With a long history of invasion and colonialism, Indians are used to looking at themselves with the gaze of the “other”, especially if we live in an English language- centred universe. 400 years of Eurocentrism has given us a skewed and distorted idea of ourselves. It is worth noting, however, that India’s contacts with the world outside dates to much before this; to thousands of years ago, during the times of the civilisation on the banks of the Sindhu and the Saraswati, and they have been sources of its function as a cradle of universal ideas.
The Christian Western contacts with India are well documented. Here, it will be interesting and instructive to look at pre-Christian ideas and exchanges between India and the West. One of the most important treatises of a visitor from the Western world dates back to Mauryan times.
The oldest and most comprehensive record we have on India comes from Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador from the court of the Seleucid Emperor to that of Chandragupta Maurya. He wrote the Indika, a description of India, based on his sojourn. Megasthenes was a companion of Alexander of Macedon on his short-lived invasion of North Western India and had lived with Sibyrtius, the satrap of Arachosia, after Alexander’s death and during the fight of the Diadochi. On the establishment of friendly relations between Chandragupta and Seleucus, he was sent as an ambassador to Chandragupta’s court by the latter.
Sandrocottus has been mentioned by him in the Indika and has been identified with Chandragupta Maurya, placing the book squarely in fourth century BCE. (A caveat: the dating and chronology of Ancient Indian history is based on some seminal but problematic “identifications” which merit separate study).
Strabo, Arrianus and Klemens of Alexandria tell us most of what we know about Megasthenes’ life. Klemens informs us that he was a contemporary of Seleucus, Strabo that he was sent to Chandragupta Maurya’s court at Pataliputra and Arrian that he lived with Sibyrtius at Arachosia, and frequently visited Chandragupta’s court. Reportedly, he had even met Chandragupta himself.
Indika itself, modelled on Hekataios’ Aegyptiaka , was either in the Attic or Ionian dialect and was divided into four sections. Megasthenes wrote down descriptions of the country, its soil, climate, animals, plants, government, religion, manners of the people, arts, etc. In short, a detailed description from the king to the remotest tribe.
Over time, the book itself was lost. However, Greek and Roman writers— Diodorus, Strabo, Arrian, Eratosthenes, Pliny and many others— have quoted from his book over millennia. Its fragments lay scattered but, in 1846, Professor Schwanbeck of Bonn collected the scattered fragments and published them as a reconstructed Megasthenes’ Indica in Latin and Greek. In 1877, J.W. McCrindle published, for the first time, an authoritative English translation which remains a resource although it has been the subject of many critiques since then. What is the relevance of this book today?
For one, it is the earliest surviving and most comprehensive description of Ancient India by a foreign visitor— the first in the tradition of visitors such as Fa Hien, Hiuen Tsang and Al-Biruni who have provided valuable insights into the position of the country at the relevant time. Apart from its role as an invaluable resource for Indian antiquity, Indika’s influence on other Roman and Greek writers, and on their scientific knowledge, has been immense. It was not written “on the run”, so to speak, as snippets of information from Alexander of Macedon’s other companions were written, but was designed as an encyclopedic study of the country.
To provide a flavour of the book, here is an extract from the second book of Diodorus who has quoted an epitome or a kind of typical extract, a summary of Megasthenes’ Indika.
Fragment 1: The Epitome of Megasthenes as found in Diodorus 11.
“India which is in shape quadrilateral has its eastern as well as western side bounded by the great sea, but on the northern side it is divided by Mount Ilemodos...while the fourth or western side is bounded by the river called Indus..”
“India has many huge mountains which abound in fruit trees of every kind and many vast plains of great fertility-more or less beautiful but all alike intersected by a multitude of rivers. The greater part of the soil, moreover, is under irrigation, and consequently bears two crops in the course of the year. It teems at the same time with animals of all sorts…”
“The inhabitants, in like manner, having abundant means of subsistence, exceed in consequence the ordinary stature and are distinguished by their proud bearing. They are also found to be well skilled in the arts, as might be expected of men who inhale a pure air and drink the very finest water. And while the soil bears on its surface all kinds of fruits which are known to cultivation, it has also underground numerous veins of all sorts of metals…”
“It is accordingly confirmed that famine has never visited India, and there has never been general scarcity in the supply of nourishing food.”
“...there are usages observed by the Indians which contribute to prevent the occurrence of famine among them; for whereas among other nations it is usual, in the contests of war, to ravage the soil, and thus to reduce it to an uncultivated waste, among the Indians, on the contrary, by whom husbandsmen are regarded as a class that is sacred which is sacred and inviolable, the tillers of the soil, even when battle is raging in their neighbourhood, are undisturbed by any sense of danger, for the combatants...allow those engaged in husbandry to remain quite unmolested.”
“It is said that India, being of enormous size when taken as a whole, is peopled by races both numerous and diverse, of which not even one was originally of foreign descent, but all were evidently indigenous; and moreover that India neither received a colony from abroad, nor sent out a colony from abroad.”
It seems like a description of a fertile, happy and prosperous land amply blessed with natural resources of all kinds.
In the descriptions of Indika, the King was the head of the state and had military, executive, legislative and military aspects to his functioning. He was a hard working man and did not sleep or rest during the day, being available at all hours for administrative work. The empire was divided into provinces ruled over by viceroys, districts with their heads and a separate military administration. Soldiers and agriculturists made up most of the population. Soldiers’ weapons and equipment are also described in great detail.
