Ancient Connections of Peoples of Eurasia from the Point of View of India’s Pluralistic Spiritual Culture – Mary Pat Fisher, New Delhi


We are seeking to bring all Eurasian peoples together on a common platform, but it is important to recognize that our peoples have been communicating with each other—usually peacefully—since ancient times, through traders, travelers, rulers, and spiritual teachers. Exploring our old associations can help us to see that we are already one human family, spread across one huge landmass (Map 1). We comprise 70 percent of the world’s population. Recognizing our oneness and upholding our spiritual principles, we can be a very potent force for peace in the world.

In this presentation, we will explore Eurasian bridges from the point of view of India’s pluralistic spiritual culture. Geographically, India is so separated from the rest of the continent by massive mountain ranges that it is often referred to as a sub-continent in itself, which is now composed of the nation-states of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Yet archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, and genome studies show ancient patterns of contact between India and other parts of Eurasia, particularly among the great ancient Eurasian civilizations.







  Mesopotamian civilization grew up over 5000 years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, as shown in Map 2. Similarly, India’s most ancient civilization was centered around the Indus River over 5000 years ago, and is thus commonly referred to as the Indus Valley civilization. Many archaeological sites have been discovered, including significant ruins and artefacts at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. These ancient urban centers collectively formed India’s first empire, with a population of perhaps five million people. Sophisticated urban planning in these cities included paved streets and elegant public baths.

 Thousands of seals have been discovered in the Indus Valley, including images of an ascetic man or deity seated in meditation. Some of these distinctive seals have also been discovered far away in Mesopotamia, confirming that the cultures were in contact with each other thousands of years ago, probably mostly by travel through the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf.







By about 1700 BCE the great Indus Valley cities had become deserted, perhaps because of climate changes. At the same time, people referred to by scholars as Indo-Aryans were probably in the process of slowly migrating southward out of the steppes of Central Asia (Map 3). The surprising discovery has been made that Sanskrit, the language in which the Vedas of India were written, is linguistically similar to Greek and Latin. One theory explaining their similarities is that there was a proto-Indo-European homeland in the steppes of Central Asia north of the Caspian Sea around 4000 BCE. Map 3 shows this hypothesized homeland from which related Eurasian cultures gradually migrated and evolved.

 One of the streams is thought to have branched out toward present-day Iran and the Indian sub-continent, with the Indian branch separating from the Iranian branch about 1800 to 1600 BCE. Scholars have referred to these migrants to the Indian sub-continent as “Indo-Aryans,” using the Sanskrit term “Aryan” from the Vedas. It means “noble,” and connotes someone who reads the Vedas and practices the Vedic rituals. “Aryan” is not a racial category.

The Indo-European language family is thought to be the basis for many contemporary languages in widely separated parts of Eurasia. For instance, many place and river names in southern Russia seem to be related to Sanskrit words, such as “Omsk.” Russian also shares some words in common with contemporary Hindi—for instance, Russian “arbooz” (meaning watermelon) is “tarbooj” in Hindi.

The oldest Vedas—the Rig Vedas—praise and request blessings from the deities of all life forces. Ritual worship of the deities involved chanting of sacred verses and offerings made through fire. The Vedic sages also perceived one transcendent, invisible, incomprehensible Reality that encompasses all space, time, and causation. They made a statement that is crucial to India’s acceptance of many religious paths: “Truth is One. The wise know it by many names.”

The last of the ancient revealed scriptures—the Upanishads– are the sublime realizations of ancient sages while sitting in meditation. These included the concept of reincarnation—the belief that after death of the body, the soul takes birth again in another body. Rebirth is subject to “karma”—the effects of our actions. The ultimate goal of spiritual life is to achieve liberation from this cycle of birth and death and merge with the Ultimate Reality.




