Castes or Classes? Megasthenes‘ Depiction of India’s Society

Introduction: Megasthenes stayed as Ambassador of Seleukos Nikator at Chandragupta Maurya’s court at Pataliputra for several years around 300 B.C. His book Indica which he wrote as a keen-witted observer survived only as fragments quoted by Diodorus, Strabo and, in particular, by Arrian (c. 95-175) in his own book Indika. Of particular interest is Megasthenes’ detailed description of seven ‘divisions’ of the Indian society. As the exact meaning of genos and meros, terms used by Greek authors in this context, is unclear and since the number ‘seven’ does not fit the caste system, their usual translation as ‘caste’ is disputed. But apart from the uncertainness of their definition, they depict a fascinating and, in fact the earliest detailed description of the Indian society, as observed by a foreign visitor to India’s capital and its surroundings.
(see also AHOI, ch. 2, section: The Foundation of the Maurya Empire)

 (P.A. Brunt, Arrian, with an English Translation, Vol. II, (Indica, 11,1-12,7), Cambridge, Mass. 1983, pp. 337-41)

11. All the Indians are divided into generally seven classes. One consists of the sophists; they are less numerous than the rest, but grandest in reputation and honour, for they are under no necessity to do any bodily labour, nor to contribute from the results of their work to the common store; in fact, no sort of constraint whatever rests on the sophists, save to offer the sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the common weal of the Indians. Whenever anyone sacrifices privately, one of the sophists directs him in the sacrifice, on the ground that otherwise it would not prove acceptable to the gods. Alone of the Indians they are expert in prophecy, and none save a sophist is allowed to prophesy. They prophesy only about the seasons of the year and any public calamity; it is not their concern to prophesy on private matters to individuals, either because the art of prophecy does not condescend to petty affairs, or because it is undignified for the sophists to trouble about them. Anyone who has made three errors in prophecy does not suffer any harm but must keep silence in future, and no one will ever force the man to speak on whom sentence of silence has been passed. These sophists spend their time naked, during the winter in the open air and sunshine, but in summer, when the sun is strong, in the meadows and marsh lands under great trees, whose shade, according to Nearchus, reaches five plethra all round, and which are so large that as many as ten thousand men could take shade under one tree. The sophists eat produce in season and the bark of trees, a bark that is no less sweet and nutritious than palm dates.
Second to them come the farmers, who are the most numerous of Indians; they have no weapons and no concern in warfare, but they till the land and pay the taxes to the kings and the self-governing cities; and if there is internal war among the Indians, it is not lawful for them to touch these land workers, nor even to devastate the land itself; but while some are making war and killing each other as opportunity may serve, others close by are peacefully ploughing or picking fruits or pruning or harvesting.
The third class of Indians are the herdsmen, who pasture sheep and cattle, and do not dwell in cities or in villages: they are nomads and get their living on the hillsides. They too pay taxes from their animals, and they hunt birds and wild beasts in the country.
12. The fourth class is of artisans and shopkeepers; they too perform public duties, and pay tax on the receipts from their work, except for those who make weapons of war and actually receive a wage from the community. In this class are the shipwrights and sailors, who ply on the rivers.
The fifth class of Indians consists of the soldiers, next to the farmers in number; they enjoy the greatest freedom and most agreeable life. They are devoted solely to military activities. Others make their arms and provide their horses; others too serve in the camps, grooming their horses and polishing their arms, driving the elephants, and keeping the chariots in order and driving them. They fight so long as they have to fight, but in time of peace they make merry; and they receive so much pay from the community that they can easily support others from their pay.
The sixth class of Indians are those called over-seers. They supervise everything that goes on in the country and cities, and report it to the king, where the Indians are governed by kings, or to the authorities, where they are self-governing. It is not lawful to make any false report to them; and no Indian was ever accused of such falsification.
The seventh class are those who deliberate about public affairs with the king, or in self-governing cities with the authorities. In number this class is small, but in wisdom and justice it is the most distinguished of all; it is from this class that they select their rulers, monarchs, hyparchs, treasurers, generals, admirals, comptrollers, and supervisors of agricultural works.


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