Pataliputra’s municipal administration is explained in depth with the six committees of five people each, made up to look after foreign citizens, births and deaths, industry etc. This gives us the impression of a teeming metropolis of the ancient world.
The political situation of those times is presented with mention, not only of Chandragupta but also the Nandas, their fabulous wealth and ferocious army that deterred Alexander from entering India. There is some dispute as to whether the reference is to Mahapadma Nanda,the first of the Nava Nandas, or Dhana Nanda— the last King, deposed by Chandragupta. The story behind the accession of Mahapadma Nanda, that he was a barber who carried out an intrigue with the Queen of the last King of the Shishunaga dynasty, and murdered him with her help, does not match with Buddhist descriptions of him as the leader of a band of robbers who went from strength to strength and, finally, became the King.
Pandaie, the daughter of Heracles, is mentioned as ruling over 300 cities of the southern part of India with a huge army at her command. The reference to the Pandya dynasty of the time seems clear. The fabulous pearls of India also find mention, as does the method of obtaining the pearls from the oysters.
The mention of Heracles and Dionysus as Indian gods is a fascinating look at, perhaps, the earliest description of the worship of Vishnu and Shiva respectively. Heracles is associated with Mathura and Krishnapur and the Yamuna and so could correspond to Vishnu, while the association of Dionysos with hills and bacchanalian rites bring him closer to a description of Shiva.
Society was said to be divided into seven classes, according to the Indika; the sophists or philosophers, overseers, farmers, herders, artisans, soldiers and councillors. Later, historians have tried to correlate this to “caste” in India but this suffers from some serious problems. Although endogamy was a feature of these classes, admission into these was not on the basis of birth and there is no mention of the four varnas. This may be interpreted as providing some support to the understanding of caste in Ancient India as a more fluid concept, than generally accepted by conventional commentators. The story of Dandamis, the naked philosopher who confounded Alexander, is cited as an example of the intellectual strength of the class of sophists which is taken to correspond to “brahmans”.
Another controversy is the one engendered by statements to the effect that the Indians did not know the art of writing. This is in contrast to statements by Nearchus, the Admiral of Alexander, about writing in India and the evidence of Ashokan inscriptions— Indika’s own descriptions of milestones along the royal roads and records of births and deaths. Philosophers are also said to have given opinions in writing.
Perhaps the reference was to the fact that written laws did not exist; this is very possible because laws in India were smriti-based and not written down. The Indika states that there was no slavery, no one lied in the country and contracts were only oral: a contractee’s word being enough.
It is interesting to note that most extracts from Indika mention, in detail, the elephants of India: how they were trapped and trained, and maintained in captivity and used in war. The Arthashastra also spends an entire section on elephants, which goes to show the seminal importance of this animal in those times.
There are many marvellous stories in the Indika with gold digging ants, one-eyed men, a paradise of Hyperboreans located in India, ferocious dogs which could capture or kill lions, dog-headed men, one-horned horses and the miraculous spring “Silas” in which nothing could float. These have all been cited as proof of the mendacity of Megasthenes.
However, some historians have traced the roots of these tales to stories prevailing in Sanskrit literature itself. For instance, the story of the Uttarkurus, a race conceived of as ideal by the Indians could have been the seed of the Hyperborean story; Ekashringa or the one- horned, has a respectable presence in Sanskrit literature as in Mohenjodaro and Harappa. How far can we believe Megasthenes?
Here is another quote from Strabo, “Generally speaking, the men who have hitherto written on the affairs of India were a set of liars-Deimachos holds the first place in the list, Megasthenes comes next…”
Deimachos was the ambassador to the court of Chandragupta’s son, Bindusara. He, too, wrote extensively on India but none of his works survive even in fragments so we can only imagine his “lies”.
So, was Megasthenes actually a teller of tall tales?
At this point, we can only speculate. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that the book itself is not available and it is difficult to discern the authentic voice of Megasthenes from the fragments as quoted by others with their own agendas.
That it attempted a description of reality is affirmed by cross-referencing it with other sources wherever possible: the Arthashastra and Ashokan inscriptions, for instance. Many correspondences emerge on cross-referencing; the “agronomoi”, “astynomoi” and “strathgoi” correspond to the Kautilyan rural , urban and military division of society. The “polis” corresponds to the janapad, the “sunderoi” corresponds to the parishad and the “sumboloi” to the raja-sabha of Ashokan inscriptions.
For all the castigation of Megasthenes as a liar, Greek and Roman writers have tended to depend on him for most of their information about India. Even after the works of Periplus and Ptolemy were available in the first centuries of the Common Era, they continued to rely on him; possibly because the latter wrote rough, practical handbooks while the former was a classical writer who wrote with depth and understanding.
There is an emphasis on describing Indian civilisation as an ideal one and its people as noble and cultured. It may have been part of the Greek idea of the time of appreciating people different from them. They wanted to classify people not as either “Greek” or “Barbarian” outsiders but according to the attributes of civilisation found amongst them. They were looking for ideal projections in far off lands and tried to find it in India and Egypt. Egypt is the sub-text of the Indika; Megasthenes wrote his description of the land and people of India in an attempt to prove that there were countries better than even Egypt.
While it has to be read with care, there is no doubt about the fact that the lost Indika is an instructive and, indeed, entertaining description of India in times long gone, from a Greek civilisational perspective. The “West” was capable of appreciating and idealising the “East”. The disdain and contempt accompanying colonisation and its aftermath are but comparatively recent developments.
Ironically, this Greek civilisation has itself disappeared from the face of the earth and left only its ruins, while India survives and thrives.
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