Indo-European Beliefs in Classical Greek and Indian Drama

Bharat Gupt


Excerpted from Studies in Jaina Art and Iconography and Allied Subjects in Honour of Dr. U.P. Shah, Oriental Institute, Vadodara, and Abhinav Publications, Delhi. The author is associate professor, Delhi University, a scholar and a well-known cultural exponent.


It has been customary to think of the Greek achievement in science and arts as the intellectual base on which the later edifice of western European learning has been raised. Less attention has been paid to those aspects of Greek way of life which did not directly contribute to the European culture of two millenniums after Christ, that is the ways which either ceased to be followed with the advent of Christianity, or which were lost into the folk traditions and were no longer noticed by official historians. The Greeks have been thus proclaimed as progenitors of western philosophy, of rational and naturalistic investigation and of scientific logic. Their literature has been the model for all later writing In the West. However, while this approach succeeds in providing an ancestry to the thought of Europe, at the same time it eclipses the totality of the Greek experience, by not paying adequate attention to its Oriental constituent which was as much a reality.

The Greeks, as early as the Pelasgians, have been regarded as a people of Indo-­European stock, the parent race of which is attributed to belong to somewhere in Central Asia. The evidence for this belief has no archaeological foundation but is primarily linguistic. And even if It is presumed that there was a parent or ur language for the large number of languages classified as Indo‑European, there is no reason to believe that there was a single race to which this language belonged. We are therefore forced to presume that speakers of the so called Indo‑European languages which shared many linguistic structures, must have also shared many other thought structures and habits to sustain their linguistic similarities. Looking at the ancient Greeks and the Indians, we find that their languages, rituals, divinities and a host of other cultural habits reveal such similarities. The cultural similarities between these two peoples are in themselves worthy of an exclusive study. Here, we shall pay attention to only those cultural, rather cult‑related, habits of everyday life that provide a base for dramatic mimesis.

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Miasma-Katharsis or Sauca-Asauca

There is no feature of the Indo‑European culture more distinctive than its preoccupation with pollution and purity. Cultural historians have very often considered it as a peg to hang upon it an immense variety of ritual, whether of late Hellenic period or of the Smriti age in India. But no keen observer can overlook the fact that all latter-day ritual is only an elaboration of the earlier ritual based on the very primitive experience of loss and restoration of vitality.

The earliest of Greek muthoi preserve elements that repeat the motifs found in Vedas. From the Vedic verses It is clear that miasma was a later version of impotence. The duality of vitality and impotence (not always sexual) pervades every human event and condition, whether social or private. In the case of gods vitality is endless though not eternal. In fact, that is the basic virtue (sattva) or element of godhood. The gods possess endless vitality because ambrosia Is their food or because they drink of soma vine. For mortals as there is no nectar there can only be a prayer to the gods to grant vitality. Partaking of the remains of oblations is for the intake of this vitality as a divine gift. The partaking of this gift was never private but always ritualistic and public. That soma was a vine is certain, though its modem form still remains to be identified. Ambrosia again is still a mystery and the guess of Robert Graves that it was the mushroom, amanita muscaria, is as plausible as any other. 1 Ambrosia was reserved for gods and the food as such was not to be taken by any mortal. So was the soma drink, which in later epic age becomes ‘amrita’. The drink of amrita is not a giver of immortality only, it is a panacea and provides unebbing power. No wonder that the myth of amrita manthana becomes the primary story of all epic literature in India.

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The Gift of Vitality

For mortals this vitality was not available in essence, but it could be gained in its earthly form or manifestation as physical prowess or, martial success. And that too could be obtained as a gift in the form of a psychic intervention. To the Indo‑European man the world was inhabited by so many unseen but all the same subtly present beings ranging from the supremely divine to the most inferior tree spirits. These he frequently invoked to influence his daily life. He preferred to live a life impelled by external agencies, the externality of which in later religions became internalized in the form of introspective meditation or conscientious prayer. This externality of beings was not remote but always at hand and could be tuned into anytime. When the communication did take place, the recipient was said to have been filled with or impelled by the gift of the power invoked. Thus the typical Vedic prayer to Savita is to impel (dhiyo yo nah pracodayat) and so is the Homeric ate, a madness that visits man. So is menos, a sudden upsurge that rejuvenates the heroes in Iliad. Not only the influence of higher beings but that of inferior beings also works the same way. The daimons possess humans and so do their counterparts the gandharvas (gandharva‑grahita being the phrase for a possessed person). In the later stages of religious thought power is visualised as taking birth from within, as in the Yoga system of Patanjali, but the notion of invoking and inviting divine grace was never totally repudiated. In the Greek culture pattern introspective going within is very nearly absent but prayer or sleep is sufficient to invite divine intervention.


