India And Greece


Ancient Greece is supposed to be the fountain-head of European civilization and much has been written about the fundamental difference between the Orient and the Occident. I do not understand this; a great deal of it seems to me to be vague and unscientific, without much basis in fact. Till recently many European thinkers imagined that everything that was worthwhile had its origin in Greece or Rome. Sir Henry Maine has said somewhere that except the blind forces of nature, nothing moves in this world which is not originally Greek. European classical scholars, deeply learned in Greek and Latin lore, knew very little about India and China. Yet Professor E. R. Dodds emphasizes the ‘Oriental background against which Greek culture rose, and from which it was never completely isolated save in the minds of classical scholars.’

Scholarship in Europe was necessarily limited for a long time to Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and the picture of the world that grew out of it was of the Mediterranean world. The basic idea was not essentially different from that of the old Romans, though inevitably many changes and adaptations had to be made to it. That idea not only governed the conceptions of history and geopolitics and the development of culture and civilization, but also came in the way of scientific progress. Plato and Aristotle dominated the mind. Even when some knowledge of what the people of Asia had done in the past soaked into the European mind, it was not willingly accepted. There was an unconscious resistance to it, an attempt to fit it somehow into the previous picture. If scholars believed so, much more so did the unread crowd believe in some essential difference between the east and the west. The industrialization of Europe and the consequent material progress impressed this difference still further on the popular mind, and by an odd process of rationalization ancient Greece became the father or mother of modern Europe and America. Additional knowledge of the past of the world shook these conclusions in the minds of a few thinkers, but so far as the mass of the people were concerned, intellectuals and non-intellectuals, the centuries-old ideas continued, phantoms floating about in the upper layer of their consciousness and fading away into the landscape they had fashioned for themselves.

I do not understand the use of the words Orient and Occident, except in the sense that Europe and America are highly industrialized and Asia is backward in this respect. This industrialization is something new in the world’s history, and it has changed and continues to change the world more than anything else has done. There is no organic connection between Hellenic civilization and modern European and American civilization. The modern notion that the really important thing is to be comfortable is entirely foreign to the ideas underlying Greek or any other ancient literature. Greeks and Indians and Chinese and Iranians were always seeking a religion and a philosophy of life which affected all their activities and which were intended to produce an equilibrium and a sense of harmony. This ideal emerges in every aspect of life—in literature, art, and institutions—and it produces a sense of proportion and completeness. Probably these impressions are not wholly justified and the actual conditions of life may have been very different. But even so, it is important to remember how far removed are modern Europe and America from the whole approach and outlook of the Greeks, whom they praise so much in their leisure moments, and with whom they seek some distant contacts, in order to satisfy some inner yearning of their hearts, or find some oasis in the harsh and fiery deserts of modern existence.

Every country and people in the East and the West has had an individuality, a message, and has attempted to solve life’s problems each in its own way. Greece is something definite, superb in its own way; so is India, so is China, so is Iran. Ancient India and ancient Greece were different from each other and yet they were akin, just as ancient India and ancient China had kinship in thought, in spite of great differences. They all had the same broad, tolerant, pagan outlook, joy in life and in the surprising beauty and infinite variety of nature, love of art, and the wisdom that comes from the accumulated experience of an old race. Each of them developed in accordance with its racial genius, influenced by its natural environment, and emphasized some one aspect of life more than others. This emphasis varied. The Greeks, as a race, may have lived more in the present and found joy and harmony in the beauty they saw around them or which they themselves created. The Indians found this joy and harmony also in the present, but, at the same time, their eyes were turned towards deeper knowledge and their minds trafficked with strange questions. The Chinese, fully aware of these questions and their mystery, in their wisdom avoided entanglement with them. In their different ways each tried to express the fullness and beauty of life. History has shown that India and China had stronger foundations and greater staying power; they have thus far survived, though they have been badly shaken and have greatly deteriorated, and the future is obscure.

Old Greece, for all its brilliance, had a short life; it did not survive except in its splendid achievements, its influence on succeeding cultures, and the memory of that short bright day of abundant life. Perhaps because it was too much engrossed in the present, it became the past.

India is far nearer in spirit and outlook to the old Greece than the nations of Europe are today, although they call themselves children of the Hellenic spirit. We are apt to forget this because we have inherited fixed concepts which prevent reasoned thought. India, it is said, is religious, philosophical, speculative, metaphysical, unconcerned with this world, and lost in dreams of the beyond and the hereafter. So we are told, and perhaps those who tell us so would like India to remain plunged in thought and entangled in speculation, so that they might possess this world and the fullness thereof, unhindered by these thinkers, and take their joy of it. Yes, India has been all this but also much more than this. She has known the innocence and insouciance of childhood, the passion and abandon of youth, and the ripe wisdom of maturity that comes from long experience of pain and pleasure; and over and over again she has renewed her childhood and youth and age. The tremendous inertia of age and size have weighed her down, degrading custom and evil practice have eaten into her, many a parasite has clung to her and sucked her blood, but behind all this lie the strength of ages and the subconscious wisdom of an ancient race. For we are very old, and trackless centuries whisper in our ears; yet we have known how to regain our youth again and again, though the memory and dreams of those past ages endure with us.

