Indica (Megasthenes)

Indika (Greek: Ἰνδικά; Latin: Indica) is an account of Mauryan India by the Greek writer Megasthenes. The original work is now lost, but its fragments have survived in later Greek and Latin works. The earliest of these works are those by Diodorus Siculus, Strabo (Geographica), Pliny, and Arrian (Indica).[1][2]

Mauryan India, to which Megasthenes was an ambassador


Megasthenes' Indica can be reconstructed using the portions preserved by later writers as direct quotations or paraphrase. The parts that belonged to the original text can be identified from the later works based on similar content, vocabulary and phrasing, even when the content has not been explicitly attributed to Megasthenes. Felix Jacoby's Fragmente der griechischen Historiker contains 36 pages of content traced to Megasthenes.[3]

E. A. Schwanbeck traced several fragments to Megasthenes, and based on his collection, John Watson McCrindle published a reconstructed version of Indica in 1887. However, this reconstruction is not universally accepted. Schwanbeck and McCrindle attributed several fragments in the writings of the 1st century BCE writer Diodorus to Megasthenes. However, Diodorus does not mention Megasthenes even once, unlike Strabo, who explicitly mentions Megasthenes as one of his sources. There are several differences between the accounts of Megasthenes and Diodorus: for example, Diodorus describes India as 28,000 stadia long from east to west; Megasthenes gives this number as 16,000. Diodorus states that Indus may be the world's largest river after Nile; Megasthenes (as quoted by Arrian) states that Ganges is much larger than Nile. Historian R. C. Majumdar points out that the Fragments I and II attributed to Megasthenes in McCrindle's edition cannot originate from the same source, because Fragment I describes Nile as larger than Indus, while Fragment II describes Indus as longer than Nile and Danube combined.[4]

Schwanbeck's Fragment XXVII includes four paragraphs from Strabo, and Schwanbeck attributes these entire paragraphs to Megasthenes. However, Strabo cites Megasthenes as his source only for three isolated statements in three different paragraphs. It is likely that Strabo sourced the rest of the text from sources other than Megasthenes: that's why he attributes only three statements specifically to Megasthenes.[4]

Another example is the earliest confirmed description of Gangaridai, which appears in the writings of Diodorus. McCrindle believed that Diodorus' source for this description was the now-lost book of Megasthenes. However, according to A. B. Bosworth (1996), Diodorus obtained this information from Hieronymus of Cardia: Diodorus described Ganges as 30 stadia wide; it is well-attested by other sources that Megasthenes described the median or minimum width of Ganges as 100 stadia.[5]

India according to the reconstructed textEdit

According to the text reconstructed by J. W. McCrindle, Megasthenes' Indica describes India as follows:


India is a quadrilateral-shaped country, bounded by the ocean on the southern and the eastern side.[6] The Indus river forms the western and the north-western boundary of the country, as far as the ocean.[7] India's northern border reaches the extremities of Tauros. From Ariana to the Eastern Sea, it is bound by mountains that are called Kaukasos by the Macedonians. The various native names for these mountains include Parapamisos, Hemodos and Himaos (the Himalayas).[8] Beyond Hemodos, lies Scythia inhabited by the Scythians known as Sakai.[9] Besides Scythia, the countries of Bactria and Ariana border India.[10]

At the extreme point of India, the gnomon of the sundial often casts no shadow, and the Ursa Major is invisible at night. In the remotest parts, the shadows fall southward, and even Arcturus is not visible.[9]

India has many large and navigable rivers, which arise in the mountains on its northern border. Many of these rivers merge into Ganges, which is 30 stadia wide at its source, and runs from north to south. The Ganges empties into the ocean that forms the eastern boundary of Gangaridai.[11] Other nations feared Gangaridai's huge force of the biggest elephants, and therefore, Gangaridai had never been conquered by any foreign king.[12]

Indus also runs from north to south, and has several navigable tributaries. The most notable tributaries are Hupanis, the Hudaspes, and the Akesines.[13] One peculiar river is Sillas, which originates from a fountain of the same name. Everything cast into this river sinks down to the bottom - nothing floats in it.[10] In addition, there are a large number of other rivers, supplying abundant water for agriculture. According to the native philosophers and natural scientists, the reason for this is that the bordering countries are more elevated than India, so their waters run down to India, resulting in such a large number of rivers.[14]


Mauryan remains of a wooden palissade at Bulandi Bagh site of Pataliputra.
Mauryan remains of a wooden palissade at Bulandi Bagh site of Pataliputra.

