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Alexander the Great was fascinated by the Gymnosophists

How Some Naked Monks of India Fascinated Alexander the Great

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The impact of Alexander III of Macedon better known to us as Alexander the Great, continues to this day. Even in the Indian sub-continent, his legacy is still visible in the names of numerous children who have been christened as Sikandar and Iskandar (the Persian version of his name) in the hope that they too will have a similar influence in this world.

Alexander the World Conquering Monarch

Alexander is a much-revered figure in India yet today and in general people still consider him to be the pinnacle of all world conquerors. His legacy in this country continues in various forms.

A small isolated village in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh called 'Malana' claims that all its inhabitants are the descendants of the soldiers of Alexander. Those soldiers probably took refuge here after getting injured in the famous Battle of Hydaspes and while recuperating in this beautiful valley amidst mountains made it their permanent home.

Malana is a village where some of Alexander’s men stayed after the Battle of Hydaspes

Malana is a village where some of Alexander’s men stayed after the Battle of Hydaspes. (Nikhil.m.sharma / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Simultaneously, another village by the name of 'Bara Bangal' or Bara Bhangal, (the name might have some connection to the Bengal region of India as per some theories) has a similar tale to tell. Also situated in the beautiful mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh on a high altitude terrain, remote and isolated from the rest of the world.

The area is flanked by impregnable mountains and the Ravi River which meanders in its vicinity in all its boisterous form. This village has legends of a similar sort which are wrapped in mystery and anonymity.

Bara Bangal is also one of the oldest habitations of the pastoral Gaddi tribe, and hence naturally the Kangra district has one of the oldest settlements. Here too, the villagers claim quite earnestly that they are the descendants of the warriors of Alexander's army who did not show any keenness then to go back to Greece/Macedon on a long and perilous odyssey, after a tiring campaign in India. So they supposedly stayed here forever.

Whatever the actual story may be, Alexander the Great is still very much alive in these remotest parts of India. We Indians, while growing up on the stories of Alexander often came across his various exploits in comics and other popular series. We still reflect back on the epithets and sentences that captured our unadulterated young minds in popular media at that time.

For example, this line: “Circa 327/326 BC, the World Conquering Monarch Alexander the Great Invaded India” which made a dent on many a young mind. His conquests are still a matter of much consideration and research.

Alexander Was Aristotle’s Protégé

Alexander III was born in circa 356 BC in the city of Pella, the ancient capital of the ancient Kingdom of Macedon. His father was King Philip II and his mother Olympias of Epirus. One of the most striking features of Alexander's growing up years was the training and education he received from the greatest of the Greek philosophers, Aristotle.

Alexander listens studiously to his tutor, the philosopher Aristotle

Alexander listens studiously to his tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. (O'micron / Public Domain)

His father King Phillip II was instrumental in making Macedon a significant power in the Greek peninsula during Alexander's childhood and also dreamed of conquering another great kingdom of that time which was Persia. But before King Philip II could fulfil his dream, he was assassinated in 336 BC when Alexander was only 20 years old. His dream was to be realized through his son who defeated Darius III to conquer the whole of Persia.

Alexander's campaigns are known mostly due to the accounts of some of his contemporaries in his entourage, people like Callisthenes, Nearchus, and Onesicritus, etc. His biography was also vividly written a few centuries later by some of the Roman writers like Plutarch, Arrian (who was Greek), etc.

Nobody knows exactly when and how the title of ‘Great’ was attached to the name of Alexander. It was probably mentioned by one of the earliest writers, one of the examples being Quintus Curtius Rufus's work Historiarum Alexandri Magni Macedonis Libri Qui Supersunt, where the word Magni has been translated as ‘Great’ in English by the experts.

Alexander Meets the Naked Monks and Calanos

Alexander's campaigns in India are known to every household now, with the Battle of Hydaspes and the bravery of Porus, the Indian king, being immortalized forever. But his campaigns are not the subject of our article today. Alexander was brought up with extensive education in philosophy and hence unlike other conquerors of ancient times, he probably had more interest in probing into the mysteries of this world.

Alexander and Porus at the Battle of Hydaspes

Alexander and Porus at the Battle of Hydaspes. (Gdr / Public Domain)

During his stay in Taxila, which was a great seat of learning in ancient India and which now falls within the periphery of the modern state of Pakistan, he encountered some naked monks and ascetics. Ever since then, these naked monks have been referred to by the Greeks and the Western World as 'Gymnosophists' which roughly translates to 'naked philosophers'.

Alexander meets the Gymnosophists

Alexander meets the Gymnosophists. (Malaiya / Public Domain)

Much has been debated about the identity of those monks. Initial speculation by the experts found them to be Jain ascetics who considered clothing and even food as barriers in attaining the purity of thought and enlightenment. However, this has been debunked on the basis of an incident which we will come to later.

Now, until further evidence is found, we cannot ascertain their religious identity with any truth. Those philosophers could have been anybody and could have belonged to any sect or religion. They could have been Ajivikas or Vedic Rishis or even Buddhists, who were a significant sect, in northwestern India,  that time.