It is not some secret doctrine or esoteric knowledge that has kept India vital and going through these long ages, but a tender humanity, a varied and tolerant culture, and a deep understanding of life and its mysterious ways. Her abundant vitality flows out from age to age in her magnificent literature and art, though we have only a small part of this with us and much lies hidden still or has been destroyed by nature or man’s vandalism. The Trimurti, in the Elephanta caves, might well be the many-faced statue of India herself, powerful, with compelling eyes, full of deep knowledge and understanding, looking down upon us. The Ajanta frescoes are full of a tenderness and love of beauty and life, and yet always with a suspicion of something deeper, something beyond.

Geographically and climatically Greece is different from India. There are no real rivers there, no forests, no big trees, which abound in India. The sea with its immensity and changing moods affected the Greeks far more than it did the Indians, except perhaps those who lived near India’s coastline. India’s life was more continental, of vast plains and huge mountains, of mighty rivers and great forests. There were some mountains in Greece also, and the Greeks chose Olympus as the abode of the gods, just as the Indians placed their gods and even their sages on the Himalayan heights. Both developed a mythology which was indivisibly mixed up with history, and it was not possible to separate fact from fiction. The old Greeks are said to have been neither pleasure-seekers nor ascetics; they did not avoid pleasure as something evil and immoral, nor did they go out deliberately to amuse themselves as modern people are apt to do. Without the inhibitions which afflict so many of us, they took life in their stride, applying themselves wholly to whatever they did, and thus somehow they appear to have been more alive than we are. Some such impression one gathers of life in India also from our old literature. There was an ascetic aspect of life in India, as there was later in Greece, but it was confined to a limited number of people and did not affect life generally. That aspect was to grow more important under the influence of Jainism and Buddhism, but even so it did not change materially the background of life.

Life was accepted as it was and lived fully both in India and Greece; nevertheless, there was a belief in the supremacy of some kind of inner life. This led to curiosity and speculation, but the spirit of inquiry was not so much directed towards objective experience as to logical reasoning fixed on certain concepts which were accepted as obviously true. That indeed was the general attitude everywhere before the advent of the scientific method. Probably this speculation was confined to a small number of intellectuals, yet even the ordinary citizens were influenced by it and discussed philosophical problems, as they did everything else, in their public meeting places. Life was communal, as it is even now in India, especially in the rural areas, where people meet in the market place, in the enclosure of the temple or mosque, at the well-head, or at the panchayat ghar or common assembly house, where such exists, to discuss the news of the day and their common needs. Thus public opinion was formed and found expression. There was plenty of leisure for these discussions.

And yet Hellenism has among its many splendid achievements one that is even more unique than others, the early beginnings of experimental science. This was developed far more in the Hellenic world of Alexandria than in Greece itself, and the two centuries from 330 to 130 B.C. stand out in the record of scientific development and mechanical invention. There is nothing to compare with this in India, or, for the matter of that, anywhere else till science again took a big stride from the seventeenth century onwards. Even Rome for all its empire and the Pax Romana over a considerable area, its close contacts with Hellenic civilization, its opportunities to draw upon the learning and experiences of many people, made no significant contribution to science, invention, or mechanical development. After the collapse of classical civilization in Europe it was the Arabs who kept the flame of scientific knowledge alight through the Middle Ages.

This burst of scientific activity and invention in Alexandria was no doubt the social product of the time, called forth by the needs of a growing society and of seafaring, just as the advance in arithmetic and algebraic methods, the use of the zero sign and the place-value system in India were also due to social needs, advancing trade and more complex organization. But it is doubtful how far the scientific spirit was present in the old Greeks as a whole and their life must have followed traditional patterns, based on their old philosophic approach seeking an integration and harmony in man and with nature. It is that approach which is common to old Greece and India. In Greece, as in India, the year was divided up by popular festivals which heralded the changing seasons and kept man in tune with nature’s moods. We have still these festivals in India for spring and harvest-time and deepavali, the festival of light at the end of autumn, and the holi carnival in early summer, and celebrations of the heroes of epic tradition. There is still singing and dancing at some of these festivals, folk-songs and folk-dances like the rasa-lila, the dance of Krishna with the gopis (cowherdesses).

There is no seclusion of women in ancient India except to some extent among royalty and the nobility. Probably there was more segregation of the sexes in Greece than in India then. Women of note and learning are frequently mentioned in the old Indian books, and often they took part in public debates. Marriage, in Greece, was apparently wholly a contractual affair; but in India it has always been considered a sacramental union, though other forms are mentioned.

