Alexander and the Sage (Utopia in Ancient India)
An excerpt from “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramhansa Yogananda.
Asoka was a grandson of the formidable Chandragupta Maurya (known to the Greeks as Sandrocottus), who in his youth had met Alexander the Great. Later Chandragupta destroyed the Macedonian garrisons left in India, defeated the invading Greek army of Seleucus in the Punjab, and then received at his Patna court the Hellenic ambassador Megasthenes.
Intensely interesting stories have been minutely recorded by Greek historians and others who accompanied or followed after Alexander in his expedition to India. The narratives of Arrian, Diodoros, Plutarch, and Strabo the geographer have been translated by Dr. J. W. M’Crindle to throw a shaft of light on ancient India. The most admirable feature of Alexander’s unsuccessful invasion was the deep interest he displayed in Hindu philosophy and in the yogis and holy men whom he encountered from time to time and whose society he eagerly sought. Shortly after the Greek warrior had arrived in Taxila in northern India, he sent a messenger, Onesikritos, a disciple of the Hellenic school of Diogenes, to fetch an Indian teacher, Dandamis, a great sannyasi of Taxila.
“Hail to thee, O teacher of Brahmins!” Onesikritos said after seeking out Dandamis in his forest retreat. “The son of the mighty God Zeus, being 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 gifts, but if you refuse, he will cut off your head!”
The yogi received this fairly compulsive invitation calmly, and “did not so much as lift up his head from his couch of leaves.”
“I also am a son of Zeus, if Alexander be such,” he commented. “I want nothing that is Alexander’s, for I am content with what I have, while I see that he wanders with his men over sea and land for no advantage, and is never coming to an end of his wanderings.
“Go and tell Alexander that 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; He receives all men when death sets them free, being in no way subject to evil disease. He alone is the God of my homage, who abhors slaughter and instigates no wars.
“Alexander is no god, since he must taste of death,” continued the sage in quiet scorn. “How can such as he be the world’s master, when he has not yet seated himself on a throne of inner universal dominion? Neither as yet has he 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!”
After this chastisement, surely the most caustic ever sent to assault the ears of the “Lord of the World,” the sage added ironically, “If Alexander’s present dominions be not capacious enough for his desires, let him cross the Ganges River; there he will find a region able to sustain all his men, if the country on this side be too narrow to hold him.
“Know this, however, that what Alexander offers and the gifts he promises are things to me utterly useless; the things I prize and find of real use and worth are these leaves which are my house, these blooming plants which supply me with daily food, and the water which is my drink; while all other possessions which are amassed with anxious care are wont to prove ruinous to those who gather them, and cause only sorrow and vexation, with which every poor mortal is fully fraught. As for me, I lie upon the forest leaves, and having nothing which requires guarding, close my eyes in tranquil slumber; whereas had I anything 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.
“Should Alexander cut off my head, he cannot also destroy my soul. My head alone, then silent, will remain, 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 all in flesh and left us upon earth to prove whether, when here below, we shall live obedient to His ordinances and who also will require of us all, when we depart hence to His presence, an account of our life, since He is Judge of all proud wrongdoing; for the groans of the oppressed become the punishment of the oppressor.
“Let Alexander then terrify with these threats those who wish for wealth and who dread death, for against us these weapons are both alike powerless; the Brahmins 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, and if you want anything from Dandamis, come you to him.”
With close attention Alexander received through Onesikritos the message from the yogi, and “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 met more than his match.”
Alexander invited to Taxila a number of Brahmin ascetics noted for their skill in answering philosophical questions with pithy wisdom. An account of the verbal skirmish is given by Plutarch; Alexander himself framed all the questions.
“Which be the more numerous, the living or the dead?”
“The living, for the dead are not.”
“Which breeds the larger animals, the sea or the land?”
“The land, for the sea is only a part of land.”
“Which is the cleverest of beasts?”
“That one with which man is not yet acquainted.” (Man fears the unknown.)
“Which existed first, the day or the night?”
“The day was first by one day.” This reply caused Alexander to betray surprise; the Brahmin added: “Impossible questions require impossible answers.”
“How best may a man make himself beloved?”
“A man will be beloved if, possessed with great power, he still does not make himself feared.”
“How may a man become a god?”
“By doing that which it is impossible for a man to do.”
“Which is stronger, life or death?”
“Life, because it bears so many evils.”
Alexander succeeded in taking out of India, as his teacher, a true yogi. This man was Swami Sphines, called “Kalanos” by the Greeks because the saint, a devotee of God in the form of Kali, greeted everyone by pronouncing Her auspicious name.
Kalanos accompanied Alexander to Persia. On a stated day, at Susa in Persia, Kalanos gave up his aged body by entering a funeral pyre in view of the whole Macedonian army. The historians record the astonishment of the soldiers who observed that the yogi had no fear of pain or death, and who never once moved from his position as he was consumed in the flames. Before leaving for his cremation, Kalanos had embraced all his close companions, but refrained from bidding farewell to Alexander, to whom the Hindu sage had merely remarked:
“I shall see you shortly in Babylon.”
Alexander left Persia, and died a year later in Babylon. His Indian guru’s words had been his way of saying he would be present with Alexander in life and death.
The Greek historians have left us many vivid and inspiring pictures of Indian society. Hindu law, Arrian tells us, protects the people and “ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave but that, enjoying freedom themselves, they shall respect the equal right to it which all possess. For those, they thought, who have learned neither to domineer over nor cringe to others will attain the life best adapted for all vicissitudes of lot.”
“The Indians,” runs another text, “neither put out money at usury, nor know how to borrow. It is contrary to established usage for an Indian either to do or suffer a wrong, and therefore they neither make contracts nor require securities.” Healing, we are told, was by simple and natural means. “Cures are effected rather by regulating diet than by the use of medicines. The remedies most esteemed are ointments and plasters. All others are considered to be in great measure pernicious.” Engagement in war was restricted to the Kshatriyas or warrior caste. “Nor would an enemy coming upon a husbandman at his work on his land, do him any harm, for men of this class being regarded as public benefactors, are protected from all injury. The land thus remaining unravaged and producing heavy crops, supplies the inhabitants with the requisites to make life enjoyable.”
The Emperor Chandragupta who in 305 B.C. had defeated Alexander’s general, Seleucus, decided seven years later to hand over the reins of India’s government to his son. Traveling to South India, Chandragupta spent the last twelve years of his life as a penniless ascetic, seeking self-realization in a rocky cave at Sravanabelagola, now honored as a Mysore shrine. Near-by stands the world’s largest statue, carved out of an immense boulder by the Jains in A.D. 983 to honor the saint Comateswara.
The ubiquitous religious shrines of Mysore are a constant reminder of the many great saints of South India. One of these masters, Thayumanavar, has left us the following challenging poem:
You can control a mad elephant;
You can shut the mouth of the bear and the tiger;
You can ride a lion; You can play with the cobra;
By alchemy you can eke out your livelihood;
You can wander through the universe incognito;
You can make vassals of the gods;
You can be ever youthful;
You can walk on water and live in fire;
But control of the mind is better and more difficult.
– From “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramhansa Yogananda.