web counter









IN this chapter we shift our point of view. We no longer try to transfer ourselves to ancient India and see for ourselves what is going on there : we ask instead what impression this magnitude, India, made upon another people the Hellenes on the shores of the Mediterranean, the progenitors of our modern European rationalistic civilisation. India is for us now a remote country, 2800 miles away.

The Greek peoples at the time when the Homeric poems were composed had probably never heard of India, and knew nothing of the Aryan cousins separated from them by the great Semitic kingdoms of Assyria and Babylonia. At most they knew that peoples of dark complexion dwelt, some towards the setting, and some towards the rising, sun. The Homeric Greeks used ivory, and were no doubt aware that it was the tusk of an animal the Phoenician traders indeed will have called it, as the Hebrews did, shen, 'tooth' - but the ivory was more probably African ivory brought from Egypt than Indian.

The Greek word for tin, again, found already in Homer, kassiteros, has been adduced to show that tin was among the wares which travelled to the Greek world from India. For the Greek word is obviously the same as the Sanskrit word kastira. Unfortunately the borrowing seems to have been the other way. The word kastira found its way comparatively late into India from Greece.

In the sixth century B.C. the Semitic and other kingdoms of Nearer Asia disappeared before a vast Aryan Empire, the Persian, which touched Greece at one extremity and India at the other. Tribute from Ionia and tribute from the frontier hills of India found its way into the same imperial treasure-houses at Ecbatana or Susa. Contingents from the Greek cities of Asia Minor served in the same armies with levies from the banks of the Indus. From the Persian the name Indoi, 'Indians', now passed into Greek speech. Allusions to India begin to appear in Greek literature.

It is not a mere accident that the books produced by a people who dwelt so far away from India should today contribute to our knowledge of ancient India. In the Greek republics a new quality was appearing in the world or rather the development of a certain factor in the human mind to an activity and power not seen before the quality which we may describe as Rationalism. That is what makes the essential continuity between the ancient Mediterranean civilization and the civilization which has developed so wonderfully in Europe during the last five centuries. A characteristic of this rationalism is a lively curiosity as to the facts of the Universe, an interest which directs itself upon the endless variety of the world, in contrast with that movement of the spirit, exemplified in the sages of India and in the piety of medieval Europe, which seeks to flee from the Many to the One. To be interested in a fact as such, to care so much about its precise individual character, as to examine and verify and try to get its real contours, to value hypothesis only so far as it can be substantiated by reference to objective truth these are the motives behind modern Western Science; and a disinterested intellectual curiosity in the facts of the outside world has actually helped to give the West a power to modify and control that world for practical uses never before possessed by man. It was the beginning of this interest in the facts of the world, the desire to see things as they really were, which marked ancient Greek culture, as expressed in its writings and its art. The universal curiosity of Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., the eager eyes of the men of science and of action who accompanied Alexander, the industrious enquiries of Megasthenes it is to these that we owe such information about India as the Greek and Latin books contain.

Scylax of Caryanda

And yet in order to estimate this information truly one must bear in mind some limiting considerations. The motive of intellectual curiosity just described, the critical scientific temper, has never been exhibited in complete purity. It is all a question of more or less. The Greeks had it more than any previous people; the modern man of science has it more than the Greeks; but not even the modern man of science has so far reduced all the other elements of human nature to their proper place, as to make his ciyiosity absolutely disinterested or his criticism impeccably scientific. In the case of the ancient Greeks, scientific curiosity was constantly being interfered with and thwarted by another interest which was strong in them: the love of literary form, the delight in logical expression. One of the reasons why Natural Science never got farther than it did among the Greeks is that a book-tradition would so soon establish itself in which the original observation became stereotyped and passed on from writer to writer with no fresh verification or addition. From the fifth century onwards a conventional classicism was always hemming in vitality and making literature opaque to real life. This is what one has to remember in approaching the Greek notices of India or their reproduction by Latin writers.

The classical notices of India represent only three groups of original documents, (1) the works produced by Greeks of Asia Minor from the latter part of the sixth century till the beginning of the fourth century B.C., (2) the works based upon the expedition of Alexander in the fourth century, and (3) the works of the Greek ambassadors sent in the third century from Syria and Egypt to the court of Pataliputra. The first group - Scylax, Hecataeus, Herodotus, Ctesias - was for most purposes superseded by the two later ones, since the expedition of Alexander marked a new epoch of geographical knowledge. Yet to some extent even in later times the earlier writers were drawn upon.

The first Greek book about India was perhaps written in the latter part of the sixth century B.C. by Scylax of Caryanda, a Greek sea-captain, whom King Darius (522-486 BC) employed to explore the course of the Indus. The book seems to have lain before Aristotle two centuries later, who quotes, as coming from it, a statement that among the Indians the kings were held to be of a superior race to their subjects. Scylax probably did not tell much of his own experiences in descending the Indus, or we should have heard of his book in connction with the voyage of Alexander. He probably preferred to astonish his countrymen with travellers' tales stories of people who used their enormous feet as sunshades (Skiapodes), of people who wrapped themselves up in their own ears, of people with one eye, and so on, with which the Greek tradition about India thus started and which it retained to the end. These stories, it is now recognized, correspond with statements in the old Indian books about peoples on the confines of the Indian world, and Scylax may therefore very well have really heard them from Indians and accepted them in simple faith

Hecataeus of Miletus had probably already given forth his geographical work, the Periodos Ges, before 500 BC. At the extremity of his field of vision there was some vague picture, derived from Scylax and the Persians, of the Indian world. His knowledge stopped on the frontier of the Persian Empire, the river Indus. Beyond that was just a great desert of sand. But the name of the people called Gandhari on the upper Indus had reached him, and the name of a city in that region, whence Scylax had started on his expedition down the river : Hecataeus wrote it as Kaspapyros. He mentioned the names of other Indian peoples too of the frontier hills - Opiai, Kalatiai are the ones preserved in his fragments - and a city of India which he called Argante. The fabulous Skiapodes also appeared in Hecataeus as well as in Scylax, though Hecataeus by some confusion connected them with the African Aethiopians instead of with India.

We may probably infer from the long geographical passages in the plays of Aeschylus, that a lively interest in far-off peoples and strange lands was general in the Greek world of the fifth century. Where an ancient Argive king in the Suppliants has to express wonder at the foreign garb of the Egyptian maidens, the poet takes the opportunity to give evidence of his anthropological knowledge. The king mentions different races whose appearance might be like that, and, in the course of his speculations, says : "Moreover I hear tell of Indians, of women that go roving on camels, mounted horse-fashion, riding on padded saddles, them that are citizens of a land neighbouring the Ethiopians".

In the Greek books which we possess this is the earliest mention of Indians by name.


