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Chapter 8

India and Greece

The movement of men and ideas from the West to the East is a recent phenomenon. There was a time when the movement was in the opposite direction and the East had gone to the West in a big way.

At that time, India’s cultural frontiers too were wider than her political frontiers and her ideas influenced lands and people far away from her physically. Vedic India shared many of her Gods with Iran and one of them, Mithra (Mitra), went on a long journey to the West. Mithraea, temples dedicated to Mithra, have been found all over Syria, Asia Minor, Spain and even in many Western ports. One Mithraeum was found in London in 1954. Many relics have been found in Germany too, as at Hedernheim, near Frankfurt-on-Main.

The great Manu makes a very interesting observation. He says that originally the Paundrakas, Andhras, Dravidas, Yavanas, Shakas, Paradas, Pahlvas, Chinas, Kiratas, Daradas and Khasas were Khsatriyas, but at some stage they lost the guidance of the Brahmins; as a result, they lapsed from their sacred sacraments (kriyalopa) and lost their caste (10.43-4). At what time and under what compulsions of history Brahmanic guidance ceased is an interesting question.


Hindu thought also exerted a great influence on ancient Greek thought as M.E. Pococke shows in his India in Greece. It is believed that Pythagoras visited Indian and learnt the doctrine of transmigration and many ascetic practices from here. One meets many parallel ideas in the Upanishads and Plato. These similarities are not fortuitous but they emanated from a common deeper vision and life-philosophy. Apollonius the “wise man of Tyana”, perhaps the greatest saint of the Hellenistic world, a contemporary of Jesus, visited the wise men of India and was highly satisfied. Later on, he also visited Ethiopia to meet her naked ascetics, who, he believed, had borrowed their spirituality from India. But, as he already suspected, he did not find them worthy pupils of India.

Pythagoras and Orphic mysteries stand very high in Greek religion and they have family likeness with Hinduism. Lecky in his History of European Morals quotes an old tradition in Greece that Pythagoras had himself come to India and learnt philosophy from the gymnosophists. It seems he believed in an “all-pervading soul” which is at least one important attribute of Hindu atman. He believed in rebirth or transmigration; he taught and practised harmlessness or non-injury; chastity was the leading virtue of his school of thought; he taught silence; he taught that the end of man is to “become like God”. Orphic mysteries taught release (lysis) from all material entanglements, which is close to moksha of the Hindus.

Pythagoras taught the doctrine of the witness, drashTa of the Hindus. He said that life is like a gathering at the Olympic Games, where some come to buy and sell, others to play, but the best of them come to look on. This is just like the Upanishads’ two birds on a tree, one eating its fruits and the other just looks on. It has reference to the witness self of the Upanishads, the kuTastha of the Gita. In higher Greek religion the doctrine of the life of a spectator holds a high place.

When we come to the period of recorded history, we find that India had intimate contacts with Greece which at this time was more a part of Asia than of Europe. Greek religion, philosophy and literature show lively Indian influences. India even at this time was known for its wisdom and many Greek philosophers like Democritus, Anaxarchus and Pyrrho visited India and according to Lucianus, the Goddess of philosophy first descended upon “the Indians, the mightiest nation upon the earth”.


Apollonius of Tyna (born c. 4 AD), the great saint of the Greek world, was a Pythogorian teacher, a great ascetic, a celebate, a vegetarian; he was against every form of cruelty to animals; he protested against gladiatorial shows. He was a great name throughout the Pagan world. Dio Casius tells us that that Caracalla (211-216) erected a chapel to his memory. Apuleius ranked him with Moses and Zoroaster. Lampridius tells us that Alexander Severus included Apollonius with Abraham, and Orpheus amongst his household Gods. For this very fact, he became a hated name among the Christians. In their struggle against Christianity, Pagan philosophers often invoked his name. Hierocles, proconsul of Bithynia under Diocletian (c. 305) cited Apollonius’ miracles to show that miracles were not the peculiar property of Christianity. Eusebius and later on Lactantius (c. 315) attacked Hierocles for this. But orthodox Christians could not believe that there could be such a great ethical and divine character outside the Christian fold. Augustine did not speak ill of him but rebuked those who regarded him as equal of Jesus. Among the early Christians he acquired the name of Antichrist, and he continued to be berated by the Church. Even in the fifteenth century, he was denounced as a detestable magician.

