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by R.W.Bro. LEON ZELDIS
MARCUS AURELIUS AND VEDANTA
One of the most fascinating subjects of investigation in the history of
ideas is that of the possible contacts and reciprocal influences between Eastern
and Western thinkers in antiquity. This paper intends to focus on a single
example of the unusual parallelism that can be found between two disparate
sources, distant in geography and time, and yet, exposing similar conceptions of
human existence and the cosmos.
The Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius, left us his Meditations to
present his philosophy, while in India the Bhagavad-Gita occupies a place
of honor comparable to the Bible in the western world. Let me describe briefly
the origin of these two works as background to our investigation.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, adoptive son of the emperor Antoninus Pius,
was born in Rome in the year 121, at a time when the Roman Empire was well
established, though still kept in a state of continuous struggle along its
frontiers. At the age of 40 he had to assume the imperial purple upon the death
of his father, ruling first in association with Lucius Verus, and later alone.
Marcus had a serious, reflective and kind nature, having shown from early age a
predilection for study and philosophy. His only work, written in Greek, is a
collection of aphorisms of moral and philosophical character, composed mostly
during a military campaign around the year 170, a decade before his death.
The most important teachers of Marcus Aurelius in philosophy were the
Stoics, though he also studied other philosophical schools of his time. In his
military campaigns, Marcus Aurelius visited the eastern provinces of the empire,
reaching Syria. It is not impossible that the young philosopher-emperor made
contact there with thinkers or mystics versed in Hindu doctrines.
His writings reveal a superior spirit that despises the ephemeral and
seeks strenuously to base his existence on transcendental values.
In his own words: "The measure of man's life is a point, substance a
perpetual ebb and flow, sense perception vague and shadowy, the fabric of his
whole body corruptible… fortune a spinning wheel… life itself a warfare or a
sojourning in a strange land. What then shall be our guide and escort? One
thing, and one only – Philosophy. And true philosophy is to observe the
celestial part within us, to keep it inviolate and unscathed, above the power of
pain and pleasure…" (1)
The Stoic monism is reflected in this passage, where pleasure and pain
are thrown into the same dustbin, equally to be despised.
The same concept is found, often reiterated, in the Bhagavad-Gita or Song
of the Blessed, a fundamental work of the Vedanta (2).
The Bhagavad-Gita is a didactic text, traditionally divided into 18
chapters, inserted in the middle of the action of the Mahabharata, that immense
Hindu epic (some 100 thousand verses long), written between the 5th
and the 2nd centuries BCE. The work may have existed much earlier, as
part of the oral tradition of the Brahmins.
Let us now compare some passages of both works. The importance of mental
peace, serenity, in the practice of Hindu doctrines is well known. In modern
psychological terms, this is an extreme form of introspection: "the Yogis
contemplate the Lord in their own interior". (3)
The Sanskrit text also says: "Whoever has realized his own balance,
who has achieved knowledge of self, can be said to have achieved Yoga" (4).
On this point, Marcus Aurelius says: "Men are continuously seeking retreats
for themselves, in the country, or by the sea, or among the hills… Yet all
this is sheer folly, for it is open to you every hour to retire into yourself.
And where can man find a calmer, more restful haven than in his own soul?"
Further down, we find this passage: "Dig within your self. Therein
lies the fount of good; a fount whose waters will for ever well up, if you but
for ever dig!" (6) These last words are especially important. Keep digging,
deeper and deeper within yourself, until finding the fountain of your being.
This brings to mind the Alchemical motto: VITRIOL, acrostic of a Latin sentence
that means "Visit the Interior of the Earth, Purifying you will find the
Hidden Stone". In many lodges, VITRIOL is found as a legend on the wall of
the Chamber of Reflection.
Another passage points out how much meditation had become part of the
Emperor's daily life: "How easy it is to reject and wipe away every alien,
every disturbing thought, and straightway find ourselves in the midst of a great
Compare this with a passage from the Gita: "The Yogi who unites with
the Self has his conscience liberated from all passion and immobile like the
light of a lamp in a place without wind." (8)
The way of liberation described in the Vedanta is one of control over
oneself, the search for inner calm, absolute indifference, the rejection of all
emotion. If man must act, he should do it without savoring the fruits of his
As the Bhagavad proclaims: "You must pursue action, but only it, not
its fruits; these must not be an incentive to you. However, do not let yourself
fall into inaction." (9) In other words, the material object of action is a
matter of indifference, but action itself is not.
