India as India has Existed since Antiquity in Greek & Roman Accounts

India as India has Existed since Antiquity in Greek & Roman Accounts

Mr. Saif Ali Khan, as he was promoting his recently released movie Tanhaji, made a comment, perhaps in all sincerity, “I don’t think there was a concept of India till the British gave it one.” Mr. Khan has received a lot of flak for his comments on social media but sadly he is only representing a view, which is held by many “educated” Indians or people of Indian origin, including members of the academia who teach at prestigious universities across the world. This issue raised its ugly head not too long ago when, as the State of California through its Department of Education was revising its syllabus for school children, a group of faculty teaching in the United States—with many having Indian origins—petitioned it that India should be replaced with South Asia. Given that this recommendation was coming from scholars teaching in some of the elite universities of the United States, it did not too long for the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC)—the body that supervises the revision of the syllabus called History and Social Science Framework or HSS Framework—to incorporate it in toto. This sent shudders in the Indian American community because it saw this move as a ploy to erase the identity of India as a geographical as well as civilizational entity—particularly when Greece, Rome, China, etc are mentioned as discussed as such within the HSS Framework.

            A bunch of academics that included Vamsee Juluri, Vishal Agarwal, and me and organizations such as Hindupedia, Hindu American Foundation, and Hindu Education Foundation came together, drafted a petition under the title “Scholars for People” and raised awareness within the Indian-American community to stop the commission from substituting India with South Asia. In just a couple of days, about 27000 signatures were raised to stop the substitution. The IQC had to pay heed and it pulled back the change. In the HSS Framework, despite the fact that it has umpteen problems pertaining to the representation of India and Hinduism, India continues to find mention (for details, please see the book Making Children Hinduphobic: A Critical Review of McGraw Hill’s World History Textbooks that I have authored with Hindupedia CEO Krishna Maheshwari).

            The roll back happened primarily because there is substantial evidence as Vishal Agarwal pointed out in his article No Mr. Saif, ‘Concept of India’ is not a Gift from British from Persian, Greek, Roman and other European, Chinese, Arab and other Muslim, and Ancient and Medieval Indian sources that speak about the existence of India as a Geographical and Civilizational entity. This narrative that India as a gift to Indians is a colonial one, and given the extent of the internalization of many such British canards by educated Indians, it will not be for the last time that this issue will generate controversy. Accordingly, I want to expand upon the Greek and Roman records that Vishal Agarwal has mentioned in his article: this is reproduced from a petition that I wrote to the IQC around the same time that we submitted the “Scholars for People” petition. This is to not only give further strength to Vishal’s article but also provide materials for students and scholars who are interested in and committed to decolonizing the narrative on India and matters related to Hindu and Hinduism:[1]

In the western conceptualization, the idea of India as one unit is as old as the early Greeks. Herodotus (484-425 BCE), the Greek historiographer, mentions India and Indians in the context of Darius I and his conquests. India is represented as one of the twenty satrapies of Darius’s empire, paying maximum treaty—360 talents of gold per annum. The Persian army also had an Indian contingent and they were mentioned as such:

The Indians wore garments made of cotton and carried bows and arrows of reed. In addition they had iron weapons. [Cited in Parker, 2011, p. 24]

Herodotus also mentions of Indians living far in the South as people not under the rule of the Achaemenid Empire—this basically suggests that there was a section of India and Indians who were under the rule of Darius I and there were others, who were outside his pale.

            The description of India as a unit by Herodotus is preceded by Hecataeus of Miletus, who is known to have created a map in the shape of a disc of the world as known to the Greeks then. The river Indus and India were on the easternmost fringes. This was further preceded by Scylax’s Indica, which contained descriptions of and on India. Darius I was supposed to have employed Scylax to survey the river Indus, an enterprise which helped him to bring parts of India under the Achaemenid empire.

Megasthenes’ Indica, written anytime between fourth century and third century BCE, provides further credibility to India’s existence as he emphasizes in its territory what is considered its eastern part currently, for he describes a city which is modern day Patna, the capital of Bihar—one of the eastern states of India. He calls it a land of exceptional beauty and abundance, resourced with gold, silver, iron, copper, gems and objects of all kinds that constitute wealth and luxury. He was in all probability a Greek ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya.

Eratosthenes (276-196 BCE), the polymath librarian of Alexandria who was also a geographer known to have calculated the circumference of the earth and for constructing a map on latitudes and meridians saw India as one unit, for he writes: “If the enormity of the Atlantic ocean did not prevent it, we would be able to sail from Iberia to India along the same parallel over the remainder of the circle” [cited in Parker, 2011, p. 53]. Since the ancient times, the river Indus has been the defining feature in the consciousness of the foreigners dealing with India in their writings, travels, or invasions. Eratosthenes, using stade as a unit of measurement, contended that the distance between the river Indus and eastern India was 16000 stades. This clearly shows once again that it was not India around Indus which was in consideration of the Greeks; it was the entire subcontinent around Indus as well as to the east of Indus. Parker (2011) writes that Eratosthenes represented India on his map in the form of a diamond shaped quadrilateral in a manner more distinct than any other country or geographical unit. Strabo and Ptolemy later picked up his descriptions.  

