Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians: Palladios and George on naked philosophers or Brahmans (fourth / ninth centuries CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=12973.
Ancient authors: Palladios or pseudo-Palladios / anonymous (fourth-fifth centuries CE), On the Life of the Brahmans, a.k.a On the Peoples of India and the Brahmans, part 1, sections 1-14 (Greek text available at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, 2111.005); George the Monk (ninth century CE), Chronicle 1.19 (link).
Comments: The passages presented below (not otherwise readily available in English) illustrate well how ethnographic interests in the furthest reaches of the known world continued into late antiquity and beyond. They also suggest some ulterior motives that shape the further dissemination of supposed accounts of life in India, particularly life among the naked philosophers (gymnosophists) or Brahmans. Earlier Greek philosophers might readily present Brahmans as an ideal parallel for the Greek philosophical life or as an exotic source for Greek wisdom (see many cases in category four). Yet this approach could be readily adapted by later Christian authors to find parallels for the ascetic lifestyle of the monks, as in our passages by pseudo-Palladios (Latinized as Palladius) and George the monk. When the former work was rediscovered in the early modern period, then too the Brahmans were looked to as predecessors for more “radical” forms of devotion. The photo here is a page from Edward Bisshye’s 1665 edition, which primarily looked to the Brahmans as precursors to strict puritanism and which happened to be published in the era when Charles II acquired the island of Bombay (now incorporated within Mumbai).
We do not know whether the earlier of our two works (probably fourth or fifth century CE) was really by Palladios (ca. 360-430 CE), the overseer of the church at Helenopolis near modern Istanbul who wrote the Lausiac History. But it doesn’t really matter for our purposes. The Christian author of this two part work on the Brahmans pulled together two types of material. In the first part, which is presented in this post, the author writes a letter to someone clarifying that he himself got no further than the very beginnings of “India”, by which he actually means ancient Ethiopia (near Aule in what is now Eritrea), with “India” and “Ethiopia” often overlapping for Christian authors in this period. This was due, in part, to the fact that one of the main trade-routes to India was via Berenike on what we would call the Red Sea, so that one embarked on a boat in Ethiopia and ended up in India (so the two could be closely associated).
The letter writer then draws all his ethnographic information from a supposed first-hand account of another anonymous “scholar” or lawyer from Thebes in Egypt who did claim to have spent several years in furthest India, observing its peoples while a prisoner. Although some modern scholars have approached this as an actual travel report containing genuine ethnographic information about Indians (as with Derrett 1960 and Stoneman 1995, for instance), it seems more likely that this is another case of ethnographic fiction based loosely on Greek perceptions of the Brahmans. On this, compare Iamboulos’ expressly fictional trip to an island beyond India, perhaps also imagined as Sri Lanka (link). We need not spend all our energies on trying to establish the historical or ethnographic accuracy of ancient writings, canonical or otherwise. As much of the material collected on this website shows, most expressly ethnographic material produced by Greeks and Romans blurs or eliminates the line between fact and fiction about foreign or subject peoples and places. Nonetheless, we have here an earlier source even if a novelistic one.
In the second part of this work (discussed in another post at this link [coming soon]), the anonymous author supplies an alternative version of the supposed correspondence between a Brahman named Damdamis and Alexander of Macedon, similar to material that ended up in the so called Alexander Romance (link). Here the author was clearly drawing on a much earlier source which is attested in papyrus fragments from the second century CE (Papyrus Geneva inv. 271), but it does not seem to be a work by Arrian, as the anonymous author guessed. There is in fact a work on Indian Matters by Arrian (link), which is why our author might have been tempted to attribute the source to Arrian.
Finally, in our second passage we have a ninth century monk – George – who came across pseudo-Palladios, was impressed with the monk-like self-controlled and ascetic lifestyle of the Brahmans, and quoted or abbreviated pseudo-Palladios.
