Kundalini in ancient Greek and other non-Indian cultures

Thomas McEvilley has done a systematic study of the correspondence between ancient Greek and Indian philosophy in his 2001 book The Shape of Ancient Thought. This post summarizes his discovery of the Kundalini concept in Greek and other ancient non-Indian cultures.   The manner in which these concepts were divined or disseminated through various ancient cultures is a matter of contention, which I shall not pursue here.

The concept of Kundalini is well-known in ancient Indian scriptures and modern Yoga circles.  There is supposed to be a subtle central channel named Sushumna alongside which run two auxiliary channels named Ida and Pingala.   These two auxiliary channels are intertwined and criss-cross each other at five junctions which are called Chakras.  The goal of Yoga is to practice Tapas (austerity) which conserves Retas and changes it to Ojas,  (see the previous post on Transmutation of sexual energy for more) which eventually causes the Kundalini, a secret libidinal force which lies dormant at the base of the spine, to rise up through the Sushumna channel until it reaches the Sahasrara Chakra at the top of the brain.  When this ascension of Kundalini occurs, the practitioner of Yoga is supposed to experience an incomparable ecstasy and when this power stabilizes in the head, it results in  what is called Enlightenment or Self-realization, after which the soul is said to be freed from the cycle of reincarnation.

Greece

Thomas McEvilley cites Plato’s Timaeus which seems to discuss something similar to the Hindu doctrine of the Kundalini.  In this book, Plato speaks of the divine seed which resides in the brain, which flows down the spinal column towards the sexual organs.  He discusses two hidden channels which flow alongside the spinal column, which intertwine with each other at the throat and the heart knots(Chakras).   Plato distinguished between two forms of Eros (Love).  True Eros is the desire of the higher soul to be united with the World soul.  When the soul becomes embodied in Matter and experiences the bewilderment of Time, True Eros or the desire for supreme knowledge is replaced by False Eros, which is sexual desire.

It may be beneficial to present some of the exact passages which McEvilley cites, so here they are as extracted from the translation by Benjamin Jowett.  I used the translation available online here.  There are other translations here and here.

In the first passage, Plato while discussing the formation of the human body mentions the soul-stuff (divine seed) that resides in the brain.

“That which, like a field, was to receive the divine seed, he made round every way, and called that portion of the marrow, brain, intending that, when an animal was perfected, the vessel containing this substance should be the head; but that which was intended to contain the remaining and mortal part of the soul”

[Plato. Timaeus, More about the body, 73c]

In this passage, Plato discusses of the two auxiliary channels (Ida and Pingala) which flow alongside the central Sushumna, as well as the the places where they intertwine.

“In the first place, they cut two hidden channels or veins down the back where the skin and the flesh join, which answered severally to the right and left side of the body. These they let down along the backbone, so as to have the marrow of generation between them, where it was most likely to flourish, and in order that the stream coming down from above might flow freely to the other parts, and equalise the irrigation. In the next place, they divided the veins about the head, and interlacing them, they sent them in opposite directions; those coming from the right side they sent to the left of the body, and those from the left they diverted towards the right,”

[Plato. Timaeus, More about the body, 77 d]

In this passage, Plato discusses the virtues of continence.

“He who has the seed about the spinal marrow too plentiful and overflowing, like a tree overladen with fruit, has many throes, and also obtains many pleasures in his desires and their offspring, and is for the most part of his life deranged, because his pleasures and pains are so very great; his soul is rendered foolish and disordered by his body; yet he is regarded not as one diseased, but as one who is voluntarily bad, which is a mistake. The truth is that the intemperance of love is a disease of the soul due chiefly to the moisture and fluidity which is produced in one of the elements by the loose consistency of the bones. And in general, all that which is termed the incontinence of pleasure and is deemed a reproach under the idea that the wicked voluntarily do wrong is not justly a matter for reproach.”

[Plato. Timaeus, Diseases and therapy of the soul, 86d]

Here, he discusses the manner in which the sexual organs are connected to the head through the vertebral column; the latter serves as a conduit for the “seed” which gives life.

