Alexander, the Great and Kalanus, the Yogi

 Plutarch (45 AD) in his ‘Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans – the Life of Alexander’ relates about an incident where Alexander’s soldiers had an encounter with Indian Yogis and got an experience that was bizarre to their mind:

  “Alexander sent one Onesicritus, his philosopher, to other wise men of Indians, which were of greatest fame among them and that led a solitary and quiet life, to pray to them to come to him.

  “Calanus, one of these wise men, very sharply and proudly bade him put off his clothes, to hear his words naked: or otherwise he would not speak to him.

“Yet Dandamis answered him more gently and having learnt about Socrates, Pythagoras and Diogenes asked why Alexander had taken so painful a journey in hand as to come into India.

  “The king of Taxila persuaded Calanus to go to Alexander.

  “This Yogi Calanus used to greet everybody, who came to see him, by saying ‘Kalyan Bhav’ or God save you, that is, be you God protected, and Greeks referred him by the name of Kalanus.”

  J.W. McCrindle in the Biographical Appendix to his ‘Ancient India as described by Arrian, Q. Curtius, Diodoros, Plutarch and Justin’ relates in connection with one Kalanos, an Indian Yogi, very interesting spiritual things. It throws light on the soul of India acting and influencing the lives of ancient Indians. He takes notice of all the available ancient Greek sources about Indian Yogis called by Greeks “gymnosophists’ and particularly about one called ‘Kalanos’ and writes about them thus:

“Kalanos was a gymnosophist of Taxila (a region of ancient India), who left India with Alexander, and burned himself alive on a funeral pile at Sousa. His real name, Plutarch says, was Sphines; but the Greeks called him Kalanos, because, in saluting those who met, he used the word kale! Equivalent to hail! The Sanskrit adjective ‘kalyana’ means salutary, lucky, well, etc. If we except Sandrokottos, Taxiles and Poros, there is no other Indian with whose history, opinions and personal characteristics the classical writers have made us so well acquainted as with those of Kalanos. … I shall here present translations of all the passages I can find which relate to him, and to another gymnosophist who was a man of a very different stamp called Mandanes, and sometimes, but improperly, Dandamis”.

  Arrian (in VII.i.5-iii) has thus written about Yogi Kalanos (or Kalyana): “When Kalanos was in the country of Persia he fell into delicate health, though he had never before had an illness. Accordingly, as he had no wish to lead the life of an invalid, he thought it best to put an end to him before he had experience of any malady that would oblige him to change his former mode of life.

  “Alexander long and earnestly opposed his request; but when he saw that he was quite inflexible, and that one mode of death was denied to him he would find another, he ordered a funeral pyre to be piled up in accordance with the man’s own directions, and ordered Ptolemy, the son of Lagos, one of the bodyguards, to superintend all the arrangements.

  ‘’Some say that a solemn procession of horses and men advanced before him, some of the men being armed, while others carried all kinds incense for the pyre. Others again say that they carried gold and silver bowls and royal apparel; also that a horse was provided for him because he was unable to walk from illness. He was, however, unable to mount the horse, and he was therefore carried on a litter crowned with a garland, after the manner of the Indians, and singing in the Indian tongue.

  “The Indians say that what he sang were hymns to the gods and the praises of his countrymen, and that the horse which he was to have mounted – a Nesian steed of the royal stud – he presented to Lysimachos who attended him for instruction in philosophy. On others who attended him he bestowed the bowls and rugs which Alexander, to honor him, had ordered to be cast into the pyre.

  “Then mounting the pile, he laid down upon it in a becoming manner in full view of the whole army. Alexander deemed the spectacle one which he could not with propriety witness, because the man to suffer was his friend; but to those who were present Kalanos caused astonishment in that he did not move any part of his body in the fire.

  ‘’As soon as the man charged with the duty, set fire to the pile, and the whole army raised the war-shout as if advancing to battle. The elephants also swelled the noise with their shrill and warlike cry to do honor to Kalanos.”

  In a subsequent chapter (xviii) Arrian records the following story of Kalanos:  “When he was going to the funeral pyre to die, he embraced all his other companions, but did not wish to draw near to Alexander to give him a parting embrace, saying he would meet him at Babylon and would there embrace him. This remark attracted no notice at the time; but afterwards, when Alexander died in Babylon, it came back to the memory of those who heard it, which then naturally took it to have been a prophecy of his death.”

