Apollonius of Tyana, by G.R.S. Mead, , at sacred-texts.com
There is, however, another reason why Apollonius is of importance to us. He was an enthusiastic admirer of the wisdom of India. Here again a subject of wide interest opens up. What influences, if any, had Brahmanism and Buddhism on Western thought in these early years? It is strongly asserted by some that they had great influence; it is as strongly denied by others that they had any influence at all. It is, therefore, apparent that there is no really indisputable evidence on the subject.
Just as some would ascribe the constitution of the Essene and Therapeut communities to Pythagorean influence, so others would ascribe their origin to Buddhist propaganda; and not only would they trace this influence in the Essene tenets and practices, but they would even refer the general teaching of the Christ to a Buddhist source in a Jewish monotheistic setting. Not only so, but some would have it
that two centuries before the direct general contact of Greece with India, brought about by the conquests of Alexander, India through Pythagoras strongly and lastingly influenced all subsequent Greek thought.
The question can certainly not be settled by hasty affirmation or denial; it requires not only a wide knowledge of general history and a minute study of scattered and imperfect indications of thought and practice, but also a fine appreciation of the correct value of indirect evidence, for of direct testimony there is none of a really decisive nature. To such high qualifications we can make no pretension, and our highest ambition is simply to give a few very general indications of the nature of the subject.
It is plainly asserted by the ancient Greeks that Pythagoras went to India, but as the statement is made by Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic writers subsequent to the time of Apollonius, it is objected that the travels of the Tyanean suggested not only this item in the biography of the great Samian but several others, or even that Apollonius himself in his Life of Pythagoras was father of the rumour. The close resemblance, however, between many of the features of Pythagorean discipline and doctrine and Indo-Aryan thought and practice, make us
hesitate entirely to reject the possibility of Pythagoras having visited ancient Āryāvarta.
And even if we cannot go so far as to entertain the possibility of direct personal contact, there has to be taken into consideration the fact that Pherecydes, the master of Pythagoras, may have been acquainted with some of the main ideas of Vaidic lore. Pherecydes taught at Ephesus, but was himself most probably a Persian, and it is quite credible that a learned Asiatic, teaching a mystic philosophy and basing his doctrine upon the idea of rebirth, may have had some indirect, if not direct, knowledge of Indo-Aryan thought.
Persia must have been even at this time in close contact with India, for about the date of the death of Pythagoras, in the reign of Dareius, son of Hystaspes, at the end of the sixth and beginning of the fifth century before our era, we hear of the expedition of the Persian general Scylax down the Indus, and learn from Herodotus that in this reign India (that is the Punjab) formed the twentieth satrapy of the Persian monarchy. Moreover, Indian troops were among the hosts of Xerxes; they invaded Thessaly and fought at Platæa.
From the time of Alexander onwards there was direct and constant contact between Āryāvarta and the kingdoms of the successors of the
world-conqueror, and many Greeks wrote about this land of mystery; but in all that has come down to us we look in vain for anything but the vaguest indications of what the "philosophers" of India systematically thought.
That the Brahmans would at this time have permitted their sacred books to be read by the Yavanas (Ionians, the general name for Greeks in Indian records) is contrary to all we know of their history. The Yavanas were Mlechchhas, outside the pale of the Āryas, and all they could glean of the jealously guarded Brahma-vidyā or theosophy must have depended solely upon outside observation. But the dominant religious activity at this time in India was Buddhist, and it is to this protest against the rigid distinctions of caste and race made by Brāhmanical pride, and to the startling novelty of an enthusiastic religious propaganda among all classes and races in India, and outside India to all nations, that we must look for the most direct contact of thought between India and Greece.
For instance, in the middle of the third century b.c., we know from Asoka's thirteenth edict, that this Buddhist Emperor of India, the Constantine of the East, sent missionaries to Antiochus II. of Syria, Ptolemy II. of Egypt, Antigonus Gonatas of Macedonia, Magas of Cyrene, and Alexander II. of Epirus. When, in a land of such imperfect
records, the evidence on the side of India is so clear and indubitable, all the more extraordinary is it that we have no direct testimony on our side of so great a missionary activity. Although, then, merely because of the absence of all direct information from Greek sources, it is very unsafe to generalize, nevertheless from our general knowledge of the times it is not illegitimate to conclude that no great public stir could have been made by these pioneers of the Dharma in the West. In every probability these Buddhist Bhikshus produced no effect on the rulers or on the people. But was their mission entirely abortive; and did Buddhist missionary enterprise westwards cease with them?
The answer to this question, as it seems to us, is hidden in the obscurity of the religious communities. We cannot, however, go so far as to agree with those who would cut the gordian knot by asserting dogmatically that the ascetic communities in Syria and Egypt were founded by these Buddhist propagandists. Already even in Greece itself were not only Pythagorean but even prior to them Orphic communities, for even on this ground we believe that Pythagoras rather developed what he found already existing, than that he established something entirely new. And if they were found in Greece, much more then is it reasonable to suppose that such communities
already existed in Syria, Arabia, and Egypt, whose populations were given far more to religious exercises than the sceptical and laughter-loving G reeks.
