Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Glossary: Gymnosophists

The Greek word gymnosophist means literally "naked sage" or "naked sophist." It was used to describe classes of "priests" or ascetics particularly from "India" and "Ethiopia."

Among the two most mentioned classes of Gymnosophists were the Samaneans and Brachmanes. The latter are often interpreted as the Brahmin caste of India. Porphyry states that they subsisted on fruits, milk and herbs. The Samaneans appear to be Buddhists and/or Jains and are said by Porphyry to live on rice, bread, fruit and herbs that grew on the banks of the Ganges. Samanean may be derived from Sanskrit shraman, a term for those who followed philosophies in vogue in East India during the development of Buddhism and Jainism.

Both the Samaneans and Brachmanes were described as vegetarian. Indeed, the Gymnosophists were noted if not for their pure vegetarianism at least for their moderation in eating flesh, and in diet in general.

Indeed in all ways, the Gymnosophists were described as living an austere mode of life. The description of their nakedness reminds us of the Nagasadhu and Jain monks who do in fact renounce bodily clothing.

Among the Samaneans, a renouncer leaves his family who are then provided for by the king, who also supports their dormitories. This may refer to the monastic system of the Buddhists and Jains.

One particular class of Gymnosophists of interest for this work are those known as Kalani. A fragment of the writings of Clearchus, a student of Aristotle, gives the latter's account, told to him by an unnamed Jew, of the origin of the Jews. The narrative is given according to Josephus as preserved by Eusebius.

In his first book on Sleep he relates of Aristotle, his master, that he had a discourse with a Jew; and his own account was that what this Jew said merited admiration and showed philosophical erudition.

To speak of the race first, the man was a Jew by birth and came from Cœlesyria [Palestine]. These Jews are derived from the philosophers of India. In India the philosophers call themselves Kalani, and in Syria Jews, taking their name from the country they inhabit, which is Judea; the name of their capital is rather difficult to pronounce: they call it Jerusalem.

Now this man, who had been the guest of many people, had come down from the highland to the seashore [Pergamus]. He was a Greek not only in language, but in soul; so much so that, when we happened to be in Asia in about the same places whither he came, he conversed with us and with other persons of learning in order to test our wisdom. And as he had had intercourse with a large number of sages, he imparted to us more knowledge of his own. This is Aristotle's own account as recorded by Clearchus, and he adds more specific observations regarding his great and wonderful fortitude in diet and continent mode of living.

Contra Apionem of Josephus

Not much information is given regarding the Kalani. Possibly they could be related to the Kolano of the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea who are said to sail their ships between the mouth of the Ganges and Chryse in the Far East. Kolano has been linked with the Kunlun of the Chinese texts which can be used either as the name of a people or a title of a king.

In this connection, a modern survival may be found in kolano, kulano, kuyano and related words meaning king, chief, clan leader, etc. found in the southern Philippines and eastern Indonesia.

Abraham the Chaldean

The curious statement about the Jews origin from the Kalani may be related to current popular tales of Oannes in Greco-Roman circles.

The ancient Sumerian accounts of their own (partial) origin from Dilmun in the Far East were preserved in the Greek translations of Berossus. He told of the Annedoti, known to the Akkadians as Apkallu and to Sumerians as Abgal, who came from across the Erythraen Sea to Chaldea (Sumer).

The Old Testament may even subtly suggest an Apkallu descent for Abraham, the father of the Hebrews. Abraham is the descendent of the Enoch, the seventh of the ante-diluvian patriarchs.

Enoch has some startling linkages with the seventh Apkallu named Utu-abzu, the sage of the seventh king Enmenduranki. It is said of Utu-abzu that he "ascended to heaven" as suggested also for Enoch: "And Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him" (Genesis 5:24).

The name Utu-abzu means "Heavenly Sun" and Enmenduranki promoted Sun worship. Enoch is said to have lived 365 years (Genesis 5:23), a number suggested to be connected with the solar year.

Solar aspects are strengthened by accounts in 1 Enoch where the patriarch defends the solar calendar against a rival 360 year (12 months of 30 days) calendar. In the Book of Jubilees, Enoch is also strongly linked with the calendric sciences.

The was the first among men that are born on earth who learnt writing and knowledge and wisdom and who wrote down the signs of heaven according to the order of their months in a book, that men might know the seasons of the years according to the order of their separate months. And he was the first to write a testimony and he testified to the sons of men among the generations of the earth, and recounted the weeks of the jubilees, and made known to them the days of the years, and set in order the months and recounted the Sabbaths of the years as we made known to him.

-- Jubilees 4:17-18

By equating Enoch with Utu-abzu, we have an Apkallu connection that may in the end explain the story, attributed to Aristotle, of the eastern Kalani origin of the Jews. Of course at that time from the purely Hebrew perspective Enoch would also be an ancestor of all humanity.


