Alexander's Conversations with Naga Sadhus

  • By Amit Agarwal
  • August 20, 2022
  • @amit1119
  • 1948 views
  • An excerpt from book, ‘A Never Ending Conflict.” These interesting conversations are profound and got Alexander thinking on the deeper purpose of life.

Alexander, a prince of Macedonia, grew up with the elite education imparted by none other than Aristotle, one of the greatest Greek philosophers. The teachings by Aristotle had given Alexander a strong bent of mind towards philosophy, unlike the other invaders and vanquishers of the ancient and medieval times.

Alexander’s father had always sought revenge for the century-old defeat of the Greeks at the hands of Persia. But before he could fulfil his dream, he was assassinated in 336 BCE. Consequently, Alexander ascended the throne at the age of 20, with a burning desire to fulfil his father’s dream. He also wanted to surpass the Greek gods Dionysus and Hercules, who had captured India in Greek mythology. During his campaign, he conquered Egypt, Persia and North-West India (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan).  

After defeating Porus in the Battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) and making Porus his vassal, Alexander proceeded towards Sindh, as he did not want to go through the same route by which he came. He had made enough enemies and did not want to take any undue risk.

To keep things in perspective, Porus was a ruler of a small kingdom spanning the region between the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers in Punjab. Such was the bravery of the army of Porus, that Alexander's win was barely decisive. The most powerful kingdom at that time was neighbouring Dhana Nanda of Magadha, who was far more dominant than Porus. This was one of the reasons that compelled Alexander to retreat.  

Hearing the impending arrival of the invincible invader on his way back, Sabbas, king of Sindh, decided to flee. However, very uncharacteristically, many sadhus exhorted the king to fight the invader despite their avowed disinterest in worldly matters. After hearing of this revolt by naked sadhus, Alexander became irked at such behaviour and ordered his troops to capture them and bring them to him. His soldiers managed to catch many of the sadhus, whom Alexander hanged except ten of the most intelligent ones. They had the reputation to be clever and give concise yet complicated answers.

After hearing about their unusual skills, Alexander decided to play riddles with them before murdering them, just as a predator plays with its prey before eating it. He did not give them any assurance of their freedom. It was simply a method to determine the sequence of their execution.

The proposed game had an interesting feature of a neck riddle wherein one party, in this tale the sadhus, stood to lose their neck if unable to solve them. In the end, one more feature automatically clamped itself to the riddle, very similar to Aristotelian logic. It was an impasse similar to the liar’s paradox wherein a man says he is lying. Is he now telling the truth or still lying?

Greek philosopher Plutarch, in his treatise Life of Alexander, described this match animatedly. The Greek philosophers and historians had an eye and a heart for drama indeed. Even in this scene, the contest was framed in such a way that the questions and answers were put in an intricate pattern of infinitive clauses and direct and indirect speech. Alexander stated that everyone would be posed a question and whosoever answered incorrectly would be put to death. To be seen as fair, he made the oldest of the sages the judge of the contest. Then began a clever and rather fascinating contest between power and wisdom, life and death.

Alexander to the First SadhuIn your opinion, who is more numerous, the living or the dead?

First Sadhu: ‘The living, since the dead no longer exist.’

 

Alexander to the Second Sadhu: ‘In your opinion, whether the earth or the sea produces larger animals?’

Second Sadhu: ‘The earth produces everyone since the sea is a part of the earth’.

 

Alexander to the Third Sadhu: ‘Which animal is the most cunning?’

Third Sadhu: ‘Up to this time man has not discovered it’.

Alexander to the Fourth Sadhu: ‘Why did you induce Sabbas, the king of Sindh, to revolt?’

Fourth Sadhu: ‘Because I wished him either to die nobly or live’.

 

Alexander to the Fifth Sadhu: ‘Which is older, day or night?’

Fifth Sadhu: ‘Day, by one day!’

 

Alexander to the Sixth Sadhu: ‘How can a man be most loved?’

Sixth Sadhu: ‘If he is most powerful and yet does not inspire fear.’

 

Alexander to the Seventh Sadhu: ‘How can one become a god instead of a man?’

Seventh Sadhu: ‘By doing something which a man cannot do’.

 

Alexander to the Eighth Sadhu: ‘Which is stronger, life or death?’

Eighth Sadhu: ‘Life, since it supports so many ills’.

 

Alexander to the Ninth Sadhu: ‘How long is it well for a man to live?’

Ninth Sadhu: ‘Until he does not regard death as better than life’.

After hearing these answers, Alexander turned to the tenth sadhu, who was acting as a judge, to give the verdict on which of the nine answers was the worst, shrewdly changing the criterion from absolute (incorrect) to relative (least correct). This sadhu being the most intelligent one said that each answer was worse than the preceding one. Alexander then smilingly replied that all the sadhus should be killed starting with the judge.

The latter then reminded the invader about the initial premise of the contest that a sadhu giving an incorrect answer would be killed, not for giving the worse answer. The judge further gave the logic that his answer cannot simultaneously be correct (accepted by Alexander) and the worst (the final answer) without implying that not only his, but all the previous answers were correct.

There was no verdict on the quality of their responses. One sadhu quipped in between the contest, when Alexander seemed to be exasperated with the answers, that unusual questions warranted unusual answers. In the end, he released them happily and honoured them with expensive gifts. He even asked the sadhus if they wished for more, upon which they astutely asked the Greek king for immortality. Hearing such an unusual request, Alexander’s face fell, and he replied dejectedly that he did not have any such power, given he was a mortal himself. 

