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Nerendra Modi and Byzantine Wine

Frederick Lauritzen

28th July 2023


The Prime minister of India, Nerendra Modi, went to France and celebrated the 14th July with President Emmanuel Macron. A state banquet followed, during which, Macron raised a toast to the guest. Modi raised the glass of wine but did not drink. He is a teetotaller.

Wine is important in France and considered a symbol of socialization.

As a Hindu, Modi does not drink alcohol. Such a rule is recorded in numerous Sanskrit texts, but one may single out the Manusmriti मनुस्मृति a key early Hindu legal code from the early centuries of the Christian Era. Here it describes what is appropriate for the Brahmins:

“There is no sin in the eating of meat, nor in wine, nor in sexual intercourse. Such is the natural way of living beings; but abstention is conducive to great rewards.” (Manusmriti 5:56 Olivelle).

Abstention from madya मद्य (intoxicating drink) is important. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his Laws (4th century BCE) had also recommended that those in charge of society should abstain from wine.

“So, a sober and wise leader must overlook the drunk, rather than the opposite. An unwise, young drunk among drunkards, would be lucky if he did not do a great misdeed.” (Plato Laws 640d4-7 Burnet)

The great Byzantine Greek epic poem about the War between the God Dionysus and the Indians written in the 5th century, talks about Dionysus, the God of Wine. It is the Dionysiaka of Nonnos of Panopolis.  It is the same length of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined. The poem refers to brahmins, occasionally, but more importantly indicates the Indians as teetotallers. One of the leaders of the Indians says his weapon is his sword rather than wine. The God Dionysius fights the Indians, and their king Deriades, with wine. He even transforms the river Hydaspes (mod. Jhelum in Pakistan) into wine:

"But the god pitied his foes in his heart of merry cheer, and he poured the treasure of wine into the waters. So he changed the snowy white waters to yellow, and the river swept along bubbling streams of honey intoxicating the waters. When this change came upon the waters, the breezes blew perfumed by the newly poured wine, the banks were empurpled. A noble Indian drank, and spoke his wonder in these words" (Nonnos Dionysiaka 14.411-418)

King Deriades of the Indians refuses wine. He drinks only the pure water of the river Hydaspes (sanskrit Vitástā वितस्ता) :

“I accept no other drink than golden Hydaspes.
My wine is the spear, my potion too the shield!”  (Nonnos Dionysiaka 21.259-260)

In the Sanskrit Nilamata Purana, written between the 5th and 10th century ce, the river Hydaspes is called Vitástā वितस्ता (also known as Jhelum) and is also divine for the Hindus as Nonnos claims.

Prime minister Modi of India does not drink alcohol since it is an intoxicating drink. The Byzantines, and specifically Nonnos of Panopolis, were aware of such practices by the Indian ruling class in the 5th century, contemporary with the codification of such ascetic politics in Sanskrit. Indian ideals are accurately described in byzantine mythological epic poetry.

Is Byzantine culture a privileged European vehicle to understand today’s India?

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