Alexander and the Gymnosophists
A specter of total annihilation seemed to haunt them all as the slushy terra-cotta mud weighed down the army as it defiantly marched east; hoping to reach the very edge of the world to catch a glimpse of the mighty ocean, which would extend to eternity. Strange forces were at work that day; evil omens in that strange land which the army did not like. Maybe it was just hallucinations at play; maybe those were the early signs of mental trauma but for many soldiers, the stress was real; for they had been marching with their king for the last eight years from the cool temperate climate of the Mediterranean to the hot tropics of India. Many had given up all hope of seeing their country and their loved ones again; and many had turned to religion for they feared death! They had performed many sacrifices that day to please Zeus and Poseidon; but the heavens did not seem to care about them. They had never seen rain like that before in their lives. The dark swollen clouds moving in a north-easterly direction managed to hide the Sun but not the heat; which took its toll on the foreigners who were not used to it.
The young king Alexander; descendant of mighty Hercules himself on his father’s side and the great warrior Achilles on his mother’s and emperor of the Hellenic, Egyptian and the Persian world, had sent his scouts ahead, swift horsemen recruited from Bactria as he marched his army through the wet jungles of India. The light cavalry unit of 7000 men from Central Asia had become a useful asset to his army especially in this terrain. He did not seem bothered by the sweltering heat, the incessant rain or the distress in his army as he wore his red cape and famous golden helmet with youthful arrogance but his weary commanders were! They knew that their composite bows and their spears would get completely damaged by the rain and their Mediterranean bred horses tired by the heat but no one had the courage to tell the king that they longed to go back home! Apparitions of various family members seemed to haunt the men and they even took to drinking the Indian rice beer which they did not like. There were the beginnings of discord in the ranks and the commanders were aware of it but choose not to see it. The last battle that they had fought on the banks of the Hydaspis (Jhelum) had only dented their air of invincibility when they got introduced to the Indian style of warfare, which placed heavy emphasis on the battle tank of the ancient world; the fearsome elephant and scythed chariots said to have been invented by Ajatashatru, the founder of Pataliputra!
Actually, everything about this land seemed strange to the Greeks, from the flora to the fauna; from the people to the culture. When Omphis (Ambhi) surrendered without a fight and invited the Greeks into great city of Takshashila, they found the customs and the culture of the land to be radically different from their own. In one of the cultural capitals of India, the Greeks found many people who lived in the city but who were not possessed by it. Many monks, some of them naked roamed the city, but enjoyed none of the material pleasures that the city had to offer. The Greeks called them the gymnosophists! The Greeks stayed in the city for five months where they met many intellectuals from all walks of life! One of the naked monks whom Alexander had befriended was Calanus (Kalyana) who had taught him the basics of Indian philosophy and had promised to introduce Alexander to his guru, Dandamis who lived in the east near the Hyphasis (Beas) river.
Even the bizarre tactics shown by Porus (Purushothama), the Paurava prince who ruled the land between the Hydaspis and the Hyphasis had stunned him.
“I still can’t understand why the man waited for over two weeks on the eastern side of the Hydaspis River, waiting for us to make our move. It was his land, the topography and the logistics favored him but still he did not fight,” asked Alexander to his favorite commander Coenus as they marched at the head of the army.
What Alexander did not know at that time was that this particular battle of his would become legendary and his tactical brilliance studied by many generals in the future; right from his planning and executing the crossing the Hydaspis River, at the middle of the night seventeen miles north of base camp!
Coenus was a war veteran who had been serving in the Macedonian army from King Philip’s time. “Maybe he was just afraid,” he answered.
“I don’t think it was that. I can sense courage in a man and Porus had it even when he was defeated!”
“But you shouldn’t have given Porus back his kingdom,” replied Coenus.
“If there is anything I respect; it is dignity and honor in a man! And even though we defeated him and killed his son in battle, he never really lost that courage. I could see it in his eyes. He asked me to treat him like a king, which is exactly what I’ve done.”
“But don’t you think you are being idealistic?”
Alexander laughed out loudly on hearing this and replied, “Even though Zeus is with us on this journey, we do need our earthly allies so far east. Omphis and Porus are two of our main allies now on the eastern side of the Indus River.”
At that moment, Alexander’s new monk friend, Calanus who was riding with the two men said, “Forgive me but I could not help but overhear your conversation about Porus. Maybe the man did not attack first because he did not want to fight and be the cause of much bloodshed!”
Alexander turned his favorite horse Bucephalus around. “But that man was a king! A king has to fight and conquer territories!”
“A king is a king no doubt; but it does not mean that he cannot be humane! Maybe it was all meant to be. Who can question niyati (destiny)?”
Alexander was amazed at the response of his friend. “But then why fight if all things are up to destiny? Surely that it is a fatalistic approach to life? It does not solve any of the problems in life!”
“I am an ajivika. My beliefs are very simple; not only are all things predetermined, but their change and development is all just a cosmic illusion of the mind. Problems are relevant only when the mind perceives them as issues which need to be addressed.”