A good deal of what Herodotus wrote about India (middle of the fifth century) was no doubt drawn from Hecataeus - his idea, for instance, that the river Indus flowed towards the east, and that beyond that corner of India which the Persians knew there was nothing towards the east but a waste of sand. Perhaps what Herodotus says is less remarkable than what he does not say. For of the monstrous races which Scylax and Hecataeus before him, which Ctesias and Megasthenes after him, made an essential part of the Indian world, Herodotus says not a word. Hellenic rationalism took in him the form of a saving good sense. Certain of the broad facts about India Herodotus knew correctly the diversity of its population, for one. "There be many nations of Indians", he says, "diverse one from the other in tongue, some of them are roving tribes, some of them are settled, and some dwell in the swamps of the river, and live on raw fish which they catch from boats of reed (Kalamos)". Herodotus knew also that the population of India was a very vast one. "The Indians are by far the greatest multitude of all the peoples of men whom we know", he says. Of course, the Indians who came especially within the sphere of his knowledge would be the more or less barbarous tribes near the Persian frontier. What he tells us therefore of their manners and customs does not apply to civilized India. Of the peoples beyond the Persian frontier he had heard of the marsh-dwellers, who dressed in garments made of some sort of water-reed. Other Indians dwelling to the east of these are rovers, eaters of raw flesh, and they are called 'Padaeans'. He goes on to say that members of the tribe were killed on the approach of old age and eaten by their fellow-tribesmen. Others of the Indians would not eat the flesh of any living thing or sow fields or live in houses. "Whenever a man of this people falls into a sickness, he goes into the desert and lies down there : and no one pays any regard when a man is dead or fallen ill". The Indians who dwelt near the city of Kaspapyros and the country of the Pactyes (Pashtus), that is, the hill-tribes about the Kabul valley, were, he says, the most warlike. It was from these, of course, that the Persian government drew levies. Among them was the tribe called Kallatiai, who ate the bodies of their dead relations. He describes the dress of the Indians serving in the army of Xerxes. They wore garments made from trees (i.e. cotton) and carried bows of reed and arrows of reed with iron heads. Some fought on foot and some in chariots drawn by horses and wild asses. The account of the ants who throw up mounds of gold dust, which afterwards became a permanent element in the classic conception of India, was given in full by Herodotus. The facts on which the account was based seem now fairly clear. Gold-dust was actually brought as tribute by the tribes of Dardistaii in Kashmir and was called by the Indians pipilika, 'ant gold'. When Herodotus says that the ants were the size of dogs and fiercely attacked any one carrying off the gold, it has been plausibly suggested that the account was derived from people who had been chased by the formidable dogs kept by the native miners.

As to the peculiar products of India, it is interesting that Herodotus told the Greek world, perhaps for the first time, "of the trees that bore wool, surpassing in beauty and in quality the wool of sheep; and the Indians wear clothing from these trees".

The peacock, which was introduced into Greece during the second half of the fifth century B.C., retained in his designations evidences both of his Indian origin and of the route - via the Persian empire - by which he had been conveyed; and it seems to be more than a coincidence that the only Buddhist mention of Babylon is in connection with a story concerning the importation of this magnificent bird.

Ctesias of Cnidus

Ctesias of Cnidus, a generation later than Herodotus, had exceptional opportunities for acquiring knowledge about India, since he resided for seventeen years (from 415 to 397 B.C.) at the Persian court as physician to the king Artaxerxes Mnemon. As a matter of fact his contribution seems to have been the most worthless of all those which went to make up the classical tradition. Ctesias apparently was a deliberate liar. Modern writers urge that some of his monstrosities his dog-faced men, his pygmies and so on can be paralleled by the statements in old Indian books.

This shows that Ctesias was not above saving himself the trouble of fresh invention when statements sufficiently sensational were furnished him by others. Any parallel which can be proved between Ctesias and old-Indian tradition is, of course, interesting and exhibits the Greek as to that extent a borrower rather than as creatively mendacious, and, where we cannot prove a parallel, it is always possible that the statements of Ctesias may have been suggested by travellers' tales; but it is equally possible that he was drawing upon nothing but his imagination.

One of his most monstrous animals, the creature as large as a lion, with a human face, which shoots stings out of the end of its tail, called in the Indian language, says Ctesias, martikhora - as a matter of fact the word is Persian - Ctesias affirms that he had himself seen, as one was sent as a present to the Persian king! This gives the measure of the man. No doubt, his wildest statements about the fauna and flora of India can, if sufficiently trimmed, be made to bear a sort of resemblance to something real, but it seems ingenuity wasted to attempt to establish these connections. The influence of Ctesias upon the Greek conception of India was probably great. It confirmed for ever in the West the idea that India was a land where nothing was impossible a land of nightmare monsters and strange poisons, of gold and gems. Where Ctesias described the people of India as 'very just', we may see the reflexion of a common Greek belief that a people of ideal goodness lived somewhere at the extremities of the earth, or in this case we may perhaps gather the impression made upon strangers by a social system so firmly governed in its complex structure and the working of its parts by traditional law.

It was generally recognised in the Greek world of the fourth century that a great race called Indian, a substantial part of mankind, lived towards the sunrising. When European science, in the person of those philosophers who accompanied Alexander, first entered upon the Indian world, it had already made one substantial discovery as to the world in which man is placed. It was generally recognised in the Greek philosophic schools that the earth was a globe. It was already a matter of interest to determine the size of the globe and to know the measure of the lands and seas which covered it. And the men with Alexander, who found themselves in the plains of India stretching to even vaster distances beyond, or who, from the mouth of the Indus saw the coast fading to the eastward out of sight, were anxious to know what dimensions and shape they ought actually to give to this India upon their maps. They had not traversed more than a corner of it, and, had they gone to its extremities, they possessed none of our means of accurate surveying. It was only by report of the people of the land, based ultimately no doubt upon the rough practical reckonings of merchants and seamen, that they could form any conception of it. This being so, the conjectures which they recorded for the instruction of the West, have interest for us today, only as showing how near the truth under such circumstances men could come.

European Ambassadors

Of the companions of Alexander, three men chiefly enriched the Greek conception of India by their writings. One was Nearchus, a Cretan by extraction, whose home was in Macedonia, where he had been a friend in youth of Alexander's. This was the man whom Alexander put in command of the fleet which explored the coast between the Indus and the Persian gulf, and Nearchus later on gave his own account of this expedition to the world. His book also contained a good deal of incidental information about India. He appears from the fragments quoted to have been an honest reporter, who took pains to verify the stories which were told him.

Another was Onesicritus from the Greek island of Aegina, who regarded the Cynic philosopher Diogenes as his master, a man with some practical knowledge of sea-craft, since Alexander made him pilot of the royal vessel down the Indus. Onesicritus took part in the expedition of Nearchus, and he too afterwards wrote a book about it and about India. Strabo considered him untruthful, and he has generally a bad reputation with modern scholars, though this unfavourable judgment has been seriously challenged.

The third was Aristobulus, a Greek probably from the Chalcidic peninsula, who not only accompanied Alexander through India, but was entrusted with certain commissions, perhaps not military ones. Aristobulus wrote his book long afterwards, in extreme old age. His interest was predominantly geographical, not military; yet his book seems to have been adversely affected by the rhetorical fashion and perhaps by the Alexander myth which had already begun to take popular shape at the time when he wrote3.

A fourth writer, a contemporary, but not a companion, of Alexander, Clitarchus of Colophon, also contributed to popular notions about India. Clitarchus wrote a history of Alexander of a highly journalistic character, drawing largely, it would seem, upon imagination. The book became the most popular of all the histories of Alexander. Although Clitarchus in his main outlines had to keep to the facts, so many eye-witnesses being still alive, the romance, as distinguished from the history, of Alexander takes its start from him. In the Indian part of his history, for instance, he introduced a delightful story of how the Macedonian army, marching through the jungles, had mistaken a troop of monkeys for a hostile army. Statements about India, from such a source, might get very wide currency without having much basis in reality.

The books written by the companions of Alexander or derived from their accounts were supplemented in the third century by the books in which the European ambassadors sent by the Hellenistic kings to India told what they heard and saw. It is very odd that with such opportunities none of the ambassadors seems to have produced anything substantial except Megasthenes. Had Daimachus or Dionysius given any fresh first-hand information of interest, we could not fail to have traced some of it in later writers. The statements quoted from Daimachus, that there was a species of yellow pigeons in India which were brought as presents to the king, and the notice of some peculiar-shaped sideboard, are a poor yield. On the other hand the book written by Megasthenes was the fullest account of India which the Greek world ever had.

Only one other writer calls for mention, Patrocles, who held command in the eastern provinces of Iran under Seleucus I and Antiochus I. One does not gather that his book touched India except in so far as it dealt with the general dimensions of the countries of Asia. Patrocles, however, had access to official sources and what he did say of India seems to have been creditably near the truth.

