The History of Indian Philosophy

Philosophy originated in India independently. The doctrines of the earliest Indian philosophies sought to formulate their thoughts concerning – “the origin of the universe” and “the nature and destiny of man”. The religious element predominates over the rational or natural explanation. Indian philosophy conceives of man, as spiritual in nature and relates him to a spiritual or metaphysical concept of the universe.

Ancient Indian philosophy is represented in a mass of texts/scriptures for which the authors and dates of composition are mostly unknown. Chief among these are the Vedas, (written from perhaps 1500-1000 B.C.) the oldest religious texts in the world. The Vedas are a collection of rhymes and verses (mantras) addressed to gods and goddesses, who are personifications of natural forces and phenomena.  There was no attempt in Vedas to trace the genealogy of these gods or to associate them through mythological concepts on the origins of universe.

In the Upanishads, (written after 700 B.C) we find the first elaborate attempts made to formulate a speculative system of the universe, and to solve in terms of philosophy, the problems of “the origin of the universe” and of “the nature and destiny of man”. (it must be remembered that until 4th century BC the Upanishads in common with other four Vedas: the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda, did not exist in writing. They were being handed down from generation to generation through oral-tradition.)

Ancient Indian philosophies distinguish two classes philosophies, Astika and Nastika. Astika does not mean “theistic,” nor does nastika mean “atheistic.” Astika may also mean one who accepts the authority of the Vedas, Nastika then means one who does not accept that authority. (Not all among the Astika philosophers, were theists, and even if they were, they did not all accord the same importance to the concept of God in their systems.) The Astika systems respects the Vedas and Upanishads, were codified during the medieval period of Brahmanic-Sanskritic scholasticism.

According to the Upanishads:

  • The Upanishads answer the question “Who is that one Being?” by establishing the equation “Brahman” = “Atman”. Brahman— (the Absolute) underlies the workings of the universe is also characterized as infinity, truth, knowledge and as existence, consciousness, and bliss. Atman, (self) underlies all the activities of a human being – the eternal core of the personality, that after death either transmigrates to a new life or attains release (moksha) from the bonds of existence. Atman is part of the universal Brahman, with which it can commune or even fuse.
  • The Upanishads acknowledge the existence of Maya (illusion) – is referred to as everything which is not Brahman.
  • The knowledge of Brahman or Atman is an incomparable excellence – which is difficult to attain but not impossible to attain in this life-time. It is the knowledge which constitutes the happiness of man by uniting him with the universe.
  • The idea of immortality of the soul and transmigration of the soul is associated with Karman (deeds) or deeds of a man across his life time.
  • Recognize the existence of evil and suffering, and assets on the importance of freeing the soul from suffering by means of knowledge.

The Vedic Period (1500 B.C.E. – 600 B.C.E.) saw the expansion and development of the Aryan culture and civilization. Then came, The Epic Period (600 B.C.E. – 200 C.E.) characterized by the informal presentation of philosophical doctrines through non-systematic literature, treatises on ethical and social philosophy such as the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This period includes the rise of Buddhism, Jainism, Saivism and Vaisnavism, and the concurrent beginnings of the orthodox schools of Hinduism.

After 200 C.E. or “the first centuries of the Christian era” was The Sutra Period ( Sutra meaning extremely concise expressions, intended to reduce the doctrines of a science or of a philosophy into memorizable aphorisms, formulas, or rules). This was the beginning of systematic philosophical thinking and the emergence of Six Great Historical Systems of Indian philosophy (The authors of these sutra’s are vaguely historical or altogether mythical personas):

The Vedanta, or Uttara Mimamsa – insists on monistic concept of reality. The sutras were mainly composed by Badarayana (who is sometimes identified with Vyasa – the author of Mahabharata) and later by Shankaracharya. About the origin of the universe, since it is Brahman, cannot be said to originate. And yet Brahman is commonly represented as the cause of the universe. The road to true freedom (Moksha) from the conditions of finite existence is the way of knowledge – of the identity of Atman with Brahman, of Self with God and implies exemption from birth and transmigration. The Vedantists, however, did not neglect the inculcation of moral excellence. For knowledge, they taught, is not to be attained except by discipline.

Purva Mimamsa – written by Rishi Jaimini, here the central idea is that of duty (Dharma), which includes sacrificial observances and rests ultimately on the superhuman authority of the Veda.

