Greek Antiquity & Early Vedanta Philosophy

It is not hard to find similarities between philosophers across times. This article however, does not seek to establish a definite connection and exchange of ideas between ancient India and Greece, though such a connection might exist. Instead it discusses some key similarities between early Greek philosophy until Platonic Idealism and Advaita Vedanta philosophy.

  Homer and Hesiod formalized ancient Greek mythology around 700 B.C. by writing it down for the first time. This allowed for a philosophical and critical examination of these myths, which  would otherwise have been of exclusively ritual significance, accounting for the resemblance of Gods with human characteristics, with the same anger and ego. For the first time philosophers criticized that the myths were indeed human notions. It is around this time in 570 B.C. that philosopher Xenophanes noted, “Man made God in his own image.” Philosophers transitioned from depending on these myths to using reason and empirical judgement of the world to understand natural processes and the substance that made up all things in the world. They were called the “natural philosophers”. Empedocles from 470 B.C. believed that the world was made of four ‘root’ elements: fire, earth, water and air. He was the first Greek philosopher to discuss a theory of sense perception “For by earth we perceive earth, by water water, by air  divine  air  and  by fire  destructive fire.”

Elements of Life

  Similarities between Greek philosophers and ancient Vedanta philosophy emerge early on if we compare the mythology and giving distinct human characteristics to Gods, such as jealousy, pain, sadness. The ancient Hindu tales about Shiva and Indra and their wrath, love and envy represent human emotions assigned to an otherwise omnipotent God. Even the four elements identified by Empedocles is very similar to the five elements pancha mahabhuta in the Vedas as the basis for all life: jal (water), pavan (air), agni (fire), bhumi (earth)and akash (void).

All human body is believed to be made with these elements, and these elements are also associated to the five human senses. Earth can be perceived by all five senses, the Water can be perceived by all senses except smell. Fire can be perceived only using three senses, hearing, touch and sight, air can only be felt and heard while the last and subtlest element, Void can only be heard as vibrations.[1]

In the 5th century BC Socrates revolutionised the Greek philosophical terrain by introducing ethical and moral questions to the political life of Athens. Even though he himself did not write anything in his life (Plato, his student, wrote most of his philosophy in his works Phaedrus and Apology), he was sentenced to death at an early age for his enigmatic personality and, at that time, blasphemous philosophy. Socrates located the source of all ethics in a person’s ‘conscience’. The conscience he believed did not emerge from society (as Sophist philosophers during the same time believed). Socrates instead located it in ‘reason’ which he believed to be innate. This can be seen as a start towards a form of ‘idealism’ as a concept of certain things being innate to humans and eventually a conception of a soul and that later develops into Platonic Idealism.

Socrates was concerned with the eternal rules for morality that could be applied to all societies due to the innateness of reason in humanity. Socrates’s student, Plato was also keen on discovering the immutable and eternal in society and in nature, which he discussed extensively in his work, Phaedrus (370 B.C.). He was looking at a ‘reality’ that was eternal. Unlike Empedocles, who believed on a material substance underlying all things in the world, Plato believed that each tangible thing has an underlying ‘form’.

For example, while no two dogs might be the same, there is something that lets us recognize that both animals are indeed of the same kind. This underlying ‘form’ that all dogs have is something that is eternal. The dog itself might be mortal, but its ‘form’ is immortal. So all dogs, regardless of form are manifestations of an ‘ideal dog’, and this he said was applicable to any living being. Thus, Plato came to call these forms ideas. He believed that under the material reality is an ideal world, made of these eternal form. This world of ideas is not perceptible to the senses, but can be accessed with reason, which was natural to all people.

Reality & Truth

  Plato’s World of Ideas finds its parallels in Advaita branch of Vedanta philosophy, especially Adi Shankaracharya’s interpretation of it. In this philosophy, a person is considered a ‘seeker’ who has to understand the nature of ‘Reality’, that which remains the same in past, present and future. This ‘Reality’ is called sat or ‘Truth’. He needs to seek this ‘Truth’ from the non-existent (asat) world, that which can never exist, and the ‘Unreal’ (mithya) world which is temporary or which changes its form.[2] This is the material world we see around us. Both Plato and Advaita philosophy share the ideal notion of an eternal, unchangeable form of the world, which is separate from the material world, but which can nevertheless be accessed only through the material world.