The companions of Alexander did not, so far as we know, attempt to give any precise statement of the dimensions of India. Onesicritus shot valiantly beyond the mark, declaring that it was a third of the habitable earth. Nearchus gathered that it took four months to cross the plains to the eastern ocean. When Seleucus had established his rule over Iran, and entered into diplomatic relations with the court of Pataliputra, Greek writers ventured to give figures for India as a whole. Patrocles put down the distance from the southernmost point of India to the Himalayas as 15,000 stades (1724 miles) - a happy guess, for the actual distance is about 1800 miles. Megasthenes was farther out in putting the extent from north to south, where it is shortest, at 22,300 stades6. "Where it is shortest" makes a difficulty, which the modern books seem to pass by.

Megasthenes probably conceived the Indus, like Eratosthenes, to flow directly southwards and thus to constitute the western side of the quadrilateral India. The general direction of the coast from the mouth of the Indus to Cape Comorin was thought of, not as it really is, south-south-easterly, but as east-south-east, making it the southern side of the quadrilateral. But, if so, the course of the Indus itself measures the distance from the northern to the southern side, where it is shortest. Megasthenes must then have made an enormous miscalculation, and that in a region traversed and measured by Alexander, for the distance as the crow flies from the Himalayas to the mouth of the Indus is equivalent only to 6700 stades (770 miles). What Megasthenes made the greatest length from the northern to the southern side to be we are not told, but his contemporary Daimachus affirmed that in some places it was as much as 30,000 stades (3448 miles). The distance from west to east, where it is shortest - the distance, that is, from the Indus to the Bay of Bengal - Patrocles put at 15,000 stades (1724 miles) and Megasthenes at 16,000 stades (1838 miles). The actual distance is about 1360 miles, but the figure of Megasthenes was got apparently by combining the 10,000 stades measured along the Royal Road from the Indus to Pataliputra with the estimated distance from Pataliputra by way of the Ganges to the sea, 6000 stades.

Eratosthenes, the great geographer, a generation later (born 276 BC), who is followed by Strabo, accepted the 16,000 stades of Megasthenes as the extent of India from the Indus to the mouth of the Ganges. But the western side of the quadrilateral - the course of the Indus - he reduced to 13,000 stades (1493 miles). The real projection of India to the south, however, from the mouth of the Indus was unknown to him, and he made Cape Comorin project east of the mouth of the Ganges. India was represented by a quadrilateral whose southern side was 3000 stades longer than the northern and the eastern 3000 stades longer than the western.

Besides inquiring as to the figure which India made upon the globe, the Greeks had curious eyes for the unfamiliar physical phenomena which here confronted them. The heavens themselves showed novel features, if one went far enough south the sun at midday vertically overhead, the shadows in summer falling towards the south, the Great Bear hidden below the horizon.

The companions of Alexander may have seen the sun overhead at the southernmost point which they reached, for the mouths of the Indus almost come under the Tropic of Cancer, and Nearchus may actually just have crossed it they learnt at any rate that they had only to go a little farther south to see these things. Onesicritus seems to have thought it a pity that his book should lose in sensational interest by this accidental limitation, and therefore to have boldly transferred them to the banks of the Hyphasis. The desire to achieve literary effect interfered continually, in the case of the ancient Greeks, as has been said, with scientific precision.

Mineral, Vegetable, and Animal World

The climate of the country, the new laws of the weather, struck the Greeks. They had never known anything like the rains which broke upon them in the summer of 326 BC. Aristobulus recorded that rains began when the European army reached Takshashila in the spring of 326 and became continuous, with the prevalence of the monsoon, all the time they were marching eastward along the foothills of the Himalayas. At the same season the following year the Europeans were voyaging down the Lower Indus. Here they had no rain. The rainfall of Sind, which is unrefreshed by either of the monsoons, is scanty and irregular. Almost rainless seasons are the rule. The cause of the summer rains Eratosthenes found partly in the moisture brought by the monsoon (and in so far he was correct), partly in the exhalations of the Indian rivers.

When the Greeks looked round upon the features of the country itself, India seemed, before anything else, to be the land of immense rivers. If, in discussing the topography of Alexander's expedition through Sind, one has to reckon with the fact of great changes in the course of the rivers, that characteristic of these rivers did not escape Aristobulus. On one occasion, he told, a commission on which Alexander sent him took him to a region left desert by a shifting of the Indus to the east; there he saw the remains of over a thousand towns and villages once full of men.

Megasthenes got his informants to give him a list of the navigable rivers of the peninsula, 58 in all. Of this list 35 names are preserved, and in spite of distortions, due either to the Greek's mishearing of the native sounds or to the various transcriptions through which they have come down to us, some are still recognisable today.

The mineral, the vegetable, the animal world in India had all their special wonders for the Europeans. As to minerals, India was "the land of gems and gold". In the book of Pliny's Natural History which deals with precious stones a great , many are said to be products of India. It is often doubtful what stone is intended by Pliny's description, but one can recognise diamonds, opals, and agate amongst those enumerated. The ultimate source of information would here, of course, not be a literary one, but the practical knowledge of merchants. As to gold, Nearchus and Megasthenes confirmed the account given by Herodotus of the ants as big as foxes which dug up gold. Nearchus, honest man that he was, admitted that he had never seen one of these ants, but he had seen their skins, which were brought to the Macedonian camp. Megasthenes in repeating the story with minor variations added the useful piece of information that the country the gold came from was the country of the Derdae (in Sanskrit Darad or Darada; modern Dardistan in Kashmir).

Among the mineral wonders of the land Megasthenes seems also to have reckoned sugar-candy, which he took to be a sort of crystal; a strange sort which, on being ground between the teeth, proved to be 'sweeter than figs or honey'.

He wrote down too what his Indian informants told him of a river Silas among the mountains of the north in which all substances went to the bottom like stone.

In the vegetable realm, the Greeks noticed the two annual harvests, the winter and summer one, the sign of an astonishing fertility. They knew that rice and millet were sown in the summer, wheat and barley in the winter, and Aristobulus described the cultivation of rice in enclosed sheets of water.

They saw trees, which the generative power of the Indian soil endowed with a strange capacity of self-propagation the branches curving to the ground to become themselves new trunks, till a single tree became a pillared tent, under whose roof of broad leaves a troop of horsemen could find shade from the noonday heat.

Among the plants two especially interested them. One was the sugarcane, the reeds that make honey without the agency of bees. Megasthenes seems to have attempted a scientific explanation of its sweet juice. It was due to the water which it absorbed from the soil being so warmed by the sun's heat, that the plant was virtually cooked as it grew! The other plant was the cottonplant, yielding vegetable wool. Some of it the Macedonians used uncarded as stuffing for saddles and suchlike. Precious spices, of course, also and strange poisons were associated in the Greek mind with India. As to the latter, Aristobulus was told that a law obtaining among the Indians pronounced death upon any man revealing a new poison, unless he at the same time revealed a remedy for it; if he did both, he received a reward from the king.

Elephants and Monkeys

Among the animals of India, it was the elephants, the monkeys, and the snakes which especially drew the attention of the Greeks. The elephants, of course, showed them a type of animal unlike anything they had ever seen. Their size must have accorded with the impression of vastness made by the rivers and the trees of India. And to this was added their extraordinary form with the serpentine proboscis. Megasthenes gave an account of the way in which wild elephants were captured, agreeing closely with the practice of today.

The longevity of the elephant was also a fact which the Greeks discovered, though Onesicritus accepted from some informant the extravagant estimate of 300 years for an elephant's life. "They are so teachable, that they can learn to throw stones at a mark and to use arms, also to sew beautifully". "If any animal has a wise spirit, it is the elephant. Some of them, when their drivers have been killed in battle, have picked them up themselves and carried them to burial; some have defended them as they lay; some have saved those who fell off at their own peril. Once when an elephant killed his driver in a rage he died of remorse and despair". "It is a very great thing to possess an elephant chariot. A woman who receives an elephant as a present from her lover acquires great prestige", and any moral frailty she might show under such an inducement was condoned.

