Mythological and social narrations from India, recorded by Diodorus Siculus; Dionysus, Hercules and the castes system

In this post we present and discuss Indian Mythological and social narrations, recorded during the first century B.C. by Diodorus Siculus.

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Now India as a whole, being of a vast extent, is inhabited, as we are told, by many other peoples of every description, and not one of them had its first origin in a foreign land, but all of them are thought to be autochthonous; it never receives any colony from abroad nor has it ever sent one to any other people.

(NovoScriptorium: Indians are among the peoples with the oldest recorded Histories/Mythologies. When discussing about the ‘Ancient Tradition’, one should always include the Indian Tradition as an integral and inseparable part of the Ancient World Tradition. In our times it seems very reasonable that all peoples on Earth have a way to record events, phenomena and produce Sciences, History, Thinking, etc. In Antiquity this was not the case. There were some Great Civilizations that had this ability, while the rest -the majority- of the Earth’s inhabitants hadn’t.

It is important to understand that if more than one source of the Ancient Tradition informs us about an event that took place in the distant past, then the possibility that this event actually happened and it’s not imaginary becomes greater.

As for the information we receive from the above excerpt: It is very interesting that another ancient people, the Indians, claim to be authochthonus, indigenous. We have already seen the same for the Greeks in our analyses. Even more interestingly, the Indians claim that they have never sent people of their kin to colonize any other country. So, an ancient Indian would probably laugh at some of the modern theories that a great part of the scientific community presents nearly as ‘dogmas’. The Ancient Tradition from this side of the World does not appear to support a movement of peoples from East to West in the distant past)

According to their myths the earliest human beings used for food the fruits of the earth which grew wild, and for clothing the skins of the native animals, as was done by the Greeks. Similarly too the discovery of the several arts and of all other things which are useful for life was made gradually, necessity itself showing the way to a creature which was well endowed by nature and had, as its assistants for every purpose, hands and speech and sagacity of mind.

(NovoScriptorium: The description of Man’s primitive past was well recorded by the Indians. It not only accords with the ancient Greek and Egyptian narrations, but also with modern concepts about Man’s cultural evolution, which are adequately confirmed by archaeological evidence, too)

The most learned men among the Indians recount a myth which it may be appropriate to set forth in brief form. This, then, is what they say: In the earliest times, when the inhabitants of their land were still dwelling in scattered clan-villages, Dionysus came to them from the regions to the west of them with a notable army; and he traversed all India, since there was as yet no notable city which would have been able to oppose him.

But when an oppressive heat came and the soldiers of Dionysus were being consumed by a pestilential sickness, this leader, who was conspicuous for his wisdom, led his army out of the plains into the hill-country; here, where cool breezes blew and the spring waters flowed pure at their very sources, the army got rid of its sickness. The name of this region of the hill-country, where Dionysus relieved his forces of the sickness, is Meros; and it is because of this fact that the Greeks have handed down to posterity in their account of this god the story that Dionysus was nourished in a thigh (meros).

After this he took in hand the storing of the fruits and shared this knowledge with the Indians, and he communicated to them the discovery of wine and of all the other things useful for life. Furthermore, he became the founder of notable cities by gathering the villages together in well-situated regions, and he both taught them to honour the deity and introduced laws and courts; and, in brief, since he had been the introducer of many good works he was regarded as a god and received immortal honours.

They also recount that he carried along with his army a great number of women, and that when he joined battle in his wars he used the sounds of drums and cymbals, since the trumpet had not yet been discovered. And after he had reigned over all India for fifty-two years he died of old age. His sons, who succeeded to the sovereignty, passed the rule on successively to their descendants; but finally, many generations later, their sovereignty was dissolved and the cities received a democratic form of government.

(NovoScriptorium: The Indian Tradition apparently claimed that at times when the Indians were still dwelling in “scattered clan-villages”, Dionysus “came to them from the regions to the west of them with a notable army”. It is the same expedition recorded in the Greek Tradition/Mythology towards the East. From the narration we derive that Dionysus and his army haven’t met any resistance from the natives, as there was “yet no notable city which would have been able to oppose him”. Then, once he conquered India without a fight, instead of taking advantage of the natives’ weakness and exploit the situation, Dionysus “shared the knowledge of storing the fruits with the Indians, and he communicated to them the discovery of wine and of all the other things useful for life”. He also “became the founder of notable cities”, “taught them to honour the deity and introduced laws and courts“. For all these benefactions, Dionysus was regarded and honoured as a ‘god’, both alive and after his death. Hence the narration, coming from the Indian Tradition as recorded by Diodorus, suggests that Dionysus brought to India almost all the essentials of Civilization: storage of food, built cities, organized religion, law -among “all the other things useful for life”. It also suggests that the descendants of Dionysus reigned for many generations in India.

