by Robert C. Priddy
Table of Contents
India's past is so ancient and has been so influential in the rise of civilisation and religion, at least for almost everyone in the Old World, that most people can claim it actually to be the earliest part of our own odyssey.
History has been called a review of the crimes and follies of mankind. One can learn from these trials and errors, as well as from the solutions enacted by great figures of India's past. There are also many lessons of true diplomacy and human wisdom to be had from the great ancient scripts, prose-poems, epics and revelationary scriptures of India. The prime example of Rama and his brothers in the Ramayana, and of Krishna and the Pandavas in the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata and in Srimad Bhagavatam are perhaps the most outstanding. Yet there is even more than this to be learned today!
Through Western Glasses Darkly
To the West, knowledge of India comes primarily through newspapers, TV, novels, biographies and various types of foreign developmental or aid agency. Knowledge from all these sources is partial, distorted and tainted, the unconventional writer Chaudheri maintains, for "the world's knowledge about India today is obtained overwhelmingly at one remove from people belonging to the urban upper middle-class, who have become the heirs to British rule." As a class, their views and attitudes are predominantly those of the rulers and exploiters of the remaining nine-tenths."1
The 'dual-accounting' tendency - one beautified account for public consumption and another unadorned one for private reference - has also been explained by Chaudheri. According to him, a subtle kind of double-speak exists almost universally in India… on the one hand what one presents to foreigners and on the other an unspoken knowledge of certain realities shared by all those who know at least one major Indian tongue, but which is very seldom expressed by English-speakers or writers. Chaudheri himself obviously represents one break with the norm. This view of a kind of double-standard in recording the facts is supported by the existence of records of Indian life which often present the harsher realities of India in a stark way, having been recorded in memoirs and other writings by those British who had mastered several Indian languages and spent their lives in the thick of life in the provinces as colonial administrators, judges and so forth.
Among the contributions to world literature and culture of ancient India which stand out as exceptional and influential in the formation of civilisation throughout the Western world are the stories and tales that form the basis of a large part of the folk tale traditions of Europe, as well as many of those of the East Indies region. The host of historical or imaginary figures well-know to Indian children are found in many stories world-wide that have adopted elements of the Indian tradition which have travelled to them by various routes and have been transformed on the way. Gods and demons of the Puranas appear as local heroes enacting the same original dramas in many Middle-Eastern, European and Nordic folk tales, even turning into animals in African stories.
What can be won from knowing about India's past above all, perhaps, is not more historical learning or deep cultural knowledge, but the inspiration of a spirituality that is so richly elevated, so intense, marvellous and even awesome as to reawaken and nurture a faith that we have lost. One can certainly assert that there is no dearth of sources! Even considering a few instances, such as that the Muslim invaders bridged an entire river with palm-leaf books written in Sanskrit and the British fired the boilers of the Red Fort with invaluable manuscripts, there remains a truly vast literature that has been handed down, often from time immemorial, in such subjects as we call scripture, theology, philosophy, science, folk tales and much besides. This literature provides insight into a world, or rather into worlds, that it is only peripherally meaningful to try to study by means of scientific dating or the literal and 'objective' approach through bones and isolated artefacts. Instead we can get access to the 'flesh and blood' of their daily thoughts and ambitions through countless accounts of the lives of divine saints and their followers, the actions of Devas and Devendras, and of events that took place even long before such matters were recorded through written traditions or by synoptic poems. This can be rewarding and joyously expansive of mind and soul… opening to the inner eye visions of undreamt-of possibilities and solutions to the deepest perplexities of life.
The mother of religion, the world's earliest spiritual teachings of the Vedic tradition contains the most sublime and all-embracing of philosophies from dualisms (Dvaita and Visishtadvaita) to the highest form of monism (Advaita), surpassing St.Thomas of Aquinas, Kant, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Hegel or any other Western philosopher as regards sophistication and unity of spiritual-intellectual insight. This is still almost entirely ignored by navel-gazing western thinkers, so that Hindu religion is still well beyond the understanding and religious experience of most non-Hindu theologians - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim.
During the struggle for liberation of India from British rule and also after Independence, the Indian national debate was frequently marked by zeal in raising Indian self-confidence through stories of national 'firsts'. These claims descended from the sublime to the ridiculous while almost any invention was claimed by someone to have originally been Indian. Leading Indian reformers like Dayananda Sarasvati, Keshab Sen, Vivekananda, Tagore and others had worked to dispel this exaggerated chauvinism and to assert the undeniable lead of Western thought in areas like science, social emancipation and political economy. Despite their influence, there remained sufficient hyperbole to give room to scathing criticisms of it by enlightened Indians, such as Nirad Chauderi.
