EAST AND WEST
( A Lecture delivered by Pandit R. S. Vedachalam)
Man is a social being. The very earliest records of man distinctly show that he lived in the midst of those who were related to him by flesh and blood. In the oldest hieroglyphic writings of Egypt, in the cuneiform inscriptions found in the ruins of Chaldea and in the preserved traditions of the Aryans, the Dravidians and the Chinese, we never find him as an isolated individual thrown up by accident on this earth and moping like a stupid bird on the lonely branch of a forest tree, but as a spirited and cheerful being enjoying the company of his parents and sons, brothers and sisters, and friends and relations. Thus, to associate oneself with the beings of kindred nature, has from time immemorial, been the strongest, instructive element in the character of man.
And, as a consequent result of this social function, a healthy interchange of thought increased with the gradual increase of time and evoked in man all the latent powers of his intellect. This naturally led to what we call civilisation which, in an appreciable degree, has drawn together the scattered tribes, clans, and communities into one organic whole. What is civilisation but that which brings into one main current the different channels of thought which the different classes of people have given rise to? What is civilisation but that potent force which breaks through the barriers of once useful but now useless social and religious ideas that kept one people from another people and one nation from another nation? And, what is civilisation but that beneficial influence under which everybody feels the power of his independent thought getting stronger and stronger with the accretions of other thoughts of other people? Civilisation consists not, as is conceived by some of our young men, in the vain embellishment of fashionable dress and the unpleasant affectation of manners, but in the natural simplicity of thinking and the moral purity of heart. There and there alone does the secret of civilisation lie hidden.
Now, then, the modern civilisation, the rare product of this inborn social desire has brought the two great nations, the eastern and the western into closer union and intimacy than they were in ancient times. The characteristics of the physical, intellectual and moral and religious lives of the two nations, the steady growth of their civilisation and the influence which the one exerted upon the other whenever there occurred any chance of their intercourse, constitute an interesting study of the historian. But, as this study of the past is highly useful in stimulating the efforts of the present and future generations to better their conditions of life, it is also of great importance that every one of us should at least have a tolerable acquaintance with it.
To begin first, with the physical conditions of the two nations as they were in ancient times. Though very little is known of their lives in the Pre-historic ages, yet the few mentions made of them in the old Tamil and Greek literatures at the dawn of the historic period us to form a faint picture of their situations in antiquity. But, our observations with regard to the western nations are primarily confined to the Semitics, the Greeks and the Romans, for, at that remote period, others in the west were savages that were plunged in barbarism. Here , again, in India our attention chiefly occupies itself with the Dravidians of the south, for our knowledge of the Aryan relations with the westerns has no evidence from historic sources, except as based upon philological grounds.
The oldest reference to the intercourse of the west with the east is to be found in the Hebrew Bible, in the ninth and tenth chapters of the first book of the Kings. Nine hundred and ninety two years before Christ, i.e., two thousand and nine hundred years ago, King Solomon of Jerusalem sent his navy to Ophir which was at that time a thriving seaport in the east. And his merchants brought from thence plenty of almug and ahalim trees, spices, precious stones, gold and silver, ivory, apes and peacocks. And the names mentioned in the Hebrew Bible for some of these articles are, algum, ahalim, karpion, koph, tukhim, etc. The Hon. Mr. Twistleton and other scholars of recent times, having been rendered unable to trace these words to Hebrew origin, sought to find out their source elsewhere. At last, Dr. Caldwell, one of the gifted scholars of the Dravidian languages, derived them from anugam, ahilam, karuva, kapi and thogai, four of which except kapi belong to Tamil. And in accepting this view of Dr. Caldwell Professor Man Muller wrote: "If the etymology be right it would be an important confirmation of the antiquity of the Tamilic languages spoken in India before the advent of the Aryan tribes." Even after this grand discovery had been made, the seaport Ophir from whence there articles were exported to Jerusalem, puzzled the philologists so much that they were all left in the end in an uncertain attitude as to the exact identification of it with some place in India. "Of these articles" says Prof. Max Muller in attempting to seek for its identification, "ivory, gold and apes are indigenous in India, though of course they might have been found in other countries