Indian Philosophy





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Indian Philosophy

The Indian school of thought deals with the true interests of humanity and is of vital importance to us. There are various branches of Indian Philosophy. Though the global philosophers dismiss it as 'pantheism', it still proves itself today as one of the best philosophical thoughts.


Philosophy is a subject that deals with the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline. Though the world is changing drastically in its outward material aspects, the deeper spiritual quest of man remains as potent as it would have been many centuries ago. What has remained constant is regular philosophical thoughts and Indian thought is a chapter of the history of the human mind, full of vital meaning for us. The ideas of great thinkers never become obsolete. The naive utterances of Vedic poets, the wondrous suggestiveness of the Upanishads, the marvelous psychological analyses of the Buddhist, and the stupendous work of Samkara, are quite as interesting and instructive from the cultural point of view as are the systems of Plato and Aristotle, or Kant or Hegel. This point can be grasped if we study the philosophical doctrines with a scientific bent out of mind, without demeaning our past or nurturing contempt for the alien. [ref]


The ancient civilisation of India was a concrete unity of many-sided developments in arts, architecture, literature, religion and morals and sciences so far as it was understood in those days. Philosophy remains among the most signficant achievements of the Indian mind. Indian philosophy followed the footsteps of Madhva Acharaya's Sarvadarsanasmgraha. It was regarded as the goal of all highest practical and theoretical activities & indicated the point of unity amidst apparent diversities".[ref]

Pointing out that philosophy in India takes precedence over Greece it has been said while the sixth century BC marks the beginnings of philosophy in Greece, in India it is already an age of considerable philosophical progress. (Azad, 1952). Ayurveda, the ancient Indian Medical Science is derived from philosophical thoughts enshrined in the Vedas, Upanishads, and Sankhya darshana (Das Gupta, 1968).

The Indian seers never considered the world to be battle-field where men struggled for power, wealth and domination. When we do not need to waste our energies on problems of life on earth, exploiting nature and controlling the forces of the world, we begin to think of the higher life, how to live more perfectly in the spirit. Perhaps an enervating climate inclined the Indian to rest and retirement. The huge forests with their wide leafy avenues afforded great opportunities for devout souls to wander peacefully through them, have emphatic dreams and burst forth into joyous songs. World-weary men go out on pilgrimages to these scenes of nature and invariable acquire inward peace. It was in the asramas and tapovanas or forest hermitages that the philosophers of India meditated on the deeper problems of existence. The security of life, the wealth of natural resources, the freedom from worry, the detachment from the cares of existence, and the absence of a tyrannous practical interest, stimulated the higher life of India, resulting in Indian history being defined by an impatience of spirit, a love for wisdom and a passion for the saner pursuits of the mind.

In ancient India philosophy was not an auxiliary to any other science or art, but always held a prominent position of independence. In the West, even in the heyday of its youth, as in the times of Plato and Aristotle, it leaned for support on some other study, as politics or ethics.In India philosophy stood on its own legs, and all other studies looked to it for inspiration and support. It is the master science guiding other sciences, without which they tend to become empty and foolish. The MuQclaka Upanishad speaks of Brahma'-vidyapr the science of the eternal as the basis of all sciences, sarva-vidya-pratiiha. "Philosophy," says Kautilya, "is the lamp of all the sciences, the means of performing all the works, and the support of all the duties." In the second place it is said that the Indians had no proper and accurate historical records and biographies and it is therefore impossible to write a history of Indian philosophy. This objection is also partially valid. 

General Characteristics of Indian Philosophy

Indian philosophy is essentially spiritual. It is the intense spirituality of India, and not any great political structure or social organisation that-has enabled it to resist the ravages of time and the accidents of history. The role of the mind in the joys and miseries of human life has been highlighted in great detail in the Upanishads.

