Monthly Archives: September 2013

Influence between India and Greece?


In the period c. 600-300 BCE we find a number of ideas shared by India and Greece, for instance (a) monism, the idea that all things are in some sense a single entity, (b) the unitary inner self (atman, psuche) as a concept central to understanding the world, (c) the idea of abstract or incorporeal being, (d) what I dub indiscriminate ethicised reincarnation. A more detailed account of these ideas will follow in due course. But let us first consider – if only to exclude – some possibilities of explaining the fact they occur at about the same time in both cultures.


1§A  A shared Indo-European origin?

There are numerous similarities between Greek and Indian culture that are best explained by their common Indo-European heritage. But the ideas just listed cannot be attributed to a common IE heritage because of the combination of the following. (1) Although prominent in both cultures within the period 600-300 BCE, they are almost entirely absent from the earliest texts (RV, Homer and Hesiod), even though these texts are of great length and embody a very wide range of concerns.  (2) In Greece (a), (b) and (c), and in India all four, can be seen to result from development. (3) In both cultures the four ideas relate to each other in a way that suggests a single intellectual development that began later than the earliest texts. (4) They are fundamental, metaphysical beliefs about the nature of the universe and of the self, quite different in kind from the forms (linguistic, social, numerical, narrative) that can be shown to embody a shared IE heritage.

This last distinction is ably tested by the claim of Pinchard to affiliate Platonic ontology to the Rigveda, more specifically the intelligible world of ideas in Plato to the speech (especially ‘noms secrets’) of the gods. True, the idea of a hidden reality that is somehow superior to the visible world, and can be revealed in speech, is shared by the Rigveda and Plato, as well as (in various forms) by many other cultures. But we do not find in the Rigveda anything like a systematic ontological distinction between on the one hand the changing material realm of the senses and on the other an unchanging, intelligible and more fully real realm in which abstract forms depend somehow – for their being, intelligibility and value – on a single supremely real abstract entity (the form of the good).  

1§B Influence?

As the shared ideas do not occur before our period, and then in our period only in India and Greece, there can be no question of their having been diffused from any third culture, be it Indo-European or, say, Mesopotamian. There is another possibility, that the similarity of ideas was a result of direct or indirect contact between India and Greece. How likely was this?

It became a commonplace to derive doctrines of Greek thinkers from contact with the Orient. Pythagoras, for instance, was said to have learnt from Egyptians, Persians, Chaldaeans , Phoenicians, Jews, and Indians, as well as Celts and Iberians.[1] But we do not in fact have any reliable reports of there being any Greeks beyond the Indus, or Indians in Greece (except in Xerxes’ army), before Alexander crossed the Indus in 326 BCE. And so those who believe that ideas were transmitted between India and Greece before 326 BCE tend to claim that Indians and Greeks might easily have met in the Achaemenid empire. Precisely such a meeting is imagined by Herodotos in his colourful account of Darius I interviewing, in the presence of Greeks, some Indians about their treatment of the dead (3.38).

It is from soon after 522 BCE, when Darius I became king, that we first hear of the presence of Greeks at the Persian court,[2] and Greeks are also mentioned in the Persepolis tablets of Darius’ reign.[3]  Herodotus records Darius settling groups of Greeks in his empire: the Barcaeans in Bactria, Milesians near the mouth of the Tigris (493BCE), and Eretrians near Sousa (490BCE).[4]  There is further such evidence for the reign of his successor Xerxes.[5]

As for the Indian side, after the decline – early in the second millennium BCE – of the trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus valley,[6] the evidence for contact between the two regions is relatively sparse and never undisputed,[7] until the Achaemenid period. In about 518 BC Darius extended[8] his empire to the Indus area, after an exploratory voyage down the Indus by Skylax of Caryanda.[9]  From the time of Darius goods were brought to Persia from India,[10] and texts found at Persepolis mention the presence of Indians in Persepolis or
Susa.[11]  In the reign of Xerxes (from 486BC) Indians bringing tribute were represented in the Persepolis reliefs, and there was an Indian contingent in the army that invaded Greece.[12]