Alexander shook his head in disappointment. “You Indians and your philosophies; you have the Jains, the Buddhists, the Ajivikas, the Vaisheshikas, the Samkhyas, the Nyayas, the Mimamsas and the orthodox Brahmins. Who is right?”
With a broad smile, Calanus replied, “Maybe we are all wrong! Maybe there is no God; a position maintained by our illustrious Charvaka brothers. It does not matter what discipline we follow but what matters is how we follow it.”
Sensing that he had confused Alexander enough, Calanus added, “Wait till we reach the Hyphasis River. My Guru will answer all your questions for you. Have patience my friend!”
And they kept marching on for next few hours till evening, when finally the army reached the banks of the Hyphasis River and set up camp along the river bank. Seeing the magnificent spread of nature around him, Alexander said to Coenus, “This country, the Sapta Sindhu is truly blessed to have so many mighty rivers. I am eager to see the legendary Ganges River to the east.”
Later in the evening, the men had cooked an assortment of wild game from the jungle accompanied by bread and rice for the evening feast. As Alexander enjoyed a piece of roasted peacock leg along with his Grecian wine with his other commanders, Coenus walked into the camp, looking distressed.
“My king, the scouts are back. They say that across the Ganges lie the Nanda kingdom of Magadha and the Gangaridai kingdom of Anga, both of whom having put aside their differences have amassed a massive army of eighty thousand horsemen, two hundred thousand footmen, eight thousand chariots, and six thousand fighting elephants on the eastern banks of the Ganges! The scouts have already passed on the news to the army and the men are afraid!”
In his inebriated state, Alexander took another bite of peacock meat, “With Zeus’s blessing, we will march on and we will conquer them. What is life without a good fight? What is life without honor in battle?”
Coenus unsheathed his sword, “My king, the blade has seen action alongside you for the past eight years but will continue to do so; but please think about our men! An army which fears is not an army worth having. I am merely suggesting what our men have been thinking for a long time but have been afraid to say it to you.”
Coenus waited for a dramatic second and said out aloud for all the commanders to hear, “Maybe it time for us to turn back and go back home!”
On hearing this, Alexander violently got up from his cushioned seat and walked out of his tent only to see his men waiting outside; their faces grave.
“Lord Zeus is with us on this epic march! I have fought alongside you guys riding first into battle! We will surely defeat all our enemies!” He shouted out aloud for his men to hear.
Clearly there was dissent in the ranks and for probably the first time Alexander, felt it! Many of his faithful soldiers started shouting at the same time and he did not know what to do. Many of the men threw down their arms and said that they’d had enough! The last thing that Alexander had expected was a revolt from his very own army. He tried talking to the men; but the man’s voice was overrun by the fear of thousands!
Without looking back, Alexander quickly walked back into his tent, followed by his commanders. The air was full of tension as his men waited outside the emperor’s camp as the commander tried to talk Alexander into retreating.
Even after an hour of negotiation, the king did not back down; his ego not letting him do so! Just then, in the heat of the moment, Calanus walked into the tent slowly with an old fragile Gymnosophist.
“Alexander, meet my guru Dandamis,” he said.
Alexander at once got up from his seat and ushered in the guru, paying his respects to the old man.
“So what was all this heated discussion about?” asked Dandamis as soon as he was seated.
“My men want me to turn back and go back home but I want to continue marching east,” replied Alexander
“But why go east?” Dandamis asked innocently.
“I want to conquer the whole world.”
Dandamis smiled on hearing this. “Why do you need the whole world when all you need is about three paces of land to rest your body upon?”
His warped mind did not like to admit it; but he wanted everlasting glory like Achilles. “I want immortality, everlasting fame and riches.”
“Immortal we all are; we just need to realize it. A man on the path of immortality has no thought of pleasure or riches. He loves the divine and accepts death whereas you love pleasure, riches and conquest. You fear death and despise God! Surely you are on the wrong path!”
With that, the old man walked out on the emperor as he looked on; a frail old man walked out on the greatest emperor of the world!
Ceasing the opportune moment, Coenus hastily added to the emperor, “My dear King; the men long to again see their parents, their wives and children, their homeland. This might well be the last opportunity to do that!”
After a moment of consideration on seeing Coenus’s desperation, Alexander walked of his tent, raised his glass of wine and said to the men who had been waiting outside. “We all go back to Greece tomorrow morning!”
PS: This is work of fiction. What history reports is that Alexander was forced to turn back once he reached the banks of the Beas River due to an army revolt and along with him on his return journey to Babylon was an Indian monk called Calanus. There are also many stories about how the man met various monks in India including Chanakya . This is just another take on all those tales. Takshashila, during the Axial Age (800 BC-300 BC) was one of the greatest cities in the world; the center of Indian socio-political change and a hotbed of Indian philosophy! I am pretty sure that there must have been a lot of exchange of ideas between the ancient Indians and the Greeks.
The legend of Alexander lived on in the Indian subcontinent in many forms; the South Asian name “Sikander”, the Indo-Greek kingdoms and art, which lived on for the next three centuries in the North Western part of the Indian subcontinent; the cultural exchange (many interesting parallels between Greek and Indian mythology) and unfortunately, also the high prevalence of Thalassaemia in certain South Asian ethnic groups!