“Another psychic intervention which is common in Homer is menos, the com­munication of power from god to man. This menos is not primarily physical strength; nor is it a permanent organ of mental life, like thumos or noos. it is like ate a state of mind. When a man feels menos in his chest, or thrusting up pungently into his nostrils, he is conscious of mysterious excess of energy, the life in him is strong, and he is filled with a new confidence and eagerness.” 2


It is not only this gift of power to defend oneself or to do a great task that is received from without, but so is a confusion or imbalance in normal thinking said to be caused by external agency.


“There are a number of passages in Homer in which unwise and unaccountable conduct is attributed to ate, or described by the cognate verb aasasthai, without explicit reference to divine intervention. But ate in Homer is not a personal agent; nor does the word ever, at any rate in the Iliad, mean objective disaster, as it so commonly does in tragedy.” 3

“Practically always, ate is a state of mind, a temporary clouding or bewildering of the normal consciousness. It is, in fact, a partial or temporary insanity, and, like all insanity, it is ascribed, not to physiological or psychological causes, but to an external daemonic agency. It is by no means a synonym for, or a result of, wickedness. Nor is it the punishment for guilty rashness.” 4


In other words all abnormal emotional states have their source in unseen (adrishta) but very tangible forces. This gift of power can be in forms other than of inspiration to the individual. It can be a gift of offspring as were the sons of Kunti, or a gift of weapons as to Parasurama or Arjuna. The muthos of divine origin of weapons whether of Achilles or of Rama or a host of other heroes is certainly more than an aetiological expansion of the fact that good weapons were scarce in ancient times and therefore they were so highly prized that they comprised of the most precious part of the legacy of a family or a line of fighters. Weapons which had been endowed with a divine efficacy, by virtue of their godly origin or as often in India consecrated with the use of a mantra (mantraputa, literally meaning purified with a mantra), were obviously not exceptionally better than the usual ones in make but only in ‘potency’ which was a part of the cultural belief. 5

A converse to the belief that power and vitality purify is that their loss is the primary miasma. When there is a decline in the natural force, the element or the sattva of a person, human or divine, the state of impurity begins. Lunar or solar eclipse is the most obvious example of cosmic impurity. In the Indian muthos of eclipse, the Sun and the Moon were overpowered by Rahu till Vishnu came to free them. The eclipses are a repetition of first eclipsing of the powers of Sun and Moon.

From this it follows that any loss of limb in the body is also impurity. The lame, deformed or misshapen would thus be kept away at the time of an auspicious ceremony. Just as eclipse is a temporary loss in the cosmic body (the brahmanda or the bigger egg), disease or menstruation is a loss in the human body (the pinda). From physical loss there is one small step to loss of status, wealth, good name (timee) or vow. Whatever, is essential or elemental to individual existence or public esteem or particular or general health, if lost or even eclipsed leads to pollution. This miasma can strike a people or family and succeed from one generation to another. The children of a succeeding generation may have to pay for the miasma that is for impurities, incurred by their forefathers, as it happened in the house of Atreus or the line of Sagara.

Where miasma is not incurred but inherited the penalty is no less severe on that account. And as the individual has no choice but to accept his situation and attempt to free himself at any cost. In fact, Antigone lived with pollution which was caused by her father’s action but not to rebel against the situation or think of herself as different from her family. The misfortune was her portion (moira), just as it was for Orestes, or just as it was an inherited duty of Janamejaya to avenge himself over the serpent Takshaka. The tragic situation that Orestes or Antigone find themselves in is without any error (koros, hemartia or hubris) on their part. It was their moira to inherit the pollution. Just as menos or inspiration is from without, so is miasma. The early Indo-European strain of thought gives too little choice to the individual. Recalling the situation at the outset of the great war in the Mahabharata, overcome with the prospect of killing his kith and kin Arjuna was impelled by his mentor to take up arms as he was a caste warrior and as not to fight would only mean lasting infamy. For Arjuna, then, as much for Achilles the demands of timee are supreme. Public esteem again forces Rama to desert Sita. Tragedy then, or at least the situation of reversal of fortune (peripatea) is not to be attributed to any logic human or divine, the least to any cosmic justice. That the human condition be related to some sort of cosmic justice is only a wish which is stated in Aeschylus, and other tragedians. They basically accept the visitation of pollution to be as arbitrary as the flow of wind or the eruption of a volcano. In the later classical period in Greece and in the Smriti period of Indian cultural development individual choice, responsibility and interpretation of dharma or moira begin to take place. The concept of pollution and its cure also comes to be questioned. Doubts are expressed if sacrificial blood can wash away the impurity. Heraklitos and other Ionian philosophers raised doubts that may have led to the decline of earlier ritual. In India similar doubts were raised by the Buddhist and Jain thinkers which led to the decline of sacrificial immolation in Vedic yajnas.

