This is an excerpt form Swami Prabhavananda's The Spiritual Heritage of India (1962)

The Philonic and Johannean conceptions of the Logos may conceivably owe no debt to Indian thought, for the truth is no monopoly of any race or nation, and with spiritual growth the same truth is often realized by different peoples independently of one another. Yet it is also possible that both Greek philosophers and Christian theologians were in some degree under obligation to India for their initial ideas, since it is a well-known fact that Hindu thought exercises a strong influence upon the minds of early Western thinkers.

What evidence, if any, is there that early Western thinkers were indeed influenced by Hindu thought? Are there any examples among ancient Greek philosophers, say?

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    There is some evidence that Plotinus traveled East for some time. There is also evidence that Buddhist monks traveled as far as Alexandria. There is also records that Alexander the Great brought some pundits back with him when he was in India. Wiki Plotinus for some references. For Alexander, my reference is "The History of Antiquity Volume IV: India" Jul 23, 2015 at 8:11

3 Answers 3


This sounds like nonsense to me. There's a cottage industry of anti-colonial literature which tries to find precursors to Greek thought in non-European peoples. (See the wikipedia page on the book Black Athena for some details, and criticisms, of a different example of the genre.)

I don't know of any meaningful sources of Indian or Hindu influence upon the development of Greek thought and the fact that the author doesn't provide any evidence for his claims makes me suspect that he is simply making this up. This isn't to deny there might be similiarities between, say ancient greek religion and vedantic hinduism. But the explanation there is common origin, not historical influence on the Greeks by the Hindus. In other words, I'm saying that Greek and Hindu culture might share some of the same roots, but I don't know of any historical evidence that the intellectual tradition of india influenced the greek tradition until after Alexander the Great, by which point all of the distinctive institutions of ancient Greece, like philosophy, democracy, theater and so forth were already very well established.

  • Could you please indicate some similarities between ancient greek religion and vedantic hinduism? Or do you consider it a conjecture only?
    – Jo Wehler
    Jul 21, 2015 at 20:48
  • I had in mind primarily the idea of reincarnation, although there are some other similarities as well. For instance, both religions are polytheistic. There also seems to be a kind of shared conception of the gods as "shining beings" who dwell in the sky. The sanskrit "deva" (meaning "a god") is cognate to the greek name for zeus, both deriving from an indo-european root either meaning "shining" or "Sky Father". But this doesn't speak to influence of Hindus on Greeks. Ancient germanic peoples are also indoeuroeans and share similar religious terms. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deva_(Hinduism)
    – user5172
    Jul 21, 2015 at 20:54
  • That said, i'm not a historian of religion, or a classicist, so take what i'm saying here with a grain of salt.
    – user5172
    Jul 21, 2015 at 20:54
  • Swami Prabhavananda does not strike me as the type of person who is making things up. He could still have made a mistake, of course. Anyway, his indication "well-known fact" seems mistaken.
    – Drux
    Jul 22, 2015 at 4:45
  • @wehler: there's a reference in the Kena Upanishad (translation by Yeats) moving from a notion similar to Empedoclean elements to a Parmenidian monism; and a reference later to an 'unmoving One'; I'm not suggesting here influence but parallels; I can add some more detail if you turn your comment into a question. Jul 24, 2015 at 21:38

I do not know how Prabhavananda supports his thesis "Hindu thought exercises a strong influence upon the minds of early Western thinkers." What are his arguments and examples?

The first known contact between India and Greek in the domain of religious thinking and philosophical speculation are known from the Hellenistic period, after Alexander's conquering expeditions.

Namely, the questions of the Indo-Greek king Menandros (Milinda) to the Buddhist monk Nagasena and Nagasenas answers. But the text is handed down much later.

Hence we do not know about any Buddhist influence on the Ionian philosophers of nature, neither on Plato or Aristotle.

Even less we know about influences of Hinduism on Greek philosophers of this time - your original question.

  • FWIK Swami Prabhavananda (untypically) does not provide arguments or examples for causation in his book. (Hence my question.)
    – Drux
    Jul 21, 2015 at 9:46
  • What a pity :-(
    – Jo Wehler
    Jul 21, 2015 at 10:02
  • I wonder why and when the issue regarding the eastern ( or Asian ) - western thoughts / religions come up, even the professionals write primarily opinion based........
    – user13955
    Jul 21, 2015 at 12:25

McEvilley, who is a Sanskrit scholar provides some evidence in his book The Shape of Ancient Thought; I'd also suggest that the art of Gandhara shows a definite mingling between Greek and Indian philosophies - but this is after Alexander's empire building.

Another possible line of attack is through religous texts; given the duty to preserve texts; and that religion and philosophy was inter-mixed then in a way not comparable to the contemporary Western world; for example, both the philosophical poems of Empedocles and Parmenides address the divine; as does Lucretious later.

There is a great deal of similarity between the Zorastrian Avesta and the Indian Rig Veda; for example:

aevo pantao yo ashashe, vispe anyaesham apantam (avestan)

abade pantha ashae, visha anyaesham apantham (Sanskrit)

The similarities are obvious, and the translation shows a similarity and construction with how Parmenides distinguishes the way of truth from that of opinion (doxa); that he dismisses.

The one path is that of Asha, the others are not-paths

There are parallels between Orphic and Pythagoranism, which differed from popular Greek religion on three counts:

  • emphasis on an immortal soul; and a cycle of rebirth

  • sacred texts on the origin of gods (theogony)

  • an ascetic way of life

And again this parallels features in ancient Vedic religion.

Russell, points out that Socrates was

wasn't an orthodox Orphic; it is only the fundamental doctrines he accepts; not their ceremonies of purification a and superstitions.

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    How can works of art(!) from Gandhara show a mingling between Greek and Indian philosophies(!)?
    – Jo Wehler
    Jul 21, 2015 at 11:33
  • 1
    This book looks interesting, but a cursory search of the reviews makes me pretty dubious of the author's methodology and findings. See: safarmer.com/Indo-Eurasian/McEv.IJHS.pdf and bibliotheca-classica.org/sites/default/files/…
    – user5172
    Jul 21, 2015 at 21:16
  • @Shane: the first review by Allen is generally positive; but appears to discuss Dumezil rather than McEvilley in detail; and the second is quite dismissive; personally, I'd suggest that the problematic that Allens identifies 'practitioners of Indo-European cultural comparativism have a vast task ahead of them' for their 'contribution to historical understanding to be taken seriously'; but 'scientific progress is possible'; Jul 21, 2015 at 23:11
  • @MoziburUllah I'm not in a position to speak about the state of indoeuropean scholarship, but I'm suspicious of McEvilley for two reasons, neither of which is conclusive. First, judging by his other scholarship and academic positions, McEvilley appears to have been primarily an art historian rather than a scholar of either greek or indian philosophy. That doesn't make him wrong, but it does call into question whether he's an expert in the field he's hoping to revolutionize.
    – user5172
    Jul 21, 2015 at 23:33
  • Second, McEvilley's book was published with a press that specializes in fine arts publications, not academic monographs in classics or indology. Was his work peer-reviewed? Maybe, but I'd guess not. Again, this doesn't mean he's wrong. It just means we shouldn't necessarily trust his expertise. Add to these two facts the negative review from an author who does seem to be a well-published expert in the field, and I think we've got good reason to be quite skeptical of McEvilley's claims.
    – user5172
    Jul 21, 2015 at 23:37

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