Alexander and the Naked Philosophers
The Brahmans are a group of naked ascetics who have closed themselves off from society to live lives of natural—and presumably rather cold—contemplation. Historically, the Greek historian Strabo situated them around the city of Taxila in modern-day Pakistan. Over time their exact geographical location came to matter less and less, however, as the land (or, according to some authors, island) of the Brahmans came to be transformed into a utopian ideal.
The story of Alexander’s encounter with them first appears around the third century BC and was continuously retold up until the fourteenth century, finally appearing in what must be the most bizarre piece of travel literature in history: “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville“. As with pretty much all legends that surround Alexander, each story has several versions. The general narrative goes like this:
Alexander arrives in the land of the Brahmans with his helmsman and historian Onesicratus. There they meet with the leader of the Brahmans, Dandamis, who Alexander proceeds to interrogate. He presents Dandamis with a “Halsrätsel”; a form of questioning familiar to anyone who’s seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail and that final scene on the bridge: If Dandamis gets the answer right, he will live. Should he get it wrong, Alexander will kill him.
Ultimately Alexander learns a great deal philosophically from the Brahmans. They drive home a message found elsewhere in Alexander’s legends: that no matter what his achievements or how much his power, he will ultimately die. How they couch their phrasing, however, is uniquely powerful. Upon seeing Alexander approach the Brahmans begin to stamp their feet. Asking what they mean by this, they tell the king that every man possesses only as much land as he is standing on. Alexander may spend his life traveling and conquering foreign lands, but he too is just a man. And when he is dead, he will need only as much earth as is required to bury him.
This message was in part influenced by the political aftermath of Alexander’s death: the fragmentation of his barely consolidated empire and centuries of civil war fought among his successors. However, it was also injected over the years with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ideas relating to humility and submission to the one, true God. No one man is all-powerful, no matter his achievements, and like all historical kings, Alexander would do well to learn that.