Ancient Indian Dialogues on Wisdom
by Socrethics First version 2008 Last Version 2018
Table of Contents
1. Janaka and Yajnavalkya (700 BC)
2. Ajasutta and Buddha (500 BC)
3. Alexander and the Gymnosophists (300 BC)
4. Menander and Nagasena (100 BC)
The predecessor of a Socratic-type dialogue can be found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a key scripture to various schools of Hinduism [Deussen, 373-523]. The middle part of this Upanishad consists of four conversations, in which Yajnavalkya - one of the first philosophers in recorded history and renowned for his unrivaled talent in theological debate – plays the key role not dissimilar to the role of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato.” [Deussen, 426]
Chapter 4 starts as a dialogue between King Janaka and Yajnavalkya [Deussen, 457-481]. This dialogue describes by means of the atman (the soul and at the same time God) in the states of waking and dreaming, deep sleep, dying, wandering and redemption a picture, which stands out in its richness and warmth of representation within Indian literature and possibly within the literature of all peoples [Deussen, 463].
For a description of the living conditions at that time see Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Upanisads, p.392 ff.
Enlarged version: see Wikimedia
The Samaññaphala Sutta is the second discourse (Pali, sutta; Sanskrit. sutra) within the Digha Nikaya of Theravada Buddhism. The title means, “The Fruit of Contemplative Life Discourse.” In terms of narrative, this discourse tells the story of King Ajatasattu, son and successor of King Bimbisara of Magadha, who posed the following question to many leading Indian spiritual teachers: What is the benefit of living a contemplative life? After being dissatisfied with the answers provided by these other teachers, the king posed this question to the Buddha whose answer motivated the king to become a lay follower of the Buddha.
In terms of Indian philosophy and spiritual doctrines, this discourse:
▪ provides the Buddha’s own description of the lifestyle, mental, psychic and spiritual benefits (“fruit”) of the Buddhist contemplative life;
▪ describes from the Buddhist standpoint the essence of the teachings of several leading spiritual guides in the Buddha’s time and,
▪ through the narrative of King Ajatasattu’s confessed transgression and his subsequent psychic unrest, paranoia and karmic impediments, the narrative illustrates Buddhist notions of merit and kamma in juxtaposition to those associated with other contemporaneous teachers (who, for instance, are depicted as advocating views of amorality, fatalism, materialism, eternalism and agnosticism).
Thanissaro refers to this discourse as “one of the masterpieces of the Pali canon.” [Thanissaro].
(Samaññaphala Sutta, Wikipedia)
The term gymnosophist was used by Plutarch in the 1st century CE, when describing an encounter by Alexander the Great with ten gymnosophists near the banks of the Indus river in India - now in Pakistan.
He (Alexander) captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas (one of the native Indian princes) to revolt, and had made the most trouble for the Macedonians. These philosophers were reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions, and Alexander therefore put difficult questions to them, declaring that he would put to death him who first made an incorrect answer, and then the rest, in an order determined in like manner; and he commanded one of them, the oldest, to be the judge in the contest.
The answers were of such a quality, however, that Alexander dismissed the philosophers with gifts.
Diogenes Laertius refers to the gymnosophists and reports that Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of pure skepticism, came under their influence while travelling to India with Alexander, and on his return to Elis, imitated their habits of life (Gymnosophists, Wikipedia).
The gymnosophists – to which the Calanus sect adhered – was a non-Buddhist sect [Beckwith, 64].
A different source reports that there was a conversation between the king and Indian sages about the nature of wisdom and how wisdom affects the manner of life of the Brahmans (…). As is often the case in this topos, it turns out that the naked, simple philosophers are, in truth, more powerful than the military conqueror, for they have won the battle within while kings are concerned with externals and are often conquered by their desire for such. Brahmans need no clothes, drink only water from the river, eat fruit from the forest, and say very little; kings, on the other hand, are subject to numerous ethical conditions and disease “desires, love of money, love of pleasure, death by deceit, bodily intercourse, avarice, quarreling”.[Sick, 265]
The Milinda Panha differs from the Samaññaphala Sutta insofar, as the style of the conversation becomes a matter of discussion.
The Milinda Panha is a Buddhist text which dates from approximately 100 BCE. It is included in the Burmese edition of the Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhism. It purports to record a dialogue in which the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Pali Milinda) of Bactria, who reigned in the 2nd century BCE, poses questions on Buddhism to the sage Nāgasena (Milinda Panha, Wikipedia)
While King Menander is an actual historical figure, Nagasena is otherwise unknown, the text includes anachronisms, and the dialogue lacks any sign of Greek influence but instead is traceable to the Upanishads [Hinüber 2000].
There are several key portions of the dialogue which connect it to the Greek accounts of Alexander [Sick, 271]. The first section of the Milinda Panha is modeled on the Samaññaphala Sutta [Sick, 273].
King Milinda asks questions. Picture taken from the internet (Author unknown)
After the initial discussion between Milinda and Nagasena, the bhikku agrees only conditionally to continue the discussion: the king must change his goal and method of dialectic. Milinda has been using a dialectic which the monk terms “the talk of kings” but in order to continue the discussion profitably a dialectic termed “the talk of sages” must be employed. The seminal difference between these two forms of speech is not found in the approach to dialogue but the effect upon the participants. When pandits discuss and a point is made in refutation, “they do not become angry because of it”. Nagasena claims, however, that if an interlocutor refutes the king, he is likely to receive a fine or even worse. An example is Alexander’s threat to kill the gymnosophists who gave the worst response to his questioning. Yet Milinda exceeds Alexander as a philosopher, in that he agrees to continue the conversation under the rules prescribed by Nagasena (…). The king and the monk meet on the morning after a late-night discussion. The basic tenets of Buddhism have held sound against the questions and logical attacks of the Greek inquisitor, and both discussants spent the remainder of the night alone reviewing the course of the argument. That morning, there is no resentment nor exultation in an eristic victory, only satisfaction that the right questions were asked and the appropriate answers given [Sick, 276].
Milinda cannot quite give himself over to the “talk of sages” or follow the Socratic vocation entirely. The Indo-Greek king claims he would be quickly killed by his many enemies if he were to renounce the world and follow Nagasena. The duties and of rule are given priority over the fruits of renunciation. From the perspective of the gymnosophists, the monarchs mistake the nature of true freedom. The analogy which Milinda uses to describe his situation is one of the most poignant in the dialogue:
“Just as …a lion, the king of beasts, trapped in a golden cage is ever staring outward, I … too, although I live as a householder, am ever staring outward.”
Milinda sees the value of the life of the recluse, for it has been proven by argument, but he is constrained to fulfil his role as king. Although kingship has its worldly advantages, it ultimately prevents one from attaining the summum bonum [Sick, 277].
Whereas Ajasutta became a follower of Buddha, Milinda at least learned to respect his interlocutor Nagasena. Alexander did not cease feeling superior, but he finally admitted that the gymnosophists are hard to refute. If Aristotle – who was the teacher of a king – would have met Buddha, what would have been the result of such an encounter? We cannot know the result, but there is a good chance that it would have been similar to the one between Milinda and Nagasena: disagreement and mutual respect.
1. Beckwith Christopher I. (2015), Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton University Press, Princeton
2. Deussen Paul, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banar
3. Sick David H. (2007), When Socrates met the Buddha: Greek and Indian dialectic in Hellenistic Bactria and India. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 17:253-278.
4. Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2013), Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life, Access to Insight (BCBS Edition)