The ‘seeker’ of Truth as described in Vedanta philosophy, can be compared to the man in Plato’s Cave, who instead of looking at shadows on the cave wall his whole life, turns his head to see the world of Real ideas outside the Cave. For Plato, humans are tied to the sensory world with their body, which like anything else is also not permanent. But he believed in an immortal soul, which preexisted the body and will continue to exist even after it. This soul existed,  but in the sensory world, it loses all memory of the World of Ideas. Nevertheless the soul yearns for that perfect world, and this yearning Plato calls eros or love. The process to remember those forms again, stirred by the desire for a higher beauty than the sensory world is called Anemnesis (Recollection).

The process of Recollection in Vedanta philosophy is through Self-Knowledge. He calls it Self-Knowledge because the self or the atman already knows the true ‘Reality’, being itself a part of that very ‘Reality’, the Parmatman or Brahman. This knowledge which is considered to be within the self is also discussed by Plato. It is revealed when, through meditation and discrimination between the Self the not-Self, one reaches the pure self or sachidananda svarupa. Parmatman is the highest level of this consciousness, which can only be reached from a realization of the unreality of the material world and the knowledge of the true ‘Reality’, which is ultimately the Self. It is with this realization can the soul leave the material world for eternity, moksha.[3]

Transmigration of the Soul

  The transmigration of the soul is discussed in both philosophies. Pythagoras (570 B.C.) referred to this phenomenon as metempsychosis even before Plato. He theorized that the soul went through multiple cycles of birth and death, the actions in the former birth decided the next birth, very similar to the concept of karma in Vedanta philosophy. Timothy Lomperis in his Hindu Influence on Greek Philosophy (1984), has argued that Pythagoras could have been influenced by the eastern traditions, Persian or Indian that had similar concepts of reincranation.

Phaedrus elaborated this by theorizing that the soul would go through the World of Ideas before its next birth, but will have no recollection of this world as it enters the sensory world. Similarly, Advaita philosophy also theorizes the continuation of the soul after death of the body. There are two prescribed paths for the soul in UpanishadPitryana and Devyana. The souls which follow the Devyana (path of Gods) reach the Brahman and is released from the process of death and birth. Souls who follow the Pitryana (path of the fathers) are still invested in the material world and are reincarnated to start another cycle of rebirth. Adishankaracharya interprets these verses in the Gita as ‘‘Those who die, having been engaged in the contemplation of Brahman, reach Brahman by this path’ (i.e. devayāṇā); whereas by the other path (pitṛyāṇa) ‘the Yogin – the karmin who performs sacrifices (to Gods) and other works – attains to the lunar light, and on the exhaustion thereof, returns again to earth.’”

Shankaracharya asserts that the Brahman attained from pitṛyāṇa is not the real Brahman, and there is a higher knowledge that is needed to attain this parabrahman and aparabrahman, transcending all the lower forms of consciousness. Some of Shankaracharya’s learned advocates also argue that he did not even believe transmigration of the atman since there is no separation between the Atman and Brahman. They have argued the soul with its karmas from the previous birth can transmigrate, but the atman does not.

Ancient Greek and Advaita philosophy are incredibly elaborate and rich, and this article can merely discuss an aspect of these, for there is scope for many more parallels to be drawn between them. Such an investigation of the similarities between these two schools of thought can play a significant role in bridging the divide between the Western and Eastern philosophy and helps us appreciate the universality of notions of the nature of reality and humanity’s place in it. Both philosophies urge us to be ‘seekers’ of these truly universal truths, the truths for which Socrates even sacrificed his life.


[1] Gopal, Madan (1990). K.S. Gautam, ed. India through the ages. Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. p. 79.

[2] Tejomayananda, Swami. “Tattvabodha”. Chinmaya Prakashan, 2013.

[3] Tejomayananda, Swami. “Tattvabodha”. Chinmaya Prakashan, 2013.

Aditi Gautam is a Reaserch Associate in JPAL South Asia. She hold a bachelor’s degree in economics from University of California, San Diego.

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