• Anirudh Kanisetti

1. The Greeks Who Became Indians (24 mins)

Updated: Nov 20, 2018

Most histories of post-Vedic India start with Alexander the Great and then start with the story of North India under the Mauryas. But this story stays with Alexander's army. 

This episode explores the North-West of the Indian subcontinent, where South Asia meets Central Asia and West Asia - the region of Gandhara, the melting pot of the ancient world, where Indo-Greeks worshipped Greco-Indian gods.

The Greeks came, and the Greeks saw. But India conquered.

Transcript and sources below.

Voice Credits (In Order of Appearance)

Heliodoros/Nagasena - Ram Ganesh Kamatham

Queen Dharini - Hamsini Hariharan

King Agnimitra - Madhav Chandavarkar

King Menander - Nitin Pai

Description of Sagala - Nidhi Gupta 

Script Editing - Pranav RS


This Garuda-standard of Vāsudeva, the God of Gods was erected here by the devotee Heliodoros, the son of Dion, a man of Taxila, sent by the Great Yona King Antialkidas, as ambassador to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior son of the princess from Varanasi, in the fourteenth year of his reign.

Near the great site of Sanchi, home to one of the world's most ancient Buddhist stupas, is an almost equally ancient pillar. It has stood there silently for nearly 2200 years. It was set up at a time when Buddhism was the most powerful religion in the Indian subcontinent, but it long outlived Buddhism. It was commissioned by a man whose ancestors came to Afghanistan from Greece, and from there moved to the Punjab; he was an ambassador to an ancient Indian king, who wrote in an Indian language that he worshipped an Indian god, on a pillar that would have been read by Indians. Why this pillar has survived, and not the thousands that must have proudly dotted the landscape of the country, only the shadowy forces of randomness and probability can explain. But it has stood the test of time, and it tells us about one of ancient India's most dynamic and multi-cultural periods.

If only the silent Garuda eagle that once crowned the pillar could speak. But it cannot, so let me tell you the story of the Greeks who became Indians.

I'm Anirudh Kanisetti, and welcome to Echoes.

It is a stormy night in the year 326 BCE, on the banks of the River Jhelum, in Punjab. A raja stands along the banks of the raging waters, his bodyguards holding up a forlorn parasol and shivering as they are whipped by the icy rain.

The Raja, king of the Paurava tribe, barely notices. All his attention is concentrated on the far bank, where a vast army of foreign barbarians is camped. These smelly creatures, he is told, are yavanas, from far-away lands to the West. Their camp glimmers with torches, and even across the roaring torrent of the river, he can hear the sounds of drums and singing in a strange tongue. He would be willing to bet that all they are doing is drinking themselves stupid. His lips curl with contempt.

Suddenly he hears cries in the distance. Trumpets are being sounded in his camp and men are calling out in fear. The Raja turns hurriedly and calls for his elephants. Within minutes, he learns that the accursed yavanas have crossed the river at a ford to the South. Within an hour, he learns that the storm and the drums were just a cover-up - the diabolical leader of the yavanas has tricked him and crossed the river to his North as well! His army will have to fight on two sides. The first trickles of fear drip into his heart.

In the thick of battle, with mad elephants screaming as they are impaled on twenty-foot-long pikes, the barbarians chant as their freakishly disciplined ranks advance, foot by foot, chewing through his army like animals at the slaughter. His chariots are stuck in a hell of mud and rain and blood, and the yavana cavalry move faster than he has ever seen horses move. Desperate, he orders his personal banner, embroidered with an image of the great hero-god of his lands, to be raised. His bodyguards blow their conchshells and roar. "VASUDEVA! VASUDEVA! VASUDEVA!"

The yavanas falter. A gasp goes through their ranks. He can see a look of recognition in those strange, pale eyes. Then he hears a yell.


Brass trumpets blow, and the demons resume their attack. The Raja does not surrender.

The next morning, surrounded by fields of moaning dead, he is forced to submit to the yavana king.

This crafty opponent of his is young, though he fought like a general of vast experience and skill. He cannot be more than thirty years old. Though his face is covered in the scars of drinking, his clothes filthy, his eyes bloodshot, there is an unspeakable, animalistic charisma to him. His cheering men call him Alexandros Megas. And to the Raja's surprise, this barbarian compliments him on his bravery and "confirms" his rule over his ancestral kingdom. Then he leaves, and the Raja never sees him again, though he never forgets him.

Alexandros, the madman whom Western history will later adore as Alexander the Great, doesn't forget the Raja either. Stories of the Indians who worshipped the hero-god Hercules go back with him. And after he dies, those Greeks who stayed behind in India worship this Indian God too, making of him a new deity, Krishna-Hercules. A learned man once said that the Greeks came, and the Greeks saw. But India conquered.

