The Spirituality of Ancient Greeks: Xenophanes, Parmenides, Prodicus, Gorgias and Socrates

Here is a beautiful analogy on the spiritual path, self-realization, and liberation:

“Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life. The prisoners manage to break their bonds one day and discover that their reality was not what they thought it was. They discovered the sun, which Plato uses as an analogy for the fire that man cannot see behind. Like the fire that cast light on the walls of the cave, the human condition is forever bound to the impressions that are received through the senses. Even if these interpretations (or, in Kantian terminology, intuitions) are an absurd misrepresentation of reality, we cannot somehow break free from the bonds of our human condition – we cannot free ourselves from the phenomenal state just as the prisoners could not free themselves from their chains. If, however, we were to miraculously escape our bondage, we would find a world that we could not understand – the sun is incomprehensible for someone who has never seen it. In other words, we would encounter another “realm,” a place incomprehensible because, theoretically, it is the source of a higher reality than the one we have always known; it is the realm of pure Form, pure fact.”

Source: Ferguson, A. S. “Plato’s Simile of Light. Part II. The Allegory of the Cave (Continued).” The Classical Quarterly 16, no. 1 (1922): 15-28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/636164.

Immediate source: Wikipedia

This Allegory of a cave is narrated in his book ‘Republic’,  in which Plato is sharing what Socrates, his teacher taught him. We know about the teachings of Socrates only through Plato. He was the one who put them in writings. So, if one needs to understand Socrates, he has to read Plato.

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Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna. Image source: Wikipedia

This analogy is indeed a wonderful one. The prisoners who take the shadows to be more real than the fire which causes the shadow to appear. The same way, we take the changing appearances on the screen of the conscious subjective experience as more real than the constant screen of pure conscious subjective experience itself which is the knower of the appearances.

The thoughts on non-duality from Greek philosophers appear in the Greek literature as early as the Buddha’s time in India. So, the time around 600-400 BC seems to be a very important time when the world saw wise sophists in Greece, the scientists of the inner world like Buddha in India, and Lao Tzu in China. If North East India was the spiritual cradle of the East, then we can say that ancient Greek settlements were the spiritual cradles of the West.

Xenophanes (570 BC – 475 BC)

Xenophanes (570 BC – 475 BC) who was born in Colophon, a city of Greek settlements in Ionia (an ancient region on the central part of the western coast of Anatolia in present-day Turkey, the region nearest İzmir, which was historically Smyrna.) was probably the earliest known sophist who touched on certain important things. Xenophanes was a great poet. His poems were written in Ancient Greek poetic meters and were elegiac and iambic poetry.

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A fictionalized portrait of Xenophanes from a 17th-century engraving. Image source: Wikipedia

Xenophanes was probably one of the earliest known skeptics in the human history similar to Buddha. He questioned traditional beliefs and encouraged critical thinking. Here is one of his wonderful poems of skeptic nature:

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed [σιμούς] and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired

  • Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Xenophanes frr. 15-16

Xenophanes was not an atheist though. He believed in a God who is beyond human morality, does not resemble the human form, cannot die or be born (God is divine thus eternal), no divine hierarchy exists, and who does not intervene in human affairs.

We at current times may not be able to agree with many of Xenophanes’s views. But he was one of the earliest philosophers who talked about something that I insist often in my blog posts. He made a clear distinction between what is belief and what is true knowledge. If you read a theological concept in a book and think that it has given some knowledge to you, according to Xenophane it is not a true knowledge but just a belief.

Parmenides of Elea (515 BC)

Parmenides of Elea (515 BC) seems to be the most important person in the Greek spiritual history… He is said to be the founder of metaphysics and ontology. I think he is probably one of the most underrated persons in the world.  He is said to be a pupil of Xenophanes. Here is an excerpt from http://www.parmenides-of-elea.net/. This is the same as Advaita Vedanta:

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Bust of Parmenides discovered at Velia, thought to have been partially modeled on a Metrodorus bust. Image source: Wikipedia

“According to Parmenides, existing cosmic space is not unlimited but is an enormous sphere. It is entirely filled by “Being”. “Being” is the only and homogeneous substance that, permeating all things (including human beings and the air) that our senses perceive in the cosmos, constitutes the cosmos itself. In fact, in the “vision” of the eleatic philosopher the cosmos is not composed of numerous entities – planets, stars, people, animals, trees, flowers, houses, mountains, clouds, etc., of different appearance and color, capable of transformation, movement, birth and death – that appear daily before our eyes, but consists of Being, which is an eternal, not generated, one, huge, limited, spherical, motionless substance, not becoming but always equal to itself, homogeneous, of the same density everywhere, not divided into multiple “things” but continuous. 
So: only Being exists. This Being, which is one, is perceived by humans as “broken” in many things, all the things that our deceptive sight daily sees:

To this One so many names will be assigned
as many are the things that mortals proposed, believing that they were true,
that they were born and perish, that they exist and do not exist,
that they changed the place and their bright color” (8,38-41)

Literal translation:
“It will have for name all things,
how many the mortals proposed, believing that they were true,
that they were born and perish, that they exist and do not [exist],
that they changed the place and their bright color” (8,38-41)”

It is really amazing to learn that all these concepts of non-duality existed among ancient Greeks at the same time when it was growing in India. 

