Our Past Heritage

Sometimes our past catches up with us unexpectedly. Our parents might have sung some lullaby to us decades ago, but it is much later that we would appreciate the meaning and relevance of the song.

But this one is no lullaby; it is just this queer or bizarre mumbo-jumbo that my dad taught me, maybe on one of those days when he was more jovial and communicative than usual. That’s how he initiated me into one of his funny ‘stories’: “open up my right hand, palm up. Look at the three creases on each of the 4 fingers (forget the thumb)”. And he went touching each crease on finger after finger, saying as he did so:

index: “ene, deux, douze;

middle finger: ki sanla kozer douze?;

ring finger: moi, causer – douze;

little finger: “konter, gaiter – douze”.

Of course if we multiply 4 by 3 that makes 12. What mathematics and what vernacular!

I never thought of that queer mantra again, nor passed it on to other friends; after all what child would be interested in such a dry and humourless computation. It was pushed out of oblivion; though, now looking back, I could visualize my father and his school buddies, perhaps at the Rose Belle Government School, punching at their fingers at recreation time for computing purposes, while our modern kids would be fingering their mobile phone and their calculator with as much glee.

But decades later that puzzle caught up with me while reading about the Sumerians, those people who occupied southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) about 5000 years ago, and who invented the script. It seems that for their daily commercial dealings they had invented such an “abacus”.

At the market place they would count their goats one by one and tick them off against the phalanges of the 4 fingers of their right hand, the phalanges being the interval between two creases on the finger. In fact the right thumb would not be idle (as my father assumed); it would be ticking off the phalanges as the counting went on. And sure enough, there would be 12 of them.

But for the Sumerians it was not the end of the story. Every time they had a batch of twelve from the right, they would stretch out one finger from the clenched fist of the left hand (or did they close one finger from the stretched position?). And when the 5 left fingers are all extended and stretched (or closed), the count would be 5 X 12, that is 60. Does not that number ring a bell in our modern head? So, it is said, the Sumerians maths came to have a base of 60: the sexagesimal. Most probably that may have spread to surrounding lands and civilizations.

And now I ask myself whether my dad showed me the creases on the fingers or the phalanges? My young mind was too immature to visualize the phalanges: the creases were more easily seen. Where did he get that mumbo-jumbo formula of his, and that strange language? Was it passed on from father to son, from friend to friend, from generation to generation or as a translation from some old mother tongue or vernacular? Was it brought over from the Subcontinent?

The only regret was that I was too young and not inquisitive enough to have quizzed him about this – today I would have been the wiser.

As for the number 60, we meet it everyday in our conception of time, angles and geography. But in our modern school we had been taught about the base 10, so all our mathematical thinking revolved around it. 12 was always an intruder and a headache to school kids. Little did we know that 12 was there right from the beginning. Have we ever wondered how come we were taught that one foot equals twelve inches – why 12 and not 10?

How come that there are 12 months in a year? How did the hour get its 60 minutes?

And the zodiacal signs came to be 12 in number. At the death of the Buddha, it is said that there were 12 animals by his side. Jesus Christ had twelve disciples at his last supper. And how the Jyotir Linga come to consist of 12 columns of fire? It’s a long, age- old tradition, passed on from some remote past. However, as for 12 hours in a day, it is said that it was the Egyptians who introduced it into practice, basing themselves on the stars.

Thinking of it, if we have 10 plus 2 to make 12, then it is not difficult to jump to 5 plus 2, making the famous 7. The tradition could have come from the people of the Indus Valley, at Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, who were talking of “Elumin”, translated as “The Seven Fishes”. It is said that the ‘fishes’ in fact was another way of indicating the stars, which would refer to the stars of the Great Bear Constellation. They have also been likened to the Saptarshi, the seven sages of Hinduism. And we would have our 7 wonders of the world; the 7 colours of the rainbow (and of course, we Mauritians could include our “7-coloured earths at Chamarel”). That number is cherished both in the Bible and by the Jews. The latter would combine the number 4, the perfect worldly number, with the divine number 3. We would then have our 7 days in a week.

Further, if we observe the many “ Kalimayes” across our country, we will notice that there are 7 lamps lighted by some devotees to honour the 7 sisters or some gods and tradition. It is said that this is in fact an age-old tradition that has come from the concept of the Elumin, the Great Bear constellation with its 7 stars. Recently, neuroscientists have informed us that although there are thousands of facts that come into our consciousness when we are awake, yet at any given time we have the capacity of being conscious of only 7of them!

The upshot of all this is that a lot of what we know, use or inherit from our fathers and grandfathers today do come from the deep past, transmitted down generations, from country to country, culture to culture, from east to west or west to east, with variations here and there. Possibly, a lot was kept as a family secret, until some sort of revolution vulgarized such secrets and knowledge.

Nowadays we look upon the Freemasons as some obscure secretive sect, yet in ancient Greece it was the art of masonry, the family trade and breadwinner, that was kept secret, passed from father to son and not to be divulged to others. And then came some enlightened people, who felt that the masons’ tricks of the trade must be opened to all so that people can progress, learn to measure and to build their houses. That’s how they initiated the Mason movement and named it ‘free’, whence “Freemasonry”! But today we have a very different modern concept of that ‘free movement’. What historical twist !

A decade ago, at Bamiyan, Afganistan, the Taliban dynamited the huge statues of Buddha; we are told that these statues had Greek influence. Some people are asking if the Greeks were so influenced as to contribute to such sculpture could they not have also been influenced by Buddhist teaching? We should not forget that Alexander the Great had been to the north of India, after invading Bactria and Gandhara, and there arose a form of Hellenistic-Buddhist culture.

Several philosophers, Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus, accompanied Alexander and interacted with Indian ascetics, the Gymnosophists (the naked philosophers). Pyrrho (360- 270 BC) returned to Greece and became the first “Skeptic” and founded his school of ‘Pyrrhonism’. “The Greek biographer Diogenus Laërtius explained that Pyrrho’s equanimity and detachment from the world were acquired in India”. Few of his sayings are directly known, but they are clearly reminiscent of śramanic, possibly Buddhist, thought: “Nothing really exists, but human life is governed by convention…. Nothing is in itself more this than that”1.

And Strabo, the Greek philosopher, geographer and historian, said that the ‘Cynic’ philosopher Onesicritus might have learnt in India the following precepts: “That nothing that happens to a man is bad or good, opinions being merely dreams… That the best philosophy is that which liberates the mind from both pleasure and grief.”2

And thus the diffusion of culture continues …

Ref: 1 + 2 – Wikipedia.org


* Published in print edition on 15 January 2016

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