Alexander and the yogis

Gymnosophists (meaning: naked philosophers) was the term given by the Greeks to certain philosophers of India, who sought asceticism to the point of crossing food and clothing as enemies of the purity of thought (sadhus or yogis). These gymnosophists have been identified with the ascetics of the digambar sect of Jainism who can still be seen naked today in India. These philosophers would have also influenced the Greek skeptical philosophy by showing the Jainist doctrine of the anekantavada especially the syādvāda

The following text extracted from the work of Plutarch relates the encounter of Alexander with them and of the friendly and smooth treatment that Alexander the Great gave to the Indian philosophers, called gymnosophists, who had led a rebellion against him. The answers they gave to their questions are shown, thanks to which not only did they save their lives, but they also received presents from the king.


Ten of the gymnosophist philosophers came to his power, who with their persuasions contributed more to Sabas rebelling and that the older males killed the Macedonians. As they had a reputation that they are very skilled in giving brief and concise answers, they proposed certain dark questions, which then gave death because they responded the most badly, and so on, by order, by others, intimidating the elder who judged.

He asked the former if he was more in his opinion than the living and the dead, and said that the living, because the dead were no longer. To the second, which breeds greater beasts, the land or the sea, and said the land, because the sea was part of it. To the third, which is the most astute animal, and answered: «The one that the man has not yet known». Asking the room for which purpose he had caused Sabas to rebel, he replied: «With the desire to live well or die badly». Being asked the fifth that had been done before, the day or night, he answered that the day before her in one day, and added, seeing that the king showed wonder, that it was enigmatic the questions were necessary that the answers. Moving, then, of method, he asked the sixth how he managed to be the most beloved among men, he answered: «If the greatest power was not feared.» Of the others, asking if anyone could, of man, making god, said: «If you did things that man is impossible to do» and asked «another of life and whose can more», I would answer that life, then to endure so many men. Asked about the last one until it was good for man to live, he replied: «Until death is better than life». He then turned to the judge, ordering him to pronounce; and he says that he has answered what is worse, Alexander replied: «For you will die first, judging in that way»; To which he replied: «There is no such thing as a king, unless you contradict yourself, having said that the first one would die the worst.»
He left, then, to go free to these, having made them present …


A gymnosophist we have more information about is Kalanos, Plutarch records that when first invited to meet Alexander, Kalanos «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.» Kalanos refused the rich gifts offered by Alexander saying that man’s desire cannot be satisfied by such gifts. They believed that, even if Alexander killed them, «they would be delivered from the body of flesh now afflicted with age and would be translated to a better and purer life.» Alexander’s representative Onesicritus had a discussion with several sages and Alexander was attracted by the criticism on Greek Philosophy by Kalanos. Alexander persuaded Kalanos to accompany him to Persis and stay with him as one of his teachers. Alexander even hinted use of force to take him to his country, to which Kalanos replied philosophically, that «what shall I be worth to you, Alexander, for exhibiting to the Greeks if I am compelled to do what I do not wish to do?» Kalanos lived as a teacher to Alexander and represented «eastern honesty and freedom».

He was seventy-three years of age at time of his death. When the Persian weather and travel had weakened him, he informed Alexander that he would prefer to die rather than live as an invalid. He decided to take his life by self-immolation. Although Alexander tried to dissuade him from this course of action, upon Kalanos’ insistence the job of building a pyre was entrusted to Ptolemy. Kalanos is mentioned also by Alexander’s admirals, Nearchus and Chares of Mytilene. The city where this immolation took place was Susa in the year 323 BC. Kalanos distributed all the costly gifts he got from the king to the people and wore just a garland of flowers and chanted vedic hymns. He presented his horse to one of his Greek pupils named Lysimachus. He did not flinch as he burnt to the astonishment of those who watched. Although Alexander was not personally present at time of his immolation, his last words to Alexander were We shall meet in BabylonHe is said to have prophesied the death of Alexander in Babylon, even though at the time of death of Kalanos, Alexander did not have any plans to go to Babylon.

Plutarch, Parallel lives.

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