Prodicus of Ceos (465 BC – c. 395 BC)

Prodicus of Ceos (465 BC – c. 395 BC) is said to be the teacher of Socrates in at least one lecture, as mentioned by some sources. He has done some good work on ethics and linguistics. He was pretty strict about the word usage.

We don’t have any information regarding his ontological views on reality. But he was certainly a skeptic:

“Prodicus, like some of his fellow Sophists, interpreted religion through the framework of naturalism. The gods he regarded as personifications of the sun, moon, rivers, fountains, and whatever else contributes to the comfort of our life, and he was sometimes charged with atheism. “His theory was that primitive man was so impressed with the gifts nature provided him for the furtherance of his life that he believed them to be the discovery of gods or themselves to embody the Godhead. This theory was not only remarkable for its rationalism but for its discernment of a close connection between religion and agriculture.” 

 –   From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prodicus)

Gorgias  (485 – c. 380 BC)

Gorgias  (485 – c. 380 BC)  is another important person in the Greek spiritual history.  He was also a sophist who was born before Socrates but after Parmenides of Elea. He used to collect huge fees for teaching, a practice which was criticized by Socrates who was probably born a couple of decades later than him.

His famous work  was ‘On Nature or the Non-Existent’ in which he has argued the following:

Nothing exists;

2) Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and

3) Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.

4) Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.

This sounds like a nihilist view. But I can see that he is clearly talking about the same concept which is called as ‘Maya’ in Indian Tradition. The external world and all the sense perceptions we use to know the world are only appearances on the screen of conscious subjective experience. Nothing can be seen outside of it. So, he attests that the existence of these fleeting experiences can be doubted but you can never doubt the existence of self-evident conscious subjective experience which remains constant. So, what we call as objective in this sense is really an appearance on the screen of the subject. Read this for more details: https://nellaishanmugam.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ramana-maharshi-and-the-cinema-screen-analogy/

Even though Socrates became very famous among all the Greek philosophers, all these people seemed to have played a great role in Greek spirituality. I will probably be doing further research on this too.  It will require a complete post to talk about Socrates. So I will reserve the topic of his teachings for a future blog post.

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Why Is Spiritual Enlightenment Indescribable?

The answer is actually pretty simpler than what most people think.

First of all, any kind of experience or any way of experiencing life cannot be really described.

How will you describe stomach pain? Go ahead and try it… You may say ‘it is very painful; my stomach is really aching as if something is biting it, crushing it or pinching it’.. But this doesn’t really describe the stomach pain. These words do not translate the experience of stomach pain.

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But still, the person who hears the word ‘stomach pain’ recognizes what it is. How? Because the person who hears it has already experienced pain before. The word ‘stomach pain’ has been associated with an experience that you are pretty familiar with and there is consensus on it among everyone because almost everyone has experienced stomach pain.

When you look at a tree, what is actually happening is an experience of a certain pattern of sense perception. This experience of perceiving a tree is completely private to your inner world. But as soon as you utter the word ‘tree’, the other person understands what it is. Why? Because the word ‘tree’ is associated with certain kind of visual perception which everyone is familiar with. And there is consensus on it among everyone because almost everyone has seen a tree and used the word ‘tree’ to name it.

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All perceptions that happen through our five senses are nothing but experiences. But you can communicate what you are experiencing simply because another person has also experienced these perceptions and we have associated a word for each individual pattern of sense perceptions.

When I say ‘I looked at a beautiful flower on a cold winter morning during sunrise while hearing the sounds of birds’ you get the picture right? But a person who is blind and deaf from birth will not get the complete picture. He only understands how a ‘cold winter’ feels like because that is the only thing he has experienced among a myriad of sense perceptions which are actually conveyed in that sentence.

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In fact, your entire life happens only on the basis of conscious subjective experience. You understand that there is an external world only by inference. And only because of certain consensus that exists about this ‘external world’, we are able to deal with practical things in life. That is why we call the external world as ‘maya’ because it is actually an appearance that appears in the conscious subjective experience. This is self-evident. You just need to shift the focus to see it.