The monkeys too were a species of creature which naturally fascinated the foreigners. Different kinds are described. "Among the Prasioi (the people of Magadha)", says a late writer, copying from Megasthenes, "there is a breed of apes human in intelligence, about the size of Hyrcanian dogs to look at, with a natural fringe above the forehead. One might take them for ascetics, if one did not know. They are bearded like satyrs, and their tail is like a lion's ... At the city of Latage they come in crowds to the region outside the gates and eat the boiled rice which is put out for them from the king's house every day a banquet is placed conveniently for them and when they have had their fill they go back to their haunts in the forest, in perfect order, and do no damage to anything in the neighbourhood".

The same writer takes from Megasthenes an account of the apes like satyrs which inhabited the glens of the Himalayas. "When they hear the noise of huntsmen and the baying of hounds, they run up to the top of the clifls with incredible swiftness and repel attack by rolling stones down upon their assailants. They are hard to catch. Only occasionally, at rare intervals, some of them are brought to the country of the Prasioi, and these are either sick ones or pregnant females".

The forests on the upper Jhelum (Hydaspes, Vitasta), one of the companions of Alexander recorded, were full of apes, and he was told that they were caught by the huntsmen putting on trousers in view of the apes, and leaving other pairs of trousers behind, smeared on the inside with birdlime, which the imitative animals would not fail to put on in their turn!

The snakes of India were a third arresting species in the animal world. And here again it was the size, in the case of pythons, which impressed the Europeans. Some were so large, Megasthenes wrote, as to swallow bulls whole. The envoys coming from Abhisara to the Macedonian camp asserted boldly that their raja kept two serpents, 80 and 140 cubits long respectively (about 160 and 280 feet)! On the other hand, Nearchus knew that the smaller poisonous snakes were the more dangerous, and described how life in India was burdened with the fear of finding them anywhere, "in tents, in vessels, in walls". Sometimes they infested a particular house to the point of making it uninhabitable. The charmers who went about the country were supposed to know how to cure snake-bites. There was really indeed very little for a doctor to do in India except to cure snake-bites, since diseases were so rare among Indians - so at least, as we shall see, the Greeks believed. The Greeks also understood that there was some breed of flying snakes, which dropped from the air at night a poisonous secretion, corrupting the flesh of anyone upon whom it fell. The animals which lived in the jungles would, of course, be less in evidence for the Europeans who passed through the land, but they heard of them by native report. Nearchus never saw a live tiger, only a tiger's skin; Megasthenes heard that there were tigers twice the size of lions, and he knew of one in captivity which, while held by four men, fastened the claws of his free hindleg upon a mule and mastered it. The Greeks heard too of the wild sheep and goats of the hills, and of the rhinoceros, though the account given of it (taken probably from Megasthenes) can certainly not be based upon actual observation. Of the domestic animals the Greeks have most to say about the Indian dogs. There was that fierce breed, of which king Saubhuti had given Alexander an exhibition - the dogs which would not relax their bite upon a lion, although their legs were sawn off. It was this breed, or a similar one, which the Greeks understood from the Indians to be a cross between dogs and tigers!

Ethnology and Mythology

When we turn to the Greeks' account of Indian humanity, we find them noting that they were a tall people -"tall and slender" says Arrian, "lightly-built to a degree far beyond any other people". On the other hand Diodorus, following perhaps some other source, describes them as eminently tall and massive. In the south of India complexions approximate to the Ethiopian and in the north to the Egyptian. But in features there is not any marked difference, and no Indian people has woolly hair, like the negro races, 'owing to the dampness of the Indian climate'.

It is curious that there should have been discussion among the Greeks whether the darkness of skin was due to the action of the sun or to a property in the water of the African and Indian rivers. The Indians, or some races among them, were believed by the Greeks, in striking contrast with the truth, to be singularly free from diseases and long-lived. The people of Sind, Onesicritus said, sometimes reached 130 years. The intellectual powers which they displayed in the arts and crafts were attributed, like their health and longevity, to the purity of the air and the rarified quality of the water, but their health was also attributed to the simplicity of their diet and their abstinence from wine.

In what they say of the earlier history of India, the Greeks were concerned to fit in what their Indian informants told them with their own mythology and historical tradition. In their view of the past of India the two outstanding events were the invasions of the country by Dionysus and by Heracles respectively. Greek mythology told of the wine-god Dionysus as some one who had led about Asia a wandering army of revellers, garlanded with vine and ivy, to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals, and in India the religious processions in honor of Shiva, the royal progresses with drum and cymbals, especially characteristic of certain tribes, seem to have struck them as Bacchic in character. Evidently Shiva was India's memory of the conquering god, and these usages had been learnt from him ages ago.

Heracles the Greeks seemed to themselves to discover in Krishna. It was an accidental variation that the Greek legend represented him as having been born in Thebes and the Indians claimed him as sprung from the Indian earth. "This Heracles", according to Megasthenes, "was especially worshipped by the Suraseni, an Indian people (the Shurasenas), where there are two great cities, Methora (Mathura, Muttra) and Clisobora (Krishnapura), and a navigable river, the Jobanes (Jumna), flows through their country. 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 one only daughter. Her name was Pandaea, and the country where she was born and which Heracles gave her to rule is called Pandaea after her [the Pandya kingdom in South India]. She had by her father's gift five hundred elephants, four thousand horsemen, and 130,000 foot-soldiers....And the Indians tell a story that when Heracles knew his end was near, and had no one worthy to whom he might give his daughter in marriage, he wedded her himself, though she was then only seven years old, so that a line of Indian kings might be left of their issue. Heracles therefore bestowed on her miraculous maturity, and from this act it comes that all the race over whom Pandaea ruled, has this characteristic by grace of Heracles".

Our Greek author tells the story with some disgust and observes impatiently that, if Heracles could do as much as this, he might presumably have prolonged his own life a little. All this mythology, we may notice, the more critical Greeks, such as Eratosthenes and Strabo, were as prompt as any modern European rationalist to regard as unhistorical.

Megasthenes was given at the court of Pataliputra a list of the kings who had preceded Chandragupta on the throne, 153 in number, covering by their reigns a period of over 6000 years. The line began with the 'most Bacchic' of the companions of Dionysus, Spatembas, left behind as king of the land, when Dionysus retired.

Social Divisions

The most interesting part of Megasthenes' account is that relating to contemporary India, so far as he could learn about it at Pataliputra. His description of the seven 'tribes' or classes into which the whole people was divided is well known. These, as Dr Vincent Smith has urged, have little to do with the four regular castes of Hinduism. Megasthenes may have got his
number seven from some Indian informant, or he may have simply ascertained the fact that the people was divided into functional castes which did not intermarry, and then have made his own list of various occupations as they presented themselves to his eye. The confusion which he makes between Brahmans and Sannyasis - to both the Greek terms philosophoi or sophistai, 'wise men', were indiscriminately applied - and his separation of the Brahmans into different castes, according as their employment might be priestly or administrative or political, make it difficult to suppose that he was reproducing what any Indian had told him. But his seven classes may truly reflect the various activities which a Greek resident at Pataliputra could see going on round about him in the third century B.C.

The first class of Megasthenes consisted of 'philosophers', under which term, as has just been said, Brahmans and ascetics were confused. It was numerically the smallest class, but the highest in honor, immune from labour and taxation. Its only business was to perform public sacrifice, to direct the sacrifice of private individuals, and to divine. On the New Year all the philosophers assembled at the king's doors and made predictions with a view to guiding agriculture or politics. If any one's prophecy was falsified by the event, he had to keep silence for the rest of his life.

"These wise men pass their days naked, exposed in winter to the cold and in summer to the sun, in the fields and the swamps and under enormous trees....They eat the fruits of the earth and the bark of the trees, which is no less agreeable to the taste and no less nourishing than dates".

The second class consisted of the cultivators, and included the majority of the Indian people. They never took any part in war, their whole business being to cultivate the soil and pay taxes to the kings or to the free cities, as the case might be. Wars rolled past them. At the very time when a battle was going on, the neighbouring cultivators might be seen quietly pursuing their work of ploughing or digging, unmolested. All the land belonged to the king, and the cultivators paid one-fourth of the produce in addition to rent.

