Tag Archives: Glimpses of World History

Crossing the Rubicon, Gordian Knot and Laconic


Dear Friends,


                As a language grows it develops its own idioms, metaphors, proverbs and other figures of speech. These add to the richness and beauty of the language. Of course, these make it difficult for computer programs to translate the language to other languages.


                I have a special interest in the idioms, metaphors and proverbs of the languages that I know: English, Hindi and Punjabi. These figures of speech tell us a lot about the culture and history of the people who speak these languages. These figures of speech are sometimes humorous, sometimes philosophical, sometimes historical but always interesting.


                Today I will tell you the history of two English phrases: “Gordian Knot” and “Crossing the Rubicon”. The first is a metaphor and the second a idiom. But since we are talking about ancient history I could not resist adding one more to the list: laconic. But the interesting thing is that when we learn about these phrases we will encounter a few more almost by accident. J


                First let’s talk about the Gordian Knot. Phrygia was a kingdom in Asia minor from 1200 BC to 700 BC. In Phrygia there was a city named Gordium. The city was named after its founder Gordius. According to a legend, at one time sometime in 8th century BC Phrygia was without a king. An oracle in the capital city of Telmissus declared that the next person coming into the city on a ox-cart would be the future king. Gordius was a poor peasant who was passing by on an ox-cart. He went into the city and was immediately made the king. The city was renamed Gordium.


                Gordius’ son was Midas. And to thank the gods for making his father a king, he dedicated the ox-cart to the Phrygian gods. He tied the ox-cart to a post in the palace with a very complicated knot. This knot was known as the Gordion knot. And here we have accidently come to another English phrase: Midas touch. So this phrase is associated with King Midas of Gordium who tied the Gordion knot. All this happened in the 8th century BC.


                A prophesy came to be associated with the Gordian knot. It was said that anyone who opened/solved the Gordian knot would become the king of Asia. As times changed the fortunes of Phrygia also changed. In the 4th century BC it became a mere province in the mighty Persian empire. But the Gordian knot and its legend stayed. In 333 BC Alexander reached Gordium while battling the Persian Army. He went to the palace and looked at the knot. He was told about the knot and its legend. Now Alexander wanted to be the king of Asia  and the whole world. So he wanted to solve the Gordian knot. But mathematical puzzles did not interest Alexander. He went for the “direct” approach: he took out his sword and sliced the knot in one stroke thus opening it.  


                So the phrase Gordian knot refers to a extremely difficult/almost impossible problem which can only be solved by a direct, bold stroke of intuition, courage, creativity etc.


                Now we come to the word “laconic”. When we say that someone has a “Spartan lifestyle” we mean highly regulated and disciplined. “Spartan diet” means frugal. These phrases come from the ancient Greek state of Sparta. The people there led extremely regimented and disciplined lifestyles. The Spartan society and its rules/culture are extremely interesting and worth reading. But we cannot go into that. However I must mention that while the people of Athens spent their lives in arts, education and culture, Spartans did not have time for such “soft skills”. They concentrated on preparation for war and discipline of the body. Even in their speech they were, er …Spartan. So they chose their words carefully and did not bother too much about eloquence and literary beauty.


                Sparta was known by some other names also: Lacedaemon and Laconia. Alexander’s father, Philip wanted to conquer Sparta( Laconia). So he sent a message to the Spartan king: “ If I enter Laconia, I will burn your great city”. The answer from the Spartan king was a simple and terse , “If”. So the Spartans gave a laconic reply to Philip’s threat. So the word laconic means brief and terse.


                Now, let’s talk about “crossing the Rubicon”. But for that we will have to move from Ancient Greeks to the Ancient Romans. These Romans are crazy, tap, tap, tap as Asterix would say. The Rubicon is a small river about 80 kilometres long in north Italy. In the roman empire this used to be the natural boundary that separated the rest of Europe from Italy. The ancient romans had a law which forbade any Roman general from crossing the Rubicon to come to Italy with his army. The roman general had to cross the Rubicon without his army. The aim of the rule was to make sure that no general tries to do a coup and topple the Roman republic.


