Welcome to the Ātman and Psyche blog.
A couple of quick thoughts related to the project:
Firstly, Johannes Bronkhorst’s work on the development of ancient Indian thought will be highly relevant, especially his book Greater Magadha: Studies in the Cultures of Early India. There he argues, among other things, that the doctrine of rebirth, combined with a retributive conception of karma, was imported into the early Upanishads from non-Vedic religious movements that were located to the east of the Gangetic plain (i.e., the milieu within which Jainism and Buddhism developed). This theory potentially (though not necessarily) disrupts the widely agreed view that the early Upanishads are pre-Buddhist. On the face of it, it may support the idea that conceptions of rebirth in Greece and South Asia developed independently, since contact between eastern South Asia and Greece before 326 BCE seems even less likely than between western South Asia (the Indus region) and Greece before that time.
Secondly, although it may be true that ‘ethicized’ conceptions of rebirth (where ‘ethicized’ is understood specifically to involve a principle of retributive consequences for the agent, such as the ‘law of karma’ as commonly construed) developed earliest in ancient South Asia and Greece, such conceptions are not unique to these regions. Note, for instance, the prevalence of notions of retributive effect within Kabbalistic conceptions of rebirth. See, e.g., DovBer Pinson, Reincarnation and Judaism: The Journey of the Soul (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). Clearly, the idea of rebirth was taken up by Kabbalists much later than its formulation in ancient Greece and South Asia, but still, it is there (among other places).
Many thanks for these valuable references. Is it possible that Kabbalistic ethicised rebirth owes something to the Greek or Indian conceptions? Reincarnation is a common idea, but only occasionally (independently) in ethicised form.
I did not mean to imply that Kabbalistic conceptions of rebirth had developed independently of others. It was strongly influenced by earlier forms, especially Neoplatonism. I intended merely to highlight another example of where an ethicized version is present.
While I’m here, I should also mention Gananath Obeyesekere’s highly stimulating book, Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth (University of California Press, 2002), with which you may be familiar. He argues that there is a kind of logically necessary process of development towards a ‘karmic eschatology’ once ‘ethicization’ has been introduced into a doctrine of rebirth (see, esp., ch. 3). I argue that putting this in terms of logical necessity is too strong (‘Reincarnation and Ethics’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March 2013). There are various ways in which a belief in rebirth can be infused with ethical significance, and belief in retributive karma is just one of these.
Obeyesekere’s work is a big advance, but his historical explanations are very weak. For instance, to take up your point about karma, he cannot explain why it is that the Indians have karma and the Greeks do not. This is precisely the kind of question that our project aspires to answer.
A central part of Bronkorst’s argument is that the teachings of the Buddha do not presuppose knowledge of the Vedas and earliest Upanisads. For example he argues, contra Richard Gombrich, that the passages in the Pāli canon in which the Buddha appears to satirise the Rig Vedic Hymn to the Cosmic Man, the puruṣa sūkta RV.x.90 do not preserve the actual response of the Buddha to the social hierarchy that the hymn seeks to validate. Bronkhorst argues that the cosmic man was a well-known theme of Indian mythology so it is not surprising that there are references to it in the Pāli; he seems to be suggesting that the passages entered the canon at some late though unspecified date. A simpler explanation would be that the hymn was already well-known during the period of the Buddha’s life and that, as argued by Gombrich, the passages preserve the Buddha’s characteristically satirical response to Brahmanical claims. The doctrine of rebirth is foreshadowed in the Brāāhmaṇas and the conception of retributive karma can be seen as developing from a Vedic tradition that was permeable enough to respond to ideas that may initially have been outside its boundaries.
I very much welcome this project – a topic that I’ve thought long and hard about from the perspective of psychology of religion.
I have been thinking on these issues for a few years now and am absolutely delighted to find out about your project.
As you know,with the five Upanishads you have mentioned there are numerous alternative ideas discussed and presented. This suggests that there was encouragement for critical debate and theorisation within the development of the corpus of Upanishads rather than outside of it. I am intending to submit an abstract for the July 2014 conference. Once again thank you for embarking on this journey and looking forward to further discussions.
I welcome your interest and look forwards to receiving your abstract.
I have not yet had time to read Text and Authority in the Older Upaniṣads by Signe Cohen (2008). I wonder if you know of this, and – if so -what you think of it.