Samkhya – philosophy may be described as a toning down of the extreme monism of the Vedanta. (Comprises of Kapila-Sutras ascribed to the sage, Kapila). It is essentially dualistic. It regards the universe as consisting of two realities, Purusa (consciousness) and Prakriti (matter). Jiva (a living being) is that state in which Purusa is bonded to Prakriti in some form. This fusion, state led to the emergence of buddhi (“intellect”) and Ahankara (ego consciousness). The universe is described by as one created by Purusa -Prakriti entities infused with various combinations of variously enumerated elements, senses, feelings, activity and mind. During the state of imbalance, one or more constituents overwhelm the others, creating a form of bondage, particularly of the mind. The end of this imbalance, bondage is called liberation, or kaivvalya (liberation from both within this life and after death).

The Yoga – philosophy written by Patangali, who is supposed to have lived during the second century B.C.  They followed all the metaphysical principles, Yoga-sutras stand in close relation to the Samkhya system. Yoga is voluntaristic and emphasizes the need of going through severe self-control as the means of realizing intuitively the same principles. Followed by observance of certain postures, meditation, and the repetition of the sacred syllable “Om”.

Nyaya – philosophy, founded by Aksapada Gautama, holds that human suffering results from mistakes/defects produced by activity under wrong knowledge (notions and ignorance). Moksha (liberation), it states, is gained through right knowledge. This premise led Nyaya to concern itself with epistemology, that is the reliable means to gain correct knowledge and to remove wrong notions. False knowledge is ignorance, it includes delusion. Correct knowledge is discovering and overcoming one’s delusions, and understanding true nature of soul, self and reality through justification, and the rationality of belief.  They approached philosophy as a form of direct realism, stating that anything that really “exists” is in principle humanly “knowable”. To them, correct knowledge and understanding is different from simple, reflexive cognition – it requires Anuvyavasaya (cross-examination of cognition and reflective cognition of what one thinks one knows).

Vaisheshika– founded by Kanada, an independent philosophy with its own metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethics. Known for its insights in naturalism. It is a form of atomism in natural philosophy. It postulated that all objects in the physical universe are reducible to Paramanu (atoms), and one’s experiences are derived from the interplay of substance. Everything was composed of atoms, qualities emerged from aggregates of atoms, but the aggregation and nature of these atoms was predetermined by cosmic forces.

The main heterodox or Nastika schools, which do not accept the authority of the Vedas, include Carvaka also known as Lokayata, Carvaka is a materialistic, skeptical and atheistic school of thought. Its founder was Carvaka, author of the Barhaspatya Sutras (“Saint Brihaspati, pioneer of materialism, during the age of the Rig Veda). They were skeptical about karma, reincarnation, and theology. Lokayata held that- “perception” is the only valid source of knowledge, for all other sources like testimony and inference are unreliable. Perception revealed only the material world, made of the four elements: air, fire, water, and earth. Minds and consciousness were, too, the products of matter. Souls, gods, and the afterlife could not be perceived, and thus could not be said to exist. Religious rituals were useless, and scriptures contained no special insight. Thus, the only purpose of life was to enjoy pleasure and avoid pain. Critics described the ethics of the Lokayata as egoistic, hedonistic, or even nihilistic.

Buddhism is a non-theistic system of beliefs based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince later known as the Buddha, in the 5th Century B.C. The question of God is largely irrelevant in Buddhism, and it is mainly founded on the rejection of certain orthodox Hindu philosophical concepts (although it does share some philosophical views with Hinduism, such as belief in karma) Buddhism advocates a Noble Eight-fold Path to end suffering, and its philosophical principles are known as the Four Noble Truths (the Nature of Suffering, the Origin of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering, and the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering).

Jain philosophy – was established by Mahavira in the 6th Century B.C., although Jainism as a religion is much older. 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 (like the Western philosophical doctrine of Subjectivism). According to Jainism, only Kevalis, those who have infinite knowledge, can know the true answer, and that all others would only know a part of the answer. It stresses spiritual independence and the equality of all life, with emphasis on non-violence, and posits self-control as vital for attaining the realization of the soul’s true nature. The Jain belief emphasizes the immediate consequences of one’s behavior.

