The Yogi who met Socrates

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)
Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)

In the 5th century BCE, the contacts between India and Greece became sporadic. The reason for this was the defeat of the Persian army in two wars.  In 490 BCE, the Persian army, which included Indian cavalry, was defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon. The Persians were also defeated in 480 BCE at the Battle of Plataea which followed the Battle of Thermopylae (remember 300?).  Since the relation between the Persians and Greeks broke down, it in turn affected the Indo-Greek relations.

That said, there is evidence that Indian ascetics  traveled to Greece along a trade route that went through Oxus river, Caspian Sea, Kyros river and  Black Sea.  These ascetics influenced Diogenes of Sinope (412 – 323 BCE) who then introduced Indian ascetic practices into Greek traditions. But much before Diogenes, there is a mention of an Indian yogi who met Socrates and had a conversation.

According to Aristoxenus, a disciple of Aristotle, this Indian met Socrates in Athens and asked him what he studying. Socrates replied that he was studying human life. The Indian at this point laughed and asked him how could he study human life without studying the divine.  The quote is as follows

‘Now Aristoxenus the Musician says that this argument comes from the Indians: for a certain man of that nation fell in with Socrates at Athens, and presently asked him, what he was doing in philosophy: and when he said, that he was studying human life, the Indian laughed at him, and said that no one could comprehend things human, if he were ignorant of things divine [Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel). Tr. E.H. Gifford (1903) — Book 11]

It is not sure if Socrates changed his mind, but his student Plato was influenced. Plato who previously argued that human and divine affairs were the same, started distinguishing between the two. According to Plato there was one kind of study concerning nature, another concerning humans and a third concerning dialectic.

‘But he maintained that we could not take a clear view of human affairs, unless the divine were previously discerned: for just as physicians, when treating any parts of the body, attend first to the state of the whole, so the man who is to take a clear view of things here on earth must first know the nature of the universe; and man, he said, was a part of the world; and good was of two kinds, our own good and that of the whole, and the good of the whole was the more important, because the other was for its sake.[Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel). Tr. E.H. Gifford (1903) — Book 11]

Unfortunately, we don’t know the name of this Indian teacher and to what tradition he belongs to or any other detail.

Reference

    1. Mcevilley, Thomas C. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. 1st ed. Allworth Press, 2001.
    2. Caesarea, Eusebius of. Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica, 2010.

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