Plato and Early Upanishads Statue Hellenic Academy
Plato and the Upanishads – 1

Unlike Plato’s Dialogues which are the writings of one author, the Upanishads were composed and/or compiled by many different sages who lived in different periods and places; it is therefore understandable that there should be differences and even contradictions in some areas.


In this essay are examined some similarities and differences between Plato’s Dialogues and the (early) Upanishads. In giving Greek words I follow the usual transliteration except that I use u for the old and misleading y: so I write phusis instead of physis ‘nature’. I also innovate in writing the titles of the Dialogues in straight transliteration of the Greek instead of the old unnecessary latinized forms (e.g. Phaidon instead of Phaedo); but I retain Republic for Politeia and Laws for Nomoi since both are sound current words translating the original Greek titles.

P.T. Raju wrote: “Whitehead said that Western Philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato… Similarly, Indian philosophy can be considered to be a series of footnotes to the Upanishads” (1971: 15). It is relevant at this point to ask “What is philosophy?” and by answering this question to see how Plato’s Dialogues and the Upanishads are truly linked.

The word “philosophy” has passed into almost all languages. It is an ancient Greek word philosophia and means ‘love for wisdom’. This noun and the cognate verb philosophein ‘to philosophise’, appear mainly in the writings of Xenophon and Plato;[1] earlier thinkers were generally called phusikoi or phusiologoi, i.e. those inquiring into the nature (phusis) of the creation (or as Sankara called them, sristicintaka) or doctors/healers/magicians (GEL). Socrates broke away from the phusikoi ‘physicists/naturalists’ (sristicintakas) and the sophists who sold knowledge; he introduced and laid emphasis on what today we call Ethics, making philosophy a daily practical preoccupation so that a man might with the proper way of life achieve the highest good. He is made by Plato to say in the dialogue Phaidros (229E) “It seems to me ludicrous to study things external when I don’t know my own self”. Plato and Xenophon were both students of Socrates. This love of wisdom and its pursuit was, then, formulated in the Socratic circle (though other schools, like the Pythagoreans or the Eleatics, may have preceded), perhaps by Socrates himself, in the late 5th century BC, just as the golden age of Pericles with its wondrous burst of arts, crafts and sciences was about to end.

In the Socratic-Platonic teaching philosophia entailed Self-knowledge.This particular aspect is not entirely new. Some of the pre-Socratic philosophers also refer to self-knowledge. Herakleitos, this enigmatic aristocrat who lived in Ephesus about 100 years before Socrates, says in one of the extant fragments “I sought to know myself” edizesamen emauton. This quest for self-knowledge is central to Greek thought and is encapsulated in the ancient dictum, ascribed to Chilon and Thales and others of the Seven Sages and, of course, to the Delphic Oracle, “Know thyself” gnothi s’auton; the origin of this tradition is lost in the mists of Greek prehistory (Betz 1970). (But whether this ‘self-knowledge’ meant exactly what is understood by the upanishadic atmajnana is a moot point, as we shall see below.) The Delphic Oracle had declared Socrates to be the wisest man in Greece. He himself said repeatedly that he knew nothing since he knew not himself. Wisdom itself belongs to God alone, Socrates taught; but whoever pursues it may be called a philosopher (Phaidros 278D). In the same Dialogue the wise soul is said to reach the highest arch of heaven and there see the One True Being, eternal and unchanging aei on or ontos on (247E). This knowledge, or wisdom, is innate in man and Socrates engaged in dialogue with others so as to induce them to look into themselves and in this way to bring to their awareness their innate true knowledge (Menon 80Dff; Theaitetos 149Aff). These ideas too are not entirely new and we find them in the fragments of Herakleitos who says that wisdom is single and that knowledge of the self and of measure is within man. The Self (or soul, to be more precise, or reason, in some Platonic Dialogues) is the divine element in man, so we should escape from earthly existence to the level of the gods: this elevation means “becoming like a god (homoiosis theoi) as far as possible” (Theaitetos 176A- B). Timaios 47b describes the origin of philosophy as follows: “The vision of day and night, of months and circling years has produced the art of number; it has given us the concept of time and also the means of studying the nature of the universe – from which has arisen philosophy in all its ranges.” It is hardly different from the view in Theaitetos 155D (seconded by Aristotle) that love of wisdom begins with awe and wonder. The Timaios was written largely to explain in terms of the grand cosmic background why man could and should pursue divinization, which was the end of wisdom.

This ‘divinization’ or realization of one’s divine Self, which also goes back in the tradition (as with Empedocles), is to be achieved through sound ethical living, that is practising the noble virtues (arete) of justice dikaiosune, reverence eusebeia, temperance sophrosune etc; through dialectic, which was the acquisition of true ideas through discrimination and reason; and through meditation. This last aspect is either played down or totally omitted from learned studies on the Socratic-Platonic teaching.

There is the outward turn of consciousness through senses and body, writes Plato in the Phaidon, when it is in contact with the material world of change. But there is also an inward turn when the soul inquires by itself (withdrawn from body and senses) and reaches the pure, everlasting and changeless Being (aei on) where it rests and is in communion with that: “this state of the soul is called wisdom” (79D). A good example of this practice is given in the Sumposion when Socrates himself is said by Alkibiades to have stood in contemplation for hours (220C). This practice too, or something very similar, goes back a long way to the schools of Parmenides and of Pythagoras and the Orphics. One aspect of this practice was called egkoimesis which was sleeping or falling quiet in a temple to obtain prophetic dreams or cure for disease. Peter Kingsley, an eminent hellenist, examines this, calling it “incubation”, and writes: “Techniques could be provided for entering other states of consciousness. Otherwise, the emphasis was placed less and less on being given teachings and more and more on finding the inner resources to discover your own answers inside yourself” (1999: 213).

