School of Athens
Sunil Upasana
Upanishads And Greek Thinkers On ‘Elements’

Insights of two ancient civilisations on the building blocks of physical existence

From the very dawn of the comparative studies in the philosophy area, scholars have noted close parallelism between Indian and Greek philosophies, though Greek philosophy was born and flourished in the first millennium BCE and the dating of Indian philosophy, considering that its origin is in Upanishads, is much anterior. In the most conservative measures, we may assign 2000 BCE to the start of Upanishad period. Pre-Socratic philosophers and Greek Philosophy in general, shows much similarity with the Indian thought of first and second millennium BCE. The reasons for this parallelism may be ascribed to the common source or heritage of both parties or the communication and information flow channels between India and Greece through Persia.

Among the numerous parallels between Indian and Greek thought, this article concentrates only on the theory of Elements according to both systems. Theory of elements that aroused during the first millennium BCE in Pre-Socratic Greece has clear and rough parallels with the theory of elements, tinted with spirituality, presented in the early Upanishads. There are personal and impersonal things considered as the first born substance or primary element/principle of the world in Upanishads. Both of these elements of the Upanishadic thought have counterparts in Greek thought.

Water as the first principle

Greek Version

Thales of Miletus, the wisest among Greeks according to oracle of Delphi, taught that ‘water’ is the first principle and earth is on water.

“Thales says that the world is held up by water and rides on it like a ship, and that what we call an earthquake happens when the earth rocks because of the movements of water.”

Another fragment that relates Thales with water element is by Aristotle.

“… However they disagree about how many of such principles there are, and about what they are like. Thales, who was the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that water is the first principle (which is why he declared that the earth was on water)…”

Thales is considered as one among the ‘seven sages’ of Greece. Aristotle in his On the Soul says that Thales held the opinion that everything is divine, which is a major teaching of the Upanishads. Another doctrine of the Milesius School is Hylozoism, also has Indian parallel.

Indian Version

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad advocates that water was the source of all things.

“In the beginning, verily, the waters alone existed; from the waters was born Satya or Truth; Satya produced Brahman, Brahman gave birth to Prajapati, and from Prajapati were born the gods; these gods worship Satya alone.”

Same idea has repeated many times in other Upanishads also. Even much earlier in Rigveda, there is speculation about water as the first principle.

“Then was not non-existent or existent; there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.

What covered in, and where? And what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?”

Aitareya Aranyaka, gives the five elements (earth, water, air, fire and ether) which were well known in later period.

Air as the first principle:

Greek Version

In Greek Philosophy, Pre-Socratic, Anaximenes speculates that Air is the underlying substance of things.

“Anaximenes of Miletus… shares his views that the underlying nature of things is single and infinite; however unlike Anaximender, Anaximenes’ underlying nature is not Boundless, but specific, since he says that it is Air, and claims that it is thanks to rarefaction and condensation that it manifests in different forms in different things. When dilated it becomes fire and when condensed it become first wind, then cloud and then… water, earth, stones, etc.”

School of Athens

He thought Air is the thing that gives life to human. Soul is also air.

“. . .Air is the first principle of things, since it is the source of everything and everything is dissolved back into it. He says, soul, which is air, hold us together. . .”

Not stopping here, he even attributes divinity to air (Prana?) and said gods were emerged from Air (like Brahman is the abode of Gods in Upanishads).

“Next came Anaximenes, who claimed that air was a god, which has been created, was infinitely huge, and was always in motion.”

“… He attributed all the causes of the things to infinite air, but he did not deny the existence of gods or have nothing to say about them; however he believed not that air was made by them, but that they emerged from air.”

Anaximenes also holds the views that earth is flat and it rides on air. In the same way Sun, the moon and the heavenly bodies ride on the air because of their flatness.

Indian Version

Chandogya Upanishad, one of the earliest Upanishad, mentions that Air is the first principle.

“. . .King Janasruti returned, but went back again to the Sage with the cows, the golden necklace, the chariot, as well as his beautiful daughter; whereupon, the sage Raikva seemed to be satisfied, and having lifted the beautiful daughter’s face towards himself, said, ‘Verily, O Sudra, you are making me speak on account of this face’ and then he imparted to the king the knowledge which he possessed, namely that he believed that the Air was the final absorbent of all things. ‘When fire is extinguished it goes to the air, when the sun sets it goes to the air, when the moon sets it goes to the air, when the waters dry up, they go to the air; thus verily is Air the final absorbent of all things whatsoever”.

The logical conclusion from such a position is that if air be the end of all things, it may also be regarded as the beginning of them. Upanishads clearly exhibits scientific ideas in the garbh of spirituality. As Upanishads are primarily a religious literature, not a scientific treatise, such spiritual-scientific intertwined topics are not strange, but natural.

In Rigveda, speculation about Air is available. There Air is considered as the friend of Water and as the vital force of Gods (like Anaximenes connects Air with Gods). Air has the inherent capacity to move as he wishes.

“Travelling on the paths of air’s mid-region, no single day doth he take rest or slumber.

Holy and earliest-born, Friend of the waters, where did he spring and from what region came he? Germ of the world, the Deities’ vital spirit, this God moves ever as his will inclines him.

His voice is heard, his shape is ever viewless. Let us adore this Wind with our oblation.”

Speculation about Air was very ancient in India and most of these speculative ideas (about air and others) may not descended to us vividly because of the inclusion of spirituality along with the experimental truths, while writing them down.

