BMCR 2007.12.39

Non-Jonesian Indology and Alexander

Pal, Ranajit., Non-Jonesian Indology and Alexander. New Delhi: Minerva Press, 2002. 268 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 8176620327 £21,50.

There is a dearth of new ideas in Alexander studies, and Ranajit Pal proposes to fill the gap with data from the Pali and Sanskrit texts. This is the most stimulating recent work on Indo-Iran and Alexander and not only challenges the prevailing linear perceptions but also offers new solutions. Pal sees Alexander from an eastern perspective and his method is not a cut-and-paste one. His canvas is wide — in fact there is so much that only a brief outline of the major points can be given here. To start with, the term ‘Non-Jonesian’ is a new coinage with radical overtones. This invites the reader and the scholar to reconsider the geography of India as it is so closely linked to history.

During the troubled days of the French revolution, Sir William Jones startled the world by his so-called discovery of Palibothra, described by Megasthenes. Jones equated Palibothra to Patna in Eastern India. This hypothesis, together with the identification of Sandrocottus of the classical writers with Chandragupta of the Indian texts, constitutes the very basis of Indology and also has a bearing on world history. According to Pal this ‘discovery’ has no archaeological basis and is the fountain-head of discrepancies in Indology, as pointed out by scholars like R. S. Tripathi, A. L. Basham, D. D. Kosambi and most notably B. M. Barua.1 While most historians mention the inconsistencies yet continue with them,2 Pal advocates scrapping the mammoth Jonesian edifice altogether. If Moeris was the same as Chandragupta Maurya and Orontobates, as Pal suggests, the history of Alexander in Indo-Iran has to be rewritten.

Pal’s central thesis is geographical. For him, the fact that Alexander celebrated his victory at Kohnouj in southeast Iran clearly proves that Kohnouj was Palibothra. Jones’ idea has been accepted using Chinese texts but according to Pal these are not valid sources as they were written a thousand years later. Not a single archeological relic corroborates Jones’ idea. Yet the standard works on Mauryan history remain silent on the fact that no relic of any Nanda or Maurya King, including Asoka, is known from Patna.3

Pal starts the book with the assertion that Kahnuj (or Kohnouj) where Alexander celebrated his victory was the chief city of the Indians, Palibothra. He points out that Vincent Smith held that Kanauj in Eastern India is not an ancient city. Moreover he writes that Moeris was Chandragupta Maurya and Pattala could have been another Mauryan capital. This agrees with the reports of Plutarch and Appian that Androcottus, king of the Indians, dwelt near the Indus. Another bold suggestion is that the highly respected Indian sage Calanus (Sphines, according to Plutarch) was in fact Aspines or Asvaghosa. ‘Asva’ in Sanskrit means ‘horse’, and Calanus was specially known for his horse which is mentioned in the sources. There were probably many Asvaghosas, but Pal points to Gotama’s biographer who was also a philosopher and a playwright. According to him Asvaghosa’s association with Alexander indicates that the latter was not quite the brute painted by E. Badian and P. Green. Nothing engages Alexander scholars more than the question whether Alexander did in fact speak about the Brotherhood of Man. Pal holds that he did and criticizes E. Badian for ignoring the Sanskrit and Pali accounts and confusing ‘truth’ with the Greco-Roman accounts.

Of all the tantalizing assertions in the book, the most mind-boggling is that Diodotus I, well-known for his superb coins, was the great Asoka. This far-reaching idea was first articulated at the All-India Oriental Conference at Pune in 1993.4 Pal writes that the bilingual Kandahar Edict shows Asoka as the master of Arachosia and that the coins point to Diodotus as the ruler. He boldly states that the names Diodotus and Devanam (piya) are synonymous (p. 74). Significantly, while Diodotus has only coins but no inscriptions, his contemporary Asoka has many inscriptions but no coins, which shows that they complement each other.5 Asoka never refers to his neighbor Diodotus because he was Diodotus himself. Both were fierce warriors in their youth but later became saviors, σωτήρ. Tarn wrote that most of the Bactrian Greeks became Buddhists. Pal holds that this was because of Alexander and Diodotus, due to whom momentous events took place in the Orient that altered human destiny. It was here that Hellenistic culture and religion were born.6

