Alexander and the gymnosophists

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, January 9, 2014

Alexander the Great was born in Pella in 356 BC. He became king of Macedon in 336 and began a 13 year rule that saw him conquer Greece, Egypt, Persia and parts of India. He was tutored by Aristotle until the age of 16. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest martial and political minds of antiquity.

In 326 BC, after conquering Persia, Alexander invaded India. During his invasion, he encountered something he had never experienced before—the gymnosophists of India. The gymnosophists were Indian philosophers and holy men who practiced asceticism.

While accounts exist of Alexander’s encounter with the gymnosophists, here is how I imagine the conversation between Alexander and a gymnosophist might have gone:

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Alexander’s guards brought the naked man before Alexander. Alexander looked over the man sitting calmly before him. “Why is it that you aren’t wearing clothes?” Alexander asked.

The gymnosophist did not even look up at Alexander as he replied. “The body has no need for clothes. Clothes are merely luxuries.”

Alexander looked down at his own arraignment—cotton from Egypt, wool from Greece, dyes from Asia and gold from Persia. “And your body why is it so emaciated?”

“In this life, my body is weak and requires little. Perhaps in another life, my body will be more well-nourished.”

“In Greece, our teachers say that you only live one life.”

“Here, we believe that people live many lives. What I do not accomplish in this life, I will accomplish in another.”

“That’s foolishness. Once we die, our bodies return to the ground and decay. We only have this one body and this one life. Is this why you are satisfied with accomplishing nothing in your life? Because you believe you have future lives?”

“And past lives. Who knows what I may have done in a previous life. Why do you try to conquer the world? Because you only have one life to live?”

“I’m the ruler of four kingdoms. I brought the Persian Empire to its knees. I restored glory to the Greek people. My empire stretches from Macedon to India.”

“And what good will all these honors do you once you are gone? If you only have one life?”

“I will be remembered for what I have accomplished. The poets will sing my name, and the historians will note my accomplishments. I have established an empire that my descendants will rule for hundreds of years.”

“But what good will that do you? You will have spent your entire life striving for something, and, once you die, all that striving will be for nothing. You may be remembered, but that won’t do you any good once you’ve died. Does this not strike you as foolishness?”

“What strikes me as foolishness is wasting your life doing nothing when you could be bettering yourself.”

“What you view as nothing, I view as enlightenment.”

Alexander sent the gymnosophist away and considered what he had said. Alexander would die three years later in Babylon at the age of 33. His empire would be split between his generals and would eventually dissolve.

As you go about 2014, ask yourself this question. Who would you rather be, Alexander or the gymnosophist?

When you feel like you can’t gut out one more lap at the track or one more rep at the gym, ask yourself if you believe we have one life or many lives.

When you don’t feel like taking the extra shift at work or putting in the extra hour of studying, ask yourself the same question.

I know who I would rather be.