Fire as the first principle

Greek Version

Heraclitus is famous for his opinion that ‘none can step into a same river’. This idea is verily Pre-Buddhistic and got prominence in the teachings of Gautama, the Buddha. One of the fundamental Buddhist doctrines is that everything in this world is in a state of flux. There is no ‘being’ but only ‘becoming’. Buddhist rejects the Atman concept, in the experimental world level, because an eternal and unchanging Atman is not in accord with the Buddha’s teaching of the Flux. Even before Buddha, the belief in Flux may be extant in India.

In most of the fragments available about Heraclitus, fire occupies a major place.

“It is wise for those who listen not to me but to the principle to agree in principle that everything is fire.”

The application of the term ‘fire’ in many fragments is not ambiguous. Sometimes it is as a constituent of things or as a heavenly aspect… etc. He believes soul is fire and fire after condensation becomes water. He believed, like Indian tradition, in the cyclic destruction and creation of the world and also in after-life.

Indian version

The theory of fire as the origin of all things is not maintained very explicitly in the

Upanishads. But Kathopanishad tells that Fire, having entered the universe assumed all forms. It is almost equivalent to the Heraclitean formula that fire is exchanged for all things and all things for fire.

On the other hand, in the Chandogya Upanishad, we are told that fire was the first to evolve from the primeval Being, and that from fire came water, and from water the earth.

“Where can be the root of that apart from being in food? In this very way, O good-looking one, through food which is the sprout understand water as the root. O good looking one, through water which is the sprout, understand fire as the root. O good looking one, through fire which is the sprout, understand Existence as the root. O good-looking one, all these beings have Existence as their root. Existence is their abode. Existence is their place of merger.”

Heraclitean idea of the Way Up and the Way Down is inherent in the above hymn. In the above hymn food (earth) – water – fire – existence is the chronology. Then, at the time of the dissolution, the earth may be dissolved in water, the water in fire, and the fire in the Primeval Being.

And Heraclitus says,

“As it is condensed fire becomes moist, and then as it is further compressed it becomes water, and as water solidifies it turns into earth, this is the ‘road downward’. Then again earth dissolves and give rise to water, which is the source of everything else, since he attributes everything to the process of exhalation from the sea; this is the ‘road upward’.”

Heraclitus is much influenced by the Upanishadic thought, more than any other Greek thinkers, and Thomas McEvilley in his book, ‘The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies’, proves it at length. This book brings out the clear Indian influence on Greek philosophy and Neo-Platonism.

Space as an element is added in Greek philosophy by Philolaus of Croton and in Indian version it is mentioned in Chandogya Upanishad by Pravahana Jaivali. Earth as an element is as old as Hesiod and it got its place in many Upanishads.

Summary of similarities given by an eminent scholar

RD Ranade had given a summary of the similarities in Indian and Greek philosophies in his book ‘A Constructive survey of Upanishadic Philosophy’. The book, written in the first quarter of 20th century, systematically expounds the philosophical ideas inscribed in the Upanishads and the connection of later philosophical schools of India and their teaching with the Upanishads. Below I am producing an excerpt, which shows the similarities between Indian and Greek thought, from the book.

“We have already noticed how the definitions of the primary substance in the two philosophies are identical; how the query of Hesiod at the beginning of his work corresponds almost exactly to the query at the beginning of the Svetasvatara Upanishad; how the conception of water as the “arche” in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad has its counterpart in the theory of Thales; how the doctrine of air as the final absorbent in the Chandogya Upanishad has its analogue in the theory of Anaximenes; how the Heracleitean conception of the exchange of fire for all things is to be met with in the Katha Upanishad; how the earth as the basis of the cosmos as we find it in the Mundaka Upanishad is echoed in Hesiod; how the conception of Space as the fifth element recognized in the Taittiriya Upanishad has its parallel in the theory of Philolaos; how the conceptions of Not-Being and Being in theTaittiriya and ChandogyaUpanishads have their parallels in the theories of Gorgias and Parmenides; how the Way Up and the Way Down in Taittiriya Upanishad are repeated in the theory of Heracleitus; how, finally, the conception of Trivritkarana in the Chandogya Upanishad has its analogue in the Anaxagorian doctrine of there being a portion of everything in everything.

So far about the cosmological resemblances proper. Nor are the extra-cosmological resemblances of the two philosophies less interesting. The Pythagorean doctrine of Transmigration and its Indian analogue dating so far back as the days of the Rigveda, the Phaedrus myth of the Charioteer and the Horses and an exactly similar myth in the Katha Upanishad, the representation of the idea of the Good in Plato as the Sun of the world of ideas having its counterpart in the description in the Katha Upanishad of the Atman as verily the Sun who is the eye of the world and is free from all imperfections, the move of Plato corresponding phonetically, philologically and even philosophically to the Maya of the Vedanta, Parmenides’s attack in Plato against the Universality of the Idea represented to a word in the famous criticism by Sankara of the Naiyayika idea of the Universal, the analogy of the ‘Vak’ in Rigveda to the Logos in Heracleitus, the Stoics, and Greek philosophy generally — all these could not be said to be less interesting specimens of the analogies of Greek and Indian Thought…”

Author of this book don’t suspect any influence of Indian thought upon Greek because information flow channels between India and Greece were quite unknown on those days and Harappa – Mohenjo-Daro archaeological complex was not excavated, hiding the ancient civilization of India in the veil. Now things changed much and we have a bunch of evidence about the interrelation between early civilizations.