The problems of religion stimulate the philosophic spirit. No religious movement has ever come into existence without developing philosophical material as its basis. It is incorrect to say that philosophy in India doesn't give credece to self-consciousness or critiques. Even in its early stages, rational reflection tended to correct religious belief. Witness the advance of religion implied in the progress from the hymns of the Veda to the Upanishads. When we come to Buddhism, the philosophic spirit has already transformed into a confident attitude of mind which in intellectual matters bends to no imposed authority. These philosophical systems recognise no limits to its enterprise, unless it be the result of logic, which probes all things, tests all things, and follows fearlessly wherever the argument leads.

Belief in an eternal moral order is another feature that is commonly found to be present in the systems of Indian philosophy, of course, with the exception of the Carvka, the only materialistic system flourishing in India. Indian philosophy believes that the whole universe is governed and sustained by a universal moral order. This moral order is eternal and it cannot be violated by any body. In the Veda there is the concept of tva which stands for such an eternal and inviolable moral order. 

Liberation As The Ultimate Goal Of Life: Systems of Indian philosophy, barring the Carvaka, take liberation or freedom from bondage to be the ultimate goal of human life. Liberation means complete cessation of suffering. Different systems of Indian philosophy have given their own views on the nature of liberation, but all are in agreement with the maxim that liberation signifies an end to miseries of life. Indian philosophers recognize four ends (purusartha) of human life: dharma (merit), artha (money), kma (desire) and moka (liberation). Of these four, liberation is regarded as the highest and ultimate goal of man's life. Different systems prescribe different paths for attainment of liberation, such as paths of knowledge (jna), devotion (bhakti) and action (karma).

Indian philosophy characterised by an introspective attitude towards reality. In Indian thought philosophy is concerned with knowledege of the self (atmavidya). In it pursuit of the truth, Indian philosophy studies inner nature of men rather than outward manifestations. The concept of Darsana in indian thought, thus, is of utmost significance.

Sytems of Indian Philosophy

Over centuries, Indias intellectual exploration of truth has come to be represented by six systems of philosophy. These are known as Vaishesika, Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimansa and Vedanta or Uttara Mimansa.

Orthodox schools

Orthodox (astika) schools, originally called sanatana dharma, are collectively referred to as Hinduism in modern times. The ancient Vedas are their source and scriptural authority. Hinduism consists of six systems of philosophy & theology.

  • Samkhya (Kapila): Samkhya is the oldest of the orthodox philosophical systems, and it postulates that everything in reality stems from purusha (self, soul or mind) and prakriti (matter, creative agency, energy).
  • Yoga (Patanjali): Yoga literally means the union of two principal entities. Yogic techniques control body, mind & sense organs, thus considered as a means of achieving freedom or mukti.
  • Nyaya (Gautama Muni): Nyaya Philosophy states that nothing is acceptable unless it is in accordance with reason and experience (scientific approach). Nyaya is considered as a technique of logical thinking.Nyaya Sutras say that there are four means of attaining valid knowledge: perception, inference, comparison, and verbal testimony.
  • Vaisheshika (Kanada): The basis of the school's philosophy is that all objects in the physical universe are reducible to a finite number of atoms and Brahman is regarded as the fundamental force that causes consciousness in these atoms.Vaisheshika system is considered as the realistic and objective philosophy of universe.
  • Purva Mimamsa (Jaimini): This philosophy encompasses the Nyaya-vaisheshika systems and emphasises the concept of valid knowledge. According to Purva Mimamsa, Vedas are eternal and possess all knowledge.It says that the essence of the Vedas is dharma. By the execution of dharma one earns merit which leads one to heaven after death.
  • Vedanta: The Vedanta, or Uttara Mimamsa, school concentrates on the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads (mystic or spiritual contemplations within the Vedas), rather than the Brahmanas (instructions for ritual and sacrifice). The school separated into six sub-schools, each interpreting the texts in its own way and producing its own series of sub-commentaries:
  • Advaita (Adi Shankara)
  • Visishtadvaita (Ramanuja)
  • Dvaita (Madhvacharya)
  • Dvaitadvaita (Nimbarka)
  • Shuddhadvaita (Vallabhacharya)
  • Achintya Bheda Abheda (Chaitanya Mahaprabhu)

Unorthodox Schools of Indian Philosophy

Schools that do not accept the authority of Vedas are by definition unorthodox (nastika) systems. The following schools belong to heterodox schools of Indian Philosophy.

