Canberra, 2 January 2014

Indian philosophy has its roots in the Vedic period and was initially an attempt by the great sages of that era to find answers to the fundamental questions of human existence: What is the world? If it is a creation, then who was the creator? What is life? What is ‘truth’? What is the nature of ‘reality?; along with many other esoteric aspects of human life, far removed from the mundane aspects of everyday life. The essence of Hindu religion is not dogmatic, and therefore, although stemming from religion, Indian philosophy progressively moves to higher planes and touches spiritual heights in its exalted state.

Spirituality is indeed the master key of the Indian mind; the sense of the infinitive is native to it.

Sri Aurobindo

The Indian sages of antiquity believed that philosophy was an essential and practical element necessary to lead an optimised life. Therefore, philosophy had to be explained in terms of how it served the purpose of living. At the same time, Indian philosophy applies enormous analytical rigour to solving metaphysical problems, and goes into details regarding the function of the human psyche and its relationship with ‘reality’. These analysis were also tempered by the underlying belief that there was a fundamental and unitary order in the universe—all pervasive and omniscient. Most of the Indian philosophical schools concentrated on explaining the existence of such an order and the extraordinary entity at the centre of it that was the sole source that created the universe.

The Indian approach to philosophy illustrates an inherent dichotomy in the overall socio-religious system that was has been prevalent in the country from Vedic times. [This system, while being reorganised through social experiments in modern India, still holds firm in the Indian psyche, manifesting itself in myriad subtle and not so subtle ways in the daily life of the modern nation.] On the one hand, the Indian social structure is essentially communal with the society subsuming the individual as part of a group, the basic unit of the system being the joint family. The joint family system was designed to ensure that the weak and incompetent members (including the sick and the aged) were looked after and therefore inherently favoured the weak. The corollary was that it hindered the strong from forging ahead since any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This situation inhibited adventurous endeavour and brought about a gradual acceptance and subsequent entrenchment of mediocrity across all levels of society. Even the much maligned caste system was an off-shoot of this group dynamics.

On the other hand, Indian philosophy is highly individualistic and deals mainly with the growth of an individual’s personality towards inner perfection. Philosophy provided the outlet to a person for free thinking and development of ideas, essentially the freedom to believe. In a paradoxical manner this process was also required to confirm to the societal norms, although the more renowned thinkers (mainly sages and seers) broke free of these restrictive chains.

The development of philosophical thought in Europe is easy to understand in a chronological sense. Thinkers provided speculative hypothesis and explained their logic, which was fairly well documented, and it is possible to arrange the ideas chronologically while also analysing the influence of one on the other. Unlike this orderly progression, the history and chronology of Indian philosophy is difficult to delineate with any assurance of certainty since there are no records that provide an indication of when or how the different ‘systems’ of philosophy originated. It is also impossible to gauge the influences that led to the development of so many diverse systems of philosophical thought, so early in history. In India, philosophical thought started to emerge immediately after the early Upanishads took shape.

Though one thought leads to another, each usually related to life’s changing texture, and a logical movement of the human mind is sometimes discernible; yet thoughts overlap and the new and the old run side by side, irreconcilable and often contradicting each other.

Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 189

A people is represented through collective thought, beliefs and action. These are influenced by the past, even primitive and unreasonable convictions; and the realities of the present including the necessity to confirm to the emerging social and cultural patterns. Philosophical thought and the challenges that it attempts to clarify have only limited connection to everyday life and is normally above the grasp of the layman. However, an overarching philosophy of life is generally evident in most ideas, either consciously or unconsciously and could also be contradictory in terms of common belief. The level of contradiction is dependent on the unity and harmony within the individual human personality concerned. Today, the compulsion to adhere to religious dogma and outmoded practices are at odds with the acceptance of scientific methods used in everyday life. This contradiction that has become more visible through long history, is gradually eroding the unity within the human being and seems to have reached a critical point in the limit of human personality. The individual sphere has become world-wide.

In India, the underlying philosophy of life, as accepted through the ages, has persisted more than anywhere else in the world. The reason is two-fold: the basic philosophy confirms to life’s conditions, and the inherent virtue of the philosophy continues to appeal more than the perceived evil. However, in contemporary society the validity of philosophical thought can only be assured if its view of life is not completely diverse from a generic and accepted overall view of life.

Metaphysical theories that deal with the permanent reality behind the ever-changing progress of life, though not affected by external physical changes, are the products of the environment and are directly affected by the state of the human mind that is conceiving them. The more prevalent of these theories influence the general philosophy of life of the people. In India, philosophy has been relatively more pervasive in everyday life than in most other countries and has played a comparatively larger role in moulding the national outlook. In the intermingling of religions in the sub-continent, this fundamental philosophy has been influenced by both the Buddhist and Islamic philosophical thought that have left their indelible mark on the national psyche.

The Beginning

The fundamental concepts of life were laid out in treatises written in short sentences called Sutras. These Sutras were meant as memory joggers for persons already well-versed in the subject through elaborate oral study. Since they were terse and non-explanatory sentences, the Sutras were ambiguous and over a period of time led to the creation of a number of divergent explanations and interpolations. These gradually created different schools of thought that came to be called ‘systems’. Since the original Sutra interpreters were held in great esteem, all new speculations were made in the form of commentaries that were essentially faithful to one or the other system of explanation already in existence. In effect, new thought processes that eventuated from the study of the Sutras invariably had to be reconciled with an existing doctrine, making all the scholars belong to one or the other system of thought or philosophy. The development of Indian philosophical thought was dominated by six major systems from the very early times.