Âtma-vada and Advaita

He visited India to meet its wise men. He met one Iarchus and was deeply satisfied. The latter asked him: “What knowledge do you think we have that you lack?” Apollonious replied: “It is my opinion that your ways are wiser and much more godly. But if I were to find among you nothing that I do not know, I would also have learned that there is nothing further for me to learn.” Iarchus told him: “You, our visitor, have (already) a share of this wisdom, but yet not all of it.” Then the teaching began but what it was and about its nature nothing is said. The biographer, however, relates many anecdotes and throws interesting sidelights. He tells us that in their very first meeting, Iarchus told Apollonius everything about him, his ancestry on his father’s and mother’s side, his journey and the people he met and talks he had with them. Apollonius was amazed. Iarchus also told him about Apollonius’ nature and said: “We discern every kind of soul, and have countless clues to discover them.” “Ask me whatever you like, since you have come among men who know everything”, said the chief of the Indian wise men to his distinguished visitor. He in turn asked the Indians if they knew themselves, expecting them to be like the Greeks in thinking it is difficult to know oneself. But to his surprise, Iarchus replied: “We know everything because we begin by knowing ourselves. None of us would approach our kind of philosophy without knowing himself first.” Apollonius had no difficulty in accepting this statement for it was also his own belief. He asked Iarchus what they thought they were, and the latter replied: “Gods.” And why? “Because we are good men”, Iarchus said (p. 80). Later on in his life when he used this doctrine before the Emperor of Rome when he was being tried for instigating treason, he also told him that Iarchus and Phraotes, the two Indians, “are the only humans whom I consider Gods and worthy of being called so”.

Apollonius discussed the Greek heroes with Iarchus, and he well knew them. Iarchus said: “Troy was destroyed by the Achaeans that sailed there then, and you Greeks have been destroyed by the tales about it. You think the only heroes are those that attacked Troy, and so you neglect a larger number of more godlike men produced by your own country, by Egypt, and by India.” Discussing Achilles, the hero of the Trojan war, he remarked that Homer makes Achilles come to Troy for Helen, and says that on his way he had captured twelve cities by sea and eleven by land. Then he compares him with an old Indian hero - in fact, he himself in an old incarnation - who founded sixty cities, most esteemed in the country. And who could believe that “sacking cities is more glorious than building them?” he asks. He further observes that “to prove your courage defending the liberty of your own land is far better than bringing slavery on a city, especially when it is because of a woman who probably did not mind being carried off”.

Earlier when he had met an Indian king at Taxila, the descendent of Porus, the meeting with him was as memorable. The king lived simply and wisely. Asked about his diet, the king replied: “Of wine I drink as much as I sacrifice to the sun. What I catch in the hunt others eat: the exercise is enough for me. My food is vegetables, the centre of date-palms and their fruit and everything that grows beside the river. I also eat many things that grow on trees: they are harvested by these hands of mine.”

Not that the king neglected kingly duties and military arts. He practised javelin and discus even while he went out to bathe. Learning shooting and archery went on while the king’s party ate. “Shooting through a sling, using a hair as a target, and drawing an outline of one’s own son in arrows while he stands against a board are others of their convivial pursuits.” These continued even while they dined and drank.

The Greek saint was highly satisfied with his Indian visit. When he left the Indian philosophers, he wrote to them that they had shown him “a path through heaven”, and that “I will continue to enjoy your conversation as if still with you, if I have not drunk of the cup of Tantalus in vain”. He said that “he would recall all this to the Greeks, and enjoy your conversations as if you were present”. He often spoke of these wise men to his audience later on in his life. To the Egyptians, he said: “I saw the Indian Brahmans living on the earth and not on it, walled without walls, and with no possessions except the whole world.”

Apollonius believed that Egypt and Ethiopia derived their wisdom from India, and that the Naked Philosophers of Ethiopia were emigrants from India. He also believed that Pythagoras (about 500 BC) and his sect derived their philosophy from India.

Apollonius’s idea of a spiritual life was the same as that of the Hindus. He believed that spirituality belongs to purified buddhi and it was native to man and he distrusted those who hawked revealed truths. He advised a Roman emperor, Euphrates, to “approve and pursue the kind that is in accordance with nature. But avoid the kind that claims to be inspired: people like that about tell lies about Gods, and urge us to do many foolish things” (p. 130).

Once when asked why he studied philosophy, he said that it was “to know the Gods and to understand men, since knowing oneself was less difficult than knowing another” (p. 106).

