From Vedanta to Plato: the Deep Links between India and Europe (Part 1)

by Subhash Kak


The Sanskritic languages of India and most European languages belong to the same family and we are taught in school how the kinship words, grammatical particles, numbers, and names for many animals are literally the same across Indian and European languages. It is most fascinating that Sanskrit preserves forms that vary across different Indo-European languages.

I will just give a few examples here, starting with the word “house”:

Next, the words “friend” and “free“:

The word “water” in Sanskrit and other languages:

Now some lesser known words:

Given these deep linguistic connections, are other similarities in the cultures also very ancient? For example, are the similarities between the Indian and the Greek medical systems a result of the shared Indo-European heritage, to be assigned an age before the dispersal of the Indians and the Europeans from their original homeland?

The three doshas of Ayurveda are like the three humours of Greek medicine. Plato assigned a central role to the idea of breath (pneuma in Greek) but the centrality of breath (prana in Sanskrit) is already a feature of the much older Vedic thought. Some have proposed the theory that Plato borrowed the elements of the wind, the gall, and the phlegm, from the earlier tridosha theory, and that the transmission occurred via the Persian Empire?

Indian and European traditions appear to have three hierarchical functions: sacred sovereignty, force, and fecundity, represented by the categories of brahmana, rajan (or kshatra), and viś. Religious and political sovereignty is conceived as a dual category: the magician-king and the jurist-priest. In India, this duality is in the roles of the rajan and brahman; in Rome, of rex and flamen.

The magician-king (Varuna in India or Romulus in Rome) initiates in violence the social order that the jurist-priest (Mitra in India or Numa in Rome) develops in peace. Magical sovereignty operates by means of bonds and debts, whereas juridical sovereignty employs pacts and faith.

There is similarity between the Indian and the Greek religions as also in the society sketched in the Mahabharata and Homeric poems. Metempsychosis is known in both places. The imagery of the world-egg, so central to Vedic thought, is described in the Orphic legends.

These parallels are the result either of shared origins, migration, or cultural diffusion, or a combination of the three. In themselves, they cannot help us in determining the history of the system, but the articulation of the basic scheme has distinct characteristics in different regions. It is this articulation— this style— that represents a civilisational idea. Perhaps the clearest representation of this is in the styles of art, painting, music, and literature.

As an illustration of a civilisational idea, consider the notion of self in the Upanishadic dialogs, which the texts assert is the essence of the Veda, its secret knowledge. A similar emphasis on self-knowledge is introduced into Greek thought by the Pythagoreans and the Orphics. Corresponding to the three gunas of sattva, rajas, tamas, Plato spoke of three categories logistikon, thumos, epithumia and he used a three-part classification for society.

The amplification of the ideas of self and society occurred in different ways in the two civilisations. The commonality of purpose between Vedantic ideas and the philosophy of Plato is not as crucial as the manner of the exposition that has distinct flavours which may be called Indian and Greek. But one may ask if it is possible to go back before the time of the Greek philosophers and see the evidence of intrusive ideas before they were assimilated.

How Indic ideas crossed over

The intrusion of Indic people—and, concomitantly, their ideas—in the Near East is well known. An Indic element was a part of the Mitanni who, by the 15th century BC, had expanded their power from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Zagros Mountains. In a treaty with the Hittites, the Mitanni king swears by the Indic gods Mitra, Varuna, Indra, and Nasatya. Other Mitanni documents, uncovered in the archives at Bogazkoy (Hittite) and El Amarna (Egypt) clearly point to Indic influences. A Hittite text on horse-training and chariotry uses Sanskrit numerals; a Hurrian text uses Sanskrit words to describe the colour of horses. The Kassites, who ruled Mesopotamia for several centuries in the second millennium BC, had an Indic element, representing, as elsewhere in the region, a ruling aristocracy.

This Indic element likely played a role in the development of the cultural and religious complexes of Egypt and the Near East in the second millennium BC. The beginnings of this particular intrusion are seen around 1800 BC. Around 1650, an Indic people occupied the Nile delta for about 100 years; these people are described as the Hyksos, the Foreign Princes. Egypt’s new eschatological visions and innovations in myth are taken as the evidence for this presence, which flows in logical sequence to their presence in West Asia.

A still earlier intrusion of Eastern ideas into Egypt has also been assumed based on the readings of Pyramid Texts of about 2600 BC. The military activity of the Hittite king Hattusilis is taken as the vehicle for this process. But that early period does not concern us here. A memory of the supremacy of the Indic (or Indo-Iranian) region in religious and, concomitantly, artistic ideas is preserved in an ancient Pahlavi text. The world is divided into three regions:  the west (Rome) with riches; the north and east (Turkestan and the deserts) with martial turbulence; the south (Iran and India) with religion, law, and supreme royalty.