This system of ideas constitutes philosophia, according to Plato. The word “philosophy” today seems to me to have moved far from its original meaning and to be misused when various writers employ it to describe systems, methods and phenomena other than what Plato meant. The maltreatment of the term has become so very common now that people do not realize they are using it to describe quite different activities. Thus one contemporary scientist, A Rosenberg, published The Philosophy of Science (2000). Early on in his study Rosenberg writes, “Philosophy of science is a difficult subject to define in large part because philosophy is difficult to define” (p2). The scientist’s difficulty is understandable since philosophy has little to do with science. Apart from this we meet other curiosities like the “philosophy of cooking” or “of travelling” and so on. Philosophy itself is very clearly defined within Plato’s writings: it is the system of knowledge and practices whereby a man comes to know himself, realizes his divine nature and attains immortality; as is said in the Timaios, he returns to the region of the gods, to his native star, and lives in immortal felicity (42B). Anything else is not, strictly speaking, “philosophy”, such as also publications on the “philosophy” of cooking or motorcycling and the like: in some of these the writer tries to connect such activities with philosophical principles. What has happened is that the term has been taken over and given arbitrarily to different sorts of disciplines not concerned with Self-realization. (Aristotle and his followers helped with this, but that is another story.) In all such cases, as with Rosenberg, attempts at definition encounter difficulties. Modern science (the sum total of Physics, Chemistry, Biology and the like) has certain characteristics, its well-defined modes of inquiry, in other words, its own methods and nature; but it can hardly be said to have “philosophy”, except when the term is being misused.

The Upanishads fit most harmoniously within the frame outlined so far. Their basic teaching is that the true self of man (=atman; or, sometimes, purusa ‘person’) is the same as the self of the universe, Spirit Absolute (brahman), and they describe various approaches to discover this true self. This discovery is not an intellectual appreciation or mere understanding in theory and words but a real transformation of being much like Plato’s divinization (or becoming a god): it is a realization not in thought or vague feeling but with one’s whole being so that one sees and experiences everything in oneself and oneself in everything (e.g Isavasya Upanishat, 6-7) and it must (both teachings agree) take place in this life, in this world – not in some heaven after death.[2] This transformation or realization I take to be the essential link between Plato and the Upanishads and hereafter I shall discuss aspects related mainly to this. Unlike Plato’s Dialogues which are the writings of one author, the Upanishads were composed and/or compiled by many different sages who lived in different periods and places; it is therefore understandable that there should be differences and even contradictions in some areas. Although the Upanishads do not all fully agree on everything, they do agree on this central theme of the identity of Atman and brahman and variant formulations of other issues do not affect the discussion that follows.

The dates of Socrates and Plato are well known. Socrates was born in Athens in 470 BC and was put to death in 399 when Plato was a young man – his most brilliant and best known student. Plato was born in 427 founded his Academy in 387 and died in 347 BC. For the Upanishads we have no dates, only conjectures. I have repeatedly argued against the mainstream theory which has been assigning them to after 600 and for the early ones I have postulated a date in the mid-third millennium following the RV in the mid-fourth millennium and the Brahmana texts c 3000-2500 BC (Kazanas 2002).

Due to the brevity of this article which yet attempts to cover the major aspects of the Platonic and upanishadic teachings, I tend to use simplifications, avoiding as much as possible the technical terms of professional philosophers (ontology, epistemology, metaphysics and so on). But I also follow the simple language of the texts because in this way the writing will be more readily comprehended by non-experts who have an interest in the subject. For this reason I shall not refer to secondary sources but shall examine the texts only.

(In the next part similarities and differences between Plato’s thoughts and Upanishads will be examined)


[1] The verb philosophein was first used by Herodotus, the historian (I, 30), ‘to love, pursue knowledge’; according to Cicero, the Roman orator and philosopher (1st cent BC), Pythagoras called himself philosophos, ‘one who loves, seeks wisdom’ and Diogenes Laertius (3rd cent CE) repeats this: see GEL under philosophein and philosophos. Both Cicero and Laertius are too late to give reliable information about Pythagoras. However, if this late tradition is true and Pythagoras (or his early followers) first used these words, the meaning would have been much the same as in Plato, since the Pythagoreans had similar aims and Plato learnt from them as from the Eleatics of Parmenides in South Italy. (The same applies to the presence of philosophos in the Heracleitean fragment 35 ‘Philosophers must be enquirers into very many things’. This fragment is regarded spurious since in others Heracleitos criticizes learned men like Pythagoras, Hekataeus and others.)

[2] BU I, 4, 10 states that whoever among the gods knows or wakes up to (pratibudh-) the Brahman he becomes That. This seems to be corroborated by Brahmasatra I, 3, 26 which says that beings higher than humans (i.e. gods) may know the Brahman. Sankara accepts this possibility. However, here I am concerned with human beings; if one should become a god, that is a different matter.

The paper first appeared in Omilos Meleton, Athens: January 2004 and has been republished with author’s permission.

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