October 26, 2005

Indic Ideas in the Graeco-Roman World

by Subhash Kak, PhD
Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering
Louisiana State University Baton Rouge, Louisiana
It is common to speak of "civilizational ideas,'' but do they exist? For example, are the doshas of Ayurveda peculiarly Indian since they are a tripartite classification that is basic to the Vedic system of knowledge? Plato introduced a similar system based on three humours into Greek medicine, with a central role to the idea of breath (pneuma in Greek). But this centrality of breath (prana in Sanskrit) is already a feature of the much older Vedic thought. So do we agree with Jean Filliozat (1970) that Plato borrowed the elements of the wind, the gall, and the phlegm, from the earlier tridosha theory,and that the transmission occurred via the Persian empire? Others claim that any similarities between the Indian and the Greek medical systems must be a result of the shared Indo-European heritage and what may appear to be Indian is actually Indo-European.
Dumezil's demonstration that tripartite categories operated elsewherein the Indo-European world supports this latter view. Dumezil argued that all Indo-European religions have three hierarchical functions: sacred sovereignty, force, and fecundity, represented by the categories of brahman, rajan (or kshatra), and vish. Religious and political sovereignty is conceived as a dual category: the magician-king and the jurist-priest. In India, this duality is in the roles of the rajan and brahman; in Rome, of rex and flamen. Even the names are similar! In his Mitra-Varuna Dumezil (1948) shows that the magician-king (Varuna in India or Romulus in Rome) initiates in violence the social order that the jurist-priest (Mitra in India or Numa in Rome) develops in peace.
Magical sovereignty operates by means of bonds and debts, whereas juridical sovereignty employs pacts and faith. This pattern is repeated in time: in the cult of Christ as the "son'' he is the "intercessor" and savior juxtaposed to the avenging, punishing father.'' There is similarity between the Indian and the Greek religions as also in the society sketched in the Mahabharata and Homeric poems. Metempsychosis is known in both places. The imagery of the "world-egg,''so central to Vedic thought, is described in the later Orphic legends. According to Rawlinson (1975), "the resemblance between the two legends is too close to be accidental.'' These parallels are the result either of shared origins, migration, or cultural diffusion, or a combination of the three.
As an illustration of a civilizational idea consider the notion of self in the Upanishadic dialogues, which the texts assert is the essence of the Veda, its secret knowledge. A similar emphasis on self-knowledge is introduced into Greek thought by the Pythagoreans and the Orphics. Corresponding to the three gunas of sattva, rajas, tamas, Plato spoke of three categories logistikon, thumos, epithumia and he used a three-part classification for society. According to Lomperis (1984), "Plato, through the Pythagoreans and also the Orphics, was subjected to the influence of Hindu thought, but that he may not have been aware of it as coming from India.'' Irrespective of the source of these ideas, it is clear that, civilizationally, by the time of the Greek philosophers, there existed very important parallels between India and Greece. Innovations in art and scientific knowledge, when supported by archaeological and textual records, can help delineate the process at the basis of pivotal cultural transformations. Indian Science & Technology

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