Megasthenes (// mi-GAS-thi-neez; Ancient Greek: Μεγασθένης, c. 350BCE– c. 290 BCE) was an ancient Greek historian, diplomat and Indian ethnographer and explorer in the Hellenistic period. He described India in his book Indika, which is now lost, but has been partially reconstructed from literary fragments found in later authors.
While Megasthenes's account of India has survived in the later works, little is known about him as a person, except that he was a Greek man. He must have been a learned man and a reputed officer, which explains his appointment as an ambassador to India. At the time of treaty between the Greek ruler Seleucus I Nicator and the Indian ruler Chandragupta Maurya in c. 303 BCE, he appears to have been serving as an officer under Sibyrtius, who was Seleucus's satrap of Arachosia.
As an ambassador
Megasthenes was a Greek ambassador of Seleucus I Nicator in the court of Chandragupta Maurya. Arrian explains that Megasthenes lived in Arachosia, with the satrap Sibyrtius, from where he visited India:
Megasthenes visited India sometime between c. 302 and 288 BCE, 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. Modern scholars generally assume that Seleucus sent him to India immediately after the treaty with Chandragupta. Arrian claims that Megasthenes met Porus: this claim seems to be an erroneous one, unless we assume that Megasthenes accompanied Alexander the Great during the Greek invasion of India.
Megasthenes visited the Maurya 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.
Megasthenes compiled information about India in form of Indika, which is now a lost work, but survives in form of quotations 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 omitting some parts of his narratives. Other writers explicitly criticize Megasthenes:
- Eratosthenes (2nd century BCE) accuses Megasthenes of engaging in falsehood, although he apparently borrowed much of his content about India from Megasthenes.
- Strabo (1st century CE) calls Megasthenes a liar for writing fabulous stories about India; he also brands 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 generally reliable source of Indian history. Schwanbeck finds 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. Thus, although he was often misled by the erroneous information provided by others, his work remained the principal source of information about India to some of the subsequent writers.
- Allan Dahlaquist (1996). Megasthenes and Indian Religion: A Study in Motives and Types. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-81-208-1323-6.
- N. S. Kalota (1978). India as Described by Megasthenes. Concept.
- Paul J. Kosmin (2014), The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in Seleucid Empire, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-72882-0
- U. P. Arora (1982), Plagiarism and prejudices in Megasthenes's Indica, Indian History Congress
- Paul J. Kosmin (2013). "Apologetic Ethnography: Megasthenes' Indica and the Seleucid Elephant". In Eran Almagor, Joseph Skinner (ed.). Ancient Ethnography: New Approaches. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781472537607.
- Harry Falk (1982). Die sieben "Kasten" des Megasthenes (in German).
- Shri Ram Goyal (2001). India as Known to Kauṭilya and Megasthenes. Kusumanjali Book World.
- "How the Hoopoe Got His Crest: Reflections on Megasthenes’ Stories of India." In Ancient Historiography on War and Empire, edited by Stoneman Richard, Howe Timothy, and Müller Sabine, 188–99. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2017. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1kw2b3r.17.