Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Naked philosophers of Taxila

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Alexander certainly had heard of them even before he was anywhere near Taxila, and as he came down Ambela Pass he would have already been thinking of meeting with them. With the athletic competitions over, having seen how Taxila worked and all else that could catch his interest and with his control over the city firmly established through his own governor, Alexander now had had little else to occupy his   time. And so he resolved to meet the naked philosophers (gymnosophists in Greek) of Taxila.

To these philosophers he sent Onesicritos, the sailor from the island of Cos, so that he may learn of the philosophy of the Punjabi sages. It was a scorching hot midmorning in early May as Onesicritos and his entourage of guards and interpreters made their way out of Taxila city, past the university (where the museum now stands) and across the azure, winding line of the Tamrah rivulet. Where wheat fields gave way to meadow and forest, where the pipal and the banyan grew tall and thick, these savants lived subsisting on the produce of the forest and drinking only water.

What transpired there that day is preserved for us in the works of Megasthenes who attended the Mauryan court as the Greek ambassador from 300 to 285 BCE. It was just twenty-five years since the departure of Alexander and he only gives indirect evidence that Mandanis was yet alive, but if the sage was dead and gone, Megasthenes certainly appears to have heard of the event from first-hand eyewitnesses.

The Greek sailor, himself a disciple of Diogenes, knew his was no easy task because he himself spoke no Punjabi. And he had in his train three interpreters to translate from Punjabi very likely through Pushto to Persian and finally into Greek or Macedonian. The first man this train of outlandish visitors came upon was stretched out full length in the brilliant sunshine on bare rocks that burnt with the heat of the sun. On his body the man had nothing save a meagre loincloth.

The Greeks were later to know this man as Kalanos, because, so we are told, of his loudly called greeting of Kalyan (good luck). Kalyan was unobliging, however. If Onesicritos wished to learn of his doctrine, he should strip and lie naked beside him on the hot stones. The Cynic sailor of Cos hesitated, and while he stood there undecided, Kalyan was rebuked for his rudeness by Mandanis. This 'oldest and wisest' of the sages then called Onesicritos over.

We are told that upon approaching him Onesicritos delivered his little spiel about Alexander, son of the mighty god Zeus, being the lord of the world. He ordered the master to present himself before the king to receive rich and splendid gifts or have his head cut off in case he refused. Mandanis heard out the sailor with a complacent smile but did not even 'lift up his head from his couch of leaves'. When the Greek sailor was finished, Mandanis spoke. How, he asked, could Alexander claim to be lord of the world when he had not even crossed the Tamrah rivulet?

And to claim to be a son of a god and therefore himself a god was even more ridiculous. The supreme god, said Mandanis, '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 went on to tell Onesicritos that the god that he, Mandanis, paid homage to was a god who abhorred slaughter and never instigated wars. As for Alexander's claim to being a god, he was one day to taste death and therefore laboured under a vain notion.

'Know this, however, that what Alexander offers me, and the gifts he promises, are all things to me utterly useless,' said Mandanis. The sage is said to have told Onesicritos that the leaves that were his house were of greater value to him; and the plants that were his food and the water too. He possessed nothing that needed guarding and when he put his head down, sleep overcame him quickly for no worry cumbered him. Even if Alexander were to cut off his head, he would never be able to destroy his soul which, Mandanis believed, would go to its Maker 'leaving the body like a torn garment upon the earth, whence also it was taken.'

The great sage of Taxila went on to tell Onesicritos that Alexander's threats of death and offers of wealth meant something only to those who valued lucre or dreaded death. 'Go, then, and tell Alexander this: Mandanis has no need for aught that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, but if you want something from Mandanis, come you to him.'

Onesicritos was evidently much moved by this discourse for there appears to have eventually been a proper philosophical exchange as well. Mandanis opened this by telling the sailor from Cos that he had come with a vain desire: in the percolation through three interpreters, much of the philosophy would be missed making it difficult if not entirely futile to convey the true essence of the doctrine to the Greek. 'One might as well expect water to flow pure through mud,' is how the learned one put it. Mandanis obliged nevertheless.

The burden of his discourse lay on the nature of pleasure and grief. When he was finished he inquired of Onesicritos if the Greeks too taught a similar doctrine and was pleased to hear that they did indeed teach a similar doctrine in that far off land. The Greeks entertained sound notions, said the sage according to Megasthenes. But they erred on the point of preferring custom to human nature or they would not be ashamed to go naked like him and subsist on meagre food. 'For that was the best house that required the least repairs,' he concluded.

