Greek Philosophy

Upanishads and Greek Thinkers on ‘Elements’ or ‘First Principle’

From the very dawn of the comparative studies in the philosophy area, scholars have noted close parallelism between Indian and Greek philosophies, though Greek philosophy was born and flourished in the first millennium BCE and the dating of Indian philosophy, considering that its origin is in Upanishads[1], is much anterior. In the most conservative measures, we may assign 2000 BCE to the start of Upanishad period. Pre-Socratic philosophers and Greek Philosophy in general, shows much similarity with the Indian thought of first and second millennium BCE. The reasons for this parallelism may be ascribed to the common source or heritage of both parties or the communication and information flow channels between India and Greece through Persia[2].

Among the numerous parallels between Indian and Greek thought, this article concentrates only on the theory of Elements according to both systems. Theory of elements that aroused during the first millennium BCE in Pre-Socratic Greece has clear and rough parallels with the theory of elements, tinted with spirituality, presented in the early Upanishads. There are personal and impersonal things considered as the primary element/principle of the world in Upanishads. Both of these elements of the Upanishadic thought have counterparts in Greek thought[3].

Water as the first principle:-

Greek Version:-

Thales[4] of Miletus[5], the wisest among Greeks according to oracle of Delphi, taught that ‘water’ is the first principle and earth is on water.

“Thales says that the world is held up by water and rides on it like a ship, and that what we call an earthquake happens when the earth rocks because of the movements of water.[6]

Another fragment that relates Thales with water element is by Aristotle.

“… However they disagree about how many of such principles there are, and about what they are like. Thales, who was the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that water is the first principle (which is why he declared that the earth was on water)…[7]

Thales is considered as one among the ‘seven sages’[8] of Greece. Aristotle in his On the Soul says that Thales held the opinion that everything is divine[9], which is a major teaching of the Upanishads. Another doctrine of the Milesius School is Hylozoism, also has Indian parallel[10].

Indian Version:-

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad advocates that water was the source of all things.

“In the beginning, verily, the waters alone existed; from the waters was born Satya or Truth; Satya produced Brahman, Brahman gave birth to Prajapati, and from Prajapati were born the gods; these gods worship Satya alone.[11]

Same idea has repeated many times in other Upanishads also. Even much earlier in Rigveda, there is speculation about water as the first principle.

“Then was not non-existent or existent; there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.

What covered in, and where? And what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?[12]

Aitareya Aranyaka, gives the five elements (earth, water, air, fire and ether) which were well known in later period.

Air as the first principle:

Greek Version:-

In Greek Philosophy, Pre-Socratic, Anaximenes speculates that Air is the underlying substance of things.

“Anaximenes of Miletus… shares his views that the underlying nature of things is single and infinite; however, unlike Anaximender, Anaximenes’ underlying nature is not Boundless, but specific, since he says that it is Air, and claims that it is thanks to rarefaction and condensation that it manifests in different forms in different things. When dilated it becomes fire and when condensed it become first wind, then cloud and then… water, earth, stones, etc.[13]

He thought Air is the thing that gives life to human. Soul is also air.

“… Air is the first principle of things, since it is the source of everything and everything is dissolved back into it. He says, soul, which is air, hold us together…[14]

Not stopping here, he even attributes divinity to air (Prana?) and said gods were emerged from Air (like Brahman is the abode of Gods in Upanishads).

“Next came Anaximenes, who claimed that air was a god, which has been created, was infinitely huge, and was always in motion.[15]

“… He attributed all the causes of the things to infinite air, but he did not deny the existence of gods or have nothing to say about them; however, he believed not that air was made by them, but that they emerged from air.[16]

Anaximenes also holds the views that earth is flat and it rides on air. In the same way Sun, the moon and the heavenly bodies ride on the air because of their flatness.

Indian Version:-

Chandogya Upanishad, one of the earliest Upanishad, mentions that Air is the first principle.

“… King Janasruti returned, but went back again to the Sage with the cows, the golden necklace, the chariot, as well as his beautiful daughter; whereupon, the sage Raikva seemed to be satisfied, and having lifted the beautiful daughter’s face towards himself, said, ‘Verily, O Sudra, you are making me speak on account of this face’ and then he imparted to the king the knowledge which he possessed, namely that he believed that the Air was the final absorbent of all things. ‘When fire is extinguished it goes to the air, when the sun sets it goes to the air, when the moon sets it goes to the air, when the waters dry up, they go to the air; thus, verily is Air the final absorbent of all things whatsoever[17]“.

The logical conclusion from such a position is that if air be the end of all things, it may also be regarded as the beginning of them. Upanishads clearly exhibits scientific ideas in the garbh of spirituality. As Upanishads are primarily a religious literature, not a scientific treatise, such spiritual-scientific intertwined topics are not strange, but natural.

In Rigveda, speculation about Air is available. There Air is considered as the friend of Water and as the vital force of Gods (like Anaximenes connects Air with Gods). Air has the inherent capacity to move as he wishes.