  McCrindle further remarks: “Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander, has another notice of Kalanos besides that which the reader will find translated in chapter 65. In chapter 69 he thus writes: “It was here (in Persepolis) that Kalanos, on being for a short time afflicted with colic, desired to have his funeral pile erected. He was conveyed to it on horseback, and after he had prayed and sprinkled himself with a libation and cut off part of his hair to cast into the fire, he ascended the pile, after taking leave of the Macedonians, and recommending them to devote that day to pleasure and hard-drinking with the king’s, whom, said he, I shall shortly see in Babylon. Upon this he lay down on the pyre and covered himself with his robes. When the flames approached he did not move, but remained in the same posture as when he lay down until the sacrifice was auspiciously consummated, according to the custom of the sages of his country. Many years afterwards another Indian in the presence of Caesar (Augustus) at Athens did the same thing. His tomb is shown till this day, and is called the Indian’s tomb. … Alexander, on returning from the pyre, invited many of his friends and his generals to supper, where he proposed a drinking bout, with a crown for the prize. Promachos, who drank most, reached four measures (14 quarts), and won the crown, which was worth a talent, but survived only for three days. The rest of the guests, Chares says, drank to such excess that forty-one of them died, the weather having turned excessively cold immediately after the debauch.

  “The Indian who burned himself at Athens was called Zarmanochegas, as we learn from Strabo (xv, i. 73), who came to Syria in the train of the ambassadors who were sent to Augustus Caesar by a great Indian king called Porus. “These ambassadors” he says, “were accompanied by the person who burnt himself to death at Athens. This is the practice with persons in distress, who seek escape from existing calamities and with others in prosperous circumstances, as was the case with this man. For as everything hitherto had succeeded with him, he thought it necessary to depart, lest some unexpected calamity should happen to him, and with the girdle round his waist (this girdle round the waist is still worn by many in India and called Tagadi), he leaped upon the pyre. On his tomb was this inscription: ‘Zarmanochegas, an Indian, a native of Bargosa (Barygaza, Baroch), having immortalized himself according to the custom of his country, here lies.’ Lassen takes the name Zarmanochegas to represent the Sanskrit Sramanacharya, teacher of the Sramanas, from which it would appear he was a Buddhist priest. Strabo writes at greater length than our historians do about the gymnosophists.”

  Arrian, (in VII. I. 5 – iii.), writes about Yogi Dandamuni and his disciples thus: “I commend the Indian sages of whom it is related that certain of them who had been caught by Alexander walking about according to their wont in the open meadow, did nothing else in sight of himself and his army but stamp upon the ground on which they were stepping. When he asked them through interpreters what they meant by so doing, they replied thus: ‘O King Alexander, each man possesses as much of the earth as what we have stepped on; but you, being a man like the rest of us, except that you wickedly disturb the peace of the world, have come so far from home to plague yourself and everyone else, and yet before long when you die you will possess just so much of the earth as will suffice to make a grave to cover your bones.’

  “Alexander praised what they had said, but nevertheless, continued to act in opposition to their advice … when he arrived at Taxila and saw the Indian gymnosophists, he conceived a great desire to that one of their number should live with him, because he admired their patience in enduring hardship. But the oldest of the philosophers, Dandamis by name, with whom the others lived as disciples, not only refused to go himself, but forbade the others to go.

  ‘’He is said to have replied that he was also a son of Zeus, if Alexander was such, and that he wanted nothing that was Alexander’s; for he was content with what he had, while he saw that the men with Alexander wandered over sea and land for no advantage, and were never coming to an end of their wanderings. He desired, therefore, nothing it was in Alexander’s power to give: nor did he fear being excluded from anything he possessed; for while he lived, India would suffice for him, yielding him her fruits in due season, and when he died he would be delivered from the body an unsuitable companion.

  “Alexander accordingly did not attempt to compel him to go with him, considering him free to please himself. But Megasthenes has stated that Kalanos one of the philosophers of this place, was persuaded to go since he had no power of self-control, as the philosophers themselves allowed, who upbraided him because he had deserted the happiness among them, and went to serve another master than the deity.”