“The outlet for drink by which liquids pass through the lung under the kidneys and into the bladder, which receives then by the pressure of the air emits them, was so fashioned by them as to penetrate also into the body of the marrow, which passes from the head along the neck and through the back, and which in the preceding discourse we have named the seed. And the seed having life, and becoming endowed with respiration, produces in that part in which it respires a lively desire of emission, and thus creates in us the love of procreation.”

[Plato. Timaeus, Genesis of Other Animals, 91b]

Knowledge of something akin to Kundalini seems to have been pervasive in ancient Greece, according to McEvilley.  The Greeks referred to the spinal column as the Holy tube(hiera surinx).   The Pythagorean and Orphic schools taught that semen comes from brain and is of one substance with the spinal marrow.  Homer mentions that the cerebro-spinal fluid  engkephalos was endowed with life-power.  Alcmaeon of Croton stated that “holy tube” conducted engkephalos from the brain to the base of the spine, where it becomes semen.  Diogenes of Appolonia, as quoted by Aristotle, is also said to have referred to the two auxiliary channels beside the spinal column:

‘The veins in man are as follows:- There are two veins pre-eminent in magnitude. These extend through the belly along the backbone, one to right, one to left; either one to the leg on its own side, and upwards to the head, past the collar bones, through the throat.” (Aristotle, Historia Animalium)

As McEvilley states in the book, the correspondence is noteworthy because anatomists cannot discover these occult concepts by dissecting cadavers; this knowledge can only be gained through occult insight or through exchange between cultures.

Egypt

While tracing the various possibilities of cultural dissemination, McEvilley cites the myth of Osiris in ancient Egypt.  Osiris, the god of afterlife, is said to ascend to heaven over the spinal column of his mother, the goddess Nut, the vertebrae being used as the rungs of a ladder.  This is similar to the Yogic concept of Enlightenment.  Richard Onians in his book The Origins of European Thought suggests that the djed column, representing the spine of Osiris and worshipped as an “amulet of life,” indicates the same idea.   According to Onians, the vital fluid in Egyptian iconography is repeatedly shown as being transmitted by laying the hand on the top of the spine or passing it down the spine.

Photo: Djed Column. (Via Flickr. Click image for source)

Mesopotamia/Sumeria

In analyzing the evidence across other ancient cultures, McEvilley also cites the Gudea vase which shows two serpents intertwined around a central axis, their bodies touching each other at seven knot-points.  This is exactly how the Sushumna and its two auxiliary channels are arranged.

 

Gudea Vase. Click image for source

 

The symbol of caduceus seen below, a staff entwined by two serpents who intersect at five points, occurs in Greek mythology as well as in Mesopotamian sculptures.   In Sumerian examples, the caduceus is depicted within the human body indicating a strong resemblance to the concept of Kundalini.

China

McEvilley also cites examples of something equivalent to Kundalini in  Chinese literature:

The Taoist alchemists of China taught techniques to force the semen up the spine to the brain, where it was expected to nourish fields of cinnabar, leading to the alchemical transformation of the mind…..The text Uniting Yin and Yang(Ho Yin Yang), for example, advises the practitioner to “suck the ching-spirit upward,” implying the suction-from-the-bladder technique attested to by Indian yogis at a later date. Another early Han text, the Shih Wen, says, “Draw in ch’i to fill the brain,” and observes, “All the ching rises upward.” The upwardization theme is barely mentioned in these early texts, and their orientation is specifically toward pleasure, unlike the avowals of tantric alchemists who seek either enlightenment or immortality or both (and Plato). Still, it was present and growing; by the T’ang dynasty the esoteric practices of sexual yoga were used in the hopes of becoming immortal, and by the Sung dynasty the whole system, with the circuit of ch’i (in India prana) up the Tu channel and down the Jen had been established [1]

Related/Unrelated posts:

  1. Sublimating the sexual urge through Yoga
  2. The transmutation of sexual energy
  3. Various ways in which the Kundalini rises
  4. Ethical, logical and aesthetic mind
  5. Spacetime in occult worlds
  6. Ramana Maharshi on World War II
  7. Sri Ramakrishna’s occult contact with Sri Aurobindo

References

  1. Thomas McEvilley.  The Shape of Ancient Thought, (New York: Allworth Press 2001) pp 208-220.