Calanus and Alexander

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When Alexander and his troops (Anabasis of Alexander) stormed down upon some Jains and Brahmins walking around in the meadows around the Indus valley, the Brahmins did not flee, but just looked at them and stamped their feet in unison on the ground. Alexander was amazed. When he asked them to explain their actions, they said “Every man possesses as much of the earth as this upon which we have stepped, but thou being only a man like the rest of us, except in being meddlesome & arrogant, art come over so great a part of the earth from thy own land, giving trouble to both thyself and others, and yet thou also will soon die and possess as much of the earth as is sufficient for thy body to be buried in”. Alexander was spellbound and decided not only that he needed a new Guru, after decades of advise from Aristotle, but also decided to take on of them back to Macedonia after his conquests…That guru who accompanied him happened to be a Jain called Calanus (certain quarters maintain that the emperor actually preferred a more sober ascetic called Dandamis (or Mandanis according to Strabo), a senior to Calanus).

Much later, when the ailing Calanus, after a long march over the desert to Perisa, late 325BC, sitting still on his funeral pyre somewhere (Pasargadae Iran, Sush or Susa Iran or Babylon) on the Bampur Basin of the Iranian Plateau, told Emperor Alexander ‘we will meet again soon, in Babylon’, the Macedonians were horrified. This Dikambara Jain saint, who had never fallen ill till his 73rd year, took the fateful decision in his life to leave the holy land when he accepted Alexander’ invitation to go to Macedonia much against the wishes of senior sage Dandamis. A few days later, Alexander died in Babylon in a way that is, to date, an unsolved mystery. The prophecy of Calanus came true in a matter of days…

So who was Calanus, Calanos, Kalanos, Kalyanaswami, Shobhanaswami, Sphines or Kalyan? Alexander first met him discoursing with a senior saint Dandamis. While Dandamis refused to move away from Indian soil, the curiosity in Calanus and the persuasion by the king of Taxila (Takshashila) took the better and he agreed to accompany Iskendar despite vehement disagreement from Dandamis. Alexander thus took Kalyan or Kalyanos in Greek, a Jain saint, as his guru or mentor in replacement of his boyhood tutor Aristotle. In 325 BCE (roughly 2 years before Alexander's death) the Macedonian Army withdrew after an unsuccessful Indian war. The Army was forced to march through the deadly Makran - a high desert. The retreat was disastrous. Some accounts say that three quarters of Alexander's forces perished in the Makran and Calanos also took ill. But rather than burden his fellow travelers, Calanos decided on death by immolation.

Another thought on the identity of Calanus - Ashvaghosha is the author of The Acts of Buddha (Buddhacharitra). The name can be spelled, using various diacritical marks, as: Asvaghosa, Aswaghosa, or Acvaghosa. Dr. Ranajit Pal says “the real name of Calanus, Alexander's Guru, was Sphines which is the same as Aspines or Asvaghosa, the great Buddhist scholar." Islamic writings however indicate just the opposite trend for some strange reason. They state that Pythagoras had a student named Calanos who went back to India and created the Brahmin sect…

Calanus (Plutarch's Life of Alexander, translated by John Dryden) is said to have shown Alexander an illustration of rule, which was this. He threw a dry shriveled hide upon the ground, and trod upon the edges of it. The skin when it was pressed in one place still rose up in another, whosesoever he trod round about it, till he set his foot in the middle, which made all the parts lie even and quiet. The meaning of this similitude being that he ought to reside most in the middle of his empire, and not spend too much time on the borders of it. Calanus was one of the local philosophers who were known for both great physical fortitude and as a dikambara, the practice of total nudity. Dandamis however, was far from impressed by world conquerors who epitomized material might but held no sway over a spiritual universe he had spent his life contemplating. In periods of idleness, when the army was encamped or in winter quarters, this eastern teacher held forth to those assembled Macedonians.