Could the Near East have served as a conduit for Indic ideas to Europe? To answer this we trace the passage of certain Indic ideas in art and astronomy to the Graeco-Roman world.

Astronomy and related mythology

The language of myth often represents astronomical and spiritual knowledge.  There exist structural similarities in many myths of the ancient world and these myths may be read as a narrative on the shifting frame of time due to precession. Myths are also a description of the ongoing transformations in the mind’s sky. This dual meaning can provide us specific imagery making it possible to trace its history.

Consider Venus, the planet and the Roman goddess of natural productivity and also of love and beauty. The Greeks called this planet Aphrodite and also Eosphoros or the bringer of light when it appeared as a morning star and Hesperos when it appeared as the evening star. It is believed that the Greeks first did not know that the two stars were the same but by the time of the Pythagoreans this identity was known. The Roman Venus derived her characteristics from the Greek Aphrodite who in turn appears to have been based on the Babylonian Ishtar. In Greek legend Aphrodite was born in Kupris or Cyprus; Kupris, a feminine deity, was derived from the masculine Kupros. In India, there is the Rigvedic attestation (10.123) of Vena as the name for this planet. Later texts use Shukra as another name. We have linguistic affinity in these names: Venus and Vena, Kupros and Shukra.

The Rigveda describes two aspects of Venus: one, as Gandharva who is the patron of singing and the arts; and the other, who is the son of the sun and an asura. These conceptions, together with the meaning of Vena as  longing   and  love, lead to both the later mythologies to be found in India as well as in  west Asia.

It has been suggested that the representation of the goddess in Mesopotamia and later on in Greece was under the influence of Indian ideas. Perhaps the evidence of the first conceptualisations of the goddess can help us with the chronology of the ideas in India. Aphrodite, like Lakshmi, is born out of the sea. But the Indian story is technically more sound because here the birth is out of churning, like that of butter out of milk, whereas the circumstances of Aphrodite’s birth are not described. Also, Ishtar couldn’t have been prior to Vena because it has only one of the many elements to be found in the Rigvedic hymn 10.123.

Coin of Azilises showing Gaja Lakshmi standing on a lotus 1st century BCE. (Azilises (circa 57-35 BCE) was an Indo-Scythian king who ruled in the area of Gandhara.) (Source: Wikipedia, Wikiquote)

Vena knows the secret of immortality; this presumably has reference to the fact that Venus emerges again after being obscured by the sun. In the Puranic glosses of this story Shukra is swallowed up by Shiva and later on expelled as semen; this is a play on the etymology of Shukra as bright. The Puranas tell us how the gods learnt the secret of immortality from Shukra by subterfuge. There is another remembrance of the immortality of Venus in the myth of Phoenix, a word cognate with Vena. Phoenix rises again after death, warmed by the rays of the sun. The Indian sources, namely the Rigveda and the Puranas, explain the whole basis of the Vena-Shukra myth at several levels. In Mesopotamia and in Greece and Rome, only scattered meanings are encountered which lead us to the conclusion that these ideas traveled from India to Europe by way of Mesopotamia.

Scholars of comparative mythology have pointed to other parallels. They have compared episodes from the epics and the Puranas with the myths of various European people and found crucial similarity in detail. While some invoke the tripartite underpinnings of the Indo-European thought to explain this similarity, it is more likely that there was some transmission of stories like the ones that occurred in the later transmission of Indian fables and Jatakas. The Indian stories are according to a self-conscious logic so the encyclopaedic authors of the Puranas had no trouble churning them out in large numbers. There is a deep and comprehensive exposition of the myths in Indian texts. The European stories, in contrast, are disconnected. The Rigveda contains a decisively greater portion of the common Indo-European mythological heritage.  In fact there is hardly a major motif common in two or more of the other branches that is not found in the Rigveda. This is even truer if the Puranic literature is considered.


Given the above evidence, it is not surprising that the themes and motifs of the rock art and the later Harappan seals are repeated in the Near East and in Greece. One of these is the image of the hero—the  Gilgamesh  figure— that is found both in the rock art and in the Harappan seals. This appears to validate the idea of interaction between India and its western regions in early centuries of the third millennium BC.

We now look at a few specific forms and symbols from Western art for their Indian parallels.

See Part 2 of From Vedanta to Plato: the Deep Links between India and Europe 



See also: Six-part series by Subhash Kak on Art, Cosmology and the Divine


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