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Philosophical Traditions of Indian Subcontinent

  • 06 May 2024

Most of us have read Western Philosophy at some point or the other, and even if one might know it too well, we are at least somewhat familiar with key terminologies used in Western Philosophy. However, that is rarely the case when it comes to the philosophical traditions of India. It is pertinent to know our philosophical traditions, not only for the sake of examination purposes but simply because it is our tradition. Through this blog, I try and attempt to quickly provide an at-glance of the Philosophical traditions of the Indian Subcontinent (majorly Āstika/Orthodox schools). This blog is not exhaustive in providing a deep explanation of all schools of thought within the Indian tradition of philosophy but provides a good starting point to understand the overall structure of Indian philosophy. Please note that for the purpose of this blog, I will explain only the ṣad-darśana. I'll mention the heterodox schools in brief.

Indian philosophy denotes the philosophical speculations of all Indian thinkers, ancient or modern, Hindus or non-Hindus, theists or atheists. A classic principle of classification to understand Indian philosophy is to divide it into two broad classes, Āstika (Orthodox) and Nāstika (Heterodox) -

1. Āstika (Orthodox):

As per the Indian philosophy, Āstika schools are those who believe in the authority of Vedas. This should not be confused and equated with a belief in God. There are six chief philosophical systems (popularly known as ṣad-darśana or shad darshanas), namely, Mīmāṁsā, Vedānta, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika that fall under Āstika (Orthodox) system.

2. Nāstika (Heterodox):

Nāstika schools do not believe in the authority of Vedas. Under the class of heterodox systems, the chief three are the schools of the Cārvākas, the Bauddhas and the Jainas.

Āstika (Orthodox) Schools of Indian Philosophy

As mentioned above, the Āstika school constitutes the Shad Darshanas Or the Six philosophies. "Drs"—which means "to see"—is the root word of the word "darsana." "Darsana" here means perceiving or visualising the philosophy or truth. "Darsana" also describes viewing God, an idol, or a sacred person in various settings.

1. Nyaya:

In Sanskrit, ‘Nyaya’ means ‘rule’ or ‘method of reasoning’. This school is based on logic and realism. Realism in philosophy means to accept what we see. It believes in sense experience. For Nyaya, the world is real and it exists independent of the mind. The original sutra of Nyaya philosophy is said to be composed by the great sage Gautama. It is a realistic philosophy that is based mainly on logical grounds.

As per Nyaya philosophy, the valid sources of knowledge, i.e. pramanas are four. These four pramanas are Pratyaksha, Anuman, Upamana, and Shabda.

  • Pratyaksha: Pratyaksha Or Perception is a valid source of knowledge as per Nyaya tradition. Perception is the direct knowledge one gains through the senses. This can be further categorised into Bāhya meaning external senses (eyes, ears etc) or Āntara meaning internal senses (the mind)
  • Anuman: Anuman, also translated as Inference or Logical deduction is a valid source of knowledge as per Nyaya tradition. There are at least three propositions or three terms in Anumana. These are the pakṣa or minor term (the minor term is about which we infer something), the sādhya or major term (which is the inferred object), and the linga or sādhana or middle term. (which is invariably related to the major, and is present in the minor)
  • Upamana: Upamana is referred to as comparison. Understanding the relationship between a name and objects based on a description of their resemblance to a known object is known as comparison.
  • Shabda: Shabda refers to verbal testimony. It refers to the knowledge based on statements of authoritative persons.

2. Vaiśeṣika:

The term Vaiśeṣika translates to specific or particular. The notable feature of this school is systematic categorisation. Among these categories is “particularity” or “Visesa”. The foundational sutra for Vaiśeṣika is Vaiśeṣika sutra composed by Kannada Rishi/Kaṇāda. The Vaiśeṣika sutra has been divided into ten books called ten adhyāyas and each of these books are divided into two sections or āhnikas.