However, miasma, its katharsis and tragedy belong to an age when individual re­sponsibility had not been socially accepted. Tragedy, thus, only selects that situation of fortune reversal, that visitation of miasma, where there can be a concentration upon the pathetic feeling. Here pathos is great because of the helplessness of the situation and the very near innocence of the protagonist. This kind of tragedy is very different from the tragedy of Christian era, where hubris and koros lead a great man to his downfall. In the Greek situation miasma always leads to purification. The total situation is certainly not pessimistic as has been supposed by scholars for long time. After the eclipse must come the full phase. Living through miasma brings purity. Orestes was freed of his pollution and the trilogy we see ends in great reconciliation. So does the sacrifice of Janamejaya. An enactment of the pollution phase, a ritual mimesis of the suffering, results in katharsis. Therefore, the annual public festival has tragedy as a part of the total ritual. The katharsis that Aristotle talks about is not for only the individual spectator but the city as a whole. For the purpose of “ritual promoting or magically seeking salvation an element of death and sorrow was isolated, placed centrally and submitted for all time to reflection and contemplation.”

Katharsis, then, is also not merely getting rid of the impurity. It is more than a therapeutic restoration; It is a new inflow of vitality. It ends in serene well‑wishing and in an awareness that the impurity is gone. This feeling is evident in the last play of the only trilogy that is known to us today, ‘Orestia’. The note on which the single plays end is different. The bulk of tragedies that have survived and that have come to determine our idea of tragedy are of that kind. It is the note of agony and continuing horror, the feeling that miasma is retained and still not removed. But it should be remembered that this note should not determine our overall view of tragedy and its function (ergos). The trilogies and the appended satyr plays form the total cycle of miasma and katharsis, they represent a complete structure of this high and noble form of drama which touched not upon lowly (phaule) subject, but the grave theme of man’s eclipse and renewal.

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Ancestor-Worship and Burial Customs

There is no society in history, which has not believed in a continuation of existence after death. Some form of the self, the nature of which is described variously, is believed to exist, the idea of total extinction has had little popularity. The funeral rites, therefore, have been rites of passage which prepare the dead for a journey to its new destination. The variety of these rites is due to variety of the beliefs about the nature of the new home. This home has been mostly envisaged as a permanent one, except in India where the idea of reincarnation gained stability in post‑Vedic times, whereas in Greece, belief in reincarnation had a very transitory currency with Pythagoras and his followers. As a corollary to the belief in after‑life, there is the desire to communicate with the departed. It has been thought that they can protect, bless, curse or even help the living to perform some of the social functions which they did while they were alive. Thus, the duty of the living towards the dead has been a regular affair. The ritual of their propitiation has been sometimes daily, at other times held on marked days like the Anthesteria, or it has been observed on personal dates like the sraddha in pitripaksha.6

In the lives of indo‑Europeans the presence of ancestors was a continuous reality. If the body is looked upon as not the only but just one of manifestation of being, then the non‑corporeal manifestation of existence, called the eidolon or sukshma sharira, can be present in space and time which are not material. The ancestors in this way can possess the same quality as gods do, namely, that of being free of clock‑time and earthly space. They can, like the gods, be invoked to assist, bless or interfere in the daily affairs of men. They are endowed with semi‑godhood which while offering protection can also promote cohesion in the family, phratry and genos or gotra. 7 As compared with the divine the relationship between the individual and the pitris is more intimate and emotionally strong as it is a conversion of a once very worldly attachment into an other‑worldly bond. In ancient drama this feeling for ancestors is more extensively depicted than the relationship between man and Divine.

