Philosophy and the Archaic Asian Civilisations

When people discuss philosophy they often mention the usual Greek crowd, like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle or Thalēs, but many forget that Asia, especially India, Iran and China, had their fair share of philosophical thinkers.

Chinese Philosophy

The main attributes of Chinese thinking was humanity, and the basis was Humanism, which involved practical and political morality. This being said, they didn’t disregard the metaphysical and many studied the book ‘Yi Jing’ ‘易經’ (Book of Changes) by Wenwang which is one of the five ‘classics’ of Confucianism, and if you were able to understand it, then you’d understand nature.

Confucius and Confucianism

Confucius is without a doubt the most famous and influential of the Chinese philosophers, and politicians. He was born 551 BCE as K’ung Ch’iu (Confucius was Latinised) in the Zhōu territory in China. He was born into a military family, but his father died at aged three, and his mother was left with the sole responsibility of raising him. He started his education at a school for commoners as his mother now lived in poverty, and he was taught the six arts of China (六艺) that was mandatory during the Zhōu Dynasty (1046256 BC)

• Ritual (礼)

• Music (乐)

• Archery (射)

• Charioteering (御)

• Writing (书)

• Mathematics (数)

Confucianism studied social, justice, morality, sincerity, and all of his students were guided by the principal of the ‘Golden Rule’.

“Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” – Confucius

In his early thirties Confucius was a well established, respected teacher, and turned education in to a way of life and encouraged it as a vocation for his students. Confucius’ primary concern was ‘junzI’, which was a process where a person bettered themselves, through Humanism, social interaction and directing politics on an ethical and virtuous direction. He soon became known as ‘K’ung Futzu’ (K’ung the Master). He had many disciples over the years and died in 479 BCE, and left a huge legacy that gave China direction for many years, that focused on family, morals, and the role of the good ruler, who many of his disciples became across the vast country of China. He believed that not one man was born better than another, and this led to the philosophy of equality, and regardless of social circles or status, doesn’t determine any moral superiority.

“Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?” – Confucius

LaoTzu and Taoism

Lao-Tzu was allegedly the founder of Taoism, or Daoism which is a philosophy and a he was a deity in Taoist religion, which questions his true existence. Taoism involves living in harmony with the Tao, Dào meaning ‘the way‘ ,which is a reality that taoists associate with the natural world, which they attempt to harmonise with. They believe that ‘wu-wei‘, the process of emptying the mind to meditation will lead to happiness and wisdom. Both Taoism and Confucianism tend to sit side by side on Chinese culture, with Taoism bettering the spiritual side of human nature, and Confucianism bettering social duty and morality.

There are approximately 20,000,000 Taoists, with the majority being in China, but it’s also heavily involved with people who practise the martial art Tai Chi. As a religion, it focuses on being at one with nature and the universe, and like most Chinese philosophy it’s about being a decent, ethical or morally sound individual. It’s not in conflict with Confucianism, but it compliments, and adhering to both gives a spiritual and physical wellbeing that can lead to a virtuous life.

“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.” – Lao Tzu

Sun Tzu and the Art of War

Sun Tzu was born in China in the 5th century BCE, under the name Sun Wu. Little is known about his early life, but as an adult he became a military general, strategist, writer and a Taoist philosopher who became a household name for his written work ‘The Art of War‘. It’s actually mostly advice on how to avoid war where possible, and it gained him legendary status in China where he adopted the name ‘Sun Tzu‘ (master sun).

During the spring and Autumn period in Chinese history, Sun served king Helü of Wu, as his military strategist, but many scholars are sceptical about whether he ever existed at all, and if he didn’t, who wrote the Art of War, and why use a pseudonym? It’s said that he brought Taoist ideas to war, and didn’t consider it a sport like many Chinese nobility believed. He believed that if possible war should be avoided and that helped lead to a virtuous life.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” – Sun Tzu

Indian philosophy

Philosophy in India is generally split into two categories.

Orthodox Hinduism

Nyāya focuses on logic and reason.

Vaiśeṣika focuses on metaphysics.

