October 01, 2007

Plato's ‘myth of the cave’ reflecting the Vedantic doctrine of maya, his concept of nous showing its similarity to the concept of Atman

Review Article Dr Anil Baran Ray
Professor of Political Science University of Burdwan
Journey of the Upanishads to the West
Swami Tathagatananda. The Vedanta Society of New York, 34 West 71st Street, New York, NY 10023. 2002. E-mail: 599 pp. Rs 200. Available at Advaita Ashrama, 5 Dehi Entally Road, Kolkata 700 014. E-mail:

Swami Tathagatananda, a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order and spiritual head of the Vedanta Society of New York, who has impressed us with publications such as Meditations on Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda (1993) and The Vedanta Society of New York (2000), has now come up with a gem of a book, very appropriately titled Journey of the Upanishads to the West, detailing Western scholars’ contribution to the dissemination of the Truth that was first discovered by the ancient rishis of India...
As regards Greece, he refutes the popular notion that with Alexander’s invasion in 326-27 BC, India became open to all sorts of influences from Greece, and shows that long before Alexander’s invasion, Pythagorus had perhaps travelled to India in the sixth century BC and that his theory of the harmony of the spheres reflected the ‘esoteric use of numbers in the Vedas and the Upanishads’. (11)

Further, Socrates (469-399 BC) had occasion to meet an Indian philosopher in course of roaming on the streets of Athens and was greatly moved by the latter’s Upanishadic observation that humans - the relative - could be properly understood only in the light of an understanding of the Divine - the Absolute.

The Indian influence is most discernible in the writings of Plato. His ‘myth of the cave’ reflecting the Vedantic doctrine of maya, his concept of nous showing its similarity to the Upanishadic concept of Atman and his idea of omniscience, somewhat similar to jnana yoga, the way of knowledge in the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita - all indicate the influence of Indian Upanishadic and religious thought on Plato. Indeed, Max Muller was startled to note the similarity between Plato’s language and that of the Upanishads. And Urwick went to the length of observing that most of Plato’s Republic was a paraphrasing of Indian ideas...
The crucial initial role in bringing about the expansion of India’s spiritual culture to France was played in the year 1671 by a French traveller to India by the name of Francis Bernier, who brought to France in that year the Persian translation of fifty Upani­shads made by Prince Dara Shukoh in 1656. The French interest in India’s spiritual literature, awakened by this event, received a boost when Voltaire received the gift of a copy of the Yajur Veda in 1760, which he regarded as the most precious ‘for which the West was ever indebted to the East’. The distinguished French philosopher Victor Cousin (1792-1867) poured his heart’s reverence for the Vedanta philosophy of India by acknowledging it as the highest philosophy that mankind had ever produced...
Among the German scholars who played the pivotal role in promoting the journey of the Upanishads to the West, Friedrich Von Schelling (1775-1854), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900) and Paul Deussen (1854-1919) deserve special mention. Schelling’s admiration for the Upanishads followed from his study of the Oupnek’hat. He was so charmed by the ideas of the Upanishads that he wanted their widest possible circulation in Germany and to that end he set Max Muller to the task of translating a portion of the Upanishads.

Schopenhauer, whose The World as Will and Idea was influenced by the Chandogya Upanishad, held that the Upanishads were the most beneficial and elevating study that the world had ever produced and that ‘it has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death’...
The services that England gave to the cause of Indic studies through scholars such as Sir William Jones (1746-94) and others that followed him were glorious by all means. Jones founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in 1784. Under his able guidance, Indic studies in general and Vedic studies in particular received an organized focus and direction. ‘One correct version of any celebrated Hindu book would be of greater value than all the dissertations or essays that could be composed on the same subject,’ stated Jones, who also asserted that ‘without detracting from the “never-fading laurels of Newton” the whole of Newton’s theology and part of his philosophy were to be found in the Vedas and other Indian works.’ Known for his 6-volume Works, Jones’ English translation of the Ishavasya Upanishad was also the first translation of any Upanishad into a European language.

