Ancient India and the Western world

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Did Ancient, historic India lead an isolated life like we did till the liberalization process began in 1991? or did we contribute to the world as much as French journalist Francois Gautier writes about?

This article tells about India’s relations with Rome and the Middle East. It is based on book The History and Culture of Indian People published by The Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan and covers the period from 600 B.C. to 1000 A.D.  

This piece is dedicated to Aryabhatta who was born in 476 A.D. in Patna. He dealt with evolution & involution of area & volume, progressions & algebraic identities, indeterminate equations of the first degree. He was the first to hold that the earth was a sphere and rotated on its axis and that the eclipses were not the work of Rahu but caused by the shadow of the earth falling on the moon. Both these views were rejected by other astronomers like Varahamihira.

Aryabhatta arrived at the value of PIE i.e. 3.1416. One of his valuable contributions was his Unique System of Notation. It is based on the decimal place-value system unknown to other ancient civilizations but now used throughout the world. While there are some doubts whether he invented the system or improved upon it note that it was rarely referred to before his birth and has been found in all mathematical works thereafter.

600 B.C. to 320 A.D.

Interaction between India & the Western world

1. The Pre Achaemenid Period
Discoveries at Mohenjo-daro in Sind have shown that there was intercourse with western Asia in the 3rd millennium B.C. Mohenjo-daro was probably, a great port carrying on trade by sea with Ur, Oman and the Egyptian civilization. There were also contacts through the land route between the Sindhu Valley and the West/Central Asia. While some may dispute this, there are clear archaeological evidences to confirm India’s contacts with west Asia, as early as 8th century B.C.

However, it is possible to give some indication of the trade routes between India and the West (both land & sea). The land route was through Khyber Pass to Balkh which had the highways from China and Central Asia on the east and the Mediterranean and Black Sea ports on the west. Sea going vessels kept close to the coast and moved along the shores of India, Baluchistan, Persia and Arabia through the Red Sea towards its head near the Suez. From this point, the merchandise was carried by land to Egypt.

2. Post Achaemenid Period
The rise of the Achaemenids in Persia broke the barriers that shut off India. By a series of conquests (549 to 525 B.C.) the Persians created a vast empire that embraced nearly the whole of Iran, Asia Minor, Syria. It was during this period that evidences of close contact between Indians and the Greeks can be found.

3. India and Greece
The next important point of contact between the two countries was Alexander’s invasion of India. Subsequently, the first three Mauryan emperors had intimate connections with Greece. Envoys like Megasthenes wrote valuable documents on India but they are lost. He stated that the city of Pataliputra (modern day Patna) had a special department to look after foreigners indicating the number of foreigners who would be stayed around that time. The best evidence of India’s close relations with Greece is furnished by the 13th Rock Edict of Asoka in which five Greek rulers are named.

4. India and Egypt
These two countries had close relations through land and sea routes. Athenaeus tells us that Indian women, and spices were seen in processions around 285 B.C. Buddha was known to the King of Alexandria (150 o 218 A.D.). According to Alberuni, “in former times, Khorasia, Persia, Iraq, Mosul and the country up to the frontier of Syria was Buddhistic”. That Indian culture had spread to these areas is for sure but the extent of it is difficult to estimate.  

The all sea route was dangerous although some people tried it. The land route was too long. Probably, a large part of the earlier trade was indirect. The merchants met half way at Aden or Muza, two ports at the mouth of the Red Sea.

5. India and the Roman Empire
The policy of the Roman Empire between 0 to 200 A.D. was to encourage sea trade with India. While the sea route was dangerous, the situation changed with the great discovery by Hippalus in 45 A.D. He noted the “existence of monsoon winds, blowing regularly across the Indian Ocean, which would enable ships to sail right across the Indian Ocean”. A ship leaving Okelis, a port at the mouth of the Red Sea, would reach the Malabar Coast in forty days. This resulted in an increase in maritime trade.

Another reason for the increase in trade was that articles of luxury from India were in great demand in Europe. Pliny estimated “that nearly half a million pounds flowed from Rome to India every year to pay for the balance of trade”. This statement is proved by the discovery of a large number of Roman coins in India. An important result of the development of commercial and political intercourse was that a large number of Indian and Roman subjects, visited each other’s countries.

The western literature of the 3rd century A.D. shows a comprehensive knowledge of India. The account of Clement of Alexandria who died in 220 A.D. contains an account of the Indian doctrine of transmigration and the Buddhist worship of Stupas.