Indian wisdom: Nearchos, Megasthenes, and Arrian on the sages Dandamis and Kalanos (fourth century BCE-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indian wisdom: Nearchos, Megasthenes, and Arrian on the sages Dandamis and Kalanos (fourth century BCE-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 5, 2023,

Ancient author(s): Nearchos (late fourth century BCE) and Megasthenes (early third century BCE) as cited by Arrian of Nikomedia, Anabasis 7.1-3 (link).

Comments: Arrian of Nikomedia in Bithynia provides a detailed (second century CE) account of Alexander of Macedon’s expeditions as far as India, based largely on writings by Nearchos (who accompanied Alexander) and Megasthenes (who served under Antigonos I and was an ambassador for Seleukos I). Arrian provides a somewhat extensive ethnographic description of India in his eighth book (link), but in this earlier passage in book seven he also delves into the naked sages (gymnosophistai) of India with a focus on anecdotes regarding Alexander’s interactions with Dandamis and Kalanos. While Arrian seems somewhat hesitant about fully accepting Kalanos as a wise barbarian, there are nonetheless clear signs that others (likely including Arrian’s own sources like Megasthenes and Nearchos) did emphasize Kalanos’ wisdom. What is happening here, in part, is that Arrian is taking the opportunity to qualify his affirmation of Alexander by way of the contrast between Dandamis (who refuses to join Alexander) and Kalanos (who joins and declines as a result).  So this is a bit of internal (Greek) critique of imperial ambition, to some degree.

The Indian sage Kalanos pops up elsewhere. In his story of Kalanos, the Judean Philo of Alexandria (who compares Indian wisdom with that of the Essenes), is less hesitant about presenting a positive story (link). Although not referring to Kalanos specifically, Philostratos’ story of Apollonios’ journeys to India expands precisely on the superiority of the Indian sages’ wisdom (link).

Source of the translation: E.I. Robson, Arrian: Anabasis Alexandri (books V-VII) and Indica (book VIII), LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1937), public domain (passed away in 1946), thoroughly adapted by Harland.


Book 7

[Context of Alexander’s imperial ambitions for travel]

1 On reaching Pasargadai and Persepolis [respectively ca. 90 km and 60 km northeast of Shiraz, Iran], Alexander was seized with a desire to sail down by the Euphrates and Tigris into the Persian sea [Persian Gulf]. To see the outlets of these rivers into the sea, as he had seen the outlet of the Indus river, and the ocean near it. Some historians have recorded that Alexander intended to sail around most of Arabia, Ethiopia, Libya and the nomads who are beyond mount Atlas [in the Maghreb of North Africa], right up to Gadeira [Cádiz, Spain] in our sea. Then if he had subdued Libya and Karchedon [Carthage], he would be appropriately called “king of all Asia.” Of course, the Persian and Median kings had not gained control over even a fraction of Asia, and so had no right to call themselves “Great Kings.” From Gadeira, some authorities say he proposed to sail into the Euxine sea [Black Sea] to Scythia and Maiotis lake [Sea of Azov]. Others say that he intended to make for Sicily and the Iapygian promontory [the heel of Italy]. For he was already rather distressed that the Roman name was extending widely.

As for what was in Alexander’s mind, I for my part have no means of conjecturing with any accuracy, nor do I care to guess. This, however, I think I can for my own part state clearly: that Alexander had no small or limited conceptions, nor would he have ever remained content with any of his possessions so far, not even if he had added Europe to Asia and the Britannia islands to Europe. But Alexander would always have searched far beyond for something unknown, since he was always the rival, if not of someone else then of himself.

[Indian sages]

In this connection I applaud the Indian sages, some of whom, as the story goes, were found by Alexander in the open air in a meadow, where they used to have their disputations. When they saw Alexander and his army, the sages did nothing further than stomp the ground with their feet. Then when Alexander inquired by interpreters what this action of theirs meant, they replied: “O King Alexander, each man possesses only the earth on which he stands. You are like other men, except that you are full of activity and relentless as you roam over all this earth far from your home, both troubled and troubling others. But it won’t be long before you die, and you will possess just as much of the earth that will provide for your burial.”

