Foreign Influence on Indian Culture

Pancika and Hariti with Cornucopia
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Foreign Influence on Indian Culture (c.600 B.C. to A.D. 320)

- by Manjari Ukil

Long before Alexander reached the gates of geographical India, the people of the subcontinent enjoyed a sporadic cultural interaction with their immediate western neighbours through the “lateral valleys” of Makran and the mountain passes of Hindukush, which were major land-routes.

The complex nature of Indian culture makes it almost impossible to trace the traits left by the “foreigners” in that remote past. In a diverse and culturally rich country like India, there remains very little difference between culture and civilization.

The cultural life of a land consists of social behaviour of the inhabitants as manifested in their typical custom and usages, its spiritual emancipation enriched by the advancements of ethics, philosophy and religion, its aesthetic experiences and technical abilities expressed through the medium of fine arts and other aspects of higher pursuits of intellectual life.

The book examines in some detail the traces that the westerners left upon three major aspects Indian culture, viz. social life, fine arts and religion. It is an attempt to present a picture of the cross-fertilization of ideas in an age of Indian history when it came in contact with the geographically external ethnic elements.

Manjari Ukil with her childhood friend Tan Wen, Delhi 1967. They both taught at Indraprastha College at the University of Delhi in 1960s.
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Author’s Preface

In his inimitable style in the poem “He Mor Chitta” (O My Mind) Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore has said that in this vast sea of humanity of India have mingled so many races from far and wide,

In this land of India, on the shore of vast humanity
We know not whence, and at whose call, these myriad
streams of men
Have come rushing forth impetuously to lose
themselves in this sea.
Aryan and non-Aryan, Dravidian and Chinese, Scythian,
Hun, Pathan and Moghul, all, have merged into one body.”

(Translated by late Indira Devi Chowdhurani, Visva-Bharati Quarterly, Vol. VI, 1929).

In this book I have dealt with certain aspects of culture of ancient India from c.600 BC to AD 320. The complex nature of Indian culture makes it impossible to trace the traits left by the foreigners in that remote past. In a diverse and culturally rich country like India of the ancient times there remains very little difference between civilization and culture.

In this book I have dealt with certain aspects of culture of ancient India from c.600 BC to AD 320. The complex nature of Indian culture makes it impossible to trace the traits left by the foreigners in that remote past. In a diverse and culturally rich country like India of the ancient times there remains very little difference between civilization and culture.

The cultural life of a nation consists of social behaviour of its inhabitants manifested in their typical customs and usages, its spiritual emancipation enriched by the advancement of ethics, philosophy and religion, its aesthetic experiences and technical abilities expressed through the medium of fine arts and other aspects of higher pursuits of intellectual life. I have examined in some detail the traces that the westerners left upon three major aspects of Indian culture, viz., social life, fine arts and religion.

When I started my study several years ago on this subject, I had thought to make an attempt to trace the history of how India enriched her culture as a result of the contacts with the foreigners, who came over and over again and made India their home. So I had the title of my work as Foreign Influence on Indian Culture. But as gradually my work progressed, I realised that the topic was too ambitious and its scope was too wide as it would have meant to trace the influence of all the foreign tribes on all the aspects of Indian culture, which would not have been possible for me to do justice in a few years time. Consequently, I limited my studies to the western influences on some aspects of ancient Indian culture to make the study more complete.

I have planned the work in the following manner: First, the period of the study has been defined. I have chosen this period as it witnessed the succession of foreign invasions and immigration from the west and those people had brought with them completely new and different traditions of social institutions, techniques in fine arts and theistic ideas. India finds herself faced with difficult situations as the invaders and settlers had many uncommon cultural traits than hers. How India had adjusted to their culture as circumstances necessitated is a highly fascinating history.

India finds herself faced with difficult situations as the invaders and settlers had many uncommon cultural traits than hers. How India had adjusted to their culture as circumstances necessitated is a highly fascinating history.

It relates how the indigenous and the foreign tribes tried to solve the first clashes of inconsistency which later on had subsided down to give way to co-operation and mutual understanding. This happy co-ordination is one of the chief virtues of Indian civilization.

References in literature about India’s contact with the west in this period have come down to us. It was in this epoch that the Indians absorbed the spiritual thinking, saw the incursions of the sophisticated Persians from Achaemenid Iran, the proud and energetic Greeks and Bactrians, the more savage yet remarkably adaptable Scythio-Parthians and the versatile Kushans in the heart of their motherland. It was in this period that we find India becoming conscious about lands beyond her geographical boundary and her horizon stretching out towards the west.

I have given a brief political outline as a background of the whole picture. In the following sections I have dealt with the land and the sea-routes to and from the west to India, as those routes were followed in those ages. I have based my discussion of these routes on contemporary sources, chiefly Indian.

In the second chapter I have discussed the available Indian literary sources for the purpose. How and in what sense the term Mleccha (meaning a foreigner) has been used in the contemporary Indian literature is discussed in an independent section of this chapter. Some of the Indian tribes who had settled in the ages preceding in the bordering regions had been actually influenced deeply by the foreign contacts in this period and were branded as Mlecchas as well. They contributed considerably in enriching Indian culture. So I have included several of them in my study.

In the third chapter, the western impacts on ancient India’s social system have been included. The reason for presenting a study of social life first is that, before an external influence is felt on any other spheres of culture of a land, society in general faces its impacts first of all, and it is more susceptible to new things while other aspects of culture are rather conservative.

The Indian society is comprised of many institutions and systems, such as, the distinction of the castes, the various samskaras (customs) which the people followed, and common ways of life. The foreign impact is rather obvious on some of those social institutions while on the others it is not quite clear. I have taken into account only those aspects of social life on which the alien traits are somewhat pronounced.