likewise. Not so the algum tree, at least if interpreters are right in taking algum or almug for sandal wood, or the peacock. Sandal wood as pointed out before, is peculiar to India, and so is the peacock. That the peacock was exported from India to Babylon is shown by one of Pali Jatakas." From this it will be manifest that the seaport which exported these articles to the west cannot be sought for other than in India. And the pure Tamil names of these exported Indian products also clearly point out that Ophir cannot but be some seaport town situated in South India, the geographical position of which affords an easy means of access to foreign nations who come by sea. Under this impression I was, for the last few years, making inquiries in this direction and fortunately for me, I was ultimately led to identify the port Pohir with Uvari, at present, a small village near Tuticorin. That the ports Korkei, Kumari and Uvari of the ancient Pandian Kingdom and Kavirippumpattinam of the powerful chola country had been centres of great commercial activity where trade with foreign nations was carried on, on a very extensive scale, is vividly brought before our mind by the descriptions in the old Tamil epic Silappadikaram and in the still older lyrics Pattinappalai and Agananuru. How hospitably were the foreigners received by our forefathers, how peacefully and honestly was the trade going on between them and how ably were the exports and imports managed by the officers appointed by the Tamil kings for the purpose, themselves from an interesting theme of study, but limit of time prevents me from entering into details. I wish all the earnest students of Tamil had better refer to Silappadikaram and Pathuppattu especially.
Here, it must be borne in mind that this early intermingling of the two nations determine the degree of civilisation which they had attained in ancient days, that it still remains the creative element in shaping the lives of the two people and developing their productive powers to an unlimited extent, and that it will ever serve to explain the most intricate points in the history of their mental, moral and religious ideas, which have been incorrectly interpreted and studied by many a historian without being able to recognise the hidden key to their easy solution. Now, it helps me very much to explain to you in the succeeding portions of the lecture the formation of our Indian life in the past, present and future.
Again, this intercourse of the two nations which had most probably taken its rise thousand years before the Christian Era did not stop therewith, but it continued onward without interruption. In the subsequent epochs we find the civilisation of the one people highly spoken of by the other. "Herodotus, the father of Greek history, lived in the fifth century before Christ; and although he never visited India, he gives accounts of the Hindus from reports which are valuable, although he mixes them up with legends and stories, and often confounds the customs of the Hindus with those of the uncivilised aborigines who still inhabited large tracts in India. Herodotus tells us that the Indians were the greatest nation of the age, that they procured great quantities of gold in their country, that India abounded in quadrupeds and birds larger than any other country, and produced wild trees which bore cotton from which the Indians made their clothing."
Again, we know of the splendid accounts of the North India given by Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador who came to India in the fourth century before Christ and lived in the court of the great monarch Chandragupta.
Again, we find the great and zealous Buddhist King Asoka sending in the third century B.C. Missionaries to Syria, Macedon and Egypt to preach there the moral religion of Buddha.
Again, we see at the beginning of the Christian Era the Tamilians going forth as far as Italy. "The ancient Dravidians" says Mr. R. C. Dutt, an able historian of ancient India, "appear to have had a civilisation of their own before Aryan civilisation was imported into their land. We have said something of the Pandyas who founded their Kingdom in the extreme south many centuries before the Christian Era. Strabo speaks of an ambassador from King Pandian to Augustus, and it is conjectured that the ambassador was from the Pandya country. At the time of the Piriplus, the Pandya Kingdom included the Malabar coast; and from the frequent mention of this country by classical writers, we know that the Pandya Kingdom was sufficiently civilised, in the centuries immediately before and after the Christian Era, to carry on a brisk trade with the western nations."
Besides these references of a historical character to an early intercourse of the two nations there are also frequent allusions to it in some of our old classical works. That wine and other intoxicating liquors were imported into India by the Bactrian Greeks or Yavanas, that machines were constructed and great architectural works were carried on under their supervision, that the bodyguards of the Indian princes and maid servants of the royal household were mainly composed of Yavana youth and girls, are all clearly indicated in the old Tamil Classics and in such Sanskrit works as Sakuntala of Kalidasa.
