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Overlapping Legacies: Vedic India and Ancient Greece in Conversation

Greece and India share a common, ancient language, brought to both lands by the same people that brought the gods of their pantheons. The connection goes beyond the common Proto-Indo-European inheritance: Greek and Indian learning, too, interacted in historical times.

The vast daytime sky of the Eurasian steppe, the land that the Proto-Indo-Europeans called home. © sabine_lj /

July 20, 2023 22:12 EDT

Imagine a distant past, thousands of years ago, when ancient tribes roamed the vast lands of Eurasia. Among these tribes were the enigmatic Proto-Indo-Europeans, whose language, now known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE), would shape the course of history. From this ancient tongue, a linguistic family tree emerged with branches spreading far and wide, giving rise to fascinating languages like Greek and Sanskrit.

Picture a diverse community of Proto-Indo-Europeans, their voices blending in a harmonious symphony of speech. As the tribes dispersed, dialects naturally evolved, setting the stage for the emergence of new branches within the Indo-European family.

In one branch, we encounter the ancestors of the Greeks. Through centuries of storytelling, trade and cultural exchanges, their language transformed, molding itself iGreecento the melodic sounds of ancient Greek. From Mycenaean Greek to the majestic Classical Greek, it left an indelible mark on literature, philosophy and civilization.

In a distant land, the Indo-Aryan branch began to take shape. Eventually settling in the Indian subcontinent, the early Indo-Aryans embraced their own dialects, leading to the emergence of Sanskrit. This refined language, with its intricate grammar and poetic beauty, became the language of the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism. Sanskrit’s influence extended across the Indian subcontinent, weaving the rich tapestry of modern Indian languages.

But how did these languages, which had once been intertwined, diverge and become distinct entities? Sound changes and linguistic shifts played a crucial role. Over time, unique pronunciations emerged, creating new phonetic landscapes for each language. The way they treated certain sounds diverged like branches growing apart yet still rooted in their ancestral soil.

As these languages developed, their vocabularies and grammars evolved, shaped by the cultures, experiences and encounters of their speakers. Greek and Sanskrit each cultivated their own lexicons and syntactic structures, resulting in distinct linguistic identities.

As centuries passed, Greek went through a historical odyssey, with Classical Greek paving the way for the renowned Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and Byzantine Greek, echoing through the corridors of the Eastern Roman Empire. Eventually, Modern Greek emerged, carrying the torch of its ancient lineage into the contemporary world.

Meanwhile, Sanskrit’s influence permeated the Indian subcontinent, nurturing a multitude of Indo-Aryan languages. From Hindi to Bengali, Gujarati to Punjabi, each language absorbed the essence of Sanskrit, blending it with regional flavors and giving birth to a linguistic kaleidoscope.

The development of Greek, Sanskrit and their linguistic kin reflects the interplay of history, migration and human ingenuity. From a common ancestral language, Proto-Indo-European, these languages branched out, enriching the give-and-take of human communication.

The past tends to conceal its secrets, leaving us with tantalizing clues and intriguing possibilities. Yet, how tempting it is to contemplate the hidden connections between ancient Greece and India, where ideas flowed like a gentle breeze, moving the thoughts of philosophers, kings and the laity alike. 

A confluence of ideas between Vedic India and ancient Greece. 

Both Classical Greek and Vedic Sanskrit belong to the Indo-European language family, two distant branches of the same linguistic tree. This shared heritage suggests that these cultures may have interacted and exchanged more than just passing greetings. 

Neoplatonism emerged as a philosophical movement within the Roman Empire between the third and fifth centuries CE, building upon the foundational ideas of Plato (c. 428-347 BC) while also expanding and reshaping them in various ways. 

Neoplatonism, with its roots in classical Greek and Persian philosophy as well as Egyptian theology, served as a profound source of inspiration for a wide range of metaphysicians and mystics across various traditions. I argue that it has its roots in Indian philosophy as well. Its metaphysical principles not only influenced pagan, Jewish, Christian, Gnostic and Islamic thinkers but also continued to shape their philosophical and mystical endeavors throughout the centuries.

