A Southwest Asian Voice in the Daodejing?

by Dennis Grafflin

I. The Eastern End of the Trail

It was proposed several years ago, to a resounding silence, that "the entire philosophical, religious, and physiological foundations of Taoism, but not its social and political components," were "foreshadow[ed]" by "the thirteen classical Upanishads (c. 700-300 B.C.) ... attached to the Vedas, India's most ancient body of knowledge" (Mair 1990a, 157, 156). Further, Mair argued for the specific priority of the [Indian] Bhagavad Gita over the [Chinese ] Daodejing (Laozi), pointing out that "the enigmatic concept of 'nonaction' [wu-wei] that is so prominent" in the Daodejing is the subject of "an exceedingly elaborate analysis" in the Bhagavad Gita (Ibid., 142). He enumerated major concerns shared by the works (being/nonbeing, wisdom/ignorance, birth-survival-death, etc.), key terms of mutual concern (e.g., return, tranquillity) and concluded that "entire stanzas of the Bhagavad Gita read like miniature foreshadowings" of the Daodejing (Ibid., 144). His candidate for the most telling textual link was Bhagavad Gita 8.12:

Having shut all the body's doors and confined his mind in his heart, having installed his vital breath in his head, a man is fixed in yogic concentration (trans. Johnson 1994, 38).

This is repetitively echoed in Daodejing 15 and 19 (traditional numbering 52,56):

[15] Block the openings [= the senses],
Shut the doors [= the intelligence],
And all your life you will not run dry.

[19] Block the openings;
Shut the doors.
Blunt the sharpness;
Untangle the knots;
Soften the glare;
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.
(trans. Lau 1963,113,117)

Mair's explanation for the relationship is that

the Bhagavad Gita was transmitted to China ... by word of mouth. Particularly memorable images and powerful expressions would have been transferred virtually verbatim. In most instances, however, what the founders of Taoism absorbed from Yoga were radically new ideas concerning man and his place in the universe and a complementary physiological regimen (Mair 1990a, 145).

Returning to this issue in a more scholarly publication, Mair argued on primarily philological grounds for seeing the Daodejing as embedded in an even broader Eurasian cultural matrix:

Since all three words of the title TTC [=Daodejing], while conceptually linked to Indian notions such as Brahman or marga, karma or atman, and sutra, appear to be etymologically more closely related to European terms, it is conceivable that both China and India may have received the ideas they represent from some such Europoids as the Tocharians or their predecessors who lived in Central Asia and that China may have received them more directly than did India (Mair 1990b, 26).