Gurcharan Das on Hydaspes River

As usual, biz has me on the road accumulating airmiles… and the usual upside is some unbroken reading time — most recently with Gurcharan Das‘s India Unbound. The book is well written and covers a wide span of Indian history and issues both from Das’s direct (and apparently quite privileged) experience as well as his clearly thorough research. Emotionally laced with optimism for the future and regret for the past, this nonfiction book struck a chord in a way I imagine some find in escapist lit. Call it Bridget Jones for the econ-minded. Amartya Sen’s comments on the book are particularly interesting.

Das tackles the age old, highly politicized question of “Why was India rich, why is it poor, and when will it be rich again?” In the dozens of cases Das presents, one particularly unique example is a famous battle of antiquity and the first large scale military interaction between Desi’s and the West – the Battle of Hydaspes River in 327 BC.

The battle pitted Alexander the Great’s Macedonians against Porus (the Hellenic version of “Rama Puru”), leader of the Kingdom of Paurava in what is now the Pakistani section of ancient Punjab. Beyond the general intrigue and war narrative – feints, maneuver, logistics, and so on – Das finds a nugget of explanatory wisdom to his question – Teamwork.

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do – Samuel HuntingtonDepending on your proclivities, Hydaspes may have marked the beginning of Western colonialism in India and thus the beginnings of all that ailed its 20th century history. In Samuel Huntington’s famous aphorism — “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do” — Alexander was perhaps the capstone ancient example. Thus, the Battle of Hydaspes River may have set the imperial template for hundreds more, longer lasting incursions over later millenia.

Colin Farrell Encounters an Indian War Elephant… Would India ever be the same?

Alternatively, the interpretation that both Das and moi come down on, connects “organized violence” to “ideas or values” far more directly. One favorite writer of mine, Victor Davis Hanson, presents this opposing view and has this to say about the cultural significance of the Greek Phalanxes facing Puru –

…the phalanx was more than a singularly deadly infantry unit or a psychological weapon of terror. Its dense columns also reflected the solidarity of free men, who willingly donned heavy armor under the Mediterranean sun, crowded with one another in cumbersome rows, marched in unison — and defined courage as following orders, advancing on command and in rank, and protecting one’s comrade on the left. Aristotle thought the city-state — the very beginning of Western civilization — was identified by the emergence of such a strange way of fighting. Indeed, the polis arose, he wrote, when a new class of farmers — Europe’s first middle class of free property owners — began to fight in unison in these serried ranks, armored columns that other men, whether aristocrats, the poor, or those outside the Greek world, could not or would not emulate.

In this world view, the a priori choice for mankind over the long arc of history isn’t between violence and non-violence per se but rather between organized (law & military) and disorganized (crime, corruption & melee-style battle) violence. Cultural principles in turn determined where on this continuum a society lay — for the Greeks, the principles embodied in their style of organized violence were Equality + Teamwork. The Greek’s way of war, life, and governance were inextricably interlinked.

Battle of Hydaspes River: The Symptom or The Cause of India’s Troubles?

Folks who saw Oliver Stone’s Alexander may remember an, er, apparent portrayal of the Battle of Hydaspes River towards the end of the movie (alas, Stone devotes more filmtime to Alexander’s homosexuality vs. the specifics any particular battle). In some of the more visually arresting scenes of the movie, fish-out-of-water Macedonian phalanxes clash with monstrous elephants in a Vietnam-like jungle setting. A scene from the trailer shows a blood-spattered, wide-eyed Alexander (portrayed by a golden locked Colin Farrell) galloping down a jungle hillside on his noble horse Bucephalus to be challenged by a rearing war elephant….

Now, contrary to the Stone’s implicit portrayal, history generally considers Hydaspes River a decisive, brilliant victory (albeit possibly Pyrrhic) for Alexander — one that marked the furthest eastward expansion of his empire and perhaps the highpoint of an already legendary career. Wikipedia has a fine entry on the battle but for pure narrative power, I prefer this, more colorful take or this one for tactical analysis.

