Chandragupta Maurya

Revisiting Porus and Alexander: Who did really win?

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

On evenings these days we have a television serial “Porus” on Sony channel. It’s a lavishly mounted production; the costliest-ever at Rs 500 crores. The producers retain the IP rights of the serial, Sony is a mere first broadcaster of it. The makers of the show have a global audience in mind.

The serial has reached a critical stage. Alexander is about to engage Porus in the battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum), 326 BC. The most popular version of Alexander’s story is by Arrian, a general during the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian. We in India have grown up on the story how Porus valiantly went down to Alexander but was restored to his kingdom by the conqueror, impressed as the winner was by Porus’ bravery. Alexander then turned on his heels, his hands forced by his weary army, abandoning his plan to dig deep into India’s heartland where the mighty Magadha empire, ruled by Chandragupta Maurya, would certainly have brought him to grief. He couldn’t reach home, dead in the city of Babylon (Iraq) from a raging fever though there are also different accounts of him being poisoned or succumbing to alcohol-induced issues.

This story of our childhood lacks credulity. We all know that neither Alexander nor Porus died in the battle. Alexander’s generosity is beyond belief for he was an exceptionally cruel invader. He rose to the Macedonia throne killing his father and brothers; there are mentions of him killing his friends around the dinner table; the entire citizenry of a country being butchered by his frenzied sword. Why would he leave Porus standing on his feet?

Alexander massacred the complete male population at Tyre and Gaza, razed the royal palace at Persepolis and as per a doyen historian of his, A.B. Bosworth, “he spent much of the time killing and directing killing, and, arguably, killing was what he did best”

The modern historians have trouble believing the account of Arrian. After all, his seven books on Alexander were written some 400 years after Alexander was dead and buried. Arrian borrowed hugely from Alexander’s contemporary Ptolemy’s account which is widely regarded as hugely unreliable. Sure there is material in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander and Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History but the legend of Alexander as it has come down to us in the last few centuries is a lot of baloney for authentic historical records on the man are missing. The Journals of Alexander is pure forgery.

The tale of his “weary army” is unauthentic too: it is proven beyond doubt that he kept replenishing his army with fresh legs from home, replacing his dead and tired soldiers regularly. Mercenaries and young men from his conquered territories also served the purpose. The truth is: there is no contemporary, authentic historical record of Alexander prevailing over Porus.

The fact is that Alexander’s military exploits concern just 10 years. He did capture Persia and he did travel 3000 miles to the doors of India. But most of it was unplanned. He wanted to outdo his father Phillip, began with minor raids in neighbourhood, claimed Persia and kept pressing on before he was made to turn his back by the Indian challenge. Not for a second though anyone must doubt that Alexander wasn’t one of the greatest military commanders the world has ever seen.

Historians have noticed a thread in the making of “Alexander industry”. He was contemporary to the Roman civilization but could never set his foot in Italy. Quite a few Roman emperors, generals and their “historians”, built up his legend and measured themselves against him to add halo around own greatness. The term “Alexander the Great” was first used in a Roman comedy by Plautus in second century BC, some 150 years after Alexander’s death. In 51 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero drooled at prevailing over a minor local insurgency only because the field of action happened to be one where Alexander once fought. “Pompey the Great” was hailed as the Alexander of his age after he returned victorious from Africa in the 80s BC. Julius Caesar similarly visited the tomb of Alexander in Alexandria during his times which was described by Roman poet Lucan as a stunt: “one demented despot paying home to another.”

Successive generations have built up the legend of Alexander. One of Alexander’s great admirer was Napoleon. He once commissioned a table which had Alexander’s profile at the center surrounded by other military giants of the ancient world. This stunning piece in porcelain and gilded bronze ended up in Buckingham Palace.

True, Alexander was a great military general but Roman historians have tended to soak his legend for the benefit of their own great generals and emperors. When colonialism and imperialism of the West spread its dark shadow across the East, the image of Alexander was further refurbished to show an all-conquering hero from the West taking on the chaotic East.

The great Russian general Marshal Zhukov for one was convinced that Alexander never defeated Porus. Addressing the cadets of Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun in 1957, the great Russian general who chased Hitler’s army down over 2000 kms from Stalingrad to Berlin during World War II, was emphatic that Alexander had been beaten by Porus. He compared Alexander’s defeat no better than Napoleon’s own reverse in Russia. When an invader is chased out of a country it’s defeat, pure and simple. Both Alexander and Napoleon had their armies decimated by local forces.

Nobody knows how serial “Porus” would turn out in coming weeks. There is little doubt though that he was one of India’s earliest defenders against foreign invaders who chose the northwestern route to eye, loot and pillage our exceptional country. At a time when Lutyens media and corrupt academicians and politicians are hell bent on diluting the spirit of nationalism and patriotism, “Porus” is a welcome presence in our drawing rooms.

