Although Megasthenes’ deification of Hercules and Dionysus in India, along with several other fictionalised historical facts were ambivalent, he did succeed in presenting one of the earliest of all accounts that detailed Indian topography precisely.
Civilisations that flourished back to when man worshipped nature as the primordial force from which originated beings, were bound to have resemblances in ideologies, texts, traditions and philosophies. Greeks and Indians are two distinct races, separated by thousands of stadia, divided by natural barriers that include but are not limited to, mountains, highlands, rivers and seas, between which was once extant, the mighty Achaemenid Empire of Persia.
The earliest depictions of Indians in the Greek history come from the Battle of Plataea that took place as early as 479 BCE. Northwestern provinces of India had extended their allegiance to the mighty Achaemenid force under King Xerxes, who desired to ransack the Greek city states. Although fighting for the Persians who would eventually be crushed and crumbled like never before, the Greek presumptions on who the Indians were, did take a magnanimous shift from what their prevalent notion of the East had been.
Ever since the foundation stones of the Western civilisations were laid, the Greeks had always had a good contact with the Ethiopians, be that in matters of slave trade or frequent mythological depictions of the place. Ethiopia (Greek: Aethopia), literally meant ‘the land of the people with the burned face’ and this denomination was applicable to all modern day African nations, specifically to the residents of the lands that stood south of Egypt. Indians were no exception. When Herodotus compiled his famed work entitled ‘Histories’, he endeavoured to describe India, an ancient civilisation that he thought, laid on the eastern fringes of the world, near to Ethiopia. In a 1920 transliteration of Herodotus’ work by A.D. Godley, it is observed that, “As far as India, Asia is an inhabited land; but thereafter, all to the east is desolation, nor can anyone say what kind of land is there.”
In those ancient times, the Indians and the Greeks usually came to know each other through the Achaemenid Empire of Persia that lay between the civilisations and under whose command, tribal Indian kingdoms often waged vociferous wars against the Greek city states.
Jan Willem de Jong, in his 1973 book called ‘The Discovery of India by the Greeks’ state some crucial Indo-Greek interactions that could have possibly formed the basis of Herodotus’ observations. Scylax of Caryanda was a sailor who is believed to have been the first to have sailed as far as the Indus, under the service of Darius. His is one of the earliest accounts of Greeks in India. Later, Hecataeus of Miletus worked out an Indian topography and tried detailing certain descriptions of what the people looked like and who they actually were. Another account of the then speculative country was penned down by the Greek physician Ctesias, years before the Bactrians (who lived in northern Afghanistan), came into direct contact with the Indians.
Almost a century and a half later, (approximately 153 years after the Battle of Plataea), the Macedonian Invasion under Alexander became the earliest of its kind to open doors for cultural emissaries and cross cultural interactions to foster between the two ancient civilisations, hence making way for the procreation of a Graeco Indian pantheon.
Thus, when Greek Ambassador and Ethnographer Megasthenes visited India in 302 BCE, much was known in the Hellenistic world, about these fabulous beings of the East (although the Greek topographical descriptions suffered, as a consequence of none having ventured beyond the Indus, the river that was then considered the second largest in the world, only after the Nile).
Megasthenes seemed to have had a penchant for Classicism and endeavoured to define the world through the lenses of mythology. His venture into the subcontinent was fabulous indeed but Indika, the legacy that he left behind, wasn’t just a simple text. It was something that went on to bring about a cultural fusion or an intermingling amongst the Hindu pantheon and the contemporary Greek myths.
The divinity of Hercules in India has its origins from the valley that Alexander did not invade: Nagara. In his account, as noted by Dr. Schwanbeck and J.W. McCrindle in 1877, Megasthenes quotes, “Such, then are the traditions regarding Dionysus and his descendants current among the Indians who inhabit the hill-country. They further assert that Herakles also was born among them. They assign to him like Greeks, the clubs and the lion‘s skin. He far surpassed other men in personal strength and prowess, and cleared sea and land of evil beasts.”
Such a vivid description of his could possibly be linked to presence of gargantuan rituals devoted to the Indian deities Krishna and Balarama.
American Indologist Edwin Francis Bryant recalls Hercules’ similarity to the Indian deity Krishna. He comments on a tribe that Megasthenes called Sourasenoi, linking it to the Shurasenas, the branch of the Chandravanshi Yadus to which both the brothers belonged. In the Greek historian’s description, ‘Sourasenoi’ are people “who especially worshipped Herakles in their land, and this land had two cities, Methora and Kleisobora, and a navigable river, the Jobares.”
Major General Sir Alexander Cunningham, in the late 19th century did find evidences of Herculean depictions in the Mathura art and was someone who suspected the cross cultural influences that might have had taken place due to Megasthenes and the other Greek historians who chose to equate each divinity with that of theirs. What he basically meant was simple. In Mathura, which Megasthenes probably called ‘Methora’ lived artists who had heard tales of the legendary Greek hero and were commissioned to create statuettes that resembled Krishna.
This earthen statuette, now kept at the Indian Museum, Kolkata, was originally referred to as the ‘Mathura Herakles’. And why wouldn’t it? It represents a bold man slaying a Nemean lion, depicting the completion of one of Hercules’ twelve labours set for him by Eurystheus, under auspices of Hera.
Although it is well understood that Megasthenes, by his narrations of people around ‘Methora’ (Mathura) , ‘Kleisobora’ (Krishnapur) and the river Jobares (Yamuna) referred to the Gangetic plain where the worship of Krishna was prevalent, Orientalist and Military officer Lieutenant Colonel James Tod, in his work called ‘Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan’ states a better resemblance of the Indian Hercules with Baladeva (Balarama), the elder brother of Krishna.
Interesting similarities between Balarama and Hercules, as noted down by Tod are, ‘his club and lion’s hide, standing on his pedestal at Baldeo, and yet worshipped by Suraseni!’. Balarama also boasted of the attributes of the Indian ‘God of Strength’, something that creates a better likeness of his with Hercules, the Greek equivalent.
Howbeit, a classicist as he was, Megasthenes did not pause at just hellenizing the Indian deities. Rather, he went on to create fictionalised historical accounts of various Indian kingdoms, linking them to Hercules and Dionysus .
One of the most popular and flawed descriptions of his was on the origins of the Early Pandyan Kingdom. In an attempt to relate the flamboyant Pandyan kings with Hercules, what Megasthenes did was to bring in a daughter of the Greek hero that he called ‘Pandaea’!
Later Greek and Roman historians, including Pliny the Elder criticised Megasthenes for his description of the ‘fabulous races of India’, and his over exaggerated account of the history that related almost everything to Hercules and Dionysus.
The primary bases of his work in India were how he related the principal Indian deities to what he learnt from the classical literature and the erroneous descriptions (from the accounts of other historians) detailing on the extensive Indian landmass that he had never actually ventured into.
Thus, although his deification of Hercules and Dionysus in India, along with several other fictionalised historical facts were ambivalent, he did succeed in presenting one of the earliest of all accounts that detailed Indian topography precisely.
Megasthenes’ enthusiasm resulted in a confluence of cultural philosophy, religion and literature, bringing about a fusion between the Oriental world and the Occidental. If Baldwin were to be recalled, he would rightly praise Megasthenes and his relation with the East as a person who is, “trapped in history and history is trapped in.”