Cross-Cultural versus Internal Wisdom Transmission?

One of the most exciting points for classicists who have got some knowledge about Eastern matters consists in inquiring where so many similarities between Greece and Mesopotamia, Iran or India come from. Thereabout three hypotheses basically seem to be considered: 1) a direct influence; 2) a shared inheritance (especially for the cultures that speak an Indo-European language); 3) a spontaneous expression of the universal human reason. But I would like now to argue that these alternatives are quite artificial and don’t match with the real processes of wisdom transmission in classical Antiquity.  Even more, I think that ancient peoples didn’t care about the question whether they borrow a spiritual content from another culture or receive it from their own one. They rather wonder if it was true or not, valuable or not (see Plato’s Phaedrus, 275b-c). For example, the opposition between, on one hand, cross-cultural influence, with its borrowing processes, and, on the other hand, genuine internal transmission in the same culture, supposes that we can define a priori what an internal transmission is and that we have criteria that allow us to recognize such a transmission. But, indeed, according to what may we say that two different productions of the human mind belong to the same culture? What does the identity of a culture consist in? Such an identity should be not too rigid if we want to gather several successive customs or art works in it. Perhaps we might say that this identity consist in the only features that are never to be found in the other cultures. But such an answer leads to the circulus viciosus: it implies that we already can identify an “other” although we do not yet know what the “same” is. So let’s try another solution: the identity of a culture consists in ethnicity? But ancient people would judge us quite stupid! The transmission of wisdom from father to son did never imply a real biological relation between the so called “father” and the so called “son”, although it was not necessary excluded. For example, in Greece, Peter Kingsley — for the most points, especially concerning his anti-Platonic bias and his shamanistic interpretation of Greek philosophy, I am absolutely not a Kingsleyan — has rightly insisted on the initiatory adoptive relationship in the Pythagorean and Parmenidian traditions (see the chapter about lineages in the Dark Places of Wisdom). When you receive the supreme wisdom through a correct teaching, wherever you may come from, you are not a stranger who borrows a cultural content and imports it into its own culture while imitating it, but you become a full member of a spiritual community. The transmission destroys the frontiers between cultural areas, so that the question whether such a transmission is cross-cultural or internal doesn’t make sense. The cultural identity is of course not a fact of nature, but a manifestation of the human freedom. Moreover, in the case of philosophy, teaching is not the contrary of the rational spontaneity, but its condition: you need someone to deliver you from particularizing prejudices and to conquer your intellectual autonomy. You can know the divine part of your soul, the intellect, only by contemplating its reflect in the same part of another soul (cf. Plato’s Alcibiades).

In the Vedic culture, which is often believed to be perfectly closed and reserved to the only genuine descendants of Brahmins (or of other the three upper varṇa), the adoptive sons are also more important than the biological sons, and more that which is transmitted is spiritually valuable, more the transmission process may break the caste boundaries. The only important problem concerns the ritual form of the transmission, because ritual works as the source of truth and legitimacy. For example, let’s read this little story from the Brāhmaṇa (in French):

Les .rṣi tenaient une session rituelle sur la Sarasvatī. Ils écartèrent Kavaṣa Ailūṣa du soma: “C’est le fils d’une esclave (dāsyāḥ putraḥ), c’est un vaurien, ce n’est pas un brahmane. Comment se fait-il qu’il ait reçu la dīkṣā (rite d’initiation qui précède le sacrifice proprement dit, comportant une renaissance symbolique parmi les dieux) parmi nous?” Ils le transportèrent au dehors, en un lieu sans eau: “Qu’en ce lieu la soif le tue, qu’il ne boive pas l’eau de la Sarasvatī”. Transporté au dehors, en un lieu sans eau, tourmenté par la soif, il vit (apaśyat) le rite de l’aponaptrīya (rite comportant la récitation de RV X, 30). Par là il gagna les Eaux; les Eaux s’élevèrent à sa suite; la Saravastī accourut pour l’entourer de toutes parts. C’est pourquoi on appelle encore aujourd’hui ce lieu Parisāraka, parce que la Sarasvatī y entoura le .rṣi de toutes parts. Les .rṣi dirent: “Les dieux l’ont reconnu, appelons-le à nous”. “Bien” dirent-ils.  Ils l’appelèrent à eux; l’ayant appelé à eux, ils pratiquèrent l’aponaptrīya (AitB VIII, I, 1-3, trad. S. Lévi modifiée 1898: 150).

