Meet the Greek rishi who taught reincarnation, vegetarianism and more
Pythagoras is generally accepted to be one of the most significant fountainheads of Western thought. Of particular interest to Hindus is the fact that his teachings were in tune with the thinking of the far East—especially India. In this article, Peter Westbrook, a writer and lecturer on music and cosmology, amplifies these connections. He and John Strohmeier co-authored “Divine Harmony,” a book that recounts the fascinating story of the life and teachings of this legendary man.
BY JOHN STROHMEIER AND
MANY CENTURIES AGO THERE LIVED a great teacher who was part of an ancient guru parampara (line of gurus). For nearly forty years he traveled extensively and studied at the feet of many masters. Eventually, he founded a community centered on an ashram where he advocated a contemplative, vegetarian lifestyle, taught the doctrine of reincarnation and trained his followers in sacred knowledge aimed at uniting the human soul with the Divine. His biographers attribute miraculous abilities to him, including the ability to mentally perceive the deepest structures of cosmic life. Was this some Vedic rishi or Hindu sage? No—this was Pythagoras of Samos, a Greek who was one of the founders of the Western tradition.
A Renaissance Man
Today Pythagoras is best remembered for the mathematical theorem he is said to have created—the one about the square of the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle equaling the sum of the squares of the other two sides. But Pythagoras was responsible for much more than that. He played a pivotal role in transmitting the wisdom of ancient traditions to the modern world. At the same time, he stands at the fountainhead of Western culture. According to historian Daniel Boorstin, the ideas he set in motion were among the most potent in modern history. Mathematics, science, philosophy, music—none of these would have taken the shape they did in the Western world without Pythagoras’ discoveries. No understanding of history is possible without an appreciation of the thoughts and influence of this first scientist and philosopher—especially when we consider the perceived gap between Hinduism and Western thought. Yet of all the founders of the Western tradition, Pythagoras is by far the least known.
Wisdom incarnate: Figure of Pythagoras from the West Facade of Chartres Cathedral in France.
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As with many figures from antiquity, facts about Pythagoras’ life are sketchy. Like his contemporary, the Buddha, he is said to be one of those divine men of whom history knows least because their lives were at once transfigured into legend. Nevertheless, a number of early writers have left us biographical information from which we have reconstructed his story in our book Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras.
Pythagoras was born on the Greek island of Samos around 569 bce. Miraculous events surrounded his life from the very beginning. Legend holds that he was the son of Apollo, the Hellenic God of music and learning, and his birth was foretold by the oracle at Delphi. His early years were spent studying at all the centers of scientific and sacred learning in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. Eventually, he made his way to Egypt, where for over twenty years he absorbed the Egyptians’ knowledge of mathematics, music and medicine and their mystical teachings regarding the soul and the stages of its evolution.
Pythagoras’ time in Egypt ended when the country was overrun by the armies of the Persian empire and he was taken into captivity in Babylon. This proved to be a blessing in disguise. Recognizing his prodigious learning and receptivity to new ideas, the Persian magi took Pythagoras into their confidence and he became a student of their equally ancient mystery school. He was also subject to other influences during this time, and probably undertook further travels. Some writers believe he actually went as far as India; others accept that he studied and absorbed in some form the Vedic philosophy of ancient India, which was known in Persia at this time. And there was probably direct contact between India and Greece before the time of Alexander. Vitsaxis G. Vassilis argues in his book Plato and the Upanishads that exponents of literature, science, philosophy and religion traveled regularly between the two countries. He points to accounts by Eusebius and Aristoxenes of the visits of Indian sages to Athens and their meetings with Greek philosophers. The visit of Indians to Athens is also referenced in the fragment of Aristotle preserved in the writings of Diogenes Laertius, who was also one of Pythagoras’ biographers.
On a medallion engraved in 395 ce.
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We can judge the most important influences on Pythagoras’ thought by what he himself taught. His teaching began in earnest at the age of 56, when he returned from his travels and settled in Greece. Initially, he returned to Samos and established a school there, but he faced great pressure to enter politics. Preferring to pursue scientific research, philosophical discussion and solitary contemplation, he relocated to the city of Kroton, a Greek settlement in southern Italy. Here he established a philosophical community which was to become known as the Pythagorean brotherhood.
The essence of the doctrine underlying this community was conveyed, we are told, in the first lecture Pythagoras gave to those who gathered there, attracted by the fame that now preceded him. He taught them that the soul is immortal and that after death it migrates into other animate bodies. He said that all living things are kin and should be considered as belonging to one great family. He introduced new explanations of Gods and spirits, of the heavenly spheres, of all the natures contained in heaven and earth, and of all the natures in between the visible and invisible.
The book, Divine Harmony.
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From this comprehensive vision emerge all the details of Pythagorean philosophy. From the vision itself comes a central idea—Kosmos, a word coined by Pythagoras. Its original meaning was more than merely “everything that exists.” The Greek root of the word also gives us the word cosmetic. It implies beauty, adornment, an aesthetic component that springs from an inherent order that Pythagoras described by the term Harmonia, the divine principle that brings order to chaos and discord. This order also expresses itself as philia, love or friendship. For Pythagoras, philia was a cosmic force that attracts all the elements of nature into harmonious relationships. It helps preserve the order of planets as they move across the sky, and encourages men and women, once their souls have been purified, to help one another. To the Pythagoreans, the greatest love (philia) was that of wisdom (sophia). Thus Pythagoras was the first Western philosopher (philia + sophia).
Just as in the Indian tradition, Pythagoras taught that different songs and modes were appropriate to different hours and seasons. In the spring, for example, he would arrange a ritual in which a group of disciples would sit in a circle with a lyre player seated in the middle. As the instrumentalist produced a melody, the others would begin to sing together in a spontaneous fashion, from which would emerge a song in unison, creating a powerful sense of joy. This ritual was also modified for use as a medicine to treat diseases of the body. Many stories have been handed down that illustrate Pythagoras’ influence through music.
For the members of his brotherhood, the greatest goal of wisdom was attaining to the Divine. For this, Pythagoras recommended a highly disciplined lifestyle in a loving community. Entry into Pythagoras’ community, essentially an ashram, required a lengthy and rigorous examination, including five years of silence. Once admitted to the inner circle, the students were exposed to abstract realms of study designed to turn attention to inner, universal values of consciousness for soul purification.
Though modern science traces its origins to Pythagoras, it eventually came to discard his mystical teachings. Perhaps science needs to re-embrace the inclusive vision of this Western rishi.
For extracts from Divine Harmony: The Life and Teachings of Pythagoras, see: pythagoras-divineharmony.com