I am just about to finish reading a rather interesting book about the history of Samurai (The Religion of the Samurai – A Study of Zen Philosophy and Discipline in China and Japan by Kaiten Nukariya.) It talks about how Buddhism reached China and Japan from India few 1000s year before. How Indian texts were translated to Chinese and then to Japanese and how the original Indian philosophy behind Buddhism was adapted by incorporating Taoism and Confucius philosophy. The only aspect of various forms of Buddhism including Zen that has remained more or less unaltered is supposedly Meditation (I learnt that the word Zen actually is the Japanese way of saying the word Chan, which is the shorter version of Channa, which it seems is the transliteration of the Sanskrit word Dhyana – meaning meditation.)
I also read recently that the first known instance of presence of Jews in India (Kerala) was around 500 BC. And it is said that the first instance of Christianity in India is known in 54 A.D.
I have also been reading a book from 1030 AD (Alberuni’s India – An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of India about A.D. 1030) This was written by Muhammad ibn Ahmad Biruni and translated by Dr. Edward C. Sachau in 1910. Alberuni travelled to India from the Middle East and was fascinated by what he saw.
And then there are the fascinating temples of Ankor Vat in Cambodia.
Now it is not that I am too keen on reading history. I have a fascination for some aspects of Buddhism – including Zen Philosophy and meditation (I try to practice Vipassana) and the description by Alberuni actually answered many of the questions I had that were never answered by the history that I learnt while at School (could very well be that I was not giving sufficient attention.)
But the reason I point these out is that I am amazed at the similarity between what happened 1000s of years back and what is happening today – probably one of the best books that describes it is The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman.
I am convinced that those days, with the limitations of not having aircraft, internet etc. the world was already quite well connected – in terms of social elements (highlighted by the spread of religions) and economically (evident from the spread of a common mathematical symbology – the numbers.)
And I think it is important to understand the similarities particularly because at some period in the not so distant past the societies around the world somehow lost their way leading to a rather long period of war and fighting and when we lost a large part of the knowledge and wisdom that had been accumulated over centuries.
Niall Fergusson’s The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World talks about the story of the Spanish after they went to South America, was able to amass huge quantity of wealth as unlike the Inca Empire which had labour as the unit of measure (or money) thought of Silver as wealth and got hold of literally a whole mountain of silver. But just the fact that they had more and more silver meant that the intrinsic value of Silver as a unit of measure kept going down.
The recent events in our financial markets – no I am not talking about the masses going and taking the cheap credit which was made available to them – but rather the crisis due to the mega greed shown by the bankers on Wall Street has strong similarities for me to what happened to the Spanish Conquistadors. And I think it is important that we as a society learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid them today (we will make mistakes for sure, but let them be something new – it is more fun, and less stupid than to make the same mistakes over and over again!)
While the threshold for global travel has gone down, and perhaps the quality of those travelling around has changed as well (in the past my guess would be that one of the critical skill required would have been fearlessness and physical endurance to live through the travails of long journeys) – the basic tenets should not have changed much. While I strongly believe that we are superior today as a civilisation compared to 2000 years back – simply because we are standing on the shoulders of our forefathers (was it Isaac Newton who said this?) the moment we kick those shoulders away, we start to come down. And I have a strong feeling that during the last 500 – 800 years we probably did a lot of that, which we have successfully started to reclaim over the past 50 or so years (and hence the progress we have been able to make.)