Dear Professor Richard Seaford,
We also very much welcome this project – a topic that we have been working hard some yearse ago from the perspective of Indology (Indian Philosophy). We are sending to you here the Preface of one of our publications on that matter (a book published by Olms Verlag in Germany) just to show you some of our points of view on the subject:
In the book published for the first time by Georg Olms Verlag of Hildesheim,
Germany, in 2004, bearing the title On the Myth of the Opposition
between Indian Thought and Western Philosophy (in the same collection
this present one is published now), we maintain the thesis that the opposition
between Thought for India, characterized by religiosity and irrationality,
and Philosophy for the West, characterized by rationality and freedom
of mind, constitutes a fallacy grounded on ignorance of Indian philosophical
thought and on ethnocentric prejudices. This fallacy was specially and
authoritatively spread by Hegel and followed by many European philosophers
and books on Philosophy and History of Philosophy. In it we hold the
opinion that that opposition is a myth that deserves to be rejected, since
Indian Philosophy and Western Philosophy have many thematic and methodological
coincidences, the same pretensions, and the same weaknesses.
This rejection can open a new path for Philosophy as such, leaving aside
old, strong and too optimistic false European prejudices.
We are of course perfectly aware that Indologists – as Professor
Anand Amaladass from India says in his review on the book, published in
Journal of Intercultural Philosophy, No. 6, August, 2004 – could think that
we are “labouring to prove the obvious”. Let us say on this respect that for
Western philosophical tradition our task is not at all useless. Whosever has
studied Philosophy in a Western country knows that even now there are
people and books “who still pass judgements on Indian thought without
making the effort to examine the extensive literature available”, as Professor
Amaladass himself affirms in his review, and thus are still maintaining
Hegel’s opinion denying the existence of an Indian Philosophy as such
considering that only European mind could create it.
Ernst Steinkellner, well-known scholar on Indian Philosophy to
whom we modestly dedicate this work, in his review of our book in Wiener
Zeitschrift für die Kunde Süd-Asiens, 2004, pp. 224-225, expresses that
scholars in Indian Philosophy have always “aimed at persuading ‘Western’
professional philosophers and historians of philosophy of the simple fact
that there have been in India rich and manifold traditions of philosophic
thought of their own particular nature. A requisite for the success of such
hopes was, and is always, that it must especially be known in this ‘West’
that there have existed in India manifestations which are comparable to the
‘philosophic’ ideas and problems in the ‘West’ from Antiquity until modern
Our book had also another intention: not only to reject the absurd
myth, but also to make evident that for a better understanding of any philosophical
tradition it is necessary to confront it with other philosophical
traditions. This task does not mean at all to reduce one to the other, but on
the contrary to have a more profound insight in both of them thanks to their
For many Westerners the “discovery” of what Indian philosophical
thought in fact is, via the study of its texts and the prodigious labour carried
out by Indology and Buddhology, could produce many good effects we
pointed out in Chapter I of our book: the elimination of an old prejudice,
the increase and enrichment of knowledge, and also the self-questioning of
Western Philosophy with regard to its own value, not in the limited context
of a sole continent but in a much more extensive and universal one. For
many Indian scholars in Indology as well as in Philosophy this confrontation
of their traditional philosophical ideas with other similar in the West
could also help for a better understanding of their own traditions in a larger
Let us remind here the wise advice of the great philosopher
Bhartrihari we admire so much:
prajñ2 viveka3 labhate bhinnair 2gamadar0anai` /
kiyad v2 0akyam unnetu3 svatarkam anudh2vat2 //
“Intelligence acquires the faculty
of distinguishing and classifying things
according to their real properties
through the study of different systems of thought
transmitted by tradition.
How can a man,
limiting himself to his own reasoning,
make it progress?”
We would like to extend here the expression of our deep thanks to
the following institutions for their varied support: first and foremost to the
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation of United States of America
that granted Carmen a Fellowship Award, 2004 for continuing our Project
of the comparative study of both, Indian and Western Philosophies,
what we are actually doing with other systems of Indian Philosophy. Results
of this work in the last years have been: Filosofía Yoga: Un Camino
Místico Universal (on Indian Philosophy and Christian Mysticism), a book
in Spanish published by Kairós, in Barcelona, Spain, in 2006; Filosofía de
la India. Del Veda al Ved2nta. El sistema S23khya, another book in Spanish
on the origins of Indian Philosophy, the exposition of some of the
Ved2nta systems and of the S23khya system, also published in Spanish by
Kairós, in Barcelona, Spain, in 2008.
Now in the same comparative perspective we are presenting here in
this volume five essays on Indian Philosophy that concern specially the
Vai0e=ika system and Western Philosophy.
Fernando Tola and Carmen Dragonetti
Buenos Aires, October 20, 2008
We are sorry for the fact that the diacritics signs of Sanskrit language have not appeared well here.
We would like to know if possible any postal address where we could send to you some of our publications (articles and books).
Anyhow you have our e-mail address and if you wish you can write to us.
