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When Ancient Greeks and Hindus Exchanged Wisdom

Ancient Greek temple Hindu
Ancient Greeks and ancient Hindus learned much from each other from philosophy and mythology to medicine and surgery. Credit: Midjourney for GreekReporter

East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat,” wrote Sir Rudyard Kipling. However, the truth is that long before Sir Kipling wrote this, both East and West had already met.

This was when the Greeks came to India and the intellectual discourse that ensued the meeting of these two ancient cultures led to the development of Indo-Greek philosophy and art.

Through ancient Greek traders, the knowledge, science, and wisdom of the ancient Hindus began making its way to Europe. Greek philosophy and mythology manifest strong Hindu influence.

For instance, Sir William Jones compared Hindu philosophers with Greek philosophers—Kanada with Thales, Gautama with Aristotle, Vyasa with Plato, and Jaimini with Socrates. He also drew connections between Kapila and Pythagoras as well as Patanjali and Zeno. 


ancient Olympia temple, Greece
Ancient Olympia. Credit: /Wikimedia Commons/

In his article “Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy” in  the journal Philosophy East and West, published by the University of Hawaii Press, A.N. Marlow writes about Ancient Greek and Hindu deities.

Therein, he explains that “Dyaus is Zeus, Varuna becomes Ouranos, Usas becomes Eos, and Agni is the primitive god of fire, who does not emerge in Greek but has a shadowy personification as the Latin Ignis.”

The Asvins, who are “horsemen” and inseparable twins, as well as bright lords of brilliance and protectors of mankind, are referred to in many hymns. They are the Dioscuri, whose principal later function was that of protecting gods. They were mighty helpers of man, delighters in steeds, princes, [and] Anakes.”


Hindu Akhara Kumbh Mela
Credits: Hindu Akhara / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-2.5

Marlow goes on to write, “The Hindus have their Prometheus in Matarisvan, who stole fire from the sky and entrusted it to the keeping of the Bhrigus, a warlike clan. Their god, Soma,…has the same characteristics as Dionysus.

In both Greek and Hindu poetry, rivers are consistently personified as gods, and the form of sacrifice prescribed in the Rig Veda is very similar to the simple ritual of Homer-prayer, [including the] sprinkling of grain, burnt offering, tasting of flesh, and dedication to the gods.”

What did Alexander the Great learn?

alexander the Great
Alexander the Great. credit: Carole Raddato / wikimedia commons CC BY 2.0

Alexander the Great was indeed a great living bridge between the East and West. When he was alive, he showed great interest in meeting the famous yogis of India.

One of his Lieutenants began shouting at one of the yogis, “This man [Alexander] has conquered the world! What have you accomplished?” The yogi looked up calmly and replied, “I have conquered the desire to conquer the world.”

It is said that what mighty Persian swords and shields could not do on the battlefield was accomplished by the wisdom of ancient Hindus in a forest—simply put, to make Alexander return from his march to conquer the entire known world.

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda, a great scholar of Hinduism who in 1893 appeared in Chicago as a spokesman for Hinduism at the World’s Parliament of Religions, was much appreciated and managed to convert individuals to the Vedanta movement. He had many things to say about Alexander in India.

Moreover, Irish born follower of Swami Vivekananda Sister Nivedita wrote: “He was determined this summer (in 1898) to find his way to Attock, and see with his own eyes the spot at which Alexander was turned back.”

Swami wrote about Alexander the Great and Hinduism:

In my mind rises from the past the vision of the great Emperor of the West, Alexander the Great, and I see, as it were in a picture, the great monarch standing on the bank of the Indus, talking to one of our…Monks in the forest.

The old man he was talking to, perhaps…stark naked, sitting upon a block of stone, and the Emperor, astonished at his wisdom, tempting him with gold and [honor] to come over to Greece.

The text continues:

This man smiles at his gold, and smiles at his temptations, and refuses; and then the Emperor standing on his authority as an Emperor, says, “I will kill you if you do not come,” and the man bursts into a laugh and says, “You never told such a falsehood in your life, as you tell just now. Who can kill me? Me you kill, Emperor of the material world! Never! For I am Spirit unborn and undecaying: never was I born and never do I die; I am the Infinite, the Omnipresent, the Omniscient; and you kill me, child that you are!” That is strength, that is strength!


Nyaya, Vaisesika, and Sankhya, systems of Hindu philosophy, set forth theories of perception and cognition. If one reads the fragments of Empedocles, she/he will notice the similarity in the theories. There are several similarities between the Hindu teaching, Orphism, and Pythagoreanism.

Timothy J. Lomperis wrote in his book, Hindu Influence on Greek Philosophy: The Odyssey of the Soul from the Upanishads to Plato, that:

Consequently, it is the central thesis of this study that Plato, through the Pythagoreans and also the Orphics, was subjected to the influence of Hindu thought, but that he may not have been aware of it as coming from India.

Apart from mythology, theology, and philosophy, other disciplines about which the ancient Greeks learned much from ancient Hindus included medicine and surgery.

Medicine and Surgery

Ancient Greek medicine India
Wellcome Images/ wikimedia commons CC-BY-4.0. credit: Wellcome Images/ wikimedia commons CC-BY-4.0

The President of the Ceylon Branch of the British Medical Association, the Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood, in his inaugural address, gave an interesting account of Hindu surgery. He said that, at a very early period, surgical practice reached a high degree of perfection among the Hindus and Greeks. Various writers believe that the Greeks adopted their medical practices from the Hindus.

The probable date of the Sanskrit compilations, under the names of Charaka and Susruta, which contain references to surgery among the Hindus, seems to be about 500 B.C., though some place it earlier. The high degree of medical and surgical knowledge and skill which the Hindus possessed, as can be gleaned from Charaka and Susruta, was by no means the result of Hindu contact with Western civilization following the campaigns of Alexander the Great.

The first hint that transmissions of medical knowledge did occur can be found in Arrian’s Indica (15.11-12):

But as many [as were] Greek physicians, no cure at all had been found by them [for one] who had been bitten by an Indian snake; but in fact Indians themselves cured the ones who were smitten. And in this connection, Nearchus says [that] Alexander kept collected about himself as many of the Indians as were very skilled in the healing [art], and had made proclamation throughout his camp that whoever was bitten should have recourse to the king’s tent. But these same [people] are also physicians of other diseases and misfortunes, i.e. maladies. But not many misfortunes occur among [the] Indians, because their seasons are of equal length there. But if [ever] any rather greater misfortune seized [them], they use to communicate it to the adepts; and they seemed to cure, not without a god, precisely that which could be cured.

We Learn From Each Other

India Woman
A woman from India in traditional clothing. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ amitsah8888 CC BY SA 4.0

Ancient Hindus and Greeks both learned from each other, and both played an important role in the development of several disciplines of knowledge. They began contemplating complex questions of human existence long before several other cultures.

They not only learned from each other, but their interaction led to the development of Indo-Greek culture that was neither completely Greek nor completely Indian but, rather, mixed.

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