News Flash: Plato was a Yogi!

Scott Virden Anderson Blog

Just finished reading a magnificent and most provocative piece of scholarship: The Shape of Ancient Thought: comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies by Thomas McEvilley, published in 2002 by Allworth/SVA (no relation).

In the course of 732 pages of beautifully written and carefully documented prose, McEvilley establishes the evidence for a number of surprising conclusions of great relevance for the Yoga Science:

Sumerians were the first scientists:

Based on careful observations necessarily made over many generations, Bronze Age Mesopotamians, in the Millennia before writing (probably around 3000BC), had calculated the precession of the equinoxes (cited here at 1 degree every 72 years) and how a number system based on 60 – the “sexagesimal system” that we still use today – has great advantages for measuring time.

They had also figured out that this number system works better than the decimal system for the tuning of string or pipe musical instruments — of which there were many in Mesopotamia.

This work long preceded and set the stage for Pythagoras and the rest of the pre-Socratics to whom we generally attribute the origins of science.

Plato was a Yogi:

In 559 BC Darius I of Persia established the Achaemenid empire that reached from the Aegean, Black, and Eastern Mediterranean Seas (including a slew of Greek cities), across Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Persia, Central Asia, and all the way to the Indus river.

Darius collected all manner of precious things from across his empire including medical systems and philosophies.

His Royal Road reached from Susa (in present day Iran) across Iraq and Asia Minor all the way to Sardes (near the Aegean end of present day Turkey).

He maintained a large retinue of translators in his capitals to facilitate communication between the many peoples in his empire.

As a result, ideas from India, in its early Upanishadic period at the time, moved readily into the stream of pre-Socratic philosophy.

McEvilley tells this story in such a way that you feel you get to know the pre-Socratics – folks like Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles – as real people.

He does side-by-side comparisons of their writings with those of contemporary Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist Indian philosophers – the documents make the case.

He reviews why no-one had ever done this comparison before.

The tale leaves little doubt that the influence here on Greek thought was deep and lasting.

The net result, by the time we get to Plato, some 150 years later, it is clear that forms of life practice that we would now recognize as Yoga, had also become an integral part of the practice of Greek philosophy.

Plato’s Academy was a Yoga ashram, in effect.

Nagarjuna was a Greco-Buddhist:

Greek thought developed rapidly – by the time of Alexander, another century had passed, Greek philosophy was now considerably more sophisticated than contemporaneous Indian in its manner of argument, and had developed mature forms of syllogism and dialectic.

Alexander did not set out just to conquer the Persians militarily – he went to remake Persia into a Greek – or “Hellenic” civilization.

He equipped himself to establish Greek colonies, with a set design for urban infrastructure and the people needed to build and inhabit these cities.

He took with his army their families, teachers for their kids, craftsmen of all kinds, physicians, philosophers, and tens of thousands of prospective colonists.

He lefts dozens of “Alexandrias” across Persia, Central Asia, and North Western India.

The legacy of all this was a dynamic Greco-Indian civilization — the Gandharan.

Many of Greek descent embraced Buddhism and appear to have played a significant role in the emergence of the Mahayana and its spread into China from Central Asia.

King Ashoka was himself most likely half or quarter Greek.

Greek logic — the syllogism and the dialectic – were adopted by the Greco-Buddhists and most eloquently elaborated by Nagarjuna in the 1st to 2nd Century AD.

Bottom line – Science was Yoga Science in these ancient and globally formative times:

This is my conclusion from McEvilley’s extensive evidence.

Seems to make my job quite a bit easier.

What happened next?

In the East, development of the Greco-Buddhist civilization was cut off by what appear to have been a number of factors – my impression is that these include climate change with desertification of Central Asia, invasions from various steppe nomad groups, and Islamization of the region during the centuries of the late first and early second Millennium AD.

In the West, development of the Greco-Indian civilization was summarized by Plotinus and the Neo-Platonist movements he spawned in the early 1st Millennium.  Then, the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity and Islam led to a complex subsequent history.

What happened to the Greco-Indian synthesis?

In the East, elements of it were preserved in the Asian Buddhist traditions, perhaps most completely in Tibet.

In the West, Neo-platonism fed into the stream of esotercism that I’ve been discussing here based on the work of Faivre, Hanegraaff, and their colleagues.

I’m beginning to see the Yoga Science as an effort to re-integrate the seemingly divergent streams of this vastly complex history into a coherent whole as key to our global inheritance – scientifically updated and philosophically streamlined for the future.