Indians in general have given little energy to 'marketing themselves' or polishing their 'image', having since Independence chosen the relative isolation of a non-aligned State protecting itself as best it could from the world market and intrusive foreign competitors. There are plenty of reasons why Indians have not used literature and the media effectively to portray national virtues, ranging from lack of confidence in India proper by Westernised Indians, the disparity of races, languages and cultures that are contained together as the Indian nation and perhaps the predominance of other more pressing concerns in this exploited and struggling sub-continent. The most telling reason, I think, is the long-term loss of faith in traditional values and in the importance of this Indian heritage to the world. The sublimity of India's spiritual life was lost in the myopia of the British and is yet to be discovered properly by their modern academicians or by those writers who supply the sophisticated yet hardly elevated tastes of the English language book-buying public which craves exotica, excitement and literary invention rather than expressions of the still widespread spirituality of India.
Scientific bias in dating the past
There are those who claim that we are living at a time which has the most civilised and advanced forms of society since human beings evolved. This view has long fitted largely in with what the various sciences could substantiate about the past of mankind and with the basic (unproven) assumptions of the physicalistic scientific paradigm.
Applied to the origin of human society, the scientific historical paradigm with its Darwinist axiom implies, among other limiting assumptions, that civilisation is an end product of natural necessity - the herd instinct and need to adjust to changing environments for survival - and that the human being is an animal who happens thereby to have acquired a brain as a survival instrument . From this it naturally appears to empiricists to follow logically that early human beings were more like beasts, and could not have been highly intelligent conscious spirits, quite possibly with intuitive spiritual abilities possessed by few people nowadays.
However, when the present writer was at school, the 'scientific truth' about the origin of human beings was that the age of mankind (homo sapiens sapiens) was around 20,000 years. Forerunners of the modern human being were supposed to go back to a maximum of 350,000 years, and that was not accepted until well after the discovery of the so-called Peking Man. Though this seemed rather vague 'rule-of-thumb' science to me - a feeling supported by the discovery of the tremendous hoax of the Piltdown Man which made fools of virtually all palaeontologists then active - any discussion of greater possibilities of early human beings was seriously regarded as either semi-lunatic or at best, mere Wellsian science fiction. Since the work of Richard E. Leakey from the 1960's onwards, it has become known that mankind (in a broad sense) has a vastly much longer history. The community of palaeontologists talk about the earliest form of human beings in number of millions of years now! The discovery of Homo habilis circa 2 million years old and Australopithicus (3 million) are vastly predated by the earliest hominid form (Kenyapithicus), considered to be 14 million years old! A skeleton representing the famous so-called 'missing link' was discovered in Ethiopia in late 1994, having an age of around 4 million years. These are scientific advances; at first argued with considerable difficulty in the face of the hard opposition of then-established scientific wisdom.
Winston Spencer Churchill, who must surely be regarded as a historian of some note, never lost sight of the great perspectives of time and the uncertainties of human knowledge.
"Not seldom in the annals of the past - and how much more often in tragedies never recorded or long-forgotten - had brave, proud, easy-going states, and even entire races, been wiped out, so that only their name or even no mention of them remains."2 "History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the realm of honour."
There is doubtless a general overall progress in scientific knowledge towards the true facts, but this applies mainly to the natural or directly physical sciences (biology, chemistry, physics etc.) and much less to the sciences of the past. While I do not wish at all to belittle the great achievements of generations of students of human origins and of pre-history, it must be said that their overall success in penetrating the mists of time are still probably only tentative and are certainly very incomplete. With anything up to 14 million years of development behind human kind and only a relative handful of skeletons to show for about 90 % of that time, there are clearly enormous gaps in the evidence! The sciences concerning most human affairs cannot lay any claim to precision or controllability comparable to the simplest proofs of the physical sciences. They are also much divided into differing schools of thought across the world, and - as in the other scientific professions - are often spearheaded by individuals who are highly-competitive and concerned with self-advancement as much as with that of their disciplines.
The above examples illustrate both the limitations and uncertainties of what is taken as scientifically proven about prehistory at any given time. More recent history is also distorted in various ways by the lack of empirical recording and by ethnic cultural bias, which adds insult to the injury of broken tradition.
What has long been widely accepted as being the real history of India was largely written by the British. It is traditional Anglo-Saxon stuff, concentrating pragmatically on the political, military and economic events that concerned the British Raj to the exclusion of every essentially Indian concern and viewpoint. Voltaire's view, that history is lies that historians agree upon, is thus far quite applicable, even before considering the likelihood that even the British view of events during the Indian Revolution (called 'the Mutiny' from the British angle) was unconsciously distorted and also wilfully falsified so as to conceal real motives and hide crucial facts, not without success. It is no history of common life or of the living peoples of the sub-continent, though the British did record the observable facts of India and its life more accurately and completely than any Indians themselves did.
