Ancient India and the Western world

Effect of the Interaction

1. The West on India
It is very difficult to estimate the effect of West on India but some of the aspects can be broadly stated. Mauryan India was affected by Persian ideas, in the system of administration, and language. Doubtful is the influence of art and religion. However, Indian astronomy was considerably influenced by western systems. Of the five Siddhantas (Indian astronomical works), Romaka Siddhanta and Paulisa Siddhanta are evidently of Western origin. Although Western influence on Indian medicine and drama is doubtful.

It is difficult to estimate the influence of Western religion on India. While a large number of Greek deities were known in India, there is little to show their influence on our religion. The date of introduction of Christianity is a disputed point. Legend has it that Apostle Thomas visited the court of an Indian ruler and this cannot be traced earlier than the 3rd century A.D. Yes, Christian missionaries visited India before the 2nd century A.D. but there is no evidence to show that Christianity exercised any influence on Indian religion.

A lot of noise was made at one point on the parallelism between Krishna and the Gospels and the similarities between the Gospel story and the Bhagwad Gita. But the discovery of Heliodorus pillar at Besnagar has proved the existence of the Krishna cult long before Christ and no one would believe that Vaishnava doctrines were influenced by Christianity. In view of the existence of Santana Dharma in western Asia before Christianity, a resemblance if any between the two, should be ascribed to Vaishnavism rather than to Christianity.

2. India on the West
In view of the great influences exerted by Indian science and literature upon the western countries, described in detail in subsequent periods, it would be reasonable to assume that the seeds were sowed during this period of around 200 A.D. It is held by many scholars that the Greeks had knowledge of Indian medical science. It is said that the Sassanid king Shapur I (241 to 272 A.D.) had an Indian medical man resident in Susa. After his death his pupils provided the whole of Iran with professionals in medicine.

It has been claimed that Indian philosophy exercised a certain influence over Greek philosophy. Sir William Jones was the first to point out the analogies between the Sankhya system and the Pythagorean philosophy and many eminent scholars believe that the latter was derived from the former. Since Pythagoras lived between 550 and 600 B.C. doubts have been expressed on the premise that there existed no contact between India and Greece.

However, it appears that the contact did exist, through Persia. Quoting Rawlinson “Aristoxenus (pupil of Aristotle 330 B.C.), the musician, tells us the following story about Indians. One of these men met Socrates at Athens and asked him what the scope of his philosophy was. “An inquiry into human mind,” replied Socrates. At this the Indian burst out laughing ‘How can a man inquire into human phenomena’! When he is ignorant about divine ones”. What this indicates is that Indians traveled to the West learnt Greek language well enough to hold discourses with people like Socrates.

Was it a coincidence? As Schroeder has pointed out not one or two chance ideas, but almost all the religion-philosophical-mathematical doctrines credited to Pythagoras were current to India. Another scholar, Garbe referred to the striking resemblance ‘between the doctrine of One in the Upanishads and the philosophy of Elatics, between the theory of Thales, the father of Greek philosophy and the Vedic idea of the primeval water out of which the universe was evolved.

It has been argued that these resemblances do not necessarily indicate Indian influence. But the same argument cannot be used when talking about the resemblances noticed in some mystery cults and the teachings of Plato / Pythagoras. For these show a great departure from the Greek tradition of rationalism and humanism.

In mystery cult associated with the name of Orpheus, faith in the immortality of soul is a cardinal feature and the idea of transmigration of soul is fully worked out, the wheel of birth goes on until the soul escapes from its release. This has a striking resemblance to the beliefs in India. Few people know that Christianity believed in the Doctrine of Rebirth till 543 A.D. How does one explain these resemblances?

The mystic tradition finds its expression in Plato (427 to 347 B.C.). His doctrine was –

One, the soul is unperceived, simple, indissoluble, immortal, and has been born many times. It is purified by these rebirths and ultimately escapes when completely purified.

Two, body is a fetter to which we are chained and we must look forward to a future world in which we will be freed from the body.

Three, truth cannot always be proved. It appeals to the whole nature of man and not simply to the intellect.

All these thoughts are opposed to Greek tradition that was concerned with all that pleased the senses and satisfied emotions. This and many other coincidences corroborate the view of Heraclitus’s indebtedness to Indian philosophical views.

The influence of Indian religion in Western countries cannot be doubted. Buddhism spread to western Asia, Africa and Europe as early as the days of the Asoka. There is evidence that Sanatana Dharma prevailed in Western Asia. According to the Syrian writer Zenob, there was an Indian colony in the canton of Taron on the upper Euphrates. The Indians built two temples containing images of Gods about 18 to 22 feet in height. These were destroyed by St Gregory in 304 AD, a la Mahmud Ghazni.

All this proves beyond doubt that when Christianity arose, Indian culture and religion had already developed and spreading. Similarities between the two cannot be a coincidence. The resemblance between the internal arrangements of the Christian Church and the Buddhist Chaitya Hall, the rigorous asceticism pursued by some early Christian sects as Thebaid monasticism, the use of rosary have been borrowed by Christianity from Indian religious ideas.

It is well known that several religious leaders in the West took the name of Buddha and that he is still recognized as a Christian saint under the title of St Josaphat. 

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