In the event, two philosophers did deign to attend Alexander's dinner where they ate each standing on one leg. One of the two, Kalyan, agreed to accompany the Macedonian on his journey of conquest and when Megasthenes visited Taxila he found Kalyan being roundly censured for putting his mind on the wealth that Alexander supposedly offered him. Mandanis, on the other hand had risen in the estimation of the people for spurning Alexander's offers.

From a source other than Megasthenes we learn that when Alexander reached Susa in southwest Persia, Kalyan decided to mount his funeral pyre. It is said that he was now very old and for the first time in his life stricken by ill health. A great funeral parade was held with the philosopher marching at its head while his students and disciples came up to offer him gifts of gold and silver objects. These he passed around to others in his train.

Just as Kalyan was about to mount the pyre, Alexander himself came up to plead for the last time for an overturning of the decision to die. There was no need for farewell, said the Taxilan savant, for the two were soon to be reunited again in Babylon. We do not know if Alexander or anyone of his companions paid heed to this remark. But surely there would have been some in the royal retinue who would have recalled it when ten months later Alexander breathed his last in Babylon.

Postscript: Last week I quoted Nearchus on the burning of the excess of wheat harvest at Taxila. Though the harvest would not yet have been over in early May (when the Greeks were there), but my friend Mushtaq Soofi makes an astute observation: the Greeks mistook the old Punjabi custom of burning wheat stubble in the fields. That may well be very true.

Related: Philosophers of Taxila [Urdu]

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 22 September 2014 at 08:27, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your article where you wrote you are 2300 years old. That seems true. It really looks you had seen history unfolding with your eyes. You think there are more secrets hidden in Taxila?

At 22 September 2014 at 08:49, Anonymous Tariq Malik said...

There's a village--Kamrah--nearby River Haro (old-time Tamrah?) presently. Tamrah--Kamrah; makes sense? How Tamrah itself must have evolved into Haro needs to be researched though. Just my tuppence!

At 22 September 2014 at 09:12, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

No, Tariq, NO! Tamrah is the little stream that runs between Bhir and Sirkap even today. You cross the bridge en route to Khanpur and then leave the road for Sirkap. This little one is Tamrah. The Haro is too far from Taxila.

At 22 September 2014 at 09:13, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, Taxila has not yet been fully explored - as indeed a lot of other places in Pakistan. It will take much more work to discover Taxila, even 50 percent of it.

At 22 September 2014 at 15:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For over 2000 years nobody in the sub-continent knew about Raja Porus and his trysts in the battle against Alexander the Great. No contemporary writer of sub-continent of that era even vaguely mentions about the battle or the bravery of Porus. Even Chanakya, who must have witnessed the high stakes drama in the Panjab, though writing about almost everything under the sun, has not said a word about Porus or the origins of the Mauryas to whom he is supposed to have given the Indian empire on a platter. A few may have been partially exposed to this battle through Firdowsi's (977-1010 AD) epic "Shahname." However, the general expose to Porus and this great battle came about through import of Greek works in the 19th century colonial era.

Firdowsi's romantic allure about this battle is exquisitely captivating. Unfortunately however, his ode ends with Alexander killing Porus. The anonymous Greek writer of that era, pseudo-Callisthenes also writes about how Alexander killed Porus and gives out details of Porus' funeral, which Alexander attended. However, other Greek writers indicate that Porus was assassinated around 320 BC by his own people.

Also, the name Porus has been reconstructed as Puru, Paurava and Purushottam. However, there is no historical record to qualify this as a fact. Hellenistic records only state that his name was Porus and that is it. Linking it with mythological disquisition without genetical, historical and archeological evidence, is nothing but speculation. Also and very interestingly, as stated in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume 6, the coins of Porus' era prove unmistakably that he was a Buddhist.

Irrespective of above, the warrior mystique of both Alexander and Porus lives on and will keep on reminding us that we do indeed have a great past to be proud of.


At 25 September 2014 at 06:06, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

True Jogis

At 25 September 2014 at 16:14, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The Greeks pronouced Pora - the word Paurava as it would have been on common tongues, as Porus. The same way as they pronounced Takhasila as Taxila. You say Paurava did not exist and in the next breath you are aware of his coins depicting him as Buddhist. What is your point?


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