There was no systematic attempt by invading Westerners to convince Indians that they were all really Platonists, but the reverse has now come to pass. Zealous Hindutva types, not satisfied with the idea that ancient Indian culture was real, mature and influential within India, have set out to ‘prove’ that all ancient European culture was actually Indian. This has led them to set up a sort of historical border control, which allows ideas to come out of India but not in. The rule is that if an idea can be found in India and also in another place, it is assumed to have Indian provenance, and to have been deposited abroad by Indian agency. This applies not only to mathematical and geometrical skills, but also to simple activities like singing, or eating beans, and even to the one-to-one teaching method, favoured by Indian gurus and Socrates alike. Ancient Hindu world hegemony is what is assumed to have made these transmissions possible.
There is an element of restitution in this approach, which can be seen as an act of belated retaliation for the views of classically trained European intellectuals of the eighteenth century, who saw the world exclusively in terms of development from Greek models. This was certainly both chauvinistic and simplistic. But for men like that, the Bible was the oldest literature in the world, Hebrew was therefore the oldest language, and what the Hebrew Bible said was substantially, if not literally true. However, it is important to emphasise that this was primarily a matter of history, not of religion. In their view of the ancient world, such thinkers largely excluded Egypt, where the hieroglyphs were not yet understood, and they certainly completely overlooked India, of whose ancient culture and history they were almost totally ignorant until the 1770s. India then was still truly exotic, and her place in any pattern of the world’s intellectual development was not only not understood, it was not even considered.
When it came to ancient roots, Enlightenment Europeans generally considered that tracing descent from a mixture of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman sources was enough to show how western religion, philosophy and law had evolved. But now in the modern era, this earlier European cultural isolationism has been countered by an equally untenable rival claim to unique proprietorship of religious and philosophical ideas, and to the contention that the source of all the world’s learning, music, astronomy and language was India.
Leaving aside the more extravagant theories of ancient Hindu world domination, does the contention that classical Greek philosophy is based on Indian ideas have any merit? The answer, briefly, is ‘perhaps some’, but the problem is, as always, proof, and what one can reasonably regard as proof, in a vague and subjective field like the detection of supposed influences in philosophical ideas.
Such an influence has not always been completely denied – not even at the zenith of Raj confidence. In the introduction to The Legacy of India (1937), even such a convinced imperialist as the Marquess of Zetland, who was Secretary of State for India as he wrote, detailed at length the similarities between Platonic and Indian thought, and declared that: ‘Almost all the theories, religious, philosophical, and mathematical, taught by the Pythagoreans were known in India in the sixth century BC. (p. 5). The doubt here is about transmission.
One book that has no qualms about sorting out all this uncertainly is In Search of the Cradle of Civilisation (1990), by Feuerstein, Kak and Frawley. On page 248 the authors state baldly: ‘There is no question of India’s impact on classical Greek thought’. Sigh. But there is. It’s actually an extremely complicated question and one that suffers heavily from predetermined partisan viewpoints. Down the years, Indophile westerners – of whom the most famous was Voltaire – have detected an influence, and Hindu websites are very keen to point this out. But before any authoritative statements can be made, it is necessary to be clear about what Greek philosophy was, what Indian philosophy was, how and when contact between the two traditions came about, and what we can reasonably mean by influence.
First, let it be said that it is as partisan to deny the spread of influence from India to Greece as it is to assert it. Next, we must accept that there are parallels between the philosophy of classical Greece (c. 600-300 BCE) and the thought contained in the Upanishads (c. 800-600 BCE). There are numerous correspondences on subjects such as the reality (or not) of the exterior world, the survival of the soul after physical death, logic, and how wisdom can be attained. But there are several issues to consider before stomping in and declaring that all the ideas in question were somehow exclusively Indian and that they were magically transported wholesale to Greece, where the grateful Greeks happily adopted them in their entirety.
