Ancient Hindu Ideas Travel West

05 Jul

Pythagoras (cir. 582-506 BC), as a wandering student, visited Egypt where he studied under various priests, finally settling in Memphis at the temple of Ptah, where he underwent initiation rites and was taught the sacred mysteries under the pontificate Sonchis, the high priest in Egypt. After a total of 22 years in Egypt, Pythagoras was taken captive and brought to Babylon when the Persian king, Cambyses II, sacked Memphis. In Babylon Pythagoras studied with the Chaldean magi for about twelve years, after which he returned to Samos at age 56 to spread the word.

“Thales was a Phoenician by birth, and was said to have consorted with the prophets of the Egyptians; as also Pythagoras did with the same persons… He held converse with the chief of the Chaldeans and the Magi; and he gave a hint of the church, now so called, in the common hall which he maintained. [Clement of Alexandria; Stromata, Book 1; chapter 15]

We understand from Charles Darwin’s 6th edition of The Origin of Species that he admitted that the roots of his theory (evolution) could be found in the ancient classical writers and in a footnote even named Aristotle, saying that “the principle of Natural Selection shadowed forth” from his works.[1] Actually, however, the allusion to evolution in the classical writers can be found much earlier than Aristotle, for, as we have already seen, the theory itself, can be traced to Hinduism and its principles of life and how it has come into existence, and Pythagoras studied under the ancient Hindus for twelve years before returning to Greece to teach all he had learned.

The Hindus believe that life as we know it today was originally and spontaneously generated from non-living substances, for the Laws of Manu teach that such things as mosquitoes, gnats, lice, etc originate from warm fluids.[2] Furthermore, we also know that Pythagoras believed and taught that all life can be traced to spontaneous production:

…nor is the world uncreated, nor is there a spontaneous production of all things, as Pythagoras and the rest dreamed; but, being indeed created, it is also governed by the providence of God, who made all things; [Theophilus to Atuolycus, Book 3; chapter 26] (emphasis mine)

Image from Google Images

Image from Google Images

The influence of the Hindu religion can also be seen in Pythagoras’ belief in reincarnation. But, there’s more; he was an ascetic and a vegetarian, which were also common beliefs of the Hindu religion. The Brahmins believed in the transmigration of souls into the bodies of animals, so eating flesh was forbidden, and the influence of the East upon Pythagoras was well known in the 18th and 19th century West:

“The analogies between Greek Pythagorean philosophy and the Sankhya school are very obvious.” (Sir William Jones, a pioneer of Western study of Sanskrit, to Lord Monboddo – see Works, iii. p. 236 [3]).

“It is more likely that Pythagoras was influenced by India than Egypt. Almost all of the theories, religious, philosophical and mathematical thought by Pythagoreans, were known in India in the sixth century BC.” (Professor H.G. Rawlinson; Legacy of India; 1937, p. 5)

Therefore, it wouldn’t be difficult to conclude that the religious and philosophical beliefs of the East, namely the ancient Hindu culture had a great influence on the philosophy of the West, beginning at least with Pythagoras.

[1] See Aristotle, Physics 2:8:2

[2] See Laws of Manu 1:45

[3] Lord Monboddo was one of a number of 18th century scholars involved in development of early concepts of evolution.

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Posted by on July 5, 2013 in Hinduism, theory of evolution


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