Although the initial order of battle may have tipped raw manpower in Alexander’s favor, Puru still had significant advantages in other, crucial areas –

  • The defender’s advantagemano a mano spear, shield & sword warfare of ancient times often prescribed that the attacker have at least a 200%-300% manpower superiority over the defender to be assured success. By most accounts however, even though bolstered by troops from freshly conquered territory, Alexander may have had at best a 50% advantage and was possibly equally matched with Puru’s forces.
  • Hometown — Alexander’s forces were 5 years and some 3000-4000 miles from home and their most reliable bases of supply and replenishment. Porus’s army was battling on familiar terrain.
  • Terrain — Amplifying his advantages as defender, Porus intelligently choose a swift river crossing to mount his line of defense. The crucial advantages of the Greek way of war was carefully coordinated, massed formations — played correctly, the rushing water would deny the Macedonians both. And hopefully, in those desperate yards as Alexander’s troops and cavalry were focused on the torrent rather than waging battle, Porus’ troops would be showering them with projectiles and greeting their tired, waterlogged masses with an array of sword tips on the opposite shore.
  • War elephants — Alexander’s forces had encountered these beasts only once before at the Battle of Gaugamela some 5 years earlier but in utterly ineffectual numbers (15 vs. 90) and different terrain (open desert vs. dense jungle) versus what Porus had now mustered. Historians like Plutarch and Diodorus vividly conveyed the fear these strange, almost mythological creatures stirred in the Macedonian infantry ranks as they contemplated their charge.

Defeated but not dishonored… Porus was believed to have towered at well over 6 feet tall – a giant in those times. Note his far larger stature in this Le Brun painting than even the victorious Alexander.

But… Puru lost. Though with tremendous honor and courage. Unlike Alexander’s nemesis Darius, Puru fought at the front with his men. And… –

..unlike the king of Persia, Puru did not flee nor surrender. Despite losing the battle, he kept fighting and goading his men to keep their honor. Alexander’s forces were impressed by both his size and his courage. It was only when he was hit by a dart on his right shoulder that, wounded and tired, he turned his elephant to safety… Soon, two envoys from Alexander came up to him. Loss of blood had made him intolerably thirsty. He halted his elephant and got down. Alexander’s envoys honored him and gave him water to drink and he commanded them to lead him to their king

As Puru neared the Macedonian lines, Alexander came galloping out to meet him. He was filled with admiration for his brave and proud adversary and asked Puru how he wished to be treated. “Treat me, Alexander, as you would treat a king,” replied Puru. Alexander was confused and asked him to be more precise. “When I said ‘a king,’” repeated Puru, “everything was said.” [Das, 39-40]

Conventional arguments for “why this outcome?” focus on the superiority of Alexander’s generalship — a factor which no doubt played a significant role and particularly in cases where Alexander found numbers working against him. Alexander clearly targeted his enemy’s logical rather than physical center of mass and lined up his strengths against his enemy’s weaknesses. Das, although “wary of cultural explanations”, puts forth a rather cultural explanation – “it illustrated for me an important weakness in the Indian character — our lack of teamwork“It illustrated for me an important weakness in the Indian character — our lack of teamwork”.” [Das, pg 36]

While militaries throughout history have had their class distinctions – heck, officer commissions were “purchased” by upper class Brits until the 20th century – they ran far more deeply in Puru’s army with far more significant tactical implications –

… beneath the surface, there were important differences between the two armies.. [such as] divisions in Indian society , which resulted in poor coordination in Puru’s army. Puru’s cavalry refused to aid the infantry. On the soggy banks of the [Hydaspes] that morning, Puru’s chariots got stuck and charioteers were unwilling to double up as infantry…

Puru’s upper-caste mounted cavalry did not sufficiently support the lower-caste soldier who was on foot. Jadunath Sarkar, an authority on ancient and medieval military affairs said that although “the Indian defenders of the Punjab were brave, each man fought to death in isolation.” The solders were “unable to make a mass movement in concert with their brethren of other corps.”

…Puru may have lost to the greatest general of his time, but the theme of poor teamwork runs throughout Indian history. Babur’s victories at Panipat and at Khanwa (against the Rajput confederacy, led by Rana Sangha) were partly a result of the same deficiencies. Although the Marathas had more cohesive armies, they too suffered because some subcastes armed themselves against others. [Das, pg 41]

And thus, as the ancient world gave way to a more modern world, and a “strange way of fighting” emerged where courage meant roles, teams, and tactics rather than heroic individual warriors. Along with it, the basis of wealth and governance shifted from artisans, kings and subjects to employees, officials, and citizens. And somewhere along the way, India fell behind… (Per the taxonomy in this article, India remained mired in a type of “limited access” society vs. “open access” warfare of the West).

But, all is not lost. Das’s book is fundamentally optimistic and hopeful and sees the basis for change all over India. On teamwork in particular, he readily draws the connection between competitive necessity and cultural transformation –

I believe that with more competition in the Indian market, we will get better teamwork in the business world. When companies fight for survival, there is less luxury for egotistical behavior; we sink or swim together. Since the 1991 reforms Indian markets have become more competitive, cohesion should gradually increase…. [Das, pg 43]

I readily share Das’s optimism and the seeds not just for Desi progress but actually greatness. The rise of large, efficient Indian corporations like Wipro and Infosys readily indicate that for at least one bleeding edge of society, the teamwork problem is being licked.