Both the Nyāya and the Vaiśeṣika schools of Indian philosophy are considered to be samānatantra i.e they are allied systems. This is because both these systems believe in the liberation of an individual self, thus sharing the same end. This is also in part because both of them hold ignorance as the prime root cause of the pain and suffering that exists. Both hold the belief that only through a right knowledge of reality, liberation can be achieved.

However, there are a few differences between the two. The major difference is in what they hold as valid sources of knowledge. The Vaisesika school accepts Pratyaksha (perception) and Anuman (inference) as valid sources of knowledge and holds Upamana (comparison) and Shabda (verbal testimony) as not different from Pratyaksha and Anuman.

The Vaiśesikas also mention seven padārthas namely, dravya (substance), guṇa (quality), karma (action), sāmānya (generality), viśesa (particularity), samavāya (the relation of inherence) and abhāva (non-existence) that constitute the whole of reality; while in case of the Nyāya school these padārthas are sixteen.

3. Sāṅkhya:

The Sāṅkhya school is considered to be the work of Kapila/Kapil Muni. This school is an ancient system of thought and the first work of this tradition is the Sāṅkhya-sūtra of Kapila. He wrote an elaborate work known as the Sāṅkhya-pravacana sūtra. Therefore, the Sāṅkhya philosophy is also often known as Sāṅkhyaprayacana.

While some thinkers believe 'sāṅkhya' as an adaptation from 'saṅkhyā' i.e number since it provides a right knowledge of reality by the enumeration of the ultimate objects of knowledge; others, however, think that the word 'saṅkhyā' means perfect knowledge (samyag-jñāna), and that a philosophy in which we have such knowledge is justly named sāṅkhya.

According to the Sāṅkhya school there are only two kinds of ultimate realities, i.e, spirit and matter (purusha and prakṛti). It also believes in a theory of causation, meaning that everything that exists in the universe is based on a cause and effect relationship. This is called as satkārya-vāda which means that the effect exists in its material cause even before it is produced. To explain this further, the Sankya school mentions that the Prakṛti is constituted by the three guṇas of sattva, rajas and tamas. This tripartite classification of the attributes of sattva, rajas and tamas when in a state of equilibrium forms sāmyāvasthā.

For the Sāṅkhya school, the valid sources of knowledge include Pratyaksha (Perception), Anuman (Inference), Shabda (scriptural testimony). The other sources of knowledge i.e Upmana (comparison), Arthāpatti (postulation), and Anupalabdhi (Non-cognition) are not recognised as separate from the three sources of knowledge mentioned. Sāṅkhya school has described universe as we experience it, exploring questions of how we gain knowledge and how we perform action. They mention the five instruments of knowledge i.e jnanendriyas (sense organs), the five instruments of action i.e karmendriyas (motor organs) and the means by which impressions are stored in human beings are the five tanmatras. Furthermore, the external world has been described through five panchabhutas.

4. Yoga:

Of the most well known schools of Indian philosophy today, Yoga is certainly on the top. Yoga, derived from 'yuj,' means union with the Divine. It's practical, aiming for life's goal. Rooted in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it emphasises mind control via concentration. The aphorism 'Yoga chitta vritti nirodha' encapsulates this idea. It appeals to the idea that the spirit is an independent principle, and is ‘free from all limitations of mind, body and the senses’. The great Patanjali composed the Yoga-Sutra which is also referred as Pātañjala-sūtra. The Pātañjala-sūtra is divided into four pādas (parts).

The Yama (non-injury, truth, non-stealing, celibacy, non-acceptance of gifts) and Niyama (purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, surrender to God) guide right actions. Asana, pranayama, and pratyahara discipline body and mind, preparing for union. Dharana, dhyana, and samadhi culminate in spiritual absorption. Yoga thus offers a systematic path to harmony and connection with the Divine. The Yoga school is often seen as a close ally of the Sāṅkhya school and as an application of the theory of the Sāṅkhya. It accepts the epistemology of the Sāṅkhya school as well as consider the same three pramanas as valid sources of knowledge.

