Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers
Diogenes Laertius was a Greek author living in the Roman Empire during the third century CE. He wrote a book, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, that is our main source of evidence about ancient Greek and Roman philosophies. These sentences come from the first chapter of that book. Although he wrote after the end of the Maurya Empire, Diogenes Laertius believed that the Indian gymnosophists existed before the Greeks began to write about philosophy. This source gives us evidence that some Hellenistic Greeks knew about gurus and some of their beliefs, practices, and ways of thinking. What did the gymnosophists tell people to do? Why do you think they “despise even death itself”? Vocabulary philosophy: the study of the truth and principles of being, knowledge, and conduct. Religion and philosophy are closely related. To Diogenes Laertius and other Greeks, philosophy and religion were divided. Philosophy was about thinking, and religion was about feeling and practicing rituals. To Indians, philosophy and religion were united. gymnosophist: the Greek word for a guru. The literal meaning is “naked wise man.” uttered: said, spoke reverence: respect, worship abstain from: not do
This and other sources demonstrate that the Greeks knew about Indian gurus, whom they considered philosophers. Diogenes Laertius apparently had no direct knowledge of the gymnosophists (he writes “we are told”), but he was getting his information from older texts that have not survived. The gymnosophists told people to respect the gods, behave properly, and be courageous. They would have despised even death itself because they believed in the transmigration of souls, or reincarnation. It is clear from this evidence that Greeks and Indians knew about each other’s philosophies, but whether they influenced each other and which way the influence flowed are unknown. We can only speculate that the beliefs about reincarnation discussed by Plato and Vergil might have been influenced by ideas from India.
There are some who say that the study of philosophy had its beginning among the barbarians. They urge that . . . the Indians [have] their Gymnosophists. . . .
As to the Gymnosophists . .. we are told that they uttered their philosophy in riddles, telling men to reverence the gods, to abstain from wrongdoing, and to practise courage. The Gymnosophists at least despise even death itself . . .