109 thoughts on “Gurcharan Das on Hydaspes River

  1. but the Indian peasant definitely possesses a rich culture, colorful rituals and festivals, and strong extended family (and dare I say caste) ties which do help him to get through an otherwise very bleak life. Rural China is just bleak all around.

    Not true (unless the statement was meant as a joke); Chinese peasant culture is just as rich, and rituals just as colorful. Also like Indian peasants they rely heavily on extended kinship networks.

  2. Amitabh,

    You definitely are a bundle of contradictions, where as you don’t miss any opportunity to berate English speaking Indians, you casually reliate Chinese Rural culture to bleak, I am not sure if you have any first hand experience or your emotions usually get the better of you?

  3. Amartya Sen is absolutely correct however when he criticizes Gurcharan Das for describing the corrupt and failed Nehruvian nexus of brahmin babus and bania industrialists during the License Raj as “socialism”:
    One of these is it’s tendency to describe our past up to 1991 as some kind of left wing Nehruvian socialism, and this is really a monstrous absurdity…….what happened reflects the class bias, the basically upper class bias of the previous governments. And to describe them as a kind of socialism is total absurdity……..

    Pathetic hogwash. So the soviets weren’t communists either. From china to cuba, everywhere socialism has gone poverty has increased and an entrenched upper class has emerged under the guise of representing the poor. sen and prema are spreading atrocious and obscene lies b/c they’re willfully unaware of the structural problems inherent in socuialism, basicly power corrupts and socialism concentration of power inevitably leads to things like the license raj,

    Now capitalism has arrived in India and china and they are growing at 8% and 170 million Indians have risen out of poverty.

    But prema, an utterly duplicitous defender of socialism, wants to make the same mistakes again under the guise of helping the very poor that their socialist policies created. What a load of nonsense! Half of Indian children are staving because of these callous socialists and they have the nerve to criticize capitalists and India shining sloganeers who are doing so much to alleviate the poverty created by the socialists indifferent to massive human suffering.

    Typically devious socialist. prema claims to defend the poor only to establish an abominable system that puts people like him in power. he needs the poor to justify his existence and thus has no motive to reduce poverty. How do you sleep at night knowing you are responsible for such wretched poverty? The hunger problem in India is worse than that in subsaharan Africa because of these fools. No wonder they get so upset at India shining, because when it shines, their game is up.

  4. Amitabh, You definitely are a bundle of contradictions, where as you don’t miss any opportunity to berate English speaking Indians, you casually reliate Chinese Rural culture to bleak, I am not sure if you have any first hand experience or your emotions usually get the better of you?

    Probably the latter…although I try to add value to the discussions here, and usually think a few times before posting anything, sometimes my impulsiveness gets the better of me…which goes for most of us here I’d say. The rural china thing is definitely cringe worthy.

  5. The “advantage” of English Personally I think the primary advantage is that it is relatively widely spoken.

    If it is an advantage where are the positive results? Why is the indian subcontinent, the Phillipines, and the african nations that have adopted english, so backward and impoverished? And why are nations like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan etc not handicapped by choosing their own mother tongues?

    China is very barely in the top half, and India is solidly in the middle of the bottom half.

    There are 44 nations between China and India and you keep insisting that they are in the same league, “not so far apart”. Get real.

    I will continue to lump them together because I think that they both having shocking and appalling levels of corruption, human rights violations, starvation, class inequality, and illiteracy.

    In starvation and illiteracy there is no comparison between India and China:

    http://www.wakeupcall.org/china_india_comparision/china_india_chart.php

    I’m sorry, but you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that it is better to be a Chinese peasant in Xixao than it is to be an Indian peasant in Rajasthan or UP. They are both living in glaring poverty.

    You are in denial like most indians. Hunger is the worst form of glaring poverty. There is more hunger in India than subsaharan Africa. Forget about China which has done a far better job feeding its children.

    you’re not the only person who reads Sen. As much as I respect him and his writings, his interviews are not the Word of the (Economic) Gods. Just because he thinks women are more empowered or that people are better fed/nourished in sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t make it fact.

    The denial is pathological it seems. Do you really think that a Nobel Laureate with an international reputation to uphold would pull numbers out of his arse? That he would not have access to reliable data?