Ignorance and pride of some bigotted British colonisers in the past, overawed by Indian architecture and the civilisation of which it spoke, spawned the preposterous idea that the Red Fort of Delhi - a miracle of Indian Islamic architecture - was really designed by a Britisher! The British wantonly and unnecessarily destroyed much of the Red Fort in connection with the so-called 'Mutiny'. The same prejudice is seen clearly when most Occidental historians, and their misled, westernised Indian adherents, date early Indian scriptures. The predominant view of India in Western culture suffers even today from a host of faulty perceptions, unscholarly literal misunderstandings and a hodge-podge of traditional conceptions introduced by narrow-minded missionaries, hard-headed Imperial soldiers and businessmen and other base pragmatists and scientific materialists who lacked understanding or even the desire to learn from anyone else but their own kind.
World history - including that of India - as written for his daughter Indira by the father who was to become India's first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, at least took a step towards an ethnically Indian history, even though Nehru was over much steeped in Western thought and tradition. However, the European approach generally was so effectively inculcated in the Anglo-Indian mind, not least through Lord Macaulay's nationally-repressive system of education for Indians as a class of clerks, that many of the distortions of fact and of Western attitudes still persist, and this sustains existing international misconceptions of the rich Indian culture and ignorance of the heights of its moral and spiritual civilisation. Even at the turn of the 21st century, most historians and scientists in the West suffer unknowingly under culturally-ingrained prejudices about Indian culture and religion.
The Failings of Scientific Perception of Indian Antiquity
The scientist, vowing to rely strictly upon only what can be observed and recorded, tested by systematic corroboration of observations or by controlled experiment, cannot see that our world is an inverted one. In order to do so, one must work systematically on the basis of a model or inner vision of how a righted world would be. Science does not accept this as part of its theory and method. There is no known, scientifically-recorded model against which to compare the present condition and those of known history, unless we include 'myths' like that of paradise, a golden age, an early 'utopia', an era of truth and so on. The reconstruction of the history of mankind, ever stunted beyond recognition by science's insistence on physical proofs, shows only that the same norms that prevail today have been prevailing in one way and another since records began.
There is evidence that the type of ancient Indian 'science' - its psychological subtlety and spiritual simplicity - was superior in achieving many things both mental, material and 'ecological', equal or superior to our much-praised present material science and technology. All agree that the ancient Indians already operated with a time span of astronomical proportions long before the earliest signs of natural science in ancient Greece. It is undeniable that ancient Indian texts present astonishingly exact scientific calculations even by today's latest scientific standards, such as the speed of light, exact size of the smallest particles and the age of the universe.
The Surya Siddhanta, a textbook on astronomy of ancient India - last compiled in 1000 BC, believed by Hindus to be handed down from 3000 BC by aid of complex mnemonic recital methods still known today - computed the earth's diameter to be 7,840 miles, the distance earth - moon as 253,000 miles. These compare to modern measurements resp. as 7,926.7 miles and 252,710 miles for max. dist. moon-earth.
Manu's texts in Sanskrit propounded evolution thousands of years before Lamarck & Darwin.
"The first germ of life was developed by water and heat. Man will traverse the universe, gradually ascending and passing through the rocks, the plants, the worms, insects, fish, serpents, tortoises, wild animals, cattle, and higher animals. These are the transformations declared, from the plant to Brahma, which have to take place in the world."
Brihath Sathaka operates with divisions of the time of one day into:- 60 kalas or ghatika - 24 mins each. Subdivided into 60 vikala (24 secs.each) 60 para then into tatpara, then into vitatpara then into ima then into kasha…. the smallest unit, equal to approx. o.ooooooo3 of a second (one 300 millionth).This smallest unit (3 X 10 -8 second) is surprisingly close to the life-spans of certain mesons and hyperons, according to some Western physicist who was interviewed on the BBC World Service in the early 1990s.
Dr. Subhash Kak of Lousiana State University was interviewed on Science In Action BBC World Service, July 17 1998 on his having discovered that the ancient Indians had calculated the speed of light exactly. According to Dr Kak 14¹th century Indian astronomers worked out the speed of light exactly. They also were very close to getting a correct figure for the age of the Universe. Roland Pease asked whether they had remarkable insight, or was this all a remarkable coincidence. This question well illustrated the general incomprehension of Western scientists towards anything but their own kind.
The 14th century 'Rigveda of the Sun' (dated by manuscript age only), says that the sun covers 2,202 yoganas in half a mimesa - which calculates as 300,000 metres a second, fairly exactly the speed of light. Dr. Kak has checked this against the Puranas, finding that this text definitely referred to the speed of light, not the speed of the sun's travel. Further, Kak pointed out that the size and age of the universe are also given, the figures being very close to those given by science today. 8.64 billion years is the figure given for the age of the universe. The professor judges that these are mere coincidences!3
In Indian scriptures, such as the ancient Srimad Bhagavatam, the estimated length of a Day of Brahma was 4,320 million years. That represents one complete cycle of the universe. Argon-dating undertaken some decades ago put the age of the earth at 5,000 million years. The difference is relatively small, the similarity is more amazing than the discrepancy.The Indian thinker Kanada put forward an atomic theory, concluding that light and heat are two forms of the same basic substance.