In Greek drama burial rituals and worship at tombs become a part of the dramatic action itself. Such instances are rare in Indian plays. Libations of water by Yudhishthira to supposedly dead brothers in ‘Venisamhara’ are an exception. in the Greek tragic muthoi the frequency of thanatological ritual on stage is accounted for by the culture pattern of desecration and prevention of burial. It was not simply war vendetta which encouraged desecration but a faith that the prevention of rites of passage shall weaken the opponent and his successors. 8 On the contrary, in India antyeshti has been considered to be too sacred to be disturbed. The dying man is regarded as beyond the pale of animosity and there is the culture pattern of even seeking his advice. Bhishma’s death‑sermon epitomises this norm. When depicted in drama this pattern also promotes a peacefulness lessening of the pangs of horror. It was under this spirit that the dying hero of Bhasa’s Urubhanga is made to give up his life‑long hatred for Pandavas. On the other hand in the Greek tragic world horror is intensified by the victor’s demand for ransom for desecrated body of the vanquished. The fury of the desecrater is a mark of his heroic wrath and the plaint of the relatives of the dead is a sign of their filial and pitiful obligation. The burial customs thus intensify the tragic conflict in one case while in the other they resolve it into a contemplative repentance.

As an extension of ancestor‑worship in India, there also evolved the doctrine of Pitri Rina. To be free of the debt of ancestors, the individual was called upon to beget and raise a son who shall take over the task of providing libations for the family line.

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Protection to the Suppliant

According to the Greek tribal law the punishment or vengeance (prorresis) was to be enforced on the murderer by the victim’s family. 9 It was not the duty of the State as in modern times. In such a situation, it was natural for the guilty to flee his home and seek refuge in extended or permanent exile. The population of exiles in ancient Greece used to be in considerable numbers. Fugitives sought the protection of distant families or of close-by powerful rivals of the victim’s house. Normally, a family would not interfere with the process of vengeance and would not thwart the attempts of the victim in capturing the murderer. But in the case of an offending relative they would intervene to settle a ransom or blood‑price. Or in the case of very minor crimes, temporary refuge may be provided to enable further escape. This could be true in the case of offenders who had incurred wrath or pollution. Even this was not free from censure or even the risk of divine wrath. However, in Greece and India alike, it was the bounden duty of a reputable person to grant refuge to one who had surrendered or had been unjustly threatened or victimised. 10 In Greece, if the suppliant had sought refuge at a temple, then he became as inviolable as the temple itself. If he were to be turned away, it may result in the wrath of the deity falling on the community. As the Supplices say to Pelasgus, “Do what you will / Thy house remains to Pay / Find in thy children / Justice is equal / Mark the Justice of Zeus” (Supplices, line 193). Some of the well‑known instances of suppliants seeking successful refuge are: daughters of Danaus before Pelasgus, King of Argos: Iphigenia and Hekabe before Achilles;11 and Odysseus pleading before Hekabe in Troy. 12 In the Indian lore the classic example is of Sugriva and Vibhishana winning the protection of Rama.13 Both the suppliants are exiles who were unfairly banished. A rather unknown instance from drama is that of Sakara of Mricchakatikam saving his life by becoming a supplicant of Carudatta. Sakara need not have been granted protection as he deserved it according to no norm. He ought to have been refused it, but Carudatta true to his magnanimity and the moral obligation of granting refuge to a saranagata spared his life.

As very different from the Greek classical world the reasons for exile in India were usually political. Here punishment for homicide was executed by the State, except during the course of a war where vengeance was sought by kith and kin. Where shedding of blood caused pollution as in the case of matricide, brahmicide, in addition to the penal sentence there was a system of purification rites to remove asauca. All the same there is the case of the embryo‑killer Asvatthama who could not be purged by any rite because of the curse that Krishna laid on him.

The Greek method of removing miasma or asauca consisted of seeking forgiveness at shrines of divination such as at Delphos. But the main practice was worship of Zeus Katharsios, 14 where the offender was washed with the blood of a consecrated pig. The pattern here is of seeking protection from the divine and placating him through sacrifice just as the offender seeks physical protection of a family and placates them through loyalty and service. The Greek miasma removal was a public affair unlike the Indian set of rites like Candrayana etc. which were austerities to be practised by the individual privately.

