Did Western civilisation begin in India? – Salvatore Babones

Achilles' Heel (Corfu 1884).

Prof. Salvatore BabonesWhen it comes to establishing the primacy of ancient India over the West, we have to rely on common sense as much as on historical documentation. – Prof. Salvatore Babones

Like most people around the world, Indians tend to be proud of the ancient roots of their own civilisation. Sometimes they can take it a little too far, but always with a healthy spirit, and usually in good cheer.

Western experts generally look askance at Indian claims to have been the first to use an alphabetic script, to have been the original source of ancient Near Eastern philosophy, or even to have invented zero.

But these Western suspicions are based more on an absence of evidence than on any evidence of absence. Ancient Indians tended to write on palm leaves, whereas Mesopotamians wrote on clay tablets—baked in the sun and stored in the desert. It’s no wonder that we have overflowing archives of original Sumerian texts going back more than 5,000 years, but nothing more than 2,000 years old from India.

Even the Pillars of Ashoka are only half the age of some surviving shopping lists from Iraq.

And so when it comes to establishing the primacy of ancient India over the West, we have to rely on common sense as much as on historical documentation.

For example, many people know the ancient Greek story of the Trojan horse. Hundreds of Greek soldiers supposedly hid inside the belly of a giant fake horse. The gullible Trojans reportedly pulled the horse into the ancient city of Troy, thinking that the Greeks had left it for them as a parting gift after 10 years of war.

That night, the Greeks poured out of the horse to take the city by treachery, giving rise to the ancient maxim “beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”

Of course, the whole story is ridiculous. The Indian original makes much more sense: in Bhasa’s Pratijnayaugandharayana, it’s a few soldiers hiding in the belly of a fake elephant placed deep in the jungle. Yet Western scholars claim that the Indian version is derived from the Greek, because the Greek version was attested several centuries earlier than the India. Written documents are so scarce for ancient India that no one even knows when Bhasa lived.

Based on linguistic evidence, the Pratijnayaugandharayana is conventionally dated to around the first century BC or AD. No one knows for sure. Was the “Trojan elephant” element of the story a retelling of an earlier tale? No one knows at all. Everyone knows that ancient India had theatrical plays, but no one knows what they were.

Along similar lines, consider the Odyssey, the ancient Greek travel epic attributed to Homer in which the hero must gain his wife by drawing a great bow; it is clearly a dimly remembered Ramayana. The hero, Odysseus, spent ten years in exile; Rama, fourteen. Both visited the underworld.

Or the Iliad, Homer’s great war epic, in which the great hero Achilles withdraws from battle after losing his promised consort. His charioteer seeks out the advice of the wisest of the Greeks, who advises him that a soldier’s duty is to fight. Achilles is ultimately persuaded to rejoin the battle, not by his charioteer, but by the death of his charioteer.

The Indian original is, of course, the Mahabharata. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is the charioteer himself, Krishna, who gives the advice to the hero Arjuna. But otherwise the story is remarkably parallel, considering the miles and millennia of separation. In an otherwise inexplicable coincidence, Achilles is only vulnerable in one place: he is eventually brought down by an arrow to the heel.

If the story elements aren’t enough to show a common origin, the sentiments tell the same story. The Bhagavad Gita might just as well have been composed in pre-classical Greece as in ancient India. For example, in Chapter 6, Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna how a yogi should meditate, but then goes on to explain that:

But for earthly needs
Religion is not his who too much fasts
Or too much feasts, nor his who sleeps away
An idle mind; nor his who wears to waste
His strength in vigils. Nay, Arjuna! call
That the true piety which most removes
Earth-aches and ills, where one is moderate
In eating and in resting, and in sport;
Measured in wish and act; sleeping betimes,
Waking betimes for duty.

(Edwin Arnold translation, 1900)

No text could more eloquently express the ancient Greek maxim of “moderation in all things”.

Every educated person knows that before Muslim and Christian colonialism, Indic culture was present throughout Asia, from the Buddhism of Mongolia to the Hindu temples of Bali. What fewer people realize is that classical Greek religion, which is the ultimate source of European literature and philosophy, also had its origins, if not necessarily in India, in a source that was much closer to the living civilisation of India today than to any other civilization in the world. – Firstpost, 31 may 2023

Prof. Salvatore Babones teaches at the University of Sydney. His book “Methods for Quantitative Macro-Comparative Research” is a standard source for the statistical analysis of international comparisons. He is currently researching a book on Indian democracy.

Palm Leaf Manuscript Library, Oriental Research Institute, Mysuru.