Sankhya focuses on dualism; matter and eternal spirit.

Yoga focuses on the physical, mental, and spiritual.

Mīmāṃsā focuses on contemplation and investigation.

Vedanta focuses on the culmination of wisdom and a spiritual journey, which focus of divine knowledge passed from (‘God’ – meaning infinite existence, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss) throughout generations.

Heterodox

Jainism focuses on spiritual purity and causing no harm to living creatures.

Buddhism has many branches and schisms depending on where in the world it’s practised but early Buddhism focused on the four noble truths;

1: The truth of suffering (Dukkha)

2: The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya)

3: The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha)

4: The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)

Ajivika focuses on fate, and that there’s no such thing as free-will.

Ajñana is similar in nature to Ancient Greek skepticism, and claimed that knowledge was irrelevant, and disadvantageous to final salvation.

Cārvāka focuses on materialism, which is atheistic in nature and denies the soul or other worlds, be magical or spiritual, or an afterword.

Buddha and Buddhism

Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha) was the founder of Buddhism, and was a philosopher, writer, teacher, and a monk, who’s iconic throughout the world. Despite being Buddhism being Indian in origin, alongside Taoism, and Confucianism, it’s one of the big three Chinese philosophies, and many schools are devoted it its teachings.

Buddhism is the world’s current fourth largest religion, behind the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam, and the religion of Hinduism, and it’s commonly practised in the Eastern parts of Asia. Buddhism is an atheistic religion, meaning that there are no deities. Their focus is spiritual enlightenment, which can be achieved through meditation, wisdom and leading and ethical and moral life. Many theologists see Buddhism more of a ‘way of life‘ as opposed to a religion. As well as the ‘four noble truths‘ which I touched upon earlier, they strive to avoid over-indulgence or selfish acts, to to adhere to the Eightfold Path, which is:

Right understanding

Right thought

Right speech

Right conduct

Right means of making a living

Right mental attitude or effort

Right mindfulness

Right concentration

With the focus on ethics, nature, virtue, wisdom, concentration and will power, Buddhism can achieve a spiritual morality, that can’t be achieved in the same way as worshipping an over-egotistical God.

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Siddhārtha Gautama

Parshvanatha

Parshvanatha was a monk and is considered to be the first recognised teacher of Jainism, but Rishabhanatha is claimed to be the founder, although other scholars claim Mahavira was the founder. Parshvanatha allegedly taught Jainism for 70 years and his students were taught non-violence, non-theft, non-possession, and non-lying, non-physical indulgence. I would imagine that Jainism was quite a bleak existence as you weren’t allowed to maintain or build relationships with anyone, or allow yourself to get attached to anything or anyone.

Parshvanatha created the ‘fourfold restraint‘ which eventually became the five vows after Mahavira’s (the killjoy) added celibacy. Dharanendra and his wife Padmāvatī are Gods who protect Parshvanatha, as when he was young he saved two snakes that were trapped and they were reborn as the two Jainism’s serpent Gods; Dharanendra is lord of the Naga Underworld.

Parshvanatha was born in Benares, India, into royalty and he was a prince in the Ikshvaku dynasty, and his parents were King Ashwasena and Queen Vamadevi of Benares. Jain texts claim that he lived until he was 100 years old, and that before he was born he was the God, Indra.

The symbol of Jainism

At aged 16 he refused to marry against his father‘s wishes, and resorted to meditation claiming his soul was his only friend, and by 30 years old he’d decided that he was going to become a monk, which involved him removing his clothes and hair and meditating for close to three months, where he studied and acted out the vows of Jain tradition. At the 84th day he claimed omniscience and set up a temple to teach Jainism, and according to the Jain text of the Kalpa Sūtra he educated up to half a million monks.

Chanakya

Chanakya, or sometimes known as Kauṭilya or Vishnugupta, was a teacher, author, philosopher, economist and a royal advisor to Chandragupta who reigned 321–c. 297 as the founder of the Mauryan empire in India. He was well educated in Takshashila, which was India but now Pakistan, and became knowledgeable in subjects including economics, political science, war strategies, medicine and astrology. He became familiar with Greek philosophy from the visiting Zoroastrians, and his interest in philosophy flourished. Upon finishing his education he stayed at Takshashila and became a teacher in political science and economics.