Ammonius Saccas was a philosopher who lived in Alexandria during the third century CE. He is considered the founder of the Neoplatonic school. Ammonius was deeply influenced by various philosophical and religious traditions, including Greek, Egyptian and, some writers suggest, Indian philosophies. In my view, however, it was through his student Plotinus, a Roman philosopher who lived in the third century CE, that the integration of Vedanta philosophy into Neoplatonism became more explicit.

Neoplatonism and Indian Philosophy (SUNY Press), edited by the estimable Paulos Mar Gregorios, delves into the potential influence of Indian thought on Plotinus and his teacher Ammonius Saccas as well as their primary inspiration, Plato. It raises the question of whether Platonism, Plotinism and the underlying thought patterns in Western religion, literature and art are variations of concepts found in ancient Hindu philosophy, rather than purely evolutionary products of Greek philosophy.

The essays within the book explore the actual similarities in themes or philosophical systems between select Western Neoplatonic writers and prominent Hindu philosophers. They thoroughly examine the arguments both in favor of and against the notion that Indian philosophy serves as a source for Plotinus’ ideas.

At the core of Vedanta philosophy is the concept of Brahman, the ultimate reality or absolute consciousness that underlies all existence. This concept resonates with Plotinus’ idea of “the One,” which he considered as the ultimate source of all being and the pinnacle of reality. For Plotinus, the One transcends all categories, including being and non-being, and is beyond the grasp of intellectual comprehension. This notion parallels the Vedantic understanding of Brahman as beyond words and concepts.

Furthermore, Vedanta philosophy emphasizes the concept of maya, which refers to the illusory nature of the phenomenal world. According to Vedanta, the world we perceive is a manifestation of Brahman but is not ultimately real. Plotinus incorporated a similar notion in his teachings, suggesting that the material world is a lower level of reality and is a product of the multiplicity and diversity emanating from the One.

Another significant parallel between Neoplatonism and Vedanta is the idea of emanation. In Vedanta, the world emanates from Brahman in a hierarchical manner, with various levels of reality emerging from the Absolute. Similarly, Plotinus proposed a system of emanation, where multiple levels of reality cascade down from the One, including the Intellect and the Soul.

Plotinus and Vedanta both drew upon ideas of the soul’s journey towards liberation or union with the divine. In Vedanta, this process is known as moksha or self-realization. Plotinus referred to it as “the return of the soul to the One.” He believed that the soul, which is originally derived from the One, has become entangled in the material world but can regain its true nature through contemplation, philosophical inquiry and ascetic practices.

The Neoplatonic school, with its focus on the One, the nature of reality, the hierarchy of existence and the journey of the soul, provided a framework to the Greco-Roman world for understanding the universe and one’s place in it. It included subsequent philosophers such as Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus and influenced early Christian thinkers like Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo.

In Greek philosophy, especially in the writings of Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher hailing from Ephesus in present-day Turkey, the term “logos” encompassed a range of significances. Plato and Aristotle subsequently expanded upon the theme. The meanings of the term included reason, conversation and language, as well as the inherent order and organization of the cosmos. Logos embodied the rational principle that governs and brings harmony to the world. It was regarded as a fundamental element of human existence, facilitating communication, comprehension and the quest for knowledge.

Similarly, in the Vedic tradition, “vak” is the Sanskrit term for speech or language but also holds a deeper significance. Vak is considered a divine power associated with the goddess Saraswati and is seen as the creative force behind the universe. Vak is believed to have the power to manifest thoughts and ideas into reality. It is the means through which the ultimate reality (Brahman) expresses itself in the world.

Both logos and vak emphasize the importance of language in shaping our understanding of the world. They recognize that language is not merely a tool for communication but a profound force that underlies creation and provides a framework for human cognition and expression. Both concepts suggest that there is an inherent order and meaning in the universe that can be accessed and understood through language.