He visited all the shrines and he could see his God in all the Gods. He said that “none of the Gods refuse me, but they let me share their roof”. We are told by his biographer that Apollonius lived in different sanctuaries, moving and changing from one to another. When criticized for this, he said, “Even the Gods do not live in heaven all the time. They travel to Ethiopia, to Olympia and to Athos. I think it illogical that the Gods travel around every country of mankind, while men do not visit all the Gods” (p. 103).

It seemed that while he was outside the Greek and Roman world visiting barbarian countries which included India, all shrines were open to him.

It seems that it was not the custom even in Rome, so hospitable to all the Gods, for Telesinus, a Roman consul commented: “The barbarians have anticipated the Romans in a very praise-worthy deed.”

He spoke of two Zeuses: one the statue of Zeus made by Phidias at Olympia; it was seated since that was the decision of the artist. But there was also another Zeus, Homer’s Zeus “whom the poet describes in many shapes, and who is a more marvellous creation than the Zeus of ivory; for this Zeus was visible on earth, while the other was supposed to be in everything in the universe”1 (p. 90-91).

Apolonious was not only open to various Gods, he was open to worshipping them with different rites. Not to him one rite or creed. When he met the wise men of India, he wanted to participate in all their religious worships. “I would certainly be doing a wrong to the Caucasus and the Indus, which I passed coming here to see you, if I did not steep myself in all your rites”, he told the chief of the wisemen of India.

He practised non-injury to living beings. On one occasion he refused even when invited even by a kinge to participate in the chase. He believed in non-injury to living beings. He made no blood sacrifice. Apollonious said that “men make virtuous requests when their sacrifices are pure”; he said that “he believed that the Gods shared these opinion about sacrifice”. He was accused of being a magician, of being able to foresee. To this he answered that his food was different from other men; that it was light which “keeps my senses in a kind of mysterious clarity, and prevents cloudiness from affecting them; and causes me to discern everything that is and will be, as if it were reflected in a mirror… Gods are aware of things before they happen, men when they happen, and wise men when they are about to happen” (p. 218-9).

Apollonius explains why he and Pythagoras stayed away from meat and used linen in their dress: He said that Earth grows everything for mankind and those who are willing to live at peace with the animals need nothing. But some “disobey the earth and sharpen knives against the animals to gain clothing and food. The Indian Brahmans disapproved of this personally and taught the Naked Philosophers of Egypt to disapprove of it too. From there Pythagoras, who was the first Greek to associate with Egyptians, borrowed the principle. He let the earth keep living creatures, but held that what the earth grows is pure, and so lived off that because it was sufficient to feed body and soul. Clothing made from dead creatures, which most people wear, he considered impure; he dressed in linen and, for the same reason, made his shoes of plaited bark. He derived many advantages from this purity, above all that of perceiving his own soul” (p. 212).

He believed in rebirth. Pythogoras had many births. In one birth, he also fought at Troy, and then “passed into several bodies according to the law of Adrasteia, whereby souls migrte. (according to tradition, a name of Namesis derived from an altar erected to her by Adrastus. But could it be Hindu adrishTa in the ultimate analysis?). Finally, he returned to human form and was born the son. of Mensarchides of Samos, so that he became a wise man who had been a barbarian, an Ionian who had been a Trojan, and a man so immortal that he did not even forget he had been Euphorbus” (p. 212). Apollonius also knew his past and future births though as he himself says, “I did not announce before the Greeks what my soul had changed into or changed from in the past, or what it will in future, even though I know” (p. 215). Apollonius believed in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul but discoursed his pupils from meddling too much in such questions:

“The soul’s an immortal thing, not yours to own
But Providence’s. When the body wastes,
Like a swift horse that breaks its bonds, the soul
Leaps nimbly out, and mingles with light air,
Shunning its hatred, dreary servitude.
But what is this to you, who when you’ve gone
Will know it well? And why among the living
Bother yourself with thinking on such things?”

Buddhism goes West

In later times, Buddhism followed the track left by the Upanishadic teachers. Emperor Ashoka facilitated but did not initiate the process. In fact, long before he came on the scene, there were contacts, commercial and cultural, between India and Egypt through Yemen for a thousand years. The celebrated Girnar inscription of King Ashoka says that Buddhism was followed even in the domain of Antiochus, the Greek king whose empire included Syria, Phoenicia, Babylonia, Persia, Medea and Abyssinia.