பொன்செய் புனைகலத் தேந்தி நாளும்
ஒண்டொடி மகளிர் மடுப்ப மகிழ்சிறந்
தாங்கினி டொழுகுமதி யோங்குவாள்மாற."
"மகத வினைஞரு மாராட்டக் கம்மரும்
அவந்திக் கொல்லரும் யவனத்தச்சரும்
தண்டமிழ் வினைஞர் தம்மொடுகூடிக்
கொண்டினி தியற்றிய கண்கவர் செய்வினை."
"செம்புருகு வெங்களிகள் உமிழ்வதிரிந் தெங்கும்
வெம்புருகு வட்டுமிழ்வ வெந்நெய் முகந்துமிழ்வ
அம்புமிழ்வ வேலுமிழ்வ கல்லுமிழ்வ வாகித்
தம்புலங்களால் யவனர் தாட்படுத்த பொறியே."
These few quotations taken from the old Tamil Classics are sufficient to substantiate my statement with regard to the prominent part played by the Greeks in the ancient Indian life. The two mixed together so intimately that the physical life of India had been largely coloured by the civilisation of the West, while the West itself was simultaneously receiving the intellectual and religious impress of the Indian thought.
At this point our inquiry shifts to the second item and our considerations are brought to bear upon the much interesting question of the intellectual life of the two people. To me it seems that the East and the West present two aspects of the human mind. While the predominant tendency of the West is to view the outward nature of the universe and draw instructive lessons from it, that of the East is to study its inward essence and become itself eternally unified with the indescribable bliss of that vital principle of Love. By this I do not mean to say that the West was absolutely foreign to all the intellectual processes of the human mind, nor is it my intention to speak that the Indians were practical fools who had forgotten themselves in their amazing flights of sublime thoughts into the unknown regions of mystic spirit. All that I wish to impress upon your mind is that the two nations were placed under two different circumstances of which one was more conducive to a wholesome growth of intellect than the other. It must not be overlooked, in this respect, that the position of the two countries, the variation of climate and other environments had much to do in influencing the mental make-up of the two people. And, therefore, it is that the one was attached to the physical universe, while the other occupied themselves with intellectual problems. Even at the present day when questions on the existence of an underlying principle of unlimited intelligence and the secret relation in which it stands to matter and individual souls are being discussed with ardour and sincerity on rational and indisputable grounds, we find it very difficult for Eurpoean scholars of scientific culture to sever themselves from gross materialism.
But of course it is undeniable from what we gather in the old Greek and Hebrew literature on the shape of evidences, that germs of moral and religious ideas lay imbedded in the life of the early day Greeks and other nations of the West, but an impartial comparison of the oriental and occidental literature discloses the fact that not only the amount of intellectual work done in the East far outweighs that of the West but also the system and order into which the different lines of Indian speculation were brought, rises into greater prominence by the side of the unsystematic and disordered fragments of Western thought which have not yet assumed definite and conclusive form. Even when surrounded by all material comforts that engage the attention of man, there are moments in which the workings of his mind do not stop with them but go on sounding into the mysteries of the universe and bring back with them the stray experiences which they have acquired. Only such stray and unsettled thoughts are found in the oldest writings of the Western nations. Even the later writers and renowned philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle have not left us any decisive and perfect form of their thought work. But with the intellectual savants of India the matter was otherwise. Long, long before the dawn of real historic period they had thought out and solved to their extreme satisfaction all the important problems of metaphysics and brought them into an orderly and systematic whole. They never placed us in suspense and uncertainty as to their exact opinion of a particular system of thought. You will be pleased to hear this marked difference between the East and the West expressed by a veteran European scholar who spent his whole lifetime in studying the monumental works of the two countries and did greater service to the two than anybody else, by bringing them to a better understanding of each other and to a mutual appreciation of their merits. I allude to the late Professor Max Muller, who in his great last work - The six systems of Indian Philosophy-dwelling on the subject I have just dealt with, writes that "The mere tenets of each of the six systems of Indian Philosophy are by this time well-known, or easily accessible, I should say, than even those of the leading Philosophers of Greece or of modern Europe. Every one of the opinions at which the originators of the six principal schools of Indian Philosophy arrived has been handed down to us in the form of short aphorisms or sutras, so as to leave but little room for uncertainty as to the exact position which each of these philosophers occupied on the great battle field of thought. We know what an enormous amount of labour had to be spent and is still being spent in order to ascertain the exact views of Plato and Aristotle, nay, even of Kant and Hegel on some of the most important questions of their systems of philosophy. There are even living philosophers whose words often leave us in doubt as to what they mean, whether they are materialists or idealists, monists or dualists, theists or atheists. Hindu philosophers seldom leave us in doubt on such important points, and they certainly never shrink from the consequences of their theories."
