Such was the interest among the Macedonians and Greeks that Alexander dispatched one of their own philosophers, Onesicritus, to India to investigate the beliefs and lifestyle of the gymnosophists and debate with them on theological issues of the day. Alexander himself then travelled to India and is reported to have met some of the gymnosophists himself. Among others to take a keen interest in the gymnosophists was Pyrrho, founder of the philosophical school known as the Sceptics. Pyrrho was especially impressed by the practise of nudity which he incorporated into his philosophy. Incidentally Pyrrho and the Sceptics are just one of several Greek philosophical schools which have furnished the modern English language with a series of adjectives and verbs. Other such schools included the Stoics, the Cynics and the Hedonists.
Nudity was not a new phenomenon in Greece but contact with the gymnosophists is believed to have encouraged its practise. Among the populations of the Greek city states, the Spartans are believed to have been among the first to practise nudity. This was a logical application of their general world view manifested today in the use of the word spartan to mean simple and plain. Perhaps the most well known application of nudity in ancient Greece was in sport. The Olympic Games (which began in 776 BCE) were an exclusively male and entirely naked affair. The sport of gymnastics (naked exercises) derives its meaning from the same source as gymnosophist. The greek gymnasium was not just about exercises however, it was also the place where philosophers met, studied and debated. Also, as in India, nudity was closely associated with religious beliefs.
So who were the gymnosophists of India? It is known that Onesicritus consulted with a number of naked Hindu Brahmins but there were also other religious movements, typically off-shoots of Hinduism, present in India during the 4th century BCE who practised nudity. Among these were the Jains and the Ajivikas.
The Jains were an off-shoot of Hinduism founded around 500 BCE by Mahavira. They are known primarily for the concept of ahimsa or non-violence and as an extension of this their dedication to respecting all life. Thus Jains are known to brush coals before putting them on a fire to ensure that no insects are condemned to the flames. They are of course also vegetarians.
One early follower of the Jain religion and contemporary of Mahavira was Makkhali Gosala. Gosala quarrelled with Mahavira and established his own religion. The followers of Gosala were dubbed the Ajivikas by their rivals and the name stuck.
Unlike the Jains the Ajivikas were rigid determinists believing that all our actions were pre-ordained and so we should accept whatever fate throws at us. Similar to most Hindu based religions reincarnation occupied a central position in the Ajivika faith. Each of us, asserted the Ajivikas, go through a large number of incarnations, these culminate in a final incarnation on Earth as an Ajivika monk after which we will achieve enlightenment and break out of the cycle of birth, death and re-birth.
The nudity practised by both the Ajivika and Jain monks was a practical statement that they had given up all worldly goods (including their clothes). Despite their differences over other issues, in the practise of nudism the Ajivikas are believed to have influenced the Jains in this respect. Being two of the largest religious movements at the time, it was probably the Ajivikas and/or Jains who met Alexander the Great’s army and led to the series of contacts between the Greeks and the ‘naked philosophers’.
The vast distances combined with poor communications led to divergent ideas amongst India’s Jains. A north south divide emerged and the religion divided into two sects. In the north the Svetambar Jains and in the south the Digambar Jains. Amongst the differences which arose between the two sects was their differing attitudes to women with the Svetambars holding the more progressive view that women were spiritually equal to men. The practise of nudity was another point of distinction with the northern Svetambars apparently finding it impracticle to remain naked in the sometimes inclement climate whilst the southern Digambars had no such problems. Indeed this different attitude to nudity provided the two sects with their names. Svetambar means white-clad (implying the wearing of white clothing) while Digambar means ‘clothed with the sky’, i.e. naked.
Meanwhile the Ajivikas continued albeit in decline until the fourteenth century but by this time they too had divided. The two branches of the Ajivikas were absorbed into rival faiths, one group into the Hindu followers of Vishnu, the other into the Digambar Jain sect.
Both the Digambar and Svetambar sects subsequently broke up into numerous sub-sects. The practise of nudity by the Digambars generally was largely suppressed by British colonialism and the repressive morality that came with it from Victorian Britain. Since independence in 1949 there has been a partial revival however. While the uncompromising moralism of British rule suppressed the Digambar Jains in India it also had a restraining effect upon British naturists.
Ironically one of the earliest naturist clubs for Britains, the Fellowship of the Naked Trust’ founded in 1891 was actually based in India amongst the ex-patriot population. Whether the practises of the Digambar Jains were influential in this respect seems unlikely. When naturism began to gain a foothold in Britain itself the influence came not from India but from Germany where a flourishing movement already existed. In the stiffling moral atmosphere of the time, naturists were reluctant to use the name naturism to describe their past-time and so chose the more cultured Greek term gymnosophy as a thinly disguised euphemism. At the time gymnosophy was just one of several ‘osophies’ to gain a following amongst the European middle classes, others had a typically religious orientation like theosophy and anthroposophy while another, the proto-Nazi ariosophy, was more political, though not lacking in pseud-spiritual undertones.
In time the climate warmed a bit to allow naturists to organise but the term gymnosophy remained so the English Gymnosophist Society was formed in 1922 and renamed the New Gymnosophist Society in 1926.
The New Gymnosophist Society purchased some land at Bricketts Wood, near St. Albans in Hertfordshire which became a nudist colony. Bricketts Wood soon become something of a mecca for naturists. Among those who were drawn to the area was a retired customs official called Gerald Gardner (who crops up in a number of articles on this web-site).
The moral climate regarding naturism had changed sufficiently in the first half of the twentieth century for British naturists hiding behind the term gymnosophy to move to a position where they themselves became a ‘front’ (wittingly or otherwise) for something perceived as being even more ‘sinister’. Gardner who was to become known as the populariser of witchcraft and founder of Wicca, the modern variant of the ‘old religion’, was an enthusiastic naturist. In 1945 Gardner bought some land near Bricketts Wood and established his own club called Five Acres. Although ostensibly a nudist club, Five Acres served as a cover for a witches coven with Gardner acting as High Priest. At the time, and up to 1951, witchcraft was illegal in Britain.
Gardner had spent much of his working life in Asia and there is one indication of Jain influence in the rituals which he devised (or adapted) for the Wiccan religion. As has been noted the Digambar sect took their name from the practise of nudity being quite literally ‘clothed with the sky’. Gardner’s rituals were designed to be performed naked or, as Gardner preferred, and as Wiccans have referred to them to this day, ‘sky-clad’.
So from religious roots, along one lineage at least, naturism seems to have returned to its origins.