Of all the stories told about Alexander the Great, none perhaps is as colorful as the account of his encounter with the ‘naked philosophers’ of India who have come to be known in Western literature as gymnosophists. Teaching a survey course on Indian history, I have recently had occasion to contemplate the nature of this storied encounter, and a chance reading of Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995) has brought to mind the pleasures of thinking about what might have transpired in this meeting of East and West, military might with spiritual pride, the over-dressed and the under-dressed, the power of arms and the piercing strength of words.
Alexander is reputed to have been Aristotle’s pupil, and it is from the Greek philosopher that he might have imbibed some interest in books, philosophizing, and the nature of wisdom. A Greek prince’s education at that time doubtless included something about India and its fabled riches. World conqueror that Alexander sought to be, India was never far from his horizon; and it is in 326 BCE that he arrived in northwest India. The story of his ‘invasion’ of India has been told often enough, and is not without some peculiar features, among them the fact that not a single contemporary Indian source could be bothered to note or comment on this supposedly earth-shaking event. Though Alexander is described as having vanquished the Indian king Porus at the battle of the Jhelum [Hydaspes], it is said that Porus’s noble demeanor and valor so impressed Alexander that he allowed the defeated king to continue to govern his territories in Alexander’s name.
Not along after this military triumph, Alexander’s troops mutinied and demanded that the journey back west be commenced. The soldiers were weary with fighting; besides, if we recall the common perception of India, the country has a way of taking a toll of people. The heat, dust, dirt, and mosquitoes of India have been known to enfeeble the sturdiest man! However, according to Plutarch, one of the principal sources for Alexander’s military sojourn in India, the Greek soldiers had been instigated to revolt by a number of naked philosophers. As Plutarch was to write, “He [Alexander] captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer.” There being ten gymnosophists, each was asked one question. Which, the fifth one was asked, is older, day or night. “Day, by one day”, came back the answer; “upon the king expressing amazement”, Plutarch writes, the sadhu added: “hard questions must have hard answers. Passing on, then to the sixth, Alexander asked how a man could be most loved; ‘if’, said the philosopher, ‘he is most powerful, and yet does not inspire fear.’” That, one suspects, is precisely the kind of advice intended for a world conqueror.
In another version, that which has come down to us from Onesicritus, Alexander’s helsman, he was dispatched by his master to seek an audience with India’s wise men. Onesicritus was perhaps a logical choice as he had been a student of Diogenes, the founder of the school of Cynics. Onesicritus is viewed by many scholars as having made up dialogues between Alexander and the gymnosophists, not merely in an attempt to add color to the narrative, but in the interest of representing Alexander as akin to a philosopher warrior. Arrian, writing in the second century AD, offered yet another account: impressed by stories of the spiritual discipline and endurance of the gymnosophists, Alexander reportedly could not contain his desire to meet them. Alexander even hoped to take one or more of them with him to Greece [and so he did], though the oldest of the gymnosophists, says Arrian, spurned Alexander’s offer with the observation that “he had no need of anything that Alexander could give, since he was contented with what he had”; moreover, “Alexander’s companions were wandering about over all that land and sea to no profit, and that there was no limit to their many wanderings”.
Alexander may have known, from long before, that philosophers, at least, did not live in awe or fear of him. Many years before arriving in India, he had met Diogenes. Excited to meet the famous philosopher, who was lounging about in the sun, Alexander asked Diogenes if he could do anything for him. “Yes, stand out of my sunlight”, replied Diogenes. So, we can well imagine that Alexander may not have been entirely surprised at being rebuffed by India’s philosophers. The story of this encounter would be circulated, often in embellished form, over the next 2,000 years, a parable about the folly of conquest, the unmatched pleasures of simple living, the dangers of absolutism, and so on. Perhaps the most recent demonstration of the power of this story to entice readers and serve as a modern parable is to be found in Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), Vikram Chandra’s debut novel. Here are excerpts, without comment, of the conversation between a gymnosophist (sadhu) and the translator as imagined by Chandra:
Translator: He wants to know why you’re naked.
Sadhu: Ask him why he’s wearing clothes.
Translator: He says he’s asking the questions here.
Sadhu: Questions give birth only to other questions.
Translator: He says people who get funny with him get executed.
Translator: Because he’s the King of Kings. And he wants you to stop asking questions.
Sadhu: King of Kings?
Translator: He came all the way from a place called Greece, killing other kings, so he’s King of Kings, see.
Sadhu: Fool of Fools, Master-Clown of Clowns. Maha-Idiot of idiots.
Translator: You want me to tell him that?
Sadhu: I said it, didn’t I?
Translator: You’re crazier than he is. He says he’ll kill you. Right here, right now.
Sadhu: I’ll have to die someday. [pp. 222-23]