  • Charvaka (Brihaspati): Charvaka is a materialistic, sceptical and atheistic school of thought.According to Charvaka there is no other world. Hence, death is the end of humans & pleasure is the ultimate object in life.
  • Buddhist philopsophy(Siddhartha Gautama):Buddhism is a non-theistic philosophy whose tenets are not especially concerned with the existence or nonexistence of God. Buddha considered the world as full of misery and considered a mans duty to seek liberation from this painful world. He strongly criticized blind faith in the traditional scriptures like the Vedas
  • Jain Philosophy(Mahavira): A basic principle is anekantavada, the idea that reality is perceived differently from different points of view, and that no single point of view is completely true.According to Jainism, only the Kevalins, those who have infinite knowledge, can know the true answer, and that all others would only know a part of the answer.[ref]

Periods of Indian Thought

Indian Philosophy is mainly linked to Hindu school of thought as India even to-day is mainly Hindu. And we are concerned here with the history of Indian thought up till A.D. 1000 or a little after, when the fortunes of the Hindus became more and more linked with those of the non-Hindus.

The following are the broad divisions of Indian philosophy :

{I) The Vedic Period (I500 B.c.-6oo B.c.) covers the age of the settlement of the Aryans and the gradual expanison and spread of the Aryan culture and civilisation. It was the time which witnessed the rise of the forest universities, where were evolved the beginnings of the sublime idealism of India. We discern in it successive strata of thought, signified by the Mantras or the hymns, the Brahmatitas, and the Upanishads. The views put forward in this age are not philosophical in the technical sense of the term. It is the age of groping, where superstition and thought are yet in conflict.

(II) The Epic Period (6oo B.C. to A.D. 200) extends over the development between the early Upanishads and the darsanas or the systems of philosophy. The epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata serve as the vehicles through which was conveyed the new message of the heroic and the godly in human relations. In this period we have also the great democratisation of the Upanishad ideas in Buddhism and the Bhagavadgita. The religious systems of Buddhism, Jainism, Saivism, Vaishnavism belong to this age.

(III) The Sutra Period (from A.D. 200) comes next. The mass of material grew so unwieldy that it was found necessary to devise a shorthand scheme of philosophy. This reduction and summarisation occurred in the form of Sutras. These Sutras are unintelligible without commentaries, so much so that the latter have become more important than the Sutras themselves. Here we have the critical attitude in philosophy developed.So when we come to the Sutras we have thought and reflection become self-conscious, and not merely constructive imagination and religious freedom.

(IV) The Scholastic Period also dates from the second century A.D. It is not possible for us to draw a hard and fast line between this and the previous one. Yet it is to this that the great names of Kumarila, Sathkara, Sridhara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vacaspati, Udayana, Bhaskara, Jayanta, Vijiianabhik~u and Raghunatha belong. The literature soon becomes grossly polemical. We find a brood of schoolmen, noisy controversialists indulging in over-subtle theories and fine-spun arguments, who fought fiercely over the nature of logical universals.Commentators like Sathkara and Ramanuja re-state the old doctrine, and their restatement is just as valuable as a spiritual discovery.

Misconceptions about Indian Philosophy

There are three misconceptions about Indian philosophy in general. One is that Indian philosophy is pessimistic and the other is that it is dogmatic and lastly indifference to ethics and unprogressiveness. Let us explain the matter in some detail.

Indian philosophy is called pessimistic because it starts with a kind of dissatisfaction in the state in which man lives on the earth. It tries to find out the source of evil on earth. It also highlights the miseries man has to suffer in his life. In reply to such view we can say that it is nothing but a wrong understanding of the nature of Indian philosophy. It is true that Indian philosophy brings out the dark aspect of life while explaining various issues. It tries to explore the root cause of such experiences of life and ultimately provides some remedy to them. There is no Indian philosophical system that ends with a picture of hopelessness. For example, the Buddha philosophy begins with a note of despair on the presence of suffering in human life. But it does not end with that note. It ends with a message of hope that man can get rid of suffering by his own effort in this life itself. Thus pessimism in Indian philosophy is only initial, not final. Indian philosophy starts with a pessimistic note but ends with optimism.

