Foreign Relations of Ancient India
Author: Sana Shaikh
“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations...entangling alliances with none” - Thomas Jefferson
When we study the global dynamics of International Relations, we understand that to maintain harmonious relations with other countries, we should be acquainted with the process of how relations have developed so far. That is why, to dive deep into the Foreign Relations of Ancient India, let’s have a look at different developments.
For ages, a number of foreign travellers- Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Tibetans, Iranians and Central Asians visited India. This gives us a detailed written record of foreign relations of Ancient India.
How it evolved?
During 5th century B.C, ancient India was in connection with Rome. Herodotus in his book Histories gives information about the ancient India’s relations with Roman and Greek Rulers. A book called Natural Historica written by Pliny in first century A.D. gives the picture of trade links between India and Italy. This gives us clarity that India has been connected to Europe through trade, politics and maritime connection for more than 2000 years now. Various artifacts, merchandise, trading and coin exchange have been found which give us ample of evidence that the connections were strong and consistent. A political connection of North West India through Perso-Greek war also gets established through this book.
Along with Europe, ancient India had connections with China for more than 1500 years now. This is supported by the evidence we found in accounts written by famous Chinese travelers to India namely Fa-Hien, Hieun Tsang and It-sing. Fa-hien visited India during the reign of Chandragupta II and learnt about the social, economic, political conditions of India whereas Hieun Tsang visited India during the reign of Harshvardhan and got educated at University of Nalanda. It-sing in his book ‘A record of the Buddhist Religion as practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago’ tells about his education at Nalanda. This tells us that there was exchange of knowledge between India and China for centuries now.
What Indian scriptures told about Foreign relations?
Two important scriptures of India, Ramayana and Mahabharata were the strong foundations of Foreign Relations of Ancient India. When Lord Rama ruled the land of India almost 7000 years ago, he developed relations with other countries on spiritual grounds. According to Ramayana, India had relationship with Sri Lanka on the basis of religion and spirituality. The relations sustain even today!
We find many references in which King Ashoka one of the most globally advanced kings of India had his reach throughout the world. Evidence shows the use of Kharoshthi script in Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra edicts in North proving strong contact with Iran. There are references to the Greeks in the rock edicts of Ashoka. On certain occasions, the word ‘Greek’ was used to refer to the Hellenic Kingdom. Antiochus II of Syria is more frequently mentioned. The other Hellenistic Kings where Ashoka sent missions to establish mutual relations were Ptolemy II from Philadelphia of Egypt, Magas of Cyrene, Antigonus Gonatus of Macedonia and Alexander of Epirus.
A book called ‘Dipavamsa’ describes in length the role of Ashoka in the spread of Buddhism in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The famous Megasthenes lived as representative of Seleucus Nikator in the court of Chandragupta Maurya and wrote a book called “Indica”. This book gives detailed account of the relations of India and Greek Kingdoms in ancient times. No wonder, India has been one of the most civilized and global countries of the world.
The importance of maintaining foreign relations
We develop relations with other countries in order to support, encourage and elevate each other towards development and enhance the quality of environment for both to co-exist peacefully. This does not happen in a day. It takes centuries. Relations are like flowering plants that bloom gradually only when the time is right. Yet, we are bound to water it every single day in order to keep it healthy and green. The same theory applies to Ancient India’s Foreign Relations. Over a course of time, India has gotten connected with the country surrounding it. It has taken ages for India to reach where it is today in India’s Foreign Relations. The history of development of these relations is a very interesting process to witness and huge wisdom is hidden in building India’s Foreign Policy.
India for ages has been the land of civilizations and kingdoms. Infinite numbers of Kings and Queens have ruled this land for centuries and have left a remarkable footprint on the current relations of India. Whether it is the relation with Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka or Thailand, we have gone through series of events including ups and downs with all of them for a long time now.
We also know that Buddhism and Hinduism became one of key markers in India’s close engagement with South East Asia. India back then established connections through trade, commerce, cultural exchange and maritime connectivity.
Ashoka was supported by India’s highest visionary and foreign policy maker Chanakya. The foreign policies he developed to expand the Mauryan Dynasty are instrumental and pole star for Indian Foreign Services even today. Under his theory, one of the oldest strategies for maintaining foreign relations called Raja Mandala came up. The states participate in diplomacy and war using the six methods of foreign policy. Chanakya gave six principles to maintain India’s Foreign Relations as Sandhi (making peace with strong enemy), Vigraha (policy of hostility), Asana (keeping quiet), Yana (March or Expedition), Sansarya means seeking shelter with another king, Dvaidhibhava refers to the double policy of Sandhi with one king and Vigraha with another at a time. Kautilya has mentioned four tactics to overcome the opposition viz. Saama (Conciliation), Daama (Gifts), Danda (Force) and Bheda (Dissension).
The above discussed methods helped Ancient India to establish the connections with other countries as well as maintaining the supremacy from the civilization perspective. Overtime, we have found deviations and use of soft power to deal with the foreign relations. Harmony, compassion and peaceful co-existence remain the foundations of Ancient India’s Foreign Relations till date.
1. India Today Web Desk, India, Philippines, Thailand and other ASEAN Countries share a Heritage – Ramayana, Nov 13 – 2017, https://www.indiatoday.in/fyi/story/india-asean-ramayana-valmiki-malaysia-indonesia-cambodia-sanskrit-1085141-2017-11-13
2. GK TODAY, Kautilya’s Concept of Raja Mandala (Mandala doctrine) and Shadguna in Foreign Policy, Oct 14 – 2016, https://www.gktoday.in/gk/kautilyas-concept-of-raja-mandala-and-shadguna-in-foreign-policy/