Plutarch further speaks of the wit and character of Indian Yogis in these terms:

“Alexander summoned ten of the wise men of the country, which men do all go naked, and are called philosophers of India. They had made the tribe of Sabbas to rebel and fight against Alexander and had thereby greatly hurt him. These philosophers were taken to be the sharpest and readiest of answer Alexander put them, as he thought many hard questions. He told them that he would put the first man to death that answer his question worst and likewise all others in this order. He made the eldest among them the judge of their answers.

“The question that he asked the first man was:

“Whether the dead or the living, were the greater number”. He answered, “the living…’For, the dead are no more man.'”

  ‘He asked the second man, “Whether the earth or the sea brought forth most creatures”.

  ‘The man answered, “The earth ‘for the sea is but a part of the earth.”

  ‘To the third man he asked, “Which of all beasts was the subtlest”.

   ‘The answered given was, “That which man hitherto never knew”.

  ‘To the fourth, question put was, “why did you make king of Sabbas rebel against him (Alexander)?”

  ‘The answered received was, “Because he should live honorably, or die vilely”.

  ‘To the fifth he asked, “Which you thought was the first- the day or the night?”

  ‘The answer given was, “the day, by a day”.

  ‘Alexander finding this strange answer said, “Strange questions must of necessity receive strange answers.”

 ‘Coming to the sixth he asked, “How a man should come to be beloved?”

  ‘He got this answer, “If he be a good man and not terrible”.

  ‘To the seventh he put the question, “how a man should be a god?”

  “In doing a thing that is impossible for a man”, was the received answer.

  “Which was stronger, life or death?” was the question put by him to the eighth.

  ‘And he received this answer, “life that suffers so many troubles.”

  ‘To the last ninth Yogi, he put this question, “How long a man should live?”

  ‘The answer was, “until the man thinks it better to die, than to live.”

  ‘After hearing these answers, Alexander turned to the tenth yogi and asked him to give his judgment upon them.

  ‘The judge said, “They had all answered one worse than another.”

  ‘Thereupon, Alexander said, “then you shall be made to die first, because you have given such a judgment.”

  ‘He replied promptly to Alexander, “It cannot be so, 0 king, unless you be a liar, because you said that you would kill him first, that answered the worst.”

  ‘Alexander gave them rewards and allowed them to go.”

Strabo (XV. 1. 68, page 718) quotes Megasthenese to say this of Kalanos. Megasthenese was an ambassador in the court of Chandragupt Maurya (or Sandrokottos as he was called by the Greeks) appointed by Seleucus I  Nicator, who had inherited the Alexander’s conquered territory in eastern Asia. After his succession to these parts, in an efforts to regain control of the Indian territory Seleucus had a contest with Chandragupt Marya and was defeated. Thereupon a treaty was concluded between the two stipulating that Seleucus’ daughter Helena would be married to Chandragupt, Chandragupt would gift 500 war elephants to Seleucus and Magasthenese would be appointed in the court of Chandragupt as an ambassador of Seleucus.  Megasthenese gives us the most authentic eye witness account of ancient India and its Yogis around 303 BC.

“Megasthenes, however, says that self-destruction is not a dogma of the philosophers, but that such as commit the act are regarded as foolhardy, those naturally of a severe temper stabbing themselves or casting themselves down a precipice, those averse to pain drowning themselves, those capable of enduring pain strangling themselves, and those of ardent temperaments throwing themselves into the fire. Kalanos was a man of this stamp. He was ruled by his passions, and became a slave to the table of Alexander. He is on this account condemned by his countrymen, but Mandanis (Danda-Muni?) is applauded because when messengers from Alexander invited him to go to the son of Zeus (Alexander), with the promise of gifts if he complied, and threats of punishment if he refused, he did not go. Alexander, he said, was not the son of Zeus (a deity supposed by the Greeks to be common to them – Greeks – and Indians, which is identified with Har-Cul-Is = Balarama, the brother of Krishna), for he was not so much as master of the larger half of the world. As for himself, he wanted none of the gifts of a man whose desires nothing could satiate; and for his threats he feared them not: for if he lived, India would supply him with food enough, and if he died, he would be delivered from the body of flesh now afflicted with age, and would be translated to a better and a purer life. Alexander expressed admiration of the man, and let him have his own way.”

In Megasthnese we have the direct evidence that even in 303 BC Yogis were of  the same outlook about life and death as they hold it today in 21st century.

This document is systematically sequential. Read NEXT here.

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