One need not descend to the unchained speculation of a von Däniken in pointing out that ancient texts of India describe the existence of ancient weapons, vehicles and technology (in metallurgy, electrics, chemistry) which were only recently invented in the West. The most ancient kind of preventive medicine and cure of illneses prescribed in Ayur Veda is successfully practiced for many conditions today, and increasingly so in many parts of the world.
As to whether India's past is so ancient, the primary question for scientific archeologists and palaeontologists is naturally enough why no physical remains and human artefacts have been found to prove claims of civilisation there as far back as 8,000 BC and before. The likelihood is that Indian civilisation existed in times far more ancient than historians can witness by scientifically-based methods. Yet this is ignored due to the limitations of the current assumptions (or pre-judgemental beliefs) that direct the minds of historians who themselves belong to a civilisation which in many vital respects may still be inferior in many important respects.
The age of the Vedas of ancient India, the first scriptures known to mankind, is doubtless much greater than supposed by 'scientific historians'. An authoritative study of the Vedas' internal evidence for the origin and spread of ancient civilisation by the first recognised Westerner to become a Vedashastri and thus to master them, the American David Frawley, throws much light on the shortcomings of historical science. There is reportedly clear evidence of the positions of some stars at the time of the earliest Vedas which, calculating for the precession of the equinoxes, dates these as early as 8,000 B.C. Holistic interpretations of the evidence also weighs strongly in favour of a global catastrophy having taken place, most probably around 10 thousand years ago, when the icecaps receeded. This work also demonstrates the tremendous unrecognised influence of ancient Indian on almost all subsequent world culture. (Gods, Sages and Kings - Vedic secrets of ancient civilisation, David Frawley. 1993 - Delhi. pub. Motilal Banardas).
The view that a catastrophy and global flood were connected to the last 'retreat' of the ice caps around 8,000 B.C., despite compelling evidence on many fronts, is still rejected out of hand by established geology. There is increasing acceptance of the theory of earth cataclysms in the very distant past, such as at least partially involved where the extinction of dinosaurs were concerned, and the same as a recognised cause of the sudden extinction of the mammoths.
In the West, it is hardly questioned at all that the Bible's Old Testament by and large refers to events that - though probably inaccurately described - actually must have taken place, at least from the time of Abraham and Ur onwards… more than 5,000 years ago. Hebrew scribes are reckoned to have put sacred oral traditions into writing centuries after the events. The same liberality of belief is not accorded to the doubtless yet more ancient Vedas, which the evidence shows were much more firmly based in oral traditions and preserved by a complex cross-checking system of memorising. Yet some historians, in a travesty of objectivity, even date certain Vedic scriptures from the earliest extant manuscripts, sometimes even as late as 1400 A.D. Meanwhile, note that science can say what is possible on the basis of what as been observed as being the case but it cannot tell what is impossible or even therefore what can have been the case.
Above all, then, questions concerning the loss of records and the recording of its history must be faced when considering the enigma of India's past. One perennial problem for historical science is its lack of any substantial evidence about the kingdoms and wars described in the oldest writings, or the alleged existence of a previous 'golden age' of wise men, saints and deities. The world's cultures and religions abound with accounts or stories of times when mankind lived in harmony with itself, with nature and with God, as well as with accounts of a great flood. These legends can be accounted for most easily by having been handed down across many generations. Like all historical material, even in very recent times, such a process of transmission may have been subject to losses, distortions and some wilful revisions. Yet the weight of evidence for such eras in the very distant past collected from many cultures is very considerable and common sense insists that it must contain some hard kernel of truth. It comes from almost all the ancient high civilisations and from many simple tribal hunter-gatherer systems, cultures that have mostly had no known or possible contacts within known history. The general tendencies of such accounts, have been lumped together and thought of as one supposed 'paradise myth' to be discredited by scientific sceptics who will not credit the possibility of what cannot be read from known bones, bricks or other artefacts.
The modern mind excels in the physical knowledge and information available to it, but as regards the sublimity and scope of intellect, I regard it as a travesty of the truth to say it surpasses the highest in Indian culture, even if we include higher representatives of Western thought of the calibre of Thomas Aquinas, Newton, Goethe, Kant, Einstein etc. (But there is one great neglected yet exceptional and mysterious Swedenborg, whose time for recognition as one of the greatest Europeans in science, technology, religion and spirituality has surely yet to come).