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The Power of Oath

In cultures where writing was far removed from the lives of men low and high alike, the spoken word as a pledge made in the presence of witnesses was as much binding as a promise made in writing today. In grave matters the pledge came to be registered in the communal memory and the community waited for the promissory to fulfil his pledge or pay the price that he himself had set for his failure. To break a vow was not only to lose self‑esteem but also to defame the family and its ancestry. More than that, at least in the Greek world a person incurred pollution which had to be got rid of like any other impurity. Here, there was also punishment after death and the broken oath was sometimes even personified as a pursuing spirit similar to the Erynes. 15 Now while the Indians had no such spirit to be afraid of, all the same loss of esteem and accumulated merit, punya, was a mortal dread. The oath then for the Indo‑European defined his commitment to his fellow‑beings which was expected to be enforced even by divine agency. In drama, which is all but made up of relationships, the oath becomes a dominating culture‑pattern which is used as a dramatic device governing the plot.

The instances of vows that tragic and the other heroes make are too many to be recounted. Some of the most distinctive examples are the oath of Oedipos to banish from Thebes the killer of Laus; of Herakles to go and seize from Death his friend’s wife, Alcestis; of Hippolytos not to give away the secret of Phaedra’s love proposal; the vow of Bhima to dress Draupadi’s hair with Duhshasana’s blood: of Arjuna’s to kill Jayadratha; of Karna’s to kill no other Pandava than Arjuna (Venisamhara and Karnabhara). Oedipos’s word was kept but tragically it condemned him, and though he is discovered to be a great sinner, he does not face the ignominy of an oath‑breaker. Herakles’s is a success story, he is able to keep his oath. Hippolytos like Oedipos is led to his tragic end by his own oath. He is unable to tell his father how his mother proposed to him and thus fails to plead his case. Similar to his is the plight of Karna who gave away the divine armour to keep his word, knowing full well that this charity would result in his death. In the Indo‑European world the world is lost but not the word which kept well brings everlasting glory. One who loses his life for the sake of his oath has a higher place than one who victoriously fulfils his vow and earns the best of both worlds.

Oracles and Curses

Divination for the Indo‑European was not an effort to decipher future events for the sake of useful knowledge, it was a communication with the extra‑ terrestrial beings who were believed to be inhabiting the universe as surely and permanently as do the humans. Hence it was not the calculation of man which was sought to be perfected, but it was the will of the divine that had to be consulted. The culture‑pattern here has lesser faith in individual choices, it has a greater trust in discovering what the divine has in store for one. Just as the choice of an individual is influenced by the opinions of his family‑members and friends today, similarly for the ancients the extended family of the supernatural beings, ancestors, sages and prophets had to be conferred with. The oldest method of divination was prophecy by interpreting bird movements. The etymologies of words ‘augury’ and ‘sakuna’ testify this. Other than this, a host of other methods such as throw of dice, weather signs, observation of entrails and vitals of the sacrificed animal (found in Homer and Yajurveda), and astralogomancy were widely practised. However, the Greek oracula (manteia, chresteria) and the Indian devavani (siddhavani or akasavani) are to be found in maximum vogue in drama. Perhaps in life too they were the most popular methods.

In the dramatic structure of a given play an oracular announcement or a siddhavani is synchronically ever‑present. Like the oath, all action is geared towards it. Its fulfilment in itself does not matter, but the feeling that every event directly or circuitously is leading towards its fulfilment, is what matters more. Whereas an oath falls within the area of human effort (purushartha or aretee), the prophecy is the force of supernatural which was daiva, dike, or moira. The purpose of nearly every muthos is to show the interplay between the individual virtue and the divine intention. The result may be tragic or happy.

As a general observation it may seem true that the oracular dominates the Greek dramatic scene with a force which has no equal in any other drama. This is more true of tragedy, as it may be said that the confrontation of the human with the Olympian is what makes up tragedy. The Greek comedies or the satyr plays do not have the terrorizing figures of hoary prophets as they are an exercise in scoffing the divine, which is depicted as weak and tardy. However, in the Indian dramatic universe there isas much intervention of the divine through prophecies or curses as much in the Greek universe, even though here the confrontation between the human and the divine does not acquire tragic sparagmos. To repeat, the human and divine are constantly juxtaposed in both the theatres even if one chooses to show the horrific form of the divine, while the other more often depicts its finally conciliatory nature.