After causing certain changes or renovations in the society, the newly arrived forces find their way to the realm of fine arts. They rejuvenate the visual and plastic expression and add new innovations to sphere of music, dance and drama. They add new varieties to the already existing set-motifs of the minor arts; refresh the stereo-typed skill of the traditional artists, artisans and craftsmen. In the fourth chapter, I have presented a study of all these influences in the realm of fine arts. It is a gripping history of how the new-comers made themselves and their skill prominent through the chisel and brushes of the native artists and artisans.

The foreign impacts take longest time to react on the sphere of religious life of a people. It seems that the human mind is more conservative in his theistic dogmas and anything that is new or branded with an exotic colouring is accepted only after a prolonged time-tested persistence. Religion is the last to yield before a fresh surge of foreign ideas. Society may accept new ways in it’s everyday life, that is, the styles may change in dress and costume, new dishes may be added to the culinary art, and acceptance of new modes and mediums of expression in it’s feelings in fine arts becomes obvious, yet it adheres to it’s philosophical and religious beliefs of hoary past. For in India of the past, as has been said, the art was the “hand-maid of religion”; any adjustment and inter-change of ideas in the realm of religion was bound to tint her artistic expressions too.

The fifth and the last chapter of the book deals with the study of the western influences on the religious beliefs of India. I have discussed the possible influence on the Brahmanical religion in a more detailed manner.

In separate sections, I have dealt with the various prominent sects that flourished during this period. The Mahayana Buddhism has been left out from this study as its main development does not come in the period and it is commonly accepted that Jainism got hardly influenced by any external doctrine.

During this period of study general disturbances and calamities fell over the land. One can easily imagine that the successive foreign invasions of the Achaemenid Iranians, Hellenistic Greeks and especially of the Bactrian Greeks, the barbarous Schythio-Parthians and the Kushans aroused a feeling if insecurity in the mind of the common people. It was heightened up by the bitter strife in between the followers of Gautama Buddha, Mahavira and the orthodox adheres of the earlier Vedic traditions. It seems, that in this period when the political sky of India was clouded with transitional uncertainties, the common people, irrespective of their faiths, viz. Vedic, Buddhist or Jaina, greeted any government that provided a shelter to them. e.g., be it Indo-Hellenistic, Schythian or Kushan, be the ruler a man with cosmopolitan outlooks, a devout Buddhist or a Brahmana, a Kshatriya, even a Vratya.

It is only natural, that some humanitarian authorities took the leading role and tried to create a happy harmony amongst the diverse centrifugal forces. Fortunately enough some of the great kings of this period-Asoka, Menander, Kanishka and Rudradaman were personalities of this rank. Indeed, the contemporary agriculturists, business guilds, artists, artisans, doctors, astrologers, priests, officials, clerks, literati-all belonging to commoner’s class had welcomed the golden rule of these kings which do not make any difference between the races, the castes and faiths. It appears from the literary references that the followers of the Gautama Buddha were somewhat more liberal in accepting the foreigners into their fold. But as their contribution towards culture was indiscriminately utilized by the Hindus, Buddhists and Jainas alike no classification have been made to define Brahmanical culture or Buddhist culture. Hence no distinction has been made either to describe a picture of a Hindu society or a Buddhist society, and Brahmanical art and Buddhist art. The archeological remains of this period are mostly Buddhistic, and it had cast a profound influence on the Hindu art and architecture of the period that followed. Therefore what the Buddhists accepted from the foreigners was adopted and applied by the Hindus.

The subject is very fascinating. This book is not in anyway conclusive. It is just an attempt to present a picture of culture interaction of an age of the history of our land when it came in contact with the others. The brief account that has been given is at least sufficient to show how receptive and full of vitality our people of these ages were. This could be just an opening for a fuller study of all the aspects of India’s culture. For a comprehensive study of this nature it is absolutely imperative to know many classical languages like Old Persian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin etc., and I have contended myself only with English translations. Though some of these aspects have been studied by other great scholars, I have tried to present a little more complete picture of the various aspects in this book and at many places I have suggested some new interpretations.

While conscious of my limitations I submit this book with the words of Srimadbhagavata Gita:

Karmanye-vadhikaraste…”     

Manjari Ukil
Santiniketan
September, 1964          

About the Author

Manjari Ukil (1936-2004) had studied Indology at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan under Professors Prabodh Chandra Bagchi, Sudhakar Chattopadhyaya and Ram Singh Tomar. Along with ancient Indian history and culture her allied subjects of study were Sanskrit, Pali and Ardhamagadhi under Professors Haridas Mitra, Siddheswar Bhattacharya, Nityananda Binod Goswami and Pandit Sukhamay Bhattacharya Shastri Sapta-Tirtha. From 1953 till 1954 she studied at Boise, Idaho when her father, artist Mukul Dey was a Fulbright Scholar to USA.

Manjari taught Indology at Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University; and, subsequently at Vidya Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan for about 25 years.

Born and married into a family of distinguished modern Indian artists, she had the opportunity to supplement her chief area of investigation with an insight into the evolution and development of Indian fine arts, sculpture and architecture.

Comments

Professor Subrata Chakrabarti, the present Head of the Department of Ancient Indian History Culture & Archeology at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan; wrote to us on 20 February 2007:

The book is undoubtedly an important addition to our knowledge, particularly the time span (c.600 B.C.-A.D. 320) was significant in our history for more than one reason; but, more importantly, the subject-matter i.e. foreign influence on Indian culture deserves special attention for historians of ancient India normally do not pay as much attention as should be paid on this subject.”

People interested in buying this book may please contact Satyasri Ukil