From Vedanta to Plato: the Deep Links between India and Europe (Part 2)

From Vedanta to Plato: the Deep Links between India and Europe (Part 2)

See Part 1 in this series.

Mythological heroes

Although the Kirttimukha, a guardian of the threshold, is dated somewhat late in Indian art, its basis is squarely within the Indian mythological tradition. Many scholars have argued that the image of the Gorgon must be viewed as an intrusive Indic idea or a Greek interpretation of the Kirttimukha assimilated atop a different legend. The forehead markings of the Gorgon and the single-eye of the Cyclops are seen as Indian elements.

This may have been a byproduct of the interaction with the Indian foot soldiers who fought for the armies of the Persian and the Medean empires. But there were also Indian traders in Greece, just as there were Greek trading settlements in India. This is supported by the fact that the name of the Mycenaean Greek city Tiryns –the place where the most ancient monuments of Greece are to be found —  is the same as that of the most powerful Indian sea-faring people called the Tirayans.

The Perseus-Gorgon story is replete with Indian elements, especially the connection of the myth with Lycia. According to the art historian David Napier, “This ancient kingdom figures predominantly in Greek mythology as the location of the exotic: a place of ivory, peacocks, and ‘many-eyed’ cows; a place to which Greeks went to marry and assimilate that which to the pre-classical mind represented everything exotic.”

Funerary art

Etruscan mural (Image credit: AlMare)

Indian mythology has rich descriptions of Indra’s city, the paradise, with its water nymphs and gardens. Octavio Alvarez suggests that Vedic themes of afterlife are sketched on Etruscan tombs. He traces the transmission of these themes via Egypt, where the souls were no longer received by the tragic death-god Osiris, but by the enchanting Hathor, the goddess of joy and love.

Likewise, in the earlier Graeco-Roman conception of the after-world, the souls were supposed to exist without midriff, i.e., deprived of food and sex. But ultimately the ideas of Vedic heaven, where in the city of Indra are all pleasures and eternal youth, displaced these older views, and Alvarez is able to explain the new symbols of resurrection used in the Etruscan and later funerary art. He establishes a connection between the water-nymphs in the Graeco-Roman mythology and the apsaras of Vedic mythology.

We note that this western interpretation of Vedic afterlife was a literal rendering of a metaphor. Vedic paradise transcends space and time and it represents an absorption into Brahman. The idea of paradise as a pleasure garden was later adopted by Islam.

Alvarez is able to explain the iconography of the Etruscan sea-sarcophagi very convincingly using Indian parallels. He describes eight basic elements: 

1. The scene is the celestial ocean, abode of the departed souls, quite like Indra’s paradise.

2. The females are the apsaras, water-nymphs. On early sarcophagi and sepulchral imagery, they wear the Indian hairdo and earrings, but are otherwise nude, conforming to the Indian models. They are shown with prominent bellies and heavy backsides intentionally framed by drapes in the Indian manner.

3. The babies are the souls of the departed who reappear in paradise. This reappearance is connected to the idea of rebirth.

4. The flowers are the immediate vehicles of rebirth according to the idea of the birth out of Lotus.

5. The breast-feeding of the soul-babies shows the reception and nourishment by the heavenly hosts.

6. The sea-centauri are Gandharvas. As the male counterparts and lovers of the apsaras, they show fins and fish-tails to set them apart from the Graeco-Roman centauri.

7. The amorini who fill the atmosphere are the Mediterranean symbols to denote the celestial ocean, which is so glowingly described in India’s eschatology.

8. The portrait of the deceased was shown within a sea-shell, no doubt to indicate the rebirth in the Celestial Ocean.

There are other Indian elements in the iconography, such as garlands and the betel nut.

The Gundestrup cauldron

Gundestrup Caludron (Image credit:

Consider the case of the Gundestrup cauldron, found in Denmark a hundred years ago. This silver bowl has been dated to around the middle of the 2nd century BC. The sides are decorated with various scenes of war and sacrifice: deities wrestling beasts, a goddess flanked by elephants, a meditating figure wearing stag’s antlers. That the iconography must be Indic is suggested by the elephant (totally out of context in Europe) with the goddess and the yogic figure.