5. Purva Mimansa:

The above four schools base their philosophy on reason and accept Vedas, but do not mention the Vedas or Upanishads explicitly. However, Purva Mimamsa as well as Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta) clearly refer to the passages of Vedas. Jaimini's Sūtra, in twelve elaborate chapters, laid the foundation of the Pūrva Mīmāṁsā.

Purva- meaning earlier, refers to the earlier sections of the Vedas while Mimamsa stands for an inquiry into truth. It should be noted that the Mimamsa is based on the rituals or Karma Kanda, that find basis from the first two parts of the Vedas (Mantra Samhitas and Brahmanas). Some of the later commentaries on the Purva Mimamsa accept all six sources i.e Pratyaksha, Anumana, Upmana, Shabda, Arthapatti as well as Anupalabdhi. Notably, the Sabda is given the supreme status as a valid source of knowledge or the highest pramana.

6. Uttara Mīmāṁsā/Vedānta

Uttara means the latter section of the Vedas i.e the Upanishads. Uttara Mimamsa, popularly referred as Vedanta are the end or the goal of the Vedas. The Vedanta Sutras, also known as Brahma Sutras, emphasis on Upanishads, instead of Karma Kanda (rituals). In literal sense, Vedanta translates as “the end of the Vedas” which refers to the Upanishads.

Vedanta, meaning 'the end of the Vedas,' originally referred to the Upanishads. Later, it encompassed all ideas stemming from them. With numerous Upanishads emerging across Vedic schools also known as Shakhas, diverse viewpoints arose, necessitating synthesis. Badarayana's Brahma Sutras, also called Vedanta Sutras, undertake this, organised into four chapters: coherence of Upanishadic teachings i.e Samanvaya, their non-contradiction i.e avirodha, means of realisation i.e sadhana, and the resultant fruit I.e phala. The Vedānta school, thus, deals with providing a philosophical justification of the Vedas.

To understand the divisions within this school, a common question that is asked is- what is the nature of the relation between the self (jīva) and God (Brahman)? Dvaita or dualism of Madhava holds the view that self and God are two totally different entities. Śaṅkara, on the other hand considers self and God as absolutely identical and this is known as Advaita or monism. Rāmānuja takes a different stance which is known as Viśiṣtādvaita or qualified monism and he holds that the two- self and God are related to each other like part and whole. There are various other divisions as well but these constitute the major ones.

Nāstika (Heterodox) Schools of Indian Philosophy:

Indian philosophy is not limited to the orthodox school. Beyond this, three other schools exist i.e the Cārvākas, the Buddhas and the Jainas which constitute the heterodox group, denying the authority of Vedas. A fourth school, Ajivika, is also sometimes considered as a school of thought of Indian philosophy.

  1. The Buddhist School: Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhist school mentions the four noble truths - Dukka, Samudāya, Nirodha and Magga and the Eightfold Path to achieve Nirvana i.e liberation from suffering. These are Right faith, Right resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Living, Right Thought, Right Concentration and Right efforts.
  2. The Jain School: The 24th Tirthankara Mahavira revived the Jain philosophy. As per this school, Nirvana is attained through Right Philosophy, Right Knowledge, and Right Conduct known as Tri-ratna. It also mentions five abstinences- to not injure, to not lie, to not steal, to not strive for luxury/possessions and to not be unchaste.
  3. The Cārvāka School: This school of Indian philosophy is unique among all, owing to its materialistic nature as a school of thought. It's also called the Lokayata school and believes in joyful living. For this school, only Pratyaksha is a valid source of knowledge. Brihaspati is said to have laid the foundations of this school of thought. While others believe that a philosopher named Charvaka who composed the Barhaspatya Sutras is the founder.

References Used:

  1. The Essentials of Hinduism: An Introduction to all the Sacred Texts by Trilochan Sastry
  2. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy authored by Satischandra Chatterjee And Dhirendramohan Datta
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