It is, however, credible that in such communities, if anywhere, Buddhist propaganda would find an appreciative and attentive audience; but even so it is remarkable that they have left no distinctly direct trace of their influence. Nevertheless, both by the sea way and by the great caravan route there was an ever open line of communication between India and the Empire of the successors of Alexander; and it is even permissible to speculate, that if we could recover a catalogue of the great Alexandrian library, for instance, we should perchance find that in it Indian MSS. were to be found among the other rolls and parchments of the scriptures of the nations.
Indeed, there are phrases in the oldest treatises of the Trismegistic Hermetic literature which can be so closely paralleled with phrases in the Upaniṣhads and in the Bhagavad Gītā, that one is almost tempted to believe that the writers had some acquaintance with the general contents of these Brāhmanical scriptures. The Trismegistic literature had its genesis in Egypt, and its earliest deposit must be dated at least in the first century a.d., if it cannot even be pushed back earlier. Even more striking is the similarity between the
lofty mystic metaphysic of the Gnostic doctor Basilides, who lived at the end of the first and beginning of the second century a.d., and Vedāntic ideas. Moreover, both the Hermetic and the Basilidean schools and their immediate predecessors were devoted to a stern self-discipline and deep philosophical study which would make them welcome eagerly any philosopher or mystic student who might come from the far East.
But even so, we are not of those who by their own self-imposed limitations of possibility are condemned to find some direct physical contact to account for a similarity of ideas or even of phrasing. Granting, for instance, that there is much resemblance between the teachings of the Dharma of the Buddha and of the Gospel of the Christ, and that the same spirit of love and gentleness pervades them both, still there is no necessity to look for the reason of this resemblance to purely physical transmission. And so for other schools and other teachers; like conditions will produce similar phenomena; like effort and like aspiration will produce similar ideas, similar experience, and similar response. And this we believe to be the case in no general way, but that it is all very definitely ordered from within by the servants of the real guardians of things religious in this world.
We are, then, not compelled to lay so much
stress on the question of physical transmission, or to be seeking even to find proof of copying. The human mind in its various degrees is much the same in all climes and ages, and its inner experience has a common ground into which seed may be sown, as it is tilled and cleared of weeds. The good seed comes all from the same granary, and those who sow it pay no attention to the man-made outer distinctions of race and creed.
However difficult, therefore, it may be to prove, from unquestionably historical statements, any direct influence of Indian thought on the conceptions and practices of some of these religious communities and philosophic schools of the Græco-Roman Empire, and although in any particular case similarity of ideas need not necessarily be assigned to direct physical transmission, nevertheless the highest probability, if not the greatest assurance, remains that even prior to the days of Apollonius there was some private knowledge in Greece of the general ideas of the Vedanta and Dharma; while in the case of Apollonius himself, even if we discount nine-tenths of what is related of him, his one idea seems to have been to spread abroad among the religious brotherhoods and institutions of the Empire some portion of the wisdom which he brought back with him from India.
When, then, we find at the end of the first
and during the first half of the second century, among such mystic associations as the Hermetic and Gnostic schools, ideas which strongly remind us of the theosophy of the Upaniṣhads or the reasoned ethics of the Suttas, we have always to take into consideration not only the high probability of Apollonius having visited such schools, but also the possibility of his having discoursed at length therein on the Indian wisdom. Not only so, but the memory of his influence may have lingered for long in such circles, for do we not find Plotinus, the coryphæus of Neo-Platonism, as it is called, so enamoured with what he had heard of the wisdom of India at Alexandria, that in 242 he started off with the ill-starred expedition of Gordian to the East in the hope of reaching that land of philosophy? With the failure of the expedition and assassination of the Emperor, however, he had to return, for ever disappointed of his hope.
It is not, however, to be thought that Apollonius set out to make a propaganda of Indian philosophy in the same way that the ordinary missionary sets forth to preach his conception of the Gospel. By no means; Apollonius seems to have endeavoured to help his hearers, whoever they might be, in the way best suited to each of them. He did not begin
by telling them that what they believed was utterly false and soul-destroying, and that their eternal welfare depended upon their instantly adopting his own special scheme of salvation; he simply endeavoured to purge and further explain what they already believed and practised. That some strong power supported him in his ceaseless activity, and in his almost world-wide task, is not so difficult of belief; and it is a question of deep interest for those who strive to peer through the mists of appearance, to speculate how that not only a Paul but also an Apollonius was aided and directed in his task from within.
The day, however, has not yet dawned when it will be possible for the general mind in the West to approach the question with such freedom from prejudice, as to bear the thought that, seen from within, not only Paul but also Apollonius may well have been a "disciple of the Lord" in the true sense of the words; and that too although on the surface of things their tasks seem in many ways so dissimilar, and even, to theological preconceptions, entirely antagonistic.
Fortunately, however, even to-day there is an ever-growing number of thinking people who will not only not be shocked by such a belief, but who will receive it with joy as the herald of the
dawning of a true sun of righteousness, which will do more to illumine the manifold ways of the religion of our common humanity than all the self-righteousness of any particular body of exclusive religionists.
It is, then, in this atmosphere of charity and tolerance that we would ask the reader to approach the consideration of Apollonius and his doings, and not only the life and deeds of an Apollonius, but also of all those who have striven to help their fellows the world over.