Here we can see that the thirst works as tapas (ascetic fervor) so that the son of a slave woman, coming perhaps from another people, accesses the highest knowledge, just like a perfect brahmin. The intuitive power of this “impure” man surely makes him a son of the gods and a member of the community of the other poets who are seeking an intuition of supersensitive realities. Indeed such a “happy end” might be quite rare, but this story express that sacral knowledge, at least at a theoretical level, was more important than birth and ethnic origin for joining the Vedic culture. Still today, in South India, one can find the most conservative brahmins among people who are supposed to be from a “Dravidian” origin (for example the Nambudiri brahmins who are specialized in the oral transmission and the recitation of the .Rg-Veda-Saṃhitā). They have not borrowed the Veda from another culture, i.e., the so called Indo-European culture, because the Veda now entirely defines their own culture.

Even the relation between father and son in the Vedic culture, may break the usual hierarchy. The real “father” from who the highest wisdom is to be inherited is only the man who has a creative power, so that the son may be elder than his father:

Śiśu Āṅgirasa (“Disciple of the Angiras) était l’auteur par excellence des formules rituelles efficaces (mantra-k.rt). Il salua les Pères du nom de “mes fils!”. Les Pères dirent: “Tu manques au devoir, toi qui nous salues du nom de fils, alors que nous sommes tes Pères. Ils portèrent la question devant les dieux. Les dieux dirent: “En vérité, c’est lui qui est le père puisqu’il est l’auteur des formules rituelles.” C’est ainsi qu’il l’emporta (TdB XIII, 3, 24, trad. S. Lévi modifiée 1898: 145).

This text points out the process of transmission is not perfectly linear. The real source of wisdom may come at the end of the transmission chain. An innovation, inasmuch it brings the mind closer to the ultimate reality, may express the very essence of tradition. Therefore it is impossible to know what the true identity of a culture consists in before having understood its latest developments. A new element rising in a culture is not necessary the sign of any influence coming from another culture, but the final appearance of its primeval essence.

To put an end to this controversial question about cultural identity in ancient times, I would like to come back to Greece and to comment a very interesting passage in Menippus sive necyomantia by Lucian (7.15-8.6), which Phillip Sidney HORKY usefully and kindly brought my attention on (see his paper “Persian Cosmos and Greek Philosophy: Plato’s Associates and the Zoroastrian MAGOI”, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 2009, 47-103, p. 62, footnote 56). It deals with the katabasis eis Aidou undertaken by an Athenian initiated by a Persian magos:

Ἐπεὶ δ’ ἅλις εἶχε τῆς προδιαιτήσεως, περὶ μέσας νύκτας ἐπὶ τὸν Τίγρητα ποταμὸν ἀγαγὼν ἐκάθηρέν τέ με καὶ ἀπέμαξε καὶ περιήγνισεν δᾳδὶ καὶ σκίλλῃ καὶ ἄλλοις πλείοσιν, ἅμα καὶ τὴν ἐπῳδὴν ἐκείνην ὑποτονθορύσας. εἶτά με ὅλον καταμαγεύσας καὶ περιελθών, ἵνα μὴ βλαπτοίμην ὑπὸ τῶν φασμάτων, ἐπανάγει εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν, ὡς εἶχον, ἀναποδίζοντα, καὶ τὸ λοιπὸνἀμφὶ πλοῦν εἴχομεν. αὐτὸς μὲν οὖν μαγικήν τινα ἐνέδυ στολὴν τὰ πολλὰ ἐοικυῖαν τῇ Μηδικῇ, ἐμὲ δὲ τουτοισὶ φέρων ἐνεσκεύασε, τῷ πίλῳ καὶ τῇ λεοντῇ καὶ προσέτι τῇ λύρᾳ, καὶ παρεκελεύσατο, ἤν τις ἔρηταί με τοὔνομα, Μένιππον μὴ λέγειν, Ἡρακλέα δὲ ἢ Ὀδυσσέα ἢ Ὀρφέα.

The description of the ritual by Lucian, although it is not deprived of humor, may be quite accurate and reliable. For example, the distinction between two manners to pronounce the magic incantation (ἐπῳδὴν) — to murmur in an under-tone or to speak aloud — fits with Indo-Iranian data. It is not a mere problem of barbarika onomata, which a Greek can’t understand, since the Persian priest uses also Greek proper names (on this point I slightly disagree with P. Horky). Compare these passages of Lucian with the Yajur-Veda:

1) ῥῆσίν τινα μακρὰν ἐπιλέγων ἧς οὐ σφόδρα κατήκουον· ὥσπερ γὰρ οἱ φαῦλοι τῶν ἐν τοῖς ἀγῶσι κηρύκων ἐπίτροχόν τι καὶ ἀσαφὲς ἐφθέγγετο. πλὴν ἐῴκει γέ τινας ἐπικαλεῖσθαι δαίμονας (7.4-8).