It seems like a pretty strange fusion of cultures, for Greeks and Indians to interact and become something new, something different. But in the ancient world, when national boundaries didn't exist, and kings were easily able to uproot and move their subjects around, such fusions aren't that rare. What really makes the Indo-Greeks interesting is where they lived - at the frontier of three cultural and economic regions - Central Asia, Persia, and India.

It’s possible that such an uprooting was what led to Greeks coming to this region in the first place, rather than the bloody conquests of Alexander the so-called Great. A clue lies in the term that the Paurava Raja would have known the Greeks by: yavana. That's an Indianised form of the Persian yona, which comes from Greek Ionia. Ionia is what Greeks called their colonies in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey.

If you've seen the atrocious film 300, you know that the Persian Empire had a tough time conquering mainland Greece. They had no such problems conquering the Greeks in Turkey, though. And, strangely, these Greeks who lived on the corner of what was then history's largest and most powerful empire thought they were the civilised ones and the Persians, the barbarians. Of course, the Persian emperors didn't take kindly to that attitude, and uprooted some of these yonas and flung them to the furthest opposite corner of their empire. That corner was a little north of modern Afghanistan, beyond the Hindu Kush mountains, in the beautiful valley of the Amu Darya river. This land was called Bactria and the new colonisers called themselves Bactrian Greeks. Lost in a sea of different cultures, the Greeks did something really interesting: they intermarried with the locals of course, but also went out of their way to present themselves as true Greeks.

When, a couple of centuries later, a jumped-up conqueror who called himself a Greek but actually came from a mountainous region to the North of it - Alexander, King of Macedon - suddenly brought an already-weak Persian Empire to its knees, the Bactrian Greeks didn't really know what to do about it. Conquered peoples in the ancient world rarely stayed conquered for long, and many Bactrians would have leapt at the opportunity to be free of the Persians. On the other hand, they'd been away from mainland Greece for so long that they hadn't been exposed to the politics that made Alexander the ruler of Greece, and must have seen him as a barbarian. Alexander, after his exhausting battle with Porus, went limping back West and died soon after in Iraq. His unwieldy empire was split between his generals. The unfortunate soul who inherited the East was called Seleukos "Nikator", or Seleukos the Victor, which is really ironic considering that he was defeated by the newly-emerged Indian empire of the Mauryas, which, like his, was modelled on Persian lines. The Mauryas maintained a tenuous hold in Afghanistan but didn't have any lasting influence over Bactria, nestled in the mountains beyond the Hindu Kush.

This empire of the Mauryas was not some sort of totalitarian state. Its heartland was the highly urbanised area of Magadha, in modern day North India, which was at that point much more populated than the rest of the subcontinent. This population translated to immense military manpower as well, allowing the Mauryas to rapidly expand and maintain some influence over widely scattered territory. Local states were temporarily subordinated to Mauryan political and economic dominance. But as soon as that slackened with the death of Asoka Maurya in the 200s BCE, local actors, like always in Indian history, returned to the forefront. This served as an opportunity for smaller regional kingdoms and unleashed an era of political change as well as religious movement and diversity. In fact, this era was a period of flux, innovation, and evolution across the Eurasian world, as Alexander's successors continued their squabbles, local dynasties asserted themselves across Persia and India, and China's civil wars began to resolve themselves into an imperial model that would make a lasting impact on the global political economy. But more about that later.

Now, the North Indian plains were devolving into smaller states - but a more organised and capable state system, unlike the ancient tribal republics and proto-kingdoms that the Nandas and Mauryas had subsumed into their early empires. To these new states, just as for the Greeks, all territory was fair game.

The Greeks came south of the Hindu Kush and attacked Kabul. Soon they were jostling with local dynasties for control of the wealthy trading region of the Punjab, centered around the city of Taxila in modern Pakistan. And this is where it gets interesting: the Greeks, under their King Menander, allied with Mathura and the Pancalas, former Mauryan vassals, to attack the Shunga dynasty, which had overthrown the Mauryas in their former capital province of Magadha.

The barbarian Greeks must have made quite an impression on the Indians, though we can't be sure how successful their attempt was. Hundreds of years later, the Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa used these historical memories to great effect in his play Malavikagnimitram, a romance set during the reign of the first and second Shunga rulers, Pushyamitra and Agnimitra.

A letter, along with a gift, arrives from the commander-in-chief, King Pusyamitra. It is handed to his son, King Agnimitra, who is with his wife, Queen Dharini.