Sir Charles Wilkins (1750-1836), known for his memorable contributions to the research of the Asiatic Society, was the first to bring out a translation of the Gita into a European language. ‘The essence of the Hindu thought, as elegantly and concisely put forth in the Bhagavad Gita, was disseminated through­out all of Europe thanks to Wilkins’ translation...
The popular notion is that Vedanta made its journey to America for the first time through Swami Vivekananda in 1893 with the message he broadcast at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in September 1893. But the ground for the reception of such a message was prepared during the nineteenth century by the American transcendentalists such as Ralph W Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. The transcendentalists’ basic message that life was not limited to the five senses and that the individual ego was to be transcended for knowing truth, ultimately went back to the Upanishads. Emerson, the first prominent American to embrace Indian thought, received the gift of a copy of the Bhagavadgita (the English translation of Charles Wilkins) from Carlyle and made this most inspiring book his lifelong companion. Among the Upanishads it was the Katha Upanishad that influenced him most. His comments on the ‘Over-Soul’ showed his awareness of the Upanishadic concept of the Paramatman. His poems ‘The Celestial Love’ and ‘Wood-Notes’ reflected his knowledge of the immanence of the supreme Being. Above all, his poem ‘Brahma’ indicated his profound harmony with the Indian scriptures. Indeed, in this poem ‘American Vedantism’, as Tathagatananda puts it, ‘reached its highest level’. (431)

Thoreau stood on an equal footing with Emerson as an avatara of Indian wisdom in the United States. By his own acknowledgement, he acquired such wisdom from his study of the Vedas. As he said, ‘What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like a light of a higher and purer luminary.’ (441) Ex Oriente Lux (’light from the East’) was the proclaimed motto of Thoreau’s life.

Whitman’s compositions, especially his Leaves of Grass, bear such strains of Upanishadic message - transcendence of the ego, immanence of God and intuitability of knowledge - that one could see very clearly that he was very deeply influenced by the Upanishads and that he was thoroughly seized of the oriental spirit.

Apart from the American transcendentalists, two other agencies - the American Oriental Society, formed in Boston in 1842, and Harvard University through the Harvard Oriental Series, started in 1891 - gave a boost to studies of Indian wisdom in America...
The Russian interest in Vedanta began as early as when Anquetil-Duperron was writing his Latin translation of the Upanishads, Oupnek’hat, but became pronounced with Tolstoy’s expressing his keen interest in the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, the Tirukkural (a Tamil classic) and in the spiritual literature of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Having read Swamiji’s Raja Yoga and two volumes of his speeches and articles, Tolstoy rated Swamiji as ‘India’s greatest modern philosopher’ and ‘placed him among the world’s greatest thinkers, along with Socrates, Rousseau and Kant‘. (528)...
Swami Tathagatananda’s efforts towards putting across the truth of Vedanta and towards distilling the essence of the Upanishadic message from the writings of scholars of six Western countries are, to say the least, monumental. But for years of dedicated and enormously painstaking research, documented with quotations from the works of distinguished scholars, a work of such magnitude could not have been produced. Swami Tathagatananda has indeed very deservingly earned the gratitude of humanity with this work of lasting value.

1 comment:

  1. [This morning I was reviewing Plato’s myth of the cave. Whenever I do that, I’m surprised anew by a couple of things.

    First, it’s extremely short, just a couple of pages.

    Second, it’s not especially well-written, in the literary sense. Let me rephrase that, because it sounds like a critique when it’s not… What I mean is that when Plato presents the myth of the cave, he doesn’t seem to be exerting himself to be “literary”. The language isn’t especially pretty.

    What both points tell us about is the remarkable power of myth for philosophy, which is too rarely exploited. If Plato had spent two pages making an “argument” about the perfect forms, it might have been perfectly valuable in a philosophical sense, but it would have been unlikely to have haunted the dreams of philosophers for nearly 2,400 years.

    There are a select handful of great philosophical myth-makers, with Plato and Nietzsche surely leading the pack. Ironically, it is analytic rather than continental philosophy that has made more attempts at the utilization of myth. Just think of the Chinese Room or Sellars’s “Myth of Jones” (a stupid name, but more on that some other time). In fact, it is considered to be an intellectual skill of basic importance in analytic philosophy to be able to construct examples of this sort. Though I believe many or most are completely unsuccessful at unleashing any mythic resonance, at least the effort is there.

    On the continental side, though a figure like Derrida certainly enjoys creating collages from the literary images of others, he’s not a myth-maker. And it is the myth-makers who tend to have a lot of staying power… Kafka as opposed to Henry James, or Nietzsche as opposed to Mill. (Those are my predictions for the future canon, anyway.)
    -myth in philosophy from Object-Oriented Philosophy by doctorzamalek]