Was Pythagorus a Yogi?
One of the most influential spiritual communities in Europe was located along the southeastern edge of the boot of Italy. There were about 600 members, some of whom lived on the ashram premises, and the rest of whom commuted in from outlying areas. It was not unusual for as many as 2,000 people to show up for specially scheduled programs.
One of the most influential spiritual communities in Europe was located along the southeastern edge of the boot of Italy.
In many respects it was a typical ashram: the devotees were vegetarians, they didn’t drink or take drugs, they dressed in white, they got up before sunrise to do stretching exercises and sit for meditation. They practiced long periods of silence, and sex outside marriage was considered inappropriate.
Body work, particularly massage, was popular there, and diet was a major focus. The menu was built largely around fresh vegetables (raw or lightly cooked), herbs, and grains. Students wore weights around their wrists during their aerobics classes in an effort to combine weight-bearing and cardiovascular exercises. However, the community was particularly known for its music therapy program. Therapists there claimed to have achieved success in treating certain diseases, particularly some types of mental derangements, with soothing music.
The founder was a brilliant, charismatic, articulate teacher from Syria who was regarded with a certain amount of suspicion by local authorities. His devotees believed he knew their past lives and could lead them to enlightenment.
To reach this community, you fly into Naples, rent a car, and drive southeast to Croton. However, you’ll have trouble finding its precise location on the south coast because the community burned down 2,500 years ago.
Flash backward across the centuries to 570 B.C.E. Mnesarchus the gem dealer is visiting the Oracle at Delphi, asking if he’ll make a good profit and enjoy a safe trip home. “Yes, yes,” murmurs the Pythoness, the most famous seeress in the ancient European world, as she totters on top of her three-legged stool, inhaling the fumes that waft mysteriously from an opening in the temple floor. “But I have more than that to tell you. Your wife is pregnant. Cherish the soul who is coming to you for he will be one of the greatest benefactors of humanity this world has ever known.”
Mnesarchus rushed back to Sidon in Phoenicia (about a hundred miles north of Bethlehem) to find that, indeed, his wife was in the family way. Their son was born some months later. From the beginning there was something unusual about him. Maybe it was the way that, even as an infant, he stared you right in the eye, as if he were fully self-aware, as if he already knew himself and knew you too. Mnesarchus named his son after the Pythoness who had foretold his destiny: he called the boy Pythagorus.
Even as an infant, he stared you right in the eye, as if he were fully self-aware, as if he already knew himself and knew you too.
Mnesarchus moved his family back to Samos, his home island on the coast of the Aegean. Bearing the words of the prophetess in mind, he spared no expense in educating his son. Pythagorus studied with Pherecydes the Syrian, the renowned physicist Anaximander, and Thales of Miletus, who is still remembered as “the father of philosophy” in our own era. Thales was so impressed by the young man’s character and inherent genius that he insisted, “You must go to Egypt and learn from the Egyptian masters who taught me. If you study with the priests at Memphis, you will surely become the wisest of the Greeks.”
From Thales Pythagorus learned the disciplines he would need to win the respect of the great gurus in Egypt. He became a vegetarian, gave up alcohol (for the rest of his life he would drink only water), and severely limited the amount of time he devoted to sleep. He decided to sail to Egypt by way of his boyhood home in Syria, in order to seek initiation in the Phoenician mysteries before approaching the Egyptian masters who, it was said, had originally instructed the Phoenician hierophants.
Pythagorus’ Syrian teachers sent him to Mount Carmel where he spent months in solitary meditation. Mount Carmel had been a meditation retreat from very ancient times. Gnostic masters called the Mandeans claimed that the great sages of the Semitic traditions traveled to Mount Carmel in their subtle bodies for regular conferences.
From Phoenicia Pythagorus sailed to Egypt, where he studied for 22 years. Iamblichus, a Syrian master of the third century C.E., reported, “Pythagorus visited the important temples in Egypt, where he won the admiration of the priests for his diligent studies and detailed research into their tradition. There was no sage he did not seek out, or any Egyptian school he neglected. If he thought he could learn something, he set out to visit. He passed 22 years in the study of astronomy, geometry, and the spiritual mysteries.”
