home   :    index    :    ancient Persia    :    ancient Greece    :    Alexander

Alexander and the Indian sages


Detail of the Alexander mosaic, found in Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). In India, Alexander the Great (or his representative Onesicritus) had an interview with the Brahman sages, who lived near Taxila. One of these people, a man named Calanus (Indian Kalyana), followed the conqueror to the west, where he died. The story of the interview and the story of the death of Calanus are described in several sources, such as the Anabasis by the Greek author Arrian of Nicomedia (book seven, sections 1.5-3.6). The translation was made by Aubrey de Sélincourt.
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine

I have always liked the story of the Indian sages, some of whom Alexander chanced to come upon out of doors in a meadow, where they used to meet to discuss philosophy. On the appearance of Alexander and his army, these venerable men stamped with their feet and gave no other sign of interest.

Alexander asked them through interpreters what they meant by this odd behavior, and they replied: 'King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth' surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and up to no good, traveling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others. Ah well! You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of this earth as will suffice to bury you.'

Alexander expressed his approval of these sage words; but in point of fact his conduct was always the exact opposite of what he then professed to admire. [...] One must admit, than, that Alexander was not wholly a stranger to the loftier flights of philosophy; but the fact remains that he was, to an extraordinary degree, the slave of ambition.

In Taxila, once, he met some members of the Indian sect of Wise Men whose practice it is to go naked, and he so much admired their powers of endurance that the fancy took him to have one of them in his personal train. The oldest man among them, whose name was Dandamis (the others were his pupils), refused either to join Alexander himself or to permit any of his pupils to do so. 'If you, my lord,' he is said to have replied, 'are the son of god, why - so am I. I want nothing from you, for what I have suffices. I perceive, moreover, that the men you lead get no good from their world-wide wandering over land and sea, and that of their many travels there will be no end. I desire nothing that you can give me; I fear no exclusion from any blessings which may perhaps be yours. India, with the fruits of her soil in due season, is enough for me while I live; and when I die, I shall be rid of my poor body - my unseemly housemate.'

These words convinced Alexander that Dandamis was, in a true sense, a free man. So he made no attempt to compel him. On the other hand, another of these Indian teachers, a man named Calanus, did yield to Alexander's persuasion; this man, according to Megasthenes' [1] account, was declared by his fellow teachers to be a slave to fleshly lusts, an accusation due, no doubt, to the fact that he chose to renounce the bliss of their own asceticism and to serve another master instead of god.

I have mentioned this because no history of Alexander would he complete without the story of Calanus. In India Calanus had never been ill, but when he was living in Persia all strength ultimately left his body. In spite of his enfeebled state he refused to submit to an invalid regimen, and told Alexander that he was content to die as he was, which would be preferable to enduring the misery of being forced to alter his way of life. Alexander, at some length, tried to talk him out of his obstinacy, but to no purpose. Then, convinced that if he were any further opposed he would find one means or another of making away with himself, he yielded to his request, and gave instructions for the building of a funeral pyre under the supervision of Ptolemy son of Lagus, of the Personal Guard.

Some say Calanus was escorted to the pyre by a solemn procession - horses, men, soldiers in armor and people carrying all kinds of precious oils and spices to throw upon the flames; other accounts mention drinking-cups of silver and gold and kingly robes. He was too ill to walk, and a horse was provided for him; but he was incapable of mounting it, and had to be carried an a litter, upon which he lay with his heard wreathed with garlands in the Indian fashion, and singing Indian songs, which his countrymen declare were hymns of praise to their gods. The horse he was to have ridden was of the royal breed of Nisaia, and before he mounted the pyre he gave it to Lysimachus, one of his pupils in philosophy, and distributed among other pupils and friends the drinking-cups and draperies which Alexander had ordered to be burnt in his honor upon the pyre.

At last he mounted the pyre and with due ceremony laid himself down. All the troops were watching. Alexander could not but feel that there was a sort of indelicacy in witnessing such a spectacle - the man, after all, had been his friend; everyone else, however, felt nothing but astonishment to see Calanus give not the smallest sign of shrinking from the flames. We read in Nearchus' account of this incident that at the moment the fire was kindled there was, by Alexander's orders, an impressive salute: the bugles sounded, the troops with one accord roared out their battle-cry, and the elephants joined in with their shrill war-trumpettings.

This story and others to a similar effect have been recorded by good authorities; they are not without value to anyone who cares for evidence of the unconquerable resolution of the human spirit in carrying a chosen course of action through to the end.

Note 1:
Megasthenes visited India in the years after Alexander, and wrote a book on the country.
 home   :    index    :     ancient Persia    :    ancient Greece    :    Alexander