There is little need to cite examples of mantic pronouncements in the Greek plays, as there is hardly a play in which an oracle is not announced either through a sooth­sayer, or a message is not received from the shrine of mantike. If none of these, a god himself or herself may appear to make a pronouncement, as does Aphrodite in Hippolytos and Apollo in Alcestis. Sometimes the hero narrates how he ispursuing a course of action under an oracular command as does Oresetes in Choephorl and in Iphegenia at Tauris. In the Indian plays, daivavani or sapa is usually not made during the course of the play. Of course, there are famous instances of Durvasa’s curse upon Sakuntala and Carudatta’s upon Palaka, both pronounced and effected during the plays, so is Rama of ‘Uttararamacarita’ (Act II) instructed by ‘asaririni vak’ to kill the erring Sambuka, however, in most cases the prophecy to be fulfilled in the play is mentioned to have been made long before the events depicted. 16

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The Wider Perspective of Some Common Beliefs

We have noticed above some behaviour‑patterns of Indo‑European life which are mimetized in Greek and Indian drama. Sustaining the branches of these patterns are the roots of certain beliefs of cosmological signification. For the sake of brevity we shall state those beliefs and give cursory comments. These five notions are: the parole of the Universal Egg, multitheism (bahudevatva, godmingling, theokrasis), perception of five elements as extension of the five senses, notion of time as a cycle of four ages, and metempsychosis. Whereas the behaviour‑patterns, such as, oath‑taking and others described earlier give shape to modes of action in drama, the philosophical notions about the universe define the identity of the individual. The Great Egg does not have a beginning in the same sense as Darwin’s first cell. It was not created in a given point of time. The beginning is taking place again and again, after every cycle, or in other words, it is taking place all the time. And so is man, a ‘pinda’ is being eclipsed and renewed, polluted and purified constantly. Not only man but no being comes to an end, death is not the end of existence, the shades of the departed either inhabit the Hades or as the other view has it, they may be reincarnated. There can be extinction only if there isan end to time. This ‘end’ or pralaya is no end but a suspended animation, a waiting for rebirth.

In the Rigvedic hymns, Sky and Earth are looked upon as the first parents and in some other verses the Golden Embryo (hiranyagarbha) is thought to be floating on primeval waters (RV 10.121.1). By the age of the Brahmanas, ‘nonbeing became being; the latter changed into an egg, which after a year by splitting in two became Heaven and Earth; whatever was produced is the sun, which is Brahma’ (Chand. Up. V.19). 17 The idea is repeated in the Pelasgian muthos where Eurynome laid the Egg out of which came the Universe. 18 The Homeric and the Orphic creation muthoi also mention that black‑winged night was courted by Wind and thus laid a silver Egg from which the Universe was hatched. 19

From the Great Egg vision of the Universe, which accepts the basic sexuality of creation, unlike the Judaic muthos of Genesis which introduces sexuality as an outcome of original sin, we come to Indo‑Greek polytheism. It is not our purpose to trace the common ancestry of Indian and Greek gods, whether through philological method or through mythographic analysis. For study of drama, we are content to note that fire sacrifice or yajna is the main mode of worship and that in both the pantheons the divinities do not fall into any hierarchy. There is, of course, Zeus as the supreme force among Olympians, but that matters little to the ordinary worshipper who has to turn to the appropriate divinity as required by the nature of his plaint. Even Zeus is viewed in many forms. For the Indians even the supreme is a trinity and in Vedic lore the very question of supremacy among gods did not arise. The hostility of the Greek gods towards ardent devotees of rival gods is well‑known. In the Indian muthoi similar jealousies are not uncommon. Here, if the worship of a god does not rouse the ire of another, the devotees of different gods are often pitted against one another and each receives help from his patron deity (ishtadeva). Gods are like superior heroes patronizing inferior human supplicants. They must answer the call of whosoever invokes them. A deity does not wait to measure the merits or demerits of a devotee, justice in the end is not to be meted out by him but by the all‑seeing Zeus, or by dike itself, or by law of karma.