Indian philosophy is that it is dogmatic. This means that it accepts and presents views without any prior examination of them. This observation is primarily based on the fact that Indian philosophy accepts authority as a source of valid knowledge. We can correct such view by showing that though authority is considered as a valid source of knowledge it is accepted with thorough prior examination. The philosophical systems in India make elaborate discussion on the problem called sources of knowledge. The Crvka analysis and consequent rejection of inference and authority as sources of knowledge shows how much critical the Indian philosophers are. Epistemological and logical problems are discussed in all the systems of Indian philosophy. Therefore Indian philosophy should not be called dogmatic. The critical approach is very much there in Indian philosophy.

Indifference to ethics and unprogressiveness:Philosophy in India, it is said, remains stationary and represents an endless process of threshing old straw. "The unchanging East" connotes that in India time has ceased to fly and remained motionless for ever. If it means that there is a fundamental identity in the problems, then this sort of unprogressiveness is a feature common to all philosophical developments. The same old problems of God, freedom and immortality and the same old unsatisfactory solutions are repeated throughout the centuries. The situations to which philosophy is a response renew themselves in each generation, and the effort to deal with them needs a corresponding renewal. If the Indian thinkers combine a love of what is old with a thirst for what is true, Indian philosophy may yet have a future as glorious as its past.

Difficulties faced in Indian Philosophy

The achievements of the ancient Indians in the field of philosophy are but very imperfectly known to the world at large, and it is unfortunate that the condition is no better even in India. There is a small body of Hindu scholars and ascetics living a retired life in solitude, who are well acquainted with the subject, but they do not know English and are not used to modern ways of thinking, and the idea that they ought to write books in vernaculars in order to popularize the subject does not appeal to them.

 There are hundreds of Sanskrit works on most of the systems of Indian thought and scarcely a hundredth part of them has been translated. Indian modes of expression, entailing difficult technical philosophical terms are so different from those of European thought, that they can hardly ever be accurately translated. It is therefore very difficult for a person unacquainted with Sanskrit to understand Indian philosophical thought in its true bearing from translations.

A man who can easily understand the Vedas. the Upanisads, the Purnas, the Law Books and the literary works, and is also well acquainted with European philosophical thought, may find it literally impossible to understand even small portions of a work of advanced Indian logic, or the dialectical Vednta. This is due to two reasons, the use of technical terms and of great condensation in expression, and the hidden allusions to doctrines of other systems.

Another difficulty which a beginner will meet is this, that sometimes the same technical terms are used in extremely different senses in different systems. The student must know the meaning of each technical term with reference to the system in which it occurs, and no dictionary will enlighten him much about the matter .


It is not merely as a piece of antiquarian investigation that Indian thought deserves study. Speculations of particular thinkers or the ideas of a past age are not without value.The history of Indian thought is not what it seems at first sight, a mere succession of ghostly ideas which follow one another in rapid succession.The problems discussed in Indian philosophy have perplexed men from the beginning of time, though they have never been solved to the satisfaction of all. There seems to be an essential human need or longing to know the nature of soul and God. Philosophy is no racial idiosyncrasy of India, but a human interest.

We have in India one of the best logical developments of thought. The labours of the Indian thinkers are so valuable to the advancement of human knowledge that we judge their work to be worthy of study, even if we find manifest errors in it.To the Indian student a study of Indian philosophy alone can give a right perspective about the past of India. At the present day the average Hindu looks upon his past systems, Buddhism, Advaitism, Dvaitism, as all equally worthy and acceptable to reason.

A study of Indian philosophy will conduce to the clearing up of the situation, the adopting of a more balanced outlook and the freeing of the mind from the oppressing sense of the perfection of everything that is ancient. This freedom from bondage to authority is an ideal worth striving at.[ref]




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