Cultural Parallels - Where East and West Meet

Swami Satyadharma Saraswati

Anyone attending the Sat Chandi Maha Yajna which was conducted last November in Rikhia would have been surprised to see the numbers of sincere and dedicated western participants. Disciples, sadhaks and friends of yoga from all parts of the world came to offer their respects to Paramahamsaji and to pay homage to the Universal Mother over the eight day period. Amongst those present were large groups from England and Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Australia. The number of European darshanartis equalled or surpassed the number of devotees coming from all parts of India.

Often people wonder how the western mind is so adaptable to yoga, and not only yoga but to the entire Indian culture. When yoga was first introduced to the West, it was thought that any traditional aspect of Indian culture, apart from the yogic science would be shunned as pagan and treated with disrespect. However, at the Sat Chandi Maha Yajna it was seen that Indian traditions are more cherished and respected by many westerners today than they are by the Indians themselves.

How is it that the ancient vedic and tantric philosophies, deities symbols and rituals have been understood and readily accepted by many westerners as true paths and vehicles of spiritual experience? It is as if these traditions, rituals and thoughts are not foreign to them. Rather they communicate with a part of them which reaches inside and connects with their ancient past, a part of their unconscious which they have long lost contact with and are unable to access or understand.

This allure of India and Indian spirituality seems very mysterious until we begin to investigate the pre-Christian tribes and traditions of many western countries. Now cultural research into ancient civilisations is coming up with some very interesting parallels between pre-Christian traditions in Europe and the vedic and tantric traditions of India. This research points towards amazing links between Indian culture and other spiritual cultures in ancient times.

It seems that the people of many pre-Christian tribes living in ancient Europe were kindred spirits to the vedic Sanatanis in India. The Celts and their predecessors, for example, were a spiritual people, speaking an Indo-European language which was very similar to Sanskrit. They were grouped into tribes which spanned the entire European continent, from Turkey to Britain and Ireland. Along with the Celts, other tribes such as Balts, Slavs, Germans and Nordics, settling as far north as Iceland, had languages and spiritual traditions which were on a par with the early vedic culture.

At dawn, Germans wearing loose flowing robes with their long hair tied up in a topknot, so reminiscent of the vedic Brahmins, bathed in sacred rivers, chanting eulogies of their patron deities, while performing their daily ablutions. The Slavs took seven steps around the holy fire to complete their marriage vows. The early Icelandic saga, 'Edda', contains many passages which are upanishadic in tone. The central ritual of many pre-Christian cultures, including the Celts, was the fire sacrifice, performed in geometric pits with offerings of herbs, mead and flour cakes, conducted with traditional chanting by the priests.

A wide route from India through Afghanistan, across the Caucasus mountains and southern Russia, along the west coast of Europe, Britain and Ireland, as far north as Iceland, marks the passage of this common spiritual culture which was a major influence on the lifestyle and thought of the Indo-Aryan and Indo-European races. The early Persians, the Hittites of ancient Turkey and the Greeks and Romans also spoke Indo-European languages and had parallel spiritual cultures.

In ancient times, the people of India, Asia Minor and Europe all shared similar languages and spiritual traditions. However, only the Sanatan culture survived the holy wars promulgated by the Christian and Mohammedan zealots. Even the Sanatan culture nearly succumbed to the influence of Buddhism, but was later revived and re-established as the modern day Hinduism, which is actually a combination of both the tantric and vedic cultures. Due to the revival of Hinduism by Adi Shankara in the seventh century A.D., the ancient spiritual culture of India was modified, but not lost.

What remains of the Celtic tradition, which was once so widespread, is found mainly in the Irish culture. Like the Vedas, ancient Irish literature which was memorised and transmitted through a twelve year training by an Irish priest/bard class, the inheritors of the Druids, gives us a glimpse of the ancient Celtic thought and lifestyle. Unfortunately, these hymns and sagas are written in a metaphorical language which we are unable to understand today. For the most part this literature has been lost. The only existing texts were written for the first time by Irish Christian monks in the seventh century. By that time Christian influence had eradicated most of the early traditions and replaced them with their own.

Although the Christian religion spread throughout the entire European continent, underneath, the people continued to pass down the ancient folklore and myths. Major temple sites were requisitioned and destroyed by the holy purges, but in more isolated places the land was still dotted with holy groves and springs, cremation and burial grounds, sacred rivers, mountains, valleys, seaside grottoes and treasure lakes, all bearing names and artefacts of the pre-Christian Celtic and other Indo-European pantheons.

