Thoughts on economics and liberty

Greek thought, the harbinger of world liberty, has its direct source in INDIA

While revising my manuscript The Discovery of Freedom‘ (DOF) I could not but help noting how similar the view of Indian sceptics including Buddha, and Socrates were. And that Indians came earlier in historical time than the Greeks. So yesterday I had this question: did India influence Greece? A bit of reading from books at home and a bit of research on Google seems to have ‘solved’ the puzzle.

When, upon reading A Critical History of Greek Philosophy by W.T. Stace (MacMillan,1965) I came across his rather niggardly view on Indian philosophy, arguing that Indian thought doesn’t arise from ‘pure thought’ and that it is ‘poetic rather than scientific’ (p.15), I decided to investigate further. I have now found a recent American PhD dissertation (2000) that uses the most recent sources to firmly demonstrate that it was INDIAN scepticism that traveled to Greece through Persia and brought out the temperament of questioning that finally led to Socrates. I’ve extracted a short section from the dissertation below (the dissertation is publicly available). I encourage everyone to read the entire dissertation, if for nothing else but to learn more about the sophists and to understand the importance of Protagoras who may ultimately turn out to be more important in world history than even Socrates.

Does it matter to me whether humanity has benefited in the areas of mathematics (number system) and philosophy more from India than from, say, Greece? I’m not particularly fussed where the source is, India or Greece. These ideas belong to all of us. Humanity. No country owns them, at least not today. What I do want, though, is accurate attribution of sources. It won’t do to attribute the first seeds of rational thought in the world to Greece when these ideas arose in India, and were transmitted by Indians to the Greeks. I’m not a specialist in history so I won’t finalise my opinion on this issue, but I will note in DOF the strong possibility of Rahula’s research findings being true.


Extract from The Untold Story about Greek Rational Thought: Buddhist and Other Indian Rationalist Influences on Sophist Rhetoric, PhD dissertation by BASNAGODA RAHULA, found as PDF on the internet. [Copy on my server] [This is a conversion from PDF to text – a painful process with a lot of errors. A lot of manual editing, and references have been removed. They are all available in the original PDF].

General Signs of Indian Influence on Protagoras and Gorgias

Three factors may justify the possibility that the unusual resemblance of Indian rationalist thoughts to Greek sophist thinking was caused by a connection between the two societies. First, Protagoras, the alleged father of Greek sophistry, was given Persian education, an easy route to the access of Indian wisdom. During Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, Protagoras’ father, an extremely rich person in Abdera, entertained Xerxes and received the emperor’s permission to educate Protagoras under Magi. This report was supported by Herodotus’ notes that Xerxes, during his return journey, “stopped at Abdera and made a fact of friendship with them [people in Abdera].” As Untersteiner noted, Protagoras was a young child when Xerxes’ visit to Abdera took place, and Protagoras education under Magi could have been arranged for a later date (2). Based on the traditional practice of the pupil’s visiting the master, one may conclude that Protagoras later went to Susa and studied under Magi. This visit would have been more profitable for Protagoras since he would hardly miss Indian wisdom those days in the central part of the Persian empire. On the other hand, wherever Protagoras was educated, knowledge coming from Persia could have included Indian thinking since Darius had already accommodated, as the next chapter will elucidate, Indian wisdom in the Persian empire. Protagoras’ Persian education seems to be a strong support for his possible acquisition of Indian concepts in epistemology and other fields.

Second, Protagoras was the pupil of Democritus who was presumably benefited by a multitude of Indian concepts, including Buddhist concepts as his major source of influence. Philostratus was the first informant of Protagoras’ learning from Democritus,’ and this information can also be true, “concerning the intellectual development of Protagoras” (Untersteiner 2). Particularly, Democritus’ theory of knowledge seems to have enkindled a new interest in epistemological inquires among his followers, and Protagoras’ directions in the same field may have been guided by Democritus. Protagoras’ closeness in his epistemological studies to the Indian counterparts will be discussed later, but here it should be briefly stated that Democritus’ possible Indian influence could hardly leave no marks on his pupil Protagoras.

Third, Gorgias was the student of Empedocles, whose philosophical theories reflect his possible familiarity with Indian idealistic and rationalistic views. Laertius and Quintillian and some others reported that Gorgias studied under Empedocles, and there is no reason to doubt these reports. As Untersteiner indicated, Empedocles’ influence on Gorgias is “generally recognized by scholars” (92), and Gorgias’ particular interest in epistemology is a possible sign of this influence. It is probable that both Protagoras and Gorgias exhibited a similar interest in epistemology and both maintained skepticism towards metaphysical concepts since the teachers of the two sophists retained a particular interest in the same field.