The third class Megasthenes described as herds-men and hunters. They lived a nomad life in the jungles and on the hills, but brought a certain proportion of their cattle to the cities as tribute. They also received in return for their services a grant of corn from the king. It is easy to recognise in the description low-caste people, who in ancient Pataliputra, as in a modern Indian city, were to be seen performing certain services to the civilised community.

The fourth class consisted of the traders, artisans, and boatmen. They paid a tax on the produce of their industry, except those who manufactured implements of war and built ships. These, on the other hand, received a subsidy from the royal exchequer.

The fifth class was that of the fighters, the most numerous class, after the cultivators. They performed no work in the community except that of fighting. Members of the other classes supplied them with weapons and waited upon them and kept their horses and elephants. They received regular pay even in times of peace, so that when not fighting they could live a life of ease and maintain numbers of dependents.

The sixth and seventh classes of Megasthenes cannot have formed castes in any sense. The sixth consists of the government secret inspectors, whose business it was to report to the king, or, among the free tribes, to the
headmen, what went on among the people, and the seventh of those constituting the council of the king or the tribal authorities. In numbers this class is a small one, but it is distinguished for wisdom and probity. For which reason there are chosen from among it the magistrates, the chiefs of districts, the deputy governors, the keepers of the treasury, the army superintendents, the admirals, the high stewards, and the overseers of agriculture.

When Megasthenes, in talking about the fixity of these classes, stated that the only exception to the law which forbad a man changing his class was that any one might become a 'wise man', he was saying something which was true only if by 'wise man' we understand an ascetic, not a Brahman. A sense of the difference between Brahmans living in the world and ascetics is implied in the statement of Nearchus that Indian 'sophists' were divided into Brahmans, who followed the king as councillors, and the men who studied Nature.


We may see something of the aspect of the country, as Megasthenes travelled through it, from his description of the towns built high above the level floods. "All their towns which are down beside the rivers or the sea are made of wood; for towns built of brick (i.e. sun-dried mud bricks) would never hold out for any length of time with the rains on the one hand, and, on the other, the rivers which rise above their banks and spread a sheet of water over the plains. But the towns which are built on elevated places out of reach, these are made of brick and clay".

Of Pataliputra itself Megasthenes left a summary description. Built at the confluence of the Ganges and the Son, it formed an oblong, 80 stades by 15 stades (9'5 miles by 1 m. 1270 yds.) surrounded by a wooden palisade, with loop-holes for the archers to shoot through, and outside the palisade a ditch, 30 cubits (about 60 feet) deep by 6 plethra (200 yards) wide, which served both for defence and as a public sewer. Along the palisade were towers at intervals, 570 in all, and 64 gates.

He also described the palace of the great Indian king, no less sumptuous and magnificent than the palaces of Susa and Ecbatana. Attached to it was a goodly park ... "in which were tame peacocks and pheasants. There were shady groves and trees set in clumps and branches woven together by some special cunning of horticulture. And the more impressive thing about the beauty of that climate is that the trees themselves are of the sort that are always green; they never grow old and never shed their leaves. Some of them are native, and some are brought from other lands with great care, and these adorn the place and give it glory - only not the olive; the olive does not grow of itself in India, and, if it is transported there, it dies. Birds are there, free and unconfined; they come of their own accord and have their nests and roosting-places in the branches, both birds of other kinds and parrots which are kept there and flock in bevies about the king. In this royal pleasance there are lovely tanks made by hand of men, with fishes in them very large and gentle, and nobody may catch them except the sons of the king, when they are yet children. In this water, as tranquil and as safe as any can be, they fish and play and learn to swim all at the same time".

Megasthenes noted down a variety of points which struck him in the manners and customs of the people. A noble simplicity seemed to him the predominant characteristic. Nearchus seems to have described the dress of the people in the Indus region. They wore clothes of cotton ... "and this linen from the trees is of a more shining white than any other linen, unless it be that the people themselves being dark make the linen appear all the whiter. They have a tunic of tree-linen down to the middle of their shins, and two other pieces of stuff, one thrown about their shoulders and one twisted round their heads. And the Indians wear ear-rings of ivory, those that are very well-off... Also they dye their beards different colours, some so as to make them appear as white as white may be, and some dyeing them blue-black : others make them crimson, and others purple, and others green. In the summer they protect themselves with umbrellas, those of the Indians that is to say, who are not too low to be considered. They wear shoes of white leather very elaborately worked; and the soles of the shoes are variegated, and high-heeled so as to make the wearer seem taller".

Megasthenes observed at Pataliputra that in dress the Indians, for all their general simplicity, indulged a love of richness and bright colors, wearing ornaments of gold and gems and flowered muslins, with umbrellas carried after them.

Nearchus described their guise in war. The foot-soldiers carried a bow as long as the body. To shoot, they rested one end of it on the ground and set their left foot against it. They had to draw the string far back, since the arrows in use were six feet long. In their left hands they carried long narrow shields of raw hide, nearly co-extensive with the body. Some had javelins instead of bows. All carried long two-handed swords with a broad blade. The horsemen had two javelins and a shield smaller than the foot-soldier's.

Their diet was distinguished from the Greek by the absence of wine, which they drank only in religious ceremonies; but rice-beer was generally drunk. Their staple food was pulpy rice. Each man took his food by himself when he felt inclined; for they had no fixed times for common meals. When a man would sup, a table was placed beside him and a gold dish set upon it, in which first was put the rice, boiled after the manner of the Greek chondros (gruel), and then on the top of it seasoned meats, done up in the Indian way.

Their system of gymnastic exercise differed from that of the Greeks: it consisted principally of massage, and they used smooth rollers of ebony for shaping their bodies.

Laws and Custom

Megasthenes, ignorant as he was of Indian languages, could say little of the literature and thought of the country. He only observed the much greater part played by oral tradition and memory, as compared with written documents, than was the case in the Greek world, though he cannot have asserted that writing was unknown, as Strabo would seem to imply, since in one passage he refers to written inscriptions.

In the sphere of morals it is interesting to notice that the salient characteristic of the Indian people seemed to this early European observer to be a high level of veracity and honesty. "An Indian has never been convicted of lying", he wrote in one passage, and in another pointed to the rarity of law-suits as evidence of their frank dealing. They are not litigious. Witnesses and seals are unnecessary when a man makes a deposit; he acts in trust. Their houses are usually unguarded.

During the time that Megasthenes was in Chandragupta's camp, out of a multitude of 400,000 men there were no convictions for thefts of any sums exceeding 200 drachmas. In Sind, Onesicritus said, no legal action could be taken, except for murder and assault. "We cannot help being murdered or assaulted, whereas it is our fault if we give our confidence and are swindled. We ought to be more circumspect at the outset and not fill the city with litigation".

The laws, Nearchus said, were preserved by oral tradition, not in books - a statement only relatively true. According to Megasthenes many of them were sufficiently severe. A many convicted of giving false witness suffered mutilation. In the case of bodily harm being inflicted, not only was the principle of an eye for an eye observed, but the hand was cut off as well. To cause a craftsman the loss of his eye or hand was an offence punished by death.

The cultivation of lands by a whole kinship working in association was noted by Nearchus. Each individual at the ingathering took as much as was calculated to support him for a year, and the remainder of the common stock was destroyed, so as not to encourage idleness.

The customs would naturally differ considerably from one region to another in India, then as now. Among the Kshatriyas of the Punjab (Cathaeans) and their neighbours of the principality of Saubhuti (the region of Gurdaspur and Amritsar?), according to Onesicritus, personal beauty was held in such estimation that kings were chosen for this quality, and a child two months after birth, if it did not reach a certain standard of comeliness, was exposed. The dyeing of beards which Nearchus described in the passage already quoted was especially a custom in this

Of the marriage system in India Megasthenes only understood that it was polygamous, and that brides were purchased from theirparents for a yoke of oxen*. He seems also to have asserted that, where conjugal infidelity in a wife was due to a husband's omission to exercise vigorous control, it was condoned by public opinion. At Takshashila, according to Aristobulus, a man unable to get his daughter married on account of poverty would sell her in the market-place. Nearchus stated that among certain Indian peoples a girl was put up as the prize of victory in a boxing match; the victor obtained her without paying a price.

