Calanus (Indian: Kalyana): Indian sage who accompanied Alexander the Great.

Gogdara, relief showing a saddhu
Gogdara, relief showing a saddhu

In April 326, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great reached Taxila, the capital of one of the Indian kingdoms in the Punjab (Indian Takshaçila, modern Rawalpindi). Onesicritus of Astypalaea, one of Alexander's officers and biographers, writes that the king sent him to the Indian sages, only to be ridiculed by them and to be thaught cosmology (text). Another biographer of Alexander, Arrian of Nicomedia, states that Alexander personally interviewed the sages, who may have been traditional Brahmans or innovating saddhu's.

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.note

Alexander invited the sages to join him, but their leader, Dandamis, refused and sharply criticized Calanus, who accepted the invitation. (There is a tradition, going back to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, that Calanus was in fact forced to join the Macedonian army.)

Calanus must have been one of Alexander's advisers during his Indian campaigns. We do not know what he thought of the anti-Macedonian rebellion that the Brahmans organized in April 325, when Alexander was leaving India.

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.note

Burning oneself was not common in ancient India. It is only rarely mentioned in Brahman sources. However, it is unclear whether Calanus was a Brahman, and even if he were, it may be pointed out that voluntarily departing from one's life was considered by the Greeks to be the culmination of one's spiritual quest: one had been able to renunciate life itself.

Calanus departed from life with the words "Alexander, we shall meet again in Babylon". Nobody understood why he said this, but in the end, the words proved true when Alexander died in Babylon.

His death made a lasting impression. In 165 CE, a Greek philosopher named Peregrinus Proteus, did the same during the Olympic games. Although his contemporary Lucian described him as someone intent on publicity, most people were very impressed by the 'new Calanus', who had shown that death was nothing to be feared.


This page was created in 2001; last modified on 6 May 2019.