Megasthanes, the Greek scribe, mentions an interesting encounter between Alexander the Great and an Indian yogi, Dandamis. Megasthanes came to India with Alexander and his general, Selucus Nikator during initial years of the Maurya empire. As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, his writings give a fascinating view of Indian society around the time Buddhism became popular in India (or just before that, as Buddhism was popularized by Ashoka about 50 years later). Dandamis is not mentioned in any Indian literature, but that might be because Megasthanes uses Greek versions of names rather than Indian (he calls Chandragupta as Sandrakottus or Androkottus, (Hari)Krishna as Herakles and so forth). It is very possible that we know Dandamis by another name. In any case, this discussion provides an insight into the values and lifestyle of Indian ascetics.
Alexander had arrested a group of brahmin yogis (described as gymnosophists by Megasthanes and other Greeks) for inciting a local king to rebel against him. Alexander questioned them on their intent and background. One of those captured, Kalanos, chose to follow the king back to Greece. In doing so, he earned the scorn of his fellow brahmins for abandoning the ascetic path.
[The brahmins said] “We have, however, amongst us a sage called Dandamis whose home is in the woods, where he lies on a pallet of leaves, and where he has nigh at hand the fountain of peace, whereof he drinks, sucking, as it were, the pure breast of a mother.” King Alexander, accordingly, when he heard of all this, was desirous of learning the doctrines of the sect, and so he sent for this Dandaamis, as being their teacher and president.
Onesikrates was therefore despatched to fetch him, and when he found the great sage he said, “Hail to thee, thou teacher of the Bragmanes. The son of the mighty god Zeus, king Alexander, who is the sovereign lord of all men, asks you to go to him, and if you comply, he will reward you with great and splendid gifts, but if you refuse will cut off your head.”
Dandamis, with a complacent smile, heard him to the end, but did not so much as lift up his head from his couch of leaves, and while still retaining his recumbent attitude returned this scornful answer:–“God, the supreme king, is never the author of insolent wrong, but is the creator of light, of peace, of life, of water, of the body of man, and of souls, and these he receives when death sets them free, being in no way subject to evil desire. He alone is the god of my homage, who abhors slaughter and instigates no wars.”
“But Alexander is not God, since he must taste of death; and how can such as he be the world’s master, who has not yet reached the further shore of the river Tiberoboas, and has not yet seated himself on a throne of universal dominion? Moreover, Alexander has neither as yet entered living into Hades, nor does he know the course of the sun through the central regions of the earth, while the nations on its boundaries have not so much as heard his, name. If his present dominions are not capacious enough for his desire, let him cross the Ganges river, and he will find a region able to sustain men if the country on our side be too narrow to hold him.”
“Know this, however, that what Alexander offers me, and the gifts he promises, are all things to me utterly useless; but the things which I prize, and find of real use and worth, are these leaves which are my house, these blooming plants which supply me with dainty food and the water which is my drink, while all other possessions and things, which are amassed with anxious care, are wont to prove ruinous to those who amass them, and cause only- sorrow and vexation, with which every poor mortal is fully fraught. But as for me, I lie upon the forest leaves, and, having nothing which requires guarding, close my eyes in tranquil slumber; whereas had I gold to guard, that would banish sleep. The earth supplies me with everything, even as a mother her child with milk. I go wherever I please, and there are no cares with which I am forced to cumber myself, against my will. Should Alexander cut off my head, he cannot also destroy my soul. My head alone, now silent, will remain, but the soul will go away to its Master, leaving the body like a torn garment upon the earth, whence also it was taken. I then, becoming spirit, shall ascend to my God, who enclosed us in flesh, and left us upon the earth to prove whether when here below we shall live obedient to his ordinances, and who also will require of us, when we depart hence to his presence, an account of our life, since he is judge of all proud wrong-doing; for the groans of the oppressed become the punishments of the oppressors.”
“Let Alexander, then, terrify with these threats those who wish for gold and for wealth, and who dread death, for against as these weapons are both alike powerless, since the Bragmanes neither love gold nor fear death. Go, then, and tell Alexander this: Dandamis has no need of aught that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, but if you want anything from Dandamis come you to him.”
Alexander, on receiving from Onesikrates a report of the interview, felt a stronger desire than ever to see Dandamis, who, though old and naked, was the only antagonist in whom he, the conqueror of many nations, had found more than his match.
Alexander encountered similar thoughts among other Indian chieftains and kings as he crossed into the western border of India. Overall, Alexander also comes out of this encounter as more noble than he is given credit for. It is evident that he was not just a war-monger, but his education at the hands of Plato enables him to understand higher thoughts. I found this site that gives some more information on Dandamis and his sect. Plutuarch also provides some information on Dandamis and his sect in his history of Alexander, but not as much detail.
But to those who were in greatest reputation among them (the yogis), and lived a private quiet life, he sent Onesicritus, one of Diogenes the Cynic’s disciples, desiring them to come to him. Calanus (Kalanos), it is said, very arrogantly and roughly commanded him to strip himself, and hear what he said, naked, otherwise he would not speak a word to him, though he came from Jupiter himself.
But Dandamis received him with more civility, and hearing him discourse of Socrates, Pythagoras, and Diogenes, told him he thought them men of great parts, and to have erred in nothing so much as in having too great respect for the laws and customs of their country. Others say, Dandamis only asked him the reason why Alexander undertook so long a journey to come into those parts. Taxiles, however, persuaded Calanus to wait upon Alexander. His proper name was Sphines, but because he was wont to say Cale (referring to the godess Kali), which in the Indian tongue is a form of salutation, to those he met with anywhere, the Greeks called him Calanus. He is said to have shown Alexander an instructive emblem of government, which was this. He threw a dry shriveled hide upon the ground, and trod upon the edges of it. The skin when it was pressed in one place, still rose up in another, wheresoever he trod round about it, till he set his foot in the middle, which made all the parts lie even and quiet. The meaning of this similitude being that he ought to reside most in the middle of his empire, and not spend too much time on the borders of it.
At the same time (when Alexander reached Cyrus the Great’s grave in Persia), Calanus having been a little while troubled with a disease in the bowels, requested that he might have a funeral pile erected, to which he came on horseback, and after he had said some prayers and sprinkled himself and cut off some of his hair to throw into the fire, before he ascended it, he embraced and took leave of the Macedonians who stood by, desiring them to pass that day in mirth and good-fellowship with their king, whom in a little time, he said, he doubted not but to see again at Babylon. Having thus said, he lay down, and covering up his face, he stirred not when the fire came near him, but continued still in the same posture as at first, and so sacrificed himself, as it was the ancient custom of the philosophers in those countries to do. The same thing was done long after by another Indian, who came with Caesar to Athens, where they still show you “the Indian’s monument.”
It is interesting to note that more than 2000 years later, Mahatma Gandhi advocated the same approach to life with great success.