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            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?" (5)

            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 calm!" (7)

            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 action.

            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." (14)

            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.



(1)        Meditations, Book II: 17.

(2)        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.

(3)        Bhagavad-Gita [B-G], XV: 11.

(4)        B-G, VI: 8. Yoga means "union" - with the absolute. Cf. the Socratic maxim: "Know thyself".

(5)        Meditations, Book IV: 3.

(6)        Meditations, Book VII: 59.

(7)        Meditations, Book V: 2.

(8)        B-G, VI: 19.

(9)        B-B, II: 47. Note the rejection of quietism.

(10)      Meditations, Book VII: 16.

(11)      B-G, II: 22, 23.

(12)      Ibid.

(13)      Meditations, Book VIII: 25.

(14)      Meditations, Book V: 15.

(15)      B-G, II: 20.