Indians: Bardaisan of Edessa on Indian ambassadors’ tales and the Brahmans (early third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians: Bardaisan of Edessa on Indian ambassadors’ tales and the Brahmans (early third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 4, 2024,

Ancient authors: Bardaisan of Edessa (late-second to early-third centuries CE), Indian Matters (?) = FGrHist 719 F2, as cited by Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals 4.17-18 (link; link to Greek); FGrHist 719 F1, as cited by Porphyry, On the Styx (fragment 376) and preserved by John of Stobi, a.k.a. Stobaeus (fifth century CE), Anthology, 1.3.56 (link; link to Greek in Stobaeus; link to FGrHist); Jerome, Against Jovinianus 2.14 (link).

Comments: Ethnographic materials regarding a variety of peoples play an integral role in the Book of Laws of Countries attributed to the Christian author Bardaisan (or: Bardesanes) of Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey) in Osrhoene and his student Philippos (link). However, it seems that Bardaisan produced other works with a focus on far-off peoples specifically, including a work on Indian matters (the title is unknown) that Porphyry cites extensively (some of which is only preserved in John of Stobi’s Anthology).

In these two extracts from Bardaisan’s work, the author delves into the lifestyle of Indian Brahmans, on the one hand, and into ostensibly Indian stories about Indian customs related by an embassy that met with an emperor (perhaps Elagabalus or less likely Caracalla, if this is referring to an actual meeting). Andrade’s (2020b) helpful introduction to Bardaisan and ethnography expresses doubt about any eastern sources of information (oral or written) in Bardaisan’s work, suggesting instead that this is all derivative of Greek and Roman sources. But this is by no means certain, in my view, and I would leave open the possibility of a mixture of sources of information, including local or eastern ones.

For Porphyry’s integration of this material into his tract on refraining from killing animals, go to this link.

Works consulted: N. Andrade, “Bardaisan’s Disciples and Ethnographic Knowledge in the Roman Empire,” in Literature and Culture in the Roman Empire, 96–235: Cross-Cultural Interactions (Cambridge: CUP, 2020b), 291–308.


Bardaisan as cited by Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals

(4.17-18) Their way of life is like this, according to the Babylonian Bardaisan (or: Bardesanes), who lived in the times of our fathers [died ca. 222 CE, while Porphyry was born around that time] and was familiar with those Indians who were sent to Caesar [likely emperor Elagabalus, ca. 218-222 CE] together with Dandamis. Bardaisan writes:

All the Brahmans are a single descent group (genos), because all of them derive from a single father and a single mother. But the Samanaians are not of the same descent group, but have been brought together from the people of the Indians, as we have said.


A Brahman is not ruled by any government, nor does he pay any taxes to the others. Among these, there are philosophers who live in the mountains and those who live around the Ganges river. The ones in the mountains consume fruit and cows’ milk sprinkled with herbs, and the ones around the Ganges also eat fruit that grows in abundance around the river. The land likewise nearly always bears new fruit, together with plenty of rice, which grows naturally and which they use when there is a lack of fruit. Eating other food or even touching a living being [i.e. animal meat] is considered the equivalent of extreme impurity and impiety.

This is their doctrine: they worship the deity and they are pious towards the deity. They spend the day and most of the night in hymns and prayers to the gods, with each of them having a cottage to himself and living alone as much as possible. For the Brahmans cannot stand being with others, nor can they stand speaking much. But when they do speak, they withdraw themselves and do not speak for many days afterwards. They also frequently fast.


Now the Samanaians are, as we have said, chosen. Whenever someone wants to be enrolled in their order, that person proceeds to the leaders of the city, renouncing the city or village that he inhabited along with wealth and all the other property that he possessed. After shaving the hair off of his body, he receives a garment and goes away to the Samanaians. However, he does not return to his wife or children (if he happens to have any) and does not pay any attention to them or think that they are at all important to him. In fact, the king provides what is necessary for the man’s children, and the relatives provide for the wife. Such is the lifestyle of the Samanaians.

