Ancient Hindu Greeks : 2 interesting pieces of history

The title of this post might strike you as strange. “Ancient Hindu Greeks? Maybe Pawan is talking about Pagans as Hindus.. or maybe about Indo-Greeks…” might be your initial response. But, I must disappoint you. I am talking about Greeks in ancient times who lived a Hindu life, believed in Hindu philosophy and even dedicated monuments to Hindu Gods.

These interesting episodes are a testament to the spread and universality of Hinduism . These also point to the inherent racial equality in Hinduism since ancient times.

Before we move forward, let me say that I have claimed nothing new in this article. It is known that in ancient times, India and Greece had extensive trade relations. It is also common knowledge that after invasion of Alexander, many Indo-Greek Kings ruled in North West of India. These Kingdoms were largely based in current Pakistan and Afghanistan, but sometimes extended upto western UP.

As these came in contact with Indians, many of the Greeks adopted Indian religions including Buddhism and Hinduism. This is evidenced by the coins of these Kings, works like Milind Panho{which describes conversion of King Menander/Milind to Buddhism} and the murtis made in the famous Gandhar school of art.

Pythagorus

ancient hindu greeks
Pythagoras{representative image}

Pythagoras was born much before the Greek invasion of India. Indeed, he was born much before Buddha in around 570 BCE. He is considered to be one of the first Philosophers in Greece. He is famous world over for the Pythagoras theorem. But that was not his only contribution.

Hindu Gurus

It is written by ancient Greek authors that he studied under various masters. These included Greeks, Egyptians, Jews and Indian Hindus. As we shall see soon, evidence suggests that he accepted the Hindu lifestyle and beliefs and propagated the same in Greece.

It is not surprising at all. India was known to be the land of wise to ancient cultures. It famously had large universities, like Taxila and a reputation for advanced knowledge in Mathematics, Sciences and Philosophy.

Indeed, many scholars believe that during his mystery years, Jesus came to India and studied under wise Gurus. Many Chinese scholars including Xuan Xang{Huen Tsang} continued to come India for studying until Islamic invaders destroyed all universities in north India.

Ashram life

Pythagoras was a native of the island of Samos. He started a school there, but after a while left and established a school in Croton{now in Italy}. Both these centers became famous and brilliant students from all Greece came to learn from him.

His students lived with him for the duration of their studies. He is said to have emphasized on abstinence{Brahmcharya}, a peculiar Indian concept specially prescribed for students.

These two characteristics make his school a replica of Indian Ashram in Greece. His teachings will reveal more about his belief in Hinduism.

Beliefs and Practices

The beliefs and practice of Pythagoras and his disciples further cement our theory that Pythagoras was a Hindu.

Vegetarianism

Before the word vegetarianism was coined in 1840s, those who refused to eat meat were called Pythagoreans! Pythagoras was famously vegetarian and prohibited non-vegetarian food for his disciples.

Only Indic religions believe in vegetarianism even today. As Pythagoras was before the time of Buddha, this practice can only come from Jainism or Hinduism.

Rebirth and Transmigration

Pythagoras taught that soul is immortal and takes rebirth after death. He believed that animals and humans had the same soul. This is a famously Indic doctrine followed by Hinduism and Jainism. Buddhism denies existence of soul, but believes in transmigration.

Pythagoras also claimed to have memory of his previous births. Even today, we hear of such cases in India.

Meditation and Exercise

Pythagoras emphasized on meditation twice a day{morning and evening}. Apart from that, he advocated daily physical exercises.

These practices are similar to Yoga and pranayama of Hindus.

Mysticism of Numbers

Pythagoras believed in mystical meaning of numbers. For example, he believed that 1 represents God and 2 represented matter or duality.

This is a very curious similarity with Samkhya philosophy of Hinduism. Readers may recall the silent ‘debate’ of Kalidasa with Vidyottama. Even there the meaning of these numbers remains the same.

Secrecy

Pythagoras did not meet his new disciples. They could go and learn from him only after they had studied for years.

This is quite similar to the concept of ‘adhikara’ in Indian educational tradition. A guru would impart secret knowledge only after the student was sufficiently advanced. The whole concept of Upanishads is based on this premise.

Yogic powers

Pythagoras is said to have supernatural powers. He is said to have been present on two places at the same time, to have the ability to talk to animals and to have memory of his past lives etc.

These are all said to be possible by yogic powers.

Spread of Indian knowledge in Greece

Pythagoras was instrumental in spreading Indian knowledge in Greece. He learnt Indian geometry and taught it to Greeks. The theorem named as Pythagoras theorem was first described by Bodhayan and is mentioned in Shulba Sutras.

He also taught Indian astronomy to Greeks. for example, he taught that earth was spherical and is credited with identifying the evening and morning star as Venus.

Influence

The influence of Pythagoras on western world has been immense. He was revered even during his lifetime. However, he was also persecuted and his ashram was destroyed. His philosophical school continued to have influence for many centuries.

He was revered by the Christians for his extraordinary morality and self restraint.

Heliodorus

He is the only well known person among ancient Hindu Greeks. He has left an inscription that proclaims his belief in Vasudeva{Krishna}. This inscription is located at a place called Besnagar{Vidisha} in MP.

Heliodorus was the ambassador of Indo-Greek King Antialcidas of Taxila to King Bhagabhadra{dynasty and details uncertain}. He reached India around 110BCE.

He erected a pillar at the site of a large and famous Vasudev Temple, of whose only ruins are found now. The pillar is a Garud-Dhwaj, a feature still commonly found outside most Vishnu temples. The inscription on this pillar is very interesting.

The inscription

The inscription is in Sanskritized Prakrit language, written in Brahmi script. It deserves to be quoted in full.

“This Garuda-standard of Vāsudeva, the God of Gods was constructed here by Heliodora (Heliodoros), the Bhagavata, son of Dion, a man of Takhkhasila, the Greek ambassador who came from the Great King Amtalikita to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Savior,prospering in (his) fourteenth regnal year.

These three steps to immortality, when correctly followed, lead to heaven: self-control, charity, and mindfulness.”

-Heliodorus on the Garuda Stambha
ancient Hindu greeks dedicated pillars
Garud-dhvaj dedicated by Heliodorus at the site of ancient Vishnu Temple, Vidisha{MP}

Conclusion

The spread of Hinduism in ancient world is a matter of research. It is obvious that these were not the only Hindu Greeks in ancient times. Pythagoras had numerous students. Indeed, his school challenged Christianity many times and was persecuted.

Heliodorus was not the only Indo-Greek Hindu either, only the most prominent. Indeed, Indo-Greeks remained in India and became one with the population. With adequate research, it is very much possible that many more stories of ancient Hindus can see the light of day.

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