After 12 years in Persia, now in the 56th year of his life, Pythagorus headed for Greece and then Italy, where he would found his famous ashram.
Pythagorus’ next stop was Babylon. From the Magi he learned music, mathematics, and the other Chaldean sciences. According to the early Christian writer Clement of Alexandria, Pythagorus also studied with the brahmins of India. It’s unlikely he made it all the way to India itself, but he probably studied with Indian teachers who had immigrated to Babylon. After 12 years in Persia, now in the 56th year of his life, Pythagorus headed for Greece and then Italy, where he would found his famous ashram.
Pythagorus was famous for his enigmatic sayings. These were short statements that sounded cryptic or even silly. At his lectures Pythagorus would unpack their hidden dimensions. For example:
“Don’t poke a fire with a sword.” (Don’t make an adversary even more upset by responding with anger.)
“Keep your bags packed.” (Death can come at any time. Be prepared.)
“When you reach the border, don’t look back.” (At the time of death, release the past.)
“Don’t leave your post without the order of your commanding officer.” (Do not commit suicide.)
“When you worship, sit down.” (Don’t rush through your spiritual practices.)
“Don’t write in the snow.” (Don’t bother teaching those who don’t appreciate wisdom.)
Words of advice from Pythagorus and his chief disciples were preserved by many ancient authors. They’re good advice for yoga students even today:
“Men bring their problems on themselves. Failing to see the good all around them, they can’t find their way past their self-created misfortunes.”
“People run every which way meeting sorrow after sorrow because they are disconnected from themselves.”
“Your first duty is to honor yourself.”
“Desire that you may do good for your enemies.”
“Don’t ask God to give you anything you can lose.”
“Don’t value anything which anyone else can take away from you.”
“Don’t waste your time packing things you won’t still need after you leave this world.”
“If you rule over others, bear in mind that God rules over you.”
“We do not have the ability to live forever, but we do have the ability to live morally.”
“Fear of death exists only in those who are ignorant of their own soul.”
“If you want to know your Maker, know yourself.”
“Unless you have something to say more pleasing than silence, don’t break the silence.”
“For the greedy, life is like a funeral banquet. They are surrounded by delectable fare, but they don’t feel satisfied.”
“Drunkenness is meditation on insanity.”
“Be guided by discriminating wisdom, the highest and best part of yourself. Then when you die you will become undying, like divine beings rather than like men.”
The Spiritual Colony
Pythagorus tried at first to found his ashram, based on the teachings of Egypt and the East, in Greece, but the Greeks simply wanted to hear miraculous stories and talk philosophy. They weren’t interested in actually doing the practices Pythagorus was eager to teach. So he tried again in southern Italy, where he met a warmer reception. A large group of devotees gathered around him and built the famous spiritual colony at Croton.
Some members of nearby cities were so impressed by the wisdom and virtue of the Pythagoreans that they invited Pythagorus and his chief disciples to come teach them, and arbitrate their disputes. This was the beginning of the end. Inevitably, the Pythagoreans’ involvement in politics was seen as meddling, and enemies began to plan revenge. One dark day in ancient Western history, a group of troublemakers attacked the ashram, burning all its facilities and killing everyone there they could find.
We’ve forgotten that in his own time Pythagorus was best known as a spiritual master, a guru whose teachings were long linked to the yogis of India.
Some say Pythagorus himself survived the fire but died shortly afterwards, no doubt brokenhearted at the savagery he saw around him. An early experiment in a yogic lifestyle thus came to a shattering end. Ironically, today Pythagorus is remembered for a mathematical axiom he didn’t invent—scholars have shown the Pythagorean theorem was already known much earlier in India and Egypt. We’ve forgotten that in his own time Pythagorus was best known as a spiritual master, a guru whose teachings were long linked to the yogis of India.
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.