Lysimachus, the penultimate survivor of Alexander's marshals - Lysimachus was an avid pupil and despite the barriers to real understanding of the wisdom of Calanus what can not be denied is the affection between the hunter warrior and the naked guru. Calanus had got through the desert march of Makran when men half his age had died of exhaustion but it had irreparably damaged his health. His condition became debilitating by the time the army was almost in sight of Susa and he decided to die rather than drag out his days as an invalid and as a burden on his friends. He persuaded Alexander to allow him to die in the traditional manner of his sect. A great funeral pyre was constructed in front of the army and court (Alexander had Ptolemy the son of Lagus take care of this) and he proceeded to mount the structure, to be burnt alive in the flames. As he did so, bidding goodbye to his intimates, he bequeathed his richest possession, a fine Nesaean horse (normally used only by kings), to Lysimachus. He also distributed all the golden cups and ornaments that Alexander had planned to put in his funeral, to the soldiers.

As he was going to the pile of wood, he greeted and kissed the hands and bade farewell to the rest of his entourage. He would not kiss Alexander's hand and said that he would meet with him soon at Babylon. That was his last prophecy. Nearchus tells us that as soon as the fire was started, Alexander had the trumpets sound. All the army that was witness gave a shout as if they had been ready to join in a battle. Also at the same time the elephants made a noise like they used to do when they entered into a battle. It was as if all had planned to honor the funeral of Calanus. (Arrian)

He then sprinkled himself with libation and cut off part of his hair to cast into the fire (Plutarch). After he had prayed, he lay down upon the golden couch on the pyre in a becoming manner and with unflinching courage, in full view of the whole Macedonian army; he exhibited throughout a serene fortitude and self-possession (McCrindle)

Onesicritus says that he conversed with Calanus. 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; and that when Calanus, saw the mantle and broad-brimmed hat and boots he wore, he laughed at him and said: 'In olden times the world was full of barley-meal and wheaten-meal, as now of dust; and fountains then flowed, some with water, others with milk and likewise with honey, and others with wine, and some with olive oil; but, by reason of his gluttony and luxury, man fell into arrogance beyond bounds. But Zeus, hating this state of things, destroyed everything and appointed for man a life of toil. And when self-control and the other virtues in general reappeared, there came again an abundance of blessings. But the condition of man is already close to satiety and arrogance, and there is danger of destruction of everything in existence. And Onesicritus adds that Calanus, after saving 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 (Dandamis?), who was the oldest and wisest of the sophists, rebuked Calanus as a man of arrogance, and that too after censuring arrogance himself; and that Mandanis called him and said that he commended the king because, although busied with the government of so great an empire, he was desirous of wisdom; for the king was the only philosopher in arms that he ever saw, and that it was the most useful thing in the world if those men were wise who have the power of persuading the willing, and forcing the unwilling, to learn self-control; but that he might be pardoned if, conversing through three interpreters, who, with the exception of language, knew no more than the masses, he should be unable to set forth anything in his

Interestingly, Calanos opined that Alexander respected the law too much.

Another interesting fact - Calanus joined Alexander’s entourage after he left Taxila and before he marched against Porus, not after the fight. So did he advise Alexander on the fight with Porus? Was he perhaps influential in the meeting between Alexander’s wife Roxanne and Porus and the legend of the Rakhi? That story of Roxanne and the Rakhi was covered in another article..

BTW – Strabo himself is an ‘Asian’ Greek. Was he perhaps from India?

Some philosophy examples & teachings of Calanus can be read in the book The Works of Philo Judaeus - The contemporary of Josephus, translated from the Greek By Charles Duke Yonge, Chapter 33, Every good person is free..(Letter from Calanus to Alexander)

Megasthenes has another take on Kalanos – Read that here.
From Arrian to Alexander By A. B. Bosworth
Many details on Kalanos come from the book Three men of Destiny – ASP Ayyar

Pic - Swami of ancient times - thanks to


  1. T Vadamalaiapan

    Mr.Maddy,It is Vadamalaiappan from Madurai again.How are you?

    I read your blogs but not often as I would like to.

    Is it true that
    Alexander is known as Sikander in the Islam?What about the claim that Skanda (Warrior God Muruga) is none but Sikander!!!

    I wanted to know more about Turkey and its bathing places,massaueurs and enjoyed your blog.

    The Mahakumbabishekam of Madurai Meenakshi Temple was conducted on 8.4.2009,The temple looks now a lot more neat and beautiful.

    When you plan to visit Madurai next time.Please inform me.

    All the best!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Vadamalaiappan...

