RUSSIAN PERCEPTIONS OF INDIA FROM THE EARLIEST TO THE 15TH CENTURY
Awadhesh Kumar Jha is a Research Scholar at Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at awadhesh4jnu[at]gmail.com.
Despite the absence of direct contacts, Russians had some knowledge about India from the translated version of various non-Russian literature. A 17th century document, now kept in Lenin Public Library, may be considered as the first Russian history of India. It describes about the political situation of ancient India, after the invasion of Alexander. It is written in the manuscript, that after the fall of Indian ruler Porus, at the hands of Alexander, India did not have any centralised polity, rather a de-centralised one in which there were chiefs in different pockets of Indian territories and those chiefs were elected by the people of that area. Russians adopted the Christian religion during the 1st Century AD, after which Christian literatures of Greece and Bulgaria began to come in Rus in large numbers. Theses literatures were translated in the Slavic language which provided information about different aspects of India. These information about India had taken shape during the time of the Byzantium empire which in turn had taken from the writings of the ‘church father’ and from the writings in classical antiquities by writers of late Roman Empire. In these literatures the stories, facts and legends from the Alexander campaign as well as writings pertaining to India of the ancient Greek traditions were included.
India’s Inexhaustible Wealth
“The story of India the Rich’ was one of the popular book in Russia on India during 11th-12th Century, which contains the famous ballad of Dyuk Stepanovich. According to the Russian legend, an Indian ruler, Stepanovich had gone to Kiev to meet its prince. The Kievan prince received him cordially and took all care of Stepanovich. On knowing few things about India from Stepanovich, the Russian prince became more eager to know about Indian wealth and its richness. All of this was explained to him by Stepanovich. According to the ballad, the Indian prince was allowed to trade in Kievan Rus, free of custom duties which many scholars says was true as far as Indian traders were concerned.
After knowing much about India, the perception which emerged about India was a land of plenty where there was an abundance of everything. Then after India was assigned soubriquets like “land of plenty and splendour”; “rich” or “bounteous”. Whether this privilege to Indian traders by the Kievan Rus was true or not may be debated but one needs to understand the connection between the image of India’s inexhaustible wealth and the subsequent freedom of Indian traders to trade custom free. It is possible that the prince of Kievan Rus might have thought of benefitting from the wealth of India through giving more access to Russian markets to Indian merchants.
According to the ballad of Stepanovich, an agent was sent in India by the Kievan prince to verify the authenticity of the tale of India which was said by the Dyuk himself to the prince. The agent went to India and on his return explained that “… India lies there before them all shining in gold; here they have places made of white marbles; here they have columns cast out of metal; and the roofs are gilded with gold…” The agent further stressed that the Indian ruler held the largest in the world catalogue in his storehouse, to the extent that for any number of clerks working for forty years, it was not possible to create that much amount of records as was there in India. According to the agent, the amount of ink and the number of pages used by the Indian clerks for the Indian prince inventory, would not be bought even the Russian capital, Kiev was sold for money.
The Indian Religion, its Culture and St. Thomas
India was mentioned in the mythical literatures of Russia, which gets inducted in the popular perceptions in the later literatures of Greek orthodox Slavs. Literatures pertaining to India and related to the Indian saints and hermits were translated and spread in Russia during 12th -13th centuries, foremost amongst them was the ‘The acts of St. Thomas in India’. This book, ‘The acts of St. Thomas in India’ was translated from Greeks via Serbo-Slavonic in the 13th Century. These literatures helped to make it a common perception that it was in India that there lie a Christian empire, who were converted in to Christianity by St. Thomas, and which was different from the western tradition of Christianity. It was only because of this idea that India was a Christian land, that the famous Russian folk epic of Dyuk Stepanovich, the mother of the Indian ruler Dyuk Stepanovich was described as a Christian. This perception about India was different and in contrast to the earlier perception in the Russian folk poetry in which Indians were considered as Muslims or Pagans.
Ilarion, the head of the Christian church of Kievan Rus wrote the first book in Russian with a reference of India in 11th Century, titled, ‘The Sermon on Law and Grace’. The disciple of Jesus Christ, St. Thomas, converted the Indians in to Christian religion. That India was baptised by the disciple of Christ. The then Indian ruler Gondohernes was also converted in to Christianity by St. Thomas, and the latter had built a palace for the Indian ruler. One of the ancient accounts in Russia, ‘the Chronicle of times past’ mentions that the limits of the earth was wide as it was distributed in the form of nations all over the world as far as from Persia to India. The account mentions about the manners and customs of the Indians, particularly that of Brahmans (or Shramanas, as they were sometimes referred to). These Indians are described as possessing high virtue and full of piety. They did not eat meat, nor did they drink wine and also did not do any harm to anyone. Similarly the ‘Chronographia’ of John Malalas also talks about the piousness of Indian Brahmans as possessing good qualities.
‘Stephanites’ and ‘Ihnelates’ were the two works which appeared in Rus during the 15th Century in which Indian stories included in the ‘Indian Panchtantra’ were discussed. Panchatantra was translated from Sanskrit in to Pehlevi language for the first time by the Iranian, Sassanid emperor Khusro Anushirvan. From Pehlevi it was translated to Arabic, then to Greek language, and finally to South Slav in the fifteenth Century. The work was considered as an important book which could help people in correcting ills of life, i.e. they could make their life better. It was “an essay on vital matters set forth in parables, by an Indian philosopher on the inspiration of his emperor.” The Russian version was engaging as well as instructive literature. Sometimes even the substances of the stories were changed to include things related with Christianity and to deplore greed and also to honour “those who suffered for Christ sake”.