The perceived similarity between the philosophy of the Gymnosophists with that of the Jews may stem from the more ascetic sects of Jews such as the Essenes.

Among the Essene community of Qumran, the books of Enoch and Jubilees were of outstanding importance judging from the frequency of manuscripts found. They also may have been defenders of the solar year calendar against the lunar calendar of the temple priesthood.

Communities like the Essenes and the Mandaeans may have give risen to personalities like John the Baptist. The model for the John the Baptist type though seems to arise earlier with the Beni Nabi'im "Sons of the Prophets" a prophetic fraternity in the time of Samuel.

In many ways John the Baptist was like Elijah, one of the Sons of the Prophets; both living in the wilderness; Elijah fed by the ravens while John subsisted on locusts and honey. Both had rough garments and may have appeared relatively naked like a Gymnosophist.

Geographical information found in 1 Enoch and Jubilees indicate that the Qumran communities viewed the Garden of Eden as located in the furthest East, beyond their own conception of "India" and the Erythraean Sea.

Enoch is said to be led by the "Watchers" to both the place of the throne of God and the prison of the fallen angels who 'cohabited with women,' both alike in their fiery environment.

And I beheld a vision, And lo! there was a second house, greater than the former, and the entire portal stood open before me, and it was built of flames of fire. And in every respect it so excelled in splendour and magnificence and extent that I cannot describe to you its splendour and its extent. And its floor was of fire, and above it were lightnings and the path of the stars, and its ceiling also was flaming fire. And I looked and saw therein a lofty throne: its appearance was as crystal, and the wheels thereof as the shining sun, and there was the vision of cherubim. And from underneath the throne came streams of flaming fire so that I could not look thereon.

-- 1 Enoch 14:15-20

And I saw a deep abyss, with columns of heavenly fire, and among them I saw columns of fire fall, which were beyond measure alike towards the height and towards the depth. And beyond that abyss I saw a place which had no firmament of the heaven above, and no firmly founded earth beneath it: there was no water upon it, and no birds, but it was a waste and horrible place. I saw there seven stars like great burning mountains...And Uriel said to me: 'Here shall stand the angels who have connected themselves with women, and their spirits assuming many different forms are defiling mankind and shall lead them astray into sacrificing to demons as gods, (here shall they stand,) till the day of the great judgement in which they shall be judged till they are made an end of.

-- 1 Enoch 18-19

Far beyond the Erythraean Sea to the East, Enoch is led to the "Garden of Righteousness."

And after these fragrant odours, as I looked towards the north over the mountains I saw seven mountains full of choice nard and fragrant trees and cinnamon and pepper. And thence I went over the summits of all these mountains, far towards the east of the earth, and passed above the Erythraean sea and went far from it, and passed over the angel Zotiel. And I came to the Garden of Righteousness, I and from afar off trees more numerous than I these trees and great-two trees there, very great, beautiful, and glorious, and magnificent, and the tree of knowledge, whose holy fruit they eat and know great wisdom. That tree is in height like the fir, and its leaves are like (those of) the Carob tree: and its fruit is like the clusters of the vine, very beautiful: and the fragrance of the tree penetrates afar. Then I said: 'How beautiful is the tree, and how attractive is its look!' Then Raphael the holy angel, who was with me, answered me and said: 'This is the tree of wisdom, of which thy father old (in years) and thy aged mother, who were before thee, have eaten, and they learnt wisdom and their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked and they were driven out of the garden.'

-- 1 Enoch 32

Of course, Enoch's "father" and "mother" here appear to be Adam and Eve and hence the parents of all humanity, but the connection may still be telling.

Jubilees goes further in proclaiming that the Garden of Eden as the "holy of holies."

And he knew that the Garden of Eden is the holy of holies, and the dwelling of the Lord...

-- Jubilees 8:19

And when she had completed these eighty days we brought her into the garden of Eden, for it is holier than all the earth besides and every tree that is planted in it is holy.

-- Jubilees 3:12-13

Describing the region alloted to Shem, the son of Noah, Jubilees starts in the furthest East at Eden and then moves westward through the Erythraean Sea (Red Sea) and India, along the southern Persian Gulf and the northward through the Mediterranean coast countries to Anatolia. From there it winds back southeastward to Mesopotamia.

And he knew that a blessed portion and a blessing had come to Shem and his sons unto the generations for ever -the whole land of Eden and the whole land of the Red Sea, and the whole land of the east and India, and on the Red Sea and the mountains thereof, and all the land of Bashan, and all the land of Lebanon and the islands of Kaftur, and all the mountains of Sanir and 'Amana, and the mountains of Asshur in the north, and all the land of Elam, Asshur, and Babel, and Susan and Ma'edai, and all the mountains of Ararat, and all the region beyond the sea, which is beyond the mountains of Asshur towards the north, a blessed and spacious land, and all that is in it is very good.

-- Jubilees 8:21-22

One is tempted to link the centrality of Eden in the two texts to the Kalani origin story.