The major aspects of sophist rational thought and their similarity with the Indian counterpart will be discussed in separate sections, but it seems apt to highlight here a unique flavor in argumentation entertained by Protagoras-the flavor for arguing for or/and against any topic-as a possible Indian derivation. Perhaps this hypothesis appears to be an overstatement since argument on probabilities is said to be of Greek origin. Nevertheless, a careful examination of the practices in Indian debating during the sixth century B.C.E. and comparison of those practices with Protagoras’ attitude towards argumentation justify the possibility of this hypothesis.

Interestingly, there was a group of Indian debaters namely Vitandavadins who roamed among all sorts of thinkers and challenged other views. “He [a Vitandavadin] had no views of his own but merely indulged in eristic for the purpose of securing victory in argument” (Jayatilleke 217). Even though the word Vitandavadin did not occur in the Sutta Pitaka, one finds numerous examples that during the sixth century B.C.E. these debaters frequented debating halls, parks, and other meeting places, challenging all sorts of views of other traditions, without maintaining any particular philosophy or theory of their own:

There are recluses and Brahmins who are clever, subtle, experienced in controversy, hair-splitters, who go about breaking to pieces by their intelligence [pannagatena] the speculations of others. Were I to pronounce this to be good, or that to be evil, these men might join issue with me, call upon me for my reasons, and point out my errors.’

These remarks suggest that those “recluses and Brahmins” were not those who held any particular view or theory but those who were indulged in debating rarely for the sake of defeating the opponents and establishing rhetorical power. Whatever concept or theory one held, those debaters opposed one’s position using their intelligence and verbal skill. This practice is farther confirmed by the sentence, “Some recluse or Brahmin is addicted to logic and reasoning.” Saccaka, who earned the description of “one who indulged in debate, a learned controversialist, who was held in high esteem by the common people” was, undoubtedly, one of them. The Majjima Nikaya has preserved a very important sentence that reflects his theoretical practice and skill:

If I attacked a lifeless pillar with my language, it [the pillar] would totter, tremble, quake; how much more a human being!’ Saccaka was more a demonstration of his verbal power than a theorist. Here, he has presented no theory, but simply boasts about his invincible rhetorical power. ‘Whoever he argued with, he defeated the opponent’s theory without insisting on a particular view of his own but only using his verbal skill (eristic) and argumentation (antilogic) that would suit to the occasion. The Samyutta Nikaya has provided “an eye-witness’s account of these recluses and Brahmins in action” (Jayatilleke 221). Kundaliya, a visitor to the Buddha’s monastery, told the Buddha that he (Kundaliya) would visit parks and frequent assemblies as a regular habit because he had found interest in seeing some recluses and Brahmins having being engaged in debates. The purpose of those debates was only to emphasize their own argumentation (itivadapa mokkhanisamsam) and to disparage that of others.” All this evidence indicates that debating for the mere sake of reflecting the opposition had become a prevalent practice, as well as a crowd-gathering entertainment, during the time of the Buddha. The topics reportedly argued about by those controversialists speak a volume of this peculiar practice of debating. Most of the topics were in pairs, representing the thesis and the antithesis of the same subject. The following is the first list of such topics given in Pali texts:

The fact that they were originally in pairs is confirmed by the remarks attested to one particular pair of topics:

1.The universe is eternal/The universe is not eternal.
2. The universe is finite/The universe is not finite.
3. The soul is identical with the body/The soul is different from the body.
4. The enlightened person exists after death/The enlightened person does not exist after death.
5. An enlightened person does and does not exist after death/An enlightened person neither exists nor does not exist after death.'” A more expanded list of thirty-one topics, all in pairs and each pair dealing with the opposite of the same subject as given above, is found in the Lankavatara Sutra.’ The fact that they were originally in pairs is confirmed by the remarks attested to one particular pair of topics:

The threefold world is caused by ignorance, desire, and Karma. The threefold world is not caused by ignorance, desire, and Karma. This pair too belongs to the Lokayata category of questions. (qtd. in Jayatilleke 53)

It is obvious that this development of questions in pairs echoes the practice of debating, in which the mere skill in argumentation was emphasized. Debaters such as Saccaka, whose primary interest was “displaying dialectical skill and defeating their opponents, regardless of the nature of the arguments used” (Jayatilleke 219), would probably argue one day in favor of the infiniteness of the universe and the other day against it, depending on the position of his opponents. Even though some debaters actually held some theories of their own, rhetorical skill was the main weapon that they employed to attack the opposition and defend their own views. The important point here is that in India there was a predominant and widespread debating practice in which both the proponents and opponents vehemently debated on the thesis and the antithesis of the same topic, adducing equally powerful arguments.

