Last year, I visited Athens and the historically interesting Pnyx Hill, with its special atmosphere and amazing views of the Acropolis and the Parthenon [pictured at left], the temple that reminds everyone of the glory and the decline of the ancient Greek world. Between visiting members of the Hare Krishna movement and speaking with contemporary Greeks about Sri Krishna, the Supreme Being, I learned of a remarkable resemblance between Classical Greece and the Vedic culture of India. According to Srila Prabhupada, classical Vedic literature makes a couple of references to very old relations between India and Greece. So it happens that Krishna’s teachings about the transmigration of souls, the creation, and the importance of understanding ultimate causes and absolute truths are all plainly reflected in Plato’s philosophy and cosmology.
Tad Brennan writes in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The idea that the soul is the true locus of personhood, that its welfare is vastly more important than the body’s welfare, that . . . it survives death, is judged for its actions and may be reincarnated, that the post-mortem fate of the soul provides reasons to embrace a life of earthly virtue for all of these Socratic commitments there is Presocratic precedent.
There is a precedent for these Socratic commitments in the Bhagavad-gita, too. There Krishna explains that we are part of Him and will end our transmigration through various bodies when we function naturally in immediate service to Him. We each have a unique relationship with God, and when we properly follow Him, we develop love for Him. The ancient Greeks didn’t have the refined theology of the Vedic literature, but the citizens of Athens abided by its laws out of love for their city and its patroness, Athena, the virgin-warrior goddess of art, wisdom, and invention (the Greek word parthenos means “virgin”).
Consider the fascinating parallels between the Vedic account of creation and Plato’s cosmology. The Vedic tradition describes the Vedas as blueprints supplied by Krishna to Brahma, the secondary creator of the universe. Srimad-Bhagavatam teaches that the shining impersonal spiritual sky, the brahmajyoti, contains the seeds for all species. The seeds come from Krishna, as He says (Bhagavad-gita 7.10, 10.39): “I am the seed of all beings. . . . the generating seed of all existences.” The brahmajyoti, the impersonal aspect of the Absolute Truth, rests on Krishna (Bhagavad-gita 14.27), the personal and most complete aspect of the Absolute Truth, or source of everything. Brahma brings forth the universe from seeds in the Just as the small seed of a banyan fruit has the potency to create a big banyan tree, the Lord disseminates all varieties of seeds by His potential brahmajyoti (sva-rocisa), and the seeds are made to develop by the watering process of persons like Brahma. Brahma cannot create the seeds, but he can manifest the seed into a tree, just as a gardener helps plants and orchards to grow by the watering process
Similarly, Plato describes a creator god who envisions an impersonal, self-existent ultimate source and a realm of unchanging ideal Forms and then is able to manifest those Forms in pre-existing matter. [See the sidebar “Platonic and Vedic Accounts of Creation.”] Plato concludes that all Forms must have a single, ultimate source, the Form of all Forms, the essence of all essences. Calling this the Form of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, Plato examines those absolute values.
Understanding Absolute Truth
Frederick Copleston, a Jesuit priest who wrote a nine-volume history of philosophy during the mid-1900s, thought that Plato’s main point about the Forms is this: “By rational reflection, we can certainly come to the knowledge of objective and indeed transcendentally-grounded values, ideals, and ends.”
Transcendent goals and values are a dimension of the Absolute Truth, and seeking them is the essential human experience, whether we do so by reflection or by learning a sacred history from gurus or virtuous philosophers. The Vedanta-sutra (written by Srila Vyasadeva, the literary incarnation of Krishna) says athato brahma jijñasa: “Human life is meant for inquiring about the nature of the Absolute Truth.”
“We cannot afford to dismiss a priori,” writes Copleston, “the notion that what there is of order and intelligibility in this world has an objective foundation in an invisible and transcendent Reality.”
When people dismiss transcendence, their intelligence does not extend beyond the need to eat, sleep, mate, and defend. Thus the eternal self remains bound to repeated lives of sense gratification.
