“Greeks and other ancient peoples did not see themselves as in any way superior to Indians, only different.”
Alexander the Great attacked India in 326 BC. He had a decisive battle with the Indian king Purushottam (called Porus in Greek Texts, also called Puru) by the banks of the river Jhelum (Hydaspes as mentioned by Greek Historians). Greek historians narrate that Alexander had a decisive victory over Puru; and thereafter returned from India after his army displayed signs of home-sickness and fatigue.
The Greek view of Alexander’s victory at Jhelum was generally accepted by British historians and thereafter by Indian historians who generally toe the British line.
However, counter-narratives have not been given due credit, for example:
- Greek historian and geographer Strabo, questioned the trustworthiness of several Greek accounts on which much of this version of history is based. He complains in the Geographika that all who wrote about Alexander preferred the marvellous to the true. He writes: “Generally speaking, the men who hitherto have written on the affairs of India were a set of liars…Of this we became the more convinced whilst writing the history of Alexander.”
- Egyptologist and philologist E. A. W. Budge, in his epic volume, The Life and Exploits of Alexander, has given a vivid account of the Macedonian’s misadventure in India. According to Budge, “In the Battle of Hydaspes the Indians destroyed majority of Alexander’s cavalry. Realising that if he were to continue fighting he would be completely ruined, the Macedonian king requested Porus to stop fighting. True to their traditions, the magnanimous Indian king spared the life of the surrendered enemy. A peace treaty was signed, and Alexander helped Porus in annexing other territories to his kingdom.”
- In 1957, while addressing the cadets of the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, Marshal Gregory Zhukov of USSR stated that “Alexander’s actions after the Battle of Hydaspes suggest he had suffered an outright defeat. In Zhukov’s view, Alexander had suffered a greater setback in India than Napoleon in Russia”. Napoleon had invaded Russia with 600,000 troops; of these only 30,000 survived, and of that number fewer than 1,000 were ever able to return to duty. As per Marshal Zhukov, one of the finest generals of Russia ever, Alexander was decisively defeated by Puru and went back because he did not have the heart to fight the Indians. This theory in fact punctures the story of invincibility of Alexander. As per Zhukov, Alexander’s troubles began as soon as he crossed the Indian border. He first faced resistance in the Kunar, Swat, Buner and Peshawar valleys where the Aspasioi and Assakenoi, known in Hindu texts as Ashvayana and Ashvakayana, stopped his advance. Although small by Indian standards they did not submit before Alexander’s killing machine. Theafter, in May 326 BCE at the Battle of Hydaspes, he faced king Puru of Paurava, a small but prosperous Indian kingdom on the river Jhelum. By all accounts it was an awe-inspiring spectacle.
The story of the war by the Jhelum River
According to Greek sources, for several days the armies eyeballed each other across the river. The Greek-Macedonian force after having lost several thousand soldiers fighting the Indian mountain cities, were terrified at the prospect of fighting the fierce Paurava army. They had heard about the havoc Indian war elephants created among enemy ranks. The modern equivalent of battle tanks, the elephants also scared the wits out of the horses in the Greek cavalry. Another terrible weapon in the Indians’ armoury was the two-meter bow. As tall as a man it could launch massive arrows able to transfix more than one enemy soldier.
The battle was savagely fought. To cut a long story short:
- It was a nightmarish scenario for the invaders. As the terrified Macedonians pushed back, the Indian infantry charged into the gap.
- Indian troops not only broke into Alexander’s inner cordon; they killed Nicaea, one of his leading commanders.Puru’s brother Amar killed Alexander’s favourite horse Bucephalus, forcing Alexander to dismount.This was a big deal. In battles outside India the elite Macedonian bodyguards had not allowed a single enemy soldier to deliver so much as a scratch on their king’s body, let alone slay his mount.
- According to the Roman historian Marcus Justinus, “Porus challenged Alexander, who charged him on horseback. In the ensuing duel, Alexander fell off his horse and was at the mercy of the Indian king’s spear. But Porus dithered for a second and Alexander’s bodyguards rushed in to save their king”.
Plutarch, the Greek historian and biographer, says there seems to have been nothing wrong with Indian morale. Despite initial setbacks, when their vaunted chariots got stuck in the mud, Puru’s army “rallied and kept resisting the Macedonians with unsurpassable bravery”. Says Plutarch: “The combat with Porus took the edge off the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but 20,000 foot and 2000 horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, on the further side of which was covered with multitudes of enemies.”