In the primitive times, the Indians lived on fruits and wore clothes made of animal skin, just like the Greeks. The most learned Indian scholars say that Dionysus invaded India, and conquered it. When his army was unable to bear the excessive heat, he led his soldiers to the mountains called Meros for recovery; this led to the Greek legend about Dionysus being bred in his father's thigh (meros in Greek).[a] Dionysus taught Indians several things including how to grow plants, make wine and worship. He founded several large cities, introduced laws and established courts. For this reason, he was regarded as a deity by the Indians. He ruled entire India for 52 years, before dying of old age. His descendants ruled India for several generations, before being dethroned and replaced by democratic city-states.[16]

The Indians who inhabit the hill country also claim that Herakles was one of them. Like the Greeks, they characterize him with the club and the lion's skin. According to them, Herakles was a powerful man who subjugated evil beasts. He had several sons and one daughter, who became rulers in different parts of his dominion. He founded several cities, the greatest of which was Palibothra (Pataliputra). Herakles built several places in this city, fortified it with water-filled trenches and settled a number of people in the city. His descendants ruled India for several generations, but never launched an expedition beyond India. After several years, the royal rule was replaced by democratic city states, although there existed a few kings when Alexander invaded India.[17]

Flora and faunaEdit

India has several mountains with fruit trees of every kind.[9] There are a large number of animal species in India. The Indian elephants are far stronger than the Libyan elephants, because of the abundance of food on the Indian soil. The elephants are domesticated in large numbers, and trained for war.[18] The gestation period of the elephants ranges from 16 to 18 months, and the oldest of the elephants live up to 200 years.[19]


Gold, silver, copper and iron are abundant on Indian soil. Tin and other metals are used for making a number of tools, weapons, ornaments, and other articles.[18]

India has very fertile plains, and irrigation is practised widely.[18] The main crops include rice, millet, a crop called bosporum, other cereals, pulses and other food plants.[20] There are two crop cycles per year, since rain falls in both summer and winter. At the time of summer solstice, rice, millet, bosporum and sesamum are sown. During winter, wheat is sown.[20]

No famines have ever occurred in India because of the following reasons:[21]

  • The Indians are always assured of at least one of the two seasonal crops
  • There are a number of spontaneously growing fruits and edible roots available.
  • The Indian warriors regard those engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry as sacred. Unlike the warriors in other countries, they do not ravage farms during war conquests. Moreover, the warring sides never destroy the enemy land with fire or cut down its trees.

Food and ClothingEdit

Indian beverage is a liquor composed from rice instead of barley, when the Indians are at supper a table is placed before each person, this being like a tripod. There is placed upon it a golden bowl, into which they first put rice, boiled as one would boil barley, and then they add many dainties prepared according to Indian receipts. [22]

In contrast to the general simplicity of their style, they love finery and ornament. Their robes are worked in gold, and ornamented with precious stones, and they wear also flowered garments made of the finest muslin. Some have attendants walking behind hold up umbrellas over them: for they have a high regard for beauty, and avail themselves of every device to improve their looks.[23]


Because of its large size, India is inhabited by many diverse races, all of which are indigenous. India has no foreign colony, and Indians have not established any colonies outside India.[10] The Indians are of above average stature, because of abundant food, fine water and pure air. They are well-skilled in art.[18]

A law, prescribed by ancient Indian philosophers, bans slavery. The law treats everyone equally, but allows the property to be unevenly distributed.[24]

The population of India is divided into 7 endogamous and hereditary castes:[25]

