Every culture has influenced every other culture during mutual interactions. It is only because of this influence that humanity has achieved a lot. But many people today call such cross-cultural interactions, influences, adaptations etc as ‘copying’ or ‘plagiarism’ which is both sad and stupid.
For example, today Indians wear shirt and pant, celebrate birthdays using English calendar, cut cakes and blow candles etc. Should we say India copied this from West or West influenced India?
Of course, a lot of Catholic churches and many Sufis have adapted certain cultural things from India as well. So yes, Indian culture has influenced Indian Christians and Indian Muslims. There is no question about it. Have you ever wondered why the Bible is called as Vedagamam in Tamil? It is not plagiarism but influence! Plagiarism or copying means a person using somebody’s work without attribution. This doesn’t apply to cultures.
Let me give you a lot of examples:
- The story of Adam in Bible is heavily influenced by Enkidu from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.
- The story of Noah and Manu was influenced by the great flood in the epic of Gilgamesh.
- The old testament doesn’t have the concept of hell or heaven. The divine justice is delivered on earth itself, which is indicated by fall or rise of states. This idea of divine justice was also borrowed from Sumerian-Mesopotamian cultures.
- The idea of Good and evil (Satan) in Bible was adapted from Persian religion; and Persian religion itself heavily borrowed from early Vedic religion.
- Vedic religion itself adapted many deities from other cultures: Dyaus, Usas and Ashvins come from proto-Indo European culture. Indra and Soma come from Bactria-Margiana culture. And according to Asko Parpola, Varuna was a deity native to Indus valley civilization ( I am a little skeptical of Parpola’s claim though).
- There was an ancient University in Taxila founded in 10th century BCE which should have certainly attracted students from all over the world, Even though majority of the people were unaware of other states and empires, there were certainly elites and traders who travelled long distance from the Near East. It is through the influence of this University, many ideas which existed in cultures close to it has travelled to far away lands. A lot of such ideas got distorted, modified, re-interpreted and even developed in the places where they reached. I see no other reason for development of new ideas during Axial age ( 800 BCE to 300 BCE) all over the world.
- Early Vedic religion did not have the concept of samsara, moksha or karma. But some individual rishis of Rig Veda might have been aware of such ideas already. These ideas were influenced by Sramana traditions and re-interpreted within Vedic context. Also, early Vedic religion neither had temples or idols.
- The stance against idolatry in Judaism was strongly influenced by the representation of the king and the state through images in Egypt . So, the stance against idolatry has a hidden and lost message: Do not consider a human being as infallible authority! But the Hebrew Bible is a theological and mythological narrative to explain real political events, such as the conquery of Israel by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and others. Along with this, Jewish mysticism which is close to Eastern traditions existed and their ideas also influenced the old Testament.
- Followed by Taxila university, Plato’s academy was established in Greece in c. 387 BC in Athens. The idea of eternal hell was developed by Plato as a social tool to discipline people who wouldn’t listen to reason. Later it was adopted by Abrahamic traditions. Plato’s allegory of cave is another metaphorical distinction between real and unreal, just like Vedanta.
- Muhammad travelled from Mecca to Damascus every year for trading. In Damascus, he must have been exposed to various mystical traditions. No, he didn’t copy them. He simply brought it to Arabia which by that time had no state, no law, and no justice; People had primitive social norms, killed female infants, raided caravans, married irresponsibly and abandoned orphans and widows. Once thing I can infer is, the intellectual gap between Muḥammad and his followers was very large. As historians agree, Islam indeed improved the status quo of pre-Islamic Arabia and was an improvement to the existing conditions . So many ideas which we think from Islam were already existing before Islam; Muhammad just managed to reform some of them but compromised and adapted some olden values too.
- Vedic religion had a concept of Rna or indebtedness. It simply means human beings are obligated to follow a law or Dharma and settle the debts he owes for the society and nature. Failure to do so simply means a lack of gratitude. Dharma means law or way of life. Initially, Dharma was only about ethics and order, wealth and pleasure. But after being influenced by Sramana traditions, Dharma also included the way to attain eternal peace. They came up with three means to do that: karma (doing your obligatory duties without being too attached to the fruits of actions), Jnana (a direct inquiry into the nature of existence) and bhakti (surrender and love to one and only supreme God). Now let us see how all this fits into Islam. Muhammad did not call Islam as a religion but called it as Deen. It means law or way of life, just like Dharma. And the word comes from Arabic for ‘dayne’ which means ‘debt’ (just like rna). And Muḥammad insisted that submission to God as true form of worship. Jihad means struggle, which is the same as Srama in Sramana. And the word ‘khafir‘ originally meant someone who lacked gratitude or someone who hides the truth. If you put together all the pieces and see the whole picture, it will make a lot of sense.