The Vedic way was also associated with social duties, traditionally dictated by one’s caste. Highest of the castes were Brahmans, the priests and philosophers who were considered ritually pure enough to carry on temple worship.  The many religious ways now collectively referred to as “Hinduism” were carried to the courts of other Southeast Asian kingdoms (Map 4), where they significantly influenced the cultures of Vietnam, Cambodia, Indochina, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Bali, and the Philippines.

By 100 BCE, the Indian sub-continent was connected with much of Eurasia by sea and land routes. As shown in Map 4, hoards of Roman gold coins have been found in many Indian archaeological sites.


Another spiritual path that evolved in India from ancient times was Jainism. Jains trace their religion back into prehistory, through a series of twenty-four Tirthankaras. These were great teachers who helped people cross the river of rebirths to reach liberation. The last Tirthankara was Mahavir, a prince who renounced his position and wealth and undertook an extremely ascetic life.The basic principles he taught and exemplified were non-violence, non-attachment, and open-mindedness.

 Mahavir and his followers did not travel much, to avoid hurting any minute sentient beings. Jain monks reportedly entered the picture of Eurasian interactions when the Greek king Alexander the Great tried to expand his kingdom into northwestern India.  Extremely wealthy and powerful, Alexander is said to have encountered a naked Jain monk beside the Indus River. Curious to learn why this man living in utter poverty looked so happy, Alexander invited the monk to come back to Greece with him. The monk refused, being totally disinterested in worldly things. Alexander reportedly drew his sword to kill him for his insolence, but the monk laughingly told him that nothing could kill his eternal happiness and power.  Alexander turned back and did not advance further into India.







 A similar path was taught by Buddha, who was born near the border between contemporary India and Nepal, and lived mostly during the fifth century BCE. After years of meditation, he realized that life inevitably involves pain and suffering, for we do not recognize that all things arise and pass away. When we become free from attachment,  greed, aversion, and delusion,  we can live happily without self-centeredness, full of compassion.

The Buddha’s path of liberation attracted many followers. He sent them throughout India to spread his message. Buddhist missionaries gained the support of rulers in the far northwest, and the first big Buddhist university was established in Taxila. From there, missionaries were sent into Central Asia.

 Another huge empire was established throughout India in the third century CE by the Mauryan King Ashoka. After creating the Mauryan Empire, Ashoka allegedly became so shocked by the deaths incurred in battles that he converted to Buddhism. He had many stone pillars carved with edicts promoting tolerance and justice, and he sent missionaries outward to spread the Buddha’s message to Sri Lanka, Bactria, Syria, and Alexandria.

The famous Silk Road also played a great role in uniting the cultures of Eurasia. Its several routes stretched from China’s ancient capital, Chang’an, to the Mediterranean. In addition to serving as passageways for prized goods such as silk, saffron, dates, and myrrh, the routes opened political and economic ties between Eurasian areas and facilitated sharing of religions and philosophies as well as technologies.

Travel along the Silk Road helped Buddhism reach China by the first century CE, with adaptations to the ancient Chinese traditions of reverence for ancestors and filial piety.  Map 5 shows the distribution of Buddhism by about 500 CE in red colour.

Chinese scholar-monks traveled back to India to bring more Buddhist scriptures for translation into Chinese. Fa Xian in the early fifth century and Xuan-Zang in the seventh century went through great hardships in their long-distance travels across freezing deserts and high mountains to find the authentic scriptures.

Xuan-Zang’s main goal was to reach Nalanda, the great center of Buddhist learning in northeastern India. Nalanda was one of the world’s first great universities. The campus included eight architecturally marvelous compounds with temples, meditation halls, parks, lakes, and a nine-story library called “Mountain of Truth” with hundreds of thousands of carefully hand-copied volumes in all subjects. Such was the renown of Nalanda University that it attracted brilliant students from Persia, Turkey, Korea, China, Indonesia, and Japan, as well as India. This great institution and all its books were shockingly destroyed in 1197 CE by Turkic invaders who must have been ignorant of its priceless value for all humankind.