                Now, we all know that Caesar fought a lot of wars in Gaul between 58 to 51 BC. All of Gaul was captured( except the little village that we know so well J) and the Gaulish  chieftain Vercingetorix threw down his weapons at Caesar’s feet( a scene captured so humourously in a few Asterix comics)


                Rome was under the control of Pompey and Pompey knew that Caesar wanted control. So there was a lot of friction between the two. Caesar wanted to go back to Rome but did not want to go back without his army as was the rule. He knew that he may be killed by Pompey’s men. So Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and triggered a civil war in Rome. This ultimately resulted in Pompey’s death and Caesar’s victory.


                So crossing the Rubicon refers to a decision which cannot be changed later or to cross a point of no return. Caesar knew that when he crossed the Rubicon  with his army that things would not be the same again and Rome would be pushed into political turmoil. So he was crossing a point of no return when he crossed the Rubicon. One more interesting phrase is associated with the incident. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon he said the words : “Alea iacta est” which translates to “the die has been cast”.


                Another interesting fact. After Caesar’s death in 44 BC his name was used by Octavian who called himself Augustus Caesar. So Caesar became a title. Later, the emperors of Byzantine Empire and Ottoman empire continued to use Caesar as their title. For example in 1453 AD after the conquest of Constantinople Ottoman sultan Mahmed started calling himself “Caesar of the Roman Empire”.


                The title Caesar was even used by the Germans. The word Kaiser is derived from Caesar. Even the Russian word Tsar/Czar is derived from Caesar! In India also there used to be a title “kaisar-e-hind” during the British rule- yes, derived from Caesar!


                The study of language can be very interesting if one tries to find the historical origins of words and phrases.






Go wondrous creature, mount where science guides

go measure earth, weigh air, state the tides,

instruct the planets in what orbs to run

correct old time, regulate the sun



Read my latest book, “Shadows of Lost Time”. http://shadows-of-lost-time.posterous.com/

Rise and Decline of Buddhism in India


A few days back when I and my wife were having dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant we started discussing the similarities and differences between the cultures of India and China. The discussion changed to religion and we wondered why inspite of being the birthplace of Buddhism, there are so few Buddhists in India. It has spread to China, Japan and other countries from India but how did it die here. In today’s VERITAS
we will discuss the story of the rise and decline of Buddhism in India.

       According to Nehru’s “Glimpses of World history” Buddha lived about 500 to 600 years before Christ. He was born as Siddhartha and was a prince. He was not happy with luxuries and wanted to search for the real truth. This led him to leave his riches and seek enlightenment. He left his riches for a life of quest at the age of about 30. At the age of 35 he is supposed to have attained enlightenment under a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya( Bihar, India). He is said to have discovered the middle path-a path of moderation. The story of Buddha is quite long but that is not the point of this VERITAS. We want to discuss how the popularity of Buddhism changed in India.

       During his life Buddha traveled a lot and spread the new religion wherever he went. According to Nehru the chief reason for the popularity of Buddhism was that at that time Hinduism had become a very complicated religion and the Brahmin priests had introduced all types of rites and superstitions. The caste system had become very strict. The common people were disillusioned with Hinduism and were looking for a way to lead a good life without making their lives very complicated. And Buddhism provided them just that. And Vivekananda also says something similar:
“The Brahmins began to arrogate powers and privileges to themselves…The masses of people were debarred from all knowledge… the priests had made a secret of the Vedas” ( see Vivekananda’s lecture “Buddha’s message to the world”, San Francisco, 1900 AD).

       So a large number of disillusioned Hindus changed their religion to Buddhism. Buddha had organized a community of monks and nuns  called “Sangha”. The duty of the Sangh was to spread the religion. During Buddha’s life several Kings and princes also converted to Buddhism and that is usually a trigger that causes the change of religion of the entire kingdom.