  1. Philosophers
    • Not numerous compared to other castes, but most prominent
    • Exempted from all public duties
    • Neither masters, nor servants
    • "believed to be most dear to the gods, and to be the most conversant with matters pertaining to Hades"
    • Engaged by others to offer sacrifices and perform funerary rites, for which they received valuable gifts and privileges
    • At the beginning of the year, they make prophecies about droughts, rain storms, propitious winds, diseases and other topics. Based on these prophecies, the citizens and the rulers make adequate preparations. A philosopher whose prophecy fails receives strong criticism and has to observe silence for the rest of his life, but otherwise incurs no penalty.
  2. Farmers
    • Most numerous of all castes
    • Live in villages, and avoid visiting towns
    • Exempted from fighting and other public duties
    • Regarded as public benefactors, and protected from damage during wars, even by enemy warriors
    • Pay a land tribute to the ruler, the official land owner
    • In addition, they remit 1/4th of their produce to the state treasury
  3. Herders
    • Live in tents, outside villages and towns
    • Hunt and trap crop-destroying birds and animals
  4. Artisans
    • Create weapons as well as tools for farmers and others
    • Exempted from paying taxes, and receive a maintenance from the state exchequer
  5. Military
    • Second most numerous among the castes
    • Well-organized and equipped for war
    • Indulge in amusements and idleness during peaceful times
    • Maintained at state expense, along with war horses and elephants
  6. Overseers
    • Carry out administrative tasks
    • Report to the king or (in states not ruled by kings) magistrates
  7. Councillors and Assessors
    • Composed of wise people with good character
    • Deliberate on public affairs; included the royal advisers, state treasurers, dispute arbitrators; the army generals and chief magistrates also usually belonged to this class.
    • Least numerous, but most respected


Megasthenes makes a different division of the philosophers, saying that they are of two kinds - one of which he calls the Brachmanes, and the other the Sarmanes. Of the Sarmanes he tells us that those who are held in most honour are called the Hylobioi. Next in honour to the Hylobioi are the physicians, since they are engaged in the study of the nature of man. Besides these there are diviners and sorcerers. Women pursue philosophy with some of them. [26]

Megasthenes also comments on the presence of pre-Socratic views among the Brahmans in India and Jews in Syria. 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.[27]


The foreigners are treated well. Special officers are appointed to ensure that no foreigner is harmed, and judges hand out harsh punishment to those who take unfair advantage of the foreigners. Sick foreigners are attended by physicians and taken care of. Foreigners who die in India are buried, and their property is delivered to their relatives.[28]

Historical reliabilityEdit

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 first century Greek writer Strabo called both Megasthenes and his succeeding ambassador Deimachus liars, and stated that "no faith whatever" could be placed in their writings.[29] The Indika contained numerous fantastical stories, such as those about tribes of people with no mouths, unicorns and other mythical animals, and gold-digging ants.[30] Strabo directly contradicted these descriptions, assuring his 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.[31] Despite such shortcomings, some authors believe that Indika is creditworthy, and is an important source of information about the contemporary Indian society, administration and other topics.[30]

According to Paul J. Kosmin, Indica served a legitimizing purpose for Seleucus I and his actions in India.[32] It depicts contemporary India as an unconquerable territory, arguing that Dionysus was able to conquer India, because before his invasion, India was a primitive rural society. Dionysus' urbanization of India makes India a powerful, impregnable nation. The later ruler — the Indian Herakles — is presented as a native of India, despite similarities with the Greek Heracles. This, according to Kosmin, is because now India is shown as unconquerable.[33] Megasthenes emphasizes that no foreign army had been able to conquer India (since Dionysus) and Indians had not invaded a foreign country either. This representation of India as an isolated, invincible country is an attempt to vindicate Seleucus' peace treaty with the Indian emperor [34] through which he abandoned territories he could never securely hold, stabilized the East, and obtained elephants with which he could turn his attention against his great western rival, Antigonus Monophthalmus. [35]

Megasthenes states that there were no slaves in India, but the Arthashastra attests to the existence of slavery in contemporary India;[36] Strabo also counters Megasthenes's claim based on a report from Onesicritus. Historian Shireen Moosvi theorizes that slaves were outcastes, and were not considered members of the society at all.[37] According to historian Romila Thapar, the lack of sharp distinction between slaves and others in the Indian society (unlike the Greek society) may have confused Megasthenes: Indians did not use large-scale slavery as a means of production, and slaves in India could buy back their freedom or be released by their master.[38]

