ALEXANDER THE GREAT AND THE HINDUS
By Rao Bhonsle
(Member of the Senate of the University of Madras.)
(I acknowledge with gratitude, that almost all the planks used in this contribution have been sawed without much mutilation from the "Invasion of India by Alexander the Great" as described by Aryan, Diodores, Plutarch, etc., and translated by Dr. J. W. McCrindle who rendered historical literature a good service by translating and publishing a series of similar works which throw light upon the distant past of India.)
When Alexander the Great was informed that the Brahmin Sanyasins' whom he met in India, were great adepts in the art of returning brief and pithy answers, he proposed some hard questions to ten of them for their solution.
He demanded of the first, "Who are the more numerous—the living or the dead?"
The Sanyasin answered, "The living, for the dead are not."
The second was asked, "Which breeds the largest animals, the sea or the land?" He answered, "The land, for the sea is only a part of it."
The third was asked, "Which is the cleverest of beasts?" He answered, "That with which man is not yet acquainted."
The fourth was asked, "For what reason he induced Sabbas to revolt?" He answered, "Because I wished him to live with honor or die with honor."
The fifth was asked, "Which he though existed first, the day or the night?" He answered, "The day was first by one day." As the King appeared surprised at this solution, he added, "Impossible questions require impossible answers."
Alexander then turning to the sixth asked him, "How a man could best make himself beloved?" He answered, "If a man, being possessed of great power, did not make himself to be feared."
Of the remaining three, one being asked, "How a man could become a god?" replied, "By doing that which is impossible for a man to do."
The next being asked, "Which of the two was stronger, life or death?" he replied, "Life, because it bears so many evils."
The last being asked, "How long it was honorable for a man to live?" answered, "As long as he does not think it better to die than to live." (Plutarch.)
A desire seized the Conqueror of the World to make one of the sages, if possible, live with him. Swami Kalanos, who was a gymnosophist of Taxila and who had made great progress in Philosophy and the study of nature, was accordingly persuaded to visit Alexander by Taxiles (Omphis of Taxila) who helped Alexander in the construction and equipment of a fleet in India. Kalanos and another Swami went to the King. Aristoboulous (who accompanied Alexander in this Asiatic expedition states that at Alexander's table, they ate standing, and to give a sample of their endurance, withdrew to a spot not far off, where the elder, lying down with his back to the ground, endured the sun and the rains which had set in as spring had just begun. The other stood on one leg, holding up with both his hands a bar of wood three cubits long; one leg being tired, he rested his weight on the other, and did this throughout the day.
Kalanos' real name was "Sphines," but as he saluted those whom he met with "Kale," which is the Indian equivalent of "Chairein" (that is "All hail"), he was called by the Greeks "Kalanos." The Sanskrit adjective Kalyana means salutary, lucky, well, etc. If we except Sandrokottos (Chandragupta), Taxiles and Poros (the most powerful King in the Punjab) there is no other Indian whose history, opinions, and personal characteristics, the classical writers have made us so well acquainted as with those of Kalanos (McCrindle). This philosopher, we are told, showed Alexander a symbol of his empire. He threw down on the ground a dry and shrivelled hide and planted his foot on the edge of it. But when it was trodden down in one place, it started up everywhere else. He then walked all round it and showed that the same thing took place wherever he trod, until at length he stepped into the middle, and by doing so, made it all lie flat. This symbol was intended to show Alexander that he should control his empire from its centre, and not wander away to its distant extremities (Plutarch). He, at the request of the King, followed him from India. This Sanyasin was with him and was held in honor and esteem by him.
When the Swamiji was three years over three score and ten, and up till then had never known what illness was, he fell into delicate health when he was in the County of Persis. He, therefore, resolved to depart his life as one who had received the full measure of happiness alike from nature and fortune (Diodoros). Accordingly, as he had no wish to lead the life of an invalid, he informed Alexander that, broken as he was in health, he thought it best to put an end to himself 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 if one mode of death was denied 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 of 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 Nesaian steed of the royal stud—he presented to Lysimachos (King of Thrace and Alexander's greatest General who was present in the battle with Poros in India), 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 (Arrian). Before mounting the pile, he took leave of his disciples and friends, recommending them to devote that day to pleasure with the King, "Whom" said he, "I shall shortly see in Babylon." He then sprinkled himself with libation and cut off part of his hair to cast into the fire (Plutarch). After he had prayed, he lay down upon the golden couch on the pyre in a becoming manner and with unflinching courage, in full view of the whole Macedonian army; he exhibited throughout a serene fortitude and self-possession (McCrindle). 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. When the flames approached, he remained in the same posture as when he lay down, until the sacrifice was auspiciously consummated according to the customs of the sages of his country (Plutarch). As soon as the men charged with the duty set fire to the pile, the trumpets, Nearchos (Commander) says, sounded by Alexander's order, 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 (Arrian). All admired the Sadhu's high spirit and contempt of death. Strabo (Geographer) makes Pasargadai to be the scene of this incident, but Diodoros says it was Sousa, and with more probability, since it was known that Nearchos was an eye witness of this incident.
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 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, who then naturally took it to have been a prophecy of his death.
It may not be considered out of place when it is added here, that many years afterwards, another Indian, in the presence of Caesar (Augustus) at Athens, did the same thing. His tomb is shown to this day, and is called the Indian's Tomb (Plutarch). The Indian who burned himself at Athens was called Zarmanochegas, as we learn from Strabo (Geographer) (XV, 1.73), who states, on the authority of Nikolaos of Damascus, that The Indian came to Syria, in the train of the ambassadors who were sent to Augustus Caesar by a great Indian King called Poros. 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 has succeeded with him, he thought it necessary to depart, lest some unexpected calamity should happen to him by continuing to live; with a smile, therefore, naked, anointed and with his girdle round his waist, he leaped upon the pyre. On his tomb was the inscription: "Zarmanochegas, an Indian, a native of Bargosa (Barygaza, Brooch"), having immortalized himself according to the custom of his country, here lies." Lassen takes the name of Zarmanochegas to represent the Sanskrit S'ramanacharya (McCrindle).
Return to Index