Buddhism also penetrated the high Himalayas to reach Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism, shown in pink on Map 5, developed as an amalgam with the local Bon tradition and then spread outward. Thus in the evolution of Buddhism, as is the case with other religions, teachings that arose in one part of Eurasia were carried to other areas where their distinctive spiritual values were merged with local cultures.




Christianity entered India long ago. South Indian tradition has it that Christianity was brought to India by the Apostle Thomas, one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples. He is thought to have traveled by sea to the southwest Malabar coast in 52 CE (shown as a blue line in Map 6).

The Apostle Thomas reportedly preached the gospel of Jesus throughout that area, ordaining teachers and leaders to carry on the Christian mission.  Following Jesus’ command to love and serve one another, Indian Christians became known for establishing charitable institutions such as hospitals and schools. After 1500, Christian missions were sent from that area by sea to Java, China, Korea, and Japan.

Another religion which long ago entered India from abroad is Judaism. Various waves of Jewish immigrants have found a new home in India, where they have never encountered anti-semitism. One group, known as the Bene Israel, think they came to India as descendants of Jews who fled from persecution in Galilee in the second century BCE. Another group centered in Cochin think they came there after destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. Indian Jews preserve the memory of difficult histories as they have attempted to follow the laws of God while living in exile from their homeland.





Like Jews, Zoroastrians fleeing persecution also found a home on the west coast of India. Zoroastrianism had been the official religion of the Persian (or Achaemenid) Empire under Cyrus the Great. Under his successors, the Empire stretched from the Balkans in the west to the Indus Valley in the east (as shown in Map 7). It was a model of tolerance and respect for all ethnic groups and religions in the conquered lands. But Persepolis, the beautiful ceremonial capital, was destroyed by Alexander the Great (who is known as “Alexander the Accursed” in Iran) in 331 BCE.

Then between the eighth to tenth centuries CE, Arab conquest of Iran led many Zoroastrians to leave their homeland in order to preserve their ancient religion By the time they re-established themselves on the western coast of India, they had only fragments of their sacred texts, the Avesta. Those preserved fragments have been found to be linguistically similar to Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, with both languages having presumably evolved from the same Indo-Iranian origins. In addition to grammatical similarities, some words are similar, such as the Avestan term “yasna” for sacrifice, compared to the Sanskrit term “yagya.” Offerings into a sacred fire have been prominent spiritual practices in both Vedic and Zoroastrian religions. Now the Zoroastrian community in Mumbai, India is one of the few remaining strongholds of this once wide-spread religion.  As taught by the prophet Zarathustra, it emphasizes the importance of making moral choices between good and evil, in one’s thoughts, words, and deeds.




Long before the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Arab traders were sailing to the western coast of India.  Map 8 shows some avenues by which Islam spread into India to twelfth century CE, with contemporary place names. Along with Indian goods, the Arab traders carried the system of numerals developed in India back to Western Eurasia. Once the religion of Islam was born in Arabia, they also carried their new faith to India. There they were allowed to build mosques and marry Indian women. In the ninth century, the King of Malabar on the southwestern coast converted to Islam.

Islam also spread into India by land through conquest, though not necessarily violently. In 711 the Umayyad Dynasty from Damascus sent seventeen-year old Muhammad bin Qasim with an army of six thousand soldiers to extend their rule into the Indus River area. When he reached the city of Nerun on the banks of the Indus River, he was reportedly welcomed into the city by the Buddhist monks who ran the city. In some places, Buddhist minorities appealed to Muhammad bin Qasim for protection from oppression by Hindu rulers. King Dahir opposed the expansion of Islam into his territory, but he lost a battle against bin Qasim’s forces and the whole area, known as Sindh, became Muslim-controlled. The people were not required to convert to Islam, however. Muhammad bin Qasim promised security and freedom of religion to all Buddhists and Hindus under his control. It is said that his non-sectarian approach was so popular that many cities greeted him and his soldiers with music and dancing.