Diodorus writes that Dionysus was “conspicuous for his wisdom”. This “wisdom” appears two-folded: First, it saves his army from a “pestilential sickness”, i.e. protecting your people while being a ruler, knowledge of basic rules of hygiene and probably knowledge of Medicine, too, are considered as “wisdom”. Second, the fact that Dionysus benefited the people of India instead of expoliting them is also considered as “wisdom”.

Diodorus attempts here to link the mythological narration of Dionysus’ birth with an event that took place in India (“Meros“). Another allegorical interpretation for another ancient Greek myth is provided here.

The use of cymbals and drums in war may mean two things: either that sound was used to terrify his opponents and their animals, or that sound was used to inspire -or even help its discipline, if we imagine them marching in organized lines- his own army. Perhaps both things at the same time.

The great number of women Dionysus brought with him from the West could imply the following: His army was not a multitude aiming/willing to use the females of the conquered peoples by force. Therefore, a good number of women from their homeland was clearly needed to follow the expedition. It could also imply a plan to create a new upper/reigning -racial- class on the conquered lands.

As for the question whether all these could have even the slightest core of ‘historical truth’, no one can answer with absolute certainty. There are some indications -similar Mythological narrations of Greeks and Indians, accompanied by some obvious, very ancient, common lingustic elements- of a possible ‘historical core’ of the whole myth but undoubted evidence, e.g. from Archaeology, is not available)

As for Dionysus, then, and his descendants, such is the myth as it is related by the inhabitants of the hill-country of India. And with regard to Heracles they say that he was born among them and they assign to him, in common with the Greeks, both the club and the lion’s skin.

(NovoScriptorium: As we have explained in several previous analyses, the same name -here Hercules/Heracles- was given, just like today, to several different persons. There wasn’t only one Hercules in History. On the contrary, there were quite a few, and they were all connected with great deeds, in several parts of the World. Here we have a description of Hercules, who was born in India, that resembles the ‘stereotypical’ Greek description. It is this crucial point that does not allow us to call Hercules ‘Indian’. Diodorus writes that Hercules “was born among them” not that he was “one of them”. Unless he translates from some local Indian name -most likely he would have informed us of this, as he did, for instance, in the narration of the Egyptian Tradition which we have examined in a previous post- we must conclude that he is writing about a Greek that was born in India)

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Moreover, as their account tells us, he was far superior to all other men in strength of body and in courage, and cleared both land and sea of their wild beasts. And marrying several wives, he begot many sons, but only one daughter; and when his sons attained to manhood, dividing all India into as many parts as he had male children, he appointed all his sons kings, and rearing his single daughter he appointed her also a queen.

(NovoScriptorium: At least one “Hercules” in the Greek Mythology resembles the above description; strength, courage, and clearing land and sea of wild beasts that were dangerous to the population. As the myth says, Hercules was the ruler of India in his time, like Dionysus before him, and divided the rule of the country among his children. The very interesting thing is that he did not exclude his daughter from becoming a leader of people. Hence, leading/ruling/reigning was not considered a strictly ‘man thing’ back then -whenever that was)

Likewise, he became the founder of not a few cities, the most renowned and largest of which he called Palibothra. In this city he also constructed a costly palace and settled a multitude of inhabitants, and he fortified it with remarkable ditches which were filled with water from the river.

And when Heracles passed from among men he received immortal honour, but his descendants, though they held the kingship during many generations and accomplished notable deeds, made no campaign beyond their own frontiers and despatched no colony to any other people. But many years later most of the cities had received a democratic form of government, although among certain tribes the kingship endured until the time when Alexander crossed over into Asia.

(NovoScriptorium: Like Dionysus before him, Hercules also found new cities; we are informed that he also built a luxurious and fortified palace -an indication of wealth and prosperity. In the same way as Dionysus’ descendants, the descendants of Hercules have ruled India for many generations. Yet again, Diodorus insists that no expedition/campaign started from India towards anywhere else. Hercules, like Dionysus, also received the status of ‘deity’ after his death, for his benefactions to the Indian people.

There is also another interesting piece of information here; Diodorus writes that several parts of India were governed by democratic forms of government instead of kingship. In the way the text is written, for both Dionysus and Hercules, one can assume that democratic forms of government in India were quite ancient, and surely more ancient than the Athenian Democracy of the 5th century B.C.)