Legend and Myth In India
The scientist, doctor and historian W. B. Crow has pointed out that the records on which history has to rely are not merely the record of actual events. Were that so, one might exclude much that is not literally true, particularly in dealing with the subject then under his consideration… the history of magic. The study of India's heritage is much like this: not only is there much recorded and claimed in the sources that today seems to bear on magic, but the records are simply not of the kind a modern thinker would prefer with exact date, place and neutral descriptions by independent observers etc. What actually happened and what people thought happened may be quite different, but both orders of information are of great importance. What really happened in terms of physical events is almost entirely beyond proof, one way or the other. So, as Crow remarks, we have to be content with the records. An impartial view of any historical era is difficult, perhaps impossible, at the very best of times. But despite this, as Crow says even of magic, the phenomena are too widespread to be dismissed as delusion and fraud. Fraudsters must be dismissed, but this does not mean that all or most records are fradulent.4
That many of the ancient stories and tales are actually myths is undoubted. But myths themselves are data and cannot just be explained away. To explain when, where and how a myth arose - or more often might have arisen - is not the same as understanding the myth. Many researchers, among them the notable Mircea Eliade and Lévi-Strauss, have shown how the content of myths often lies in the structure of relations between the symbols employed, rather than in the factual assertions or stated ideas. The structure of relations has been shown by comparative mythology to be able remarkably to survive all manner of cultural distorting influences that arise from misinterpretation, mis-translation, additions and alterations.
As noted, the suppression and rewriting of history has long traditions. How this was practised upon the Christians from both within and without the Church is a much aired issue. It has also been written that, after Emperor Constantine: "The vista into the far distant past, beyond the deluge and the Garden of Eden, began to be forcibly and relentlessly shut out by every fair and unfair means from the indiscreet gaze of posterity. Every issue was blocked up, every record upon which hands could be laid, destroyed."5 This point was made by Madame Helen Blavatsky, who - though probably not always very reliable - was extraordinarily well-informed about esoteric beliefs of Brahmins that have not become commonly known in the West until very recent times. She reported that the 'Book of Dyzan', which she allegedly received from a Himalayan hermitage in the 19th century, may be referring to the Flood when it states: "The first Great Waters came. They swallowed the Seven Great Islands. All holy saved, all unholy destroyed."6
Andrew Tomas, Australian citizen, born in St. Petersburg in 1913 and an extensive traveller wrote on the riddles of ancient science: "The more critical amongst us often say - 'We want more facts.' But it should not be overlooked that the mere accumulation of facts is not sufficient. It can become mere philately. What is needed is the precise evaluation of data and the practical application of knowledge." And, as to 'myths', "The average person thinks they are a by-product of fancy. However, this is not always the case. Folklore, as the collective memory of the human race, contains many records of past events, often coloured by ancient story-tellers and unavoidably distorted because of the passing of legends from one generation to another. But not infrequently, traditions are actual fossils of history. It is utterly unscientific to discard mythology as a collection of fables. A reality of yesterday is a myth of today. The world we live in will be hardly more than a myth itself ten thousand years from now."7
Whether or not one regards all the descriptions in ancient sources of apparently incredible events as 'myth', there is another sense in which the texts regarded by today's scientists as 'mythology' can help us reach towards the deeper truths. As Swami Tapasyananda of the Sri Ramakrishna Math wrote in his introduction to the English version of the traditional 'Life of Sri Shankara' (Sankara Digvijaya) :-
"The word 'mythological' is not used here in any sense of disparagement. A highly poetic and mythological narration of the lives of individuals and events marks the measure of the tremendous impact that these individuals and events have made on the racial mind of a people in those ancient days when correct recording was not much in vogue, and impressive events easily took a mythological turn. They are living traditions that transmit a little of their original impact to the generations that have come later, whereas pure historical productions are only like dead specimens and curios preserved in the corridors of Time's museum. The trouble comes only when mythological accounts are taken as meticulously factual and men begin to be dogmatic about the versions presented in them. In the mythological literary technique, facts are often inflated with the emotional overtones and with the artistic expressiveness that their impact has elicited from human consciousness, and we have therefore to seek their message in the total effect they produce and not through a cocksure attitude towards the happenings in space and time. If we approach the Sankara-vijaya in this spirit, we shall understand more about Sankara and his way of life than through the writings of professors who disparage them for their defective chronology, their fanciful descriptions and their confusing statement of facts. Such being the position, a translation of the Sankara-vijaya is the only way to give some idea of Sankara, his doings, his personality and the times in which he lived."8
Ancient Ways of Preserving and Handing Down Information
Firstly, then, the enigma of India's past and questions concerning the loss of records and the recording of its history must be considered. Ever since Max Müller lent his academic weight to the dating of certain artefacts in India - which he had never seen, never having been there - it has been held by some shastris and pundits that Western historians have vastly underrated the age and authenticity of ancient Indian scriptures and handed-down accounts of the past. It may well be that the first texts of many very ancient teachings are as recent as empirical archeologists claim. Certain versions of the ancient scriptures - and also of ancient commentaries upon them - bear linguistic and other signs of contemporaenity with relatively recent epochs. For example, the Vedas may not have been recorded until after Christ, yet they are likely to have been preserved by methods almost extinct today for extremely long periods of time… even dozens of centuries, as indeed claimed. Brahmin pundits through the ages have held that the Vedic scriptures have been handed down for several thousand years before the dates now claimed for the first extant written texts. The teaching of masters of Vedic lore insist that the four chief Vedas were themselves only a concentrated exposition of what remains of a truly vast amount of Vedic composition of enormous antiquity, the mass of which has been lost.
