While Aristotle’s claims may not be literally true, what is now clear is that some of the popular ideas of the Middle East traditions have Indic origins.
I shall in this column try to make sense of a puzzling statement of Aristotle (384-322 BC) that links Jews with India. This statement is recalled in a fragment by Aristotle’s pupil Clearchus who traveled widely and whose inscription on a tomb of a friend is preserved in the Afghan city of Ai-Khanoum.
The Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus (37 – 100 AD) quotes from Clearchus’s fragment in his Contra Apionem [Against Apion], which has Aristotle say: “Jews are derived from the Indian philosophers; they are named by the Indians Calami, and by the Syrians Judaei, and took their name from the country they inhabit, which is called Judea.” (Book I:22.)
We can hope to bring new light to bear on Aristotle’s claim since much of the remote past has become understood only in the last century due to the astonishing discoveries of archaeologists working in the Middle East and Egypt who have deciphered forgotten scripts and reconstructed lost languages from unearthed ancient documents.
The interaction between India and the West during the first millennium BC is well known as in the mention in Old Testament of trade for ivory, apes and peacocks. There was thriving bilateral trade between India and Rome both through the overland caravan route and the southern sea route. We also know of the Indo-Greek kingdoms in northwest India, which were established sometime after Alexander.
That India and the West had rich interaction in the second millennium BC is known only to scholars. This was the time of the Mitanni of Syria, who worshiped Vedic gods. The Mitanni ruled northern Mesopotamia (including Syria) for about 300 years, starting 1600 BC, out of their capital of Vasukhani.
In a treaty between the Hittites and the Mitanni, Indic deities Mitra, Varuṇa, Indra, and Nāsatya (Aśvins) are invoked. Their chief festival was the celebration of viṣuva (solstice) very much like in India. It is not only the kings who had Sanskrit names; a large number of other Sanskrit names have been unearthed in the records from the area.
The list of the Sanskrit names used in Syria and elsewhere was published by P.-E. Dumont of the Johns Hopkins University in the Journal of American Oriental Society in 1947 and one may see a summary of that in my own book chapter on Akhenaten, Sūrya, and the Ṛgveda, which is easily available here .
What is most interesting is that the Mitannis were connected by marriage across several generations to the Egyptian 18th dynasty to which Pharaoh Akhenaten (ruled 1352-1336 BC according to the mainstream view) belonged. Akhenaten’s second wife was Tadukhipa (“khipa” from the Sanskrit “kṣipā,” night) and she became famous as the queen Kiya (short for Khipa). His first wife was the beautiful Nefertiti, whose bust is available in a museum in Berlin.
Akhenaten (“glory of the Aten”) changed his name to honour Aten (“One god” represented as the solar disk) in his sixth year of rule. Many see Akhenaten as the originator of monotheism by his banishment of all deities excepting his chosen one. He has been seen as a precursor to the Old Testament prophets, and thus to the Abrahamic religions. Biblical scholars see his hymn to Aten as the original of Psalm 104 of the Old Testament.
The other possibility is that Akhenaten’s worship of Aten was derived from the Vedic system through the three generations of queens in his family that were from the Mitannis. There are parallels between his hymn and the Sūrya hymns of the Ṛgveda. Note also that Agni is praised as Yahvah in the Ṛgveda 21 times, and Yahweh is the name of the highest divinity in the Old Testament.
If the Vedic element was important, as is perhaps reflected in the mysticism of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the cult of the dead and resurrection remained the most important element of the Egyptian religion. This cult continues to form the cornerstone of the three Abrahamic faiths.
The Vedic presence via the Mitanni in Egypt and the Near East occurs several centuries before the exodus of the Jews. This presence is sure to have left its mark in various customs, traditions, and beliefs. It may be that this encounter explains uncanny similarities in mythology and ritual, such as circumambulation around a rock, the use of a rosary of 108 beads, (or the idea of 33 gods in pre-Abrahamic traditions).
These practices are easily understandable within the Vedic system, whereas they are remembered as commandments to be believed without understanding in the Western faiths. Sigmund Freud in his essay titled Moses and Monotheism (1937) proposed that Moses was an Egyptian linked to the court of Akhenaten. In defense of this proposal he argued that the Hebrew word for “Lord”, “Adonai”, becomes “Aten” when the letters are written in Egyptian.
The memory of India’s interaction with Egypt persisted within the Indo-Iranian world. The Iranian scholar Al-Bīrūnī (973-1048), speaking of chariots of war in his book Tarikh Al-Hind, mentions the Greek claim that they were the first to use them and insists they are wrong because the chariots were already invented by Aphrodisios the Hindu, when he ruled over Egypt, about 900 years after the deluge.” This reference, which cannot be literally true, is significant for it preserves the memory of a “Hindu” (Indic-inspired) king of Egypt prior to the Greek state.
The reference to the chariots of war of this king (Akhenaten) seems to remember the foreigner warlords Hyksos (literally, ruler of the foreign countries) who ruled Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period just before the New Kingdom to which Akhenaten belonged.
But how could the Indic element be so far from India, in Syria and Egypt? Scholars have suggested that after catastrophic earthquakes, or a long drought, dried up the Sarasvati River around 1900 BC, there was the abandonment of Harappan cities and great migrations away in all directions. Within India, we see the focus of the Sindhu-Sarasvati culture shift eastwards.
To the west, we see the Kassites, a somewhat shadowy aristocracy with Indic names and worshiping Surya and the Maruts, in Western Iran about 1800 BC. They captured power in Babylon in 1600 BC, which they were to rule for over 500 years. And then, of course, we have the long line of the Sanskritic Mitanni aristocracy of Syria that we have already spoken about.
Megasthenes (350-290 BC), the ambassador of Seleucus I to the court of Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra appears to have been aware of the connections between the Indians and the Jews. In the third book of Indica, as available to the Church Father Clement of Alexandria (200 AD), he writes-
All that has been said regarding nature by the ancients is asserted also by philosophers out of Greece, on the one part in India by the Brachmanes, and on the other in Syria by the people called the Jews.
These ancient connections between civilizations can form bridges of understanding for the present. We do not have to accept Aristotle’s claim on an Indian origin of the Jews as literal truth. But perhaps it is true in a figurative sense that some ideas that are held with the greatest passion in the Middle East had an Indian origin. Such acknowledgement can help people see the universal links that bind humanity across cultures and religions.
References on next page
b. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism. The Hogarth Press, 1939.
c. Subhash Kak, Akhenaten, Sūrya, and the Ṛgveda. In G.C. Pande (ed.), A Golden Chain of Civilizations: Indic, Iranic, Semitic, and Hellenic Up to C. 600 BC. Munshiram Manoharlal, 2007. http://www.ece.lsu.edu/kak/akhena.pdf