ALEXANDER IN A SANSKRIT DRAMA

by Ranajit Pal

Drama belongs to the enchanted world of make-believe that has little in common with history which is all about Truth ; yet a carefully interpreted drama sometimes provides priceless historical information. For what cannot be recorded as history due to political constraints can at times pass as benign drama. This makes it profitable for the student of history to enter the illusory and often inverted world of drama. The famous Sanskrit drama Mudrarakshasa of Vishakhadatta, which is still very popular in India, has long been foraged for historical clues but due to geographical delusions this has been in vain. Clearly, the interpretation of the play is in its infancy. Even great scholars like Rostovtzeff and Tarn were surprised to find no mention of Alexander in Indian literature and maintained that his legacy on Indian or the world civilization was insignificant. This sweeping conclusion is untrue - there are references to Alexander in the Indian literature which have not been recognised. In fact, Chandanadasa, merchant superior of the world in the Mudraraksasa is a phantom of Alexander. The prelude to the intrigues in the play is the fall of Alexander1 which was probably due to poisoning by the generals and Sasigupta. A living Alexander may have elicited more fear than respect, but the author of the Mudraraksasa pays homage to his memory through the noble characterisation of Chandanadasa.

No drama can be analysed without first ascertaining the period in which it was composed and the soil from which it arose. Although early writers like Dhundhiraja linked the play with the rise of the Mauryas, modern scholars have generally discarded it as unhistorical. None of the king-names can be found in the annals of Bihar and the frequent mention of Kashmir, Sindh, Hunas, Sakas and other north-western peoples only adds to the unremitting confusion. The learned sanskrit scholar Sir A. B. Keith remarked2,

A curious vagueness besets our knowledge of Vishakhadatta or Vishakhadeva, son of the Maharaja Bhaskaradatta or minister Prithu, grandson of the feudatory Vatesvaradatta. None of these persons are elsewhere known, and for his date we are reduced to conjectures.

Keith was unaware that this curious vagueness stems from one fatal mistake - Jones’ location of Palibothra, Chandragupta’s capital, at Patna3. Once this is discarded, there remains no basis for doubting Dhundhiraja’s claim that the play is linked to the rise of Chandragupta. A judicious study shows that Palibothra was Kahnuj in Gedrosia where Alexander celebrated his victory over Moeris or Maurya. Keith’s categorical assertion now contrasts sharply with the reamrk of the famous Orientalist Ernst Herzfeld that Vishakha (Vaesaka) was an ancient name in Indo-Iran. The name Prthu also fits better in Parthia and figures like Rantivarman, Vatesvara etc. suddenly come to life in the north-west.

Alexander's Fondness For Drama

Theatre formed an essential part of Greek social life and Greek drama was in many senses superior to its Asian counterparts. Sanskrit drama was also not immune to Greek influence yet it must be due to the extraordinary Indian genius in assimilation that the vast Greek imprint on the Mudrarakshasa has escaped notice - it is uncanny to realize that a central character of the play, Chandanadasa, is a shadow of Alexander the Great. The play reveals that although Chandragupta had later crossed swords with Alexander, he may have nurtured a life-long admiration for him. Justin tells an unusual story that once while Sandrocottos was fleeing, he became tired and laid down to rest, when a lion of great size came near him but instead of doing any harm it gently licked off his perspiration with its tongue and went away. This may be a hint at Alexander who always carried a golden lion.

The Locale And The Dramatis Personae

As the play is about the rise of Chandragupta Maurya about 3xx BC it was probably first staged at his capital, Kahnuj. Another place where it could have been performed is Bactria. During Alexander’s invasion, the Satrap of Bactria under Darius-III was the brave Bessos, leader of the Bactrians and Indians at Gaugamela. Curiously the Indian texts have no recollection of this leader of Indians which shows that he had a different Indian name. As Vasuh or Vasus in Sanskrit means ‘wealth’ or ‘Dhana’, Bessos appears to be Dhana Nanda of the Indian texts. One clue now leads to another - Darius-II No(n)thos was surely an earlier Nanda king. To identify Chanakya, it suffices to recognize yet another Nanda, Artaxerexes-III, who is called Ni(n)din in the Babylonian texts. Bagoas (the elder), his prime minister who poisoned not only him but also his son Arses and numerous other relatives, is surely Chanakya. An important figure linked to Bessos was his satrap Raja Sasigupta (Sisicottos) who switched over to Alexander. Sasigupta is clearly the same as Moeris or Chandragupta Maurya. Closely linked with Sasigupta was another brave warrior from Bactria-Sogdiana - Oxyartes - who is our Rakshasa. This identification literally opens the floodgates and shows unmistakably that Rakshasa’s close friend Chandanadasa is in fact a personification of Alexander. As Alexander’s widow became the titular regent after his death, Sasigupta found it expedient to join forces with Rakshasa, her father.

The Date Of The Drama

Keith dated the Mudrarakshasa to the 9th entury AD but maintained that the original work belonged to an earlier era. In the background of Jones’ mistake the interpretation of its political content has proved to be extremely difficult. While ancient commentators like Dhundiraja linked it with the Mauryas, futile attempts have been made to fit it to the locale of Bihar. F.W. Thomas suggested that Parvataka could be Porus but this found no support from Jonesian writers like Raychaudhuri and Keith who were eager to fit it to the locale of Bihar.