There is historical and social anthropological evidence of the world-wide existence of priesthoods whose social functions have included the preservation of a society's culture through strict lifelong practices of memorising through mnemonic chanting. The achievement possible by such means, when practised from early childhood with rigour and continuously, day in and day out throughout a lifetime, far surpass what the average person today could credit. It is known how rigorous were the training methods of the Ancient Pharoic priesthood, the Druids and many others. Not least among these are, of course, the Brahmin priests, to whom the scriptures were even chanted daily throughout the 9 months of their gestation in the womb and who were subsequently trained to exactitude by gurus, who spent the larger part of each day for the rest of their lives as Brahmins repeating these teachings through the performing of rituals. Ancient Indian scriptures often refer to the importance of pre-birth influences on the foetus for the development of a harmonious soul, a spiritual nature, a perfect memory and so on. Some of these assertions are now becoming regarded as feasible hypotheses even by lagging Western psychology and some scientific evidence in their favour is already being discovered.
To take one example illustrating such ability, Alexandra David-Neel wrote before 1938, "Kushog Chösdzed was a Gelugspa, that is to say a follower of the reformed sect founded by Tsjong Khapa, about A.,D. 1400, familiarly known as the sect of 'Yellow hats'…. I do not know whether this lama gave himself assiduously to meditation and should be classed as a mystic, but he certainly possessed extraordinary erudition. His memory resembled a miraculous library, where each book was ready at the asking, to open at the desired page. Without the slightest effort he could quote texts by the dozen, on any matter connected with Lamaism, Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan history or secular literature. This is, however, not an unusual feat in Tibet, but his perfect understanding and subtle comprehension of shades of meaning was quite uncommon."9
On members of the Philosophical College she writes "Amongst them one finds eminent litterati and subtle thinkers. They too can quote for hours from countless books, but they are also able to descant on the import of the old texts and bring forward the results of their own reflections."10
Even in Western nations today there are persons, unfortunately most often regarded as 'memory freaks', the capacity and accuracy of whose memories astonish the ordinary person. One such was the B.B.C.'s so-called 'memory man' of the 1950's, a Mr. Leslie Welch. It is perhaps a sign of the times that he did not know the Vedas, the Bible, Hesiod and Homer… but he held 'in his head' a complete catalogue of every known recorded football and cricket team, score and scorer - and much more besides - and could answer any question put to him by anyone without hesitation and with 100% accuracy. There have been others like him in recent times. According to William Manchester's biography of Churchill, The Last Lion: he (Winston) "couldn't or wouldn't, learn the ablative absolute - a minor feat of memory - but he could recite twelve hundred lines of Macaulay without missing a word, and at no one's urging he memorised whole scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry VIII, and The Merchant of Venice. There are also impressive case records of amazing cases of the phenomena such as 'photographic memory' and even feats of memorised visual comparison of irregular patterns enabling the subject to find the hidden information placed there, found only when the patterns are conceived as overlapping; so-called 'holographic memory'.
On April 26, 1999, the BBC's Newshour reported on a 7-year old boy, Mohammed Hussain, who can recite the entire Koran from memory, who preaches on it and already has a doctorate of Islamic religion. His ability was discovered at the age of two when he was able to quote large segments of the Koran which he had heard his aunt teach to others within his earshot. At the age of 3 1/2 he had learned the entire 600-page Koran. This is but one of his achievements, his memory capacity being phenomenal.
My contention here, then, is that feats of memory can be very complex and subtle and at least some of them may well also be the result of training in a society where the techniques are known, perfected, regulated by daily observances and accepted as an essential - or the most essential - part of the culture. The deterioration of memory abilities in society must have accelerated when writing became widespread, just as we are witnessing a further deterioration in the verbal abilities and probably in the general knowledge of the masses influenced by visual media and over-reliance on computer memory. Today one still generally finds impressive memories of definitive texts in less technologised societies, especially in outlying agricultural and hunter-gatherer cultures. The entire Koran is doubtless known by heart by thousands, at the very least. However, knowing so long a text would be a veritable newsworthy feat by any average Western graduate or even a Hollywood actor today.
India, European Thought, and Christianity
It is frequently said, especially by Western academics, that the Greeks were the first to introduce natural philosophy, to speculate on the four (or five) elements, to think of the atom, to conceive of the heliocentric system, and so on. The evidence about India's distant past shows that this is most certainly not the case. That it has been available for a long time, too, reflects very badly on the scope or the historical competence of academic Western philosophers, who continue to stare too much at their European navels.
Great epics of good and evil, of individual conscience and will versus fate had been developed in India long before Homer or the classical European period of the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes by well over a millennium. On only has to consider the Mahabharata, which describes the catastrophic armed conflict that took place according to widespread tradition about 3000 years BC The date calculated by various Indian shastris and Brahmins from Sanskrit sources is equivalent to 3138 BC.
