Pythagoras mentioned in Vedas?

Lars Martin Fosse lmfosse at ONLINE.NO
Sun Jun 13 11:35:16 UTC 1999

Toke Lindegaard Knudsen wrote:

> On 12 Jun 99, at 23:52, Lars Martin Fosse wrote:
> > Pythagoras is definitely not mentioned in the Vedas, not do I think that
> > he turns up in the Puranas. What you are referring to is a modern cultural
> > myth to the effect that P. (and the Greeks) got their mathematics from
> > India. This is a kind of counter-myth to the traditional European view
> > that the Indians got their mathematics from the Greeks. It would in fact
> > seem that Indians and Greeks got at least some of their mathematics from
> > Babylon, but there are no certain conclusions here.
> B.L. van der Waerden relates in his "Science Awakening" some
> stories from the ancient world of how Pythagoras is believed to
> have visited many places in the Orient.  For example that he
> travelled to Egypt where he was made a prisoner by the Persian
> king Cambyses and taken to Babylon.  Here he was supposedly
> learned the theory of numbers and other sciences from the Magi (I
> assume that van der Waerden must be referring to the priests of
> ancient Iran).  I do not know much about these stories but I thought
> there may be similar stories originating in the ancient world (i.e. not
> modern cultural myths) that Pythagoras went to India.

I strongly suspect that this is an OLD cultural myth. Egypt had a great
reputation among the Greeks as a place of mysterious learning, and the same
thing applies to Babylon. Remember that Greek mercenaries and merchants were all
over the Middle East. It is assumed that Greek mathematics were influenced by
Babylon, but we cannot, of course, assume for a fact that Pythagoras really went
there. Others may have. The problem is that our historical sources are
unreliable, so that we cannot verify if the tradition about P. is historically

Carl B. Boyer states in his History of Mathematics that P. travelled both to
Egypt and to Babylon, possibly even to India.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, however, says the following:

"It is difficult to distinguish Pythagoras' teachings from those of his
disciples. None of his writings has survived, and Pythagoreans invariably
supported their doctrines by indiscriminately citing their master's authority.
Pythagoras, however, is generally credited with the theory of the functional
significance of numbers in the objective world and in music. Other discoveries
often attributed to him (e.g., the incommensurability of the side and diagonal
of a square, and the Pythagorean theorem for right triangles) were probably
only later by the Pythagorean school. More probably the bulk of the intellectual
tradition originating with Pythagoras himself belongs to mystical wisdom rather
than to scientific scholarship."

It should therefore be clear that true historical details about P. and his ideas
are difficult to identify. As I already have suggested, that also applies to his
assumed travels.

In general I think that when dealing with ancient traditions that are not backed
up by good historical documentation, it is always safer to assume that the
tradition is legendary than to assume it to be historical.

Lars Martin

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