Let us turn to another question, the independence of the soul regarding
the tribulations of the body. The Stoic thinker wrote: "Let the body
meditate, if it can, that it suffer nothing; if it fail, let it give voice to
its suffering. But the soul itself, that power which experiences pain and fear,
and has sole authority to pass judgment on them, will feel nothing." (10)
On this, the Bhagavad states: "The soul… cannot be wounded by weapons,
nor be consumed by fire, nor dried by wind or drowned by water". (11)
Let us examine another point, of great ideological importance for us
Masons, which is the immortality of the soul, united with the idea of
reincarnation. The importance of this idea in Hindu philosophy is well known.
"The soul incarnated abandons the old bodies and takes new ones, as man
changes his clothes." (12) The only release from this endless circle of
death and rebirth is the final union with the absolute, the universal, of
ineffable nature, known for practical purposes as Brahman.
A close idea is found in the Meditations: "Remember, then, that…
thy breath may be extinguished or, if not extinguished, taken from thee and
allotted another habitation." (13) Elsewhere we read: "I am composed
of the material and the formal. Neither of these can perish and sink into
nothingness, any more than its existence arose from the non-existent. Hence it
follows that every part of me will, through some process of change, find its
place as a portion of the universe; and this portion, in its turn, will be
transmuted into another part of the same universe, and so on to infinity."
As can be seen, the "modern" scientific idea of conservation of
matter dates at least from the second century of our era. We find a similar
concept in the Sanskrit text: "The soul is neither born or dies, it does
not begin to exist one day to disappear without existing again. It is eternal,
ancient and uncreated." (15)
I could go on finding parallels, but this would not do justice to these
two important works. They are quite brief, and the reader who finds interest in
this subject is urged to read them in full.
The question arises, about the possible source for the apparent
similitude between the philosophical views expressed in both works. Two
explanations appear to be the most plausible. One, that there was no connection;
they are independent versions of a universal truth that finds expression in
every place and epoch. Aldous Huxley wrote an entire volume gathering examples
of this strange – or not so strange – similitude between texts of what he
calls the Perennial Philosophy, that is, the philosophy of the absolute.
The second explanation, perhaps more adequate to our present stage of
rational discourse, is the possible direct or indirect influence of Hindu
doctrines on Greek and Roman thinkers.
During the Empire, there is irrefutable evidence of Rome's active
commercial links with the Far East, particularly China. This trade, based on a
small range of very valuable commodities, such as silk, spices and perfumes,
experienced a period of extraordinary growth during the time of the Han dynasty
that ruled China between the years 205 BCE and 220 CE. Almost contemporaries
with them were the Parthians, who governed Mesopotamia and Persia (present day
Iraq and Iran) between 250 BCE and 226 CE. The traffic of goods passed through
the Parthians, reaching Rome from the eastern provinces of the empire. It is not
farfetched to think that the oriental caravans brought not only merchandise, but
also the ideas, and perhaps the literature of the Indian sub-continent, embodied
in manuscripts eagerly sought by the great libraries of the Empire.
Whatever the truth may be, the fact remains that imperial Stoicism, or
the "new" Stoic philosophy, as is also known, shows elements
indicating a strong parallelism with Hindu doctrines exemplified by the Vedanta.
Meditations, Book II: 17.
The Vedanta is one of the six darshanas or "points of
view" into which classical Hindu philosophy is divided. In reality, it
represents the fundamental doctrine of this philosophy, permeating all others
with its concepts. Vedanta means, literally, end of the Vedas, where
"end" must understood both as conclusion and objective.
Bhagavad-Gita [B-G], XV: 11.
B-G, VI: 8. Yoga
means "union" - with the absolute. Cf. the Socratic maxim: "Know
Meditations, Book IV: 3.
Meditations, Book VII: 59.
Meditations, Book V: 2.
B-G, VI: 19.
B-B, II: 47. Note the rejection of quietism.
Meditations, Book VII: 16.
B-G, II: 22, 23.
Meditations, Book VIII: 25.
Meditations, Book V: 15.
B-G, II: 20.