Sheet Anchor of Indian Chronology – A Critique

published on December 8, 2009

(An article by M P Ajith Kumar criticizing the chronology of ancient Indian history set by European Indologists. This article points to the necessity of framing a new chronology based on the Indian accounts. But undoing the present one is necessary to frame the new one. This article would be enough to undo the chronology the European scholar William Jones framed and those like Max Muller endorsed.)
Western scholars like William Jones, Pargiter, James Princep, George Turnour, etc, have commendably contributed to Oriental studies. Sir William Jones, a judicial officer in the East India Company was the founder and President of the Royal Asiatic Society established in Bengal in 1784. Widely traveled in North India, Kashmir and Western Asia, he studied the history of these areas. He collected from Kashmir a text of the history of Bactria called Dabistan Document and concluded that kings of Indian origin ruled Bactria since 6000 years before Alexander’s invasion of India. In 1793 he declared that he had solved the riddle of ancient Indian chronology, stating that Sandrokottas referred to in the accounts of Megasthanes (Greek writer of the 4th century BC) was Chandragupta Maurya of the Indian Puranas and other literatures like Mahavamsa. According to the Greek accounts Alexander’s invasion of India lasted from 327 BC to 323 BC. As per the Greek accounts the Indian king Sandrokottas who defeated Alexander’s successor Selukos took over as the king of Palibothra during 320 BC. Basing on these Greek accounts William Jones concluded that Sandrokottas and Palibotra of the Greek accounts were Chandragupta Maurya and Pataliputra respectively. Jones took 320 BC as the year of Chandragupta Maurya’s coronation.  This is called the sheet anchor of ancient Indian chronology. Thus having bridged the gulf between the chronologies of India and Europe, European Indologists prepared the ancient Indian chronology on the basis of this sheet anchor.

      First of all it may be noticed that primary sources are of cardinal importance in historical research. Secondary sources regarding a datum could of course be relied upon but only if the primary source is available. But in the case of Megasthanese’s Indica no body ever had seen or read it in original. Suffice it to say, there is no such a work as Indica. In fact our knowledge about the Indica is based just on hearsay. We come to hear of the Indica just from the information provided by the later Classical scholars like Arrien, Strabo, Plutarch, Curtius etc. And whatever smattering we have about Indica is from the few quotations the later classical writers give in their writings. Indica as we get it at present is thus only a collection of the copious extracts which these classical writers say they quoted from Megasthanese.

Authenticity itself of the Indica could thus be questioned on the basis of its own absence, let alone any statement or finding based on it. Indica is just a myth and any writing based on this myth could be none other than fiction. Myth won’t make history. This is the opinion of the methodology of history.

  Even if just hearsay about the Indica shall be used to write the history of ancient India overlooking the inevitability of the primary source, still Jones’ Sheet Anchor of Indian chronology remains a grope in the dark. It is the conclusion of an intellectual slapdash rather than meticulous research. Mere verbal semblances between Palibothra and Pataliputra, and Sandrokottas and Chandragupta (Maurya) made Jones conclude that Palibothra was nothing other than Pataliputra and Sandrokottas, Chandragupta Maurya. But had Jones been a bit keener in his observations and reasonable in his research he would not have concluded so. It was indeed an inattentive conclusion, a lax finding. To prove this argument right we may take some of the following and relevant portions from the Classical accounts.

1. Prassi surpasses in power … their capital being Palibothra, a very large and wealthy city, after which some call the people itself Palibothri … nay even the whole tract along the Ganges.1 

  Arrain, depending on Megasthenes’ and other Greek writers’ account writes, “Megasthenes stayed in the court of Sandrokottas. He also stayed in the court of Porus. Porus was a mightier king than Sandrokottas”. This means that Sandrokottas was only an insignificant king before Porus who was the ruler of the territory comprising only two districts. Thus the Sandrokottas referred to in Classical accounts was only a dwarf compared to the Emperor Chandragupta Maurya of the Puranic and Buddhist accounts. Sandrokottas of the Classical accounts was not Chandragupta Maurya.

    According to this statement Palibothra had lain (from the north-west) before the Ganges-Yamuna confluence. But Pataliputra or modern Patna lies south-east of the confluence.

  2. The situation of Palibothra is given as 425 miles from the confluence of Ganges and Jomanese and 738 miles from the mouth of Ganges where it meets the sea.2

    This argument is again buttressed up by Arrain’s account that “Thence to the confluence the Jomanese and Ganges 625 miles and to the town of Palibothra 425 miles” This means that the confluence was 200 miles ahead of Palibothra. But Pataliputra was ahead of the confluence and not 200 miles before it. Thus taking the geographical location of Palibothra as given in Classical accounts it may be concluded that Palibothra of Megasthenes and Arrain was not Patiliputra.

