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The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies

McEvilley (SAT:16-18) – Wandering Seers from India

Diffusion Channels in the Pre-Alexandrian Period

segunda-feira 4 de setembro de 2023, por Cardoso de Castro


Wandering seers such as the Vratyas were active in the Middle Vedic period in India and, like the Greek cults mentioned, seem to have carried some traditional Mesopotamian elements.


Burkert  , referring to the Homeric passage in the Odyssey, speaks of “craftsmen of the sacred” who brought rituals and associated lore into Greece in the Orientalizing period from Mesopotamia and elsewhere. He refers to them also as “migrant seers and healers,” “charismatic specialists,” and, speaking of hepatoscopy, holds that through them occurred “the transmission of a ‘school’ from Babylon to Etruria.” Similarly he speaks of “the spread of a Mesopotamian practice … across the Aegean linked to the emigration of craftsmen to Crete around 800.” Through such channels a variety of divination and purification techniques came from the Old World of the Near East into the emerging world of post-Dark Age Greece.

The Apollonian priestly lineage of the Branchidae seems to go back to Mesopotamian sources, as do elements in the cult of Asclepius  , where one finds “the most direct proof of the infiltration of charismatic practitioners of the eastern tradition   into archaic Greece.” In such phenomena, as Burkert says, “The borderlines between the eastern and the Greek are seen to melt away.”

Wandering seers such as the Vratyas were active in the Middle Vedic period in India and, like the Greek cults mentioned, seem to have carried some traditional Mesopotamian elements. Both the Jain and the Ajivika traditions involved extensive periods of wandering in other cultures by initiates—wanderings which, according to a speculation by Daniélou, may have led into the Orphic tradition in Greece. The assortment of characters who gathered in the milieu of ancient temples in the Near East and eastern Mediterranean displayed a mixed array of strange practices such as browzing (cattle imitation), a common ascetic vow in India known to have been practiced in Mesopotamia in antiquity also. The most plausible account of the origin of Diogenian cynicism involves Saivite practitioners migrating in the practice of their cultic specialties from India to the eastern end of the Black Sea over the trade route beginning with the Oxus River and ending at Phasis  .

Not until Ashoka, who was awakened to the Hellenistic world, does an Indian source speak of these foreign wanderings. Rock Edict II refers to the establishment of Indian medical institutions “in the territories of the Yavana king Antiochus.” Rock Edict V indicates that Mahamatras, or wandering disseminators of Buddhist teaching, were dispatched “even among the Yavanas, Kambojas and Gandha-ras … dwelling on the western boundaries.” Above all, Rock Edict XIII proclaims that Ashoka’s missionaries went as far as “six hundred yojanas, where the Yavana king named Antiyoka [Antiochus] is ruling and where beyond the kingdom of the said Antiyoka four other kings named Turamaya [Ptolemy], Antikini [Antigonus], Maka [Magas of Cyrene] and Alikasundara [Alexander of Epirus] are also ruling.” At least one of the most famous of the missionaries sent out by Ashoka was actually a Greek, Dharmaraksita.

That the information of Rock Edict XIII should be taken seriously is suggested by several facts. First, the five   Greek kings who seem clearly to be named—Antiochus (II Theos   of the Seleucid kingdom), Ptolemy (II Philadelphus of Egypt), Antigonus (Gonatas of Macedonia), Magas (of Cyrene), and Alexander (of Epirus)—were actually all contemporaries of Ashoka; they are not a random list of names merely meant to impress his subjects, nor are they names collected loosely from Greek history. That Ashoka would have known accurately who five of his contemporary monarchs in the Greek world were indicates some channels of communication. The figure of six hundred yojanas does not seem random, either. “Taking a yojana to be about seven miles, this turns out to be the exact distance from Pa-t.aliputra to Macedonia, Epirus and Cyrene as the crow flies … This precision in distance, which is verifiable, shows at least that contact with these distant lands was based on actual travel.” Granted these confirmatory evidences, “Ashoka’s claim to have sent envoys to them,” according to one modern scholar, “can hardly be doubted.” Furthermore: “A more significant proof comes from the fact that the edicts bearing this information were found in places like Kandahar in Afghanistan and Mansehra and Shahbazgarhi in Pakistan in areas abutting Greek territories and inhabited by Greeks. In fact, the adaptation of RE XIII which was found as far west as Kandahar was in Greek.” The missionary Maharakkita seems to have been sent to the kingdom of Antiochus Theos, the epigonid empire of Syria and West Asia which was the immediate western neighbor of Ashoka’s kingdom. One of the acts of at least some of Ashoka’s missionaries was the planting in foreign nations of certain medicinal herbs.

Two general probabilities can be drawn from this evidence. First, religiomedical missions, involving the simultaneous spreading of doctrine and of medicinal plants, are just the type of thing the Persian kings might have invited or attracted to their courts along with the seemingly regular succession of Greek philosopher-physicians who went there. Second, Ashoka’s missions seem to have drawn on an older tradition of “migrant seers” carrying doctrines, rituals, and sacred plants which seems likely to have gone back at least to the early archaic period and thus to have intermingled with pre-Socratics  , especially perhaps, as in the cases of Democedes and Pherecydes, with Orphics and Pythagoreans.

Ver online : Thomas McEvilley