Onesicritus, the historian whom Alexander the Great sent to learn the secrets of the yogis


Astypalaia is a small island in the Greek Dodecanese, possibly a colony of Megara, where around 360 B.C. Onesicritus, a historian and cynic philosopher who followed Diogenes of Sinope ( the one who lived like a beggar in a jar), was born.

In 334 BC, when he was 26 years old, he crossed the Hellespont with Alexander the Great’s army, accompanying philosophers, historians and other wise men who would later write about the conquered places, their customs and the people who inhabited them.

Of all of them, Onesicritus would not stand out for the rigour of his texts, but he would have the privilege of being chosen by Alexander for a very particular mission: to meet some wise men from India whom the Greeks first called brahmins and later gymnosophists (naked philosophers), who lived in an ascetic way rejecting clothes and food, and practicing some curious postures of a millenary meditation discipline called yoga.

Onesicritus himself took on the task, later reported by Strabo:

Onesicritus says that he himself was sent to converse with these sophists; for Alexander had heard that the people always went naked and devoted themselves to endurance, and that they were held in very great honour, and that they did not visit other people when invited, but bade them to visit them if they wished to participate in anything they did or said; and that therefore, such being the case, since to Alexander it did not seem fitting either to visit them or to force them against their will to do anything contrary to their ancestral customs, he himself was sent

Strabo, Geography XV–63

However, these gymnosophists were not completely unknown to the Greeks, since Diogenes Laertius tells us that Democritus, the philosopher and mathematician who lived between the 5th and 4th centuries BC, had already had contact with them:

According to Demetrius in his book on Men of the Same Name and Antisthenes in his Successions of Philosophers, he travelled into Egypt to learn geometry from the priests, and he also went into Persia to visit the Chaldaeans as well as to the Red Sea. Some say that he associated with the Gymnosophists in India and went to Aethiopia.

Diógenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers IX, Democritus 1

Strabo echoes the surprise of Onesicritus in his first meeting with fifteen of them, each one immobile in a different position:

and that he found fifteen men at a distance of twenty stadia from the city, who were in different postures, standing or sitting or lying naked and motionless till evening, and that they then returned to the city; and that it was very hard to endure the sun, which was so hot that at midday no one else could easily endure walking on the ground with bare feet.

Strabo, Geography XV–63

He turned to one who answered kallāṇa (greetings), henceforth known as Kalanos (Calanus) although his real name may have been Sphínēs.

He says that Calanus happened to be lying on stones when he first saw him; that he therefore approached him and greeted him; and told him that he had been sent by the king to learn the wisdom of the sophists and report it to him, and that if there was no objection he was ready to hear his teachings.

Strabo, Geography XV–64
The Death of Calanos, painting by Jacques-Antoine Beaufort (1779) at the Prado Museum / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This Kalanos would later accompany Alexander on his return, getting sick on the way and, according to Strabo and other sources, as was the custom among gymnosophists, he would immolate himself on a pyre when he reached Pasargadae for this reason. With Onesicritus it seems that he was not entirely friendly:

And Onesicritus adds that Calanus, after saying this, bade him, if he wished to learn, to take off his clothes, to lie down naked on the same stones, and thus to hear his teachings; and that while he was hesitating what to do, Mandanis, who was the oldest and wisest of the sophists, rebuked Calanus as a man of arrogance, and that too after censuring arrogance himself;

Strabo, Geography XV–64
Alexander meets the Gymnosophists, illustration from an anonymous manuscript from 1335 / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Finally Onesicritus, seeing that none of them would go to meet Alexander, as he had ordered, at least he managed to get the so-called Mandanis or Dandamis to receive him, an encounter that took place in the forest:

At all events, all he said, according to Onesicritus, tended to this, that the best teaching is that which removes pleasure and pain from the soul; and that pain and toil differ, for the former is inimical to man and the latter friendly, since man trains the body for toil in order that his opinions may be strengthened, whereby he may put a stop to dissensions and be ready to give good advice to all, both in public and in private; and that, furthermore, he had now advised Taxiles to receive Alexander, for if he received a man better than himself he would be well treated, but if inferior, he would improve him.

Strabo, Geography XV–65

Later Megasthenes would also meet them, being Strabo’s main source for his division into Brahmins and Sramanas.

As for Onesicritus, if we listen to his own statements, Alexander would have been so satisfied with his good work that he would have appointed him as a pilot of the fleet (something that all historians consider highly improbable) and, having arrived back in Susa, rewarded him with a golden crown.

He wrote a work titled How Alexander was educated, today lost and known only by the quotes collected by other later authors, but it seems that he mixed as much history as fantasy in it, according to the critics of Strabo, Plutarch or Aulus Gellius.

Not much is known about his life after Alexander’s death. Plutarch tells an anecdote in which Onesicritus reads the fourth book of his text to Lysimachus, which seems to indicate that he wrote it at his court, or at least that he lived under the protection of the diadochus in his new Thracian capital of Lysimachia.

And many years after, when Onesicritus read this story in his fourth book to Lysimachus, who then reigned, the king laughed quietly and asked, “Where could I have been at that time?”

Plutarch, Life of Alexander 46

In any case, it had to be before Lysimachus invaded Macedonia in 288 B.C., since two years earlier Onesicritus had died at the age of 70.


Sources

Vida de los filósofos (Diógenes Laercio) / Geografía (Estrabón) / Vidas Paralelas – Alejandro (Plutarco) / Legends of Alexander the Great (Richard Stoneman) / Wikipedia.