Scholia Reviews ns 9 (2000) 45.

Klaus Karttunen, India and the Hellenistic World. Helsinki: Finnish Oriental Society, 1997. Studia Orientalia, 83. Pp. ix + 439. ISBN 951-9380-35-3. Kr.200.00.

Stanley M. Burstein
California State University, Los Angeles

India and the Hellenistic World is the second installment of one of the most ambitious projects in contemporary classical scholarship, Klaus Karttunen's analysis of Greek and Roman knowledge of India. The first volume of Karttunen's project, India in Early Greek Literature,[[1]] treated the period before the reign of Alexander the Great and established the importance of Indian sources for understanding works such as Ctesias' Indica. The present volume deals with the period between Alexander's invasion of India in the 320s BC and the beginning of the Principate. Still to come are two further volumes, one on the Roman Imperial Period and one on Late Antiquity. When it is finally complete, the series will provide the first complete survey of classical knowledge of India since the publication of Christian Lassen's great Indische Altertumskunde in the mid-19th century.[[2]]

Although relations between Greek and Indian civilization existed for over a millennium from the mid-first millennium BC to mid- first millennium AD, interaction was particularly intense during the Hellenistic Period. Unlike other periods of antiquity, when contact between these two civilizations was primarily indirect, being primarily the result of long distance trade, Greeks lived in the subcontinent in substantial numbers from the reign of Alexander the Great to at least the first century BC as soldiers, settlers, diplomats, traders, and even rulers of kingdoms. As a result, the sources for the Greek experience in India and its significance for both Greek and Indian culture are substantial and of high quality, since they were often the result of autopsy. In addition to the fragments of Greek accounts of India such as those of Nearchus, Megasthenes, and Daimachus of Plataea, these sources include a mass of references to Indian matters scattered through Greek and Latin literature, allusions in classical Indian literature -- both Hindu and Buddhist -- and a growing body of archaeological evidence. Karttunen's unique combination of expertise in both Classics and Indology makes him the ideal guide through the maze of technical puzzles and problems that renders this material in general and the Greek experience in India in particular opaque to most scholars.

As had been the case with his previous study, Karttunen's goal in his new book is to interpret classical references to Indian antiquities in the context of relations between the Mediterranean and India in the Hellenistic Period. The result is a triptych. Two long introductory chapters on Alexander and his successors and Megasthenes set the stage, summarizing the history of the Greek presence in India and analyzing the fragments of the most important Greek account of India, the Indica of Megasthenes, Seleucus I's ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya. Two concluding chapters outline the history of the Greek kingdoms in Bactria and northern India and the development of the Indian Ocean trade. Sandwiched between these two historical sections lies the core of the book: two massively detailed chapters surveying Greek knowledge of India. The first deals with the physical geography of India, its hydrology and meteorology, and the second with the natural history of the subcontinent including its biology and geology and their military, commercial, and even medical implications. Karttunen's treatment of this vast and disparate material is clear and straightforward. Items in a category are dealt with seriatim. The focus of the discussion is facticity. In the case of each item, the relevant classical evidence is summarized, compared with Indian sources and modern scientific data, evaluated for accuracy, and identified.

The magnitude of Karttunen's achievement should not be underestimated. India and the Hellenistic World contains a complete inventory of what is known or can be surmised about the extent of the knowledge of the natural history in its broadest sense of India that had been acquired by Greeks during the three centuries following Alexander's invasion. The results are often fascinating. Ready to hand are clear and concise summaries of Greek knowledge of, for example, rice, bamboo, snakes, and precious stones, as well as surveys of the epigraphical and numismatic evidence for the Greek presence in India including a complete list of attested Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek names and their Indian equivalents. Valuable insights abound such as Karttunen's discussion of the deficiencies of the scholarship concerning Megasthenes' account of the caste system resulting from the failure to recognize the existence of multiple Indian theories concerning the number and nature of the Varnas.

No work, however, is perfect. Despite its many strengths, Karttunen's work also has significant limitations. The relentless empiricism of his approach means that the ancient accounts of India are treated as little more than collections of data. There is little recognition that authors such as Diodorus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Aelian, who provide most of the evidence for classical knowledge of India, were serious writers, whose works were shaped by personal agendas and long established conventions of Greek historiography and ethnography. Similarly, the results of recent scholarship on the role played by Nearchus' effort to create a heroic persona for himself in shaping his work or the influence of Hecataeus of Abdera's Aegyptiaca on Megasthenes' Indica are mentioned, but their implications are largely ignored. The result is a sense of an opportunity missed. The title of Karttunen's work, his generous view of Hellenism as the 'mixed culture of the post-Alexander era, in which Greek civilization and the Greek (as well as Macedonian) people participated, but not alone' (p. 1), and his mastery of both classical and Indian sources all raised the hope of a comprehensive and balanced synthesis that would avoid the sterile dichotomy between treating the Greek experience in India as solely part of Greek or Indian history that has bedeviled the subject since the publication of the classic works of W. W. Tarn and A. K. Narain.[[3]] Karttunen has not written that work, but he has laid the indispensable foundation for it, and for that we are in his debt.


[[1]] Klaus Karttunen, India in Early Greek Literature (Helsinki 1989).

[[2]] Christian Lassen, Indische Altertumskunde (1847- 1861).

[[3]] W. W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India (Cambridge 1951); A. K. Narain, The Indo-Greeks (Oxford 1957).