“Travelling on the paths of air’s mid-region, no single day doth he take rest or slumber.

Holy and earliest-born, Friend of the waters, where did he spring and from what region came he? Germ of the world, the Deities’ vital spirit, this God moves ever as his will inclines him.

His voice is heard, his shape is ever viewless. Let us adore this Wind with our oblation.[18]

Speculation about Air was very ancient in India and most of these speculative ideas (about air and others) may not descended to us vividly because of the inclusion of spirituality along with the experimental truths, while writing them down.

Fire as the first principle:-

Greek Version:-

Heraclitus is famous for his opinion that ‘none can step into a same river[19]. This idea is verily Pre-Buddhistic and got prominence in the teachings of Gautama, the Buddha. One of the fundamental Buddhist doctrines is that everything in this world is in a state of flux. There is no ‘being’ but only ‘becoming’. Buddhist rejects the Atman concept, in the experimental world level, because an eternal and unchanging Atman is not in accord with the Buddha’s teaching of the Flux. Even before Buddha, the belief in Flux may be extant in India.

In most of the fragments available about Heraclitus, fire occupies a major place.

“It is wise for those who listen not to me but to the principle to agree in principle that everything is fire.[20]

The application of the term ‘fire’ in many fragments is not ambiguous. Sometimes it is as a constituent of things or as a heavenly aspect… etc. He believes soul is fire and fire after condensation becomes water. He believed, like Indian tradition, in the cyclic destruction and creation of the world and also in after-life.

Indian version:-

The theory of fire as the origin of all things is not maintained very explicitly in the Upanishads. But Katha Upanishad tells that Fire, having entered the universe assumed all forms. It is almost equivalent to the Heraclitean formula that fire is exchanged for all things and all things for fire.

On the other hand, in the Chandogya Upanishad, we are told that fire was the first to evolve from the primeval Being, and that from fire came water, and from water the earth.

“Where can be the root of that apart from being in food? In this very way, O good-looking one, through food which is the sprout understand water as the root. O good looking one, through water which is the sprout, understand fire as the root. O good looking one, through fire which is the sprout, understand Existence as the root. O good-looking one, all these beings have Existence as their root. Existence is their abode. Existence is their place of merger.[21]

Heraclitean idea of the Way Up and the Way Down is inherent in the above hymn. In the above hymn food (earth) – water – fire – existence is the chronology. Then, at the time of the dissolution, the earth may be dissolved in water, the water in fire, and the fire in the Primeval Being.

And Heraclitus says,

“As it is condensed fire becomes moist, and then as it is further compressed it becomes water, and as water solidifies it turns into earth, this is the ‘road downward’. Then again earth dissolves and give rise to water, which is the source of everything else, since he attributes everything to the process of exhalation from the sea; this is the ‘road upward’.”

Heraclitus is much influenced by the Upanishadic thought, more than any other Greek thinkers, and Thomas McEvilley in his book, ‘The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies’, proves it at length. This book brings out the clear Indian influence on Greek philosophy and Neo-Platonism. A screenshot from the Heraclitus chapter of the book follows.

Earth and Space as the First Principle: –

In the quest for the first principle Earth (Prithvi) had a dominant space. Since all specious are living on earth as the substratum, high thinking capability is not needed to consider earth as the first principle. In Greece, Earth as an element is as old as Hesiod. Empedocles considers Earth as an element along with other three elements[22].  Earth as first Principle is mentioned in the Mundaka Upanishad.

Space as an element is added in Greek philosophy by Philolaus of Croton.

“The bodies (physical Elements) of the Sphere are five: the Fire in the Sphere, and the Water, and Earth, and Air, and, fifth, the vehicle (?) of the Sphere.”[23]

 In Indian version, Akasha/Space is mentioned as first principle in Chandogya Upanishad by Pravahana Jaivali[24].

“When Pravahana Jaivali was asked what was the final habitat of all things, he answered it was Space. ‘All these beings emerge from space and are finally absorbed in space; space is verily greater than any of these things; space is the final habitat”

Do Indian and Greek philosophies have a common origin?

All of the above evidences (in addition to many others) point out that there was a common stream of thought that acted as a starting point for both Indian and Greek philosophies. There were communication channels with the Persian empire as the mediator[25].

It is very significant to notify that, Eusebius mentions that once Socrates met an Indian Yogi in Athens.

‘Now Aristoxenus the Musician says that this argument comes from the Indians: for a certain man of that nation fell in with Socrates at Athens, and presently asked him, what he was doing in philosophy: and when he said, that he was studying human life, the Indian laughed at him, and said that no one could comprehend things human, if he were ignorant of things divine”.[26]

The kernel of the reply of Indian Yogi is that Divinity and humanity are not distinct, but same. ‘Man, know thyself’, which is inscribed in the main gate of Oracle of Delphi also reflects the opinion of Indian Yogi. This evidence shows that there was communication channels between India and Greece in ancient times.