    Yes, it is true that Alexander was known as Iskander (there is a place called Iskandarum in Turkey and an Iskander kabab even). Sikander is the Indian equivalent and some say it signifies Skanda or wargod. In Arabic it's Al-Iskandar, as in "Al-Iskandar al-Akbar" being Alexander the Great. I think the Al & I just dropped off.

    Regarding the Turkish bath, maybe you can check this blog of mine..

    Regarding Skanda and Alexander, I believe it was just putting two & two and making 20. The subject is covered in great detail by Gopala Pillai here

  1. Tarun Mitra

    Hey Maddy,

    I knew about this story about story. When Alexander meeting the brahmins. I often take it as an example. But many thanks to you for giving the complete picture.

  1. Premnath

    Salute to the great Indian Scholars and their thoughts

  1. Krishna Prasad

    Amazing research and spell-bounding narration. Came across one of your blogs while searching on google and started exploring all of your blogs. Kudos!

  1. Maddy

    thanks KP..
    glad you liked themm,, keep reading, plenty here

  1. Rodney St.Michael

    Hello! Kalanos is a naga sadhu (naked ascetic) or gymnosophist (naked philosopher), not a jain muni. The Greeks named him Kalanos for Kali, the wife of Shiva. They are worshippers of Shiva and Kali. Both the Jains and Buddhists don't believe in a Creator God. Read my site:


    Sir you wrote bramhins didn't flee???
    But remaining blog contains mentioning about JAINS, There are no bramhins. 🤔🤔
    Then who fled?
    The name of that muni (shraman) is KALYAN???

  1. Unknown

    right hai bhai yahan tak details hai ki sikandar ki mrutyu kaise hogi iski bhavishyavani digamber jain muni ji ne kari thi

  1. Myth Buster

    Good article, however I was surprised to read that Calanus was Jain. Calanus was student of Dandamis. Dandamis in his conversation with Alexander clearly mentioned that he himself was a Brahmin so the chances of his student "Calanus" being Jain are zero.

    Also Calanus self immolated in when he was in persia due to illness. Jains are not permitted to do self immolation.

    Below is a small snippet from Wikipedia entry on Dandamis:

    When Alexander met some gymnosophists, who were of trouble to him. He learned that their leader was Dandamis, who lived in jungle, lying naked on leaves, near a water spring.[3]

    He then sent Onescratus to bring Dandamis to him. When Onescratus encountered Dandamis in forest, he gave him the message, that Alexander, the Great son of Zeus, has ordered him to come to him. He will give you gold and other rewards but if you refuse, he may behead you. When Dandamis heard that, he did not even raise his head and replied lying in his bed of leaves. God the Great King, is not a source of violence but provider of water, food, light and life. Your king cannot be a God, who loves violence and who is mortal.[4][5] Even if you take away my head, you cannot take away my soul, which will depart to my God and leave this body like we throw away old garment. We, brahman do not love gold nor fear death. So your king has nothing to offer, which I may need. Go and tell your King : Dandamis, therefore, will not come to you. If he needs Dandamis, he must come to me[4]

    When Alexander, learned of Dandamis' reply, he went to forest to meet Dandamis. Alexander sat before him in the forest for more than an hour. Dandamis asked why Alexander came to him, saying I have nothing to offer you. Because we have no thought of pleasure or gold, we love God and despise death, whereas you love pleasure, gold and kill people, you fear death and despise God.[4] Alexander stated, I heard your name from Calanus and have come to learn wisdom from you[4] The conversation that followed between them is recorded by Greeks as Alexander-Dandamis colloquy.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks everybody...
    it is quite difficult to determine if Kalanos was a Jain or not. I have frankly not studied this any further and a quick check reveals that the academics who worked on the account in depth are still undecided. But I will get back with more details asap

  1. Maddy

    Ramachandrs Jain editing McCrindle's Ancient India was also not specific - He opines that Kalanos could have been a Brahman sage and Dandamis a Jain ascetic, probably a Digambara saint. He feels that Kalanos was a Brahmin because he loved gold more whereas Dandamis was a Digambara Jaina for he did not go to Alexander as Kalanos did . But later he concludes that Dandamis was also a Brahmin before his acceptance of the Jaina asceticism.