Image of yogi on the Gundestrup cauldron
Pashupati seal recovered from the Mohenjo Daro site

According to the art historian Timothy Taylor, “A shared pictorial and technical tradition stretched from India to Thrace, where the cauldron was made, and thence to Denmark. Yogic rituals, for example, can be inferred from the poses of an antler-bearing man on the cauldron and of an ox-headed figure on a seal impress from the Indian city of Mohenjo-Daro. Three other Indian links: ritual baths of goddesses with elephants (the Indian goddess is Lakshmi); wheel gods (the Indian is Vishnu); the goddesses with braided hair and paired birds (the Indian is Hariti).”

Taylor speculates that members of an Indian itinerant artisan class, not unlike the later Gypsies in Europe who also originate in India, must have been the creators of the cauldron.

Egyptian terracottas

English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie excavated many terracottas at Memphis in Egypt which terracottas he declared to be Indian. These figures date from the Graeco-Roman period and it is accepted that an Indian colony existed in Memphis from about the 5th century BCE onwards.

Reviewing the evidence, the scholar Harle concludes that the figures were made by these Indian colonists. Harle points to the pose, which in two cases is lalitasana and rajalilasana. He suggests that the plastic feeling, however hard to define, is also Indian. There are other features as well which recall certain Indian figures: the corpulence, a dhoti-like lower garment and, in one case, an armlet on the right arm and a scarf over the left shoulder. These features point to an Indian Panchika (Kubera) from Gandhara of the early Panchika and Hariti sculpture in the Peshawar Museum.

The figures include one that has traditionally been taken to be Harpocrates, the son of Isis and Osiris. But it is possible that for the Indian colonists the figure represented Krishna-Vasudeva as the child-god. Two bronzes of this child-god have been found in Begram and Taxila.

The archaeological context

In studying the interaction between India and Europe, one must note that the latest archaeological findings place the Indo-Aryans, the founders of the Indian literary tradition, within India.

The antecedents of the Harappan civilisation have been traced back within India to about 8000 BCE. Whether this tradition was derived from the earlier rock art tradition (40,000 BCE), we don’t know. But there is no evidence of a discontinuity in the archaeological record; the only breaks are due to ecological factors.

According to the archaeologists Shaffer and Lichtenstein, who argue against invasion/immigration models, “As data accumulate to support cultural continuity in South Asian prehistoric and historic periods, a considerable restructuring of existing interpretive paradigms must take place. We reject most strongly the simplistic historical interpretations, which date back to the eighteenth century, that continue to be imposed on South Asian culture history. These still prevailing interpretations are significantly diminished by European ethnocentrism, colonialism, racism.’”

The Indian literature remembers astronomical events that go back to the fourth or fifth millennium BCE. The presence of the Indic element in the Near East in the second millennium BCE should then be seen as an intrusion from India or an intrusion by a group that had been culturally Indianised.

The drying up of Sarasvati around 1900 BCE, which led to a major relocation of the population centred around in the Sindhu and the Sarasvati valleys, could have been the event that caused a migration westward from India. It is soon after this time that the Indic element begins to appear all over West Asia, Egypt, and Greece.

Ancient Eurasia had considerable trade and interaction within its regions. This interaction was a complex process and doubtless, migration was an element of it.

The diffusion and intrusion of ideas was an important element of the trade. Here we have seen some examples of ideas in art and astronomy that travelled west from India. Doubtless, other ideas travelled in the opposite direction.

See also: Art, Cosmology and the Divine by Subhash Kak


Feuerstein, G. Kak, S. and Frawley, D. 2001. In Search of the Cradle of Civilization. Wheaton/ New Delhi.
Kak, S. 2015. The Wishing Tree (3rd edition). New Delhi.
Kak, S. 2016. The Astronomical Code of the Ṛgveda (3rd edition). New Delhi.


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