Ranajit Pal

If I went into England  against the will of God to conquer England, and tried to live there and speak its language, the devil would enter into me; and when I was old I should shudder to remember the wickedness I did.

 Joan of Arc  in Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw 

Joan was burnt to death and was said to have been possessed by the Devil. Alexander had a very different world-view than Joan, but was his mind in fact controlled by evil spirits? Indeed, even after more than two millennia, the spectacle of the party of the Macedonians and Greeks streaming out of Europe and risking their lives across continents and seas to mingle with the exotic peoples of Africa and Asia appears almost stupefying. Alexander was a controversial figure in his day and sadly remains so today largely due to conflicting ancient reports and improper assessment of the socio-religious scenario in Indo-Iran in the fourth century BC. The need to purge myth from history is continual but the portrait of the 'demythologised' Alexander painted by writers like Badian, Bosworth and Green appears muddied1 owing to their excessive reliance on the Greek and Roman sources which are indispensable yet often confused and late. Unfortunately the principal concern of writers like Arrian was the military aspect of his voyage and their story offers little insight into Alexander's persona or how he arrived at his ideal of the creation of a United Nations. Fortunately a study of documents in Asian language like Sanskrit, Pali and Persian reveals a very different portrait of the hero and offers a deeper insight into his life history. The study leads one to a jigsaw puzzle in which the bits seem to fall in place at the end.

Artists impression of Alexander's bier being carried from Babylon

As in Tyre and elsewhere his energy at times reached superhuman dimensions. Arrian wrote (A 7.1.1-4)

.. no matter what he had already conquered, he would not have stopped there quietly, not even if he had added Europe to Asia and the Britannic Islands to Europe, but that he would always have search ed far beyond for something unknown, in competition with himself in default of any other rival.

What lies behind this unbending resolve? The question has confounded all commentators. To understand Alexander one has to consider three great personalities who influenced him, namely,

Philip, who was a great leader of soldiers and men and also an enlightened king,

Aristotle, his teacher who was one of the greatest thinkers of all times and, lastly,

Calanus, the Indian sage, who was the great Buddhist scholar Asvaghosa4.

Philip not only left an empire which Alexander consolidated after his death but also an excellent fighting force that was far superior to the Asiatic armies. Like the fiery Indra in Indian mythology he was fervent and passionate and occasionally even impetuous yet on the whole he appears to have been humane and magnanimous. As his relations with Orontobates shows3, he was not above chicanery but his unique upbringing endowed him with a vision rare among conquerors. Aristotle's guidance greatly broadened his outlook and analytic faculties but although Aristotle considered the Greeks as vanguards of civilisation and saw the barbaroi in a poorer light, Alexander did not share this narrow view. He was a half-barbarian himself and 

The expedition, which was sanctioned by the Corinthian League, was in part motivated by simple pan-Hellenic sentiments to avenge previous defeats at the hands of the Persians but after reaching Siwa and more importantly, after Alexander came under the influence of Calanus, this changed into something far more pregnant that altered the face of the earth within only a decade. The invasion led to much death and devastation and brought misery to the lives of numerous people yet the story of the Macedonians and Greeks has a brighter side that has often been underrated. The voyage led to a new era in world trade and ushered in a unique nexus between men and women of different strata and nationalities. The numerous Alexandrias that he founded became the spearheads of Hellenistic culture. Droysen wrote that this led to an unprecedented intermingling of the East and West and finally paved the way for the rise of Christianity. It cannot be a mere accident that immediately after Alexander's expedition in the fourth century BC there was a rebirth of Buddhism. Bertrand Russell, a towering mind of the 20th century, observed,

We owe it first to Alexander and then to Rome that the achievements of the great age of Greece were not lost to the world, like those of the Minoan age.

Flames over Persepolis

In a way the burning of Persepolis established the ascendancy of the West over the East and marks a watershed in the history of the East-West conflicts. For Badian and his followers the story involving the courtesan Thais was clear proof of that power had started having a blinding effect on his mind and that he had gone insane. After such momentous successes it is only natural that Alexander's behavior would change but Badian clearly did not understand the Macedonian king. More than registering the ascendancy of the West, the burning of Persepolis signalled the end of the hegemony of the landed aristocracy and priesthood that the Persian state symbolised.  Tarn did not know that Gotama was the same as Gotama yet he correctly concluded that Alexander was reacting against Xerexes. In fact Alexander hated Xerexes not only for his war against Greece but also for the fact that he had banished Gomata/Gotama.5 Archaeological research has revealed that the Greco-Roman version of the events is far from true. As Tarn stated it was a well thought-out action, not wholly a result of drunken debauchery. Only Xerexes' Palace, the Apadana and the Treasury were destroyed.


1. Badianís views gained wide acceptance in preference to those of Tarn whom he criticised savagely but unfortunately the Harvard scholar took little notice of Eastern culture and religion. On the other hand although some of Tarnís views were partisan, the depth of his scholarship was far greater as he was familiar with both the Greco-Roman and Indo-Iranian worlds. As Alexander had spent a large part of his life in Asia, evidence from the Asian sources is of great importance in his history.

2. The term Brahman has several meanings but it usually designates the priestly parties Alexander hated due to religious reasons. This was stressed by Tarn.

3. The soldiers were probably horrified to realise that Sasigupta, who had so far been covertly on their side, was now their enemy.

4. See Ranajit Pal, Non-Jonesian Indology and Alexander, New Delhi, 2002. 

5. Gotama was the same as Gomata. The linking of Gotama to eastern India and Nepal was the result of a forgery instituted by the German scholar Dr. A. A. Fuhrer and patronised by the British colonial administration.  

6. Herzfeld correctly stated that Gomata had clashed with Zoroaster. There were probably many Zoroasters.