But they live outside of the city, and spend the whole day discussing the deity. They also have houses and sanctuaries that are built by the king, in which they are managers who receive a certain prescribed payment from the king which is used to supply food for those that live in them. Now their food consists of rice, bread, fruits, and vegetables. When they enter into their house, a bell sounds to indicate that non-Samanaians need to leave and the Samanaians immediately begin to pray. But having prayed, again, on the bell sounding as a signal, the servants give to each Samanaian an individual platter (for two of them do not eat out of the same dish) and feed them with rice. For those who want greater variety of food, a vegetable is added or some fruit. After eating only what is necessary, they immediately proceed to their customary activities. All of them likewise are unmarried and have no possessions. Both the Samanaians and the Brahmans are revered so much by the other Indians that the king also visits them and asks them to pray and supplicate the gods or to advise the king on what action to take when any disaster happens in the country.

18 Regarding their attitudes about death, they unwillingly endure the entire length of their lives since they consider it as a certain service to nature. Therefore they are eager to liberate their souls from the bodies. As a result, frequently they depart from life [i.e. take their own life] when they seem to be well and are neither oppressed nor driven to desperation by anything evil. Even though they announce to others that it is their intention to commit suicide, no one hinders them. Proclaiming that those who leave this life are happy, they instruct the members of the household of the dead on certain things. They steadily and truly believe (as does the population generally) that souls associate with each other in another life. But as soon as the members of the household (to whom they have proclaimed that this is their intention) have heard the instructions given to them, they burn the body in fire so that they may separate the soul from the body in the purest manner. They die in this way, celebrated by all the Samanaians. For these men dismiss their dearest friends to death more easily than others part with their fellow-citizens when going on the longest journeys. They themselves lament that they continue living, but proclaim that those who are dead are blessed because they have now obtained an immortal appointment. . . [omitted remainder of Porphyry’s discussion].


Bardaisan as cited by Porphyry, On the Styx, as preserved by Stobaios

(1.3.56) The Indians who came in the reign of the Antoninus from Emesa in Syria [perhaps Elagabalus, ca. 218-222 CE, is in mind but Caracalla, ca. 216-17 CE, may reconcile other biographical conflicts (Andrade 2020b, 296)] to Bardaisan, who is from Mesopotamia, for discussions explained, as recorded by Bardaisan:

There is a lake among the Indians that is still called “Test.” Any Indian who claims his innocence of a crime (hamartia) with which he is charged goes down into the water. The Brahmans test him in this way: They ask the man if he is willing to undergo the test by water, and if he declines they send him to be punished as being guilty. But if he consents, they take him to the lake with his accusers, because the accusers are also subjected to the test by water in case the charge they made is fictitious or meant to do harm. On entering the water they pass through to the other side of the lake, which is knee-deep throughout for every one who enters in. Now if the accused is innocent, he goes in and passes through without any fear, and is never wet above the knee. However, if he is guilty, the water is over his head before he even goes far into the water. Then the Brahmans drag him out of the water and deliver him alive to his accusers, considering him to deserve any punishment short of death. But this [outcome of guilt] rarely happens since no one tries to deny his guilt because of dread about the test by water.

The Indians, then, have this lake for the test for voluntary offences, and they have another lake besides for both voluntary and involuntary offences, in fact this is for testing a person’s entire life. Bardisain gives this account of it, which I transcribe in his own words:

They [the Indian ambassadors] told me further that there was a large natural cave in a very high mountain almost in the middle of the country. In it, one can view a statue that is ten or, maybe twelve forearm-lengths high and that stands upright with its hands folded crosswise. The right half of its face was that of a man, and the left that of a woman. In a similar way, the right hand and right foot, and in short the whole right side was male and the left female. The result was that the viewer was amazed at the combination, as the viewer saw how the two dissimilar sides coalesced in an indissoluble union in a single body. In this statue was engraved, it is said, on the right breast the sun, and on the left the moon, while on the two arms . . . [text missing in manuscript] . . . was artistically depicted a host of messengers [of the gods, or “angels”] and whatever the world contains. In other words, it depicted the sky, mountains, a sea, a river, and an ocean, together with plants and animals. In fact, it depicted everything.

