Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cultural influence: East to West

In the article Greco-Indian Astrology it was argued that astrology originated in India and spread to the West. In Classical antiquity of the West there are some hard facts about the cultural influences from the East to the West, notably in Greece.

A Greek helmet with swastika marks on the top part, dating back to around 350-325 BC and found at Herculanum, Italy shows the influences clearly (photo). This helmet could have been worn by a high ranking officer in the army of Alexander the Great, who invaded India in the winter of 327/326 BC and found its way back West. Like many armies who have done so, the cultural influences of the invaded territory flow back, including its religious ideas and symbols. Greek military chiefs would readily have welcomed the Indian sign of (spiritual) victory in their military gear.

The swastika (from Sanskrit svastika) is an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, in either right-facing form or its mirrored left-facing form, as shown in the ancient seals from the Indus Valley (photo). Archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates from the Neolithic period. Even if the symbol has travelled around the world in pre-historic times, its appearance is accidental in all places except India, where it has persistently been an integral part of the civilization - suggesting again that India is ground zero for these ideas. It occurs today in the modern day culture of India, sometimes as a geometrical motif and sometimes as a religious symbol; it remains widely used in Eastern and Dharmic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Another link in evidence is the "thread of ascetism, running from ancient Vedic India, through Buddhism, to Judaism (the Essenes) and on to Christianity and finally, Islam. This common thread was carried by trade, along the Silk Road and Incense Route."[1] The conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC greatly accelerated the contacts. For instance, the map shows Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, resulting in Greco-Buddhism. Along with the earlier vedic religious impulses, Buddhism was likely an important influence in the formation of Stoic thought in Greece during that era.

That said, the use of the Swastika in Greece goes back to an earlier time. Ancient Greek architectural, clothing and coin designs are replete with single or interlinking swastika motifs. There are also found gold plate fibulae from the 8th century BC decorated with an engraved swastika. This is close to the time of the discovery of mathematical terms in India, later attributed to Phytagoras. How the ideas spread to Greece is not known, and is likely lost in antiquity as literal sources in Greece do not go back that far. However, the swastika shows the cultural link was established already then.

Related symbols in classical Western architecture include the cross, the three-legged triskele or triskelion and the rounded lauburu. The swastika symbol is also known in these contexts by a number of names, especially gammadion. In the intersections of lines defining a solid repeated motif on the edge of a depicted piece of cloth resemble a swastika. The swastika symbol has also found its way into later Western religions, as in, for example, the Hands of God symbol of early ethnic pre-Christian religions in central Europe.

We also know that basic astrology and astronomy developed in neolithic India. However, horoscopic astrology then surfaced in a written work in India, which has been attributed to Yavanas in the 2nd or 1st century BC, a group of Greek speaking people in the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (256-125 BC) following the conquest of Alexander the Great in the East and in the later and more easterly Indo-Greek Kingdom (180 BC-10AD). As such the Greek speaking Yavanas were living in what is now Pakistan and India. It is all the more surprising to attribute the source of this type of astrology to the people of Greece, which had no known pre-history of astrology and the ancient form of horoscopic astrology is still used in modern India in its unadulterated form - Jyotisha.

To demonstrate the syncretism of Greek and Indian thought we need look no further than to the bilingual coins of the Greco-Bactrian kings in the 2nd century BC, which were issued in the Indian square standard. The coin has depictions of the Buddhist lion and a Greek inscription that reads "(of) King (Pan)taleon". The other side shows Lakshmi, the ancient Hindu goddess of wealth. Yet more evidence of the flow of cultural influences from East to West is the emergence of the lotus, a native plant of India and a sacred symbol of Buddhism, in Egyptian religious symbolism of around 500 BC. [2]

In any event, such historical artifacts of the ancient religious symbols of India in the Hellenic world is yet another indication of the historical direction of influence of ideas from East to West. This is important to note as many Western scholars, based on a narrow interpretation of a few late literal records alone, have a tendency to attribute discoveries of ancient Eastern origin to the historically relative neophyte civilization of Greece, including its use of the ancient astrology of the East.

[1] Bartram, John (2009). "Unravelling the First Century" in section on Greco-India and Divine Men, September 23rd, 2009.
[2]Batram, John (2010). "Cleopatra’s legacy: the Sacred Lotus of India". April 21, 2010
Wikipedia articles

No comments: