Of India and Europe – Parallel Paths and Merging fates

At one level, India and Europe have a sense of bonding arising from their common Indo-European origin. It is not surprising for an Indian visiting Europe to be asked whether he is an Indian or a Pakistani and the answer deciding subsequent response. There is a sense of bonding between Europeans and Indians which is unmistakable.  The common origin of Sanskrit and Latin has been studied in great depth and the similarities have been highlighted. We even have a date when the two languages separated. Indeed, after having missed out on the great expansionist phase of France and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, countries like Germany have also extended their hand of comradeship to India based on a common, if much maligned Aryan culture. Some of the best and more reliable studies of 19th and 20th Century India have been by German and British scholars. The first Sanskrit language radio broadcast started in Germany and not in India.

India and Europe, though different cultures, have a deep-seated similarity at one level and completely disjoint at another. They have been old friends and have drawn extensively from each other. However, the parameters that defined their attitude to themselves and response to the challenges of existence and intellectual advancement have been differently driven. While in both cultures similar ideas crisscrossed in their great struggle to understand themselves and their environment, their responses to the same questions about life and the universe have been both similar and different. Great scholars like McEvilley (The Shape of Ancient Thought; Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, 2002) have documented the similarity of their path in great detail and the work makes for very compelling reading to anyone interested. Yet, even though both cultures share the common root language that transformed into Latin and Sanskrit, there are few remnants of ideas of the Vedic literature that completely overwhelm Indian thought.

Yet, Indians and Europeans differ. Their primary differences are in their approach to nature and its study. Having embraced the idea of the world being complete and the universe having been born of nothingness (creatio ex nihilo) as the NasadiyaSuktain the Rigveda so eloquently states, the idea of void and emptiness has been the guiding principle of Indic thought. They are also humbler in their confidence in understanding the workings of nature. To them god or Brahman is not a great account-keeper of the good and evil of human beings nor is it even human-centric. Indeed, to them humans are not necessarily the most perfect and refined product of creation. We are just one form amongst many, vying for attention. All living entities have a soul and the whole story of life is about the transmigration of this strange formless idea. To the ancient Indians god is this abstruse, all-pervading entity to whom humans are just a small part of the great creation, which is, by definition incomprehensible. All living beings are born of Brahman and return to him on their death. The creation therefore is his prerogative. But clearly, there are patterns and harmonies in this creation. Brahman has chosen to be consistent and logical. It is possible to inductively interpret and understand bits and pieces of it, like the movement of heavenly bodies. The idea is that this incomprehensible universe can be understood in part; whose existence can be objectively understood through association of similarities,that idea has fascinated all religions and philosophies that have arisen in India.

In contrast, European thought, diverted by the fact that God sent down his son whose preoccupation was to ensure that humans follow a path of virtue and a good life, held a completely different perspective. Not diverted by the eternal reminder of the Great One, whose universe we are only in a position to comprehend in parts, they have been far more aggressive in their investigation of nature. Their deductive approach (compared to the gentler inductive approach of the Indians) has been a very aggressive call to nature, demanding that she explain herself to us. It has also been enormously successful. This patterning then, which Indians only gently wondered about, constituted the very foundation of European thought.

Yet the success of this basic mindset in Europe is of relatively recent date. In its earlier Greek guise, it had limited success. It required the fund of enormous analysis of the workings of nature by Indian and Arab scientists that heralded the Renaissance a millennium and a half onwards for Europeans’ more aggressive approach to bear fruit. There is therefore a symbiotic relation between contributions of different cultures in this great human adventure called science.

But the deductive approach, for all its success, often overlooks subtle effects which are more obvious to other cultures.  The invention of the mathematical Zero (‘shunya’ in Sanskrit) is a notable example. Embraced with passion by the Indians, what originally began as the notion of positional notation, soon encompassed a whole host of linguistic, philosophical, and mathematical ideas. Equally passionately, Europeans condemned the very idea of a null entity. To Europeans, in a world created by the God, even the very idea of null was seen as blasphemy. For the One who is omnipresent, there is no room for the Void. It was only with great reluctance and in a very gingerly manner that Europeans agreed to look at, at least, the algebraic zero, functionally adopted for its utility, severed from its philosophical moorings. That, too, less than a millennium ago. Zero therefore is more than just an invention. At its root, it encompasses the crux of introspection on who we are and what our relation is to the Great One.

Zero therefore is a probe like no other to understand those who loved it and those who hated it, i.e. Indians and Europeans, respectively. The non-profit ZerOrigIndia Foundation based in the Netherlands made it its mission to grasp the profundity of this unique concept, constitutive of two great civilizations.  Today the whole world accepts zero at the arithmetical level; scientists at the algebraic level; and computer scientists as ‘location labels’. But to philosophers and linguists zero represents profound insight into the nature of existence.

There are probably other fundamental differences between Indian and European values in life that translate into international politics, providing a window on how the paths of the Indo-Europeans diverged on entering Europe or India, respectively, but zero surely stands out. Some that obviously come to mind are the fundamental nature of their worship of the Supreme Power, their attitude to the dead and the foundations of their religion. The political system of Europe, inspired by the early City States is in stark contrast to the political landscape of India, driven largely by cast and community loyalties.

History and geography have both played a crucial role in this. Just beyond the Mediterranean, the weather conditions become harsh and survival is a struggle. As against this, most of the subcontinent is fairly hospitable as long as one takes some basic precautions. The rivers that feed life in Europe are a far cry from the great rivers that mark the landscape of the subcontinent. Similarly, the variety of flora and fauna also leave a deep impact on the local populations.

At one level therefore it is surprising that there are so many similarities between the thoughts of the two people, and at another level it is surprising that there are so many differences. A study of these similarities and contrast makes a fascinating topic of study not only for historians but even for students of current politics where this strange mutual affection shows up in most surprising places.

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