From the viewpoint of academic philosophy, I cannot help but notice that the main ideas of early Greek philosophy and of Socrates and Plato all clearly prefigure in the already long-established systems of Indian thought. Hence for me, European thought is - to a much greater extent than recognised - an offshoot of a process that has its very ancient roots in India. This judgement is not provable by material evidence but is based on a phenomenological, hermaneutical approach to the meaning of the texts, both Vedic and Greek, which - properly carried out - is the only reasonable way to get insight into such questions about the very ancient history of ideas.
The metaphysical theories and philosophical ideas that the early Greeks imbibed from India, partly from Babylon and Egypt and probably occasionally by travellers, were most likely quite formative for Western culture. This influence has been denied by Western historians of philosophy on the suspiciously chauvinistic grounds that European thought arose parallel to, but independently of, India. Yet there is no substantial evidence to decide this one way or another. Due to the long-prevailing ignorance of the rich variety of ancient Indian thought, Western academics have largely failed to see the great similarities between ideas held by Grecian schools and the systems of Indian philosophy, especially the Sankhya philosophy.
Around the early 6th century BC, the first known Greek natural philosopher, Thales of Milet, concentrated on the idea that the elemental stuff of life or of the cosmos is water. This view is clearly prefigured in Indian thought. Subsequently, all of the five elements described in Sankhya philosophy - earth, fire, air, water, and aether (akasa) - are considered by other pre-Socratic thinkers. Anaximenes regarded the basic stuff as being air. Meanwhile, Anaximander identified it as the unobservable element he called to ápeiron, which meant some kind of boundless stuff. This is very similar to the ancient Indian concept of akasa or kind of limitless aether stuff. Empedocles held there are four elements, earth, fire, air, and water. Even the concept of the atom - the smallest, indivisible particle, has a clear forerunner in the Sanskrit anu, or tiniest possible particle.
Heraclitus apparently identified the basic element as fire, the measure of things from which all things rise and to which they return. The Rev. Gary Kowalski has remarked how the conceptions of the 'world soul' was embraced by the Stoics, who doubtless knew the work of Heraclitus.12 They thought of fire as inherent in all creatures. This is virtually the Vedic conception of fire as agni or Divine Fire, itself invisible, which converts food into life energy. This is one of the reasons for Vedic fire worship and offerings (Yagnas). The Bhagavad Gita continues this tradition with prayers to Brahma as the digestive fire which consumes food.
The medicine of Hippocratus, from which Western medicine has slowly developed, is in large part virtually the same as the ancient Indian ayurveda being theoretically almost identical.
The unbridged gap between East and West here is between two entirely different cultural traditions which are still today in some respects 'worlds apart'. Few subjects can have more controversial potential between India and the West than the increasingly well-argued and documented view that Jesus of Nazareth spent the main portion of his 'lost years' (from his 12th until after his 30th year) in India and Tibet. Referring to Jesus' 'lost years', Nehru wrote in 1932 that it is believed in the whole of central Asia, in Kashmir, Ladakh and in Tibet that Jesus (Isa) travelled around in those regions. Some believe he also went to India. Nehru thought that it not certain whether this was so but that it is possible, even though many who have studied Jesus' life do not credit it. At that time there were large universities in India, particularly in Takshashila in the north-west where many students came from foreign parts. Nehru also judged Jesus' teachings to be so like those of Gautama Buddha that it seems unlikely that Jesus did not know of them, yet this would also have been possible outside India, due to the spread of Buddhism in those times. Since Nehru wrote this, Prof. Fida Hassnain's remarkable unsought discoveries in Kashmir and his subsequent researches have made Jesus' sojourn in India scientifically documentable.13
There are many indications that Jesus' teachings and practices originated in India. The use of water to baptise, such as Jesus accepted from John the Baptist, is clearly derived from an ancient Indian tradition. The immersion in the water of the Ganges, according to the much more ancient Indian tradition, is a act that symbolises the removal of all sins.
Few views could be more controversial in the West, unless it be the further assertion, for which circumstantial and much other supporting evidence is strong, that Jesus' resurrection was actually his revival to life (after what is regarded as 'clinical death'), whereupon he eventually travelled back to India and settled in the 'lost tribe' Jewish community in Kashmir to be a revered teacher until his finally leaving the body at a ripe age of around 80 years. That this has been believed by many people in the region since historical times is itself a fact still hardly known to the West. Obviously, there are many people and also leaders of powerful institutions to whom such a fact is sheer anathema and one which must be figuratively speaking 'ethnically cleansed'.
Four Ages and The Present
We live in an era when there are many good reasons to say that almost everything is turned upon its head. Leading citizens may talk of this as the most advanced form of civilisation yet known on earth, but at the same time this is a world in which good values have rapidly been replaced by their opposites. This great decline is one of the identifying characteristics of the Dark Age of Kali, as predicted in the previous age several millennia ago in the Bhagavat Purana.There are a variety of palm leaf manuscripts bearing texts of great antiquity which are remarkably prescient about the present time, predicting for our times a 'machine age' when sexual and other morals will also degenerate to unprecedented depths. This text also famously predicts for this era a redeeming incarnation of God as the Kalki Avatar.