  6. Oh boy, yet another wannabe comedian, Manju, makes an entrance on the stage. The selfish, callous, elitist, social-climbing right wingers are all aping each other it seems. Methinks Manju, a card-carrying member of the duplicitous/delusional “India Shining” crowd, is imitating his idol Razib. Though with his lower intellect his attempt at humor is far more pathetic. Like a drone he repeats the usual canard that the Nehruvian License Raj was “socialism”:

    socialism concentration of power inevitably leads to things like the license raj

    Ignorant nonsense or a stupid lie. Give us some examples.

    No wonder they get so upset at India shining, because when it shines, their game is up.

    See? The gullible clown is still trapped in the delusional lie started by the BJP that: “India is shining; the world is in awe of us”!

    Half of Indian children are staving because of these callous socialists and they have the nerve to criticize capitalists and India shining sloganeers who are doing so much to alleviate the poverty created by the socialists indifferent to massive human suffering.

    Blame the callous casteists, the corrupt Nehruvian brahmin-bania nexus, for India’s hunger. And if as you claim the “India shining sloganeers are doing so much to alleviate the poverty” why does India still lead the world in hunger and malnutrition?

  7. The selfish, callous, elitist, social-climbing right wingers are all aping each other it seems.

    i am not a social climber

    Ignorant nonsense or a stupid lie. Give us some examples.

    only ignorant fools who cling to the wreckage of a completely discredited ideology that is responsable for 1/2 of indian children starving could stil wonder how concentration of the means of production in the hands of the state could lead to corruption. it is common under Socialist governments that rulers live like mediaeval kings and unlike capitalist kings they did not create their wealth. castro is on the forbes list and chavez might get there too. cuba has a two tier heatlcare system, one for the elites and foreigners like michael moore, another appaling one for the people. look at the corruption in british unions during the 70′s. stalin killed more people than hilter in the ukrainian famine so i guess he was not a commie according to sen and prema b/c he hurt the poor. ditto for mao.

    Socialism is a system under which wealth, privilege and power are allocated according to political rather than economic criteria. socialist apologists like premea and sen, just like the castist apologists condemn “abuse” and claim it was not “true Socialism” despite the same thing happening over and over again. au contraire to sen, das is right. in fact, the license raj is a perfect example of socialism.

    And if as you claim the “India shining sloganeers are doing so much to alleviate the poverty” why does India still lead the world in hunger and malnutrition?

    because the callous heartless ignorant socialists and their castist brethen have made india so poor that it will take at least half a century of capitalism for her to catch up. since capitalists have lowered taxes, embraced globalizatiion, broke up public sector monopolies, reduced tariffs 170million indians have risen out of poverty while the economy soars at an 8% rate but the castists and socialist apoligists like prema only scoff b/c they would rather see children die than their ideology discredited. people with bloody hands shouldn’t point fingers.

  8. Amitabh, I don’t think it’s better to be a peasant in India than China. What I was trying to get at is that life sucks pretty comparably if you are a rural peasant in India as it does if you are a rural peasant in China.

    Prema, you are beating the same drum. I did not say English was better for the global economy. I said a common language in diverse regions can help facilitate economic growth, etc. Not a common global language, but a common language across a single country. Your examples (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) conform to that. You can keep arguing yourself into circles, it makes no difference to me.

    There is more hunger in India than subsaharan Africa.

    Only when you include South Africa in this analysis. Otherwise the numbers are comparable across multiple vectors – malnutrition, infant mortality, disease incidence. The only exception across the board is female literacy. I am not going to argue with you about what the worst form of poverty is. Hunger is absolutely awful, but so is dying of completely preventable diseases. I have also acknowledged that China does better in aggregate, but in many regions of China, particularly rural China, hunger is just as acute if not worse than it is in rural India. I prefer to compare apples to apples, not grapefruits to kumquats. Also, my stats come from the UNDP. If you would like links/tables, let me know.

    Further, I’m not an Indian, so I would appreciate if you didn’t label me as such. Thanks.

  9. Amitabh, I don’t think it’s better to be a peasant in India than China. What I was trying to get at is that life sucks pretty comparably if you are a rural peasant in India as it does if you are a rural peasant in China.

    And my point is that all things being equal (or equally dismal in this case), then your culture can at least help to alleviate some of the bleakness…by offering you succor, joy, color, music, identity, pride, kinship structure, whatever. And not all cultures are equal in this regard. I remember reading an ethnograph comparing rural Haryana and rural Mexico…there are major familial, cultural, and societal differences that lead to rural Haryana being a much more ‘social’ place, as opposed to the relative isolation (emotionally, socially) of many Mexican families and individuals. At least that’s what that one study concluded. But rural chinese culture is something I admit I don’t know a whole lot about.

    Further, I’m not an Indian, so I would appreciate if you didn’t label me as such. Thanks.

    ??