3. The people in whose country this city-Palibothra is situated, is the most distinguished in all India and is called Prassi. The king in addition to his family name must adopt the surname Palibothras, as Sandrokottas for instance did, to whom Megasthanese was sent as an embassy.3   

    But nowhere in Indian literature or any other source material related to the Mauryan dynasty it is mentioned that the Mauryan kings assumed any dynastic title. Here also it is fallacious to take Sandrokottas for Chandragupta Maurya.

4. About Sandrokottas, it is said that he was the greatest among the Indian kings and he was the king of Prassi whose capital was Palibothra.4

5. Sandrokottas killed the previous king and became king himself.5

     It is true that Chandragupta Maurya had defeated the early Magadhan king Dhana Nanda. But he did not kill the latter. The literature on the other hand informs that Chandragupta Maurya had allowed him to quit Magadha taking as much money and material as could be carried in a cart.

6 Seleukas Nikator had given his daughter in marriage to Sandrokottas.6

     But this reference is also not agreeable with the history of Chandragupta Maurya. Such a thing is not mentioned by any of the contemporary Indian evidences.

7. Heracles (identified by historians as Surakulesh Vishnu) was the founder … of no small number of cities, the most renowned and greatest of which was Palibothra.

     Here it is mentioned that Palibothra was founded by Surakulesh Vishnu. It may be noted that Pataliputra on the other hand was founded by Udain. Again it might be noticed that the capital of Magadha up to the time of the Andhras was Girivraja or Rajagriha and not Pataliputra (which again was not Palibothra of Megasthenes)

8. The river Jomanes flows through the Palibothri into the Ganges between the towns of Methora (Mathura) and Carisobaras (Kalisarovar according to the British Indologists).

     But it may be noticed that Yamuna is not flowing through Pataliputra. Yamuna flows into the Ganges even before the Ganges reaches Patna or Pataliputra.

   Besides here it is to be correctly understood as to the Greek pronunciation of the Sanskrit name. It is to be noticed that Pataliputra can’t be written as Palibothra if to place our argument regarding this on the Greek word Palibothra itself. The letter ‘p’ in Patali is written in Greek as English ‘p’ only. Then why the ‘p’ in Putra is changed into Greek ‘b’ is surprising.  There is no instance of the Sanskrit ‘p’ is changed into Greek ‘b’. It is thus clear that putra is not bothra. Pataliputra is not Palibothra of the Greek accounts.

   All these possible and convincing arguments likely to come up against the sheet anchor given by the European Indologists notwithstanding, this chronological setting still continues to dominate the study of ancient Indian history. Classical accounts are still relied to construct the history of India’s past as well as its chronology even as they often disagree with each other and contain mutually contradictory statements regarding incidents or places and persons. Even the very question regarding the originality of Indica as noted earlier combined with the ambiguity of these accounts would suffice to make one doubt the reliability of these accounts. Yet the modern Indologists continue to stereotype William Jones fallacy. 

    Dr. R. C. Majumdar, an authority of Ancient Indian history states that “… a perusal of the different accounts [of the Greek writers] raises grave doubts whether they are all derived from a common reliable source”. He says that though Megasthanes’ “Indica, or collection of fragments preserved in later writings, has long enjoyed the reputation of being a rich mine of useful and authentic information about India, … the question of how far the fragments usually ascribed to him, can really be accepted as such, and may be relied upon as authentic” is something to be addressed with caution and utmost care.

9 In fact many authorities including H. C. Raychaudhuri doubted the reliability of  the Classical accounts of India though he too followed the British Indologists in many of his writings including his masterpiece, Political History of Ancient India.  The fallacy of Jones’ Sheet anchor being thus clearly established in the light of the Classical accounts, it would be interesting to enquire whether there was a place in India that would agree with Palibothra of the Greek accounts.

       Jones and his followers mistook Prassi as Prachya which in Sanskrit means the Easter country. Jones took the statement in the Greek accounts that “Palibothra stood at the junction of Ganges and Erannoboas” and believed that Erannaboas was Hiranyabahu which was also called Sone. River Sone no doubt was also known as Hiranyabahu.

10 The conclusion of Jones thus appears correct and justifiable but for another statement of Megasthenes wherein he describes Erannoboas and Sone as different rivers. Megasthenes has stated, “Nineteen rivers are said to flow into it (Ganges), of which … the Condochates, Erannoboas, Coseagus and Sonus are navigable”.

11 Thus with Megasthenes himself having described Erannoboas and Sone as different rivers Jones’ attempt at identifying Erannoboas with river Sone to locate Palibothra near latter in Eastern India proves untenable. Megasthenes’ Palibothra was not in Eastern India. His identification of the city of Palibothra, the country of Prassi and the river Erannoboas thus proves the best examples of the hasty conclusions he slap-dashed to without checks and counterchecks of the data.

    Jones Calls Megasthenes ignorant and inattentive. But it could hardly be believed that a person of such a high office as that of an ambassador was ignorant and inattentive. Megasthenes was well familiar with the places he visited in India. According to him “The Indus skirts the frontiers of Prassi”.