Megasthenes mentions seven castes in India, while the Indian texts mention only four social classes (varnas). According to Thapar, Megasthenes' categorization appears to be based on economic divisions rather than the social divisions; this is understandable because the varnas originated as economic divisions. Thapar also speculates that he wrote his account some years after his visit to India, and at this time, he "arrived at the number seven, forgetting the facts as given to him". Alternatively, it is possible that the later authors misquoted him, trying to find similarities with the Egyptian society, which according to Herodotus, was divided into seven social classes.[39]

Megasthenes claims that before Alexander, no foreign power had invaded or conquered Indians, with the exception of the mythical heroes Hercules and Dionysus. However, it is known from earlier sources - such as the inscriptions of Darius the Great and Herodotus - that the Achaemenid Empire included parts of north-western part of India (present-day Pakistan). It is possible that the Achaemenid control did not extend much beyond the Indus River, which Megasthenes considered to be the border of India. Another possibility is that Megasthenes intended to understate the power of the Achaemenid Empire, a rival of the Greeks.[40]


  1. ^ D. R. Patil suggests that the Rigvedic Prithu was a vegetarian deity, associated with Greek god Dionysus.[15]


  1. ^ Upinder Singh (2008). A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India. Pearson Education India. p. 324. ISBN 9788131711200.
  2. ^ Christopher I. Beckwith (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press. p. 62. ISBN 9781400866328.
  3. ^ Paul J. Kosmin 2013, p. 99.
  4. ^ a b Sandhya Jain 2011, p. 22.
  5. ^ A. B. Bosworth 1996, pp. 188-189.
  6. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 49.
  7. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 46.
  8. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, pp. 48-49.
  9. ^ a b c J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 30.
  10. ^ a b c J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 35.
  11. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 33.
  12. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 33-34.
  13. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 34.
  14. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 34-35.
  15. ^ Nagendra Kumar Singh (1997). Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. Anmol Publications. pp=1714. ISBN 978-81-7488-168-7.
  16. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 35-38.
  17. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 39-40.
  18. ^ a b c d J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 31.
  19. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 44.
  20. ^ a b J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 32.
  21. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 32-33.
  22. ^ Gochberg, Donald S., et al., ed. "World Literature and Thought: Volume I: The Ancient Worlds"; Fort Worth, TX; Harcourt Brace; 1997, pp. 410-416.
  23. ^ Gochberg, Donald S., et al., ed. "World Literature and Thought: Volume I: The Ancient Worlds"; Fort Worth, TX; Harcourt Brace; 1997, pp. 410-416.
  24. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 40.
  25. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 40-44.
  26. ^ FRAGM. XLI Strab. XV. 1. 58-60,--pp. 711-714 Of the Indian Philosophers. J. W. McCrindle.
  27. ^ Bezalel Bar-Kochva 2010, p. 157: "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."
  28. ^ J. W. McCrindle 1877, p. 44-45.
  29. ^ Allan Dahlaquist 1996, p. 28.
  30. ^ a b Irfan Habib; Vivekanand Jha (2004). Mauryan India. A People's History of India. Aligarh Historians Society / Tulika Books. p. 19. ISBN 978-81-85229-92-8.
  31. ^ Strabo, Geography, Book XV, Chapter 1
  32. ^ Paul J. Kosmin 2013, p. 91.
  33. ^ Paul J. Kosmin 2013, p. 98-100.
  34. ^ Paul J. Kosmin 2013, p. 103-104.
  35. ^ Paul J. Kosmin 2013, p. 98.
  36. ^ Romila Thapar 1990, p. 89.
  37. ^ Shireen Moosvi 2004, p. 548.
  38. ^ Romila Thapar 1990, pp. 89-90.
  39. ^ Romila Thapar 2012, p. 118.
  40. ^ H. C. Raychaudhuri 1988, pp. 31-32.