However, one of them was called Calanos by the Greeks. His original name could have been anything and even Kalyana as the above name seems to have been a Greek derivation. When Alexander sent one of his associates to fetch Calanos, he answered back haughtily that it was the Greek king who wants to meet and not he, so Alexander must come to him.

When Alexander met him in the forest, their discourses on the nature of life and the universe were documented by later authors. Alexander was pleasantly surprised to learn from him the futility of material successes and wealth and how pure knowledge is the only basis of all happiness. He persuaded Calanos to come with him and be his teacher. Calanos agreed and went with him to Persia.

Historians wrote about Alexander and the Gymnosophists

Historians wrote about Alexander and the Gymnosophists. (Picryl / Public Domain)

There, due to some reason and probably looking at his advanced age, Calanos decided to self-immolate himself in a holy fire and extinguish his life thus. This was the incident we referred to above, which goes against the philosophy of Jain ascetics, who even consider killing insects to be a heinous crime and so certainly would not alight a fire to take one's own life. Jains generally perform a ritual called 'Sallekhana' which is slowly giving up food in order to starve to death.

Calanos by that logic could not have been a Jain. In his pyre, he entered unflinching and unafraid and while burning did not even utter a single cry. Alexander and soldiers with him witnessed the burning of Calanos in stupefied wonder.

They could not imagine the strength of this simple ascetic who burned without pain, and with a smile. Calanos gave away all his belongings to these soldiers before the immolation. He created an everlasting impression on the minds of these Western invaders through his teachings and strength of character.

Strangely, while burning in that pyre, Calanos looked at Alexander calmly and proclaimed that he would soon meet him in Babylon. Not long after this, Alexander mysteriously died in Babylon while still in his prime, thereby making Calanos a mystic (in the eyes of the Greeks) who could see the future and foretold of Alexander's death.

Alexander the Great receiving news of the death by immolation of the Indian Gymnosophist Calanus

Alexander the Great receiving news of the death by immolation of the Indian Gymnosophist Calanus. (Gts-tg / Public Domain)

Legend has it that from Calanos or Kalyana, Alexander came to know about Dandamis, the leader of all the Gymnosophists of India at that time. The name Dandamis could have been a Greek derivation of the Indian name Dandi Swami, but all these are conjectures. Whatever his name was, this naked philosopher too astonished Alexander with his philosophies and carefree attitude.

A world conqueror who was unfazed by any threat, the one who razed and burned down cities to the ground, one whose very name created terror in the hearts of the bravest of the land, was stopped in his stride and defeated in bravery by a few naked ascetics. Such was the case.

Alexander’s Encounter With Dandamis

According to legend, the confrontation between Alexander and Dandamis was as fascinating as his other encounters. Alexander again tried to lure him with all his riches and splendor, which the ascetic just laughed off. Dandamis told him that all these material things are just like stones to him and his real pleasure is in finding the eternal being and knowledge.

When Alexander tried to scare him by saying that if he doesn't come with him, his head will be chopped-off, Dandamis again laughed-off the threat by saying that Alexander can kill his body but not his soul. And that only the Almighty is the true protector and the emperor of all hearts and souls.

The contrast between a world-conquering monarch draped in gold and diamonds and a naked ascetic who was lying under a tree in natural surroundings are a true testimony to the fact that real power doesn't lie in riches or military strength but in seeking universal wisdom.

Dandamis was not afraid of the world-conquering monarch Alexander the Great

Dandamis was not afraid of the world-conquering monarch Alexander the Great. (romablack / Adobe Stock)

Calanos and Dandamis were the first encounters the West had with true ancient Indian philosophy and spirit, and the impact has been long-lasting. Greece was the bedlam of various schools of philosophies in ancient times and for them to have come across a different school in the East was fascinating.

The Western psyche about India was greatly shaped by the encounters Alexander and his people had with both these philosophers and ever since India has been equated with mysticism and a land full of fabled beings. The identity of Calanos and Dandamis is a much-discussed topic even now among students of philosophy.

True to the words of Calanos, Alexander the Great soon died in Babylon in circa 323 BC still at a very young age. He was of course on his way back to his homeland, after his weary soldiers revolted from going farther into India to conquer the domain of the powerful Nandas. Alexander's death is still shrouded in mystery.

Some say that he was poisoned while others assume that he finally succumbed to all the injuries which he sustained during such a long campaign. Some also say that he got stricken with an unknown Eastern illness and died because of that.

The 2004 Hollywood flick by Oliver Stone, where Colin Farrell played Alexander, also covered the saga of his death. Whatever may have been the cause, the ‘Naked Indian Philosophers’ were not wrong while prophesying that all humans finally, however dominant, rich or poor, will go down equally to dust one day.

Saurav Ranjan Datta has just released his first book of 12 extraordinary stories of women from India, “Maidens of Fate’, available now from Amazon.

Top image: Alexander the Great was fascinated by the Gymnosophists. Source: Игор Чусь / Adobe Stock.

By Saurav Ranjan Datta

Saurav Ranjan Datta's picture

Saurav Ranjan

Saurav Ranjan Datta is a history and travel buff who has been writing for several publications for the last 10 years in both these subjects. By education, he is a post-graduate in management. He belongs to the city of Kolkata... Read More

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