Friday, February 08, 2013

Off the Beaten Track in the Classics by Carl Kaeppel: Some Early Greeks on India

Off the Beaten Track in the Classics by Carl Kaeppel (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1936)

To what extent the civilizations whose remains have been discovered in North-West India influenced and were influenced by the civilizations of Mesopotamia and, thereby, influenced those of the Western World, we cannot as yet determine. Such influence there certainly was, but a discussion of it would be outside the scope of this essay.

Turning to the India we know, the India of recorded and semi-recorded history, the India of Hindu and Dravidian civilizations, we have notice in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea that her trade relations with the outside (Western) world are of extreme antiquity.

The very early Greeks, however, knew little about the land. The reason is obvious. Assyria lay across the path and entry into Assyria meant death in its most awful forms. ‘To the contemporary Greek the land beyond the Taurus and behind the Syrian coast was all by terra incognita while this empire lasted, a land of blood and peril from from which he shrank.’
Absorption by Darius a couple of generations later into the Persian Empire, which eventually extended to Indus, meant that the Greeks could learn about the Eastern lands from the Persians. HecataeusDescription of the Earth, written at the end of the 6th century B.C., was the first Greek account of India. In the third and fourth books of Herodotus’ Histories there is plenty of detail on the Persian Empire, with some facts and tales about India. The story of the gold-digging ants is part of it and the hypothesis that this describes marmots in a particular region of the upper Indus River had not yet been proposed when Kaeppel was writing. While he can’t explain it, Kaeppel urges caution in summarily dismissing it because of corroboration with later careful writers such as Megasthenes and Nearchus. Herodotus also gives a few details on the voyage of Scylax exploring the Indus, then sailing to the coast of Arabia and up the Red Sea.

Ctesias of Cnidus had been part of the Persian court for seventeen years, then returned to Greece and “wrote a history of Persia, a treatise on its revenue, and a treatise on India” in 398 B.C. While these are lost, abridgements and extracts are in works by Photius and Aelian’s Historia Animalium. Ctesias unfortunately was a lover of the marvelous and compiled “an anthology of wonder-tales.” He includes stories later found in Solinus such as those of the Martichora (man-eater), Griffins, Unicorns, Pygmies, men with dogs’ heads and men without nostrils or mouths. Ctesias did mention the use of elephants in war and describes the sport of falconry. Kaeppel notes that Ctesias “is best studied in the Didot edition.

The best of the ancient Greek writers on India to read, according to Kaeppel, is Megasthenes, an envoy sent by Seleucus (the Babylon-based “inheritor” of part of Alexander’s empire) to the court of Sanracouttus (Chandrapupta in the original language). After returning to Greece he produced a book about what he saw and learned in India. The book is unfortunately lost but Strabo and Arrian used extensive extracts from it. A few highlights and comments on Megasthenes’ work:
  • The distances “are hopelessly confused”
  • Megasthenes was probably the first Greek to see the Ganges (definitely the first to give an account of it)
  • He details the well-organized administration of the Prasian kingdom
  • He provides an account of the caste system (although he doesn’t mention the Pariahs)
  • He devotes plenty of space to the Brahmins (‘philosophers’), considering them to have much in common with the Pythagoreans
  • He also notes other ‘philosophers’ practicing austerity, the Buddhists
  • He describes the practices of self-immolation and sati/suttee (but understates the latter’s use)
  • His natural history of this region of India is remarkably accurate
  • The direct information presented is limited to the Indus and Ganges valleys
He unfortunately reproduces “some of the absurdities of Ctesias” but “these are spots on the sun.”

Kaeppel notes that fragments of Megasthenes’ work “have been collected and published by both Schwanbeck and Müller (Vol. II of the Fragmenta Historicorum Graecurum). J. W. McCrindel published Ancient India As Described By Megasthenes and Arrian in 1877. It provides fragments of Megasthenes' Indica as well as the Indica by Arrian.

Note: There is plenty of discussion and controversy regarding which leader of the Indian court Megasthenes visited, but Kaeppel focuses mostly on his description of India that was used by later historians.

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