Fernando Tola and Carmen Dragonetti
Sorry for the delay in replying. I agree completely about the Hegelian illusion. Much western philosophy (e.g. philosophy of mind, philosophy of language) imagines itself to be about ‘what is the case’ rather than ‘what is the case in a particular culture’. Indian philosophy is a good antidote. Another excellent antidote, by the way, is the Melanesian concept of the person.
Might these excerpts from Photius’ (Anon) and Iamblichus’ lives of Pythagoras be relevant to the discussion of Atman? They seem to reflect Upanishadic views very closely.
“They were ever exhorting each other not to tear apart the divine soul within them. The significance of their friendship both in words and deeds was effort to achieve a certain divine union, (or union with the divinity), or communion with the divine soul.” Chapter 33
“15 Pythagoras said that man was a microcosm; which means, a compendium of the universe not because, like other animals, even the least, he is constituted by the four elements, but because he contains all the powers of the world. For the world contains Gods, the four elements, animals and plants. All of these powers are contained in man.”
Thanks for those passages. The tearing apart of the soul has an early precedent in a certain interpretation of the tearing apart of Dionysos, and in even in the dismemberment of Prajapati.
Participants to Ātman and Psyche could take a quick look at http://www.globethics.net/web/cg-hindu-ethics. This is a collection of 1500 full text documents on Hindu ethics, where you could find additional primary and secondary sources on Hindu ethics, including significant number of documents on comparative aspects (mainly from a religious ethical point of view). You have valuable Indian commentaries that you could add to your project. E. g. on karma: see classification tree node: CG3122. To access karma documents go to : http://www.globethics.net/web/cg-hindu-ethics/collection-articles?collection=CG3122* The Foundation Globethics.net (http://www.globethics.net) is launching the Special Hindu ethics Collection on the 3 January 2014 in Bangalore, as the result of a cross cultural collaboration of librarians, theologians and philosophers. Dr. I. Haaz, Progamme Executive online Ethics Library
I wonder whether you would be interested in a paper on the similarities between Pythagorean Philosophy and Hinduism.
I apologise for delay in replying Any submission to the conference is welcome, provided that involves both cultures, and its material predates 326 BCE (roughly!). Later material may also be welcome, but only if it sheds light on the earlier period.
Dear Professor Seaford,
I just came across your very interesting project.
I have worked on literary texts that developped out of the meeting between Alexander and the Indian gymnosophists, written (presumably) mainly in late antiquity – Ps.Ambrosius’ “De moribus Brachmanorum” and the anonymous “Collatio Alexandri et Dindimi”, inter alia.
Therefore, they do not fall into the time focus of your project, but nevertheless the question proposed by them is the same: Is there anything in these texts that can be derived from Indian thought – in other words: did Indian ideas influence these texts or did their (i.e. the texts’) themes like asceticism (monasticism), vegetarism, compassion, etc. develop independently?
I tend do deny direct ‘influence’, but as a classicist I lack precise Indian knowledge, of course. So I wonder, what some interdisciplinary research would/could bring to light regarding ‘later’ (i.e. after 326 BCE) texts.
After Alexander crosses the Indus in 326 BCE (mutual) influence is much more likely. Megasthenes, a contemporary of Alexander, visited the heart of Chandragupta’s kingdom. But metaphysical influence is only possible, it seems to me, when the recipient culture already has some place or need for it, and such a place or need requires there to be some similarity in socio-economic structure. If Parmenides had visited the Ganges, he would have been given a respectful hearing. If he had visited England, he may have been killed as a lunatic. There is a massive literature on the similarities (a first recourse might be to McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought). Much of it is excellent, but can be superficial in that (a) it does not involve collaboration between specialists in both areas, and (2) it ignores socio-economic structure (and privileges ‘influence’).
I also wish to offer my congratulations on your project, which takes a welcome step toward the long-awaited liquidation of that obdurate taboo still current among many Classicists brought up in the mighty shadow of Jaeger, i.e. that centred around the supposed virgin-birth and consequent incomparability of the “Greek miracle”. It is no mere chance that the single most valuable contribution (despite inevitable flaws) to the subject in recent times, McEvilley’s Shape of Ancient Thought, has come from a relative outsider to the field.
I have taken interest in comparative themes involving Greek and Indian cultures for some years now, contributing on such subjects as (among others) Alexander’s interview with the gymnosophists, Greek and Indian conceptions of dreams, master / disciple relationship and self-knowledge — and Platonic vs. upaniṣadic concepts of the soul as conveyed in the intriguing allegory of the soul chariot occurring both in the Phædrus and in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad.
If it may be of interest, I would like to contribute a paper on the latter subject to the July conference (I am submitting an abstract separately).
Jambudvipa – Indology and Sanskrit Studies (www.jambudvipa.net)
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