Suttee : Disposal of the Dead

The custom by which the virtuous wife (suttee, sati) was burnt with her husband's body on the funeral pyre naturally struck the Greeks. Onesicritus spoke of it as specially a custom of the Kshatriyas (Cathaeans). Aristobulus was told that the widow sometimes followed her husband to the pyre of her own desire, and that those who refused to do so lived under general contempt.

In the year 316 BC the leader of an Indian contingent which had gone to fight under Eumenes in Iran was killed in battle. He had with him his two wives. There was immediately a competition between them as to which was to be the sati. The question was brought before the Macedonian and Greek generals, and they decided in favor of the younger, the elder being with child. At this, the elder woman went away lamenting, with the band about her head rent, and tearing her hair, as if tidings of some great disaster has been brought her; and the other departed, exultant at her victory, to the pyre, crowned with fillets by the women who belonged to her, and decked out splendidly as for a wedding. She was escorted by her kinsfolk who chanted a song in praise of her virtue. When she came near to the pyre, she took off her adornments and distributed them to her familiars
and friends, leaving a memorial of herself, as it were, to those who had loved her. Her adornments consisted of a multitude of rings on her hands set with precious gems of diverse colors, about her head golden stars not a few, variegated with different sorts of stones, and about her neck a multitude of necklaces, each a little larger than the one above it. In conclusion, she said farewell to her familiars and was helped by her brother onto the pyre, and there to the admiration of the crowd which had gathered together for the spectacle she ended her life in heroic fashion. Before the pyre was kindled, the whole army in battle array marched round it thrice. She meanwhile lay down beside her husband, and as the fire seized her no sound of weakness escaped her lips. The spectators were moved, some to pity and some to exuberant praise. But some of the Greeks present found fault with such customs as savage and inhumane.

The Greeks, we find, had a theory to account for the custom, whether of their own invention or suggested to them by Indian informants we cannot say. The theory was that once upon a time wives had been so apt to get rid of their husbands by poison that the law had to be introduced which compelled a widow to be burnt with her dead husband.

As to the disposal of the dead, the absence of funeral display and of imposing monuments seemed strange to the Greeks. The virtues of the dead so they understood the Indians to say were sufficient monument and the songs which were sung over them. When the Greeks tell us that the dead were exposed to vultures, we can only understand it of certain peoples near the frontier who had been influenced by the customs of Iran.

The assertion of the Greeks that slavery was unknown in India or, according to Onesicritus, was unknown in the kingdom of Musicanus (Upper Sind) is curious. That slavery was a regular institution in India is certain. Indian slavery must have looked so different to a Greek observer from the slavery he knew at home that he did not recognise it for what it was.

As to the government, the king himself is, of course, the prominent figure. He took the field with his army in war: in peace his public appearances were of three kinds. In the first place, he spent a considerable part of the day in hearing the cases brought to him for judgment. Even at his hour for undergoing the massage with ebony rollers he did not retire, but went on listening to the pleadings whilst four masseurs plied their art upon him. In the second place, he came forth to perform sacrifice, and in the third place to go a-hunting. His going forth to the chase was like the processions of Dionysus. The road of the royal cortege was roped off from common spectators. There was the king surrounded by a crowd of his women, themselves carrying weapons, in chariots, on horses, on elephants, the body-guard enclosing them all in a larger circle, and a band with drums and bells going on in front. Sometimes the king shot from a platform, defended by a stockade, sometimes from the back of an elephant.

Within the doors of the palace, the king's person was tended by the women of his zenana, bought for a price from their fathers. But he was not beyond the reach of danger. A stern custom ordained that should he become intoxicated, any of his women who killed him should receive special honor. And even though he remained sober, he had, like the late Sultan Abdul Hamid, to be continually changing the place where he lay at night, in order to evade conspirators.

Nearchus (?) had already noted that Indian kings were not saluted, as Persian kings were, by prostration, but by the persons approaching them raising their hands the Greek attitude in prayer. A great occasion at court, according to one source before Strabo, was when the king washed his hair. Everyone then tried to outdo his fellows by the magnificence of his presents. Clitarchus - a questionable authority - described the pageantry of a court festival - the elephants bedizened with gold and silver, chariots
drawn by horses, and ox-waggons, the army in full array, the display of precious vessels of gold and silver, many of them studded with gems. Collections of animals of all kinds were also a great feature, panthers and lions. There were great waggons carrying whole trees to which a variety of birds bright in plumage or lovely in song were attached. Animals, according to another source, were a usual form of offering to bring to the king. The Indians do not think lightly of any animal, tame or wild. And the
king apparently accepted all kinds, not rare ones only, but cranes and geese and ducks and pigeons. Or one might bring wild ones, deer and antelopes or rhinoceroses.

Festivals: Officials

On one great annual festival amusement took the form of butting matches between rams or wild bulls or rhinoceroses, or fights between elephants. Races provoked great excitement. They usually took place between chariots to each of which one horse between two oxen was harnessed. There was very heavy betting on these occasions, in which the king himself and his nobles led the way. And their example was followed on a humbler scale by the crowd of spectators. The king - if Megasthenes is the source, we may understand Chandragupta - had a guard of twenty-four elephants. When he went forth to do justice, the first elephant was trained to do obeisance. At a word from the driver and a touch with the goad, it gave some military salute as the king passed.

The predecessors of Chandragupta, whose line he supplanted, had borne, Megasthenes said, beside their personal names, the royal name Pataliputra, and Chandragupta had assumed it also when he seized the throne.

The account which Megasthenes gave of the various officials points to a highly organised bureaucracy. They were, he said, of three kinds : (1) Agronomoi, district officials; (2) astynomoi, town officials; and (3) members of the War Office.

The duties of the first kind were to supervise (1) irrigation and land-measurement, (2) hunting, (3) the various industries connected with agriculture, forestry, work in timber, metal-foundries, and mines, and they had (4) to maintain the roads and see that at every ten stadia there was a milestone, indicating the distances (this is the passage which proves that Megasthenes did not mean to assert a general ignorance of the art of writing in India).

The second kind, the town officials, were divided into six Boards of Five. Their respective functions were (1) supervision of factories, (2) care of strangers, including control of the inns, provision of assistants, taking charge of sick persons, burying the dead, (3) the registration of births and deaths, (4) the control of the market, inspection of weights and measures, (5) the inspection of manufactured goods, provision for their sale with accurate distinction of new and second-hand articles, (6) collection of the tax of 10 per cent, charged on sales.

The six Boards acting together exercised a general superintendence over public works, prices, harbours, and temples.

The third kind of officials constituted the War Office, and were also divided into six Boards of Five. The departments of the six were (1) the admiralty, (2) transport and commissariat, (3) the infantry, (4) the cavalry, (5) the chariots, (6) the elephants. Connected with the army were the royal stables for horses and elephants, and the royal arsenal. A soldier's weapons and horse were not his own property, but the king's, and they went back to the arsenal and the royal stables at the conclusion of a campaign.

As to industries, it is curious that these early European observers should tax Indians with being backward in the scientific development of the resources of their country. They had, for instance, good mines of gold and silver, yet "the Indians, inexperienced in the arts of mining and smelting, do not even know their own resources, but set about the business in too primitive a way". "They do not pursue accurate knowledge in any line, except that of medicine; in the case of some arts, it is even accounted vicious to carry their study far, the art of war, for instance". On the other hand, Nearchus spoke of the cleverness of the Indian craftsmen. They saw sponges used for the first time by the Macedonians and immediately manufactured imitations of them with fine thread and wool, dyeing them to look the same. Other Greek articles, such as the scrapers and oil-flasks used by athletes they quickly learnt to make. For writing letters, they used some species of fine tissue closely woven. They also used only cast bronze, but not hammered, so that their vessels broke like earthenware, if they fell.