Furthermore, both logos and vak recognize the transformative power of words. They emphasize that the way we use language can shape our reality and have a profound impact on ourselves and others. The proper use of language is seen as a means to attain wisdom, knowledge and spiritual realization. The epistemic similarities between the two have been analyzed by the Greek scholar Nikolas Kazanas among others. 

The Greeks encountered a fascinating belief: metempsychosis—the notion that souls can migrate into new bodies. This concept intrigued early Greek philosophers like Pythagoras. It bears a strong similarity to the Indian belief in reincarnation. For centuries, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains have embraced the idea that our souls embark on a journey of multiple lifetimes. Could it be that Indian notions about the cyclical nature of existence influenced the musings of these Greek thinkers? Many scholars seem to think so. 

The Greek philosopher Empedocles introduced the world to the four elements—earth, air, fire and water—as the building blocks of all matter. Remarkably, ancient Indian philosophy also recognized a similar set of elements known as “mahabhuta.” Earth, air, fire and water played a vital role in both cultures’ understanding of the world. 

Greek philosophers like Pyrrho and the Cynics had a remarkable inclination toward detachment and renunciation. These ideas bear a striking resemblance to concepts found in Indian philosophies such as Buddhism and Jainism. The pursuit of non-attachment, the rejection of material possessions and the quest for inner peace and enlightenment were common to both the Pyrrhonists and the gymnosophists.

The Greeks coined the term “gymnosophist” to refer to a group of ancient Indian philosophers. The word literally means “naked philosophers” or “naked wise men.” These individuals pursued asceticism to such an extent that they considered food and clothing as hindrances to pure thinking. Various Greek authors mentioned that they followed a vegetarian diet. Additionally, there were gymnosophists in Upper Egypt who Apollonius of Tyana referred to as “Ethiopian gymnosophists.”

Diogenes Laërtius, the famous biographer of philosophers who lived in the 3rd century AD, made references to the gymnosophists. He reported that Pyrrho of Ellis, while in India alongside Alexander the Great, was influenced by these gymnosophists. Upon returning to Ellis, Pyrrho adopted their way of life, which eventually led him to establish the Hellenistic philosophy of Pyrrhonism.

Gods and fate in the Iliad and the Mahabharata

The Iliad and the Mahabharata, two monumental epic poems, offer captivating narratives that plumb the depths of human experience and explore themes of war, heroism and destiny. The Iliad, a Greek epic poem traditionally attributed to Homer, originated in ancient Greece during the 6th to 8th centuries BC. Similarly, the Mahabharata, an ancient epic poem from India, traditionally attributed to the great sage Vyasa, traces its roots back to the 6th century BC. Despite originating from different cultures, these epics share intriguing similarities and offer rich grounds for comparative analysis.

One of the most striking parallels between the Iliad and the Mahabharata is their central focus on monumental wars. In the Iliad, we witness the epic conflict of the Trojan War, while the Mahabharata unfolds around the Kurukshetra War. Both battles serve as backdrops for the exploration of profound human emotions, the struggles of heroes and the complex dynamics of family and honor.

There is a strong resemblance between characters in the Iliad and their counterparts in the Mahabharata. Take Achilles, the central figure in the Iliad, and his uncanny similarities to the valiant Arjuna from the Mahabharata. Both are renowned warriors, gifted with extraordinary skills while burdened with fatal flaws. Both are guided by a code of honor that shapes their actions on the battlefield. 

Both grand narratives of the Iliad and the Mahabharata, though commonly ascribed to single authors, emerged from what M.H. Abrams, a renowned critic known for shaping the contemporary literary canon through the creation of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, defines as the “primary epic.” Within this framework, these epics were carefully molded by literary artists who drew inspiration from historical and legendary accounts that had evolved within the oral traditions of their respective nations during periods of expansion and conflict.

Divine intervention plays a significant role in both these epics, where gods and goddesses actively intervene in the affairs of semi-divine humans on Earth. The deities participate in councils, manipulate events and even determine the fates of mortal warriors. In the Mahabharata, gods frequently descend from the heavens to witness battles between valiant warriors. However, these divine beings are not above trickery, as exemplified by the god Indra’s actions when he approaches Karna to acquire his armor, thus ensuring Karna’s defeat against Arjuna.