In the Indian texts that certainly belong to our period there is not a single reference to anything Greek.[13] The earliest Greek reference[14] to anything Indian is in the geography of Hekataios of Miletos (born circa 550 BC?), who mentioned names of places and of peoples in the Indus area.[15] He had available to him writing by Skylax.  Subsequently, in the period before 326BCE, there are isolated references to India in various authors, as well as the surviving treatment of India by Herodotos and substantial fragments of the lost treatment of India by Ctesias.[16]

Herodotus says that Asia is inhabited as far as India: east of India the country is uninhabited and nobody knows what it is like (4.40).  Elsewhere he states that east of India there is an uninhabitable desert of sand (3.98), which is presumably the Thar desert.  We may infer that for Herodotus and his Greek contemporaries knowledge of (what we call) the Indian subcontinent does not extend much beyond the Indus valley.  What Herodotus then does tell us about India (3.98-105) contains much fantasy (especially the giant gold-digging ants) and some information that seems to reflect reality. His source for the ants is ‘the Persians’.

Ctesias was a Greek doctor at the Persian court in the last years of the fifth century. What survives of his Indika consists almost entirely of marvels. His claim that the sun appears ten times larger in India than in any other land[17] would surely be denied by anyone who had been to India. Despite his time at the Persian court, where he may have met Indians,[18] Ctesias seems to have had no closer acquaintance with India than did Herodotus.  It is significant that even at the end of the fifth century India was largely unknown even by Greeks who published on the subject.  Nor do any other mentions of India before 326 BCE indicate any closer acquaintance.

We can conclude that the possibility of serious ideas passing between Greeks and Indians before 326 BCE was very small. There is accordingly in fact nowhere in the pre-326BCE reports of India any reference to an idea, not even in the many references to India in Aristotle. This is hardly surprising, given that there is no evidence that any Greek author of our period knew any foreign language at all (let alone Sanskrit):[19] if there was any influence, it would have been far more easily visual, but even this is lacking. Moreover, the early Upanisads, which contain ideas resembling early Greek thought, were produced not in the area least remote from the Greeks, around the Indus. Rather, they were produced a long way eastwards, in the area of the Ganges. The claim that there was intellectual influence between Greece and India derives not from the historical probability of such influence but from the striking similarities between some Greek and some Indian ideas. But it is yet another obstacle to this hypothesis of influence that nothing like these ideas appears anywhere in the vast area between Ionia and the Ganges. And even apart from all these difficulties, what exactly were the contexts in which one people would adopt the fundamental beliefs of a people at the other end of the known world? The hypothesis of ‘influence’ (or ‘diffusion’) is attractive because it seems to solve in one blow a problem which is difficult to solve in any other way. There is also I suspect unconscious transposition into this period of a later world in which communications are easy and influence pervasive.



1§C Reason?

A feature shared by ancient thought in Greece and in India, besides those listed in 1§A, is the use of rational argument. Reason, of which all humankind is capable, is central to an interesting essay by Bronkhorst entitled. ‘Why is there philosophy in India?’ (1999). He begins by establishing that there was a tradition of serious rational enquiry in Greece and in India but not in China. This leaves the Greek and Indian as the only independent traditions of rational debate. How did they originate?  For Greece he follows the political explanation of Geoffrey Lloyd.


It is noteworthy to what extent the features most characteristic of what I have proposed to call a tradition of rational inquiry – primarily free and uninhibited discussion of all issues even in areas which might encroach upon other sources of authority – appear to be intimately linked to the political situation of Greece at the time. It is precisely inhibitions, the fear to encroach on other sources of authority, which would seem to prevent traditions of rational debate and inquiry from coming about in the majority of human societies.


I have argued at length elsewhere for the inadequacy of Lloyd’s explanation of the Greek development.[20] As for India, Bronkhorst admits that the political explanation cannot work: ‘We are not at all sure that anything like the Greek city-state ever existed in ancient India’. He maintains instead that ‘the original impulse for the development of Indian rational philosophy came from Buddhism’, and that ‘the Buddhists of North-West India adopted the method of rational debate and enquiry from the Greeks’. What then of the early Upanisads, which – Bronkhorst rightly states – predate Greek influence? They are, he claims, not a problem for his theory because they do not contain any logical argumentation.

