India: The misunderstood parent of Europe
by Gemma Smith on 08 Jul 2015 4 Comments
Mark Twain, one of the most respected writers of the West, described India as “the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition” [1]. As any historian, philosopher, linguist, mythologist, mathematician, scientist, and psychoanalyst worth their salt should acknowledge, he was in this more or less completely correct. 


India is certainly the cultural parent of the majority of European civilisations, and it is the ideas born many centuries ago in India which have gone on to shape the deeper and more enduring aspects of European tradition (and thus, by extension, the tradition of all nations - the USA, for example - which stem from Europe).


However, as so frequently occurs in the old stories [2], the child has turned upon the parent. Forgetting the ancient ties which bind them to India, forgetting the nurturing cultural traditions forged in India long ago, and filled with the hubris and superiority of youth, the cultures of the West have declared themselves an improvement upon their ancient parent, and ruthlessly asserted their dominance [3]. It is only recently that the tide has begun to turn even nominally in favour of India, and Western peoples have begun to appreciate the interconnected nature of things, particularly when it comes to their ancient cultural ties with India.




Let us start with something absolutely fundamental to human cultural development – language. Sanskrit is today widely acknowledged to be one of the earliest surviving derivations of two ancient linguistic ancestors from which a host of modern day languages spread. These two are Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Indo-Iranian.


There have been attempts to recreate these languages [4], but nobody is entirely sure how they sounded. The only thing which is certain about them is that they share marked similarities with Sanskrit in particular and several other Indian languages in general. It is therefore generally agreed that the peoples of India and the peoples of Europe and Iran are closely related. Indeed, the very term ‘Aryan’ is drawn from the Sanskrit word ‘Arya’, meaning ‘noble’.


The theory runs that these ‘Aryans’ spread out across India, Europe, and Iran [5] from a single cultural source, colonising as they went. Their languages evolved in different directions as they settled in different areas, and gradually formed distinct ‘tribes’ which went on to become nations. But the common roots of these ostensibly differing peoples can still be discerned in their languages today. The majority of European languages, Iranian, and Sanskrit all contain common elements which betray their conjoined roots.




Whether or not these original Indo-Europeans and Indo-Iranians actually began their journey in India itself is something of a moot point, but the clearly ancient nature of Sanskrit indicates that the mores of this common culture may well have been better preserved in India than elsewhere. It is likely that India was one of if not the first places to be settled by the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and it is in India that the mother-culture retains its strongest influence. Inasmuch as ‘Hinduism’ can be dated [6], it’s generally believed to be the world’s oldest surviving organised belief system.


Doubtless the original Indo-Europeans would have recognised many elements of Hindu belief. It is in the ancient Hindu texts and tales that we see the birth of many cultural elements which are today spread throughout India, Europe, and even the Near East to a certain extent. Storytelling patterns, philosophical ideals, and many other cultural tropes which crop up (in varying forms) time and again in global culture have their earliest expression in India.




So what happened? If India truly is the ‘mother’ of European culture, then why has she been so sidelined, and treated with such derision by her ‘children’? Well, much of it undoubtedly has to do with simple prejudice, born out of a burgeoning ignorance regarding our common roots. As the tribes expanded, separated, and began to develop their own semi-distinct languages and identities, the minor differences between groups became more important than the deeper cultural traditions which bound us all together.


Some European civilizations grew larger than others - the Romans, for example - and began claiming certain elements of culture as their own in an attempt to control their burgeoning empires. All in all, the ancient Indian roots of Europe were lost in the mists of time. Perhaps the most decisive blow to be struck was a certain philosophical separation which indelibly set our cultures apart. While Indian religions tend to view things as interconnected and cyclical, the Western world developed a thought-system based upon oppositional dichotomies and linear ‘truths’.


Inclusiveness and dichotomies


To claim that India has always been an entirely inclusive and holistic nation is perhaps not entirely accurate (the old caste system speaks for itself on this point) but it is certainly true that the Indian (and ancient) way of thinking generally posits and accepts the interconnectedness of all things. By contrast, Western thinking (based upon Ancient Greek philosophy) tends to separate, categorise, and define by opposition. This dichotomous thinking has proven a difficult stumbling block [7] in Western peoples’ perceptions of that which they perceive to be ‘other’, and made it hard for them to understand non-binary modes of thinking. Take yoga, for example.


In India, it has long been accepted that body, mind, and soul are intrinsically linked - what benefits one of these naturally benefits the others. Yoga is considered a practice which enhances the whole human. However, Western dichotomous thinking tends to separate mind, body, and soul. Therefore, yoga in the West is generally taken up by people wishing to improve just one of these areas (often the body) without paying due attention to the art (and therefore the human) in its entirety. It is only very recently that Western science has become advanced enough to begin to see that what Indian cultures have known all along is verifiably true - that all things are interconnected, and something as ostensibly ‘physical’ as yoga really can have long-term benefits for the mind and soul as much as for the body [8].


Divisive thinking


Another issue with dichotomous thinking and its effect upon European-Indian relations is the fact that dividing things in this manner means that a lot of important Indian thinking gets ignored due to the ‘field’ in which it is displayed. The Western world divides science, art, religion, and so forth. This means that the extensive ‘scientific’ knowledge displayed in Indian poetry and/or religious texts is often discounted.


The Garuda Purana, for example, displays great learning about human reproduction and the development of the foetus - yet because the Western World insists upon dividing so many things into opposing dichotomies, this learning has been dismissed due to the religious nature of the texts. In short, because Indian culture does not traditionally present knowledge in the same clearly delineated manner as Western culture, and instead tends to meld all disciplines, Western cultures find it hard to understand the nature of Indian learning, and have in the past dismissed Indian people as ‘ignorant’.


This is, of course, profoundly untrue. Quite apart from (as mentioned) bequeathing the majority of ancient European cultural mores upon the continent, India has long held a lot of ‘scientific’ knowledge. It was in India that the mathematical concept of zero was ‘invented’, and Indian texts thousands of years old display clear knowledge of the atomic structure of the universe. These ‘discoveries’ are considered Western mainly because they have been experimented with and ‘proven’ in a scientific format - but this does not make the ancient Indian knowledge any less.


New Inclusiveness


As Western science advances, it proves ancient Indian knowledge right time and again. As our understanding of the world grows, so too must our understanding of our origins, and of the essential interconnectedness of all peoples. It is to be hoped that greater integration and a lessening of the divisive, dichotomous thinking which has set the West against her parent cultures will fade away in the future, and India can once again be recognized for the enormous contribution she has made to the world.



[1] Mark Twain, “Following The Equator”, Project Gutenberg

[2] Mahabharata, “The death of Arjuna – at the hands of Babhruvahana”

[3] Dr Chandrika Kaul, “From Empire to Independence: The British Raj in India 1858-1947”, BBC, Mar 2011

[4] Eric A Powell, “Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European”, Archaeology Magazine

[5] Frederik Kortlandt, “The Spread Of The Indo-Europeans”, 1989#

[6] Gavin Flood, “History of Hinduism”, BBC, 2009

[7] Susan Whitfield, “The Perils Of Dichotomous Thinking: Ebb And Flow Rather Than East And West”

[8] Rebecca Kronman, “We Know Yoga Helps People In Recovery…But How?”,, Apr 2015  

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