The Generation of Species
Plato mentions that the creator god made the stars, planets, and celestial gods and assigned to the gods the task of fashioning the mortal parts of the various souls. Similarly, the Bhagavatam says that Brahma assigned to certain higher beings the generation of the material bodies for the species of life.
Evidently, people in ancient times had a much different view of the creation than the dominant view today, and the Greek view was broadly consistent with the Vedic tradition. My friend Sadaputa Dasa (the late mathematician Richard L. Thompson) wrote about antiquity, and this paragraph of his appeared in this magazine:
The ancient Greek writer Aratos tells a story about the constellation Virgo, or the virgin. Virgo, he says, may have belonged to the star race, the forefathers of the ancient stars. In primeval times, in the Golden Age, she lived among mankind as Justice personified and would exhort people to adhere to the truth. At this time people lived peacefully, without hypocrisy or quarrel. Later, in the Age of Silver, she hid herself in the mountains, but occasionally she came down to berate people for their evil ways. Finally the Age of Bronze came. People invented the sword, and “they tasted the meat of cows, the first who did it.” At this point Virgo “flew away to the sphere”; that is, she departed for the celestial realm. The Age of Iron followed. It is noteworthy that Aratos’s story specifies the eating of cows as a sinful act that cut mankind off from direct contact with celestial beings. This detail fits in nicely with the ancient Indian traditions of cow protection, but it is unexpected in the context of Greek or European culture.
The description of Virgo illustrates that the Greeks held a widespread belief in a succession of four ages, just as the Indians did. Krishna says that a thousand cycles of four ages constitute a day of Brahma (Bhagavad-gita 8.17), and Süryasiddhanta, the Vedic astronomy text, calculates the length of his day as 8.6 billion years.
Ancient Scenarios Srila Prabhupada cites references in Vedic texts to relations between Greece and India. He says that for many reasons culturally advanced ancient people migrated to Europe from “greater India” (which included the Caucasus). For example, when the avatar ParaOurama started killing all the degraded ksatriyas (rulers) on the subcontinent, most of the ksatriyas who fled went to Europe, and some settled between Europe and Asia, in Turkey and Greece.
Perhaps Greece and India once shared a common culture that included knowledge of philosophy and astronomy (two of Sadaputa’s books explore the geocentric universe they both envisioned). Over time, great cultural divergences would have developed, but many common cultural features may have remained as a result of shared ancestry and later communication. Prabhupada said that the Greeks kept a connection with India’s culture through their worship of gods, many of whom clearly resemble the demigods mentioned in the Vedas.
Edwin Bryant, an associate professor of religion at Rutgers University, writes, “The earliest archaeological evidence of Krishna as a divine being (under the name of Vasudeva) is the Heliodorus column in Besnagar, north-central India, dated to c. 100 BCE. The inscription on the column is startling because it reveals that foreigners had been converted to the Bhagavata [Krishna] religion by this period Heliodorus was a Greek. This would seem to suggest that the Krishna tradition was prominent and prestigious enough to attract a powerful foreign envoy as a convert at the end of the second century BCE.”
After the fall of Rome, the burning of the famous library at Alexandria, and the general destruction of records of the ancient past, the relations between Greeks and Indians diminished and became obscured. Recent studies of the relationship are Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies and Edwin Bryant’s The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate.
For various reasons, the West, in the course of two millennia, differentiated itself from certain early Greek understandings and ultimately overturned the order rooted in Plato. But Westerners who study Plato today can acquire some historical self-knowledge and new insights into how ancient thought has shaped their thinking.
In India, the history of ideas has changed less. So, now, as Krishna’s teachings spread worldwide, Westerners encounter a venerable worldview much different from their own a worldview that inspires spiritual progress, the highest goal of true culture.
Tattvavit Dasa’s book review of The Worldview of Personalism: Origins and Early Development, by Jan Olof Bengtsson, has been published in the first issue of the ISKCON Studies Journal (available here: http://iskcon studies.org/iskcon-studies-journalvol- one/).