In Greece Protagoras was the first rhetor to introduce this kind of argumentation. Laertius said that “Protagoras was the first to say that on every issue there are two arguments opposed to each other.” Clement repeated the same statement, saying that Greeks said, “Every argument has an opposite argument,” following Protagoras.” Seneca wrote, “Protagoras says that one can argue equally well on either side of any question, including the question itself whether both sides of any question can be argued.” Not only did Protagoras introduce this “eristic argument” as remarked by Hesychius,” but he also demonstrated the truth of his theory, arguing “by the method of questioning, a practice he originated.” Protagoras also “wrote down and prepared disputations on notable subjects.” Thus it is evident that Protagoras held his two-logoi theory as one of his major concepts, having introduced it, practiced it, and written treatises on it.

This theory of argumentation seems strikingly similar to the popular Indian concept of arguing for and against the same topic. Just as the topics used by Indian debaters consisted of the direct affirmation and the direct negation of the same statement, Protagoras’ topics also consisted of pairs of two extreme opposites. Similarly, the field from which these questions were drawn seems to be exactly the same for both Protagoras and the Indian debaters:

Protagoras, when once the existence of ‘two logoi in opposition to each other’ was discovered as inherent in all reality whenever one tries to consider it abstractly, translated this properly of the metaphysical world into contradictory pairs of opposites, making of it a precept for argument; that is to say, he must have demolished by dialectical arguments and with a certain systematic severity all the principle concepts created by Reason, beginning from the problem of God in order to pass on to the others. (Untersteiner 35)

Notably, Protagoras’ “contradictory pairs of opposites,” as Untersteiner has stated above, did not originate in traditional Greek rhetoric; rather, it originated in metaphysics, the field from which the Indian debaters also selected their topics. There is the possibility that Protagoras learned this practice from Democritus, who could have been very much exposed to the Indian way of debating while he was in India. One should also wonder why Protagoras was not exposed to the same theory of argumentation while he was receiving his Persian education.

A controversial situation might arise from this disclosure since the argument about probabilities has long been accepted as an essential, inherent characteristic in traditional Greek rhetoric. It should be repeated, however, that the origin of systematic persuasion in Sicily was a little over two decades old when Protagoras came to Athens, and whatever arguments on probabilities that might have existed in Sicily before Protagoras began his rational persuasion in Athens was probably in legal discourses. Contradictory references to the existence of argument about probabilities in Sicily would make this second assumption even more doubtful. Plato, referring to the example of a weakling’s assault on a strong man, indicated that Tisias argued about probabilities in legal discourses. However, Aristotle cited the same example to suggest that Corax, not Tisias, argued on probabilities in legal speeches. In contrast to both, Cicero, relying on another Aristotelian source that is now lost, remarked that Corax and Tisias prepared only a handbook for the civilians to regain their (civilians’) lost property from the fallen tyrants.” Another alleged reference is that Corax “developed a tripartite scheme of oratory to help the citizens speak in the assembly” (Kennedy, Art of Persuasion in Greece 59). However, no argument about probabilities was ever mentioned in this scheme of oratory that was invented at least a decade after the origin of judiciary discourses. If whatever persuasion on probabilities ever achieved any importance in Sicily before Protagoras entered upon rational argumentation in Athens, that would probably be only in legal speeches.

As noted in the introduction, when Gorgias and Tisias visited Athens about three decades after Corax and Tisias prepared the earliest handbook on legal discourses, Protagoras had already enkindled an interest in debates, eristic, and antilogic, using his two-logoi theory. He introduced “the method of attacking any thesis,” conducted debates, and earned the nickname “master of wrangling.”‘ His two books—The Art of Debating and Contradictory Arguments in Two Books—may further authenticate his intention and interest in this field. This rhetorical situation, which apparently had no roots in Greek culture, connects, both in appearance and content, only to the debating habits practiced by the Indian debaters during the late sixth century and the early fifth century B.C.E.

The difference between Protagoras and Sicilian Gorgias may be marked by the latter’s overemphasis on the invincible power of language, ft is apparent that Gorgias had developed this attitude towards language before he visited Athens in 427 B.C.E, as an ambassador to Leontini since his sensational speech in Athens against the impending attack on Leontini by Syracuse bears witness to his confidence in the power of language and his demonstration of that power, “Encomium on Helen” farther clarifies his attitude towards language, “Speech is a powerful lord,” which affects the mentality of all sort of people,” Words are like magic and drags that cause unbelievable changes in individuals,’ While Protagoras maintained that antilogic and eristic would empower the opposing argument, Gorgias mainly held that the power of the language itself might determine the skill in persuasion.

