gymnosophist

Going Around To Come Around

Business, Indian Mythology, World Mythology 2 Comments

gymnosophist

Published on 21st July, 2013, in Mid-Day

All his life, Buddha kept speaking about the impermanence of all things and the relationship of desire and sorrow. So it was ironical that after he died, his relics such as bone, tooth and hair, were placed under mounds of clay and cow dung, which were decorated with parasols and garlands of flowers and transformed into a stupa. People did not want him to go; they wanted the permanence of the Buddha, if not the person then at least the idea. They walked around this stupa in reverence. This act of circumambulation came to be known as the parikrama – going around the perimeter, the circumference of the stupa. This ritual movement of reverence gradually came to be explained metaphysically. For it mimicked the action of the cosmos: all things go around to come around. Everything is cyclical, like the seasons.

Shortly after Buddha, we have India’s greatest empire: the Mauryan Empire, with its greatest king, Ashoka, who reigned in the 3rd century BCE. Royal laws travel radially outwards from his capital city of Pataliputra in the Gangetic plains, north to Gandhara, modern Afghanistan, and south to Andhra Pradesh. The spread of his power is indicated by his edicts that were carved out in stone. He encouraged monks and nuns to travel to different parts of the world to spread the word of the Buddha. Travel takes a new form: not the search for a new home, not raids into other people’s lands, not the quest for trade, but the spread of ideas.

The idea of both empire and proselytization seem rather alien to the Indian way of thinking which has been more inward looking, and one wonders if these ideas were inspired by the actions of Alexander, the Great, who overthrew the great empire of the Persian emperors and shook up the world of his times, and came right up to the North Western borders of India. He wanted to change the world, unite the world with his ideas, inspired by Greek philosophers, hence he established many cities called Alexandrias along the way.

They say on the banks of the Indus he met a naked ascetic, who he called a gymnosophist. It probably was a Jain Digambar muni. Digambar means the sky-clad, a euphemism for naked. Finding him seated, at peace, on a rock, staring at the sky, Alexander asked him, “What are you doing?” The gymnosophist replied, “Experiencing nothingness. What about you?” Alexander declared, “I am conquering the world.” Both laughed. Alexander laughed because he thought the gymnosophist was a fool for not travelling, for not having ambition, for living a life without a destination. The gymnosophist laughed because there are no destinations in the world. Seated or moving, we are always travelling. And when we keep travelling, we end up returning to the place from where we started, hopefully a little wiser.

  • revan kalekar

    Dear Mr. Devduttji, the visit of Alexander and the Sage that you have mentioned in the article was recently read in the book ‘Parables of Swami Rama’. The story goes like this –
    When Alexander, the Great, visited India after conquering all the other countries in
    the world that were known to him, he wanted to see the strange Indians of whom he had been hearing
    so much. He was just led to a monk or priest on the bank of the Indus river. The monk lay there
    on the sands, bare-headed,bare-footed, naked, wearing no clothes and not knowing where from his
    tomorrow’s food was to come, just lying there and basking in the Sun. Alexander, the Great, with his
    crown shining, dazzling with brilliant diamonds and gems that he had got from Persia,stood beside him
    in all his glory. Beside him was the monk with no clothes on—what a contrast, what a contrast! The
    riches of the whole world represented by the body of Alexander on one side, and all the outward
    poverty represented by the saint on the other side! But you have simply to look at their faces to be
    convinced of the poverty or riches of their true souls-Here is the saint whose soul was rich, here is
    the saint who had realized the richness and glory of his Atman. Beside him stood Alexander, the Great,
    who wanted to hide his inner poverty. Look at the beaming countenance of the saint, the happy joyful
    face of the saint. Alexander, the Great, was struck by his appearance. He fell in love with him, and just
    asked the saint to come with him to Greece. The saint laughed, and his answer was.”The world is in
    Me.The world cannot contain Me. The universe, Greece and Rome are in Me. The suns and stars
    rise and set in Me.” Alexander, the Great, not being used to this kind of language, was surprised. He said, “I will give you riches. I will just flood you with worldly pleasures. All sorts of things that people desire, all sorts of things which captivate and charm people will be in wild profusion at your service. Please accompany me to Greece.” The saint laughed, laughed at his reply and said, “There is not a diamond, there is not a sun or star which shines, but to me is due its lustre. To me is due the glory of all the heavenly
    bodies. To me is due all the attractive nature, all the charms of the things desired. It would be beneath my dignity, it would be degrading on my part, first to lend glory and charm to these objects, and then go about seeking them, to go begging at the door of worldly riches, to go begging at the door of flesh and animal desires to receive pleasures, happiness. It is below my dignity. I can never stoop to that level. No, I can never go begging at their doors.” This astonished Alexander, the Great. He just drew his sword and was going to strike off the head of that saint. And again, the saint laughed a hearty laugh and said, “O Alexander, never in your life did you speak such a falsehood, such an abominable lie. Kill me, kill me, kill me! Where is the sword that can kill me? Where is the weapon that can wound me? Where is the calamity that can mar my cheerfulness? Where is the sorrow that can temper with my happiness?
    Everlasting, the same yesterday, to day, and forever, pure, and holy of holies the Master of the
    universe,—that I am, that I am. Even in your hand I am the power that makes them move, O Alexander.
    If your body dies, there I remain. I am the power that makes your hands move. I am the power
    that makes your muscles move.” The sword fell down from the hands of Alexander. The outward loss, outward renunciation, can be achieved when inward perfection, inward mastery or king-hood is attained. No other way, no other way.

    • Rhea Xanj

      Woowwww!! It’s always great to have a story where Indian philosophy and spirituality make the westerners buckle.. It’s not about having won the battle of superiority but rather the beauty of both occidentals and orientals celebrating such a lovingly beautiful wisdom together!