Here, while I agree with this view of Prof. Max Muller, it seems to me from the tone in which he spoke that he meant as if the philosophers of the West had consciously concealed their definite opinions on the ultimate problems of the universe, for fear of losing their life if they were made public. If that were his idea, I most respectfully differ from him. From what has been said in the preceding portion of this lecture, it will be clear to you that the ancient philosophers of the west had left behind them their indefinite and inconclusive fragments of thought, not on account of their final truths and of consequent lack of self-reliance. In as much as they had just begun to reflect upon the inner life of the universe only after coming into contact with the East and imbued with the tenor of its thought, and as they had not before any such heritage of thought all of their own to guide them into the tangled maze of the wild spiritual region into which they now entered with firm and independent footsteps, they returned from their bold excursions with what they had gleaned and left them to posterity with a real sincerity of purpose and with great expectations of the future.
Yet to bring this fact into still clearer light, I shall proceed to compare the oldest condition of the Western thought with that of the Eastern. Opening the History of Philosophy by Dr. Windleband, you will find it stated at the very beginning of the introductory chapter that "If by science we understand that independent and self-conscious work of intelligence which seeks knowledge methodically for its own sake, then it is among the Greeks, and the Greeks of the sixth century B.C that we first find such a science, - aside from some tendencies among the peoples of the Orient, those of China and India particularly, only recently disclosed." Leaving out of consideration other points mentioned in these lines, we come to know the most important truth that the Greeks had no science of thought prior to the sixth century before the Christian Era. I call your special attention to the sixth century before the Christian Era - the sixth century when the efforts of the Greeks had just commenced to strike root into the fertile soil of intellect, here, in India., Bhghavan Gautama Buddha was preaching his finished moral religion to the masses, here the different lines of philosophic activity which had been steadily developing some hundred centuries before Christ, now, converged to the vertical point of crowning success in the ideal religion of Buddha, here the renowned six systems of philosophy Sankhya and Yoga, Nyaya and Viseshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta now assumed definite and systematic shape. While this sixth century before the Christian Era marks the daybreak of Greek philosophy, it was already the brightest noon in which the Indian intellect shone forth in all its splendour and glory.
After seeing this remarkable difference in the degree of intellectual development of the two nations, after seeing the early and continual blending of these two from the remotest past, does it not follow as a necessary conclusion that the Western thought was to an unlimited extent influenced by the intellect of the East? Does it not follow that the account that Pythagoras the profound Greek philosopher was much influenced by Eastern ideas, is a veritable truth? Some would say that Pythagoras borrowed all his learning from the ancient Hindu Philosophers. But in agreement with the arguments of Prof. Max Muller set forth against such an assumption, it is my opinion that so great a thinker as Pythagoras did not borrow his ideas from the Hindu ages but that he was to a marvellous extent influenced by their characteristic lines of thought. If this also is denied, then from where did he learn 'the doctrine of the transmigration of souls and the doctrine of final beatitude? From where did he learn ' his ascetic observances and prohibition to eat flesh and beans'? And from where did he acquire the knowledge of the elementary principles of Geometry except from the ancient Sulva Sutras, his notion of the virtues of numbers and his idea of the five elements except from the Sankhya philosophy of Kapila? Is it not strange that these ideas which bear the stamp of the great intellectual achievements of enlightened and by-gone ages and which are quite foreign to the whole region of Western thought took their rise in the Greek soil at the very dawn of human introspection?