The first problem is highlighted by Timothy Lomperis, one of the few writers to exhibit any deep knowledge of both traditions. In his Hindu Influence on Greek Philosophy (1984), he states: ‘definitive proof of direct contact between India and Greece is lacking’ (p. 48). However, Lomperis decides that there was some sort of exterior influence, especially on Plato, in areas connected with the transmigration of souls – what the Greeks called metempsychosis, and what modern westerners call reincarnation. This influence may have come from India via an intermediary culture in Persia or Thrace, but Lomperis thinks that it is impossible to determine whether Plato knew that some of his ideas were similar to Indian ideas, or if he knew where they came from at all. The ancient world was widely interconnected, but not very strongly by direct links between India and Greece. ‘The East’ was a large and rather indeterminate conception to most Greeks, many of whom habitually lumped in Egypt or ‘Ethiopia’ with the specific region we call India. Plato does not refer to India at all. So it is an uphill battle to prove that an irrefutable link exists, and therefore we have to fall back on inference and possibility, two unreliable friends that turn up to enjoy any and all controversies about the ancient world.
Lomperis maintains that Indian influence would have found it hard to find an easy, open or regular pathway to Greece prior to the creation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in c. 558 BCE. By then a great deal of the ideas in which an Indian influence might reasonably be detected, such as metempsychosis, had already been promulgated and accepted in Greece. Pythagoras, with whom metempsychosis is particularly associated, was already active. Nor is it clear that he invented the idea – he is only recorded as believing in it. He may have been merely the first named person we know of in the chain of transmission.
The transmigration of souls is a recognisably Indian idea, but not one with which mainstream Greek religion was comfortable. Most Greeks, as outlined in the Homeric tradition, believed that souls went to an afterlife somewhere below the earth; they did not believe in any cycle of birth and death, or any kind of hereditary karma, or replacement, or reordering of society in a hierarchical manner after ‘death’, or a re-pooling of the souls of the universe. Life and death were a once-only experience for all mainstream Greek religious believers. Thus the ideas that Pythagoras’s espoused, which can credibly be compared to Indian parallels, were essentially either heretical or at least nonconformist. This might suggest, or at least not preclude, an alien origin. But if he had personally been influenced by Indian ideas, there is no record of this transmission.
It is not difficult to place Pythagoras conveniently in India at some point, and many Hindu writers accept as an unquestioned fact that he went there. Feuerstein, Kak and Frawley are a little more cautious, but they ‘cannot rule out’ that Pythagoras met some Indian sage in Babylon from whom he sucked up all the wisdom of the East (op cit., p. 252). This is hardly enough.
Pythagoras (c.580 – c.500 BCE) lived about a century and a half before Plato (428-348 BCE), and parallels and similarities with Indian ideas certainly exist in some aspects of Pythagorean thought, or at least what has come down to us as Pythagorean thought, for as Lomperis says, ‘little is directly known of Pythagoras’ teaching’ (op cit., p. 57). Pythagoras is a semi-legendary figure, and we don’t really know what he believed for sure, as there were several strands branching out from his original school, all revising their beliefs as they went, and in such a way as to be mutually contradictory. But to take either monastic organisation, or master-pupil transmission, or vegetarianism as positive proof of direct Indian influence is lazy and unconvincing.
Whenever intelligent humans address similar basic questions, it should surprise no one if they produce very similar answers. Once a search for the One Reality that underlies all phenomena is launched, very similar results may well turn up. Once the existence of the human soul is posited, it is quite natural to ask whether it is immortal, and if so, where does it go at bodily death? It is also quite likely that two vigorous cultures are both quite capable of asking lists of questions such as: what is ‘the Good’, how can we achieve it (and know that we are doing so)? Or, how shall we live, what is virtue, and how does it relate to the meaning of our lives?
Not only might the answers be similar, but the questions are very similar too. In the words of Professor T. M. P. Mahadevan, writing in the Foreword of Plato and the Upanishads, by Vassilis G Vitsaxis (1977): ‘At random one may pick identical statements made by sages of all lands and times to show that they belong to one community’ (p. 10). This is particularly likely to be so if one also considers that the linguistic evidence of the shared Indo-European link between Sanskrit and ancient Greek suggests that they shared an ancestry in the not too distant past.
So, while accepting these resemblances, let us look at the difficulties that surround the general debate.
1. There is no record of either sustained or direct contact between Greece and India. The endlessly recycled story of Socrates meeting a Brahmin in Athens is hardly enough to build a case for extensive transmission of Brahminical ideas. Socrates was a mature, well-known figure by the time he came across his Brahmin. Nor, of course, was he the first philosopher in Greece. Nor is the story entirely reliable. It was written down by Eusebius in about 315 CE, based on a tradition from Aristoxenus, from around 320 BCE, who was relating an incident that happened in about 430 BCE.