       But the greatest spread of Buddhism happened during Emperor Ashoka’s reign. Ashoka ruled from 268 BC to 226 BC. He converted to Buddhism after the battle of Kalinga which had filled him with remorse over the senseless killing of countless men. Ashoka had a huge empire- it covered nearly the whole of Modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Ashoka wanted to spread Buddhism all over India and if possible outside it. He setup great universities at Taxila, Nalanda, Mathura and Ujjain. People from all over India and from neighboring countries( like China and western Asia) visited these universities and took back the message of Buddhism to their lands. Buddhism also changed Hinduism
during Ashoka’s time. Nehru says “Ashoka’s example and the spread of Buddhism  resulted in vegetarianism becoming popular. Till then Kshattriyas and Brahmins in India generally ate meat and used to take wines and alcoholic drinks. Both meat eating and wine-drinking grew much less”( Nehru, “Glimpses of world History” page 64). Ashoka sent Buddhist monks all over the world- Greece, Egypt, China, Sri Lanka, Burma to spread the new faith.

       In India after Ashoka’s  death the Maurayan Empire crumbled. A general of the Maurayan empire, Pusyamitra Shunga assassinated the last Maurayan Emperor and started a new dynasty around 185 BC: The Shunga dynasty. Pusyamitra was a Brahmin king and did not like the spread of Buddhism. He persecuted the Buddhists and the Buddhists moved out of the Shunga empire to the borders of India: Kashmir, Afghanistan etc.
So Pusyamitra started the revival of Hinduism in Central India. But this Hinduism was very different from the Hinduism that existed in India before Buddha. The dominance of Buddhism for several hundred years had changed it to some extend. And Buddha became a part of Hinduism! The new Brahmin priests made Buddha an avatar of Vishnu! So some Buddhists were sent outside the kingdom and the rest were told that Buddhism was
a part of Hinduism! So though Buddhism was spreading all over the world, in central/north India Buddhism had declined because of the new wave of Hinduism.

       Now the Shunga kingdom was a central/north Indian kingdom centered around Bihar. It lasted from 185 BC to around 75 BC. And we have seen that Buddhists were pushed out of central/north India to the north west- Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. And it was here in around 1st century that a new kingdom was started- Kushanas. And it was a Buddhist kingdom. The Kushanas were central Asian people. The empire became quite huge: from Afghanistan to the plains of Ganges. The most famous ruler of this Empire was Kanishka. It was during this time that Buddhism spread to China. Buddha had always preached against idol worship. And till about 1st century AD there were no images of Buddha. But in the Kushana kingdom the Brahmins tried to introduce Hindu ideas into Buddhism. And for the first time images of Buddha were being placed in Buddhist Shrines. The Mahayana school of Buddhism was closer to Hinduism and supported changes like having images of Buddha. The Hinayana school was against these changes. The Kushana kings supported the Mahayana school and the changes were implemented.

Buddhism spread to China during the Han dynasty( sometime around 1st century AD). The close interaction between the Kushanas and the Chinese led to the spread of the religion there.

       The Kushana kingdom revived Buddhism in the western parts of India. But the kingdom declined around 250 AD. A new kingdom arose- the Gupta Empire. The Guptas started another revival of Hinduism. Lots of things in Buddhism were adopted into Hinduism- the Mahayana school was close to Hinduism anyway. Buddhism was no longer considered different from Hinduism. And we have seen that Hindu priests had made Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu.Very few purely Buddhist monasteries survived.

 In the 6th century AD the head of Indian Buddhism, Buddhabharta traveled to China and founded the Shaolin Temple. This played a major part in spreading Buddhism in China and from there to Korea and Japan. He was probably attracted by the spread of Buddhism there and he was probably unhappy with the state of Buddhism in India. But after he left, several other Buddhist monks left. There were very few monks left in India and Buddhism never revived on a large scale in India after that.

       So we have traced the rise and decline of Buddhism in India. We have seen that typically the rise and decline of religions is influenced by the religion of the ruler. The ruler tries to make his subjects follow his religion and that causes changes in how certain religions spread. Also we have seen the power of Hinduism to adapt and change which resulted in a lot of Buddhist thought become a part of the Hindu religion. Vivekananda calls Buddhism the “fulfillment of Hinduism”. He says “The Vedanta philosophy is the foundation of Buddhism and everything else in India”
and he goes on to say “Buddha brought the Vedanta to light, gave it to the people and saved India”. ( see Vivekananda, Buddha and his Message)


More Dope : Buddha’s Message to the World : Vivekananda 




 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

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Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.