Diogenes & Dandami: A cynical philosopher vis-à-vis a wise sage

Exclusive to Vedic Management Centre by U. Mahesh Prabhu

Diogenes of Sinope, whose school of thought is popularly known as Cynicism, is considered as one of the “greatest minds to have ever lived” by a great many western intellectuals.  His philosophy was in favour of a simple, moderate lifestyle and rejection of common desires.

At a time when many philosophers made a virtue out of self-discipline, Diogenes took that to a whole new level as “the most down to earth person.” So “down to earth” that he lived on the ground in a big tub in a marketplace. He begged for a living. For a while, his only possession was a wooden bowl but when he saw a child drinking out of his hands – he even gave that up. Although his way of life itself was unique, it was the way Diogenes expressed it that set him way apart from the rest. For example: when he disagreed with someone he would masturbate in public; or defecate in the amphitheatre or even urinate upon the opponent. From his perspective, while he was performing the much-needed bodily function, he was also protesting the superficiality of the civilization around him.

Although from all practical angles he was an unwashed and publicly defecating homeless man, people admired him for his wit which they considered at par with his philosophical contemporaries like Plato.

The often-pondered philosophical question of the day was: “How do you define a human in the simplest terms possible?” Plato decided to tackle this question, and he came up with an answer: “featherless biped.” It was a time when the people around had never heard of Kangaroos or Gibbons, so people were the only beings around that walked on two legs and did not have feathers. Diogenes was not in agreement with Plato, so he ripped the feathers off a cock and presented it to Plato suggesting “Here is your featherless biped, what a wonderful person!”

In another interesting anecdote, Macedonian king Alexander, who was also a student of Plato, became a big fan of Diogenes and decided to visit him.  “Sir, I’m a big fan of yours. So, if you need any favours, just anything, I’ll be happy to oblige.” In reply Diogenes said, “Yeah, move over you idiot. You are blocking my light.” That seems to have humbled the Macedonian king and called Diogenes “A Legend!”

Diogenes lived up to the ripe old age of 89. The exact cause of Diogenes death varies according to various sources. Some say that he died of an infected dog bite while others believe that he died of eating a raw octopus. According to some of his greatest admirers: One day Diogenes simply got tired of living, so he held his breath till he died. According to his last wishes, Diogenes’ body was thrown in the wild for animals to feast on him, thereby giving back to the earth whatever little he took from it.

The story of Diogenes is often recollected to support ideas such as “Don’t judge a book by its covers”; that someone who appears to be nothing more than a filth smeared babbling vagrant may as well be the wisest person you would ever meet.

There is also another interesting story of a similar sage whom Alexander met during his failed conquest of India. His name was Dandami – a Vedic sage.

Legend has it that Alexander once asked Dandami, through his interpreters, why he lived so despicably and yet felt so happy and content; something he was not able to relish with all his wealth and might. To which Dandami replied, “O King, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as he can stand on. You are a mere human like the rest of us, except you are always busy and up to mischief, traveling many leagues from your home, becoming a great nuisance to yourself and others, taking an army along with you. Ah well! You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of this earth as will suffice to bury you. The reason we are supremely happy is that we know this fact whereas you, by the delusion of false pride and power, imagine happiness to be outside yourself.”

There are skeptics who believe that this tale of Alexander’s tryst with Dandami is a remake of his rendezvous with Diogenes. I beg to disagree. If you observe their lives and answers offered to Alexander, they are poles apart.

To begin with, Diogenes was never a happy person. His actions are seldom driven by love or compassion. He ripped off the feather of a live cock just to prove a point to Plato. He would defecate upon people and masturbate causing people frustration and there is no trace of contentment in him.

The story of Dandami is that of a person who lived away from civilization unlike Diogenes who lived in a crowded marketplace. To be called Rishi, Muni or a Sadhu in a Vedic sense it is essential that you are bereft of six-detrimental-qualities, namely: lust, anger, greed, infatuation, ego, and envy. Diogenes probably never considered these qualities in him to be harmful either!

True, in many ways Diogenes resembled a Rishi or Vedic sage. But his reply to Alexander’s query was filled with arrogance, unlike Dandami who answered him with wisdom to ponder.

To conclude, I quote Bhartrihari (Vairagya Shataka) to explain Diogenes:

“I practiced forgiveness, but not out of compassion. I renounced my relatives, but not without resentment. Bitter rigors of climate, weather and seasons I endured but prompted by no ideas of detachment. I practiced night long meditation only to impress people. I did control my breath but not to steady my mind. To all appearance my actions resembled that of a sage and yet I never became a sage myself.”

November 2, 2018

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