Over 5,000 terrible wars have raged since the beginning of recorded history. The truly good and humble have been, and still are seen to be, persecuted while many self-seeking people live in the lap of luxury and thrive upon a system of enormous waste and injustice. Despite the advance of civilisation, immorality of every kind is apparent everywhere on a mammoth scale. The ancient practices of rapine, incest and sexual immorality have been spreading ever more like an unhindered contagion across the world today, having even become widely accepted as 'understandable'. Sexual license is even preached for the sake of 'mental health' as being only natural, almost as if it were a new form of morality. The unprecedented rise in mental illness, many kinds of abuses of children, the use of torture are examples of the effects of 'modern, civilised society' or its effects wherever it somehow penetrates. Personal violence is afoot on a huge scale throughout most modern societies, as much among youth and even children in some countries, as well as among criminal gangs of all kinds. Both murder and suicide rates are climbing world-wide. Financial corruption is being exposed to be an all-time high rate, not least among the world's political leaders. Low forms of outward entertainment supplant art, while superficiality and ignorance are predominant in the media. Mere physical knowledge now passes as truth and wisdom in the modern world which cultivates the body, money and media fame rather than philosophical and moral intellect. Genuine religious faith as the guiding star by which to live a good life is generally looked upon in Western societies as misguided superstition, a remnant of the past.
'Raising the standard of living' is what most people in the world expect today and think to be the basic answer to all or most of its ills. But if we are strictly rational in approach, we must admit that this materialistic-evolutionary assumption is only hypothetical and moreover incomplete; it is not 'proven true'. That this is an age of progress is undoubted as regards science and technology, but this is only part of a wider picture. There is at least just as much decline in many other matters. The degradations of nature on all fronts, the decline in unique and good aspects of traditional cultures all around the globe, the increase in personal and social alienation of many unheard-of kinds are part of the wider picture.
The last half of the twentieth century is the Age of Kali of Indian scripture, which was known as the Iron Age in the ancient Greek view of major historical epochs. According to the Bhagawat Purana each of the four ages or yugas - of which the yet greater cycles of cosmic time are composed - have seemingly-incredible lengths of anything from 1.7 million to 432,000 years depending on the age in question. Probably the greatest living authority on all Indian scripture, Sathya Sai Baba, has given much reduced time-spans for the four cyclic ages, the shortest Kali Age lasting only 11,000 years. He has also provided the precise date of the beginning of the present Kali Yuga, which traditionally dates from the death of Krishna. He confirms that the Kali Age began 20th December, 3102 BC, which was the day Krishna left the body. Likewise, the Mahabharata War, according to Sathya Sai Baba, began in 3138 BC and the battle lasted for 9 days, while the present Kali Age, the darkest epoch of the darkest age, has yet nearly 6,000 years to run out, he tells us.
The above brief summary of some topsy-turvy features of this 'world turned upside-down' does not even include innumerable and various threats to the environment, nature's species, human health and life. The scientist, vowing to rely strictly upon only what can be observed and recorded, tested by systematic corroboration of observations or by controlled experiment, cannot see this to be an inverted world. In order to do so, one must work systematically on the basis of a model or inner vision of how a righted world would be. Science does not accept this as part of its theory and method. There is no known, scientifically-recorded model against which to compare the present condition and those of known history, unless we include 'myths' like that of paradise, a golden age, an early 'utopia', an era of truth and so on. The reconstruction of the history of mankind, ever stunted beyond recognition by science's insistence on physical proofs, shows only that the same norms that prevail today have been prevailing in one way and another since records began.
About the Author
Robert Priddy, now retired, lectured on the history of philosophy at the University of Oslo between 1968 and 1984.
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2. 'Their Finest Hour'. Vol. 2 of The Second World War. London 1949, p 215.
3. Dr Subhash Kak, Elec. and Comp. Engineering Dept, Louisian State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803.
4. The History of Magic and Witchcraft . Prof. W.B. Crow (U.K. 1968).
5. From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan. Madame Blavatsky. 1883-6. pub. The Theosophical Publishing House, p. 134. 6. ibid, p.39.
7. We Are Not The First. Andrew Tomas. 1972, p.138.
8. Sankara Digvijaya - The Traditional Life of Sri Sankaracharya trans. Swami Tapasyananda. Sri Ramakrishna Math. Madras, introduction.
9. Magic and Mystery in Tibet. Alexandre David-Neel. (orig. version Penguin 1938) Souvenir Press, London 1967, p. 33.
10. i bid, p. 103.
11. The Last Lion. Churchill biography by William Manchester.
12. The Souls of Animals. Rev. Gary Kowalski. ISBN 0-913299-84-7.
13. A Search for the Historical Jesus. Dr. Fida Hassnain. Gateway Books, Bath. U.K. 1995.