Moreover, the gods bestow blessings or punishments on humans according as they are driven by their personal inclinations. Often portrayed as relentless, they exhibit little mercy, especially when humans deviate from their ordained paths. In the Iliad, Zeus stands in support of the Trojans during the war and sends Hermes to accompany King Priam to Achilles’ camp. 

Both the Mahabharata and the Iliad seem to exalt the splendor of warfare. Characters are assessed and judged based on their courage and competence in battle, determining whether they are worthy of admiration or contempt. For instance, Paris in the Iliad is disdained by his family and lover for his aversion to fighting, while Achilles earns eternal renown for deliberately rejecting a peaceful and unremarkable life at home. 

The texts themselves uphold this measure of character evaluation and extend it even to the gods. They portray warlike deities like Athena in a favorable light, while humorously ridiculing timid gods such as Aphrodite and Artemis, who shy away from aggression. 

Fate weaves its tapestry in intriguing ways across both tales. The Pandavas, banished to the forest for a grueling 14-year period, mirror the enduring struggle of the Trojan War, fought for an equally lengthy duration.

As battle ensues, we witness the inner turmoil of two great warriors. Arjuna, initially hesitant to raise his weapon, mirrors the reluctance that Achilles shows when the Trojan War erupts. Both grapple with their roles in the face of conflict.

Arjuna, filled with sorrow over his fallen son Abhimanyu, solemnly vows to avenge his death by slaying Jaydrath. Similarly, Achilles mourns the loss of his beloved brother Patroclus, vowing to seek retribution by slaying Hector.

Darkness becomes an ally as strategic strikes shake the enemy’s foundations. Ghatotkacha, using the element of surprise and wielding fire as his weapon, wreaks havoc upon the Kaurava army, decimating their camps with devastating flames. Hector employs a similar tactic, launching a fiery assault under the cover of night, reducing the Greek ships to ash.

The art of storytelling unites the two narratives. Sanjaya, the narrator of the Mahabharata, relays the epic saga of the war to the blind king Dhritarashtra, providing a window into the unfolding events. Similarly, a minister assumes the role of narrator, recounting the Trojan War to their king, ensuring the tales of valor and tragedy reach eager ears.

Blindness to the faults of one’s own kin emerges as a recurring theme. Dhritarashtra, turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of his wicked son Duryodhana, parallels the Trojan king, who remains oblivious to the faults of his son Paris, despite their detrimental consequences.

Moments of triumph and anguish shape the lives of the characters. Duryodhana’s exultation upon winning Draupadi in the game of dice echoes through the halls as he revels in his newfound power, proclaiming her as their slave. Similarly, in the Iliad, Briseis, a Trojan woman, becomes a pawn awarded to Achilles after suffering the indignities inflicted upon her by other kings and soldiers.

Prophecies cast a foreboding shadow over the destinies of key figures. The Iliad speaks of the prophecy regarding Paris, the harbinger of destruction for his kingdom. Similarly, the Mahabharata foretells the prophecy of Duryodhana, whose actions will ultimately bring ruin upon his own realm

From Dyḗus to Zeus: The Sky Father in Indo-European Mythology. 

In the hidden mists of prehistory, where myth and religion intermingle, the Proto-Indo-European people held a profound reverence for their deities. Among this pantheon of gods, one figure stood out—the mighty Sky Father. Initially revered as the father of other gods, this celestial patriarch ultimately ascended to become the supreme ruler of the divine realm, reigning over a vast expanse of Indo-European lands from Ireland to India.

The connection between the Indo-European populations and the luminous daytime sky was unmistakable. The radiant heavens served as a beacon of inspiration for poets, scholars and mystics who sought to unravel the mysteries of the divine. 

Deep within the roots of the Proto-Indo-European language, scholars unearthed the name Dyḗus phtḗr, Sky Father, as the ancient term for this revered deity. Its echoes reverberated across cultures, finding expression in the Vedic Dyáuṣ, the Greek Zeús and the Latin Iouis or Diouis. The assimilation of thunder and storms by Zeus and Iouis, possibly influenced by Near Eastern traditions, added a dynamic and powerful dimension to their divine personas.

