When Alexander the Great met Indian Philosophers


Alexander the Great is one of the greatest conquerors and emperors of all time. Although he had the expected warlike qualities of conquerors he did not oppress conquered nations and respected local culture. Alexander the Great bestowed Greek civilization and customs to all the territories of his empire and changed the face of the world.

Alexander seems to have had an affinity with Indian culture and a respect towards Indian Philosophy. The Greek historian Arrian, in Greek ΑΡΡΙΑΝΟΣ (86-160 AD) provides us with some valuable insights on the relationship between Alexander and Indian philosophy and culture.

Alexander’s Plans and the Indian Philosophers

Alexander the Great was at no point satisfied with any of the acquisitions and had plans to expand his empire. Arrian states that Alexander’s desire was such that he would have continued to expand the limits of his empire even if none of his soldiers would have followed him.

Some of the Indian philosophers at the sight of Alexander and his army would just stamp the ground with their feet. When asked why, they replied that it was a way to demonstrate to Alexander that each man actually only possesses the earth upon which they are stepping and nothing more. They went on to say that Alexander the Great was intrusive and arrogant and his quest to conquer  more lands would only cause trouble. Also, that as everyone else he would soon die and only possess the land sufficient to be buried in.

Alexander’s Dealings with the Indian Sages

When he arrived at Taxila (now North Pakistan) and saw the naked sect of Indian philosophers, he was fascinated and wanted that one of these men should live with him; because he admired their
power of endurance.The oldest of the philosophers Dandramis, refused to go to speak to Alexander and did not allow the others to do so either.  According to Arrian, Dandramis replied by saying that he himself was also a son of Zeus (i.e. that he was also blessed by gods)  and that he did not want anything from Alexander nor was he afraid of losing something as a consequence of Alexander’s rule. 

Alexander was respectful and did not attempt to force him to come with him, considering that the man was free to do as he pleased. However, Calanus one of the philosophers in the region decided to follow Alexander the Great. The other philosophers disapproved of Calanus as they considered that he had deserted the happiness existing among them to serve another lord instead of God.  

The Self-Sacrifice of Indian Philosopher Calanus and Prophecy of Alexander’s Death

Calanus who followed Alexander became ill when in Perseis (southwest part of modern day Iran). As he was not willing to live under poor health and be forced to change his way of living he told Alexander about his plans to put an end to his own life.  For a long time Alexander tried to change his mind but could not convince Calanus.

Finally, Alexander  ordered the preparation of an elaborate funeral ceremony to demonstrate his respect. The procession consisted of horses, soldiers;  others carrying incense for the funeral fire; gold and silver goblets and royal clothing. Calanus, unable to walk was carried on a chair. Crowned with the customary Indian Garland he sang Indian hymns to the gods and fellow countrymen.

Before entering into the fire he gave the horse of the procession meant for him to Lysimachus, a Greek that followed his teachings and gave away all other gifts that Alexander had ordered to be thrown to the fire in his honour. Calanus ascended into the fire and laid down. To Alexander the spectacle was unseemly as he regarded Calanus a friend.

As soon as the fire was lit-up,the trumpets sounded, in accordance to Alexander’s order, and the
whole army raised a war-cry as it was in the habit of shouting when advancing to battle. 

It is said that when Calanus was going to the funeral pyre to die, he gave a farewell salutation
to all his other companions but  refused to approach Alexander to give him the salutation, saying he would meet him at Babylon and salute him then.

At the time indeed this remark was neglected and did not make sense to anyone. Alexander the Great actually died at Babylon. Then all who had witnessed the incident considered it as a divine prophecy of Alexander’s end.