Megasthenes (// mi-GAS-thi-neez; Ancient Greek: Μεγασθένης, ca. 350 – 290 BC) was a Greek ethnographer and explorer in the Hellenistic period, author of the work Indika. He was born in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and became an ambassador of Seleucus I of the Seleucid dynasty possibly to Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra, India. However the exact date of his embassy is uncertain. Scholars place it before 298 BC, the date of Chandragupta's death.
We have more definite information regarding the parts of India Megasthenes visited. He entered the subcontinent through the district of the Pentapotamia (modern day Punjab region), providing a full account of the rivers found there (thought to be the five affluents of the Indus that form the Punjab region), and proceeded from there by the royal road to Pataliputra. There are accounts of Megasthenes having visited Madurai (then, a bustling city and capital of the Pandyas), but he appears not to have visited any other parts of India.
At the beginning of his Indica, he refers to the older Indians who know about the prehistoric arrival of Dionysus and Hercules in India, which was a story very popular amongst the Greeks during the Alexandrian period. Particularly important are his comments on the religions of the Indians. He mentions the devotees of Heracles and Dionysus but he does not mention Buddhists, something that gives support to the theory that the latter religion was not widely known before the reign of Ashoka.
His Indica served as an important source for many later writers such as Strabo and Arrian. He describes such features as the Himalayas and the island of Sri Lanka. He also describes a caste system different from the one that exists today, which shows that the caste system may to some extent be fluid and evolving. However, it might be that, being a foreigner, he was not adequately informed about the caste system. His description follows:
- The first is formed by the collective body of the Philosophers, which in point of number is inferior to the other classes, but in point of dignity preeminent over all. The philosopher who errs in his predictions incurs censure, and then observes silence for the rest of his life.
- The second caste consists of the Husbandmen, who appear to be far more numerous than the others. They devote the whole of their time to tillage; nor would an enemy coming upon a husbandman at work on his land do him any harm, for men of this class, being regarded as public benefactors, are protected from all injury.
- The third caste consists of the Shepherds and in general of all herdsmen who neither settle in towns nor in villages, but live in tents.
- The fourth caste consists of the Artizans. Of these some are armourers, while others make the implements that husbandmen and others find useful in their different callings. This class is not only exempted from paying taxes, but even receives maintenance from the royal exchequer.
- The fifth caste is the Military. It is well organized and equipped for war, holds the second place in point of numbers, and gives itself up to idleness and amusement in the times of peace. The entire force--men-at-arms, war-horses, war-elephants, and all--are maintained at the king's expense.
- The sixth caste consists of the Overseers. It is their province to inquire into and superintend all that goes on in India, and make report to the king, or, where there is not a king, to the magistrates.
- The seventh caste consists of the Councillors and Assessors,--of those who deliberate on public affairs. It is the smallest class, looking to number, but the most respected, on account of the high character and wisdom of its members; for from their ranks the advisers of the king are taken, and the treasurers, of the state, and the arbiters who settle disputes. The generals of the army also, and the chief magistrates, usually belong to this class.
Later writers such as Arrian, Strabo, Diodorus, and Pliny refer to Indika in their works. Of these writers, Arrian speaks most highly of Megasthenes, while Strabo and Pliny treat him with less respect.The Indika itself contained numerous fantastical stories of people with backwards feet, ears large enough to sleep in, no mouths, or other strange features, and later authors like Strabo directly contradicted these descriptions, assuring their readers that Megasthenes’ stories, along with his recounting of India’s founding by Hercules and Dionysus, were mythical with little to no basis in reality.
Megasthenes' Indica, along with Ctesias' book of the same name, is among the earliest well-known Western accounts of India and he is regarded as one of the founders of the study of Indian history in the West. He is also the first foreign Ambassador to be mentioned in Indian history.
Megasthenes also comments on the presence of pre-Socratic views among the Brahmans and Jews. Five centuries later Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromateis, may have misunderstood Megasthenes to be responding to claims of Greek primacy by admitting Greek views of physics were preceded by those of Jews and Indians. Megasthenes, like Numenius of Apamea, was simply comparing the ideas of the different ancient cultures.
- Arrian. "Book 5". Anabasis.
- "History of West Punjab (Pakistan)". World History at KMLA.
- Vassiliades, Demetrios (2005). "Greeks and Buddhism. Historical Contacts in the Development of a Universal religion". The Eastern Buddhist (Kyoto: Otani University). XXXVI (1 & 2).
- Strabo, Geography, Book XV, Chapter 1
- Bezalel Bar-Kochva (2009). The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature: The Hellenistic Period.
He does not respond to the implied claim of Greek primacy, presumably because he did not have, and could not have had, hard information about the beginnings of "parallel" opinions among the Brahmans.
- McCrindle, J.W. (1877). Ancient India As Described By Megasthenes and Arrian. Trubner & Co., London.
- Dahlaquist, Allan (1996). Megasthenes and Indian Religion- Volume 11 of History and Culture Series. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 386. ISBN 81-208-1323-5.
- Vassiliades, Demetrios (2000). The Greeks in India: A survey in Philosophical Understanding. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publ. ISBN 81-215-0921-1.
- Megasthenes (1846), E. A. Schwanbeck, ed., Indica, Sumptibus Pleimesii, bibliopolae (Original Oxford University)