The Greek historian says after the battle with the Pauravas, the badly bruised and rattled Macedonians panicked when they received information further from Punjab lay places “where the inhabitants were skilled in agriculture, where there were elephants in yet greater abundance and men were superior in stature and courage”. Although the historians claim Macedonian victory, the fanatical resistance put up by the Indian soldiers and ordinary people everywhere had shaken the nerves of Alexander’s army to the core. They refused to move further east. Nothing Alexander could say or do would spur his men to continue eastward. The army was close to mutiny.
Indeed, on the other side of the Ganges was the mighty kingdom of Magadh, ruled by the wily Nandas, who commanded one of the most powerful and largest standing armies in the world. According to Plutarch, the courage of the Macedonians evaporated when they came to know the Nandas “were awaiting them with 200,000 infantry, 80,000 cavalry, 8000 war chariots and 6000 fighting elephants”. Undoubtedly, Alexander’s army would have walked into a slaughterhouse.
Hundreds of kilometres from the Indian heartland, Alexander ordered a retreat to great jubilation among his soldiers. The celebrations were premature. On its way south towards the sea, Alexander’s army was constantly harried by Indian partisans, republics and kingdoms.
- In a campaign at Sangala in Punjab, the Indian attack was so ferocious it completely destroyed the Greek cavalry, forcing Alexander to attack on foot. In the next battle, against the Malavs of Multan, he was felled by an Indian warrior whose arrow pierced the Macedonian’s breastplate and ribs.
- Says Military History magazine: “Although there was more fighting, Alexander’s wound put an end to any more personal exploits. Lung tissue never fully recovers, and the thick scarring in its place made every breath cut like a knife.”
Alexander never recovered of wounds taken in India and died in Babylon (modern Iraq) at the age of 33.
The Hole in the Greek Story: Why did Alexander and Puru agree to share spoils?
Alexander had bought over Ambhi the king of Taxila to his side and in the war against Puru, Ambhi’s forces supported Alexander. Ambhi had offered to help Alexander on condition he would be given Puru’s kingdom. After the war however, Alexander allowed Puru to not only keep his own kingdom but also to usurp Ambhi’s. Does it sound counter-intuitive? Handing over an ally’s kingdom to a defeated enemy’s!! How stupid was Alexander?
- Fresh recruits from Macedonia were routine matter for his army and there was a system for replacement of weary troops. So, what really happened that forced him back from the borders of Indian sub-continent.According to the Greeks, Alexander was apparently so impressed by Puru he gave back his kingdom plus the territories of king Ambhi of Taxila who had fought alongside the Macedonians. This is counter-intuitive. Ambhi had become Alexander’s ally on the condition he would be given Puru’s kingdom. So why reward the enemy, whose army had just mauled the Macedonians?
- Moroever, Alexander was not known to be benevolant to his defeated enemies. Alexander’s post-Hydaspes charitable behaviour, as per Greek accounts, is uncharacteristic and unlikely. For, in battles before and after, he massacred everyone in the cities he subdued.
The only logical explanation is:
- Puru ended up with more territory after the war and usurped Ambhi’s kingdom after the war. It is not possible unless Ambhi who was an ally of Alexander was defeated.
- Puru retained his land after the battle: thus implying that the war between Alexander and Porus was most likely inconclusive and ended in a truce.
- When Macedonians realised they were dealing with an enemy of uncommon valour. Sensing defeat they called for a truce, which Puru accepted. The Indian king struck a bargain – in return for Ambhi’s territories, which Alexander’s Failed Invasion of India would secure his frontiers, Puru would assist the Macedonians in leaving India safely.
- The theory that Alexander’s army receded due to home-sickness seems to be an over-simplification of a situation where he did not have the courage to go further. Greek army had a system of turnover where fresh recruits used to regularly come from Greece and tired ones would go back.
“Following Alexander’s 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, were mainly through trade and diplomacy. Also the Greeks and other ancient peoples did not see themselves as in any way superior, only different.” This statement by Russia’s Marshal Gregory Zhukov on the Macedonian invasion of India in 326 BCE is significant because unlike the prejudiced colonial and Western historians, the Greeks and later Romans viewed Indians differently.
All this is glossed over by Western historians, in whose view the one victory over King Porus amounted to the “conquest of India”. But the Greeks made no such claim.