It happened in Persepolis (whose ruins lie northwest of Shiraz, in Iran). The histories do not assign a definite date to it, but from a timetable of events we know it would have occurred sometime in the spring of 323 BCE. The tellers of our tale are both reliable, however. We have the Greek philosopher, historian and teacher Plutarch writing about 70 CE and we have Arrian, a Greek general serving Roman masters, who wrote about sixty years later.
Having made off with his life from his Indian campaigns, Alexander was in Persepolis. In his train he had a Punjabi philosopher, a native of Taxila whose name, the histories record, was Kalanos — definitely a Greek mispronunciation of the Sanskrit word Kalyan (Fortunate). When he left his home in Taxila and agreed to accompany Alexander so that the Macedonian conqueror may learn more of Indian philosophy, Kalyan was already an elderly man. One source says he was in his late seventies at that time.
Now three years later, having endured the dreadful privation of the crossing of the deserts of Makran, Kalyan had been ill for a few months. He was drained of the will to live. One day, Arrian records, he told Alexander that since he was unwilling to follow an invalid regimen, he was prepared to end his life on a funeral pyre.
Alexander pleaded with him, no doubt saying that there were ideas that the two yet needed to talk of. But Kalyan was adamant. A funeral pyre was built under the direct supervision of no less a person than Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s confidants and progenitor of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt.
From his quarters, the enfeebled Kalyan was carried in a palanquin to his pyre at the head of a procession: “horses, men, soldiers in armour, and people carrying all kinds of precious oils and spices to throw upon the flames…”. With his head wreathed in garlands ‘in the Indian fashion’ Kalyan sang hymns to his gods as he went.
From Arrian we learn that in the years the sage had spent with the motley army of Macedonian, Greek, Scythian, Persian, Parthian and Sogdian soldiers, he had earned fame and respect. There were countless in the procession who were his pupils and who showered upon their mentor gifts of gold and silver, which he redistributed among the host.
We now must turn to Plutarch who tells us that just before the pyre was set alight, Alexander approached the man who had been his friend and teacher for three years. He pleaded for the last time with Kalyan to spare himself. But the man refused and mounted the still unlit pyre. He drank his last libation and told the gathering to make this a day of ‘gaiety and celebration and to drink deep with the king….’ As for Alexander, Kalyan of Taxila said the two of them would soon be reunited in Babylon.
As the fire was kindled, Alexander ordered an impressive salute with bugles and a full-throated battle cry by the army. What overawed the gathered multitude was Kalyan’s complete imperviousness to the flames around him, for he neither let out a moan nor flinched in the least bit. This event would surely have remained alive in Persepolitan memory for years afterward.
Abiding by the savant’s bidding, Alexander did indeed turn the day into one of celebration and held a feast and a drinking contest after the funeral. One Promachus, we are told, polished off four pitchers of undiluted wine to clinch the winner’s prize of a crown, presumably of gold.
At the time of this event, no one may have given much thought to Kalyan’s words about being reunited with Alexander in Babylon. But surely, many would have called this prophecy to mind when scarcely fourteen months later, in early June 322 BCE, following a brief illness, Alexander died in that Mesopotamian city.
Kalyan was not the only philosopher that Taxila had produced, however.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th, 2011.