For many hundred years before the sixth century B.C. Sages of India had been interesting themselves in the discussions of profound psychic and philosophic problems as is manifest from the dialogues in the Kena, Chhandogya, Brihad Aranyaka, Svetasvatara,, Kaushitaki and other upanishads; whereas, in the West, preceding centuries had been a perfect dark blank from which not even a glimpse of thought was forthcoming. And in the subsequent epochs too, nothing as a systematised whole appeared in the west whihc would bear comparison with the works of Tiruvalluvar and Nakkirar, Nilakanta and Sankara. All through the ancient periods of the west, the one thing which stands in strong relief is the knowledge which they possessed of the physical world. "That in very early times kings and nobles and sages in India should" says Prof. Max Muller "have been absorbed in philosophical questions seems no doubt strange to us, because the energies of the people of Europe, as far back as we know anything about them, have always been divided between practical and intellectual pursuits the former in ancient times, considerably preponderating over the latter." Does not this just declaration of an European scholar receive it corroboration in the accounts given by the Greek ambassador who came to India in the fourth century B.C. "They live," writes Megasthenes speaking of the ancient Indian Sages, "in a simple style, and lie on beds of rushes or skins. They abstain from animal food and sexual pleasures, and spend their time in listening to serious discourse and in imparting their knowledge to such as will listen to them." These overwhelming evidence obtained both from internal and external sources establish, beyond all doubt, that the intellectual development of the East had attained its zenith many centuries prior to the appearance of western thought, that, as these two nations had mingled together from the remotest past, the one received the influence of the other and that Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other succeeding thinkers of the west were greatly indebted to the Sages of India, for the spiritual knowledge they had acquired, though not borrowed, from them.
Now coming to consider the third and the last point the moral and religious life of the two nations. Although in all countries the social relations in which the primitive people had stood to each other necessitated the outgrowth of moral principles quite independently of religious considerations, yet in the succeeding periods of human history we find them associated with religion. This association has, in later days, become such an intimate one that the moral ideas have come to be viewed upon as part and parcel of religion. It seems to me that this intimate union of the two had been very effective in so far as it tended to bring the emotional and practical sides of human mind into harmony. But for this salutary union, the adherents of ancient religions would have gone astray and brought about many evil and wicked results on the subsequent generations. All the religious people think it their incumbent duty to lead a virtuous life and to guide their fellow beings into just and honest ways.
When studied in the light of Indian philosophy, this combination of religious and moral principles becomes all the more necessary for the amelioration of mankind; but when it is studied from the standpoint of Western thought the separation between them becomes wider and wider till the degradation of humanity is complete.
The moral ideas that merge in a religion become one with it in significance and colour. The more bright the religion, the more bright do its morals become and the more dull the one the more dull the others too become. Take, for instance, that a peculiar religion teaches that those who do not believe in its dogmas should be put to death, for their lives are useless and they can never attain to salvation according to its own standpoint. Well, what do you think about the moral conception of its votaries? Probably, to slay the unbelievers would be their high moral conception. And I believe they would not hesitate to accomplish their object, if opportunity favours them and nothing stands in their way. Now, is not that religion responsible for their inhuman action which is justified by that starting religious teaching?
Again, suppose that another religion inculcates the worship of one particular god but prohibits not either of drinking or killing animals and eating the flesh thereof. What would be the standard of morality in the eyes of its followers? Of course, there would be bloodshed of poor and innocent animals and Bacchanalian revels of wine and whisky which present a sight at once loathsome and nauseous by the side of which pretended worship of that particular deity and church-going-policy observed with diligent punctuality. This mode of conduct will be deemed by them as a high moral principle.
Seeing, therefore, that the moral ideas depend for their refinement on the virtue and dignity of their religious dogmas, Mr. Gorham observes that 'It is, in fact, clear that only as religion is purified and uplifted by ethical impulses does it become a civilising force."
