Alexander meets a yogi: Who’s the hero?

Alexander the Great was busy conquering the known world once, when he saw, on the banks of the Indus river in today’s Pakistan, a naked guy sitting in the Lotus position and contemplating the dirt.

“Gymnosophists” (gumnos = naked, sophistes = philosopher) the Greeks called these men. We would call them yogis — as in: Patanjali, say.

“What are you doing?”, asked Alexander.

“Experiencing nothingness,” answered the yogi. “What are you doing?”

“Conquering the world,” said Alexander.

Then both men laughed, each thinking that the other must be a fool.

“Why is he conquering the world?”, thought the yogi. “It’s pointless.”

“Why is he sitting around doing nothing?”, thought Alexander. “What a waste of a life.”

Devdutt Pattanaik

Thus Devdutt Pattanaik tells the story in the TED talk at the end of this post. (Thank you to Thomas for the link. Was it Thomas?)

Devdutt used to be successful and bored (the two can go together) in the pharma industry until he decided instead to make a living out of his passion, which is comparative mythology, by applying myths and storytelling to business. Wow. That’s exactly what The Hannibal Blog (at least in part) tries to do.

But let’s get back to this specific little anecdote (which echoes another such encounter Alexander was said to have had). It makes a perfect transition in my thread on heroes and heroism from the Greek and Roman heroes of antiquity to the Eastern heroes of antiquity.

As Devdutt says, Alexander grew up with the stories of Hercules, Theseus and Jason, which told him:

  • you live only once, so make it count, and
  • make it count by being spectacular!

The yogi grew up on up on different stories — the Mahabharata (which I love) and Ramayana and so forth. His heroes, such as Krishna and Rama, were not distinct individuals who lived once and made it count, but different lifetimes of the same hero.

The yogi’s stories told him that:

  • you get to live — nay, must live — infinite lives, until you get the point, so
  • stop wasting your time by conquering things that have been and will be conquered countless times, and try to see the point.

To approach this in a slightly different way:

In my last post on Aeneas, I argued that he was “the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey.” Well, I put the word western in there for a reason: Because I was already thinking of Arjuna, to whom I must turn in a separate post.

Now watch Devdutt:

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40 thoughts on “Alexander meets a yogi: Who’s the hero?

  1. Yes it was! Thanks for remembering. Of course you realize that you’ve at least doubled your work load by tackling this aspect of the hero question. But it will be worth it and I look forward to watching you develop it.

  2. The Greek or Western way of looking at the world is masculine, extroverted, objective.

    The Indian or Eastern way of looking at the world is feminine, introverted, subjective.

    • Good question.

      Materially rich (north); and materially poor (south) obviously.

      Spiritually, it’s arguably the other way around, considering just the ordinary people.

    • OK, I will take the bait.

      One of the big questions is why the Northern hemisphere were (more often) the colonizers and the Southern hemisphere (more often) the colonized. Was it weather? Malaria? Or something else. Like the absence of Hercules counterparts in indigenous animist belief structures?

      Don’t know if I agree with your parsing of the world. By materially do you mean economic wealth or resource wealth? And don’t know how you measure spiritual richness once indigenous animist beliefs are supplanted as a result of missionaries from the north.

    • I was going to disagree. Now I find myself disagreeing that I disagree. It’s a shockingly sweeping statement that will offend many, and thus inherently attractive…

    • “………One of the big questions is why the Northern hemisphere were (more often) the colonizers and the Southern hemisphere (more often) the colonized. Was it weather? Malaria? Or something else……….”

      This is a huge topic which is dealt with in a book I highly recommend: “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, by Jared Diamond. Diamond’s theme is thinks that geography is the key to why certain societies never got off the ground economically.

      As to spiritual richness, this is something I’ll have to think about before I comment further.

    • Thanks, I’ll have a look. I seem to recall discussion about that book and a lot of talk about the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies.

      By the way, apropos of nothing, but perhaps of interest to Andreas and his study of myths, is the idea that agriculture and the domestication of animals are the basis for the expulsion from Eden myth in the Bible. Cultivation of crops tied people to the land and forced them to earn their bread “by the sweat of their brow.”

    • @Thomas Stazyk

      One of the big questions is why the Northern hemisphere were (more often) the colonizers and the Southern hemisphere (more often) the colonized.

      Materially rich (north); and materially poor (south) obviously. Spiritually, it’s arguably the other way around, considering just the ordinary people.

      This I am hesitant about. Strictly speaking the Southern hemisphere regards Antarctica, 1/3 of Africa, Australia, South America etc – so the SH was surely more often among the colonized.

      Andreas’ post though was on the Far East-West cultural relationship. Now although these 2 notions refer to the NH I suppose the quoted sentences and other comments implied that here also the Far East was more often among the colonized and the less rich compared to the West.

      Which is true, but only within a short span of time, ie the last 250 years, corresponding to 10 generations only: little time indeed we can even picture in our imagination (father-child father-child father-child 10 times.)

      With more ‘recul’ as the French say things though change entirely.

      In an arch in fact of 2500-3000 years (figures not accurate) India & China were mostly ‘at the top’ as for science, philosophy, technology AND wealth. They also were the conquerors and the colonizers most of the time.

      True, they went down during those 10 generations – which correspond to the period from the British industrial revolution onwards – but now they tend upwards again so I don’t see why people are so surprised frankly.
      Truth being, only long-period spans reveal trends, like any Excel line-graph user knows well.

      Compared to the Chinese state founded by Shih Huang Ti in the 3rd century BCE – which still stands and whose future is possibly even greater – not only the British empire or the American empire are negligible, but also the Roman Empire is very small in comparison.