2. To assume that Indian influence must be responsible for Greek ideas is to make an overall assumption that the Greeks could not have come up with those ideas for themselves. They came up with plenty of others that are certainly not of Indian origin, so why not these? This is not a strong argument against transmission, but it is one that needs to be addressed, by showing either that Greeks could not have come up with the ideas in question, or that Indians definitively did transmit them.
3. We need to ask when and how did the transmission/imitation happen? If it was in recent historical time at the time of the writing of the Upanishads in around 650 BCE, i.e. before Plato, then one would expect the transmission to be very obvious, for technical terms to be recognisable, or even for the ideas to be acknowledged as foreign. But if the transmission were ancient, then one would expect the ideas to have diverged rather more, or for the ideas to have emerged earlier than Pythagoras/Plato. And they didn’t. So clear evidence for transmission either at earlier or later dates is not strongly apparent.
4. Lastly, Indian ‘thought’ was not one thing, and neither was Greek ‘philosophy’. Both had a rather broader basis than these unitary classifications convey. There were six schools of Upanishadic interpretation, and in Greece there were several more or less mystical, or rational, approaches to different sets of concerns. The simple East-West, India-Greece, spiritual-rational divide is not particularly accurate or helpful. So, ‘which bit of what strand had how much traction on which bit of which other’ is a pertinent question to ask. Unless, of course, we wish to go for the nuclear option and simply assert, as some do, that India obviously influenced Greek thought, and that is that.
Pythagoras also gets a rough ride from Indian writers because of what is known in the west as Pythagoras’ Theorem. This seems to be a particularly emotive issue for Indians, because a form of the theorem certainly existed in India at around 800 BCE. It was included in one of the Sulba Sutras, which were sets of instructions for the building of sacred altars. This is some time before Pythagoras, but it is later than Sumerian and Egyptian versions of the same idea. One interpretation is that all these cultures found this relationship for themselves and viewed it in slightly different ways. Another less tenable idea is that Indians had it long before 800 BCE and transmitted it all over the world. To be true, this theory only requires the addition of a now-disappeared Hindu world empire to make it work, but as we have seen, believers in such an empire are more than ready to put it to work in transmitting any idea anywhere it needs to be for the whole model to fit neatly together. Perhaps this is where the ancient flying machines came in most handy.
The Greeks did not own the theorem. Pythagoras merely stated it, which was enough for the western tradition to attribute it to him, and it was Euclid that actually proved it, around 300 BCE. The most comprehensive list of proofs of the theorem is contained in a book called The Pythagorean Proposition (2nd ed. 1941) by Elisha S Loomis. Loomis is careful to say that Pythagoras ‘demonstrated’ the theorem, whereas Euclid definitely proved it. Euclid’s proof is ranked as the oldest, ahead of about 370 others. The first Indian proof is by Bhaskara in around 1200 CE. Until then we can only assume that Indians simply accepted it as true.
Apart from taking sides in the custody battle for the tug-of-love theorem, some writers also latch onto another major aspect of Pythagoras’ ideas: the relationship of music and number. There is a strongly repeated opinion among Indian writers that Greek – and therefore western – music came from India. Pythagoras is seen as the key transmitter. However, in this area it is quite easy to dismiss supposed Indian influences. For instance, Pythagoras certainly had ideas (or is credited with ideas) about the theory of music, but where these diverge from Indian ideas is in Pythagoras’ view that the whole of the material world was structured around numbers. Pythagorean musical theory was founded not just in mysticism, but in measurable physics. He was specific about the ratio relationship between notes and the meanings of these ratios. He did not, it seems, discover these ratios, which were known to the Babylonians before him, but he did give them a new and connected meaning. There is nothing in Indian philosophy that views music in the same way. Admittedly this is an argument from silence, but an article on this subject, Early Indian Music (2002) by Subhas Kak, would support this idea. In that article Kak attempts to discover what the ratios of the twenty-two Indian notes, or shrutis, actually were. If these were laid out in the Natya Shastra, whose date is uncertain but which Kak chooses to place at around Pythagoras’ time, then surely Kak would not have had to write such an article.
One definitive proof of eastern influence in the west is in what the Greeks called Aesop’s Fables. This is clearly a work of eastern origin, featuring a large number of beasts that do not exist in Greece or its near environs. But the work is of much later date than the era of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato or Aristotle.
