21.) The Greek Accounts of India and the Politics of Representation

The Greek accounts for India have proved a useful resource of enhancing our knowledge of ancient India. They, however, also pose a problem. They contain elements which are frankly mythical. Examples: women who bear children at the age of six,[1] men without mouths or noses,[2] men with ears large enough to sleep in[3] or with only one leg[4] or eye, or rivers in which nothing floats,[5] and so on.

The way these cases are handled by historians seems to indicate that the politics of representation perhaps inadvertently comes into play. This is suggested by a comparison of the way in which such examples are handled by a European and an Indian historian.

One European historian who addresses this issue at various points, in his discussion of these accounts, is E.R. Bevan. A review of this material yields the following points: (1) he connects the ancient Greeks with modern Europeans as their predecessors on the basis of rationalism;[6] (2) he clearly acknowledges the mythical elements of the most blatant examples, even accusing some sources of being “creatively mendacious”.[7] This is one way in which he deals with such material – by using modern rationalism on it. (3) Nevertheless, he presents such material, whenever possible, within the framework of Greek rationalism. Thus he writes:

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 Casias 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 good sense.[8]

Heracles the Greeks seemed to themselves 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 Megathenes, ‘was especially worshipped by the Suraseni, an Indian people (the Śūrasenas), where there are two great cities, Methora (Mathurā, Muttra) and Clisbora (Krishnapura), and a navigable river, the Jobanes (Jumnā), 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 Pāndya 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 only seven years old, so that a line of Indian kings might be left of their issue. Heracles then 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 prolonge 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.[9]

(4) In some case he offers creative suggestions as to how the statements might make sense after all. Two examples may be cited:

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 demons. As we have seen, Śiva 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 (είσαγγελεύs), Chares of Mytilene, is quoted as saying the Indians worshipped a god Soaroadeios, whose name being interpreted meant ‘maker of wine’. It is recognized that the Indian name which Chares must have heard was Sūryadeva, ‘Sun-god.’ Some ill-educated interpreter must have been mislead by the resemblance of sūrya ‘sun’ to surā ‘wine.’[10] 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 Hacataeus and Ctesias. One would however like to know the fact which lies behind this story that members of one tribe, living near the sources of he 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?[11]

One may now turn to the Indian side of the equation. The Indian historian feels no need to presuppose Greek rationalism and to filter what he sees through that prism. Thus while discussing the account of Megasthenes, R.C. Majumdar notes that Megasthenes “Indika or the collection of Fragments preserved in late writings, has long enjoyed the reputation of being a rich mine of useful and authentic information about India”,[12] but devotes an appendix to an examination of these fragments and concludes:

It would appear from what has been said there that the adverse comments against Megasthenes by ancient writers like Strabo, Pliny and Arrian are fully justified, and modern scholars have no right or reason to ignore them. On the whole it is easy to distinguish critical writers like Strabo and Arrian from the host of others who preceded them and were justly condemned by them as credulous and uncritical. The remarks of Strabo and Pliny, particularly those quoted on pp. 246 ff., cannot be lightly dismissed, and a modern historian should not accept any statement of the early classical writers as true without corroborative evidence. This also applies to the later writers who seem to have derived much of their information from older sources. The unreliable character of the classical accounts is best shown by the mutually contradictory and palpably wrong statements about he absence of slavery, ignorance of writing, etc., and the many absurd tales of men and beasts, and unnatural phenomena solemnly reported by them.[13]

As for the Greek accounts in general, R.C. Majumdar remarks:

In the light of these observations what reliance can be placed on those statements which appear to be unnatural or absurd on the very face of them? Typical examples of such statements are furnished by what Megasthenes says about the men and women of the Caucasus (271), the statement of Aristoblulus about customs at Taxila (276), the two statements, recorded by Strabo, namely ‘that the women are permitted to prostitute themselves if the husbands do not force them to be chaste’ (270) and ‘that a woman who kills a King when he is drunk receives as her reward the privilege of consorting with his successor’ (271); the statement of Megasthenes that the women of the Pandaian realm bear children at the age of six (455), and those seven years old are of marriageable age (222), that the Pandaean nation is governed by females (458), that the men who live the longest die at forty (223); that no private person is permitted to keep a horse or elephant (264) which is contradicted by another equally absurd statement of Nearchus (266); that there is no remedy at law for recovering loan or deposit (455), and the oft-repeated stories of gold-digging ants (2, 266).[14]

He then goes on to say:

It may be argued that some of these statements, however incredible it might appear to us today, might well be true in those days. Arrian, for example, had tried to show that the girls might be marriageable at the age of seven (223). Even if we accept it, the question arises, how far we are justified in believing in them merely on the strength of assertions of persons whose credulity and lack of critical sense have been proved beyond doubt. Writers like Megasthenes, who could accept, as true stories of men without any mouths or noses, or with ears large enough to sleep in (272), of gold-digging ants (266), and of river Silas on which nothing floats (219, 234) would easily believe in the stories of women in Causasus and Pandai without any question. Those who can swallow a camel would hardly strain at a gnat. It is interesting to note that the classical writers themselves accuse each other of falsehood and exaggeration.[15]

[1] R.C. Majumdar, The Classical Accounts of India (Calcutta: Firma KLM Private LTD., 1981) p. 455.

[2] Ibid., p. 272.

[3] Ibid.

[4] E.R. Bevan, “India in Early Greek and Latin Literature”, in E.J. Rapson, ed., Ancient India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922) p. 423.

[5] R.C. Majumdar, op. cit., p. 219, 234.

[6] E.R. Bevan, op. cit., p. 392-393.

[7] Ibid., p. 397.

[8] Ibid., p. 395, emphasis added.

[9] Ibid., p. 408-409, emphasis added.

[10] Ibid., p. 422.

[11] Ibid., p. 422-423.

[12] R.C. Majumdar, op. cit., p. xxiii, Note: The numbers in parenthesis in the text relate to the relevant page numbers in the book.

[13] Ibid., p. xxiv.

[14] Ibid., p. xxiv-xxv.

[15] Ibid., p. xxx.


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