During the tenth century, Mahmud of Ghazni plundered India to finance his empire-building in what are now eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He crossed into northwestern India seventeen times to loot riches from the sub-continent, which had become so prosperous that it was known as the Golden Sparrow.  Mahmud of Ghazni formed alliances with local rulers and placed Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist kings in charge of vassal states. Religious conversion was not his agenda.

Conversion of Indians to Islam more often occurred because of the appeal of God-realized spiritual teachers, especially the Chishti Sufi saints. Their spiritual order developed in Chisht, Afghanistan as one of the mystical traditions within Islam. The order is still famous for its interfaith tolerance, love, and openness.

During the twelfth century, the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti gave up his inherited wealth to study with Islamic scholars in Bukhara and Samarkand, renowned centres of Eurasian trade, culture, and Islamic scholarship.   Then he travelled to Ajmer in India and became a widely-loved teacher who won hearts by the power of truth, love, and service, following the famous order in the Holy Qur’an: “Let there be no coercion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error.” Many of his students also became great spiritual teachers, and he sent them out to propagate the path of Islam. His final sermon to his followers includes his guidance to “Love all and hate none. . . . Dissolve the clouds of discord and war, and spread goodwill, peace, and harmony among the people.”

In the sixteenth century, Babur–born in Uzbekistan in a Mongol family that was strongly influenced by Persian culture–invaded northern India to expand his territory. He and his successors created the Mughal Empire, ruling most of the sub-continent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Non-Muslims under Mughal control were usually allowed to practice their own religions. However, Aurangzeb, one of the last Mughal Emperors, was not nearly so tolerant. He destroyed Hindu temples, persecuted non-Muslims, and imposed Shariah law on his whole empire. His policies were so unpopular that the Empire began to fall apart.

Under such influences, Islam spread through the sub-continent and became the second largest religion in India’s pluralistic society. Its vision of universal caste-free brotherhood had special appeal for those who had been suppressed by caste distinctions. Islamic art, architecture, clothing, devotional music, and Sufi poetry addressing God intimately as the  Beloved are thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of Indian culture.

Another spiritual path arose in northern India in the fifteenth century, as Guru Nanak attained the enlightened vision that “There is no Hindu, there is no Mussulman.” He undertook long journeys by foot to have dialogue with people of all castes and creeds, affirming that our God is one and we are all “His children.” Mardana, his Muslim companion on his journeys, played the rebab as Guru Nanak sang inspired hymns reminding people of the essential truths that have been brought by all the prophets, but have not been practiced truly. He reportedly travelled as far as Mecca and Medina in Arabia, wearing the robes of an Islamic ascetic.

  It was not Guru Nanak’s intention to make people followers of a new religion, but appreciating his spiritual wisdom, many became his devotees and were called “Sikhs,” which simply means “students.” He taught them a very simple and practical path to God: Work hard to support yourself, share with others in need from what you earn, and always remember God.

As Guru Nanak travelled, he collected inspired hymns of great Hindu and Muslim saints. These were compiled by the succeeding Sikh Gurus, including some of their own songs of enlightened wisdom. Then the Tenth Sikh Guru established this collection of mystical wisdom from various faiths as Guru, calling it Guru Granth Sahib. This sacred book is revered today as a universal treasure of love for God from many different paths.

Thus we have seen that from ancient times, cultures throughout Eurasia were in contact with each other.  If we were to overlay all these maps, we would see a very busy network of cross-cultural movements. And these maps refer only to interactions involving India—there were far more cross-cultural contacts throughout the area as our cultures were evolving. By now, such contacts have greatly increased through use of modern transportation and communication systems.

 As we create an Assembly of Eurasian Peoples, we should know that this Assembly will be built on a solid foundation of long-existing cultural connections among us. May we explore, celebrate, manifest, and magnify our existing unity.  We are all sisters and brothers, and we have known each other for a very long time.