A central problem in all the wrangles over prior discovery is that the advocates of Indian primacy have taken full advantage of the oral tradition in India to claim that if an idea were only written down in 230 BCE then it could have been extant fifteen hundred (or fifteen million) years before then. In purely debating terms this is more than a bit like cheating, because of course no one can definitively prove that such an idea did not exist at that time. It unfairly places the burden of proof on an opponent to discredit a purely speculative claim, which of course cannot be done by the use of counter-evidence. No one can prove the non-existence of anything in the remote past.
In cultural wars conducted along these lines there will never be definitive winners and no ground can ever be captured permanently. Cultural priority expressed in purely temporal terms (i.e. earliest ‘owns’ an idea) is not a proof if no contact can be shown to have existed between the two ancient parties. Influence can never be proved definitively, it can only be tentatively ascribed, with accompanying (reasonable) supporting arguments demonstrating clear transmission of unique elements. The discovery of, say, a Roman coin in eastern China is incontrovertible. How exactly it got there is, however, a matter of conjecture.
The fact that the Greeks, on the whole, had a completely different mindset from ancient Indians should be enough to put an end to ideas that there was any kind of deep, complete transmission of ideas between the two cultures, especially the idea that the Greeks willingly adopted Indian beliefs and viewpoints wholesale, or that Greeks could not have developed advanced philosophy by themselves. The Greeks had writing at a time when Indians still did not, and we know that they did not get it from India. The idea that plucking a string under tension to make music could only have been attempted in India is absurd. The fact that the Pythagorean theory of music relies on exact, whole number ratios and that Indian music glories in quarter tones and the exploration of inexact pitch relationships should demonstrate that Indian ideas had no dominant place in Pythagoras’ universe, and vice versa.
Indian religion as set out in the Upanishads was austere, intellectual and monotheistic (for the most part) whereas Hellenistic religion was polytheistic and vulgar, and was dressed up in a great deal of anthropomorphic humanistic projection. The otherwise brainy and curious Greeks did not speculate much about religion at all. They reflected on logic, which in its Indian form of nyaya is based on different principles; a syllogism in Greek practice had three elements, in India five, cut down from an earlier ten. Most Greek philosophy also concentrated on the problems presented by social interaction; how to be good, what ‘the Good’ was, how an ideal society should be constructed and regulated. These questions were approached using subjective reflection, and were not resolved using revealed scriptural texts. Indian thinking is almost silent in this area in, and was much more universal and ‘spiritual’. It was hardly ‘political’ at all. Indian society was already running, in its own terms, perfectly. The Arthashastra, a discourse on politics and statecraft, may have been written down as late as the second century CE, but it certainly contains material from earlier, and may originally date from around 250 BCE. Aristotle’s Politics definitively comes from around 330 BCE, and also contains earlier material. There seems to have been very little meeting of minds in this area at all. Greeks would have considered the pragmatism and amorality of the Arthashastra as shocking as later Europeans found Machiavelli. Indians would have considered Aristotelian speculation uninteresting, or possibly as a damaging distraction from the spiritual quest for understanding of the world on the level of its invisible content.
And what exactly is achieved by any of this speculation about ancient priority? Resonances exist between ancient India and classical Greece, but what then? There is a clear project on behalf of Indian nationalists to represent the culture of classical Greece as inferior and imitative. This is certainly to go too far. Greece at that time was an unstable place, dangerous and febrile, perfect for the encouragement of original thinking. Ideas generated there at that time profoundly influenced the intellectual development of the later western traditions of politics, science and philosophy. But the notion that this was all really Indian thinking is not tenable, nor is the implicit idea that accompanies this blanket assertion – that somehow all western society is imitative of Indian models.
The main point here is that the one area where eastern, probably originally Indian, ideas may have been adopted by the Greeks – metempsychosis – was the one strand of Greek thinking that did not come down to the later West at all. Once Christian influence had risen to prominence, and the one-way travel of individual souls became accepted, older ideas about the cycle of rebirth, the suffering of the soul through many lives, its journey from body to body and eventually back to God, was completely abandoned. Nor had it ever been widely accepted. All Homeric and classical Roman death myths revolve around the river Styx and the Elysian Fields, not rebirth. Plato’s ideas of independent ideal ‘Forms’ survived, as did much of Aristotle’s science, politics, ethics and logic. But the tradition of metempsychosis faltered and died. India’s long-term influence on the west, via Greece, was ultimately negligible.