Ātman and Psyche

Cosmology and the Self in Ancient India and Ancient Greece

This AHRC-funded project is being conducted by Professor Richard Seaford of the University of Exeter and Dr. Richard Fynes of De Montfort University.

In the period 700-323 BCE we find in India and in Greece new conceptions of the universe, and of the place of humankind in it, that have much in common with each other. For example, in both India and Greece,

  • in striking contrast to the tradition of anthropomorphic polytheism, a single all-embracing formless entity is elevated above multiplicity, change, and the particularity of form;
  • the single entity, which tends towards abstraction, and the individual self (or soul) are assimilated to each other, in what may be called subjective monism;
  • it is believed that through good actions we can escape from a cycle of reincarnation that is both indiscriminate (in the sense that we may be transformed into anything living) and painful.

How do we explain the striking similarity and approximate simultaneity of this new kind of cosmology in India and Greece? The usual answer is that there was influence, in one direction or the other. Such an explanation cannot be excluded, but it is undemonstrable, implausible, and unnecessary. There is in this period almost no evidence for Greek knowledge of India (as opposed to fantasy) or Indian knowledge of Greece. And nothing like this combination of ideas is found anywhere else. In particular, the absence of all three ideas from the vast area between Greece and India tells against the hypothesis of influence between them. More relevant, it may be tentatively suggested, is that in this period the societies that most resemble the urbanisation, commercialisation and monetisation of the Greek city-states are to be found in the Gangetic plain. Rather than influence, we should consider the possibility of parallel autonomous intellectual development based on similarity of socio-economic development. If influence mattered, it was most likely to be indirect influence on commercial practices that in turned influenced intellectual transformation.

Such similarities of ideas have given support to the idea of an Axial Age, in which there occurred fundamental transformations of thought in Israel, Iran, and China as well as in Greece and in India. But research into the explanation of this phenomenon has been hampered by the lack of sustained full-time collaboration between specialists in Axial Age cultures and by the failure to take into account the socio-economic evidence. Our project proposes a first step to remedy both these defects, and thereby to contribute to the study of the Axial Age as a whole.

The project will host two conferences in 2014, one in London on June 21st (at SOAS) and the other on July 9-12th at the University of Exeter.

Image courtesy of Nick Thompson.

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