In the classical Greek era and in India long before that in the Upanishadic times, the universe was thought to be made up of five elements earth, water, fire, air and ether (aitheros) or akasa. The genesis of this idea was undoubtedly in India from where it travelled to Greece through the Persians as a corollary to the doctrine of Ayurveda. 20 In Greece it exercised the minds of all early Ionian thinkers who tried to discover the primary one among the five. Without going into details we may mention here that this division into five elements is a method of relating the individual body to the cosmic body or egg. The later Indian doctrine or ‘yat pinde tat brahmande (that which is present in the body is also there in the Universe), though stated a little later, had already been conceived in, Purusa Sukta of Rigvedic Samhita. The five elements are a division of the universal material made by the measure of five senses of smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing. It is through the five senses that the individual (pinda) conceives of the universe and it is of these five elements that the body is made of. This equation between the microcosm and the macrocosm came to be established during this time and it held its sway in the European world till Copernicus and Newton replaced it with notions of modern physics. In the cosmology of five elements man is not a fragmented creature but part of the whole, he is in essence and value the same as the Universe.

The Greek belief in the five ages of man was stated only by Hesiod and even though the notion that man has a declining history continued to be entertained widely, Hesiod’s demarcation into five ages lost currency soon after. This belief was again an import from India where it was clearly expressed in the Aitareya Brahmana (VII.14) and later elaborated in the Mahabharata and various other Smriti works. The cycle of four ages, yugas, manvantara and kalpa, is the most pervasive statement about the universal eclipse and renewal. It was surely as a corollary to this thinking that the belief in reincarnation came to be formulated. If nothing comes to an end, why should it be so for the individual self? The Upanishads and Brahmana literature give full evidence of this belief formulated into yugas and reincarnation. It had been a common belief in Egypt too at this time. But it seems that Egyptian palingenesis emphasized the migration of the soul into animal and bird forms rather than rebirth into the human, whereas in India all the possibilities were accepted.

© Dr. Bharat Gupt, 2002 

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Notes & References :


1. Ambrosia: Graves, R., The Greek Myths, Vol. 1, Penguin, 1955, pp. 9‑10. (Back to text)

2. Ate etc.: Dodds, E.R., The Greeks and the Irrational, California Univ., 1951, p. 10. (Back to text)

3. As above p. 5. (Back to text)

4. As above p. 8. (Back to text)

5. Divine weapons: “It has been said that Heracles when he set forth on his labours, Hermes gave him a sword; Apollo a bow and smooth shafted arrows, feathered with eagle feathers; Hephaestos a golden breast plate; and Athene a robe ... The gift of Poseidon was a team of horses; that of Zeus, a magnificent and unbreakable shield” (Graves, II, p. 102).

There are many examples of divine or mantra charged weapons in ancient Indian plays. In ‘Uttararamacarita’ Act I, while going through the picture gallery Rama shows to Sita how the painter had depicted the divine ‘jambhrika’ arrows. Sita worships them and according to the blessings of Rama her sons inherit them and as the plot would have it, they also use them. 



Vandasva devi, divyastrani |
Brahmadayo brahmahitaya taptva
parah sahasram sharadam tapasi |                 Etanyadarshangukhaha puranaha
svanyeva tejansi tapomayani ||



Namo edanam (namo etebhyaha) |



Sarvathedanim tvatprasutimupasthasyanti |



Anugahidahim (anugrahitasmi) |

6. Daily offerings to Pitris: Yajnavalkya Smriti (Grihasthakarma, 102). They are svadha, balikarma etc.



Balikarmasvadhahomasavadhyaytithikriyah |    
Bhutapitramarabrahmanushyanam mahamaravah ||
Balkarma bhutayajnaha svadhapitriyajnaha, homo devayajnaha,
svadhyayo brahmayajnaha, athithikriya manushyayajnaha |
panchamahayajnaharahaha kartavya, nityatvat | (mitakshari)

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7. Pitris as protectors: Yajnyavalkya Smriti (Sraddhaprakarana, 270):



Vasurudradisutah pitaraha sraddhadevtah |
Prinayanti manushyanam pitruvyaddhena tarpitah ||
Ayuh prajam dhanam vidha svargam moksham sukhani cha |      
Prayachchati tatha rajyam prita nrinam pitamahah ||

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8. Prevention of Burial: “Heracles next vanquished Pyrachmus, king of Euboeans, an ally of Minyans, when he marched against Thebes; and created terror throughout Greece by ordering his body to be torn in two by colts and exposed unburied beside the river Heracleius (Graves, II, p. 100).