12. Muhammad did not claim that he was bringing something new. He simply claimed he was restoring the original form of worship by Abraham. Who is Abraham? People have noticed strong similarity between Abraham and Brahma and have suggest that Jews and Brahmins were the same. A passage that is quoted often for this is:
“The similarities between the names of Abraham and Brahma have not gone unnoticed. Abraham is said to be the father of the Jews, and Brahma, as the first created being, is often seen as the father of mankind…’ We might also note that the name of Brahma’s consort Sarasvati seems to resonate with that of Abraham’s wife, Sarah [… each one’s identity as a wife and/or sister]. Also, in India, the Sarasvati River includes a tributary known as the Ghaggar…. According to Jewish tradition, Hagar was Sarah’s maidservant…. Both Brahmins … and Jews see themselves as the ‘chosen people of God.’ The Hebrews began their sojourn through history as a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19:6). Likewise, Brahmins are also a community of priests. — Rosen in Essential Hinduism, p. 12.”
But I don’t think it is true; there is strong evidence against it. It will make more sense to consider Abraham as a metaphor for a Brahmin who lives between the rivers Sarasvati and Ghaggar. So who is the God of Abraham? It is more likely to be the fusion of aspects of Vedic deities Rudra and Varuna. When I was researching the origins of devotion or bhakti, I was able to trace it back until Varuna, who is described as the Lord of justice, expects surrender and repentance, just like Abrahamic God. And just like God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Varuna asks Harischandra to sacrifice his son. Later, the benevolent deity Yahweh (who is similar to Rudra, later syncretized with Shiva) absorbed all aspects of hundreds of older Jewish deities and the aspects of God of Abraham too. This also makes sense, because the same story about human sacrifice make a re-entry in India through a Tamil Text ‘Periya Puranam’ several centuries later. And this time it is Shiva (who absorbed Vedic Rudra) who comes in disguise as a sadhu and asks for human sacrifice of his son. Makes sense?
13. The lost or unknown years of Jesus in the Bible between the age 12–30 has been explained by many by saying that he has travelled the world, including Indian subcontinent. There is a document in monastery in ladakh which actually talks about Jesus studying there and it has been witnessed and translated by many. Jesus also said that he came to establish the Law (Halakha in Hebrew, which means the same as Dharma).
14. All cultures evolve their dharma like this: an animistic tradition that doesn’t have a concept of God but only believes in various spirits inside real world objects —-> Clan deities of various tribes forming a pantheon, sacrificial rituals and accompanying poetry — Evolutionary monotheism which happens by syncretism of various deities into one —-> Worship and surrender to one supreme God with names like Ishvara, Allah, Narayana etc. —-> The mystical path that involves realizing God as all that exists (Brahman, which is usually thought a direct result of worship and surrender to one God, along with Karma and Jnana. In Islam, there is Sufism; in Christianity there is Christian Mysticism; in Judaism, there is Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism. They all start with surrender and worship in the beginning of the path but also talk about the higher truth of oneness of Brahman; But since they use different names and concepts, use different teaching methods, enumerate the contents of consciousness differently (which is nothing but the actual meaning of Samkhya) and also define the stages of the spiritual paths differently, they all seem different. In addition to it, there are cultural, historical, political, linguistic, and geographical differences which has all been wrapped as a package to come up with the modern concept of religion .
15. Apart from Vedic and Sramana traditions, there were thousands of folk traditions with thousands of deities in India. Many were benevolent but absorbed into Buddhist mythology as yakshas and yakshinis who were the disciples of Buddha. They are also seen as various extensions of one reality in meditation. Vedic religion did the same thing by Sanskritizing all these deities and absorbing them into Shiva or Vishnu; if they were female deities, they merged with Shakthi or Lakshmi. And Shiva and Shakthi are again considered as two aspects of one divinity. Many people, especially from South of India think that this is bad. No, it is really not; the only negative consequence of this was denying entry and access to temple worship to people of specific social class. This is similar to ancient Egyptian tradition in which priests were the only ones who had access to temples and other people can only see the deity during processions. This Sanskritization of folk deities led to various monotheistic traditions like Shaivism and Vaishnavism, which were all united by Adhi Shankara as various paths of single dharma.
16. If you stop seeing things with modern lens using modern concept of religion, you can see the truth; if you take this modern concept as your identity and tend to feel superior towards it, it will certainly lead to intolerance. But if you go to the roots and see that it is all about dharma and its three aspects (bhakti, jnana and karma), then everything will be clear. You will agree with what I have written in this post: Shanmugam P’s answer to Why is Hinduism spreading so fast all over the world?
An article that you may be interested in: Pappankulam – A Village of Brahmins and Four Vedas