1) bis : ἅμα καὶ τὴν ἐπῳδὴν ἐκείνην ὑποτονθορύσας (7.19)

2) ὁ δὲ μάγος ἐν τοσούτῳ δᾷδα καιομένην ἔχων οὐκέτ’ ἠρεμαίᾳ τῇ φωνῇ, παμμέγεθες δέ, ὡς οἷός τε ἦν, ἀνακραγὼν δαίμονάς τε ὁμοῦ πάντας ἐπεβοᾶτο καὶ Ποινὰς καὶ Ἐρινύας καὶ νυχίαν Ἑκάτην καὶ ἐπαινὴν Περσεφόνειαν, παραμιγνὺς ἅμα βαρβαρικά τινα καὶ ἄσημα ὀνόματα καὶ πολυσύλλαβα (9.15-21)

adīkṣiṣṭāyam brāhmaṇa iti trir upā.Mśv āha devebhya evainam prāha trir uccair ubhayebhya evainaṃ devamānuṣebhyaḥ prāha /

“This man has consecrated himself as a possessor of brahman” [The priest] says it thrice in an under-tone so that he announces it to the gods; then thrice with a full voice, so that he announces it to gods and men (Taittirīya-Saṃhitā VI, 1, 4, 3).

Moreover the ritual described by Menippus implies a change of name, which is very usual also in the Indo-Iranian religions, especially in the Vedic ceremony of dīkṣā. The ritual identification to Orpheus (for example) as a hero who descended in the realm of afterlife during his terrestrial life also matches with Indo-Iranian eschatology, although it uses a Greek mythological language. We know that certain Greeks knew that the Greek concept of hero (here evocated by Orpheus) was equivalent the Indo-Iranian concept of primeval Fathers: these Fathers saw the invisible center of the cosmic Order and founded the poetic tradition (av. a.ṣ̌a/ skt. .r). They were still existing  and perfectly happyin the realm of afterlife. See Stephanus of Byzance:

Just like the Persian call artaîoi (see the old-Persian word .rtāvan, epitheton of the Vedic Pit.r, and present also in Arta-xerxès) ancient people, so the Greek call them hero (See Hyschius’ Lexikon under artaîoi, and F. B. J. Kuiper, « Reviews », in IIJ 4, 1960, p. 185-186.)

Lucian’s text proves the reverse: a Persian priest was able to symbolize a katabasis according to his own religion while using Greek names.  He could know what the person of Orpheus means for a Greek.

This situation could be interpreted as a typical contact situation between two different cultural areas. Shall we say that Persian eschatology has influenced Greek conception of afterlife at the time of Lucian, or the reverse? I don’t think so. For the initiation ritual precisely consists in denying such a difference (εἶτά με ὅλον καταμαγεύσας): the Athenian is made a real magos. This process of identification with the Mazdaian community was already present in Herodotus’ account about the magoi (I, 131-132) as Phillip Sidney Horky rightly notices it (see op. cit. p. 64). Although the Greek mystès didn’t speak Avestan, the story told by Menippus describes a real wisdom transmission in the same spiritual (here I intentionally refuse the word “cultural”) community, inasmuch we could find a single rule of transformation, which converts the Persian ritual in a Greek ritual. The problem of wisdom transmission is not whether the actual wisdom elements that are to be found in a certain cultural area come from the same culture or from another one, but whether the various transmitted wisdom elements can be regularly and systematically transformed in the various elements of the source or not. Such a rule may be a mere identity, but not necessary. If such a rule exists, it defines the true essence of a spiritual community, beyond every “cultural identity”. The regularity of transmission was the main point of ancient people, and it should also be so for us.

But I already object to myself that my model of transmission implies a perfect self-consciousness in the master and in the disciple, in the hierophantès and in the mystès. Indeed language transmission and language evolution are based on unconscious mechanisms (just like the historical linguistics has revealed it, especially for the Indo-European languages), and language transmission is at least part of wisdom transmission… The language perhaps implies a kind of cultural unconscious conditioning? To be discussed further!