Desecration of the corpse to weaken the opponent’s spirit: The power of the dead man was so formidable, his desire for reprisals so certain, that the murderer, whenever he could, tried at least to escape his direct intervention so as to have to answer only to his living avengers. He would therefore strive to render him powerless by mutilating his corpse. He would cut off the latter’s extremities, the feet, ears and nose, pass a cord through them and fasten the whole to the victim’s neck by attaching the cord under the armpits. Deprived in this way, of his sensory organs and means of movements, the victim was rendered inoffensive (Mireaux, Emile, Daily Life in Times of Homer (London, 1959), tr. from French by Iris Sells), p. 173. (Back to text)

9. Vengeance on the murderer: as above p. 177.


Banishment of Homicider: “Amphitryon vented his annoyance by throwing a club at one of the cows which had strayed from the herd; it struck her horns, rebounded, and killed Electryon. Thereupon Amphitryon was banished from Argolis by his uncle Sthenelus... Amphitryon, accompanied by Alceme fled to Thebes, where king Creon purified him and gave his sister Perimede in marriage.” Graves, Vol. II, p. 85. (Back to text)



Yajnavalkya Smriti (Rajadharma, 326). Suppliant (Tavahamvadin):
Tavahamvadinam klivam nirhetim parasangatam |
Na hanyadvinivrittam cha yuddhaprekshanakadikam ||

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11. Promise of Achilles: 


No, by the foster‑son of Ocean’s waves,
Nereus, the sire of Thetis who bare me,
King Agemmemnon shall not touch thy child...
(Iphigenia at Aulis, lines 948‑50, tr. A.S. Way, Loeb Classical Library)

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12. Reference to Odysseus's supplication to Hekabe in Troy:


Hekabe: I saved thee ‑ saved thee ‑ send thee forth the land.
Odysseus: Ay, thanks to thee, I see the sun's light now.
(Hekabe as above 249‑50)

However, true to his foxy character Odysseus was too mean to accept Hekabe as his suppliant and return the favour that she had done to him when he was in her power.

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13. Supplication of Vibhisana: Mahaviracarita of Bhavabhuti, Act V.


Vatsa, Bruhi kim sandisha yatamevamvandinaha priyasuhrido                     
Lankeshvarasya maharajavibhisanasya |



Yada lankeshvaraha priyasuhridatyuktamaryena                   
tatkimavashishyate sandeshasya |



Yataha Soumitrihi |



Anugrihitasmi |

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14. Worship of Zeus Katharsios: “The usual placular victim was a young pig, which was held over the head of the guilty, as we see Apollo holding it over Orestes in a vase painting that represents his purification. And the blood of the slaughtered animal was then poured over his hands, with invocation to Zeus Katharsios. In some accounts bathing in water of a river or the sea appears to have been a necessary part of the ceremony”
(Farnell, L.R., Cults of the Greek States, Vol. 1, Oxford, 1896, p. 69). (Back to text)

15. Oath Personified: “The strength of this belief in the religious character of the oath is shown by passages in Homer which speak of the punishment of oath-breaker after death, and by the lines of Hesiod's ‘Theogony’ where the oath is already personified as a child of the lower world, born to be ‘the scourge of men’: while in Sophocles he is spoken of as all-seeing child of Zeus. Farnell, p. 70. (Back to text)

16. Of the horrible curses in Greek drama some glaring examples are: Tirestas's curse upon Oedipos; Theseus's upon his son Hippolytos; Polymestor's upon Hekabe that she shall drown in the sea and become a dog before she submerges and so shall Kassandra and Agemmemnon be killed. (Back to text)

17. Also in Satapatha Brahmana: “In the beginning it was all water. They the waters wished to be reproduced. They fermented and got heated with devotion. At this point a golden egg came into being which floated on waters for a whole year. In a year's time a man, a Prajapati, was produced therefrom. He broke open this golden egg” (XI.1.6.1). (Back to text)

18. Graves, Vol. I, p. 18. (Back to text)

19. Graves, Vol. I, p. 30. (Back to text)

20. Says J. Filliozat, “That is why there are between Indian and Greek medicines so very particular and precise similarities which are not easy to ascribe to change.” The Classical Doctrine of Indian Medicine, Pondicherry, 1949, Chap. X.

Ayurveda, which can be traced back to as early as Atharva Samhita, recognizes air, fire and water as three elements that make up the human body (vata, pitta and kapha). The Greek medicine followed the same and recognized three as the elements of body. This is evident from the Hippocratic manuals and the great similarities are given in detail by Filliozat. The Greek medicine taken up by Arabs was got into India where it still survives as a sister system to Ayurveda and is known as Unani (Greek) medicine. (Back to text)

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