Does the gymnosophist’s reply to Alexander’s question on the origin of time indeed reflect an Indian doctrine?


(Abstract from: Paolo Magnone, “La risposta di un gimnosofista al quesito di Alessandro sull’origine del tempo: dottrina indiana?”, in Atti dell’Ottavo Convegno Nazionale di Studi Sanscriti (Torino, 20-21 ottobre 1995))

The episode of Alexander’s interview with the gymnosophists has come down to us in several versions, among which the one in Plutarch’s Vita Alexandri is the most renowned. In this connection, the question arises whether the solutions given by the naked philosophers to the puzzles propounded by Alexander can be shown to reflect genuine Indian doctrines. Challenging Dumézil’s reply in the affirmative, the author contends that they cannot. While most questions and answers are scarcely relevant to the investigation, as being of little (if any) philosophical import, the analysis concentrates on the more significant ones, and especially on the solution offered to the question as to which of the two — day or night — came first. According to Dumézil, the gymnosophist’s answer reported by Plutarch, i. e. that the day came first, by one day, reflects the vedic doctrine of the primeval cosmogonic role of Dawn and Light. Against this may be argued in the first place that such doctrine does not enjoy any prominent status in the Vedas themselves — quite to the contrary, it stands up disadvantegeously to many all-important texts, such as the Nāsadīyasūkta, which assign the primeval status to Darkness — and cannot therefore be regarded as being specifically Indian any more than its opposite. Secondly, it is shown that the Greek tradition is at great variance on this very point, to the extent that all logically conceivable solutions (i. e., precedence of day by one day / day by one night / night by one day / night by one night) are represented in some version or other. This inconsistency appears to stem from the fact that no particular doctrine (Indian or whatever) was envisaged; according to the present author, we have reason to believe that the gymnosophist’s reply was rather meant to set off by means of a paradox the sheer impossibility of a solution (all four alternatives being equivalent to that effect). This interpretation is reinforced by the gymnosophist’s own remark confessing the aporetical nature of his reply, and finally by a further recourse to paradox — this time a variant of the well-known “paradox of the liar” — which the author lays bare in the otherwise inexplicable dénouement of the anecdote.