Gymnosophists is the name (meaning "naked philosophers") given by the Greeks to certain ancient Indian philosophers who pursued
asceticismto the point of regarding food and clothing as detrimental to purity of thought ( sadhus or yogis). The Digambar Jainmonks in India even now remain unclothed, they have been identified as the gymnosophists by several researchers [Jacquetta Hopkins Hawkes, "The Atlas of Early Man",St. Martin's Press, 1993.] , [Professor A.L. Basham, "My Guruji, Sachindra Kumar Maity", 1997.] . Xuanzangmentions having come across Digambar Jain monks in Taxiladuring his 7th cent. CE visit to India [Bhanwarlal Nathuram Luniya, "Life and Culture in Ancient India: From the Earliest Times to 1000 A.D." Lakshmi Narain Agarwal publisher,1978,] , in the same Punjab region where Alexander encounterd the gymnosophists.
The term is first used by
Plutarchin the 1st century CE, when describing the encounter of Alexander the Greatwith ten gymnosophists in Punjab. Before that date, the philosophers encountered by the Greeks in Indian were referred to as " Brahmans":
He (Alexander) captured ten of the Gymnosophists who had done most to get Sabbas 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.:—Plutarch, "Life of Alexander," "The parallel lives," 64. [ [http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Alexander*/9.html#64 Life of Alexander, 64] ]
Diogenes Laertius(ix. 61 and 63) refers to them, and reports that Pyrrhoof Elis, the founder of pure scepticism, came under the influence of the Gymnosophists while travelling to India with Alexander, and on his return to Elis, imitated their habits of life; however, the extent of their influence is not described. Strabosays that gymnosophists were religious people among the Indians (XVI,I), and otherwise divides Indian philosophers into Brahmans and Sramanas (XV,I,59-60), following the accounts of Megasthenes. He further divides the Sramanas into "Hylobioi" (forest hermits, c.f. Aranyaka) and "Physicians."
Of the Sarmanes, the most honourable, he says, are the Hylobii, who live in the forests, and subsist on leaves and wild fruits: they are clothed with garments made of the bark of trees, and abstain from commerce with women and from wine. :—Strabo XV,I,60.
Of the Sarmanes (...) second in honour to the Hylobii, are the physicians, for they apply philosophy to the study of the nature of man. They are of frugal habits, but do not live in the fields, and subsist upon rice and meal, which every one gives when asked, and receive them hospitably. (...) Both this and the other class of persons practise fortitude, as well in supporting active toil as in enduring suffering, so that they will continue a whole day in the same posture, without motion. :—Strabo XV,I,60.
In the 2nd century CE, the Christian theologian
Clement of Alexandriadistinguishes the Gymnosophists, the philosophers of the Indians, from the Sramanas, "the philosophers of the Bactrians":
Philosophy, then, with all its blessed advantages to man, flourished long ages ago among the barbarians, diffusing its light among the
gentiles, and eventually penetrated into Greece. Its hierophants were the prophets among the Egyptians, the Chaldeans among the Assyrians, the Druidsamong the Galatians, "the Sramanas of the Bactrians", and the philosophers of the Celts, the Magiamong the Persians, who, as you know, announced beforehand the birth of the Saviour, being led by a star till they arrived in the land of Judaea, and "among the Indians the Gymnosophists", and other philosophers of barbarous nations.:— Clement of Alexandria" Stromata" 1.15.71 (ed. Colon. 1688 p. 305, A, B).
The quatrain in the "
Utopian language" created by Peter Gilesfor Thomas More's "Utopia" uses "gymnoſophaon" as "philosophy".
* [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0239&layout=&loc=15.1.73 Strabo on Sramanas and Brahmans]
* [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0239&query=head%3D%23124 Strabo on Gymnosophists]
* [http://www.livius.org/gs-gz/gymnosophists/gymnosophists.html Livius.org: Gymnosophists]
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