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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Ancient Israel may have traded with India, but whether its people and elites had any idea of India, or better, Indian civilization, cannot be known. This changed completely in the Hellenistic period. Numerous Greek-speaking Jews who lived not in Judea but in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly Alexandria, traded with India, and some had a strongly idealized image of it. In this the Jews were not alone. India and its mysterious wisdom fascinated the Hellenistic world. Greek legends had Greek philosophers meeting with famous wise men from the East to gain profound insights into nature. Two early Hellenist authors saw a particular link between Jews and India, a connection of philosophical wisdom. Megasthenes (ca. 290 BCE), who lived in India at the court of the ruling Mauryan dynasty, insisted that the opinions of ancient Greek philosophers about nature were already known in the East, particularly by Jews and Indian Brahmins.27 Clearchus of Soli (ca. 300 BCE), a disciple of Aristotle, went even further and asserted that Aristotle met a Jew of Coele-Syria who was “at once strangely marvelous and philosophical” and who “imparted to us something of his own.” Aristotle is then said to have added that the Jews “descended from the Indian philosophers.”28 There is no trace of these comments in what survives of Aristotle’s work. The historian Louis Feldman regards Clearchus’ story as an invention. But it does reflect a Hellenistic commonplace that linked Jews to Indians.29

Did Jews themselves transmit this commonplace or even help to create it? This is indeed possible, considering the admiration with which the two most famous Greek-speaking Jews of the time, the philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE) and the historian Flavius Josephus (37 CE –ca. 100 CE) spoke about India. Both presented India as a model that Jews should emulate, but each did so for different reasons; Philo did so implicitly, Josephus explicitly. Jews and Indians have occasionally met, but their most important meeting place was neither India nor Jerusalem nor Alexandria – it was the “country of imagination.” For Hellenistic Jewish intellectuals, such as Philo and Josephus, this imaginary India raised the key question of their time (and ours too) in a new way: how could Jews remain loyal to their tradition and identity while living under a foreign, culturally overwhelming domination?

Although India was not central to Philo’s interests, it was always part of his intellectual baggage. His work includes seven references to India. Some are minor and mention its spices, animals, or customs, but at least one is very significant. Philo’s book Every Good Man is Free contains the author’s famous description of the Essenes, the ascetic Jewish sect that lived in the Judean desert. Philo praises their piety, holiness, and sense of justice, and calls them “free from the pedantry of Greek worldliness.”30 The pages on the Essenes are followed directly by the author’s equally enthusiastic praise for the comparable Indian gymnosophists a caste of philosophers (the Brahmins?) “who make the whole of their life an exhibition of virtue.”31 Philo specifically commends the moral rectitude and courage of one of them, Calanus, who daringly resisted the demands of Alexander the Great with the following words: “There is no king, no ruler who will compel us to do what we will not freely wish to do. We are not like these philosophers of the Greeks … Virtues secure to us blessedness and freedom.”32

This imaginary Indian, Calanus, does not mention Jews, but the location of the story immediately after that of the Essenes, and the derogatory comments about the Greeks in both stories, leave no doubt that here Philo is not addressing the Greeks but his fellow Alexandrian Jews. He knew their opulence, pride, and growing assimilation to Greek culture well enough. He shows them the Jewish Essenes and the Indian gymnosophists as related exemplars of frugality, courage, and loyalty to their ancient religious traditions, both more worthy of emulation than the contemporary Greek ways. Philo knew his Jews, but what did he know of India? Philo came from a family of rich Jewish traders who were well connected to Roman imperial power. One of his nephews, Marcus Julius Alexander, was a long-distance trader with possible business links to India.33 Philo may have gained first-hand knowledge of India from him as well as from other Jewish traders. He mentions several cases of religiously-motivated self-immolation of Indian men and of widows who agreed – allegedly freely – to be burned with their dead husbands’ bodies. He does not condemn these well-known ancient Hindu practices although Judaism would strictly forbid them. He never explains the religions of India. This is puzzling because his writings often emphasize the superiority of Jewish monotheism over Greek polytheism. In his time, Buddhism, which was originally without idolatrous practices, was still very strong in India even if it had begun to decline. Does this explain the absence of any criticism of idolatry in India? Apparently Philo had no information about Indian religion that could have tempered his admiration.

Much of the same could be said about Flavius Josephus, the historian who’s Jewish War describes the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. His work had a profound impact on later generations, both Jews and Christians. Flavius Josephus explicitly presents India as a model Jews should follow when he describes one of the starkest moments in all of Jewish history: the mass-suicide of the last defenders of Masada, who refused to fall alive into Roman hands. Masada was the last fortress resisting the Roman army until 73, three years after the fall of Jerusalem. When the Jewish commander Eleazar understood that the few hundred defenders, including women and children, had no chance to stop or escape the Romans, he reportedly exhorted his men to kill their families and then themselves rather than risk captivity, torture, and certain death. But his men “declared their dissent from his opinion.”34 He then gave a second, stronger speech that included a new argument:
“We … ought to become an example to others of our readiness to die. Yet, if we do stand in need of foreigners to support us in the matter, let us regard those Indians who profess the exercise of philosophy … They deliver their body to the fire … Are not we, therefore, ashamed to have lower notions than the Indians? And by our own cowardice to lay a base reproach upon the laws of our country, which are so much desired and imitated by all mankind?”35

Eleazar’s second speech finally convinced his comrades-in-arms to follow his advice, but is much too long and convoluted to be credible. It could not have been given in a moment of extreme danger and distress. Like all ancient historians, Flavius Josephus retrospectively constructed the speeches that could or should have been given in certain circumstances. But there was a huge difference between the conditions of Alexandria’s assimilating Jews and those of the last Jews of Masada, doomed to immediate extinction. Hence the attitudes of Philo and Josephus differed as well. Philo exhorts his Jews not to assimilate, whereas Josephus opposes and condemns the revolt against Rome. What Josephus’ post-mortem reconstruction of Eleazar’s speech shows is that he relied on the same sources as Philo of Alexandria, namely Hellenistic legends about Alexander meeting Indian philosophers who accepted death by fire rather than betray their moral convictions. The speech also reveals that Josephus’ admiration for Indian courage, readiness to die, and loyalty to tradition transcended his disapproval of the Jewish revolt. It appears that such views were not limited to Hellenistic Judaism, but were shared by some educated Jews in Judea as well, certainly Josephus himself was one of them.

Jewish-Hellenistic interest in India did not die with Philo or Josephus. Even as late as 400 CE, the Roman writer Claudian mentions this interest. One of his poems mocks the popular fantasy tales spreading at the time, including “all the vain imaginings of India depicted on Jewish curtains.”36 We know from other sources, too, that Jews were curtain painters in Alexandria.37 Apparently their mind was still on India.