A small kid less than one-year-old thinks that an object doesn’t exist as soon as it disappears from its view. Only later, it starts inferring using the intellect that an object continues to exist even after it is hidden from the view. This is called object permeance and is one of the concepts in psychology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ob… .

The same way, a child later develops ‘theory of mind‘ with which it knows that others also have a mind. Please note that all this have been accomplished only by the inference of the intellect (Buddhi) alone! It is this inferential knowledge, which has become reified or solidified in our mind as time passed by. The nature of Buddhi is to categorize things, and one of the earliest categorizations that it did was the division between ‘me’ and the ‘world’. The reification of this categorization is what ego or ‘ahamkara’ is…. A spiritual practice is nothing but retracing our steps and going back to the source.

When we are talking about enlightenment, we are not talking about a distinct experience but a way of experiencing reality.

How can I explain how it feels like to not to have a sense of separate self to a person who is not experiencing the reality that way?

How can I explain how it feels like to be out of psychological time, to a person who is still trapped in psychological time?

How can I explain how it feels like to live with an unaltered state of consciousness to a person whose consciousness is altered by duality?

I can only give some clues. It feels more authentic than the regular way of experiencing reality; it feels as if a huge load has been lifted off of your shoulders; it feels as if you are weightless; it feels pure, innocent, conflict-less and it really is indescribable simply because most of the people are not experiencing life this way.

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But even if you understand all this, it would be only an intellectual understanding. It is self-realization which gives you a direct perception of the truth. Only then you really see it, just like how a person who was blind from birth suddenly sees the world one day after his eyesight has been cured. Whatever he has heard by verbal testimony is now confirmed by his direct experience.

Read the following posts for more about enlightenment and spiritual path:

Spiritual Enlightenment Comics: You Are The Truth

What is Spiritual Enlightenment?

Is Spiritual Enlightenment Known or Experienced?

God: Who/What is God?

The Meaning of Truth, Consciousness and Bliss – Satchitananda

Ramana Maharshi and the Cinema Screen Analogy

What is Ego in the Context of Non-Duality?

For Seekers of Liberation

An Invitation To A Spiritual Journey Towards Self-Realization! – Sanskrit Poem

A recent Sanskrit poem that I wrote, in free verse:

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जीवायाः गुरुत्वम् यस्मिन् अस्ति ।

यस्य आचरणं गुरुकार्यमस्ति ।

यस्य मार्गदर्शनं अन्तः स्थितेन हृदयरश्मिना सद्गुरुणा भविष्यति ।

येन मार्गेन गमनं रज्ज्वां चलनं इव सावधानेन

विवेकदृष्ट्या वैराग्यभावनया  शमादिषट्कसम्पदः प्रभावेण

मुमुक्षुत्वस्य शक्त्या करणीयं अस्ति ।

यस्मै मार्गाय सत्यस्य संश्रवणं दैनन्दिन अभियोगः गभीरा साक्षिभावना

नेति नेति मनसः कषायाणां उपरि आगमनं एतस्य सर्वस्य आवश्यकता वर्तते ।

येन मार्गेन यात्रा अस्मान् मोक्षं प्रापयते ।

तस्मिन् मार्गे वयम् सर्वम् गच्छाम ॥


Transliteration (IAST):

jīvāyāḥ gurutvam yasmin asti ।
yasya ācaraṇaṃ gurukāryamasti ।
yasya mārgadarśanaṃ antaḥ sthitena hṛdayaraśminā sadguruṇā bhaviṣyati ।
yena mārgena gamanaṃ rajjvāṃ calanaṃ iva sāvadhānena
vivekadṛṣṭyā vairāgyabhāvanayā śamādiṣaṭkasampadaḥ prabhāveṇa
mumukṣutvasya śaktyā karaṇīyaṃ asti ।
yasmai mārgāya satyasya saṃśravaṇaṃ dainandina abhiyogaḥ gabhīrā sākṣibhāvanā
neti neti manasaḥ kaṣāyāṇāṃ upari āgamanaṃ etasya sarvasya āvaśyakatā vartate ।
yena mārgena yātrā asmān mokṣaṃ prāpayate ।
tasmin mārge vayam sarvam gacchāma ॥


Meaning:

Let us all walk in the path

In which  lies the significance of life,

Walking in which  is very important,

For which, the guidance is offered by the light which resides in the heart, the satguru (true guru),

Walking in which  is similar to walking on a rope,  has to be done carefully, with the discrimination between what is real and what is unreal, with an attitude of non-attachment, with the impact of the six virtues and with the power of the desire for liberation,

For which  there is a necessity of listening to the truth, everyday practice, a deep witnessing attitude (choiceless awareness),  rising above the kashayas (everything that one is attached to and can be witnessed in the stream of consciousness) by realizing ‘not this, not this’ (neti neti method),

That which takes us to liberation!