We can accept much of this while also insisting that Bronkhorst answers the question that constitutes his title – ‘Why is there philosophy in India?’ – only by identifying philosophy with rational argumentation and thereby denying that the Upanisads contain philosophy. We may object however that (a) philosophy and rational argumentation are not necessarily synonymous; (b) there are passages in the early Upanisads that deserve to be called philosophy; (c) there are doctrines in the early Upanisads that are remarkably similar to presocratic philosophy; (d) although there is nothing in Indian thought of the period to correspond with the importance of logos in the Greek thought of the period (a difference that I will try to explain in ??§??), there is in what survives of presocratic philosophy very little of what Bronkhorst calls rational argumentation. The earliest instance of it, in Parmenides, I will examine below, but only after first examining Bronkhorst’s description of an Indian instance.

He describes three stages in the development of the doctrine of karmic retribution. I do not need to reproduce the details. What matters is that each of these stages uses rationality to make the doctrine more intelligible. ‘They did so because they saw no other way to account for a dogma which they accepted as certain: the dogma of karmic retribution.’ Once again, this is true so far as it goes. But Bronkhorst neither claims that rationality had any role in producing the dogma itself nor comments on this lack. However, it cannot be claimed that the three modifications that he selects to exemplify philosophy as rational enquiry have more impact on the final doctrine than does the initial irrational dogma. Bronkhorst identifies philosophy with rational argumentation, but philosophy is never, or almost never, merely rational argumentation.

This point can now be applied to Parmenides. Parmenides produces a chain of deduction to show that all that exists is one, abstract, and invariant in space and time (eternal, unchanging, unmoving, homogeneous). This bizarre conclusion is of course not a result of mere deduction (as cogito ergo sum etc is sometimes imagined to be), but is rather implicit as a preconception from the beginning of (and during) the chain of deduction, as I have described in detail elsewhere. The conclusion is no more the result of mere reasoning than karmic retribution is the result of mere reasoning. Both the Parmenidean One and karmic retribution are preconceptions, whose origins we will in due course investigate. The rest of this section makes a point about the relation between rational argument and universal abstraction.

The political explanation (noted above) of the genesis of Greek philosophy implies that reasoning is a natural human activity, which – where there was the fear of encroaching on sources of authority other than reason – was inhibited: once political freedom arrived in Greece, rational enquiry was realised from inhibition and allowed to flourish.

But consider, for instance, a band of hunter-gatherers, who are subject to no political authority beyond the egalitarian band. On seeing certain marks, they infer that a certain animal is nearby. And noticing that the marks occur with a certain frequency, they infer that the animal is limping, and so will be easy prey. They also speculate on the origin of fire: it must have been brought to them from the fire in the sky, for which the divine thief and humankind must have had to pay a price, namely alienation from the gods and suffering in general. All this is reasoning, which occurs equally in repressive and non-repressive societies. And it cannot be said to be less fundamental than the reasoning of Parmenides. But hunter-gatherers do not produce what we call philosophical reasoning.

Parmenides reaches his bizarre conclusion by a chain of deduction that can be represented as follows. What can be spoken and thought of can exist, whereas ‘nothing’ cannot exist. What can be spoken and thought of is not nothing. It is of is what exists. There is nothing that exists and yet does not exist. What exists exists fully or not at all. It can have come neither from what exists (for it is what exists) nor from what does not exist. It is all full of homogeneous being, it cannot exist to different degrees at different points. Nor can anything exist beside it (for that would not belong to what exists). It is one, continuous, homogeneous, and invariant in space and time.[21]

This chain of deduction contains the preconceptions that the content of mind (what can be spoken or thought of) must exist, and that what exists must exist ‘completely or not at all’. It also contained at some point, in a passage to which we will return, the preconception that the content of the mind is homogeneous.[22] The conclusion, the One (universal abstract being), which is implicit in the preconceptions, is held in chains by strong Necessity.[23] Why the agency of abstract Necessity? Because a powerful invisible agent is needed to explain a reality that runs so counter to observation and intuition: only Necessity can exclude all variation in time and space and all sensible qualities, thereby leaving itself all the more conspicuously in control. Hence also the chain of deduction, which amounts to projecting universal abstract being from subjective experience (the content of mind) onto objective reality. This projection is, like the universal abstraction of being, explicable neither by observation nor by intuition. And so the conspicuous necessity by which the One is held in place also infuses – or even produces – the projective chain of deduction.[24] Abstract being and abstract necessity together seem to produce abstract reason. Reasoning is here neither new nor released by free political discussion, but rather a by-product of the need to establish the idea that all that exists is universal abstract being. What needs to be explained is not some sudden miraculous arrival of reasoning but the origin of this unprecedented, counter-intuitive, and compelling idea. Similarly, just as Parmenides argues that what exists cannot derive from what does not exist (B8.7-10), so in the CU it is in connection with abstract being that we do find a rational argument: ‘How can what is existent be born from what is non-existent?’ (6.2.2). I return to Indian abstract being in 5§G.