Queen Dharini: Oh, my heart is on edge! I'll get news of my son, Vasumitra. Surely the commander-in-chief has entrusted him with serious responsibility.

King Agnimitra (reads): "Salutations from the sacrificial grounds. The commander-in-chief Pusyamitra embraces his mighty son Agnimitra and says: "Let it be known: I consecrated the Rajasuya rite and released a stallion to roam unchecked for a year. I appointed Vasumitra as its guardian and surrounded him with a hundred princes. When the horse wandered onto the south bank of the Sindhu, it was attacked by a Yavana cavalry contingent. And then a fierce battle ensued between the two armies."

Dharini appears distressed.

Agnimitra: How could this come to pass??

Reads on.

Agnimitra (reads): Then Vasumitra the archer fought off the foes and returned the loyal steed that was taken by force!

Dharini: That eases my heart.

Agnimitra (reads): "Now I will continue with the rite, for my grandson has returned the horse, just as Anshuman did for Sagara. Without losing any time, and with your mind free of anger, you must come with my dear daughter-in-law to be part of the rite!" Fortune favours us! I am honoured.

The daring raid of the Indo-Greeks into the Gangetic heartland, roughly around 150 BCE, represented the peak of their power in the Indian subcontinent - which, if we're being honest, was not that much. But in my view, the political history of the Indo-Greeks, which is a confused jumble of assassinations, coups, and marriages among the military aristocracy, is not as important as what they can tell us about the culture of the subcontinent at the time.

Already, by the late Mauryan period, some of the cults that were later incorporated into full-blown religions were already present in India. We have some evidence from Buddha's nerdiest disciple, Sariputta, in the Niddesa, a commentary upon some early Buddhist sutras. When describing the "fragmented" religions of those who did not follow the "unitary" Buddhism, he mentions the cults of the minor deity Vasudeva, Agni, Nagas (serpents), Suparnas (Titanic Birds), Yakshas, Asuras, Maharajas, Chandra, Surya, Indra, and Brahma.

Of course, Sariputta had every reason to present Buddhism as more united than its other competitors. But the sheer diversity on display here should make us think, especially since we know that India at the time was a place of shocking political and, as the Indo-Bactro-Persio-Greeks show, ethnic diversity.

Sariputta specifically mentioned a minor god, Vasudeva - a god that, as we saw, Alexander's armies thought was Hercules, and also a name that we now associate with one of the major gods of the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu. What can the Indo-Greeks tell us about Indian religion at the time?

The city of Mathura has been a centre for the Bhagavata religion for thousands of years. Bhagavatism is not the same as modern Vaishnavism, though it worships gods that modern Vaishnavites would recognise: it is focussed on the worship of the five hero-gods Vasudeva Krishna, Samkarshana Baladeva, Pradyumna, Shaambha, and my namesake, Aniruddha. Each of these heroes would at some point have had their own back-stories and significance.

These were the five divinities of the Vrishni tribe, and according to TS Maxwell, the word translated as "divine", bhagavat, which today means "Lord", was then an adjective meaning "of good fortune, deserving of respect".

By the first and second centuries BCE, when the Indo-Greeks would have begun to interact with them more frequently, these hero cults had begun to merge and centre around two primary divinities: Samkarshana and Vasudeva. Samkarshana or Balarama was famous for his temper and liking for booze - his cult at Mathura might have involved ritual drinking.

On a bit of a tangent, we also know that the city of Pataliputra, modern Patna, at the time celebrated festivals of Kama, the God of love, and was famous for its courtesans. Ancient Indians certainly knew how to have their fun.

The legends of Vasudeva Krishna make it clear why the Greeks thought he was Hercules. As a baby, Hercules faced off multiple assassination attempts by the jealous goddess Hera. As a baby, Krishna faced off multiple assassination attempts by his jealous uncle Kamsa. Hercules and Krishna are both associated with the club or mace, or gada, reflecting an ancient warrior tradition before the use of swords was widespread. Both Hercules and Krishna were prodiguously strong as babies and as young men, had active demon-hunting and romantic careers, and died tragically. Krishna, however, evolved into a form associated with much more importance than Hercules ever did, and that is due to the distinctive evolutionary path that the Bhagavata cult took.

The five hero gods first became two:

"This protecting wall around the stones intended for worship is for the two unconquered Lords of All, the divine Samkarshana and Vasudeva; it has been caused to be erected by the king Sarvataata, who is of the Gajayana clan and descendant on his mother's side of the Paraashara clan, a Bhagavata by religion, who has performed the Vedic horse-sacrifice of royalty."