As for the customs of the Indians which are peculiar to them, a man may consider one which was drawn up by their ancient wise men to be the most worthy of admiration; for the law has ordained that under no circumstances shall anyone among them be a slave, but that all shall be free and respect the principle of equality in all persons. For those, they think, who have learned neither to domineer over others nor to subject themselves to others will enjoy a manner of life best suited to all circumstances; since it is silly to make laws on the basis of equality for all persons, and yet to establish inequalities in social intercourse.

(NovoScriptorium: The above are a clear indication of the ancient Indians’ deep spirituality and belief in philosophical and ethical values. These are signs of a ‘high-level’ Civilization; any society built/based on the respect of the human hypostasis constitutes a ‘high-level’ one)

The whole multitude of the Indians is divided into seven castes, the first of which is formed of the order of the philosophers, which in number is smaller than the rest of the castes, but in dignity ranks first. For being exempt from any service to the state the philosophers are neither the masters nor the servants of the others.

But they are called upon by the private citizens both to offer the sacrifices which are required in their lifetime and to perform the rites for the dead, as having proved themselves to be most dear to the gods and as being especially experienced in the matters that relate to the underworld, and for this service they receive both notable gifts and honours. Moreover, they furnish great services to the whole body of the Indians, since they are invited at the beginning of the year to the Great Synod and foretell to the multitude droughts and rains, as well as the favourable blowing of winds, and epidemics, and whatever else can be of aid to their auditors.

For both the common folk and the king, by learning in advance what is going to take place, store up from time to time that of which there will be a shortage and prepare beforehand from time to time anything that will be needed. And the philosopher who has erred in his predictions is subjected to no other punishment than obloquy and keeps silence for the remainder of his life.

The second caste is that of the farmers, who, it would appear, are far more numerous than the rest. These, being exempt from war duties and every other service to the state, devote their entire time to labour in the fields. The farmers spend their lives upon the land with their children and wives and refrain entirely from coming down into the city. For the land they pay rent to the king, since all India is royal land and no man of private station is permitted to possess any ground; and apart from the rental they pay a fourth part into the royal treasury.

The third division is that of the neatherds and shepherds, and, in general, of all the herdsmen who do not dwell in a city or village but spend their lives in tents; and these men are also hunters and rid the country of both birds and wild beasts.

The fourth caste is that of the artisans; of these some are armourers and some fabricate for the farmers or certain others the things useful for the services they perform. And they are not only exempt from paying taxes but they even receive rations from the royal treasury.

The fifth caste is that of the military, which is at hand in case of war; they are second in point of number and indulge to the fullest in relaxation and pastimes in the periods of peace. And the maintenance of the whole multitude of the soldiers and of the horses and elephants for use in war is met out of the royal treasury.

The sixth caste is that of the inspectors. These men inquire into and inspect everything that is going on throughout India, and report back to the kings or, in case the state to which they are attached has no king, to the magistrates.

The seventh caste is that of the deliberators and chancellors, whose concern is with the decisions which affect the common welfare. In point of number this group is the smallest, but in nobility of birth and wisdom the most worthy of admiration; for from their body are drawn the advisers for the kings and the administrators of the affairs of state and the judges of disputes, and, speaking generally, they take their leaders and magistrates from among these men.

Such in general terms are the groups into which the body politic of the Indians is divided. Furthermore, no one is allowed to marry a person of another caste or to follow another calling or trade, as, for instance, that one who is a soldier should become a farmer, or an artisan should become a philosopher.

(NovoScriptorium: The social organization described above is a very interesting one. Even more interestingly, despite some differences, Plato’s political suggestions, as presented in his “Republic”, resemble the -definitely older- Indian castes system a lot)

There are among the Indians also magistrates appointed for foreigners who take care that no foreigner shall be wronged; moreover, should any foreigner fall sick they bring him a physician and care for him in every other way, and if he dies they bury him and even turn over such property as he has to his relatives.

(NovoScriptorium: Another indication of a ‘high-level’ Civilization we notice here. Instead of being hostile to foreigners, like the rule timelessly appears to be among Men, the ancient Indians are described as institutionally hospitable towards them; this hospitality was an integral part of their political/governmental/social system)

Again, their judges examine accurately matters of dispute and proceed rigorously against such as are guilty of wrongdoing.

(NovoScriptorium: Wherever on Earth and whenever in Time, one of the bases of any successful polity is definitely the existence of an adequate judiciary system. It appears that ancient India had one)

(Source: “The Library of History”, Book II, by Diodorus Siculus, Loeb Classical Library)

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Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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