In an effort to better understand constructions of gender in ancient Greece and ancient India, this paper will compare ideas about the female soul, self and body present in ancient Greek philosophy, especially Plato’s, and early Indian philosophy. Using the comparative method, the paper will identify and analyze the parallel elements of the societies of the Aegean and South Asia, through the use of primary sources like ancient Greek philosophy and history, as well as ancient Indian texts like the Upaniṣads and the Mahābhārata.
For nearly two centuries scholars have used the comparative method to illuminate aspects of both Greek and Indian culture. Recently, Matthew Dillon has stressed that much common ground exists between Greek and Indian thought in the Axial Age (Matthew Dillon, 2000) while Wendy Doniger has argued that Greek and Indian mythologies reveal respective female characters that are more alike than Greek and Indian male characters and that gender is more important than culture, especially when comparing Greek and Indian attitudes about men and women. (Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, 1999) Scholarship on ancient Greek and Indian ideas about gender has flourished as well. But few studies have viewed the ancient Greek and Indian concepts of the soul through feminist and comparative lenses. This presents an interesting space in which to consider ancient Greek and Indian ideas about gender and the soul.
The paper begins with both a review of the comparative method as a tool for evaluating ancient history and a survey of comparative scholarship regarding the soul, metempsychosis, and gender in ancient Greek and Indian culture. By analyzing key passages from the Upaniṣads it shows the many similarities present in early Greek philosophy and ancient Indian philosophy. In particular, the paper will show that ancient scholars in both cultures, around the same time, were working with the same repertoire of ideas. Women were important actors in both cultures, especially in religious activities. Yet they were also defined, for the most part, negatively because of their bodies. Female bodily functions like menstruation were ritually dangerous and in both cultures a case can be made that women were seen to be at the mercy of bodily needs like desire, more than men. At Timaeus 90e-91a, Plato describes female souls as failed versions of the male soul, a fact proven by their weak bodies. However, philosophical musings about the soul made by the female ascetic intellectual Sulabha in the Mahābhārata, suggest that body-soul dualism did not have to result in the concept of an inferior gendered soul. As such, this study will take into consideration the wide variation of cultural, intellectual and religious factors that differentially affected women in ancient Greece and India.