Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: February 2013

Megasthenes on Indian Lawbooks



The Greek author Strabo (quoted by Timmer 1930, from Strabo XV 1.53) has preserved a statement of Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to Candragupta Maurya, according to which theft was an extremely rare phenomenon in the India which he visited.

And the quotation continues: “…, agraphois kai tauta nomois chrōmenois oude gar grammata eidenai autous, all aēo mnēmēs ekasta dioikeisthai.”

The latest editor of the fragments of Megasthenes’ Indica, B.C.J. Timmer, thereby following her predecessors, translates as follows: “…, and this notwithstanding the fact that they use unwritten laws. For they do not know the script, but they administer everything from memory” (1930: 240–41).

Many a page has been written to discuss the possible date of the introduction of writing in India, but at least it seems to be well established now that writing was known in India by the time when Megasthenes lived at the court of Candragupta Maurya.

Consequently, we fully agree with Timmer when she argues that Megasthenes’ statement on this point must be false: “No doubt, Megasthenes’ opinion that the Indians did not know writing was a misunderstanding” (245).

However, Timmer pleads extenuating circumstances in favor of Megasthenes’ apparent inconsistency. Indeed, she says, it was a misunderstanding “based upon the fact that Megasthenes rightly observed that the laws were unwritten and that oral tradition played such an important part in India” (245). According to Timmer, “the laws were indeed mainly unwritten; it was not customary with the Indians to reduce their sacred books (and the Dharmaśāstras belong to them) to writing” (245).