The linguistic puzzle pieces gradually revealed the underlying meaning of Dyḗus. The word di/dei, serving as the foundation for the derived forms of Dyḗus, encapsulated the essence of “giving off light.” It is no surprise, then, that words stemming from this root evoked notions of brightness, heaven, sky, daylight and day itself. 

The Latin “diēs” the Vedic “divé-dive” denoting daily occurrences and the Armenian word “tiw,” meaning daytime, all point to the undeniable connection between the sky and the concept of day. Furthermore, the same root gave rise to dyéw- or deiwos, finding expression in the Baltic deities Diẽvas and Dievs, as well as the generic Latin term for God, deus.

Across the vast pantheon of Indo-European deities, the Sky Father Dyḗus reigned supreme. His role transcended that of a mere deity; he assumed the esteemed position of a divine patriarch, a father figure to the gods themselves. Whether referred to as Dyáuṣ in Vedic, Zeu páter or patrós Diós in Greek or Iuppiter and Diespiter in Latin, his fatherly title remained consistent, reflecting the enduring reverence bestowed upon him by his worshippers.

But how did Zeus and Jupiter, the illustrious figures of Greek and Roman mythology, ascend from being mere sky-gods to sovereign rulers of the entire pantheon? The answer lies not solely in their fatherly status but also in their embodiment of the sky and heaven itself. As divine entities, Zeus and Jupiter possessed an all-seeing, all-encompassing wisdom.

Homer, the renowned ancient Greek poet, aptly described Zeus with the epithet “eurúopa,” meaning “with wide vision.” Interestingly, this epithet gave birth to the name Europe itself, as the continent was named after a woman abducted by Zeus, who bore him the famous King Minos of Crete. 

Similarly, the Rigveda hailed Dyáuṣ as the “all-knowing god.” This supreme quality stemmed from his ability to perceive all that transpired below. With such immense power, the Rigveda rightfully acknowledged the greatness of the Sky God, referring to him as “máh,” meaning “great.” Zeus, too, was often described with the Homeric epithet mégas, emphasizing his immense stature.

The sun, often called the “eye of Dyéus” or the “lamp of Dyéus,” enjoyed a unique connection to the Sky Father. Both the sun and the sky shared the attributes of being all-seeing and all-knowing, making them overseers of oaths and justice.

This all-seeing, all-knowing nature of the Sky Father, his role in overseeing justice and oaths and his connection to the sun created a fertile ground for the concept of sovereignty and kingship. French mythographer and philologist, George Dumézil, introduced the significant concept of the “trifunctional hypothesis.”

According to Dumézil, Indo-European myths and religions could be interpreted as symbolic representations of three fundamental domains: the sacred, the martial and the economic. These domains reflected different ideologies and corresponded to the hierarchical division of society into castes or classes associated with sovereignty, military affairs and productivity. In the Greco-Roman world, Zeus and Jupiter embodied sovereignty, while Mitra-Varuna and Mithra-Ahura Mazda fulfilled this role in the Indo-Iranian context.

In the vast Indo-European cosmos, the gods resided in the heavens, while humanity inhabited the earth below. This division created an inherent contrast between mortals and the divine. Yet, through wisdom gained from observing celestial phenomena and the skies above, humans gained glimpses of the tremendous power possessed by the immortals.

The great ancient poet Homer beautifully captured this distinction when Odysseus told Nausicaa, “If you are one of the gods who dwell in the broad heaven, I reckon you are most like Artemis … but if you are of the mortals who live on earth, then thrice fortunate are your parents and brothers.”

The enduring legacy of the ancient Proto-Indo-European religion and mythology continues to shape the belief systems of their countless descendants. Across vast lands, under the watchful gaze of the all-seeing Sky Father Dyéus, his children thrive, honoring their ancestral roots and embracing the divinity that stretches across the heavens.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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