Apart from this, we can also consider the theory that suggests both philosophies have a common origin. The importance of ‘Out of India Theory’ is here[27]. According to this various Indo-European communities migrated to their current locales, from the Proto-Indo-European homeland which is roughly current day Punjab-Haryana-Bactria. In such a scenario, Talageri says, Greeks would be the last migrants from this homeland[28]. It means, during the Upanishadic/Vedic period, the forefathers of Greeks would be living in this homeland along with Vedic people. Then, due to the quarrels and fight based on the divergent opinion of performing ritualistic practices, the forefathers of Greeks migrated from this area with Upanishadic ideas. The argument of John Burnet supports this theory. He says that, the origin of Indian and Greek philosophies is from a common source. He doesn’t consider the similarities are incidental. He writes in Early Greek Philosophy as follows –

“In India we have a precisely similar doctrine, and yet it is not possible to assume any actual borrowing of Indian ideas at this date. The only explanation which will account for the facts is that the two systems were independently evolved from the same primitive ideas. These are found in many parts of the world; but it seems to have been only in India and in Greece that they were developed into an elaborate doctrine.”

Thus, Indian and Greek philosophies are originated from a common source, but developed independently. So, Greeks need not feel that the elements of Indian philosophy and Vedic ideas in their philosophy and tradition as borrowing from Indian ideas. So they did not indicate any Indian ideas in their tradition[29] even though there are many stunning parallels even between Iliad and Ramayana.


I will attempt to show the similarity of thoughts of other Greek thinkers including Orpheus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Empedocles, Plato and a few Neo Platonists like Plotinus, with the Indian thought and philosophy, in the coming days.


[1] In fact, Rigveda, Brahmana and Aranyaka – Vedic Literature – contains many philosophic speculations. In his landmark work ‘A history of Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy’ Sri Benimadhav Barua lists all such theories. And as per Paul Deussen ‘The first and oldest philosophy of a people lies in their religion’.

[2] Thomas McEvilley in his voluminous work, ‘The shape of ancient thought: Comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies’, shows that many information flow channels have existed between India and Greece through Persia. Lack of information channels between India and Greece was the main stumbling block to posit a relation between the two great philosophical traditions. McEvilley’s book effectively nullifies that lacuna.

[3] Similarity in personal concepts is not discussed here. Readers are advised to go through the book mentioned above.

[4] Thales has Phoenician lineage. (Herodotus, Histories)

[5] Miletus had trade links with the Babylonian, Egyptian, Phoenicia, etc. I.e. Miletus is near information channels from neighboring ancient cultures. Through trade links it is easy to spread/arrive the ideas and doctrines, existing in the ‘other lands’.

[6] Seneca, Questions about Nature.

[7] Aristotle, Metaphysics. Another fragment about Thales-water connection is in his On the Heavens.

[8] Seven sages are a theme occurring in many ancient civilization mythologies and ethos, including India.

[9] “Some says that the universe is shot through with soul, which is perhaps why Thales too thought that all things were full of gods.” – Aristotle, On the Soul.

[10] Milesian school of philosophers is of the opinion that world was comes forth from an undifferentiated matter which is alive in certain sense. It is a Jainist doctrine too.

[11] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad V.5.1.

[12] Rig-Veda: 10.129.1

[13] Theophrastus/Simplicius on ‘Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics’.

[14] Aetius, Opinions.

[15] Cicero, On the nature of the Gods.

[16] Augustine, The city of Gods.

[17] Chandogya Upanishad. IV.3.1-2

[18] Rigveda: 10.168.3-4.

[19] “It is impossible to step into the same river twice…”, Plutarch, On the E at Delphi.

[20] Hippolytus, Refutation of all heresies.

[21] Chandogya Upanishad VI.8.4

[22] “I shall tell you of a double process. At one time it increased so as to be a single One out of Many; at another time it grew apart so as to be Many out of One—Fire and Water and Earth and the boundless height of Air, and also execrable Hate apart from these, of equal weight in all directions and Love in their midst, their equal in length and breadth.”

— Ancilla to Pre-socratics philosophers, Kathleen Freeman.

[23] Ancilla to Pre-socratics philosophers, Kathleen Freeman. Here ‘Vehicle’ is often considered as Space or Ether.

[24] Chandogya Upanishad. I.9.1

[25] The Shape of Ancient thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Thomas McEvilley.

[26] Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel). Tr. E.H. Gifford (1903) — Book 11].

[27] Rigveda and Avesta — The final evidence, Srikant G Talageri.

[28] Rigveda and Avesta — The final evidence, Srikant G Talageri.

[29] Two things must indicate here. One, Greece is not a contender in the race for the Proto-Indo-European Homeland. Second, Greeks are not indigenous to the current day Greece. They immigrated to that place from outside.
– Indo-Aryan origin and Other vedic Issues: Nicolas Kazanas.

Featured Image Credit -> https://indianexpress.com/article/research/similarities-between-greek-and-indian-mythology-as-narrated-by-devdutt-pattanaik-4586440/

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