Alexander and Dandamis, the Warrior and the Sage

In the fourth-century BC., Alexander III of Macedon razed army after army on his march to conquer the known world. Alexander the Great — a man who thought of himself as a god, the son of Zeus, and sought an empire that would live up to his name.

But was he a great man? Like a burning comet, he lived with a ferocity and left a tail of fire in his wake. But Alexander left this world at the premature age of thirty-two, when his life’s journey ended in Babylon.

Never growing old to watch his grandchildren play. Never reaching a mid-life crisis and going out to buy a hot new chariot. Never reaping the gifts of maturity, nor the wisdom of a sage.

It should be reasonable to denounce the acts of history with a modern perspective. But twenty-three-hundred-years ago, going to war, fighting, and dying for one’s nation brought honor to this life and the next. While this did indeed take courage which I can’t speak on, it took a different sort of bravery to go against what was essential to the culture of the time and stand for peace, humanity, and the expanse of the soul over material gain.

One individual who stood for such values was the 4th-century BC. yogi Dandamis of Taxila, a city in northern India.

The twentieth-century yogi Paramahansa Yogananda writes in Autobiography of a Yogi about the encounter between Alexander and Dandamis when Alexander’s army marched to India. He showed an interest in Hindu philosophy, eager to learn from the holy men he’d encountered on his journeys.

Upon arriving in Taxila, Alexander sent the writer Onesikritos to fetch a meeting with Dandamis. Paramahansa Yogananda writes:

Hail to thee, O teacher of Brahmins!' Onesikritos said after seeking out Dandamis in his forest retreat. 'The son of the mighty God Zeus, being Alexander who is the Sovereign Lord of all men, asks you to go to him. If you comply, he will reward you with great gifts; if you refuse, he will cut off your head!

It’s the week of Thanksgiving in the United States, a time which, at its essence, reminds us to reflect on what we have, and what makes our lives meaningful. With these intentions in mind, the yogi Dandamis’s response may inspire us:

I am also a son of Zeus, if Alexander be such. I want nothing that is Alexander's, for I am content with what I have, while I see that he wanders with his men over sea and land for no advantage, and is never coming to an end of his wanderings. The gifts Alexander promises are useless to me.

Dandamis lived among the trees, feeding his mind and his body with the fresh air of the forests and the fruit of the soil. Whereas Alexander spent his life seeking the status of a god and the land to go with it, Dandamis sought to tread lightly on the earth and expand his soul, not his army. He continues:

The things I prize and find of real worth are trees, which are my shelter; blooming plants, which provide my daily food; and water, which assuages my thirst. Possessions amassed with anxious thought are wont to prove ruinous to those who gather them, causing only the sorrow and vexation that afflict all unenlightened men.

After reading this, you may wonder if I’m writing from a treehouse in a loincloth after renouncing all worldly pleasures. Not quite; I’m a human being who’s had a cushy upbringing, full of material things. But I dream of finding my place in the world.

I love to travel more than anything, and use technology and social media on a regular basis. And of course, I love a fresh pair of socks as much as the next guy.

Yet, this story has encouraged me to ask not what else I need to be happy, but to see the world around me and within me as more than enough. Dandamis lived at one with the natural world. That gave him everything he could ever want, even when Alexander promised him the treasures of conquest; even when his life was threatened.

The things which Dandamis cherished are free for all to savor — the persisting trees, the falling leaves, the sound of a cool river passing through a forest. The earth restores and provides a deeper understanding of who we truly are.

The earth supplies me with everything I need, even as a mother provides her child with milk, says Dandamis. I go wherever I please, unencumbered by material cares. Should Alexander cut off my head, he cannot also destroy my soul.

Perhaps this is the most profound lesson of Dandamis. A soul unburdened by needing more is free to roam this world without the anxiety which normally troubles us. And that’s not only material things, but psychological wants — love, acceptance, assurance of our worth. 

But Dandamis was happy before the god-like Alexander bid his presence. Before somebody else determined his worth. He was home in his own skin because he honored who he was. He perceived the magic of being alive because of the connection between his spirit and nature.

It’s amazing to me how stories like this have lasted 2,300 years.

Who knows what these human beings truly did and said. In a way, it doesn’t matter. Their actions have been distilled down to an essence. Now, while the world seems so different on the surface, the lessons of these stories are more vital than ever.

We can always find value in what we have, even if that’s nothing, because no human being is without a soul, a spirit, a world unto itself — at one with the air which moves through our limbs, the salt in the sky, the pattern of a falling leaf.

That connection provides more than we could ever truly need, always a step away, from the front door into the sun.

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