Chanakya wrote the book ‘Arthashastra‘ which focuses on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, and is roughly translated to ‘the science of politics.

It includes books on the nature of government, law, civil and criminal court systems, ethics, economics, markets and trade, the methods for screening ministers, diplomacy, theories on war, nature of peace, and the duties and obligations of a king. The text incorporates Hindu philosophy, which includes ancient economic and cultural details on agriculture, mineralogy, mining and metals, animal husbandry, medicine, forests and wildlife.” – Source

Middle Eastern philosophy

Zaraθuštra

Zaraθuštra, also known as Zoroaster, is under debate as to when he lived, and some historians claim it was the second millennium BCE, but others claim it was more around the time of Cyrus the Great in the 6th/7th century BCE. At a young age he began training for priesthood and officially became a priest in his teens.

Zaraθuštra was a Persian, now Iran, and was the founder of the religion Zoroastrianism who is claimed to have a big influence on the founding of Judaism. His belief was monotheism (one God) and dualism ( Good vs Evil), and the Zoroastrian deity was called Ahura Mazdā, (wise Lord).

“Ahura Mazdā is the creator of heaven and earth—i.e., of the material and the spiritual world. He is the source of the alternation of light and darkness, the sovereign lawgiver, and the very centre of nature.” – Source

Sound familiar?

Ahura Mazdā had a nemesis called Angra Mainyu, the devil if you will, who is evil and his followers are evil.

And Christians say that Christianity isn’t plagiarism.

“After judgement is passed by Ahura Mazdā, the good enter the kingdom of everlasting joy and light, and the bad are consigned to the regions of horror and darkness” – Source

Sprach Zaraθuštra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen is a book written by the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, which deals with Zaraθuštra‘s take on good and evil and moral values in the Metaphysical world. Zaraθuštra’s belief was that his God gave mankind freewill and it was their choice if they followed the light or followed the dark. The following tenets make up Zoroastrianism:

  • Follow the Threefold Path of Asha: Humata, Huxta, Huvarshta (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds).

  • Charity is a way of maintaining one’s soul aligned to Asha and to spread happiness.

  • The spiritual equality and duty of the genders.

  • Being good for goodness’ sake without hope of reward Source

As you can see, moral values existed before Jesus allegedly existed, but the from another cult who murdered him whilst Zaraθuštra was praying missed the morality memo it seems.

“Living a virtuous life supports Ahura Mazda and contributes to the triumph of good over evil.” – Zaraθuštra

Zaraθuštra‘s philosophy on ethics and morality had a huge impact on Greek and Roman philosophers who claimed he was the most useful of thinkers, and Plato incorporated some of it into his ethical realism.

Cyrus II of Persia

Cyrus II of Persia, also known as Cyrus the Great, was born in the 6th century BCE, who is said to have formed the Achaemenian Empire. Persians admired him greatly, and he was known as a liberator and was one of the first leaders to advocate human rights, and despite conquering many lands, he was said to be fair and just. Greek writers and historians claimed he was the ‘ideal ruler‘ and Persians called him their ‘father‘, as he’d become the epitome of the qualities expected of a ruler.

Cyrus was interested in philosophy, human rights and welfare, and equality. The United Nations Headquarters in New York has a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder which is a symbol of freedom and tolerance. The Cyrus Cylinder, considered to be the first declaration of human rights, resides in the British Museum.

His philosophical politics, and his democracy influenced Thomas Jefferson on the U.S Constitution. He was also famed for allowing religious freedom and traditions in places he conquered and believed in removing tyranny from power. He believed in freedom of choice, he abolished slavery and liberated many kingdoms, and created a strong political infrastructure. He created a philosophy of political science, that’s still taught to this day, and he’s influenced many philosophers, including the Greeks who adopted his political style.