Ancient JewelFrom early Greece to the modern civil rights movement, Indian thought and philosophy have had a wide-ranging influence on Western culture.T. R. (Joe) Sundaram
The very word India conjures up exotic images in ones mind.Yet this name for the south Asian subcontinent is of Western making, mediated by the Persians and the Arabs. The name used in ancient Sanskrit texts is Bharat (for the land of Bharatha, a legendary king), which is also the official name of the modern republic. Other familiar Western words such as Hindu, caste, and curry are also totally foreign to India. The general knowledge that exists in the West about India, its early history, philosophy, and culture is, at best, superficial. Nevertheless, since it would be impossible in a brief article to do justice to even one of these topics, I shall provide a brief, accurate glimpse into each. India covers about 1.2 million square miles and is home to a population of 895 million; in comparison, the United States covers 3.6 million square miles and has 258 million residents. Thus, the population density of India is nearly 10 times that of the United States. (The size of classical Indiawhich includes modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and parts of Afghanistanis about two-thirds that of the continental United States.) But statistics about India can be misleading. For example, while only about one-quarter of the population is literate, able to read and write, this has to be viewed in light of the strong oral traditions present in India since antiquity. Therefore, while a literate American may often be unaware of the collective name of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, an illiterate Indian peasant would be aware of the history of his ancestors from antiquity to the present day. Not only is India one of the oldest civilizations in the world, being more than 6,000 years old, but also it may be the oldest 1
continuing civilization in existence; that is, one without any major gaps in its history. As the renowned historian A. L. Basham has pointed out, Until the advent of archeologists, the peasant of Egypt or Iraq had no knowledge of the culture of his forefathers, and it is doubtful whether his Greek counterpart had any but the vaguest ideas about the glory of Periclean Athens. In each case there had been an almost complete break with the past. On the other hand, the earliest Europeans to visit India found a culture fully conscious of its own antiquity. India is a land of many ancient living cities, such as, for example, Varanasi. Even at sites like Delhi, many successive cities have been built over thousands of years. Among old buried cities that have been unearthed in modern times by archaeologists are Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Of these cities, the renowned archaeologist Sir John Marshall writes that they establish the existence in the fourth and third millennium B.C., of a highly developed city life; and the presence in many houses, of wells and bathrooms as well as an elaborate drainage system, betoken a social condition of the citizens at least equal to that found in Sumer, and superior to that prevailing in contemporary Babylonia and Egypt. Thus, India was the jewel of the world long before the Greek and Roman civilizations. Nor was classical India isolated from developing civilizations in other parts of the world. Clay seals from Mohenjo-Daro have been found in Babylonia and vice versa. Ancient Indian ar-
Article 12. Ancient Jewel
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Continuous civilization: Excavations at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa reveal well-planned towns and a sophisticated urban culture dating back to 2500 B.C.
Crucible of Learning Indias may be the oldest continuing civilization in existence. To avoid misunderstanding India, it is essential to appreciate three central tenets of Indian thinking: assimilating ideas and experiences, a belief in cycles, and the coexistence of opposites. India has made numerous contributions to contemporary Western understanding of mathematics, science, and philosophy.
tifacts such as beads and bangles have been found in many parts of the Middle East and Africa. India and Indian culture were known to the Greeks even before the time of Alexander the Great. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote extensively about India during the sixth century B.C. Also, during this period many Greeks, including Pythagoras, are known to have traveled to India. Sixth century B.C. was a period of great religious and philosophical upheaval in India. Hinduism was already an established, old religion, and reform movements were beginning to appear, such as one by a prince known as Siddhartha Gautama, who later came to be known as the Buddha. The religion that was founded based on his teachings spread not only throughout Asia but also to many parts of the world, including Greece, and it helped spread Indian culture in the process. 2
In Alexander the Greats campaign to conquer the world, his ultimate goal was India; he died without achieving that objective. When Seleucus Nicator, Alexanders successor, tried to follow in Alexanders footsteps, he was soundly defeated by Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya. A peace treaty was signed between the two, and Seleucus sent an ambassador, Megasthenes, to the court of Chandragupta. Megasthenes sent glowing reports back to Greece about India, and he pronounced Indian culture to be equal or superior to his own, a high compliment indeed, since Greece was then near its zenith. For the next 1,500 years or so, Indiarich in material wealth, scientific knowledge, and spiritual wisdomenjoyed the reputation of being at the pinnacle of world civilizations. Arab writers of the Middle Ages routinely referred to mathematics as hindsat, the Indian science. And as is well known now, it was Columbus desire to reach India that led to the discovery of America. Indeed, the explorer died thinking that he had discovered a new sea route to India, while he had merely landed on a Caribbean island. Columbus mistake also led to the mislabeling of the natives of the land as Indians, a label that survived even after the mistake had been discovered.
THE UPANISHADSIndian philosophy is almost as old as Indian civilization, and its zenith was reached nearly 3,000 years ago with the compilation,
ANNUAL EDITIONS characterized such thinking as static, in reality such thinking is both dynamic and conservative, since old experiences are preserved and new experiences are continually accumulated. Belief in cycles. Another central tenet of the Indian character is the belief that all changes in the world take place through cycles, there being cycles superimposed on other cycles, cycles within cycles, and so on. Inherent in the concept of cycles is alternation, and the Upanishads speak of the two alternating states of all things being potentiality and expression. Acceptance of the coexistence of opposites. Early Western readers of the Upanishads were puzzled by the apparent inherent ability of the Indian mind to accept the coexistence of seemingly diametrically opposite concepts. Belief in, and acceptance of, contradictory ideas is a natural part of the Indian way of life, and the logical complement to the tenets already mentioned. It is an indisputable fact that birth (creation) must necessarily be eventually followed by death (destruction). Creation and destruction are inseparable alternations. Even concepts such as good and evil are complementary, as each of us may have within us the most lofty and divine qualities and at the same time the basest qualities. We ourselves and the whole world can be whatever we want to make of them. These three tenets are responsible for the amazing continuity of the Indian civilization, its reverence for the elderly, and the acceptance of the aging process without a morbid fear of death. Ironically, the culture that taught of the need to renounce materialistic desires also produced some of the most pleasurable things in life. The intricacies and highly developed nature of Indian art, music, dance, and cuisine are examples. And the Kama Sutra is perhaps the oldest, and best known, manual on the pleasures of love and sex.
Embassy of India
A terra-cotta toy cow: Ancient Indian civilizations featured highly talented artisans and craftsmen.
by unknown sages, of 108 ancient philosophical texts known as the Upanishads. These texts reflect even older wisdom, which was passed down from generation to generation through oral transmission. A Western commentator has remarked that in the Upanishads the Indian mind moved from cosmology to psychology, and that while most other contemporary civilizations were still asking the question What am I? the Indian mind was already asking, Who am I? When translations of the Upanishads first became available in the West in the nineteenth century, the impact on European philosophers such as Goethe and Schopenhauer and on American writers such as Emerson and Whitman was profound. In the whole world, wrote Schopenhauer emotionally, there is no study as beneficial and as elevating as the Upanishads. Emerson wrote poems based on the texts. One of the principal underlying themes in the Upanishads is the quest for a personal reality. This quest began with the conviction that the limitations of our sensory perceptions give us an imperfect model to comprehend the real world around us; this is known as the concept of maya. Since individual perceptions can be different, different people can also have different realities. For example, a happy event for one individual may be an unhappy one for another. Recognition and perfection of our personal reality is the quintessential goal of Indian philosophy and is also the basic principle behind yoga. Indeed, the literal meaning of the Sanskrit word yoga is union, and the union that is sought is not with any external entity but w