By M.S.N. Menon
No country has aroused the curiosity of mankind as India has done. That curiosity has not waned to this day. India continues to hold forth the secret of human salvation. It is a long story.
It was perhaps Herodotus (Father of History, 4th century BC) who first referred to India. But that was in Homer'smythical language. With Darius, the Persian conqueror of Punjab, we are on firmer ground. He thought highly of Indian soldiers. And there is only one true explanation for the hasty retreat of Alexander from India: because he feared the worst. But he took with him some of the Indian ascetic philosophers. The Greeks called them ?Gymnosophists.?
Poltinus, the founder of Neo-Platonism, was so excited about Gymnosophists that he joined a military expedition to Persia ?in the hope of reaching India,? There is close resemblance between neo-Platonism and Vedanta and Yoga.
Europe converted the Alexander saga into a fabulous Christian romance, which persisted well into the 16th century.
Megasthenes, who spent five years in India (317-312 BC) as envoy of Seleukas Nikator (Greek king of Syria) has left a more realistic picture of the Indians?as a happy people, of simple manners, frugal, less litigious, having no fear of thieves and holding truth and virtue in high esteem.
We are back to myths with Virgil, the great Latin poet (70-19 BC). He referred to Indians as the ?Ethiopians of the East?. Strabo corrected it. By the second century BC, Buddhists were to be found in Antioch and Alexandria. They were sent by Ashoka to preach Buddhism. Some of them, who settled down in Palestine, were called Essene. They influenced Jesus, but that is another story.
Pliny, the elder author of ?Natural History? found Indian stories ?incredible?. St Augustine, a neo-Platonists, believed them. He thought that India was a Christian country of ?fabulous races?.
Appolonius of Tyna (1st century AD), a neo-Pythagorean, travelled all over India and found much in common between the ?wise Brahmins? and the Greek philosophers. The ?wise Brahmin? became the exemplar for European scholars and philosophers.
From antiquity to the Renaissance, the ordinary European drew his picture of India mainly from the fictional biographies of Alexander, the Great, writes Donald Lech, in his monumental study of Asia.
Alexander had already become a demo-god in European thinking, and India became the land of opulence, golden palaces and beautiful Amazons clad in silver armour. With the advent of Christianity, Alexander became the first Knight of the Cross. And the Gymnosophists inspired the ?utopia? of Sir Thomas More.
With the advent of the crusades, Alexander became the archetypal hero of the crusaders. As Alexander'sfame spread, so did that of India.
Asian visitors to India left a more realistic picture. Thus, Hieun Tsang (600-650 AD), a Chinese pilgrim, found Indians ?high-minded, upright and honourable?. A third of the Chinese classics are translations of Sanskrit and Pali works.
Al-Biruni (12th century AD), one of the greatest scholars of Islam, marvels at the religious tolerance of the Hindus. Of the irrigation works in the south by the Chola king Rajendra I, Al-Biruni writes: ?Our people are unable to describe them, much less construct anything like them.? But Babur had nothing good to say of India in Baburnama.
By the 16th century, Europeans came to India in search of India'sriches and spices. Shakespeare made twenty-four allusions to India in his works.
On the city of Vijayanagar, Rarishta, a Persian scholar-soldier, writes: ?The city is such that eye has not seen or ear heard of any place resembling it upon the whole earth.? A Portuguese traveller writes that it was ?the best provided city in the world.? Vasco da Gama thought that the ?devi – temples of Kerala were Churches dedicated to Mother Mary.
But soon reality dawned – each according to one'sinterest. The British rulers saw nothing good in India. And the missionaries saw India as a ?vast seat of paganism?. And to Bishop Heber, India was a country ?where every prospect pleases, only man is vile.? So the Christian missionaries set about to convert Indians to Christianity. But the harvest of souls has been rather poor.