This is an ambitious project. The Indian literature of potential relevance is vast, and its chronology obscure. And of course any kind of cross-cultural comparison is fraught with dangers.
On the other hand, the potential rewards are great. Our concern is with the ancient development of fundamental similarities and fundamental differences that are still with us. The similarities between early Greek and early Indian thought are striking enough to make even the exploration of their differences interesting.
Writing about the ‘Axial Age’ has hitherto been too general to be very illuminating, and conferences on the theme tend to consist of specialists talking about their own specific area without finding common ground with the others. Our project is, so far as we know, the first sustained full-time collaboration between specialists in two ‘Axial Age’ civilisations, as well as being the first comparison of Axial Age civilisations that refuses to see development in thought in isolation from socio-economic development. One of our sources for the socio-economic development of our period will be early Buddhist texts. Suffice to say now that in our period Greece and northern India both have a level of urbanisation, commercialisation, and monetisation, in the political context of a single culture across several states, that had no parallel anywhere else (the closest is China, the only other matrix of ‘philosophical’ thought).
Where to start? Our period, somewhat arbitrarily defined, is 700-323 BC. Our prime philosophical Indian texts are the five earliest Upanishads (diacritical marks will have to be omitted in this blog), all generally agreed to have been created within our period (though written down later): the Brhadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittireya, Aitareya, and Kausitaki Upanishads. But we are also concerned with their continuity with earlier texts (notably the Brahmanas), as well as with later texts that may preserve ideas from our period.
Our first task, currently underway, is to consider the material under four inter-related themes: (1) monism (the belief that all things are in some sense a single entity, a belief that occurs in intriguingly similar forms in Greece and in India); (2) the internalisation of the ritual that gives access to the afterlife (in India sacrifice, in Greece mystery-cult); (3) indiscriminate ethicised reincarnation (the belief that our morality in this life will influence who or what we become in the next life – a belief held only in Greece and India); (4) the development of a substantial idea of an individual self, subject, or soul (atman, psuche).
We invite comments, questions, criticism, contributions, assistance, as well as interest in the events of summer 2014 (see ‘About the Project’).