They then asked him probingly as to why he needed to wage such wars, plunder the flourishing cities and kill so many people, as one day he would leave all the wealth and land to the others. Alexander replied patiently that it is the gods’ will that makes him carry out these tasks. Just as the ocean waves cannot move without wind and trees cannot shake without stirring of air, men cannot be set in motion without the will of the gods. Alexander reminisced that though he wished to withdraw from the war, his hunger for becoming a world-conqueror would not let him do that. If all men became of one mind, then the cosmos would be inactive, the earth would not be cultivated, marriages would not be consummated, and children would not be produced. He evocatively added that many people were ruined by his attacks, and at the same time, many others got equally rich by his invasions. Those who looted the possessions had to eventually give the wealth away to others, and nothing belonged to any man permanently. After such a philosophical outburst, Alexander departed.

There is another anecdote concerning the Greek invader and a wise sadhu. Accompanied by his soldiers, a bizarre sight caught Alexander’s attention. Under a tree at the edge of a forest, he spotted an ‘outlandish-looking sadhu’. The almost-naked man had long hair with matted locks, a dishevelled beard and wore only a loincloth. This sight might have been common in India, but for a Greek it must have been puzzling. Alexander continued to observe him for many days without disturbing him. The sadhu would sit under the tree for hours in a certain posture staring at the horizon which made the king deeply intrigued. One day when the king’s curiosity gave in, he approached the sadhu and started a discussion with the help of local Indians.

Alexander: ‘I see you every day sitting under the tree for hours looking at the horizon in a particular posture. What are you really up to?’

No answer.

Alexander, losing his patience but still managing to maintain his composure, enquired again: ‘While we are gearing up for the war and doing so much hard work, we see you just sitting here and doing absolutely nothing. What are you doing?’

No reply.

Barely managing to control his anger with great struggle, Alexander walked up close to the sadhu and probed: You can at least tell us about your purpose of life as you sit here for hours, day after day, whiling away the time and doing nothing.  

This time, the wise sadhu looked up and retorted with a counter-question: ‘What is your purpose in life?

I am Alexander and I am out to master the earth.’

What do you plan to do after that?’ asked the sadhu probingly.

I shall take all the wealth, horses and elephants from the conquered lands to Greece’.

‘Presuming you accomplish your goal, Emperor, what next?’

I shall take all the men from these wretched countries as my slaves and all the women to regale us in Greece’.

‘What a motivation! All the men as slaves and women as entertainers!’ commented the sadhu wryly.

Not stopping, he asked him further: ‘Assuming you accomplish even that, what will you do next?’

Contrary to his extrovert and energetic nature, Alexander was quiet for some time. Finally, he stated, with an exhalation: ‘After that, undoubtedly I will sit on my throne and relax’. 

That’s what I am doing,’ said the ‘unusual Indian sadhu’ with a content smile.

Despite the victory, the gruelling battle with Porus had tired the Greek soldiers no end, and they refused to accompany Alexander on further expeditions. Alexander then gifted Porus the other vanquished territories of the region, making Porus an even bigger king than he was before.

While resting after the toughest battle of his life, Alexander and his soldiers chanced upon another set of naked sadhus in the Indus valley. However, the sadhus did not flinch even after seeing the armed soldiers and stamped their feet in unison on the ground. The Greek king had never encountered such arrogant behaviour in his life, as he was used to seeing people cowering in fear of him. Amazed by such an aggressive disposition, he asked the saints to explain their intrepid actions.

The saints replied serenely, without even the slightest crease on their forehead that why he needed to conquer and kill so many people when, in the end, he required only 6 feet of earth after the death.

Alexander was startled at hearing the lofty philosophy, though he was no stranger to such distinguished and grand thoughts as he had grown up under the tutorship of none other than Aristotle. Spellbound, he decided to take on a new guru and offered to take the sadhus to Greece with him. However, much to his chagrin, all of them refused to accompany him except one. This sadhu was later named Calanus by the Greeks, though he was also known by other names such as Kalyanaswami, Shobhanaswami, Sphines and Kalyana. He is also said to be none other than the famous Ashvaghosha, the greatest Buddhist scholar of the time and the author of Buddhacharitra.

In all these anecdotes, the behaviour of the sadhus was owing to the manifestation of human energy drawn inward, which opened the doors of introspection through scrutiny and meditation. In complete contrast, Alexander remained the epitome of an outgoing belligerent disposition, dominant in almost all the elements of the Western culture, who was out to acquire, defeat and own anything and everything valuable. However, even the company of such excellent philosophers could not change the king’s outlook, as he remained a slave to the blind ambition of conquering the world. Most of the time, his conduct remained the exact opposite of what he professed to admire. 

Many of the Greeks settled in the region of Afghanistan and Punjab and started a new dynasty called Yavana-Rajya or Indo-Greeks, with their capital alternating between Taxila and Sakala (Sialkot), a city established by King Shalya during Mahabharata times.

 

In the end, they came to conquer India, but were, in turn, conquered by India and its culture, religion and traditions.

 

Source 

1. Arthur Pomeroy, A Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen

2. Richard Stoneman, The Legends of Alexander the Great

3. Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi

 

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