About the Indian philosophers Megasthenes had a good deal to say. They might be divided on one principle according as they dwelt in the mountains and worshipped Dionysus (Shiva) or in the plains and worshipped Heracles (Krishna), but the more significant division was that into Brahmans, and 'Sarmanes.'

"The Brahmans have the greatest prestige, since they have a more consistent dogmatic system. As soon as they are conceived in the womb, men of learning take charge of them. These go to the mother and ostensibly sing a charm tending to make the birth happy for mother and child, but in reality convey certain virtuous counsels and suggestions; the women who listen most willingly are held to be the most fortunate in child-bearing. After birth, the boys pass from one set of teachers to another in succession, the standard of teachers rising with the age of the boy. The philosophers spend their days in a grove near the city, under the cover of an enclosure of due size, on beds of leaves and skins, living sparely, practising celibacy and abstinence from flesh-food, listening to grave discourse, and admitting such others to the discussion as may wish to take part. He who listens is forbidden to speak, or even to clear his throat or spit, on pain of being ejected from the company that very day, as incontinent. When each Brahman has lived in this fashion thirty-seven years, he departs to his own property, and lives now in greater freedom and luxury, wearing muslin robes and some decent ornaments of gold on his hands and ears, eating flesh, so long as it is not the flesh of domestic animals, but abstaining from pungent and highly-seasoned food. They marry as many wives as possible, to secure good progeny; for the larger number of wives, the larger the number of good children is likely to be; and since they have no slaves, they depend all the more upon the ministrations of their children, as the nearest substitute. The Brahmans do not admit their wives to their philosophy : if the wives are wanton, they might divulge mysteries to the profane; if they are good, they might leave their husbands, since no one who has learnt to look with contempt upon pleasure and pain, upon life and death, will care to be under another's control. The chief subject on which the Brahmans talk is death; for this present life, they hold, is like the season passed in the womb, and death for those who have cultivated philosophy is the birth into the real, the happy, life. For this reason they follow an extensive discipline to make them ready for death. None of the accidents, they say, which befall men are good or evil If they were, one would not see the same things causing grief to some and joy to others men's notions being indeed like dreams and the same men grieved by something which at another moment they will turn and welcome. Their teaching about Nature is in parts naive; for they are more admirable in what they do than in what they say, and the theoretic proofs on which they base their teaching are mostly fable. In many points however their teaching agrees with that of the Greeks for instance, that the world has a beginning and an end in time, and that its shape is spherical; that the Deity, who is its Governor and Maker, interpenetrates the whole; that the first principles of the universe are different, but that water is the principle from which the order of the world has come to be; that, beside the four elements, there is a fifth substance, of which the heavens and the stars are made; that the earth is established at the centre of the universe. About generation and the soul their teaching shows parallels to the Greek doctrines, and on many other matters. Like Plato too, they interweave fables, about the immortality of the soul and the judgments inflicted in the other world, and so on".

Such is the account of the Brahmans which Strabo extracted from Megasthenes. It does not completely agree either with the picture drawn in Indian literary sources or with present-day practice. Its discrepancies may be in part due to the misunderstandings of a foreigner; in part they may reflect local varieties of practice in the fourth century BC. It will always be interesting as recording the impression of ancient India upon a Greek mind. The account which Megasthenes gave of the other kind of philosophers, the 'Sarmanes', is more problematic. Their name seems certainly to represent the Sanskrit shramana, a term which was commonly applied to Buddhist ascetics. It has therefore been thought that we have in the Sarmanes of Megasthenes the first mention of Buddhists by a Western writer. In the description however there is nothing distinctively Buddhist, and the term shramana is used in Indian literature of non-Buddhist ascetics. If therefore the people to whom Megasthenes heard the term applied were Buddhists, he must have known so little about them that he could only describe them by features which were equally found in various sorts of Hindu holy men. His description applies to Brahman ascetics rather than to Buddhists.

"As to the Sarmanes, the most highly-honored are called 'Forest-dwellers'. They live in the forests on leaves and wild fruits, and wear clothes made of the bark of trees, abstaining from cohabitation and wine. The kings call them to their side, sending messengers to enquire of them about the causes of events, and use their mediation in worshipping and supplicating the gods. After the Forest-dwellers, the order of Sarmanes second in honor is the medical philosophers, as it were, on the special subject of Man. These live sparely, not in the open air indeed, but on rice and meal, which every one of whom they beg and who shows them hospitality gives them. They know how by their simples to make marriages fertile and how to procure male children or female children, as may be desired. Their treatment is mainly by diet and not by medicines. And of medicines they attach greater value to those applied externally than to drugs. Other remedies, they say, are liable to do more harm than good. These too, like the Brahmans, train themselves to endurance, both active and passive, so much so that they will maintain one posture without moving for the whole day. Other orders of Sarmanes are diviners and masters of incantations and those who are versed in the lore and the ritual concerning the dead, and go through the villages and towns, begging. Others again there are of a higher and finer sort, though even these will allow themselves to make use of popular ideas about hell, of those ideas at any rate which seem to make for godliness and purity of life. In the case of some Sarmanes, women also are permitted to share in the philosophic life, on the condition of observing sexual continence like the men".

The fact that women were allowed to associate themselves with the men as ascetics was also noted by Nearchus. Suicide, Megasthenes said, was not a universal obligation for 'wise men' : it was considered however rather a gallant thing and the more painful the manner of death, the greater the admiration earned.

Aristobulus in his book gave further details about the holy men whom the Greeks had come upon at Takshashila. He described two, one of whom had a shaven head and the other long hair; each was followed by a number of disciples. All the time that they spent in the market-place men came to them for counsels, and they had a right to take without payment any of the wares exposed for sale. When they approached a man, he would pour sesame oil over them 'so that it ran down even from their eyes'.

They made cakes for themselves from the honey and sesame brought to market. When they had been induced to come to Alexander's table, they retired afterwards to a place apart where the elder lay on his back, exposed to sun and rain, and the younger stood on his right and left leg alternately for a whole day, holding up a staff some six feet long in both his hands. The elder seems to have been identical with the ascetic who afterwards followed Alexander out of India and whom the Greeks called Kalanos.


In one passage Strabo gives an account of the 'philosophers' drawn from some other source than Megasthenes. According to this source, the wise men were divided into Brahmans and a class, described as 'argumentative and captious', who laugh at the Brahmans as charlatans and senseless, because the Brahmans pursue the study of Nature and of the stars. The name given in our texts to this anti-Brahman class is Pramnai. This should not be emended to Sramnai, as was once done, on the supposition that it represented shramana. The people intended are undoubtedly the pramanikas, the followers of the various philosophical systems, each of which has its own view as to what constitutes pramatia, a 'means of right knowledge'. These philosophers are, as a rule, orthodox Brahmans, but they view with contempt those Brahmans who put their trust in Vedic ceremonies.

The Brahmans themselves are divided by this source into (1) those who live in the mountains, (2) the naked ones, and (3) those who live in the world. The Mountain-dwellers dress in deer-skins and carry wallets full of roots and simples, making pretence to some art of healing by means of hocus-pocus and spells and charms. The Naked Ones live, as their name imports, without clothes, in the open air for the most part, practising endurance up to the age of thirty-seven. Women may live with them, bound to continence. These are the class most reverenced by the people. The third sort of Brahmans, those who live in the world, are to be found in the towns or villages, dressed in robes of fine white linen, with the skins of deer or of gazelles hung from their shoulders. They wear beards and long hair which is twisted up and covered by a turban. It seems clear that those who are here described as the Mountain-dwellers correspond most nearly to the Sarmanes of Megasthenes.