In early images, Samkarshana is usually larger than Vasudeva. By the 1st century BCE, though, we can tell from the column of Heliodoros, which this episode had started with, that Vasudeva had become the most important of the Bhagavata hero-gods. The Bhagavatas also evolved a religious philosophy that reflects an ongoing dialogue with Buddhism: Heliodoros claims on his pillar that

Three immortal precepts (footsteps)... when practiced

lead to heaven: self-restraint, charity, consciousness

Was Heliodoros an actual Greek? Did he really believe in what he commissioned on his pillar, or was he just playing a role, like any good ambassador? What does his use of Indian languages tell us about his identity? Did he speak Greek at home, or Prakrit? We can only speculate. But evidence certainly points to a very linguistically diverse and pluralistic society. It's not as strange as it seems - ancient polytheists didn't have a clear sense of "us" versus "them", so Greeks and Indians and Sogdians and Bactrians would have seen no contradiction in worshipping each others' gods. They were just worshipping those who were popular, and kings gained popularity by patronising them.

All these deities would have been worshipped with images, made with perishable materials that do not survive. The Vedic, sacrificial religion was not as popular as all these other ones. Perhaps it was the active tradition of making images of clay and wood that explains the beautiful stone images of early Buddhism - which, keep in mind, was already around and extremely popular. Artisans must have done work for newly-emerged wealthy classes who followed an array of different religious practices. A typical Indian may have worshipped his city's sacred yaksha, fertility deities with delightful names such as Rishyashringa, whose cults may have been even more popular than those of later gods. Buddhists were rather disapproving of these cults, and yakshas appear in Buddhist stories primarily as tricksters or even demons, just as later Christians would declare that the Greco-Roman gods were demons. Snakes, nagas, were also worshipped, as they still are in India today. One Dadhikarna, lord of the nagas, was worshipped in Mathura. S adly none of the stories and legends of these once-popular figures survive, or if they do, they've been incorporated into other legends.

But all this discussion is distracting us from the real Big Daddy of subcontinental religions of the time: Buddhism. When he died, the Buddha is supposed to have said that his dhamma would die out within a thousand years, and the monastic community was obsessed with making sure that didn't happen. Thanks to the patronage of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, Buddhist monasteries were able to spread across the subcontinent, creating a wide-ranging network that was also intimately tied to newly emerging urban communities, deeply imbuing themselves into the minds of our ancestors, though we've forgotten them.

Buddhists were possibly the canniest political figures of ancient India, making it a point to convert kings, or at least claim that they converted kings. And since it's mostly Buddhists who wrote their own history, and it’s mostly those sources that survive, we should be a little careful when reading their tall claims of success and popularity. Remember the King Menander who attacked Pataliputra along with the Mathurans? He's the subject of the Milinda-Panha, a Pali text which records his debates with the Buddhist monk Nagasena. Menander is not portrayed as a barbarous conqueror but as a sophisticated and curious man who vanquishes many teachers in debate before meeting his match in Nagasena. The document may well have been written in the region of Gandhara, in modern Pakistan, and served as a popular and effective propaganda tool thanks to its association with an important historical figure, whether or not these debates actually happened. Despite that, the Milindapanha is very erudite, and contains highly sophisticated reasoning and persuasion. It may also reflect the general intellectual curiosity and diversity of the time, cutting across ethnic and geographical lines.

King Milinda went up to Nàgasena, exchanged polite and friendly greetings, and took his seat respectfully to one side. Then Milinda began by asking:

Milinda: “How is your reverence known? What, sir, is your name?”

Nagasena: “O king, I am known as Nàgasena but that is only a designation in common use, for no permanent individual can be found.”

M: “This Nàgasena says that no permanent individual is implied in his name. How is that possible?”

<Crowd laughing sound>

M: “If that is true, most venerable Nàgasena, then what lives the righteous life? What kills living beings, steals, commits adultery, tells lies or takes strong drink? If there is no permanent individual, then there is no doer of good or evil deeds and no result of kamma. If a man were to kill you there would be no murder. You say that you are called Nàgasena; now what is that Nàgasena? Is it the hair?”

N: “No, great king.”

M: “Is it then the nails, teeth, skin or other parts of the body?”

N: “Certainly not.”

M: “Or is it the body, or feelings, or perceptions, or formations, or consciousness? Is it all of these combined? Or is it something outside of them that is Nàgasena?”

N: “It is none of these.”

M: “Then I can discover no Nàgasena. Nàgasena is an empty sound. Who is it we see before us? It is a falsehood that your reverence has spoken.”

N: (pause) “You, sir, have been reared in great luxury as becomes your noble birth. How did you come here, by foot or in a chariot?”

M: “In a chariot, venerable sir.”

