All the world knows that Pythagoras, while he resided in India, attended the school of the Gymnosophists and learned the language of beasts and plants. One day, while he was walking in a meadow near the seashore he heard these words:
‘How unfortunate that I was born an herb! I scarcely attain two inches in height, when a voracious monster, a horrid animal, tramples me under his large feet; his jaws are armed with rows of sharp scythes, by which he cuts, then grinds, and then swallows me. Men call this monster a sheep. I do not suppose there is in the whole creation a more detestable creature.’
Pythagoras proceeded a little way and found an oyster yawning on a small rock. He had not yet adopted that admirable law by which we are enjoined not to eat those animals which have a resemblance to us. He had scarcely taken up the oyster to swallow it, when it spoke these affecting words:
‘O Nature, how happy is the herb, which is, as I am, thy work! Though it be cut down, it is regenerated and immortal, and we, poor oysters, in vain are defended by a double cuirass; villains eat us by dozens at their breakfast, and all is over with us forever. What a horrible fate is that of an oyster, and how barbarous are men!’
Pythagoras shuddered; he felt the enormity of the crime he had nearly committed; he begged pardon of the oyster, with tears in his eyes, and replaced it very carefully on the rock. As he was returning to the city, profoundly meditating on this adventure, he saw spiders devouring flies, swallows eating spiders, and sparrowhawks eating swallows. ‘None of these,’ said he, ‘are philosophers.’
On his entrance, Pythagoras was stunned, bruised, and thrown down by a rabble in ragged clothes who were running and crying: ‘Well done, he fully deserved it.’
‘Who? What?’ said Pythagoras, as he was getting up.
The people continued running and crying: ‘Oh, how delightful it will be to see them boiled!’
Pythagoras supposed they meant lentils or some other vegetables, but he was in error; they meant two poor Indians. ‘Oh!’ said Pythagoras, ‘these Indians, without doubt, are two great philosophers weary of their lives; they are desirous of regenerating under other forms; it affords pleasure to a man to change his place of residence, though he may be but indifferently lodged; there is no disputing on taste.’
He proceeded with the mob to the public square, where he perceived a lighted pile of wood and a bench opposite to it, which was called a tribunal. On this bench judges were seated, each of whom had a cow’s tail in his hand and a cap on his head, with ears resembling those of the animal which bore Silenus when he came into that country with Bacchus, after having crossed the Erythræan sea without wetting a foot, and stopping the sun and moon, as it is recorded with great fidelity by the Orphics.
Among these judges there was an honest man with whom Pythagoras was acquainted. The Indian sage explained to the sage of Samos the nature of that festival to be given to the people of India.
‘These two Indians,’ the sage said, ‘have not the least desire to be committed to the flames. My grave brethren have adjudged them to be burnt; one for saying that the substance of Śākra¹ is not that of Brahma, and the other for supposing that the approbation of the Supreme Being was to be obtained at the point of death without holding a cow by the tail.² “Because,” one of the men reasoned, “we may be virtuous at all times, and we cannot always have a cow to lay hold of just when we may have occasion.” The good women of the city were greatly terrified at two such heretical opinions; they would not allow the judges a moment’s peace until they had ordered the execution of those unfortunate men.’
Pythagoras was convinced that, from the herb up to man, there were many causes of chagrin. However, he obliged the judges and even the devotees to listen to reason, which happened only at that time.
He went afterwards and preached toleration at Crotona,³ but a bigot set fire to his house and he was burned to death—the man who had delivered the two Hindus from the flames! Let those save themselves who can!
Voltaire, ‘Pythagoras in India’, in Synkrētic №1 (Feb. 2022): 218-221.