12 It may be noticed that Mahabharata refers to the country of the Sindhu Pulindakas along with Chedi, Vatsa, Karusha and Bhoja. (chedivatsa karushaschabhoja sindhupulindaka) which situated in the Madhyadesa. Megasthenes might have meant this Sindhu-Pulinda of Madhyadesa which in later times was called Kali Sindh. It is interesting to note that Mac Crindle’s English translation of Schwanbeck’s Indica shows one Sindhu river to the south of Parnasha and Chambal which join Yamuna. The Prassi of Megasthenes must have situated near the Sindhu Pulindaka country and around this Sindhu river. (Again it may at least be noticed that there was no river called Sindhu near Patna or Pataliputra. The Sindhu and its tributaries flow or end up in the North-western India itself. Besides archaeology has it that many rivers of the north-western India changed their course, and some of them even submerged or dried up.

According to the archaeological excavations conducted by the Indian and Pakistani archaeologists and geologists River Yamuna and some of the present tributaries of the River Indus flowed into River Saraswati of which some remaining channels are still called Saraswati, Sarsuti etc. Taking these archaeological, geological and other findings which have come up so far we may believe that there might have been a certain minor river which the people of Kali-Sindh called Sindhu. Though unknown to other parts of India and also incomparably insignificant before the then mighty Sindhu or Indus River, Megasthenes who stayed in Palibothra for a good number of days must have noticed this minor river that might have skirted the frontiers of Parssi.) 

   According to Classical accounts the river Jomanes flows through the Palibothri into the Ganges between the towns of Methora (Mathura) and Carisobaras (not Kalisarovar as taken by European Indologists but Karushasarovara).13 Thus as previously said Karusha was also located in Madhyadesa, quiet near to Sindhu Pulinda, i.e., between Sindhu Pulinda and Prayaga. Taking the Classical accounts in corroboration with the study of the geography of the Madhyadesa it could be concluded that Palibothra, the Prassi capital was near Mathura, Karusha Sarovara and Sindhu Pulinda or Kali Sindh. Palibothra was not Pataliputra as William Jones mistook.

   Then, was there an ancient kingdom in the Madhyadesa that agrees with the Megasthenes’ description of Palibothra? The question brings us to the country of Prabhadraka, Prabhadra or Paribhadra which reigned in Madhyadesa from the very Mahabharata times. Certainly it must be the Palibothra of Megasthenes where he is said to have stayed as an ambassador. The Mahabharata, Parasara’s Jyotisha-Samhita, Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita and Puranas equally refer to the kingdom of Prabhadrakas. As the later literary works than the Mahabharata make mention of the Paribhadrakas it could well be assumed that they continued to rule and were known to the writers of the Gupta period. They also allude to the king called Chandraketu as the head of the Prabhadraka Kshatriyas. But it is yet to be ascertained whether he was the Sandrokottas of the Greek accounts. The Bhadraka kingdom or Paribhadra and its people, the Paribhadrakas or Palibhadrakas must be the Palibothra and, the Palibothris of Megasthenes’ accounts.

   Thus while studying the Megasthenes’ accounts one could come up with the following conclusions. Yamuna was flowing through Prabhadra or Palibhadra, the capital of the Prassi kingdom which was 200 miles from Prayaga on the way to Mathura. Paribhadra or Palibhadra was near Sindhu-Pulinda or Kali Sindh. The Karusha Sarovara was between Sindhu-Pulinda and Prayaga. Palibothra could thus be Paribhadra rather than Pataliputra.

Hence the need to neglect a non- existing datum like Indica and restructure the chronology of ancient India depending on original and authentic sources

     Foot Notes

1.  Pliny, II, 22; Pandit Bhagavadatta, Bharatavarsha ka brihat itihas, quoted by Shriram
     Sathe, Dates of the Buddha, Hyderabad, 1987, p. 16.
2.  R. C. Majumdar, Classical Accounts, Calcutta, 1960, p. 130.
3.  Ibid.
4. Ibid. pp. 4, 12.
5. V. A. Smith, Early History of India, Oxford, 1924, p. 124.
6. Mac Crindle, Ancient India as described by Megasthanese and Arrian, Calcutta, 1926)
7. Diodorus Selucos, General Description of India, Book II, 39. Also see Pandit
     Bhagavadatta, Bharatavarsha ka brihat itihas, quoted by Shriram Sathe, Dates of the
     Buddha, Hyderabad, 1987, p. 16.
8. Shriram Sathe, Op. Cit, p. 16.
9. R. C. Majumdar, op. cit, pp. XX-XXIV; Also see appendix – I.
10. sono hiranyabahu syat, Amarakosa. 1-10-33.
11. Pliny, VI. 22, John Bostock and T. R. Riley (trans.), The Natural History of Pliny,
       London, 1890; R. C. Majumdar, op. cit, p. 341.
12. Frag. LVI. Pliny. 22, Quoted in Shriram Sathe, op. cit. p. 104.  
13. Shriram Sathe, Op. Cit, p. 16.  

* Author is Senior Lecturer in History, Sanatana Dharma College, Alappuzha  

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