In the second chapter Pal explores the motives behind Alexander’s most disastrous campaign, the Gedrosian march, and his final victory celebrations at Kohnouj, which he identifies as Palibothra. The expedition was a near-disaster and Alexander himself narrowly escaped death. As there were safer routes, most writers have ascribed the campaign to the king’s growing megalomania bordering on insanity and his desire to surpass Dionysius and Semiramis. Pal discards all this as hearsay and holds that Alexander and Nearchus were in fact pursuing a dangerous military objective — to defeat the mighty Prasii. His argument that Moeris was in fact Chandragupta Maurya of Prasii (p. 90) appears to be sound. Both were active in Bactria; their chronologies match exactly; and ‘Sashi’ and ‘Chandra’ are the words for the ‘moon’ in Sanskrit. Pal laments that this was suggested by H. C. Seth but he was shouted down. The identification of Moeris as Chandragupta radically alters the history of Alexander. On this campaign, the navy, commanded by Nearchus, is usually said to have been engaged in a reconnaissance mission. The army, led by Alexander himself, moved in tandem, and its task, supposedly, was to ensure the safety of the fleet. Pal disagrees and writes that the reverse was true. According to him the Gedrosian voyage was a two-pronged military initiative. The army was engaged in a crucial battle against the Prasii and its allies and, apart from fact finding, the navy was carrying horses, troops and provisions to support the army. Pal provides support for Justin’s statement that Alexander had defeated the Prasii at Palibothra (p. 91) although this is not mentioned by Arrian, Plutarch or Curtius. This is a very drastic reassessment of Alexander’s motives and contradicts the imputations of scholars like E. Badian and P. Green on Alexander’s character. When Alexander reached Pattala, Moeris and the populace had fled. Unaware of the true background, Badian ascribed this to Alexander’s unmitigated brutality and compared him with Chenghis Khan. Pal, however, considers this claim to be unwarranted. As the leader of the army, Alexander can hardly be blamed for arranging provisions for it and had probably imposed a grain levy which made the people flee. There is clear evidence of a plot to deny his army the provisions he had so carefully planned. The four-month stock at Pattala somehow vanished and his men became so short of food that the guards themselves broke the royal seal and distributed the provisions. According to Pal this was the handiwork of traitors in Alexander’s own camp, including Bagoas the younger, who was a spy of Moeris or Sashigupta. After returning to Susa, Alexander started punishing the guilty with utmost severity. Again, while E. Badian squarely reproached Alexander for excesses, Pal blames the Harvard professor for badly misjudging the scenario (p. 103).

Pal’s assertion that the Mudrarakshasa, an ancient Sanskrit drama of royal intrigue, is relevant to Alexander’s history is very significant. He writes that the drama, which belongs to world literature, has been badly misinterpreted due to Jonesian delusions. He points out that the locale of the play is the North-West, not Patna. The Sanskrit scholar A. B. Keith dated the drama to the 9th century AD, but his proposal has been doubted. According to Pal, the drama has a core that is very ancient. The main stratagem of the drama is the theft of a signet-ring, which, according to him, is linked to the mysterious manner in which Perdikkas produced Alexander’s signet-ring. Crashing gates, poisoning cups, poison-maidens and forged letters feature prominently in the drama, and the same devices also appear in Alexander’s history. Pal writes that Bhagurayana of the drama was Bagoas the younger (p. 99). If Pal’s idea that Diodotus of Erythrae, the mysterious editor of Alexander’s diary, was Chandragupta is indeed true, then there is ample ground to suspect that Alexander was poisoned. In many manuscripts Chandragupta is not mentioned, but his place is taken by Rantivarma. From this Pal concludes that Rantivarma was another name of Chandragupta and identifies him with Orontobates, the Carian satrap who fought against Alexander. Another striking discovery of Pal appears to be the identification of Andragoras as Chandragupta. This is quite plausible as the coins of Andragoras are dated to the fourth-century BC by many scholar, and both Plutarch and Appian use a similar name, Androcottus, for Chandragupta. Pal holds that the Gedrosian expedition was partly successful and ends the chapter with generous praise for Alexander (p. 106).