Many of the ancient festivals days were also redesignated to honour Christian saints and holy days. For example, Christmas Day (December 25th) was originally based on the Roman festival of Mithra, the sun god, which in turn was derived from the Celtic festival of the winter solstice, an astronomical calculation used to determine the beginning of the new year. The same calculation was also used by Brahmins in early vedic times.

In this way, there are numerous parallels between the ancient European and Indian cultures and further research is bound to discover many more. We can easily see that the rishi and sannyasin counterparts in pre-Christian culture were the Druids. These nomadic priests roamed at will and were honoured by all the Celtic tribes. They were exempt from taxes and warfare, although they taught breathing and chanting techniques to warriors for inducing battle trance and high body heat, both of which are attributes of awakened psychic energy.

Druids were enlightened seers who remained unmarried. The ojas or subtle sexual forces stored in them were converted into psychic and spiritual forces. They sought higher levels of consciousness through meditation and in their tradition were representations of the rising kundalini, i.e. a leaping salmon fish. Special yogic sitting postures were used by them for meditation. They also recognised the power of specific sound syllables and words – mantras by which natural laws could be transmuted or individual mind or character could be altered.

Druids were said to be knowers of truth. They studied for twenty years in strict discipleship to master their oral, ritual tradition, science and psychic arts. They memorised the entire knowledge of the Celts and passed it on orally, forbidding written transmission. They were divided into several classes: seers, judges, royal advisors, hymn chanters, poet bards, sacrificers. They were also astronomers, healers and magicians. Similarly the Brahmins memorised the entire vedic scriptures and social laws, passing them on orally, forbidding writing. Brahmins also performed the sacrifices and chanted the vedic hymns. Enlightened Brahmins became rishis or seers. Others became royal advisors and some specialised in medicine and astronomy or astrology.

Druids memorised extremely lengthy poetic sagas that communicated spiritual metaphysics and civic laws. The poetic metre was a fixed syllable line, free form with three part cadence at the end. Brahmins also memorised lengthy poetic hymns and epics conveying spiritual knowledge and dharmic duty. The poetic metre used by them was also a fixed syllable line, free form with three part cadence at the end.

Druids taught that the human soul was indestructible, but the universe destroys and recreates itself through fire and water in a repeating cycle. This is very similar to the vedic concept of destruction and creation at the end of each kalpa or universal cycle. Celtic deities included gods and goddesses who represented forces of nature, land, mountains, rivers, lakes; who promoted and patronised ethics, justice, knowledge, arts and crafts, speech, medicine, harvests; and battled forces of darkness. This is very similar to the tantric and vedic pantheon of gods and goddesses.

The Celtic god of thunder was Taranus, who wielded the thunderbolt, similar to Indra. The god of fire was Aedh, pronounced uh-ee, very close to Agni. The sun god was Sulios, counterpart of Surya. The Celtic word for invocation is gutuater while the Sanskrit term is hotar. Celtic cosmology conceived of cosmic creation as a sacrifice of the primal Person. Purusha Suktam, part of Rig Veda, speaks of cosmic creation arising from the sacrifice of Purusha, the primal being. The Celtic term for breath was anal, whereas the Sanskrit term is prana. The Celtic term for soul was anam; the Sanskrit term is atman

Celtic society was divided into three hierarchical stratas of life: priests, warriors and producers which included merchants. Vedic society was divided into four classes: priests, warriors, merchants and workers. The Celtic ideal was to live 100 years. The vedic ideal was to live 100 autumns. The Celtic family unit was a group of four generations from the great grandfather. The ancient Hindu family unit was also a group of four generations from the great grandfather. The Celtic calendar was based on lunar months as is the Hindu calendar.

The similarities between these cultures and the popularity of yoga and Indian spirituality in the West today is perhaps a gauge of the deep correspondence of Indian culture and the ancient western culture which was totally eradicated by religious influences. Perhaps the westerners who flock to yoga and other Indian spiritual events like the Sat Chandi Maha Yajna are trying to find their lost roots which still exist in the depths of their unconscious. These ancient archetypes within them, which are crying out for the renewal of their lost cultural links, are again finding expression and being fostered by the teachings, philosophy and practices of yoga and other Indian spiritual traditions.