One may observe a close similarity between Gorgias’ emphasis on the power of words and the Indian debater Saccaka’s assertion of the same, Saccaka, as quoted above, maintained the invincible power of words, giving his own exaggerated skill of frightening a lifeless pillar with his words. Based on the awareness of the highly competitive debating background during this time, it may be assumed that there were a host of Saccakas in India, maintaining the same power of words with some variations. This widespread emphasis on the power of language might invite one to investigate a possible Indian influence on Gorgias, who also asserted the same power of words. Overemphasis of language as a tool to beat the opposition in India and to convince the opposition in Sicily was determined by the demands in each society, but the invincible, almost magical power of words might have originated from the same source.

One important clue available to suggest a transmission of this concept to Gorgias is the possibility that Gorgias’ teacher Empedocles had known about the debating practices of Saccaka and of similar Indian debaters. The discussion in the previous chapter revealed that at least two contemporaries of the Buddha-Ajita and Kacchayana­ had held the theory of elements exactly in the same form as Empedocles held it, providing strong support for Empedocles’ possible borrowing of that theory from the Indian sources. Both Ajita and Kacchayana were themselves debaters, but the vital point is that they both were engaged in debates with Saccaka:

Saccaka is made to say that when he joined them [the six famous debaters including Ajita and Kacchayana] in debates, they evaded in one way or other, shifted the topic of discussion, and showed signs of irritation, anger, and displeasure. These are among the recognized ‘occasions for censure,’ and their mention here implies that Saccaka was victorious in these debates. (Jayatilleke 219)

So the probable assumption should be that, if Ajita’s and Kacchayana’s theories of elements reached Empedocles exactly in the same form, the Greek thinker should also have heard about the debating power and practices of Saccaka, the more famous figure than the two theorists of elements. The rest is understandable. Even though one may not hear Gorgias say anything about Empedocles, it is probable that Gorgias came to know about the invincible power of words from Empedocles. This assumption will be farther justified in the next section of the present chapters when Gorgias’ theory of knowledge is evaluated in the light of Indian skepticism.

The lives of the other sophist thinkers except of Critias are surprisingly obscure; little is known other than the reports that several of them were the pupils of either Protagoras or Gorgias. Nothing is known about Thrasymachus other than that he came from Chalcedon in Bithynia and lived in the second half of the fifth century B.C.E. Hippias was a contemporary of Socrates, but his life is unknown except Suidas’ report that Hippias learned from virtually unknown Hegesidamus.’ Antiphon the Sophist was mixed up with two other Antiphons, and, despite having a certain collection of his writings, his early life remains unknown.

Despite the unavailability of biographical details about these sophist thinkers, strong similarities exist between their thinking and Indian thought. Particularly, the common Indian theory of knowledge and the Buddhist theories of sociology and ethics bear an undeniable resemblance with the thoughts of Prodicus, Antiphon, and Critias. Perhaps, Protagoras’ and Gorgias’ inquiry into epistemology paved the way for the rest of the sophists to continue with the same investigation. All sophist thinkers generally maintained a close relationship with other sophists. Several of Platonic dialogues have shown that sophists gathered together and held conversations together. It is possible that the younger sophist thinkers learned from more honorable Protagoras and Gorgias, whose teachers were the possible borrowers from Indian sources.

Addendum: I made the following entry on Wikipedia on 23 March 2010, but my experience with them is very poor and it is that they will likely delete it. So be it. Let this information stay on my web page.

Indian thought as direct precursor of the Sophists

Basnagoda Rahula, in his PhD dissertation (December 2000) entitled, ‘The Untold Story about Greek Rational Thought: Buddhist and Other Indian Rationalist Influences on Sophist Rhetoric’ (Texas Tech University), provides evidence on the influence of Indian philosophy on Protagoras, the founder of sophistry. In particular, “a careful examination of the practices in Indian debating during the sixth century B.C.E. and comparison of those practices with Protagoras’ attitude towards argumentation justify the possibility of this hypothesis.”

Further readings

Accidental compilations of references that may be useful to me for further investigations if time permits:

1) India in early Greek literature: by Klaus Karttunen: here and here

2) India and the Greek World; A study in the transmission of culture by Sedlar, Jean W.



3) Early maritime links: Indian Economic & Social History Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, 65-88 (1994)

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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3 thoughts on “Greek thought, the harbinger of world liberty, has its direct source in INDIA
  1. B Shantanu

    Sanjeev: Fascinating…thanks for pointing us in this direction…I would like to carry excerpts on my blog…with full attribution of couse…Presume you have no objection?

  2. Chandra

    Sanjeev you may like to read Gurcharan Das’s new book “The Difficulty of Being Good On the subtle art of Dharma”. In the Perlude notes (41) he argues a similar narrative of thoughts from Hegel’s etc read particularly the notes no 41 (p.336)

  3. Anonymous

    Sanjeev , very interesting , your contention about indian influence on evolution of greek thought is reinforced by the archeological findings in Afghanistan , where greek insciption of homeric language praising lord shiva has been found(Ref Nirad Choudhari)


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