friends with them, we want to be in alliance with them against a common enemy, which is radical Islam. This is the solution: join forces with the Christian West to fight radical Islam but, at the same time, don’t succumb to them. Make it very clear as part of our negotiation that they need us as much as we need them, and one of the conditions for us to collaborate with them is that they have to end this aggressive evangelism that they are doing currently. We need that kind of alliance.

I have talked to some of the important leaders on the right-wing side in the US, and I can convince them. It is the Indian government that hasn’t made its move. I am able to convince them that if they were to stop radical, aggressive Christianising in India, we can help them in their fight against radical Islam. They think they need us, but it is for our government to show some leadership with intellectual clarity.

• Many people have pointed out that Hinduism’s historical faultlines—caste, anti-SC/ST feeling—are as much a problem as anti-India forces, since the latter are simply trying to fish in troubled waters. Your comment?

Yes, it is true that our fault lines, whether it is caste, or north-south divide, are being exploited. For us to take control of these, we have to admit we have some fault lines, which the orthodoxy has not done. We need new smritis. The shrutis (the Vedas) are eternal and permanent, but the smritis have to be changed and can evolve. For example, we need a new social science and sociological smriti on families in this modern era, when different members can geographically be thousands of miles away from each other and you can’t have a joint family kitchen or living under one roof. We need smritis on the whole relationship between citizenry and government, on diversity—how the different varnas and communities have to come together, how we have to respect all the languages and the different sub-cultures in different parts of India even as we come together under the broader rubric and fabric of a unified Bharatiya sanskriti. How all this has to happen requires an amazing amount of new smritis. I do not see pro-dharma competent think-tanks that are being funded. I see old, stodgy, fossilised, orthodox, and incompetent old guard of Hinduism being encouraged and funded, given jobs, prominence, awards and promotions.

I do not see evidence of a new kind of thinking within Hinduism being encouraged. In fact, a literal revival of the old is not something that’s going to do us any good. We need a lot of changes, a lot of new thinking, a lot of refurbishment, that is what smritis are for. Smritis, throughout our history, have always been very radical, very dramatic, and we need new 21st century smritis and the government has yet to step up to enable this.

• What do Hindus—and non-Hindus—need to do to tackle breaking India forces? Or is this the job only of Hindus—to seal the internal cracks through some kind of social reforms, which can take decades?

There is a disconnect and mismatch between Hindu leaders who have talent, insight and vision, on the one hand, and other Hindu institutions that have resources, land, ashrams, billions of dollars, and brand value. In other words, if you look at the large Hindu establishments under the hands of the big gurus or politicians, they are not avant-garde, fighting the intellectual battles. They are only looking after their own corporate interests, maximising their own particular venture, and not Hinduism at large. Yet there are individuals, intellectuals who are out there without any support, without all that funding, without all that kind of corporate assets, who in their own personal capacity are trying to fight. Similarly, the government has huge resources. Look at the ministry of culture or HRD. With all their resources they haven’t done one major thing of a strategic kind to help. Having a music performance here and a dance performance there and some sammelan where some guys come and talk of the same old stuff—this is not enough. It hardly has any impact. It is some kind of show-and-tell and personal brand building for a few individuals; but they lack strategic planning, strategic thought. I would say that at the government level and the level of the large ashrams and gurus we do not today have the kind leadership we need. The academics are already sold out, and they are on the wrong side. The Hindus who are in academics tend to be very weak; they are not only politically weak but also intellectually weak. They are not the sharpest people. There are a few good ones, but not in large numbers.

If the leadership of Hinduism is not going to come from the current generation of academics, it has to come from the gurus or the government. I don’t see either of them doing it. The industrialists who are Hindus are privately Hindus, but they are very careful in who they fund and who they support. Ultimately, they are looking out for themselves, and calculating what will this do for their brand, what would be bad for their brand. They don’t want to be too controversial; who knows if the government changes tomorrow. They are also sitting on the fence. This is the problem we face as Hindus—lack of altruism, selfless leadership where people stick their necks out and put all they have got—their tan, man, dhan—on the line … for the sake of dharma. That is what the current need is. – Swarajya,  9 March 2010

» Jagannathan is Editorial Director of Swarajya. 

Academic Hinduphobia

VIDEO: The Story of India – Will Durant

Will & Ariel Durant

Will Durant Quote

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

Alexander taming Bucephalus by F. Schommer (late 19th century)

Navaratna S. RajaramIndian 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

According 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  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.

The 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.)

In 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.”

In 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).

This 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.

Philip 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 his 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.

To 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.

Here 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.”

(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 Srinivasa Rajaram is a mathematician and historian who publishes with Voice of India.

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