The idea of abstract being, and the other ideas listed in 1§A, arise too late to be attributed to a common European heritage but earlier than any possibility of influence between Greece and India. We are therefore forced ask the question unasked by Bronkhorst: why and how did these ideas arise independently in the two cultures? And when we have answered it, we will see that answers involving common origin or influence are as unnecessary as they are mistaken.

[1] Riedweg (2005) 7-8.

[2] Syloson of Samos and Democedes of Croton: Herodotos 3.125, 129-37, 139-41.

[3] Briant (2002) 506.

[4] Herodotos. 4.204, 6.20, 6.120.

[5] This includes the much later story, disbelieved by some, that Xerxes settled the Milesian Branchidai in a small town in Sogdiana: Curtius Rufus 7.5.28-35; Plutarch, Moralia 557b; Strabo 517-8, 634.

[6] Wright (2010) 215-25, 314.

[7] It is discussed by Karttunen (1989) 15-31, who concludes (31)that ‘for Indo-western relations there is much indisputable evidence, but only from the Achaemenian period’.

[8] As for Cyrus, Nearchus (F??; Arrian Anab. 6.24) states that he planned to invade India but did not get beyond the Gedrosian desert. Megasthenes too (F??) states that he merely approached India, and that before the Macedonian invasion the Indians had never been invaded (except by Herakles and Dionysos).

[9] Herodotos 4.44 (cf. 3.94). In inscriptions Darius includes in his possessions Gandara and Sind. For a discussion of the unanswerable question of precisely what Darius controlled see Karttunen (1989) 34-8.

[10] e.g. ivory: Briant (2002) 172.

[11] Koch (1993) 36-8; Giovinazzo (2000/1) 59-76.  Cf. Herodotos 3.38.

[12] Herodotos 7.65, 86, 113; 9.31.

[13] The first mention is perhaps yavana (‘Greek’) in Panini, but this is not dateable to our period. It may be borrowed from Old Persian yauna (Panini was from Gandhara). Greeks are mentioned in the texts of Asoka (mid-third century BCE). They are mentioned also in the Assalāyana Sutta (MN 2.149), but again there is no certainty that this predates Alexander: e.g. Bronkorst (2011) 35-6.

[14] Unless the reference to ‘Indian stones’ attributed to Epimenides (3DK B25 = 457FrGH F19.8) was earlier, which is most unlikely.

[15] 1FGrH F294-9.

[16] English translations of all these texts (except Hdt. 3.97-106) are collected by Arora (1996) 111-54.

[17] F45 (12).

[18] Cf. F45 (19).

[19] Persian was acquired by some Greeks in the Classical period, but only for practical purposes: Histiaios (Hdt. 6.29.2), Themistokles (Thuc. 1.138.1), perhaps Alkibiades (Ahenaeus 535e), Laomedon (Arr. Anab. 3.6). Translators working for the Persians were not necessarily Greek

[20] Seaford (2004) 176-87.

[21] Seaford (2004) 240.

[22] B4: 6§D 7§A 9§F.

[23] B30.26-31; similarly Moira at 8.37.

[24] Words indicating necessity occur at B2.5; 6.1; 8.7; 8.11-12; 8.45;






Briant, P. (2002) From Cyrus to Alexander: a History of the Persian Empire.

Bronkhorst, J. (1999) Why is there philosophy in India?

Giovinazzo, G. ‘Les indiens à Suse’, AION 60 (2000/1) 59-76.

Karttunen, K. (1989) India in Early Greek Literature. Helsinki.

Koch, H. (1993) Achāmeniden-Studien.

Pinchard, A. (2009) Les langues de sagesse dans la Grece et L’Inde anciennes.

Riedweg, C. (2005) Pythagoras.

Wright, R. (2010) The Ancient Indus. CUP.