HARKING BACK: A lot of what we do and say could have Greek origins

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn August 28, 2016

We all know about ‘Unani’ medicine, or Greek medicine. We also often name our children ‘Sikander’ or even ‘Iskander’, both variations of the Greek name, but never ‘Porus’, who was a Punjabi. A lot of our females wear clothes with Greek style embroidery edges without even knowing it.

One of the least acknowledged attributes of our culture is the immense contribution of the Greeks to it. In one way or another we can find their influence on most things in our lives. Let us take a look at our past and see how this works. We know that Alexander the Great after the refusal of his soldiers from crossing the Beas left Punjab and appointed Philip, son of Machatas, to rule over the lands he had conquered. The theory now is that he conquered them for a victorious Poros. The rebellious troops of Alexander in the mayhem that followed his return immediately murdered Philip, and so Alexander appointed Eudemus and Taxilas in 325 BC to rule over this territory. Whether this was done for Poros is a subject that is as yet unresolved. Two years into this arrangement and Alexander himself died in 323 BC.

So it was that the territories of the Puru (Poros) were ruled by Eudemus, who, as claimed by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus of Sicily in his masterpiece ‘Bibliotheca Historica’, engineered the murder of Poros. So to the Greek ruler went Punjab. Thus over the entire lands that today constitute Punjab, with Lahore as its centre and Taxila as the capital, was ruled by Eudemus. So powerful had Eudemus become that he was able to provide 500 Punjabi horsemen, 300 infantry soldiers and 120 elephants in the war against Antigonus (The One-Eyed) as he waged war to capture Alexander’s Macedonian empire. So Punjabis were waging war in Europe well over 2,400 years ago. A few small mausoleums of these soldiers can even today be seen in Athens.

Eudemus left Punjab for Greece in 317 BC, and his successor Peithon also left a year later in 316 BC as war in Macedonia raged. For almost 100 years the Indus Valley portion of the sub-continent was without Greek influence. But their colonies prospered in Bactria, the Hellenised corruption of the Pashto word ‘Bakhtar’, the strip of land beyond Waziristan that today encompasses portions of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is also the place where the prophet Zarathustra was enlightened to start probably the world’s oldest religion that believed in one Supreme Being – Ahura Mazda – and where Buddhism took firm root. Most experts believe that the people of the Kalash are an offspring of those Macedonian soldiers. However, DNA tests put them in the Vedic-Aryan classification, even though a study led by Dr. Quintana Murci (2004) states: “The west-Eurasian presence of mitochondrial-DNA in the Kalash is 100 per cent.”


It was towards these Bactrian colonies that Chandragupta Maurya moved after destroying the rulers and armies of Magadha in pursuit of the Vedic ideal of one sole ruler of the entire sub-continent. It was in Punjab, or in the land of Ghandhara, that he faced resistance and found it better to have a treaty with the ruler Seleusus The Greek. In the exchange a Greek princess married Chandragupta, and this led to the fascinating possibility that Ashoka was half Greek. This led to peace and trade all along what is today known as the Grand Trunk Road.

With Ashoka having strong Greek connections and with active Greek colonies in Bactria, over time we see the people of this region having a good knowledge on how to cross the Hindukush and to fight the people of Punjab. The influence of the Greeks can be seen in many aspects of our lives. For example, have you ever considered why the Khattak dance, and the Bhangra as done in Sargodha, are connected to the kilt-like costumes they wear even today. These short kilts are Greek, which today can be seen on any computer if you search for ‘Greek traditional guards’. Many years ago as a hitchhiking student I was stunned by the similarity.

Let us try to find traces of this in our ancient texts. Take the narration of the epic ‘Mahabharata’ we find that in the Laws of Manu the word ‘Yavana’ is used specifically for foreigners, and that the Brahmin caste always referred to Greeks with great respect as ‘mahayavana’ – the mighty foreigners. We know of ‘mahayavana’ in Ghandharan cities and even villages, and it would not be a surprise if a lot of later-year rulers all have some Greek connection. We know that the Hindushahi rulers of Lahore who faced Mahmud the invader from Ghazni over 1,000 years ago ruled over a Punjab that included Peshawar and Kabul, as well as Kandahar and Kashmir, and they were certainly of Bactrian origin.

The Sialkot ruler Menander is known as a Greek in the famous ‘Milindapanda’, the holy Buddhist text. So the influence of the Greeks remained, and remains in our land much more than we imagine. Let us examine a statue that today lies in the Lahore Museum. My view is that it is among the most precious, and exquisite, statues that exist on Earth. The statue is known as ‘The Starving Buddha’, one of two ‘priceless’ statues that Pakistan has of the starving Prince Siddhartha. The other one is in the Peshawar Museum, which were smashed by earlier Hun invaders, and much recently by extremists. Luckily, major portions of it have been relieved and wired together in a somewhat imperfect reconstruction.

The subject of the starving Siddhartha is almost entirely Ghandharan, though as any student of sculpture, or art, will tell you the treatment is almost entirely Greek. The naturalistic precision of the creation is surely Greek. In no other piece of art is this more beautifully fused. The effect is stunning.

To fully understand the stunning beauty of the statue it might be of some use to know a bit about the circumstances of why Prince Siddhartha fasted to attain ‘Buddhahood’. His long six-year fast under the Bo tree at Urevala (in Punjab it is called a ‘Borh’ tree) meant that the flesh dissolved under the taut skin, the body cage and the vein stand out as the eyes retreat into the hollow. The body had shrunk to touch the vertebrae and the skin on his skull shrinks to show the cavities. If ever there was suffering this was it.

Imagine the skilled craftsmen who were able to represent the extent of concentration that sustained life. Beyond this point lay death, and the statue at the Lahore Museum shows it all. Our past is much more exquisite and beautiful and varied than it is represented in these terrible times. Reflections of Zeus can be seen in a sculpture of Vajrapani, Buddha’s attendant, also to be seen in the museum. The treatment of Greek symbols as they appear in decorative motifs in our lives even today reflect the enduring influence of an era we just refuse to own.


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