The idea of India as one geographical unit is also present in the writings of Arrian in Indica. Arrian wrote this work based on the writings of Megasthenes and Nearchus, who was an admiral in the fleet of Alexander, which was prepared during his return to sail through the river Jhelum and Indus to the Persian Gulf. He also included in the earlier portions of the work the geographical contentions of Eratosthenes. Parker (2011) writes:

Arrian devotes the second and third chapters of his Indica to describing the geographical shape of India, as if on a diagrammatic map. He is careful to define it in terms of its borders: to its west is the Indus, to its north Mount Taurus or Caucasus, to its south the Great Sea; about the east there is no clarity. (p. 87)

There was no clarity for Arrian regarding the east because Alexander had not gone past Hyphasis: “But I can make no accurate assertion about territory on the other side of the Hyphasis, because Alexander did not go beyond Hyphasis” [Cited in Parker, 2011, p. 38].

Strabo’s (64/63 BCE—21 CE) Geography is another seminal text from the ancient times, which gives an extensive coverage to India. He divides the world into four parts, and one of them was India. In the seventeen books authored by Strabo, India makes two major appearances in them (Parker, 2011).

India as India has Existed since Antiquity in Greek and Roman Accounts Sorry Mr. Saif Ali Khan 01

India finds mention in Ptolemy’s (90-68 CE) Geography as well—in the seventh book. Both the rivers Indus and Ganga find mention. The Indian peninsula is included as well, though shortened. It is compensated by a larger depiction of present day Sri Lanka.

Pliny, the Elder (23/24-79 CE) continues with the theme of discussing India as a distinct and separate unit. His Natural History has a separate section of India, following which he discusses Sri Lanka (Taprobane). When we take into account, the accounts of both Ptolemy and Pliny, the exclusive emphasis on India makes its historical identity extremely distinct.   

            Given that India is spoken about, there is mention of Indians as well. The different commentators have spoken about the characteristics of the Indian people. Strabo states that India had encountered two invasions before Alexander but they were both repulsed. The Indian people, according to him, were unwarlike; however they were well-behaved during the war (this is understandable given the social codes pertaining to war as mentioned in texts on the social behavior of the Indians, the Dharmashastras and the Arthashastra). Diodorus mentions that during wars, there was a custom to leave the agricultural workers undisturbed–this also is in tune with the social rules governing the Indian people in the traditional texts involving the governance of social behavior. Diodorus also states that despite the division of the society in different categories there was no prevalence of slavery, as fundamental freedom was guaranteed to all and sundry. Given the exclusive emphasis of inequality of the ancient Indian society in current narrative, it may be worthwhile to look at the complete quote from Diodorus:

Concerning the customs of the Indians which are unique to them, one may consider that which was drawn up by their ancient sages to be the most remarkable, for it has been decreed that under no circumstances shall anyone among them be a slave, but that everyone shall be free and honor the equal status of all persons. [Cited in Parker, 2011, p. 89]

Drawing on Megasthenes, Strabo describes the ancient Indian people as simple and honest–not given to crowd behavior, drinking other than on special occasions, theft, or litigations.                    

            The above should make it absolutely explicit that India has existed as a geographical unit in the past, and its non-existence is a canard that gets perpetuated by mainstream academia. Its source is in the colonial writings of the British indologists, which needs to be thoroughly refuted. Until and unless such disputation enters the mainstream academia on a large scale, there will always be someone as reputed and decorated as Mr. Saif Ali Khan who will be parroting this canard. The social media has vented on Mr. Khan but it is time that the responsibility of this utterance should be fixed on the British indologists who perpetuated this lie and the “colonized in the mind” Indians who have internalized it without any critical examination of the narrative.


Parker, P. (2011). The making of Roman India. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

[1] The Hindu University of America has recently embarked upon a project to systematically deconstruct the colonial and Indological narratives, and recover the cosmology of the Indians before they came under the Muslim and British domination. This is being done through course and concentration offerings, and is seeking serious students and scholars interested in such an initiative:

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Kundan Singh

A former Core Faculty at Sofia University, Palo Alto, California, Kundan Singh, PhD is currently a core doctoral faculty at the Hindu University of America where he is engaged in developing a completely new field in academia, Postcolonial Hindu Studies: He is also the Vice President of the Cultural Integration Fellowship in San Francisco and Senior Fellow at Hindupedia, Cupertino, California where he is diligently involved with changing the representation of Hinduism and India in grade-school textbooks in California and across the US. Author of the Evolution of Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramakrishna, and Swami Vivekananda and numerous book chapters in edited books, and joint author of Making Children Hinduphobic: A Critical Review of McGraw Hill’s World History Textbooks with Krishna Maheshwari, he has lectured extensively in San Francisco Bay Area and has many academic presentations at international and national conferences to his name.