Megasthenes was an ancient Greek historian, diplomat, and Indian ethnographer, and explorer in the Hellenistic period. He has been called “the father of Indian history” because he was the first person to describe ancient India. He described India in his book Indika. Indika is now lost but has been partly restored from literary pieces found in later authors.
Very little is known about Megashthenes. He spent time at the court of Sibyrtius, a satrap of Arachosia under Antigonus I and then Seleucus I. Also, he was an ambassador for Seleucid king Seleucus I Nicator and to the court of the Mauryan King Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra (modern Patna). The date for the journey to the Mauryan court is uncertain.
Megasthenes – an ambassador
According to Arrian, he lived in Arachosia and traveled to Pataliputra.
He was a Greek ambassador of Seleucus I Nicator in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. Arrian explains that he lived in Arachosia, with the satrap Sibyrtius, from where he visited India:
Megasthenes lived with Sibyrtius, satrap of Arachosia, and often speaks of his visiting Sandracottus, the king of the Indians.”Arrian, Anabasis Alexandri
Megasthenes visited India during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya. The exact dates of his visit to India, and the duration of his stay in India are not certain.
Megasthenes visited the Mauryan capital Pataliputra, but it is not certain which other parts of India he visited. He appears to have passed through the Punjab region in north-western India, as he provides a detailed account of the rivers in this area. He must have then traveled to Pataliputra along the Yamuna and the Ganga rivers.
He collected information about India in form of Indika, which is now lost work but remains in form of quotes by the later writers.
Among the ancient writers, Arrian (2nd century CE) is the only one who speaks favorably of Megasthenes. Diodorus (1st century BCE) quotes Megasthenes by excluding some parts of his narratives.
Other writers explicitly criticize Megasthenes:
- Eratosthenes (2nd century BCE) accuses Megasthenes of engaging in falsehood, although he borrowed much of his content about India from his work.
- Strabo (1st century CE) calls Megasthenes a liar for writing wonderful stories about India. He also marks as liars the other earlier writers on India, including Deimachus, Onesicritus, Nearchus. According to Strabo, “no faith whatever can be placed in Deimachos and Megasthenes”.
- Pliny the Elder (1st century CE) criticizes Megasthenes’s description of the fabulous races of India, and his account of Herakles and Dionysus.
Modern scholars such as E. A. Schwanbeck, B. C. J. Timmer, and Truesdell Sparhawk Brown, have characterized Megasthenes as a usually credible source of Indian history.
Schwanbeck locates faults only with Megasthenes’s description of the gods worshipped in India. Brown is more critical of Megasthenes but notes that Megasthenes visited only a small part of India, and must have relied on others for his observations: some of these observations seem to be erroneous, but others cannot be ignored by modern researchers.
The major faults of Megasthenes’ work were – errors in details, an uncritical acceptance of Indian folklore, and a tendency to idealize Indian culture by the standards of Greek philosophy.
Although he was usually deceived by the erroneous information provided by others, his work remained the principal source of information about India to some of the subsequent writers.
- Ancient India: As Described by Megasthenes and Arrian – Buy Now
- Mauryan India as Reflected in Indica of Megasthenes: (An Historical Overview) – Buy Now
- Indica – Buy Now
- Megasthenes’ Indica: A New Translation of the Fragments with Commentary – Buy Now
- Megasthenes(Free) – Buy Now
Frequently Asked Questions
Megasthenes came to India during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya.
Yes, Megasthenes was an ancient Greek historian, diplomat, and Indian ethnographer, and explorer in the Hellenistic period.
Indica is an account of India under the reign of the Maurya Dynasty. Greek writer Megasthenes also described the capital city Patliputra.
Unfortunately, the original book is now lost, but its fragments survived in the works of Greek and Latin writers. These earliest works are by Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Arrian, and Pliny.