2 On that occasion, Alexander applauded their remarks and the speakers, but he always acted diametrically opposed to what he applauded. For example, he is said to have expressed surprise at Diogenes of Sinope [Sinop, Turkey], when he found Diogenes lying in the sun on the isthmus. Alexander and his bodyguard and his infantry companions stopped, and Alexander asked if Diogenes needed anything. But Diogenes merely answered that he did not need anything else, but called on Alexander and his followers to stop blocking the sunlight. So it was evident that Alexander was not incapable of higher thought, but he was, in fact, grievously under the sway of ambition.

[Stories of Dandamis and Karanos the sages]

Once when he came to Taxila [Takshashila, Pakistan] and saw those of the Indian sages who go naked, he really wanted one of these men to join him, since he admired their endurance so much. In reaction, the oldest among these sages, named Dandamis (the others were his students), said that he would not join Alexander and would not permit any of the others to do so. For he is said to have replied that he was just as much a son of Zeus himself as Alexander was, and that he had no need of anything from Alexander, since he was contented with what he had. Dandamis perceived, moreover, that those who were wandering around with Alexander over all those countries and seas were not any better as a result, and that there was no end to their many wanderings. He did not then desire anything that Alexander could give him, nor did he fear being kept out of anything of which Alexander might be possessed. While he lived, the land of India was all he needed, giving to him its fruits in their season. When he died, he would merely be released from an uncomfortable companion, his body. Alexander then hearing this reply had no mind to compel him, realizing that the man was indeed free. But one of the sages in these regions named Kalanos (or: Calanus), as Megasthenes writes, was persuaded to join Alexander. This is a man that the sages themselves regarded as most uncontrolled in his desires, and they reproached Kalanos because he desired the happiness which they had, yet served a master other than god.

3 I have narrated all of this because it was impossible to write a history of Alexander without mentioning Kalanos. For his body grew weak in Persia even though he had never been sick before. Yet he would not submit to the ordinary diet for someone who was weak, but said to Alexander that he was content to die as he was before experiencing any suffering which would force him to adopt a different treatment than what he was used to. Alexander, however, argued with him at some length. Alexander perceived that Kalanos would not give in, but would choose some other way of death if someone did not give into Kalanos’ plan. So Alexander ordered – in keeping with Kalanos’ desire – that a pyre should be built for him, and that Ptolemaios son of Lagos, the officer of the bodyguard, should be in charge of this. Some authorities relate that he had a great procession of horses and men formed, some of whom were in full armour, and others in the procession carried all sorts of incense for the pyre. Furthermore, others say that they carried gold and silver cups and royal clothing. They made ready a horse for Kalanos himself, since he could not walk because of his illness. Yet he could not even mount the horse, but was carried lying down on a stretcher and was crowned with garlands in the Indian fashion and with songs being sung in the Indian language. The Indians say that these songs were hymns to some gods, and their praises. The horse which Kalanos was to mount was a royal horse, belonging to the Nysaians. Before Kalanos mounted the pyre the horse was given as a gift to Lysimachos, one of those who had been his student in philosophy.

Alexander had instructed that they heap cups and sheets on the pyre, and he gave some of these to one of his followers and some to another of his followers. In this way he mounted the pyre and lay down with solemnity, in the sight of all the crowd. As for Alexander, he felt this spectacle to be inappropriate for a man that he had affection for. As for the rest of them, they felt nothing but astonishment to see that Kalanos did not flinch at all in the flames. When the pyre was lit by those assigned this task, Nearchos says, the trumpets sounded just as Alexander had ordered; the whole army raised the cry which they raise when entering battle; and, the elephants trumpeted their shrill war-cry in honour of Kalanos. Many writers have told this story, and others like it, about Kalanos the Indian. The story is not altogether valueless for humanity, at least for anyone who cares to realize how determined and undefeatable human resolution is in order to carry out what it wills.

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