Pal’s work is strongly influenced by the approach of D. D. Kosambi and is also a continuation of the ideas of Dr. Spooner and the great Buddhist scholar B. M. Barua.7 Pal suggests a relocation of Palibothra in the North-West which is widely considered to be the seat of ancient Indian civilization. However, even if one agrees with Pal that Palibothra was not Patna, the real Palibothra may still be another nearby location. Only new finds of relics of the Nandas, Chandragupta or Asoka in the North-West can finally settle the true location of Palibothra. This is an exciting work which puts in another perspective Alexander’s expedition, his goals, his knowledge of the people he was conquering, and the space where he was evolving. It sheds a new light on him and his supposed cruelty or whims. The text also highlights how Indology could help in the study of the history of the Hellenistic period. However, the absence of an index is an irritant. Also, credit for the pictures and maps is not given. A bibliography would have greatly enhanced the value of the book. Finally, for Western readers whose familiarity with the Indian texts is inadequate, a prosopography or an index of kings and generals named differently in the Graeco-Latin and in the Indian sources would have been very useful. Although the maps in the book are illuminating, a more comprehensive map of Indo-Iran is lacking. The narrative is at times uneven, which is probably not unexpected given the broad scope of the work.

Hopefully, with the possible shrinking of borders in the subcontinent and the emergence of a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, as envisioned by thinkers like the Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus, Pal’s ideas may find greater acceptance. Pal ends the preface of the book with a poignant note, “The author fervently hopes that the book may not only throw new light on the lost Brotherhood of Man but also contribute towards an eventual redemption.”


1. Doubts about the basis of Indology have also been expressed by G. Fussman, Southern Bactria & Northern India before Islam. See also, I. Mabbett, ‘Dhanyakataka’, in South Asia 16.2 (1993), p. 21.

2. For example, R. Thapar, a staunch supporter of British Indology, wonders why there are no edicts of Asoka at Patna which is alleged to be his capital. R. Thapar, Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (Oxford, 1961), p. 230.

3. Pal notes that the Cambridge archaeologist D. K. Chakrabarti in The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia edited by F. R. Allchin (Cambridge, 1995) p. 295 refers to many 2nd century B.C. texts but does not explain why there are none belonging to Chandragupta. In contrast, the veteran archaeologist A. Ghosh ( The City in Early Historical India Simla, 1972, p.15) warned that ‘The facts about Pataliputra are known mainly from texts.’

4. Studies by F.L. Holt ( Thundering Zeus, Hellenistic Culture and Society, Berkeley, 1999; Alexander the Great and Bactria, Leiden 1988) and others do not address the problem of the absence of inscriptions or other material evidence. Similar deficiencies characterize the studies on the Aramaic inscriptions from Bactria by S. Shaked and others. (See for example, S. Shaked, Three Aramaic Seals, Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 1986.) Even the great Sir W. W. Tarn was puzzled by the wide scattering of Diodotus’ coins. (W.W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India, 3rd edition, Chicago 1997, p. 216).

5. H. P. Ray’s satisfaction with Asoka’s coins is bizarre: Ancient India (N. Delhi, 2001), p. 55.

6. Alexander gave a call for homonoia that was followed up by Asoka with great zeal. If the present reviewer has understood the text correctly, Pal’s Diodotus was some kind of a Parsi who later adopted Buddhism. Pal ends the first chapter with “A Call to Archaeologists” in which he calls for more excavations in the Carman area. This was written in 2001 and in a way Pal anticipated the splendid Bronze Age finds at Jiroft by Madjidzadeh and others. In his later writings Pal has maintained that Jiroft or Djiroft was the early Kamboja of the Indian texts. His thesis has great depth and mainstream scholars have a duty to either accept or disprove it.

7. D.B.Spooner, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1915, pp. 68-89, pp. 405-455; B. M. Barua, History of Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy, passim.