The Arthashastra, attributed to the Mauryan minister Chanakya (also known as Kautilya) in the 4th Century B.C., is one of the earliest Indian texts devoted to political philosophy, and it discusses ideas of statecraft and economic policy. The ideas expressed by Kautilya in the Arthashastra are completely practical and unsentimental. Kautilya openly writes about controversial topics and the collective ethics that hold a society together. Some scholars have seen in the ideas of Kautilya a combination of Chinese Confucianism and Legalism.

The Scholastic Period (from the Sutra Period to the seventeenth century C.E.) produced interpretive commentaries (bhasyas), which play a major role in philosophical literature. In some cases, different authors wrote major commentaries on the same sutra-work, but with very different interpretations reflecting their own philosophical positions and resulting in complete and elaborate philosophical systems of their own. The period produced the works of some of the greatest Indian philosophers, including Samkara, Kumarila, Sridhara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vacaspati, Udayana, Bhaskara, Jayanta, Vijnabhiksu, and Raghunatha.

The religion of Islam arose in the 7th century in Arabia, the advent of Islam radically transformed the lives of millions of people. With its simple, leveling message, and its opposition to the reactionary caste system (though not classes) it struck a responsive note especially among the poorest and most downtrodden layers of the population. In its origins, Islam represented a revolutionary movement, that gave a powerful impulse to culture, art and philosophy.

Islam in Indian began as early as the end of the first/seventh century, Islam was introduced into the Indian sub‑continent by Arab traders. It was propagated by mystics and saints. It was established by Muslim rulers of various dynasties who made India their home. They brought with them their ideology, their philosophy and religion, their beliefs and practices, and, above all, an unconquerable passion to share this wisdom with others.

Reference has been made earlier to the Sufi (Islamic mystics), who found a resemblance between the ontological monism of Ibn al-ʿArabi and that of Vedanta. The Shattari order among the Indian Sufis practiced Yogic austerities and even physical postures. Various minor religious sects attempted to harmonize Hindu and Muslim religious traditions at different levels and with varying degrees of success. Of these, the most famous are Ramananda, Kabir, and Guru Nanak.

Kabir harmonized the two religions in such a manner that, to an enquiry about whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim, the answer given was, “It is a secret difficult to comprehend. One should try to understand.” Guru Nanak rejected the authority of both Hindu and Muslim scriptures alike and founded his religion, Sikhism, on a rigorously moralistic, monotheistic basis.

In the 19th century, India was not marked by any noteworthy philosophical achievements, but the period was one of great social and religious reform movements. The newly founded universities introduced Indian intellectuals to Western thought, particularly to the empiricist, utilitarian, and agnostic philosophies in England. And John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Herbert Spencer became the most influential thinkers in the Indian universities by the end of the century. These Western-oriented ideas served to generate a secular and rational point of view and stimulated social and religious movements, most noteworthy among them being the Brahmo Samaj movement founded by Ram Mohun Roy.

Toward the later decades of the century, the great saint Ramakrishna Paramahamsa renewed interest in mysticism, and many young rationalists and skeptics were converted into the faith exemplified in his person. Ramakrishna taught, among other things, an essential diversity of religious paths leading to the same goal, and this teaching was given an intellectual form by Swami Vivekananda, his famed disciple.

Soon, however, the German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg F.W. Hegel came to be the most-studied philosophers in the Indian universities. The ancient systems of philosophy came to be interpreted in the light of German idealism. The Hegelian notion of Absolute Spirit found a resonance in the age-old Vedanta notion of Brahman.

Honorable mentions for their original contributions to philosophical thinking are Sri Aurobindo (died 1950), Mohandas K. Gandhi (died 1948), Rabindranath Tagore (died 1941), Sir Muḥammed Iqbal (died 1938), K.C. Bhattacharyya (died 1949), and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (died 1975).

The Indian systems shared many ethical values. Generally, passions and desires were to be controlled, and harm was not to be done to any forms of life. The Indian conceptions of space and time were vast. The past stretched back into infinity, or at least for billions of years. The Earth was but one of millions of worlds in an infinite universe. Accordingly, Indian thought emphasized the smallness of Earth, the insignificance of worldly possessions, and the transient nature of human life.

Perhaps most centrally, the ancient Indians did not see philosophy as a disinterested investigation of the nature of reality. Rather, philosophy was a practical matter – useful for daily life and in shaping one’s destiny.


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