The World Of Megasthenes

In the third century B.C., a Greek ambassador wrote about India. It remains one of the oldest written works about India.

2300 years ago, the army of Alexander the Great stopped their campaign at the banks of the river Ganges. Alexander, who had conquered every foe he had encountered, had finally met his match. On the other side of the Ganges lay an even larger army than the one the Greeks had had just fought with tooth and nail. The men refused to fight any longer – and Alexander turned away from any further conquest of India.

Alexander’s successors tried and failed to invade India again. And so, they turned to soft power and diplomacy. A Greek ambassador named Megasthenes was sent to Chandragupta Maurya, who had just defeated Seleucid (one of Alexander’s generals). He stayed for a while in Pataliputra (Patna) and spent a total of four years in India. His account, “Indica” is the oldest known Western description of India and its people.

Megasthenes was an ethnographer, but he may not have known it at the time. The word ethnography is itself Greek – a combination of the words for ‘nation’ and ‘writing’. He wrote ‘Indica’ based on what he saw and heard. His attempt was to explain a new land to the unfamiliar Greeks. To them, India was a land of legend – which they often conflated with Ethiopia. These first accounts from Megasthenes and the men of Alexander’s army would play a vital role in creating a perception of India. And as with Marco Polo, Vasco De Gama and Columbus – the first challenge is to explain where India is.

India, which is in shape quadrilateral, has its eastern as well as its ‘western side bounded by the great sea, but on the northern side it is divided by Mount Hemodos [the Himalayas] from that part of Skythia which is Inhabited by those Skythians who are called the Sakai, while the fourth or western side is bounded by tho river called the Indus, which is perhaps the largest of all rivers in tho world after the Nile. The extent of the whole country from east to west is said to be 28,000 stadia, and from north to south 32,000. Being thus of such vast extent, it seems well-nigh to embrace the whole of the northern tropic zone of the earth.

He was a tad off the mark, by a few hundred scala, but one gets the impression. What else did he have to say about third century B.C. India?

He managed to stratify society – dividing it into seven estates. In his choice of seven strata, he seems to be emulating earlier writers – Herodotus had also divided Egypt into seven classes.

Not encompassing just caste alone, these included the philosophers, farmers, herdsmen and hunters, traders and boatsmen, soldiers, spies (as mentioned in the Arthashastra) and the political class. From his point of view, it was an equitable system – where farmers (who he identified as the most numerous group), did not have to fight in times of war and were not to be made targets of it either. In his description of the philosophers on top, it is akin to the Aristotlean idea of the philosopher king.

Such, then, are about the parts into which the body politic in India is divided. No one is allowed to marry out of his own caste, or to exercise any calling or art except his own: for instance, a soldier cannot become a husbandman, or an artisan a philosopher.

It is ironic that right before his description of caste, is a section declaring that there were no slaves in India. This is contradicted by the very existence of Shudras in the caste system – but here is where the nature of Megasthene’s accounts can get contradictory. In later chapters, he claims that slavery had been extinguished from the land by virtue of his king Selecus, but that Sandrokottos (the Greek name for Chandragupta Maurya) was bringing it back.

It’s not necessarily his fault – for the Indica was never fully recovered. What we know of it are the attributed quotes of Megasthenes in later Greek works by Strabo (64-63 B.C.), Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) and Arrian (86-160 A.D). The most authoritative collection that remain are 36 pages preserved by Dr. Schwanbeck in 1877 – from which the above quotes were collected.

Megasthenes account is filled with details, such as how elephants were captured (by digging trenches, trapping wild and tame elephants, and starving and fighting them into submission before their legs can be tied, and their necks cut all over so they don’t try to shake off their fetter), how physicians received free food and determined a baby’s gender before its birth.

But his descriptions also border on the absurd at times. He talks of ants used to dig for gold, tribes who had no mouths and ate their food through smell alone, a river where nothing floats. None of these claims have been verifiable – some are even scientifically impossible. The problem was not that Megasthenes was a liar – but that he repeated what he was told, without verification. This included some of the myths of the Greeks, who saw India in their own image.

He wrote of Greek gods worshipped by the Indians, in particular of Dionnysos:

Especially worshipped by the Suaseni…the garb worn by this Heracles was the same as that of the Theban Heracles, as the Indians themselves narrate; a great number of male children were born to him in India (for this Heracles also married many women), and only one daughter. Her name was Pandea, and the country where she was born and which Heracles gave her to rule is called Pandea after here [the Pandya kingdom in South India].

The myths of Dionysos (Bacchus) and Heracles is mentioned by Megasthenes, though he was not the first to claim this. Alexander is said to have found a city in India that worshipped Dionysos – and in Megasthenes account, the god of wine had conquered India thousands of years ago. More interesting is the claim that Herakles (Hercules) was also worshipped in India. Historians have often wondered if Megasthenes was referring to Krishna, Baladeva or Shiva in his description of Herakles.

Ultimately, Megasthenes left India after four years. Little is known about him or his travels, though it is suggested that he went as far South as Madurai (then capital of the Pandya kingdom). His writings make for interesting reading, and offer the thrill of finding descriptions of India that stand true even today. Megasthenes witnessed pre-Mauryan empire India, personally witnessed Chandragupta and his court, and offered the world a rare glimpse into the administration and cities of the Mauryans.

Future Greek historians and writers would make sharp criticisms of Megasthenes – whilst still relying on his work for their own narratives about India. Megasthenes combined his pre-conceptions of India with first-person accounts. And since we only know a portion of his writing – perhaps he had painted a bigger and more detailed picture of India that was lost to time.

Every ancient Indian historian owes a debt to Megasthenes. In the third century B.C., perhaps the best thing one could do to make oneself immortal was to observe what’s happening around you and put it in ink.


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