Works consulted: E. Bysshe, Palladios De gentibus Indiae et Bragmanibus (London: T. Roycroft, 1665) (link); J.D.M. Derrett, “The History of ‘Palladios on the Races of India and the Brahmans,’” Classica et Mediaevalia 21 (1960): 64–135 (one of the critical editions beyond Berghoff – see below); Richard Stoneman, “Who Are the Brahmans? Indian Lore and Cynic Doctrine in Palladius’ De Bragmanibus and Its Models,” The Classical Quarterly 44 (1994): 500–510 (link).
Source of the translations: Translation by Harland using the critical edition of W. Berghoff, Palladios: De gentibus Indiae et Bragmanibus (Meisenheim am Glan: Hain, 1967), 2-55 as reproduced at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, 2111.005, in consultation with R. Stoneman, Legends of Alexander the Great (London: I.B. Taurus, 1994), 32-38 (link).
On the Life of the Brahmans
[Anonymous letter writer’s introduction to a description of Brahmans and their Indian context]
1 (1) Your wide-reaching love of hard work, study, and listening, as well as your love of God – the pride of excellent men – has pushed me once again to describe in detail an issue filled with love of wisdom (philosophia). Moreover, as we are moved by your love of listening to those who speak, we will also explain to you the life of the Brahmans.
I myself have not investigated their homeland or met the people. For they are settled far away from us in the regions of India and Serika [literally, the land of silk, sometimes the equivalent of China] on the banks of the Ganges river. Now I myself have only visited the first part of India. I was there a few years ago with the blessed Moses, overseer (or: bishop) of the Adulenians [i.e. the settlement of Adule or Adulis on the Red Sea in what is now Eritrea, about 40 km south of modern Massawa; ancient authors often confused ancient Ethiopia and India, as here]. However, I could not stand the summer heat and experienced a severe fever. (The water there is such that it bubbles up out of the spring in an excessively cold state and has to be immediately boiled in buckets). As a result, having seen only so much, I returned. The Ganges river is the one that we call “Pheison,” which is mentioned in the writings [Genesis 2:11] as one of the four rivers that flow out of Paradise.
(2) Now there is a story that Alexander, the king of the Macedonians, investigated the Brahmans’ life. However, he too quickly adopted rumours. Even Alexander did not cross the Ganges, I believe. Rather, he went as far as the first part of Serika – where the silk worms (sēres) produce silk – and erected a stone slab with this inscription: “Alexander the Macedonian reached this place.”
[Supposed account of a Theban scholar as the soure]
(3) I have learned what I know about the Brahmans from a certain Theban scholar (scholastikos), who made his journey voluntarily but was forcefully taken into captivity. This man, as he himself says [i.e. in the first person narrative below], did a poor job of pleading his case and, indifferent as to where he ended up going, craved to investigate the country of the Indians. (4) The scholar sailed with an older man first to Adule [on the Red Sea] and then to Auxoum [further inland, modern Aksum, Ethiopia], where an insignficant king of the Indians had his seat [again, the author confuses ancient Ethiopia with India].
[Makrobian / Long-life people on Taprobane island]
He spent some time there and became accustomed to the place. Then he wanted to go to the island of Taprobane [perhaps imagined as Sri Lanka or Madagascar], where those called Makrobians (Makrobioi; “Long-lifes”) live. On that island they live for as long as one hundred and fifty years because of the superiority of the climate and the hidden decision of God. Living on this island is the great king of the Indians, to whom all the kings of the country are subordinate like satraps, as the scholar described to us [i.e. in the first-person narrative below]. He had learned this from others, because he had not been able to go to the island himself.
[Peoples on other nearby islands]
(5) If the account is not false, there are about a thousand other islands close by that island, all surrounded by the Erythraian sea [a term that could encompass what is now the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean]. Now on those islands, which are called the Maniolians, is found the magnet stone which pulls iron towards itself. Whoever tries to leave the islands in a ship which has iron fasteners is held in place by the power of the stone and cannot sail away. Appropriately, all the ships that sail to the great island are joined together with wooden pegs and without iron. (6) “There are,” he says, “five very large rivers on that island which are navigable by ships.” Now as they explained to him, the fruitful season never ends in that place. “For at the same time,” he says, “one branch is sprouting, another is being harvested, and another is still ripening. Dates and the large Indian nut grow there. The inhabitants at the place live on milk and rice. Since they do not have wool or flax, they put finely worked skins of animals around their loins. The sheep have long hair but not wool, providing plenty of milk and having fat tails. The people are used to eating the meat of goats and sheep. The pig is not found in India or Ethiopia, because of the heat, except in Thebes.”
[Beginning of the extended first-person account by the Theban scholar]
(7) So this scholar explains:
[Bisadians / Bedsadians; cf. Troglodytes and Pygmies in other accounts]
“I found some Indians from Auxoum [in Ethiopia] crossing over in ships for the purpose of trade, and tried to cross over among them. We came close to those called “Bisadians” (Bisadoi) [in some manuscripts the name is Bedsadians or Bithsadians], where pepper comes from.”
([Main author’s interjection in the first-person account:] Now this is a very small, weak people (ethnos). They live in caves in the rocks and are good at climbing on the fallen heaps of rocks. They go around collecting pepper from the pepper trees. These are stunted little bushes, as the scholar reported. The Bisadians are also stunted little men with big heads and uncut, plain hair. But the rest of the Ethiopians and Indians are black, energetic, and bristly-haired).
(8) “I was conducted from there,” he says, “by the ruler and was being brought to trial for daring to enter their country. They would not accept my defence since they did not understand the dialect of our country. Nor did I know the offense for which they aimed to punish me. I did not understand their language, and we only managed to communicate with one another by distorting our faces with well-known signs. I was guessing the accusatory tone from their bloodshot eyes, their wild gnashing of teeth, and their motions that accompanied their voices. Now those men were noticing fearful signs from my body and the misery of my soul from my trembling, struggling, and paleness.”
(9) “Anyways, I was held captive by them for a period of six years, being handed over to work in a bakery. The king’s regular consumption was a single modios [about 8.62 litres] of grain for the whole palace,” he says, “but I have no idea where he was bringing it from. And so,” he says, “in the course of the six years I was able to interpret their language better. Because of this, I also have learned about the surrounding peoples (ethnē).”
(10) “I was released in the following way”, he says. “Another king was making war with the one holding me captive, and that other king informed on the king who held me captive to the great king, who was established on the island of Taprobane. That other king told the great king that this king was holding an important Roman prisoner and forcing him to most lowly work. The great king then sent one of his judges to investigate and, on learning the truth, ordered that the king who held me captive be skinned alive for abusing a Roman citizen. Actually, they honour and fear the power of Rome, believing that Rome could easily conquer their country because of its superior courage and skills in war.”
[Return of the letter writer and his Christianizing commentary on the Brahmans’ lifestyle]
(11) So this man was saying that the Brahmans are a people (ethnos) set apart, not by choice, but by plan (as with monks). Rather, they were assigned this lot from above and from the decisions of God in order to live on the banks of the river naturally and completely naked. Among them there exist no four-footed animals, no farmland, no iron, no houses, no fire, no bread, no wine, no clothing, nor any of the other things that are designed for work or for enjoyment. They have the purest, finest and most beautiful climate. They revere God and have some knowledge about him. Although they are unable to elucidate the principles of providence in a consistent way, they nonetheless pray constantly. When they pray, they look to the sky rather than the east, and they do not pay attention to the east at all.
[Further section on the diet and lifestyle of the Brahmans, likely drawing on the Theban scholar narrative again]
(12) Now they eat whatever fresh fruits and wild herbs they find, whatever the earth produces on its own. They drink water. Living a nomadic lifestyle in forests, they rest on beds of leaves. Among them there is an abundance of persea wood and the so-called thorny plants, and various other local seed-bearing plants, which they live on.
