Vol 13: Chapter 3: A Childhood Hero Revisited

Nov 7, 2012


As my flight landed in Skopje, Macedonia, I couldn’t hold back a smile when I saw that the airport was named after one of my childhood heroes, Alexander the Great. Like many other boys, I had been fascinated by the adventures of the young Alexander as he conquered much of Asia, even part of India.

But most important, Alexander was one of the first to awaken my curiosity about spiritual life, a curiosity that my spiritual master, Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, would turn into a full-fledged pursuit of the Absolute Truth.

My mind drifted back to when I was eleven. We were given a school assignment to write about one of our heroes from the past. I chose Alexander the Great. That very afternoon I enthusiastically went to the public library to read up on him. What I found that day changed my life.

As I read through one of the many books about this conqueror, I learned that he was born in 356 BC. But how did he die?

“Did his final moment come in the midst of a furious battle?” I wondered as I flipped to the end of the book. “Was he alone, surrounded by enemy soldiers? Did he cry out the name of his country with his last breath?”

I was surprised to learn that nothing of the sort had happened. Alexan-der, who had fought passionately for many years, conquering and pillaging entire nations, died of an unknown disease on his way home to Macedonia. And instead of glorifying his country at the end of his life, he shared with the world the deep wisdom he had acquired.

As Alexander lay on his deathbed, he called his generals. “I will depart from this world soon,” he said with half-closed eyes, “but I have three desires. Please fulfill them without fail.”

His generals immediately agreed.

“My first desire,” Alexander said, “is that my physicians alone will carry my coffin to my grave.”

The generals nodded in consent.

“My second desire is that the path to my grave be strewn with the gold, silver, and precious stones in my treasury.”

The generals looked at each other, perplexed, but again nodded their consent.

“My last wish,” said Alexander, “is that my hands be kept dangling out of the coffin.”

The generals recoiled but consented. Then Alexander’s top general stepped forward. He kissed his king’s hands and placed them on his own chest. “Dear King,” he said, “We assure you that your final desires will be fulfilled. But please tell us why you have given us such strange orders?”

Alexander opened his eyes. “I would like the world to know three lessons I have learned in life,” he said.

The generals, physicians, and a number of trusted soldiers moved closer to the bed. I also brought the book closer to my face, eager to know the lessons Alexander had learned.

“I want my physicians to carry my coffin,” said Alexander, “because people should realize that no one can protect us from inevitable death. Life should never be taken for granted.

“Having my treasury strewn on the path to my grave will show that we cannot take anything with us at death. People should realize that chasing after wealth is futile.

“And having my hands dangling from the coffin will show that we come into this world empty handed and leave empty handed.”

As I sat in the library that day, I thought I had never heard such wisdom before, and coming from someone so special, it made a deep impression on me. As I was about to close the book, the last paragraph caught my eye. It was Alexander’s final words:

“Bury my body, do not build a monument to me, and, again, keep my hands outside my coffin so everyone may know that the man who won the world died with nothing in his hands.”

When I got home that afternoon, I went through my dresser drawers and closets and started throwing my belongings out on the porch.

My mother thought I had gone mad. “What on earth are you doing!” she exclaimed. “What’s got into you?

“We can’t take anything with us at death,” I said.

My mind came back to the present as the plane was landing.

I was met outside the airport by a small group of devotees and driven to the temple. As I unpacked my bags in my room I spoke with some young devotee men.

“Interesting, isn’t it,” I said, “that the airport here is named after Alexander the Great.”

“Macedonians are proud that he was born here,” a devotee said.

“Unfortunately,” said another, “there’s an ongoing debate with our Greek neighbors, who say he was born in Greece, in a region they also call Macedonia.”

“Anyway, it’s not so important,” said the first devotee. “After all, he wasn’t very enlightened. He just plundered other people’s property.”

“No,” I interjected. “He had some wisdom. He changed some hearts. He changed my—” I stopped before finishing the sentence and went back to unpacking my bags.

The boys stood quietly. “Guess we’ll see you later at the program, Maharaja,” said one. “It will be downtown on the main square.”

“There’s a huge statue of Alexander the Great right in the middle of the square,” said another.

I looked up. “I’d like to pay my respects,” I said.

That evening, I found a conversation where Srila Prabhupada spoke of Alexander’s greatness:

“A thief accused Alexander the Great that, ‘What is the difference between you and me? I am a small thief and you are a big thief. That’s all. Why you are punishing me? You are a big thief. You are doing same thing.’ Then he was let loose. Alexander the Great, actually he was great. He was the emperor and an ordinary thief was accusing him. And he said, ‘Yes, I am thief.’ He admitted. That is greatness. If he was not great then he would have hanged him or punished him; ‘Oh, you are accusing me?’ But no, he accepted. That is greatness. Mistake is one fault, but to accept that, ‘I have done mistake,’ that is greatness.”

[Morning Walk, Melbourne, April 24, 1976 ]