The philosophers of Taxila


By Salman Rashid

Alexander was still on the far side of the Sindhu River, yet he already knew of the philosophers of Taxila. And so, having taken the city without a fight and settled its affairs, the Macedonian one day asked for the philosophers to be brought into his presence. The man tasked with the job was the sailor Onesicritus, a native of Cos, who had been a student of the Cynic philosopher Diogenes.

Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, who was in our part of the world for fifteen years, from 300 to 285 BCE, tells us of them. They lived outside the city, abstained from animal food or anything cooked by fire. They ate fruits and nuts that grew in the area, went about naked (perhaps with only a loin-cloth) and inured themselves to extreme hardship. They practiced celibacy and held death in contemptuous disregard.

We also learn that they were very highly regarded by the people of Taxila. When the savants wandered into town, they were mobbed by young and old, women and men, rich and poor alike. Ordinary people stopped them in the streets, poured oil in their hair and massaged their limbs. Shopkeepers stood aside and permitted them to take whatever they pleased, though that was never much, and people invited them into their homes. All they asked in return from the philosophers was to hear their discourse.

To these philosophers did Alexander send Onesicritus. It was a day getting to be hot in late April in 326 BCE, when the sailor from Cos crossed the Tamrah rivulet and went into the forest outside the city. The first man Onesicritus accosted was stretched full length, stark naked, on bare stones. The sailor made an introduction and asked for a discussion. That did not please the Taxilian. He taunted the visitor, telling him that if he wished to learn of his philosophy, he would have strip naked and lie on the blistering hot stones.

Megasthenes tells us that this young, impertinent man was rebuked by an elder philosopher lying some distance away. The latter, named Mandanis in Greek, called Onesicritus over and there appears to have been a short discourse between them. Mandanis is said to have held forth on the nature of pleasure and grief and when the visitor said that his own mentor, Diogenes, held similar views, Mandanis was pleased.

But the Greeks were wrong, said the sage. They went about pampering their bodies with fancy attire and the easy life. The best body, said the man, was the one that needed minimal upkeep and maintenance as his own did, for he lived off the bounty of the earth.

From Megasthenes’ work it seems as if Onesicritus had to pay at least one return visit to convince Mandanis to visit Alexander. The first time, when he relayed Alexander’s desire for the philosophers to make themselves available at court, Mandanis roundly dismissed the request.

On the second visit, Onesicritus mixed threat with allure. If Mandanis and his fellows would present themselves to Alexander, there were lavish gifts to be had. But if they refused, the king would have them executed. Mandanis is reported, by Megasthenes, to have said that the worldly possessions that Alexander promised only fuelled worry and banished sleep. All that the savants of Taxila needed was given by the earth ‘as a mother [nurtured] her child with milk.’

He was free, said Mandanis, to go where he pleased. He was his own master, never burdened against his will and he wished to remain that way. But if Alexander were to cut off his head, he would still be unable to destroy his soul, said our philosopher. And the soul would leave the body ‘like a torn garment upon the earth’ to join the Maker. “Go, then, and tell Alexander this: Mandanis has no need of aught that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, but if you want anything from Mandanis, come you to him.”

Megasthenes writes, “Alexander, on receiving from Onesicritus a report of the interview, felt a stronger desire than ever to see Mandanis, who, though old and naked, was the only antagonist in whom he, the conqueror of many nations, had found more than his match.”

The writer is author of Jhelum: City of the Vitasta (Sang-e-Meel, 2005) salman.rashid@tribune.com.pk

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