Feb 13, 2011

The Gymnosophists of Ancient India

Gymnosophists is the name (meaning "naked philosophers") given by the Greeks to certain ancient Indian philosophers who pursued asceticism to the point of regarding food and clothing as detrimental to purity of thought (sadhus or yogis).They were probably the Naga Sadhus who are still in existence and are considered as the devotees of Lord Shiva.

The Digambar Jain monks in India even now remain unclothed; they have been identified as the gymnosophists by several researchers,.[1][2] Xuanzang mentions having come across Digambar Jain monks in Taxila during his 7th century CE visit to India,[3] in the same Punjab region where Alexander encountered the gymnosophists.

The term is first used by Plutarch  in the 1st century CE, when describing an encounter by Alexander the Great with ten gymnosophists in Punjab.
He (Alexander) captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer, and then the rest, in an order determined in like manner; and he commanded one of them, the oldest, to be the judge in the contest. The first one, accordingly, being asked which, in his opinion, were more numerous, the living or the dead, said that the living were, since the dead no longer existed. The second, being asked whether the earth or the sea produced larger animals, said the earth did, since the sea was but a part of the earth. The third, being asked what animal was the most cunning, said: "That which up to this time man has not discovered." The fourth, when asked why he had induced Sabbas to revolt, replied: "Because I wished him either to live nobly or to die nobly." The fifth, being asked which, in his opinion, was older, day or night, replied: "Day, by one day"; and he added, upon the king expressing amazement, that hard questions must have hard answers. Passing on, then, to the sixth, Alexander asked how a man could be most loved; "If," said the philosopher, "he is most powerful, and yet does not inspire fear." Of the three remaining, he who was asked how one might become a god instead of man, replied: "By doing something which a man cannot do"; the one who was asked which was the stronger, life or death, answered: "Life, since it supports so many ills." And the last, asked how long it were well for a man to live, answered: "Until he does not regard death as better than life." So, then, turning to the judge, Alexander bade him give his opinion. The judge declared that they had answered one worse than another. "Well, then," said Alexander, "thou shalt die first for giving such a verdict." "That cannot be, O King," said the judge, "unless thou falsely saidst that thou wouldst put to death first him who answered worst."
—Plutarch, Life of Alexander, "The parallel lives," 64., [4]
Diogenes Laertius (ix. 61 and 63) refers to them, and reports that Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of pure scepticism, came under the influence of the Gymnosophists while travelling to India with Alexander, and on his return to Elis, imitated their habits of life; however, the extent of their influence is not described.
Strabo says that gymnosophists were religious people among the Indians (XVI,I), and otherwise divides Indian philosophers into Brahmans and Sramanas (XV,I,59-60), following the accounts of Megasthenes. He further divides the Sramanas into "Hylobioi" (forest hermits, c.f. Aranyaka) and "Physicians."
Of the Sarmanes, the most honourable, he says, are the Hylobii, who live in the forests, and subsist on leaves and wild fruits: they are clothed with garments made of the bark of trees, and abstain from commerce with women and from wine.
—Strabo XV, I,60
Of the Sarmanes (...) second in honour to the Hylobii, are the physicians, for they apply philosophy to the study of the nature of man. They are of frugal habits, but do not live in the fields, and subsist upon rice and meal, which every one gives when asked, and receive them hospitably. (...) Both this and the other class of persons practise fortitude, as well in supporting active toil as in enduring suffering, so that they will continue a whole day in the same posture, without motion.
—Strabo XV, I,60
Philo mentions the Gymnosophists twice in the course of listing foreign ascetics and philosophers who are, in his estimation, "prudent, and just, and virtuous" and therefore truly free:
And among the Indians there is the class of the gymnosophists, who, in addition to natural philosophy, take great pains in the study of moral science likewise, and thus make their whole existence a sort of lesson in virtue.
—Philo Judaeus, Every Good Man is Free, 74
But it is necessary for us...to bring forward as corroborative testimonies the lives of some particular good men who are the most undeniable evidences of freedom. Calanus was an Indian by birth, one of the gymnosophists; he, being looked upon as the man who was possessed of the greatest fortitude of all his contemporaries, and that too, not only by his own countrymen, but also by foreigners, which is the rarest of all things, was greatly admired by some kings of hostile countries, because he had combined virtuous actions with praiseworthy language.
—Philo Judaeus, Every Good Man is Free, 92-93.
In the 2nd century CE, the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria distinguishes the Gymnosophists, the philosophers of the Indians, from the Sramanas, "the philosophers of the Bactrians":
Philosophy, then, with all its blessed advantages to man, flourished long ages ago among the barbarians, diffusing its light among the gentiles, and eventually penetrated into Greece. Its hierophants were the prophets among the Egyptians, the Chaldeans among the Assyrians, the Druids among the Galatians, the Sramanas of the Bactrians, and the philosophers of the Celts, the Magi among the Persians who announced beforehand the birth of the Saviour, being led by a star till they arrived in the land of Judaea, and among the Indians the Gymnosophists, and other philosophers of barbarous nations.
—Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1.15.71 (ed. Colon. 1688 p. 305, A, B).
  1. Jacquetta Hopkins Hawkes, The Atlas of Early Man, St. Martin's Press, 1993.
  2. Professor A.L. Basham, My Guruji, Sachindra Kumar Maity, 1997.
  3. Bhanwarlal Nathuram Luniya, Life and Culture in Ancient India: From the Earliest Times to 1000 A.D. Lakshmi Narain Agarwal publisher,1978,
  4. Life of Alexander, 64

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