The Wonders of India: Birds and Animals
The Indian prince, ‘Prester John’ had written a letter to the Greek ruler, Manuel Comenus, describing about the wonders of India. This letter was translated in to Russian in 13th Century which provided new impetus to the Russian understanding of India. The Russian version of the letter is titled as ‘The story of the Indian kingdom: of the great and famous state and all its wonders’. The letter has described about the wealth of India, where lived a wonderful bird who built her nest on the fifteenth Oak trees, where there were “wild elephants, unicorns, and aurochs with golden horns, camels and all kind of ferocious beasts.” The letter alleged that in India people had six arms, had eyes in their chest and were winged; the river flow through the paradise, pepper grew in large volume, precious stones called emerald were found in abundance, there was plenty of everything and interestingly no thief and envious persons was found.
‘The story of the Phoenix’, was the work of Clement of Alexandria in 2nd -3rd Century, in which one can find the description of Indian birds and animals. The narrative of ‘The Story of the Phoenix’ goes like this, that there was a wonderful bird in India called, Phoenix, who lived in the “sun-city” (Heliopolis). The bird was able to live its life without consuming any food for close to five hundred years and dies only on the orders of the priests of the city. The book also contains some information about the Buddhism in India and in Bactria (including the territory of present day Tajikistan). Indian birds and animals were considered strange in the literature of Byzantium Empire and this notion penetrated in to Russia too.
The Indian Society and the Brahmans
The reference of India’s Varna system in which there is hymns related to the ‘Purushshukta’ is mentioned in the Russian book of religious nature called ‘Dove-Book’ (also called, Golubinaya Kniga in Russian). The book details about the origin of people of different strata of Russian society. Taking the same line of explanation as has been done in the Indian mythological Hindu tradition, it is argued in the Russian ‘Dove-Book’ that the rulers of Rus had emerged from the head of the Adam same as Brahmans of India did emerge from the head of ‘Brahma’-the creator. Similarly the Russian nobles are said to be emerged from the sacred body of the Adam, same as in Indian case in which the Kshatriya were believed to have emerged from the shoulder of the ‘Brahma’- the creator. Russian orthodox peasants were said to be originated from the feet of the Adam, same as ‘Vaishya’ of Brahmanical tradition.
Apart from Dove-Book, other Russian religious account also mentions about India and the Indians. Indians, particularly the Brahmans were considered as a “blessed” people, and this notion was taken from the Byzantine and old Bulgarian literatures of 10th to 13th Century. ‘The Narrative of Macarius of Rome’, has explained about the blessed men of India who were living in a cave situated next to paradise, and they went naked, and had white hairs. The source for this narrative must have been the literatures of the late Greeko-Roman period with a description of Brahmanas. The ‘Narrative of Methodious of Patara’ also gives information about the blessed Indians as well as the Romance of Alexander the Great, in India during his campaign. Yefrosin was a Russian writer of 15th Century who had composed ‘A narrative of Rahmans and their amazing Life’ in which he clearly explained the Piety of the Brahmans and their non-greedy character. This he wrote at a time when Russian society was stuck with new malady, in which there was a constant dispute of the property of the religious institutions. Accrding to Yefrosin, Brahmans had “neither iron nor temples, nor gold nor wine, they eat no meat and have no ruler, no buying, they live naked, eat a few vegetables, drink sweet water, ardently believe in god and pray continuously”. Brahmans devotion to god and their fasts for its cause was so popular in Russia that there was a common saying amongst Russians that, “Russians fasts like Brahmans”.
Gautama Buddha and the Indian Polity
The work of 12th Century, ‘The Romance of Barlam and Joasaph’ contains information about the Indian prince who had left all his worldly possession on seeing the miseries of his fellow being. He was Gautama Buddha, and his life has been clearly dealt in the account. It is the biography of Buddha, and the term ‘Joasaph’ of the title of the book, had come from the word “Bodhisattva” of the Buddhist tradition. Both Joasaph and Barlam was canonised through this literature, and the book argued for why and how there was a transformation in the life of Buddha? According to a poem based on the story of Budhha, once an Indian ruler, Gautama, accidentally met with the “blind, leprous and toothless venerable old man”, and on knowing the miseries of that men, and knowing that every human had to suffer in some form or other, he decided to discard the established norms of society and put on a robe and went on to forests, never to return again to his palace. On a question as to why he was abandoning the worldly possession, he replied that, he was doing so for the eternal kingdom.
The Russian version of ‘The story of Alexandria’ which deals with the Alexander campaign in India appeared in Rus in 11th-12th Century AD. The book describes in detail about the Alexander campaign in India; his battle with the Indian ruler Porus; his interaction with the Indian Brahmans and other ascetics etc. The 15th Century version of ‘The story of Alexandria’ has included some more wonders of India, like that of an ant which could drag a horse, of people of India who had six legs and six arms etc.; that Brahmans lived in the middle of the ocean very close to angels and they were receiving the bliss of the God directly, that’s why they were free from doing any sins, they were called “Naked-Sages” who had control over their passions.