The Indians claim that the god had given this statue to his son when he founded the cosmos as a model of the cosmos. And I asked about what material was used to make this statue (adds Bardaisan). Sandales [i.e. one of the Indian ambassadors] assured me – and the others confirmed his words – that no man could tell what material it was, for it was neither gold nor silver nor brass nor stone nor any known substance, in fact, but that – even though it was not wood – it most resembled a very hard wood, quite free from rot.

They also told about how one of their kings had tried to pluck out one of the hairs around its neck, and how blood flowed out. At this, the king was so struck with fear that, even with all the prayers of the Brahmans, he hardly recovered his senses. They said that on its head was the image of a god, seated as on a throne, and that during heat-waves the statue sweated all over so much that it would have moistened the ground at the base if the Brahmans had not used their fans to stop the flow.

Deeper into the cave, a long way behind the statue, the Indians say that everything was dark. Those who want to enter advance with lighted torches until they come to a door from which water issues and forms a lake around the far end of the cave. The one who wants to be tested must pass through this door. Those who have lived unstained by bad behaviour pass through without impediment, the door opening wide to them. They find within a large crystal-clear and sweet-tasting fountain of water, which is also the source of the mentioned stream. The guilty, however, struggle hard to push in through that door, but fail in the attempt, for it closes against them. In this way, they are forced to confess their offences against others, and to ask the rest to pray for them. They also fast for a considerable time.

Sandanes further stated that he and his companions found the Brahmans on an appointed day assembled together in this place. He stated that some of them spent their life there, but that others come to see the statue and to meet their friends in the summer and autumn when fruit is plentiful. They also test themselves as to whether they could pass through the door. At the same time, it is said, they examine the sculptures on the statue and try to discover their meaning. It is not easy to attend to the entire model [of the cosmos] since the objects are so numerous, while some of the plants and animals are not to be found in any part of the country.

So that is the account which the Indians give of the test by water. It is, I think, of this water in the cave that Apollonios of Tyana makes mention, because when he writes to the Brahmans, he swears this oath: ‘No, by the water of Tantalos, you will not initiate me into your mysteries.’ For, it seems to me, he speaks of this water of Tantalos because it punishes with the disappointment of their hopes those who come eagerly to it, and try to drink of it.


Bardaisan as cited by Jerome, Against Jovinianus (in a discussion of asceticism)

(2.14) Josephos in the second book of the history of the Jewish captivity [i.e.. Judean War], and in the eighteenth book of the Antiquities, and the two books Against Apion, describes three sects of the Jews, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. On the last of these he grants wondrous praise because they practised perpetual abstinence from wives, wine, and flesh, and made a second nature of their daily fast. Philo, too, a man of great learning, published a treatise of his own on their mode of life. Neanthes of Kyzikos, and Asklepiades of Cyprus, at the time when Pygmalion ruled over the East, relate that the eating of flesh was unknown. Euboulos, also, who wrote the history of Mithras in many volumes, relates that among the Persians there are three kinds of Magians, the first of whom, those of greatest learning and eloquence, take no food except meal and vegetables. At Eleusis it is customary to abstain from chickens and fish and certain fruits. Bardesain, a Babylonian, divides the naked sages (gymnosophists) of India into two classes, the one called Brahmans, the other Samanaians, who are so rigidly self-restrained that they support themselves either with the fruit of trees which grow on the banks of the Ganges, or with common food of rice or flour. When the king visits them, he customarily adores them, and thinks the peace of his country depends on their prayers.


Source of the translations: T. Taylor, Select works of Porphyry (London: T. Rodd, 1823), public domain, used as a base for a translation by Harland; J.W. McCrindle, Ancient India as Described in Classical Literature (Westminster: Archibald Constable, 1901), public domain, adapted by Harland; W.H. Freemantle, “The Principal Works of St. Jerome,” in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, P.Schaff and H. Wace, eds (New York: The Christian literature company, 1893), public domain, adapted by Harland.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *