Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indian wisdom: Alexander Polyhistor and Clement of Alexandria (VII) on the Brahmans and naked sages (first century BCE / late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 11, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=15957.
Ancient authors: Alexander Polyhistor, Indian Matters, as discussed in Clement of Alexandria, Tapestries / Stromateis 1.68-72; 3.94 (link; link to Greek).
Comments: Clement of Alexandria’s Tapestries is a collection of a variety of his thoughts united under the idea of attaining “true knowledge.” For an introduction to peoples and wise barbarians in that work, begin with the discussion at this link. In the sections gathered below, Clement zeroes in on wise men among Indians specifically, including the Brahmans, the gymnosophists, and followers of the Buddha. Clement draws on a variety of ethnographic sources, and especially a work on Indian Matters by Alexander Polyhistor (active in the first century BCE).
Clement of Alexandria’s ethnographic series (primarily dealing with Exhortation to the Greeks but also with Tapestries) in order:
- part 1 on Scythians (link)
- part 2 on Egyptians (link)
- part 3 on Taurians and Greek human sacrifice (link)
- part 4 on Persian Magians and Scythians (link)
- part 5 on barbarian and Hebrew / Judean wisdom (link).
- part 6 on barbarian and Hebrew philosophy, dealing with Tapestries (link)
- part 7 on Brahmans and other Indians (present post)
Source of the translation: W. Wilson, The Writings of Clement of Alexandria, vol. 1 (Ante-Nicene Christian Library; Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1867) and J.W. McCrindle, Ancient India as Described in Classical Literature (Westminster: Archibald Constable, 1901) (link), public domain, adapted and partially re-translated by Harland.
(1.68-72) It seems to me that it was because they perceived the great benefit which is brought by sages that the sages themselves were honoured and philosophy cultivated publicly by all the Brahmans [in India] and by all the Odrysians and Getians [in Thrace]. The people of the Egyptians, the Chaldeans [in Babylonia], the inhabitants of Arabia Felix (as it is called), the inhabitants of Palestine, a large portion of the Persian people, and many other peoples alongside them produced sacred discourses about those sages. . . [omitted material].
Alexander [Polyhistor], in his book On Pythagorean Symbols, reports that Pythagoras was a student of Zaratos the Assyrian (some think that he is Ezekiel; but he is not, as I will show), and claims that, in addition to these, Pythagoras consulted with Galatians and Brahmans. Klearchos the Peripatetic says that he knew a Judean who associated with Aristotle. . . [omitted paragraphs]. . . . Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light on the peoples (ethnē). And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets among the Egyptians; the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; the Druids among the Galatians; the Samanaians among the Baktrians; those who philosophize among the Celts; and, the Magians of the Persians, who predicted the saviour’s birth, and came into the land of Judea guided by a star.
The naked sages (gymnosophists) among the Indians are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. There are two types [among the Indians], some called Sarmanians and the others Brahmans. The Sarmanians are also called Hylobians. Neither of the types inhabit cities, nor live in houses. Instead, they are clothed in the bark of trees, they feed on nuts, and they drink water in their hands. Just like those called Encratites today, they do not marry or have children. Also, some of the Indians obey the precepts of Buddha (Boutta) who they honour as a god because of his extreme holiness. . . [omitted material].
Of all these peoples, by far the most ancient is the Judean descent group (genos). Philo the Pythagorean (along with Aristoboulos the Peripatetic and several others who I will not name to save time) shows that the philosophy of the Judeans was put into writing before Greek philosophy. The author Megasthenes, a contemporary of Seleukos Nikanor [reigned ca. 305-281 BCE], clearly writes as follows in the third section of his book On Indian Matters: “All that was said about nature by the ancients is said also by philosophers outside of Greece, some things by the Brahmans among the Indians and others by those called Judeans in Syria.” . . . [omitted material].
(3.94, this paragraph adapted from McCrindle’s translation) The Brahmans neither eat any living thing nor drink wine. Some of them eat food every day, like ourselves, while others among eat once every three days, as Alexander Polyhistor relates in his Indian Matters. They despise death, and set no value on life because they are persuaded that there is a new birth. They worship Herakles and Pan. But those Indians who are called Semnians (Semnai) [compare his reference to Sarmanians above] go naked all their lives. The Semnians practise truth, make predictions about the future, and worship a kind of pyramid beneath which they think the bones of some divinity lie buried. But neither the naked sages (gymnosophists) nor the Semnians have sex with women, because they regard this as contrary to nature and unlawful. For this reason, they keep themselves chaste. The Semnians, too, remain virgins. They observe closely the heavenly bodies and, by the indications about future which these offer, make some predictions.