Angoorlata and her oath in Sanskrit

Angoorlata Deka, the newly elected BJP MLA from Batadroba constituency in Assam, has made front-page headlines with her oath in Sanskrit language. The newspapers are shocked at her audacity for don’t we all have given up the language as dead?

Our ignorance deserves a reality check. Sanskrit is one of the 22 languages listed in a Schedule to the Constitution. It’s the official language in the state of Uttarakhand. Since 1967, Sahitya Akademi has been giving award for literary works in Sanskrit. It’s true of adult as well as kids’ literature.

In all, there are 15 Sanskrit universities, thousands of Sanskrit colleges. Features films are being made in Sanskrit, the ones on Adi Shankaracharya, Bhagavad Gita and Mudrarakshasa (a film on great emperor Chandragupta Maurya) instantly come to mind.

An animated film in Sanskrit, “Punyakoti” is scheduled for release in 2016. There are more than 75 dailies, weeklies and monthlies in Sanskrit. We have television news in Sanskrit. No less than our Prime Minister tweets in Sanskrit. In Karnataka, two villages of Mattur and Hosahalli has everyone speaking in Sanskrit to this date.

All the 125 major languages and 1500 minor languages of the country can trace its origin on Sanskrit. It’s not just India alone, Nepal’s motto is a pick from Valmiki’s Ramayana. There’s Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the word Angkor meaning “City” in Sanskrit.

Initially, Sanskrit wasn’t known by its present name. It was called Bhasha. This was a fact at least till the 6th century BCE. It was essentially a spoken language. When rendered into writing, various different scripts were used. The use of Devanagari is of a recent vintage. In its grammar, letters and words freely merge to form compound letters and compound words. Two of these principals are called sandhi and samasa.

The greatest proponent of Sanskrit language was poet Kalidasa. His classics, such as Malavikagnimitram (the love story between King Agnimitra and Malavika), Abhijnanashakuntalam (the famous Shaknutala story) and Meghadutam (Cloud as messenger) haven’t lost its lustre till this day.

It’s a fallacy to believe that Sanskrit was only spoken by Kshatriyas and Brahmans in ancient times. Instances abound where commoners were known to use the language. In the Rig Veda, 21 out of 407 rishis were women. There was no gender bias in the use of the language.

Since 2003, India has a National Mission for Manuscripts (Namami). Its task is to list, digitize, publish and translate manuscripts at least 75 years old. As of now, Namami has a listing/digitization of three million—the anticipated stock of manuscripts in India is 35 milion. There are at least 60,000 manuscripts in Europe and another 1,50,000 elsewhere in South Asia. Ninety-five percent of these manuscripts have never been listed, collated or translated. To give you an idea of the enormity of the task: Since the advent of printing only an estimated 130 million books have been published in all languages of the world.

We don’t know the treasure waiting to be rediscovered. Take the instance of Arthashastra for instance. The classic on political economy and governance was written by Kautilya (350-275 BCE). But it was rediscovered by R. Shamasastry in 1904, published in 1909 and translated into English in 1915. We don’t know how many Arthashastra we have lost in all these centuries.

Same is true of many variations of scripts of Sanskrit. The sharada script, popular in Kashmir at one time in history, is completely lost. Same is true of Paishachi language and a very famous work in this script, Brihatkatha. Both are lost to us. Many Buddhist and Jain texts were written in Sanskrit too. And lest we forget, Ayurveda, the treatises on medicine, the work of Charaka (2nd century CE), no longer survives.

And here is the surprise of all surprises: “A Companion to Sanskrit Literature,” authored by Sures Chandra Banerji, has an entire chapter on the contribution of Muslims to Sanskrit. This volume traverses 3000 years of Sanskrit literature.

Naheed Abidi was bestowed with Padma Shri in 2014 for her contributions to Sanskrit literature. Her first book in 2008 titled “Sanskrit Sahitya Mein Rahim” is an account of the Sanskrit leanings of renowned poet Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana. Another bookof hers, “Sirr-e-Akbar” is a hindi translation of 50 Upanishads, earlier translated by the Mughal prince, Dara Shikoh into Persian. Naheed has published a Hindi translation of Vedanta, translated into Persian by Dara Shikoh and also the Sufi texts by the prince.

There is no denying the crisis though. The last Census in 2011 still don’t tell us how many speak Sanskrit in our country. The Census of 2001 had put the number to 14,135. There is an initiative from the government for the long-term vision and roadmap for the development of Sanskrit. Angoorlata’s act of oath has brought the Sanskrit language into popular mainstream and we ought to be grateful to her.

(The background of this article is largely based on Dr. Bibek Debroy’s speech in Paris on the occasion of International Mother Tongue Day, organized by UNESCO on March 3, 2016).