    • PS
      By “also the Roman Empire is very small in comparison” I referred to a shorter ‘span of time’ compared to the Chinese state. As for the territory, both the British and the American empires (if once can use this term for the US) were / are bigger than the Roman empire.

  3. Dr. Devdutt was so excellent and timely on myth both here at THB and with me MJHB as I search for my new energy source. I appreciated his invitation to understand culture and go from there. How elevating that we can do that and actually delight in another delighting in us, too. Incorporating sensitivity to see with many eyes lest we become fundamentalists in our thinking, now that’s refreshing!

    Here’s the synchronicity, last night I attended the Jung Institute of Philadelphia where I heard the beloved scholar and analyst, James Hollis, Ph.D., speak on “Stories told, stories untold, stories that tell us.” I purchased one of his 13 book, Tracking the Gods the only one I have not yet read.

    Thanks for a chance to stop by and sigh a little.

  4. You are sitting cross-legged, meditating on success and boredom (not to be confused with failure), coming closure to an integration of your passions.

    So says the swami (with tremendous respect intended) here in Northern California.

  5. Mr. Devdutt strikes me as operating more in line with Alexander’s view of the world than with gymnosophistry, for what is teaching and lecturing other than an attempt to conquer people’s minds?

    I’m a gymnoblogger most of the time, unless it’s freezing.

    Being unsuccessful and bored can go together as well, by the way.

    • Well, there is that slight difference between conquest literal and conquest metaphorical.

      Gymnoblogging: potentially refreshing, but not in multimedia.

    • Of course there’s a technical distinction between talking to people and slaughtering them. Still, lecturing/teaching is an attempt to invade and conquer other people’s minds. It’s what a person does when he or she wishes to achieve, accomplish, and get stuff done, i.e., the converse of sitting around doing nothing and trying to see the point.

      ence even though Mr. Devdutt is not exactly wielding a sword, on a deeper level he’s more akin to Hannibal than of Krishna and Rama. He’s an aspiring conquerer, or he wouldn’t be standing there in front of a camera with a headset trying to plant ideas into my head.

      Not that there’s anything wrong with it. But that’s what he’s doing.

  6. Finally got around to watch Devdutt Pattanaik, what a great talk (even I thought I might not enjoy it originally). On my second viewing now. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I finally watched the video also. I’m ruminating on the idea that cultural creation is not natural phenomena. It would be difficult to correlate cultural creation with organic chemistry, but what else could it be? (I can’t believe I’m even writing this. I think I need a brain enema).

    • Whoa. That’s what you’re ruminating on? I’m impressed.

      Organic chemistry is fiddling with carbon and other molecules to produce stuff, isn’t it? So you mean it’s like fiddling with cultural “memes” to produce stories. You could run with that.

    • No, you run with it. I’m thinking of the organic chemistry. Organic molecules make genes, genes manifest certain behaviors. Just as there are genes for being and having an asshole. Maybe it’s just a matter of left-hand vs. right-hand symmetry of some molecule the name of which I can’t pronounce. So, can you isolate the gene that makes Mr. The Great an external-world conqueror and Mr. Yogi the internal-world unconqueror? Thus cultural creation /is/ a natural phenomenon. Mind you, I know just enough organic chemistry to embarrass myself.

  8. @Andreas

    Thanks a lot for this post and for introducing me to Devdutt Pattanaik, the Indian Mythologist!
    The old needs the young more than the former is often ready to admit.

    Which brings me to your perspective on Diogenes, which I enjoyed, or to the Lotus and Hero writing poses, something I’d love to imitate but that is possibly beyond my reach.

    In your Yoga Journal article this phrase hit me: ‘my creaky Western body’.

    Ah! You got no idea how ‘creaky’ mine is!

  9. I’ve been looking for a loophole in nothingness. Then, your more recent post on Arjuna (as you know) got me in a kerfuffle.

    What is a competitive a-hole to do?

    I dutifully downloaded /both/ translations of the Gita you recommended onto my ipod. I abandoned that old paper Penguin version I’ve carried everywhere. Here’s what I found –which you already knew, I’m sure.

    He who fails to keep turning the wheel […] has wasted his life, Arjuna. […] In all three worlds, Arjuna, there is nothing I (Krishna) need to do, nothing I must attain; and yet I engage in action. For if I were to refrain from my tireless, continual action, mankind would follow my example and would also not act, Arjuna. If I stopped acting, these worlds would plunge into ruin; chaos would overpower all beings; mankind would be destroyed.

    So would Alexander’s plunder be better than nothing?

    It is better to do your own duty badly, than to perfectly do another’s;[…]you are safe from harm when you do what you should be doing.
    (trickery in the passive voice noted)

    • I failed to indicate that the fourth and sixth paragraphs with quotation marks (not my words).

    • Wow, Mr Crotchety.

      My “wow” refers to your devotion to the cause here. You actually downloaded two translations I recommended! And you’re struggling with a text I’ve been struggling with!

      Well, now that I know that some people take me seriously, I’ll start acting responsibly. Just kidding.

      There are two issues here:

      1) Can we find that ‘loophole’ and just opt out (of whatever)? Krishna says No. Gotta do what you gotta do. And stop whining.

      2) Was Alexander doing what he had to do (as Arjuna had to fight at Kurukshetra)? Or was he going off on tangents, getting distracted?

      Personally, I cannot answer Nr 2. That’s why the exchange with the yogi is quite interesting.

  10. I think Indian thought was dumbed down just so it looks comparable to western thought of the time. You shouldn’t portray Indian philosophy if you feel need to do that.

    • Tell me how I “dumbed” it down, ie how I misrepresented it. I certainly set out NOT to dumb anything down, but to simplify it and make it accessible without losing the essence.

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