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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Comparing the Indian and Jewish civilizations is an idea born in the West, probably among Hellenistic Greeks of the 3rd century BCE, and it has remained a Western tradition. The Western view has little to do with real encounters between Indians and Jews. It has everything to do with a Western fascination with the mysterious East and with Christian attempts to find early Biblical truth in remote civilizations, such as India or China. This Western tradition of comparing Indians and Jews did have echoes in Hellenistic, Jewish, Medieval Jewish and modern Jewish thought. Its influence on Hindu thought was much smaller and can only be detected in the early 19th century. A prominent case is the influential Hindu reformer Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) from Bengal. He rejected popular Hindu polytheism and superstition, preached the “unity of God” as a monotheistic expression of Hinduism, and wanted to learn Hebrew to read the Bible in the original. It is not known whether he met Jews in India or London, but he was influenced by Christianity.

In the West, the impulse to compare Indians and Jews never ceased. From the early 18th century on, a number of French and German authors published books speculating about links or similarities between Judaism and Hinduism.2 Today, nearly all of their works are forgotten. Not forgotten are two great European philosophers who added significant, but contradictory reflections to this debate. Both represent fundamental strands of European thought. The first is Voltaire, the leading figure of the French Enlightenment. He admired Indian religion and philosophy of which he knew little because no reliable European translations of the old Indian texts were available in his time. He used his imaginary India to vent his spleen against the Jews and Judaism, which he decried as the source of the hated Biblical religion and Christianity.3 This was Voltaire’s argument: if there was a spiritual or historical relationship at all between the Jews and India as other Western authors assumed, it was based on intellectual theft: the “Aryan” Indians had an older, purer monotheistic religion thousands of years before the Jews. The Jews “plagiarized” from India what may be valid in Judaism and degraded it. No scholar ever took Voltaire’s views on this question seriously. But his celebration of Indian religion as an alleged historical counterpoint to Judaism and Biblical religion spawned a line of anti-Semitic polemics which continued into the 20th century and sometimes referred explicitly to Voltaire. The Nazi leader who was in charge of the “Final Solution,” the extermination of the Jewish people, pretended to admire Hindu and Tibetan culture because they were allegedly “Aryan.”

In the 20th century, the anti-Nazi German philosopher Karl Jaspers defended an opposite position. In 1949 he published his book The Origin and Goal of History,4 a new philosophy of history that had considerable influence in his time. He argued that all our morality and world views trace back to an enormous spiritual paradigm shift which occurred around the 5th century BCE in four different, unconnected places: Greece with its famous philosophers, Israel with its major prophets, India with Buddha, and China with Confucius and Lao Tzu. Jaspers called this period the Axial Age, the axis of world history. He emphasized that it was futile to look for sociological explanations for why this breakthrough occurred almost simultaneously in these few, but no other, places. He excluded any mutual influence between these four great civilizations. Yet, this breakthrough generated a spiritual and moral kinship between them and with those that followed in their footsteps, such as the successor religions of Judaism. In Jaspers’ own words:

“The axis of world history seems to be the time of approximately 500 BCE … There lies the most decisive turning point of history. There emerges the kind of human being with whom we live to this day … Extraordinary developments are concentrated in this period … What is new in this period in all three parts of the world (Greece, Near East, Asia), is that man becomes aware of his existence as a whole, his self, his limits. He experiences the dreadfulness of the world and his own impotence. He asks radical questions. Facing the abyss, he craves for liberation and salvation.”5

Hence, if Jaspers is right, there are deep spiritual parallels between Israel as it emerged during and after the destruction of the First Temple and India during and after the time of Buddha. Both experienced “the dreadfulness of the world,” their “impotence,” asked “radical questions,” and craved “salvation.” Here, Jaspers chooses terms that apply particularly to many of Israel’s prophets as well as to Buddha and his followers. He claims that civilizations that have experienced an Axial Age can at the deepest level understand each other and communicate with each other. If the encounters between the Indian and Jewish civilizations described in the following chapters have a deeper metaphysical and not only practical content, Karl Jaspers expressed it best.

The question of whether or not there are deep spiritual parallels between the two civilizations emerged again during an event in Jerusalem in 2011. Two contradictory opinions on the subject were expressed. A number of distinguished Indian and Israeli writers met in Jerusalem in order to speak about each other’s books and worldviews.6 The discussions paired one Indian and one Israeli, who spoke before a large public audience. Tarun J. Tejpal, regarded as one of India’s brilliant novelists and intellectuals, and also a journalist and editor, sat with the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua. As mentioned above, in 1994 A.B.Yehoshua had published his widely acclaimed Return from India (Open Heart in the English translation) in which he described the people, places, ceremonies, and feelings of India with remarkable accuracy. What attracted him to India, he said, was that he found there the civilization most different and remote from his own. But Tejpal contradicted him saying that the two civilizations are much nearer than Yehoshua believed, and this was exactly the reason he understood India so well without ever having set foot there. Puzzled, Yehoshua did not reply. Later in the discussion he asked Tejpal which author had the deepest influence on him, and Tejpal replied without hesitation: Franz Kafka. Again, Yehoshua was puzzled and wondered how it was possible that the most Jewish of all 20th century writers could have so much resonance with an Indian.