Greek women were apparently especially welcome in India. Often the maids-in-waiting at royal courts mentioned in the old plays are Greek. Among the noted imports from Greece into India at the port of Barygaza (Broach in Western India) were, it is said, ‘singing boys and pretty maidens.’ Megasthenes describing the life of the Maurya king Chandragupta, tells us: ‘the king’s food was prepared by women who also served him with wine which is much used by all Indians.’ Some of the wine certainly came from Grecian lands or colonies, for an old Tamil poet refers to ‘the cool and fragrant wine brought by the Yavanas (Ionians or Greeks) in their good ships.’ A Greek account relates that the king of Pataliputra (probably Ashoka’s father, Bindusara) wrote to Antiochus asking him to buy and send him sweet wine, dried figs, and a Sophist philosopher. Antiochus replied: ‘We shall send you the figs and wine, but in Greece the laws forbid a Sophist to be sold.’

It is clear from Greek literature that homosexual relations were not looked upon with disfavour. Indeed there was a romantic approval of them. Possibly this was due to the segregation of the sexes in youth. A similar attitude is found in Iran, and Persian literature is full of such references. It appears to have become an established literary form and convention to represent the beloved as a male companion. There is no such thing in Sanskrit literature and homosexuality was evidently neither approved nor at all common in India.

Greece and India were in contact with each other from the earliest recorded times, and in a later period there were close contacts between India and Hellenized western Asia. The great astronomical observatory at Ujjayini (now Ujjain) in central India was linked with Alexandria in Egypt. During this long period of contact there must have been many exchanges in the world of thought and culture between these two ancient civilizations. There is a tradition recorded in some Greek book that learned Indians visited Socrates and put questions to him. Pythagoras was particularly influenced by Indian philosophy and Professor H. G. Rawlinson remarks that ‘almost all the theories, religious, philosophical, and mathematical, taught by the Pythagorians were known in India in the sixth century B.C.’ A European classical scholar, Urwick, has based his interpretation of the ‘Republic’ of Plato upon Indian thought. Gnosticism is supposed to be a definite attempt to fuse together Greek Platonic and Indian elements. The philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana probably visited the university of Taxila in north-west India about the beginning of the Christian era.

The famous traveller and scholar, Alberuni, a Persian born in Khorasan in Central Asia, came to India in the eleventh century A.C. He had already studied Greek philosophy which was popular in the early days of Islam in Baghdad. In India he took the trouble to learn Sanskrit in order to study Indian philosophy. He was struck by many common features and he has compared the two in his book on India. He refers to Sanskrit books dealing with Greek astronomy and Roman astronomy.

Though inevitably influencing each other Greek and Indian civilizations were each strong enough to hold their own and develop on their distinctive lines. In recent years there has been a reaction from the old tendency to ascribe everything to Greece and Rome, and Asia’s, and especially India’s role has been emphasized. ‘Considered broadly,’ says Professor Tarn, ‘what the Asiatic took from Greek was usually externals only, matters of form; he rarely took the substance—civic institutions may have been an exception—and never spirit. For in matters of spirit Asia was quite confident that she could outstay the Greeks, and she did.’ Again: ‘Indian civilization was strong enough to hold its own against Greek civilization, but except in the religious sphere, was seemingly not strong enough to influence it as Babylonia did; nevertheless, we may find reason for thinking that in certain respects India was the dominant partner.’ ‘Except for the Buddha statue the history of India would in all essentials have been precisely what it has been had the Greeks never existed.’

It is an interesting thought that image worship came to India from Greece. The Vedic religion was opposed to all forms of idol and image worship. There were not even any temples for the gods. There probably were some traces of image worship in the older faiths in India, though this was certainly not widely prevalent. Early Buddhism was strongly opposed to it and there was a special prohibition against the making of images and statues of the Buddha. But Greek artistic influence in Afghanistan and round about the frontier was strong and gradually it had its way. Even so, no statues of the Buddha were made to begin with, but Apollo— are like statues of the Bodhisattvas (supposed to be the previous incarnations of the Buddha) appeared. These were followed by statues and images of the Buddha himself. This encouraged image-worship in some forms of Hinduism though not in the Vedic religion which continued to be free of it. The word for an image or statue in Persian and in Hindustani still is But (like put) derived from Buddha.

The human mind appears to have a passion for finding out some kind of unity in life, in nature and the universe. That desire, whether it is justified or not, must fulfill some essential need of the mind. The old philosophers were ever seeking this, and even modern scientists are impelled by this urge. All our schemes and planning, our ideas of education and social and political organization, have at their back the search for unity and harmony.

We are told now by some able thinkers and philosophers that this basic conception is false and there is no such thing as order or unity in this accidental universe. That may be so, but there can be little doubt that even this mistaken belief, if such it was, and the search for unity in India, Greece, and elsewhere, yielded positive results and produced a harmony, a balance, and a richness in life.

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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