The Tradition of Kshaatra in India – Magadha, Alexander's Invasion

The Magadha Kingdom

With this background, when we see the Magadhan kingdom, we find that the Shishunagas ruled there first. Then came the Nandas. The last king of the Nanda dynasty was Dhanananda. Starting from Mahapadmananda to Sunanda, everyone was gone. The stories that have been traditionally narrated indicate that the nine Nandas were contemporaries. We find that in some version of the story, it is Mahapadmananda and his eight children, while in other versions it is the nine sons of Mahapadmananda. Scholars don’t have a unanimous opinion in this matter. As of now, from historical accounts, we can say that Dhanananda was the last king of the Nanda dynasty. He was a great warrior. It was during his time that Alexander invaded India.

In this context, I have to mention an aside. Recent scholars including Sriram Sathe, Dr. N. S. Rajaram, and M. V. R. Sastry opine that the ‘Sandrokottos’ (Greek pronunciation for ‘Chandragupta’) mentioned by Pliny, Herodotus, and Megasthenes do not refer to Chandragupta of the Mauryan empire but to Chandragupta Vikramaditya of the Gupta empire. If we consider this view, then our history will be shifted by a good 700 years. I have not yet found solid evidence in order to be satisfied with this view. Thus, I will consider the well-known version of the Sandrokottos reference – what is taught in our schools and colleges – and resume. However, what is definitely known is that before Alexander’s invasion India had not been attacked by any foreign forces.

The Influence of Alexander

Heracles and Dionysus who appear in Greek history are not real people but characters from Greek mythology. Heracles was the character who symbolized all the Greek values and courageous adventure. He performed many miracles. In his twelve great adventures or feats [hoi Herakleous athloi] there is no mention of him visiting India. Having seen the original Greek texts, I can assuredly say that such views are baseless. Dionysus is the Greek deity of theater and religious ecstasy as well as wine and wine-making – in Roman mythology, he is called Bacchus and is regarded as a deity. He is a god associated with the Eastern countries. Scholars opine that the Greeks accepted him as their god and they explain history of his deification in Greek mythology. Thus it is also a philosophy, a method of worship. He too never attacked India.

It becomes rather clear that Alexander was the first among them to have attacked India. Though he invaded the geographical portion that was India, it was only the Western border; after crossing the river Sindhu (Indus), he is said to have reached the river Vitasta (Jhelum) after much labor. The Vitasta flows from Kashmir and ultimately joins the Sindhu. Whether or not he crossed the Vitasta has not been recorded in our history. Not a single word of praise has been given in our tradition describing Alexander’s [supposed] courage.

On the other hand, the Bhavishya Purana and many other works speak about the depravity of the invasions by Islam and Christianity. Their religious bigotry and thirst for money that drove them to terrorize our country has been referred to in the famous Vishnugunadarsha Champu of Venkatadhvari (c. 17th century CE). He says “हूणाः करुणाहीनाः” (Poem 262) while speaking about how they ruled in the Madras province. A work that preceded this by about three centuries, the Madhuravijayam of Gangadevi details the ghastly manner in which the Muslims wreaked havoc on South India. We see several such references in the writings of poets, scholars, and playwrights. But we don’t see any references to the attack of the Greeks (particularly Alexander) in our Puranas or literature.

One might bring up the Yugapurana section of the Garga Samhita, which speaks about an attack by the Greeks. That is not a reference to Alexander, and furthermore the authenticity of that text is in question. In works like Milinda Panha (which records the Buddhist bikkhu Nagasena’s teaching to the Greek king Menander I of Bactria) and Patanjali’s Mahabhasya (where there is supposedly a reference to a Demetrius), as well as from the words of Heliodorus (from an inscription in the Brahmi script in Vidisha) and Theodorus (from an inscription in the Kharoshti script related to Buddhism), we can see the connections between India and Greece; however, we should not forget that they all came under the purview of sanatana dharma.

Here and there we find references that Greek women were employed in India. In the Padataditaka-bhana, there is a mention of Greek merchants who lived in Kusumapura. In Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitram, he says, “In the faraway shores of the Sindhu river, Vasumitra, the grandson of Pushyamitra Shunga, fought against the Greek army.” But none of these refer to the attack by Alexander. They were from Alexander’s family. This took place about 150-200 years after Alexander’s death. Alexander’s attack on India, which has been recorded as it happened, was never considered as a great invasion by our poets and playwrights. If they had considered it so, they would have alluded to it in their works. In several of the works that were composed during that period, our ancestors—who were such fine observers and meticulous archivists—have written about many events of that period in great detail; if they have not given  the same amount of detail or attention to Alexander, there must be some special reason. And perhaps that reason simply was that Alexander’s attack on India didn’t have a lasting impact or influence on our history.

There are many conjectures as to why Alexander lost the war. Perhaps due to revolts within his army, due to the exhaustion of his soldiers, or perhaps due to fear that arose from the stories that were heard about the immense magnitude of the Magadhan army, it is said that Alexander ran away from India before conquering it. The summary is simply this: although India was not united at that time under the leadership of a single emperor, due to the clear division of some portion of the landmass (into the sixteen great states), it was able to present limitless fortitude while facing a foreign enemy. In all the regions that were governed as ganas (republics), Alexander could prevail. It is said that he defeated the Madra-gana, the Yaudheya-gana, as well as the Malava-gana. In their mad love for their absolute freedom, the republics never maintained great relationships with their neighboring states.

As an aside I must mention here that some people bring up the baseless argument that the idea of a republic is alien to the Vedas and it is an earlier form of the now decadent Communism. However there is not a trace of doubt that the republics are very much Vedic. The ‘panchajana’ – clans mentioned in the Rigveda – are nothing but this. Several words and concepts such as gana [gang, tribe, group, battalion, herd, republic], ganapati [leader of a gana], sabha [society, assembly, court, council, conclave], samiti [assembly, committee, league, association], and sadas [assembly, dwelling, place of meeting, seat] are all Vedic in nature. The Yadavas, the Gandharas, and the Madras that we encounter in the Mahabharata were all republics. Since that establishment had decayed, Krishna helped establish a kingdom through the Pandavas. Chanakya too was inspired to create a kingdom and Chandragupta Maurya became an emperor as a result. Similarly, Patanjali guided Pushyamitra Shunga to establish a great kingdom. Later on, perhaps Kalidasa too realized that a great kingdom would be established by Samudragupta-Chandragupta and remained silent about the existence of republics in his period.

We see something similar in Greek history. At one stage, the Greek had the conception of city-states. It is more or less like our idea of a republic. Be it Sparta, Athens, Mycenae, or Argos – each city was a state by itself. They lived in such a manner that it was almost forbidden to maintain friendly and cordial relationships with the neighboring city-states. At that point of time when there arose a threat of attack from the mighty Persian army, all the elders and leaders of Athens came together and proposed, “Let us come together and as one nation, let us face our enemy!” The people of Sparta were extremely courageous and rash; they were matchless in war-craft. They said, “We will take care of our protection” and went forward first to bravely face the gigantic Persian army. However, due to the in-fights that followed, unable to stand strong, the Greek culture was dominated by the Persians. And over a period of time, Alexander grew up wanting to take revenge. Along with his father Philip, he created a kingdom, realizing that the idea of republics was ineffective. It was a result of blind love for absolute freedom and a complete lack of foresight.

To be continued...

Translated from Kannada by Hari Ravikumar. Translator's notes in square brackets.



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.


Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 25+ books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

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