N: “Then, explain sir, what that is. Is it the axle? Or the wheels, or the chassis, or reins, or yoke that is the chariot? Is it all of these combined, or is it something apart from them?”

M: “It is none of these things, venerable sir.”

N: “Then, sir, this chariot is an empty sound. You spoke falsely when you said that you came here in a chariot. You are a great king of India. Who are you afraid of that you don’t speak the truth?This King Milinda has said that he came here in a chariot but when asked what it is, he is unable to show it. Is it possible to approve of that?”

M: “Venerable sir, I have spoken the truth. It is because it has all these parts that it comes under the term chariot.”

N: “Very good, sir, your majesty has grasped the meaning. It is because of the organic matter in a human body, and the various aggregates of being, that I come under the term ‘Nàgasena’. Just as it is by the existence of the various parts that the word “Chariot” is used, just so is it that when the aggregates of being are there we talk of a being’.”

M: “Most wonderful, Nàgasena, most extraordinary that you have solved this puzzle, difficult though it was. If the Buddha himself were here he would approve of your reply."

Perhaps Buddhism spread to Gandhara (need to add a bit explaining what Gandhara is) through delightful debates like this; perhaps it spread organically, through wandering preachers. What we can say for sure is that all the diverse peoples of the North-West of the Indian subcontinent followed many religions and spoke many languages; they came from all over the world to the thriving cities of this place at the frontier of many ethnicities and cultures. Trade and conquest had already made it wealthy,

Their cities were splendid with hundreds of thousands of magnificent dwellings like crests of snowy mountains; they were filled with elephants, horses, chariots and pedestrians , with groups of handsome men and women; and were crowded with ordinary people, warriors, nobles, brahmans, merchants and workers; they resounded with a variety of salutations to ascetics and brahmans, and were the resort of skilled men knowing a great variety of things. It had diverse and varied shops for muslin, sweets, flowers and perfumes, well and tastefully displayed.
Full of silver, bronze and stone-ware, they were the abodes of shining treasure. The warehouses were full of an abundance of riches and wealth; there were many foods and drinks, a great variety of solid and soft foods, sweets, beverages and savouries as in Uttarakuru. The harvests were heavy as in Alakamanda, the city of devas.

In faraway China, where much of the trading goods that flowed through Gandhara into Northern India originated, something interesting happened in the 2nd century BCE. The Han Dynasty attacked their warlike, nomadic, horse-riding neighbours to the north. This tribe fled to the West where it attacked its neighbours. A domino effect spread with larger and larger nomadic confederations forming and slowly moving West, following the wealthy trading routes. They must have heard tales of the wealth of Gandhara, and turned the impatient hooves of their foaming steeds towards India. This, as we'll see, would have world-changing consequences that still ripple and echo in the modern subcontinent, more than two millennia later.

Notes and Sources:

  1. Keen listeners may wonder why Anirudh says यवन instead of यावन to rhyme with Ravana. They may rest assured that he was equally bamboozled when he looked up the pronunciation at

  2. The episode image is of an early 1st millennium CE Bodhisattva from Gandhara, sourced from The image was originally taken by user Jnzl and is used under the CC2.0 Attribution License.

  3. The initial battle between Alexander the Great and Porus includes details from Alexander's campaigns against the Mallians later the same year. See Bryant, Edwin F. Krishna: A Sourcebook.Oxford University Press, 2007; also McCrindle, John Watson. Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian. Thacker, Spink, 1877 (which makes the case that the Greeks identified Shiva as Hercules, which seems unlikely as Shaivism emerges slightly after this period, whereas Bhagavatism was very much in vogue).

  4. The battle itself was based on Pradeep P. Barua. The State at War in South Asia. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. 

  5. The majority of the content was developed from Narain, Awadh K. The Indo-Greeks. 1962, as well as Volume II of the UNESCO History of Civilizations of Central Asia, available at

  6. The Kalidasa excerpt was adapted from Srinivas Reddy's 2015 translation of the Malavikagnimitram, titled "The Dancer and the King". The pronunciation of Dharini should have been धारिणी.

  7. Details of the early Bhagavata religion are from Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: from the Stone Age to the 12th century. Pearson Education India, 2008, as well as from Maxwell, Thomas Stuart. The Gods of Asia: Image, Text and Meaning. 1997.

  8. Finally, the debate between King Menander and Nagasena, as well as the description of the Indo Greek cities, are from Davids, Thomas William Rhys. The Questions of King Milinda. Vol. 35. The Clarendon press, 1894.

#India #History #Podcast

  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon

©2020 by Anirudh Kanisetti. Cover images by Apoorva Lakshmi.