Alfred von Gutschmid suggested that the Jew who told Aristotle about the Kalani origin was the same magician Jew mentioned by Josephus in chapter eight of Antiquities. He was said to have used a rod to draw the soul of a sleeping child out of the body and then to have brought it back again -- an event purportedly witnessed by Aristotle.

The episode is reminiscent of the doctrine of kaladua, karkarma and similar notions as found in the Philippines. According to these beliefs, one's soul or soul-double leaves the body while sleeping and travels about returning before one awakes.

A spiritual adept can allow the kaladau or karkarma soul to leave the body while awake summoning it back by means of some ritual action like thumping the fist on one's chest.

We should also note here that Enoch's journeys around the world with the angels takes place while he sleeps near the "waters of Dan" west of Hermon.

Both Jubilees and 1 Enoch also place much importance in calendric time and in the celestial vault -- the stars, the portals at the horizon, etc. -- that has noteworthy underlying similarity to the philosophy of recursive dualism mentioned in this work.

Exchange of Ideas

During the period corresponding to the rise of Christianity, an environment existed favorable to the flow of religious philosophies from various regions into the Near East.

In the first century, Marinus of Tyre tells about the journey of a mariner named Alexander who sailed from the Golden Chersonese (Malay Peninsula) eastward to Cattigara. He mentions the port of Zaba (Champa?) along the way.

From the same period, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea speaks of the trade of the "Kolano-diphonta" or Kolano ships between the mouth of the Ganges and Chryse the "Golden Isle" to the East in India extra-Gangem (India beyond the Ganges).

Samanean, Brachmane, Kalani and other Gymnosophist presence in the Near East most strongly left its mark, according to the Greeks and Romans, on the Egyptian and Ethiopian gymnosophists. Much of the influence looks like that of esoteric teachers like fakirs, shamans or sadhus, willing to syncretize their beliefs with local ones. Or concepts of orthodox Buddhists and Brahmins were completely reshaped by locals to fit their needs. Most likely both types of phenomenon occured.

Among Gymnosophist-influenced groups were the Therapeuts who were concentrated around Lake Mareotis near Alexandria, in a manner matched by the Essene settlements at Qumran near the Dead Sea. Both the Essenes, according to Josephus, and Therapeuts revered the Sun, praying towards it at sunrise.

Solar aspects are also apparent in the term "Sons of Light" used by the Essenes to describe themselves. From a 4Q298 there is also the more specific phrase "Sons of Dawn." In the Apocalypse of Abraham XVIII we have: "Thou, O Light, shinest before the light of the morning upon they creatures."

Psalm 110:3 states: "In holy splendor before the daystar, like the dew I begot you" (NAB) for the Hebrew mrhm mshr lk tl yldtk rendered in the Septuagint as "from the womb before the morning star I have begotten thee." This psalm has been interpreted most commonly as having messianic meaning with reference to the priest-king Melchizedek, the "King of Righteousness."

Such symbolism remins us of the tradition around Pinatubo and Arayat of a solar lineage through the Sun's grandson Tala, the Morning Star.

Qumran texts give a very high position to Melchizedek in the heavenly order. The priest-king of Jerusalem in the time of Abraham is also seen as an Essene model for the coming Messiah, or even as a reincarnated Messiah.

Cosmic dualism

From their original works we can also surmise that the Essenses held a strong belief in the concept of good and fallen angels something also markedly present in 1 Enoch and Jubilees.

In Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the theme of dualistic battle can perhaps be best illustrated by such themes as the dueling volcanoes, the warring brothers and the battle between Moon and Sun/Sky. However, an underlying and very ancient dualism can be found in almost every mythological conflict which pits one side against the other in familiar terms such as upstream-downstream, highland-lowland, left bank-right bank, etc. Specifically the theme most relevant to the "war in Heaven" is that of the dueling volcanoes or the battle between Sun and Moon.


Baptism rituals among the Essenes may relate to the purification of angels in a river of fire prior to joining the heavenly choir as mentioned in late Enochian literature (3 Enoch 36). The Rabbis speak of the Neher Dinor "River of Fire" from which "ministering angels" are born daily only to vanish and be reborn the next dawn.

The baptism of fire, like that of water or Holy Spirit, or the baptism of nous in the Hermetic Krater relate well to the Kumbhamela and bathing rituals further east. The lake or river of fire is that of the cataclysmic volcano, the Mount of God, that cleanses away the old impurities. From the ashes of the cleansing fire arises the Phoenix, the new soul or world blessed by the elixir of immortality.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Charles, R.H. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.

Haase, Wolfgang. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt[teil] II. Principat-- Religion, Walter de Gruyter, 1984.

Josephus, Flavius. Against Apion, Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Lopez, Donald S. Jr. The Christ and the Bodhisattva, SUNY Press, 1987.

Maier, Paul L. Eusebius, the Church History: The Church History, Kregel Publications, 1999.