Of the gods worshipped by the Indians the Greeks learnt little. One writer cited by Strabo (Clitarchus?) had asserted that they worshipped Zeus Ombrios (Zeus of the Rain Storms), the river Ganges, and local daemons. As we have seen, Shiva and Krishna are to be discerned through the Greek names Dionysus and Heracles in some of the statements of our sources. One member of Alexander's suite, his chief usher, Chares of Mytilene, is quoted as saying the Indians worshipped a god Soroadeios, whose name being interpreted meant 'maker of wine'. It is recognised that the Indian name which Chares heard was Suryadeva 'Sun-god'. Some ill-educated interpreter must have been misled by the resemblance of surya 'sun' to surd 'wine'.

The name 'Indians' was extended in its largest acceptance to cover the barbarous tribes of mountain or jungle on the confines of Brahman civilization. In noting down what seemed to them odd points in the physical characteristics or customs of these tribes the Greeks were moved by an interest which is the germ of the modern science of anthropology. Megasthenes noted that in the Hindu Kush the bodies of the dead were eaten by their relations, as Herodotus had already stated of some aboriginal people.

Even Megasthenes depended, of course, mainly upon his Indian informants for knowledge of the peoples on the borders of the Indian world, and he therefore repeated the fables as to the monstrous races with one leg, with ears reaching to their feet and so on, which had long been current in India and had already been communicated to the Greeks by Scylax and Hecataeus and Ctesias. One would however like to know the fact which lies behind his story that members of one tribe, living near the sources of the Ganges, had been brought to the camp of Chandragupta "men of gentler manners but without a mouth! They lived on the fumes of roast meat and the smell of fruits and flowers. And since nostrils with them took the place of mouths, they suffered terribly from evil odours, and it was difficult to keep them alive, especially in a camp!". Does the notice reflect some sect who, like the Jains, abstained from all animal food and kept their mouths covered lest they should breathe in minute insects ?

Southern India: Pearls

Of the south of India, Europe up to the Christian era knew little more than a few names, brought by merchantmen. So little was the division of India into two worlds by the Vindhya realised that Strabo could suppose all Indian rivers to take their rise in the Himalayas. It was chiefly as the country from which pearls came that the Greeks knew Southern India. Pearls came from the coasts of the Pandya kingdom corresponding roughly with the modern districts of Madura and Tinnevelly, and Megasthenes had heard, as we know, of Pandaea the daughter of Heracles (Krishna) who had become queen of a great kingdom in the south. With her he also connected the pearl. Heracles, according to the legend told him, wandering over the earth, had found this thing of beauty in the sea, made, it might seem, for a woman's adornment. Wherefore from all the sea pearls were brought together to the Indian coast for his daughter to wear. The origin of the word which the Greek used for pearl, margarites, is unknown.

Some confused knowledge of how pearls were procured had come to the Greek writers through the traders' stories. They knew that they grew in oysters. Two of the companions of Alexander, Androsthenes of Thasos and the chief usher Chares, had already some information as to the varieties of pearls and the chief fisheries. The oysters, Megasthenes understood, were caught in nets; they went in shoals, each shoal with a king of its own, like swarms of bees, and to capture the king was to capture the shoal. The oysters, when caught, were put in jars, and as their flesh rotted the pearl was left disengaged at the bottom.

The name of the extreme southern point of the peninsula had also travelled to the Greeks before the time of Strabo. He knew it as the country of the Coliaci; this was derived from the name in local speech, Kori. The legend, when it made a woman the sovereign of the south, was probably reflecting the system of mother-right which has to some extent obtained there even to the present day.

Some of the physical characteristics of the people of the south were known by report that they were darker in complexion, for instance, than the Indians of the north. The facts of early maturity and of the general shortness of life were also known. In the legend narrated by Megasthenes, as we saw, the precocious maturity which Heracles had bestowed upon his daughter by a miracle continued to be a characteristic of the women of her kingdom. They were marriageable, and could bear children, Megasthenes said, at seven years old. This exaggeration was presumably due to the real fact of childmarriage.

As to the general length of life, forty years was the maximum again a fact, the relative shortness of life, exaggerated.

In the book of Onesicritus occurred the first mention by a European writer of Ceylon. He heard of it under a name which the Greek represents as Taprobane. It lay, of course, far outside the horizon of the Greeks, but Onesicritus must have met people on the Indus who knew of the southern island by the report of merchants, or had perhaps fared thither themselves along the coast of Malabar, and spoke of Tamraparni and of its elephants, bigger and more terrible in war than those which the Greeks had seen in India.

Taprobane was seven days' journey, according to the sources followed by Eratosthenes, from the southernmost part of India (the Coliaci = Cape Kori). The strait separating Ceylon from India is only forty miles across, but it may have been true in practice that from the port whence the merchants put out to go to Ceylon and the port where they landed was a voyage of seven days. Onesicritus put it at 20 days; we cannot say now what fact underlay the misapprehension. When he said that the 'size' of Taprobane was 5000 stadia the ambiguity of the statement already provoked complaint in antiquity.

Later Sources of Information

For many centuries the India known to the West was India as portrayed by the historians of Alexander's expedition and by Megasthenes. Although from the third century onwards there was a certain amount of intercourse between the Mediterranean world and India, although Greek kings ruled in the Punjab and Alexander's colonies were still represented by little bodies of men Greek in speech, although there must occasionally have been seafaring men in the Greek ports who had seen the coasts of India, or merchants who had made their way over the Hindu Kush, the Greek and Latin learned world was content to go on transcribing the books written generations before. These had become classical and shut out further reference to reality. The original books themselves perished, but their statements continued to be copied from writer to writer. Some of the later Greek and Latin works which treated of India are known to us today only by their titles or by a few fragments the works of Apollodorus of Artemita (latter half of second century or first century B.C.), the works of the great geographer Eratosthenes (276-195 B.C.) and of the voluminous compiler, Alexander Polyhistor (105 till after 40 B.C.). But a great deal of the original books is incorporated in writings which we do still possess, especially in the geographical work of Strabo (about 63 B.C.-19 A.D.), the historical work of Diodorus (in Egypt about 60 B.C., still alive 36 B.C.), the encyclopaedic work of Pliny (published about 75 A.D.), the tract of Arrian about India (middle of second century A.D.), and the zoological work of Aelian (end of second century A.D.). Even Pliny had probably never had the work of Megasthenes in his hands, but drew from it only at second or third hand through Seneca and Varro. In the third century A.D., when Philostratus in his romance brings Apollonius of Tyana to India, it is still out of the old traditional materials that what purports to be local colour all comes.

So far as the stock of knowledge handed down from the third century B.C. was increased at all during the following three centuries, it can only have been from the source of information just indicated, the source which might have been turned to so much richer account, had the curse of literary convention not rested upon classical culture the first-hand practical knowledge possessed by Greek merchantmen who crossed the Indian ocean. Strabo had sufficient freedom of mind to take some notice of the Indian trade in his own day. From him we gather that, although a considerable amount of Indian merchandise had flowed into Europe by way of the Red Sea and Alexandria, when the Ptolemies ruled in Egypt very few Greek ships had gone further than South Arabia.

Goods had been carried from India to South Arabia in Indian or Arabian bottoms. By the time however that Strabo was in Egypt (25 B.C.) a direct trade between Egypt and India had come into existence, and he was told that 120 vessels were sailing to India that season from Myos Hormos, the Egyptian port on the Red Sea. A few Greek merchantmen, but very few, sailed round the south of India to the mouth of the Ganges. The vessels that went to India apparently made the journey by coasting along Arabia, Persia, and the Makran, for it was not till the middle of the first century A.D. that a Greek seaman, named Hippalus, discovered that the monsoon could be utilised to carry ships from the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb over the high seas to India. It lies however outside the scope of this volume to survey the additions made by means of this commerce under the Roman Empire to the knowledge of India derived from the companions of Alexander and Megasthenes. The additions never equalled in substance or interest the older books.

Far on into the Middle Ages Christian Europe still drew its conceptions of India mainly from books written before the middle of the third century B.C.