Later on, though Buddhism withdrew from this region, the memory of this contact lingered for a long time. Alberuni (997-1030 AD) tells us that “in former times, Khurasan, Persia, Irak, Mosul the country upto the frontiers of Syria, was Buddhistic”. Later on it “had to emigrate to the countries east of Balkh” when King Gushtasp came under the influence of Zaruthusthra’s religion and his son, Isfendiyar, persecuted the Buddhists. But though Buddhism withdrew, it kept exerting its influence. According to the same authority, when the prophet Mani (216-76 AD) was banished from Iranshahr, he went to India, the usual asylum for those who faced religious persecution at home. Here he learnt the doctrine of transmigration and incorporated it into his own system. Later, through Manichaeism and other parallel channels. it became part of early Christianity.

Darkness descends on the Mediterranean World

A new phenomenon was taking place all over the Mediteranean world. While Rome was expanding outwards, it was contracting internally and losing inwardness. Its deeper spirituality connected with the names of Pythagoras, Plato, Stoics, and Plotinus began to withdraw within. Whether there was something in the new social and political environment or there was a change in the psyche is difficult to say; but old spirituality was getting to be understood less and less. On the other hand, there was a demand for Saviours and there were Saviours all around. A spirituality of hell and heaven, and last day, apocalyptical and millenarian, occupied the stage. Dogmas were fashionable. The external mind was taking over and projecting its own religions and Gods. A spirituality, not of seekers, but useful and serviceable to the kings was in the forefront.

This new religious cast of mind was forging a new iron-curtain, a far more effective one than a physical one. The new mind that was taking over was incapable of understanding deeper things of the spirit; it understood dogmas and creeds; it dropped the law of karma, the theory of the Self. Antoninus, a neo-Platonist of the 4th century predicted that “a fabulous and formless darkness is about to tyrannize over all that is beautiful on earth” (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 9.317).

But Indian spirituality remained an attraction throughout even when Europe was getting confused and swept off its feet. Plotinus whose name shines even up to this day, wanted to visit India.

Hindu thought, however, continued to exert influence on Europe through various channels. One channel was the works of Dionysius the Arepogite.

His work were seen and translated by John Scotus Erigena of the 9th century. He questioned the presence of Christ in consecrated bread and wine. He exalted reason above Biblical and clerical authority. He said that while “all authority that is not approved by true reason seems weak, but true reason, since it rests on its own strength, needs no reinforcement by any authority”. He said that “God is everything that truly is, since He makes all things and is made in all things”; he also said that there was no creation in time, that God was neither masculine nor faminine; that God as “Father” merely meant that he was the creative substance or essence of every thing, and “Son” merely meant the divine Wisdom according to which all things are made or governed, and “Spirit” merely meant life and vitality of creation. This was dissolvent of the whole Trinity. He also said that heaven and hell are not places, but conditions of the soul. He said that all things are immortal, that animals too, like men, have souls that pass back, after death, into God or creative spirit from whom they emanated, that all history is a vast outward flow of creation by emanation, and an irrestible inward tide that finally draws all things back into God. Pope Nicholas in 865 wrote to Charles the Bald either to send John to Rome for trial, or dismiss him from the Palace School, “that he may no longer give poison to those who seek for bread”. We do not know what happened but we hear no more of him. William of Malmesbury relates that he “came to England and our monastery, as report says; was pierced with iron pens of the boys whom he instructed”, and died from the results. He was later on forgotten but in the thirteenth century his book De divisions naturae was exhumed from oblivion; it was condemned by the Council of Sens (1225), and Pope Honorious III ordered that all copies should be sent to Rome and there be burned (Will Durant, The Age of Faith, pp. 477-79).


  1. It does not mean Apollonius was opposed to image-worship. We are told of an interesting dialogue he had on the subject with an Egyptian priest. Apollonius defended the Greek fashion of worshipping the Divinity under the form of human image, sculptured by Phidias and Praxiteles, this being the noblest form we can conceive and therefore the least inadequate to the Divine perfections. Speaking for the Egyptian fashion of worshipping the Deity in the form of animals, the Egyptian priest said that as it is blasphemous to attempt to conceive an image of the Deity, the Egyptians therefore concentrate the imagination of the worshipper on objects that are plainly allegorical or symbolical, and do not pretend to offer any such image (Philostraus, Apollonius of Tyna, vi. 19).