Think it over
Rise and fall of the Greek civilisation
By M.S.N. Menon
?We shall be the wonder of the world, not only of the men today, but of after-times,? says Thucydides, the Greek statesman. Nothing was said more prophetic! The Greek civilisation, brilliant like a meteor, but transient, was unique in human history. Only the Hindu civilisation has surpassed it in brilliance and staying power.
The Greeks loved their civilisation based on freedom, but sustained it through slavery. This had the sanction of no less a person than Aristotle. He says: ?A well-constituted city ought not to receive the artisans into citizenship.? The Greeks paid a high price for this folly. It brought constant violence in its wake. The mobs first ruled the streets and then the Council Chamber. They charged the philosophers with impiety.
As in India, so in Greece, intellectual development ended in skepticism. Faith in God was snapped. There was distrust of Homer and Hesiod, the epic writers, whose gods and heroes cared nothing for ethics. A new class of people came to dominate the world of thought?the Sophists. It is might that made things right, they said. They advocated the study of rhetoric ?so that wrong could be made to appear right!?
It was during this period of crisis in the country'slife that Greece produced its greatest moral teacher?Socrates. He said virtue lies in knowledge. Reminds us of our own jnanamarga (the path of knowledge). Socrates was condemned to death for ?making youth impious?.
The mantle of Socrates fell on Plato (427-343 BC), the greatest among his students. His doctrines were close to vedanta, the philosophy of the Hindus. His concept of the divine as the supreme intelligence, incorporeal, eternal and immutable was essentially vedantic. And his doctrine of the transmigration of souls is yet another similarity with Hindu thought.
Man was the centre of Greek thought (not God) and a measure of all things. In art, Greeks were concerned with beauty and the human body, in philosophy with human reason (divine) and in science with speculation. They argued over everything (a Hindu trait). No other community except the Greeks and Hindus is supposed to have developed logic in ancient times.
The Greek youths spent much of their time in gymnasia. Next in importance was the stadium where they held healthy competition (Romans took to the arena, where gory combat was the order). Next came civic activities and culture (theatre). The Greeks produced some of the greatest playwrights of the world. In tragedy they were supreme. Aristotle has said of tragedy: It purges the soul of its passions?a great idea. (Hindus prefer a happy ending).
Thus the Agora (public place and market), the Stoa (large covered portico before houses with pillars), the Acropolis and Council House, gym, stadium and theatre?these were the great Hellenistic gifts to the world. These alone were enough to make the Greeks immortal in human history.
How did the Greeks achieve all these? There are many explanations. But one calls for special attention: They gave more of their time to civic affairs. This was possible only in a slave-owning society, with control over population, curb on ostentatious living and disinterestedness in a future life. The Greeks gave no time to asceticism, fasting and contemplation. But they produced some of the greatest philosophers. The Greeks, like the Hindus, burnt their dead and, therefore, were not preoccupied with mausoleums like Muslims.
Alexander, the Great (3rd BC) changed the course of Greek history. He conquered almost the whole known world and carried the Greek civilisation with him. Hindus were in touch with the Greeks two centuries before Alexander'sinvasion. There were Greek settlements in Afghanistan and Punjab. (The Khatris and Aroras of Punjab are said to be the children of mixed marriages of Hindus and Greeks.)
Antioch and Alexandria emerged as centres of Hellenistic civilisation. Buddhist missionaries were already present there. Thousands of students were attracted to these centres of learning from different parts of the world. There was perfect tolerance among these ?pagans?. With the introduction of Christianity and Islam, this tolerance was destroyed for ever.
With the Roman conquest of Greece, the Hellenic civilisation began to decline. What was left was destroyed by Christianity. The Greeks were not a spiritual people. They were essentially materialistic. Naturally, class conflicts became endemic. It was the mob and the tyrants who finally carried the day in Greece.