(13) Their men are settled on the far side of the Ganges towards the part facing the ocean. (For this river flows into ocean.) Their women, however, live on this side of the Ganges, in the Indian part. The men cross over to the women in the months of July and August, because these are the cold months among them when the sun raises towards us over the north. These months are regarded as more temperate by them, and influence the desire for sexual intercourse. When they have been with the women for forty days, they cross back again. When a woman has given birth to two children, her husband does not cross over again to interact with his wife. Rather they send substitutes on their behalf and they exercize self-control from that time. If one of the women is found to be barren, her husband will keep on crossing over for a period of five years to have sexual intercourse with her. However, if she still does not conceive, he does not approach her again. Because of this, that people is not very numerous due to the conditions in the place and the lifestyle of self-control. (14) That is the social organization (politeia) of the Brahmans.
Now they say the river is very hard to cross because of the so-called “Odontotyrannos” (“Tooth-tyrant”). This is a really large creature which lives in the river and is able to swallow an entire elephant and a man at the same time. At the time when the Brahmans cross over to visit their wives, it does not frequent these parts. There are also very large serpents around the rivers that are up to a hundred feet long. I have seen the skin of one that was more than two feet wide. The ants there are a hand-span long, and the scorpions up to a forearm long. As a result it is very unsafe to travel through these places. Not every place has so many beasts and poisonous creatures. They are found only in the uninhabited area. There are also many herds of elephants. . . . [omitted the appended correspondence between the Brahman Dandamis and Alexander of Macedon, drawing on an earlier source, on which go to this link [coming soon]].
George the Monk, Chronicle (drawing on the above source)
(1.19) [Omitted extensive account of Alexander’s interactions among Judeans]. . . [Extract from Palladios on Brahmans:] Alexander reached the farthest parts of India [i.e. apparently contridicting his source, which suggests Alexander’s knowledge was based on hearsay], the great ocean which surrounds the earth, and the great island of the Brahmans. He discovered their amazing and super-human way of life, their piety and worship of the god of everything. He was very impressed, admiring the highest philosophy which these men had reached. He set up a monument in that place with the following inscription: “I, Alexander the Great, reached this far.” On that island [perhaps Sri Lanka is in mind] are settled the so-called Makrobians (Makrobioi; “Long-lifes”).
[Customs of the Long-lifes]
The majority of them live to the age of one hundred and fifty because of the very pure and mild climate and because of the hidden decision of god. In that place every kind of fruit is in season for the entire year. While one is blooming, another is ripening and still another is ready to harvest. The large Indian nuts grow there, and the spices which we love so much and which are so hard to get, and the stone called “magnet.”
The people (ethnos) of the Brahmans are very pious and they live a life without possessions, a lot that the decisions of god allotted to them. They live by a river, living naked according to nature and constantly praising god. They have no animals, they do not farm, they use no iron, no houses, no fire, no gold or silver, no bread or wine, they wear no clothes and eat no meat, and engage in none of the things that require work or result in pleasure. They use the moist, sweet, mild and beautiful climate to avoid all kinds of sickness or disease. They enjoy a little fruit and pure water while they continually honour and praise god.
The men live on the side of the river beside the ocean, and the women live on this side of the river Ganges, which flows into ocean in the region of India. The men cross over to the women in the months of July and August, which are the cooler ones among them, as the sun rises towards us and the north. They say that, when their bodies become more temperate, they have an urge for sexual intercourse. They say that is the reason why the Nile does not flood at the same time as other rivers. Instead, it floods Egypt in high summer because the sun is running its course in a more northerly direction and, at the time when the water levels are lower and this obstructs all other rivers, it is at its furthest from this one. After mating with the women for forty days, they cross over again. After a woman has given birth to two children, her husband does not cross over to her again. At the same time, she is careful not to approach any other man. If any particular woman happens to be infertile and fails to have children by her husband after five yearly crossings, he does not approach her again. As a result, the population of the land is not very numerous, because of their self-control and contentment with little. That is the social organization (politeia) of the Brahmans. . . [omitted the enumeration of various incredible animals].
[For George’s subsequent survey of customs of various peoples drawing on Caesarius of Nazianzos, go to this link].