Well, let us see whether the Western religions have in them that high moral tone which is necessary for the guidance of their adherents. As is seen from the preliminary portion of this lecture, even in the dim past ages it was the Western that had brought into India wine and other intoxicating liquors, as is the custom nowadays. We do not find in the whole range of old occidental literature a single allusion either to the vegetarian diet or to the prohibition of animal slaughter.
Whether of man or of animals killing is always associated with a cruel heart. It is inconceivable how kindly feelings can exist by the side of cruel and selfish thoughts intent upon slaying innocent animals in order to gorge their flesh. It is inconceivable how this unbridled running after the gratification of unusual desires and animal appetites can lead to the purification of the tainted Souls. It is further inconceivable how the religion whose object it is to lift up the soul from the clammy quagmire of passions and rank ignorance, can itself sink it into intoxication and butchery. There is not a single religion in Europe which enforces the repression of animal desires or prohibits flesh-eating and killing. Accustomed to actions of an apathetic character, to feelings tutored to survey the whole animal kingdom from a selfish point of view, to pleasures derived from low and degraded type of carnal sources, people of Europe could not be brought to refrain themselves from terrible revenge and bloody battles which have set their mark upon that country in fifteen centuries of blood and fire.
You, now, clearly see that the practical experiences of the western people are not much better than their theoretical principles of religion. It is not my purpose here to disapprove at one clean sweep even of the meritorious items of moral instructions conveyed in the sacred scriptures of Christianity. From a comparative study of the older and later days literatures on Religion, I am forced into the conviction that the purer atmosphere by which the grand personality of Jesus Christ found itself surrounded, was much impregnated with the genial influence of the Indian sages. It has been already pointed out to you that the Pythagorean system of philosophy which had begun to enlighten the understandings of the Westerns, long before the birth of Christ, received its light from the oriental seat of learning and civilisation, It is, therefore, no wonder that the religion of Christ is found impressed with the moral ideas of our saints and sages. Yet, in spite of so much influence exercised by the Eastern people over the minds of the Western through the personal means of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Christ and others, the pure self-interest and barbaric actions of the West have still continued to remain deep-rooted in the minds of the main portion of its population.
Now the purifying process of the tainted souls as enforced by the philosophy and religion of India is based upon supreme kindness of heart and plain innocence of mind. Do thou good to all, never injure even the hair of a Being whether it be man or beast; always keep thou thine intellect perfectly clear and free from all contamination of passions or inebriation. If this serene discipline of mind be strenuously pursued, it will kindle in man the divine spark of love into a resplendent flame of ineffable bliss, and will fuse the unlimited and limited Beings of thouth-power into an intangible luminary of an incomprehensible nature. Because, in the religion and philosophy of India, God is conceived to be infinite Love; he is the infinite embodiment of infinite Love. Uncovering the thick crust accumulated by the degenerating posterity, you will find this highest conception of the supreme Being and the means of its realization gleaming at the bottom of all sacred literature of ancient India. to bring home to your mind this subject of great spiritual consequence, let me quote, here, a saying of saint Tirumular who existed some thousand and three hundred years ago.
"The ignorant say that Love and God are two things;
But no one knoweth that Love itself is God,
After one hath known that Love itself is God,
He becometh one with Love, one with God."
Now you see that the blending of the moral and religious principles gains considerable importance when viewed from the oldest teachings of all Hindu Scriptures. The West also, having its mental vision opened to see this important truth common to religion and ethics, approaches nearer and nearer to its full realization.
Let us hope for the day when the two great nations the Eastern and the Western levelling the predominant characteristics of their lives, will cultivate the fruitful religion of spiritual wisdom.
Let us ardently await the beneficent stage of thought into which the individual interests of the West will melt, giving rise to equity and brotherhood in its stead.
Let us earnestly pray for the time in which the thoughtful sons of India awakening from gross materialism into which they are just entering to court fictitious rest, will apply themselves once more to work on the spiritual plane, joining hands with their brethren of the West to equalise their life-movements on such a peaceful and happy ground.