Since each scholar taught his pupils in strict adherence to his own system of philosophy, independence in thinking was limited to the bounds of the system to which they belonged. The distinct disadvantage of this process was that no free-lance thinkers came forward to create their own schools of philosophy, although the traditional views were expounded, explained and vigorously defended in varied and sophisticated ways. Essentially the traditional views were carried forward from generation to generation in more refined ways and with astute explanations. Each system also made continuous attempts to become superior to the others through providing logical explanations of their own theories while trying to debunk those of the others. Debates between proponents of different systems were common.

All six systems vary in their approach and conclusions, but are orthodox and also have many common ideas threaded into their logic. Taken as a whole, the systems have a sense of unity even in their diversity. There is a common presumption to all the systems—that the universe is orderly, and that it functions in a rhythmic manner according to a basic law. This presumption is necessary to develop a system in a holistic manner by providing a measure of freedom for independent thinking and individual input into shaping one’s destiny. It also provides the basis for arguments based on logic and reason, as well as the acceptance that human intuition is greater than both, if directed correctly.

The systems are indeed orthodox and admit the authority of the sacred scriptures, but they attack the problems of existence with human means, and scripture serves for all practical purposes but to lend sanctity to results which are achieved not only without its aid, but often in very dubious harmony with its tenets.

Professor A. Berriedale Keith, Sanskrit Drama, 1924

With the passage of time unexpected problems that also had to be analysed and solved arose along with the increasing complexity of daily life. The philosophers of each system found it necessary to ensure explanations and opinions that were always consistent with the central theories and beliefs of the system. Successive commentators, therefore, created increasingly sophisticated explanations, making the systems more complex and also more strongly grounded on their basic and individual beliefs.

Since the development of the systems were parallel to each other even during their formative years, it is impossible to study the history of Indian philosophy in a chronological manner or as successive systems of philosophy. Each system has to be studied independently in order to understand the impetus for its growth through successive ages as individual entities functioning within a very broad common ground. The history of a system is the story of how the system successfully withstood attacks from the other systems. It is a story of conflict, much like the history of any other human endeavour. It is a story of the commentators who kept each system ‘alive’, and continues to do so even today, through selfless toil.

The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy

The spirit of philosophic enquiry established itself in the early days of the Upanishads with the basic belief that the final essence or truth was the ‘atman’, and the highest duty of a human being was the search for atman. Indian school of philosophical thought, also referred as the Hindu philosophical thought, is classified into two groups—Nastika and Astika. Nastika derives from the term ‘na asti’, meaning ‘it is not’; its basic percept being the belief that the Vedas are not infallible and therefore makes no attempt to establish the validity of philosophical arguments on the authority of the Vedas. There are three fundamental systems in this group—Buddhist, Jaina, and Charavaka schools of philosophical thought. The Astika Mata are orthodox schools and further divided into six systems or schools that are independent yet interdependent. The term ‘Mata’ is used to indicate both a school of thought as well as opinion and views, even those of other systems.

Although the Brahmanical system predates the Buddhist school, both the groups matured side by side, confronting and borrowing from each other in their individualistic development. In the last few centuries before the Christian era, six Brahmanical systems crystallised. In terms of chronology, the original conceptualisation took place in a period much earlier than the reign of the Gupta dynasty and continued to be developed even after their fall in the 6th century A.D., although the cardinal principles of the system were unequivocally enunciated during the Gupta period. The six systems are: Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, Vedanta, Nyaya, and Vaishesika. Each system has an independent approach and separate argument but are not isolated from one another. In a holistic overarching view, the systems look to be part of a larger plan.


The term Samkhya is at times translated as Enumeration because its basics are derived from the 25 principles that gave rise to creation. The system is attributed to the mythical sage Kapila, who is believed to have lived in the 7th century B.C., and is shaped out of the many pre-Buddhist thoughts and ideas. The system became well-coordinated in its logic and arguments along with the rise of Buddhism. It is based on theory, which is purely philosophical in conception, with no connection to physical observation; and produces rationalistic lines of inquiry as well as well-reasoned argument, but is not supported by any external authority. The fundamental approach based on rationalism ruled out God and the system does not recognise any personal or collective god(s) and therefore also shuns both monotheism and monism. This atheistic approach also undermines the foundations of the belief in a supernatural religion.

Samkhya practitioners do not believe that the Universe was created by God but that it is evolving constantly through a continuous interactive process between spirits and matter. In this instance, matter itself is considered energy. Since it builds on these two primary causes, Samkhya is also referred to as Dvaita or dualistic philosophy. The two primary causes are: Prakriti, the ever-active and changing nature of energy; and Purusha, the unchanging spirit that is infinite in number. Purusha influences Prakriti to evolve, thereby leading the world also to become continuous as an entity. Based on the identity between cause and effect, it can be surmised that unmanifested Prakriti, energy, is influenced by Purusha, consciousness, within the principle of causality. Nature therefore develops and evolves and is complex, consisting of a large number of elements. The concept is metaphysical, and the arguments put forward by the system are long and intricate, although well-reasoned.


The Yoga system is attributed to Patanjali who codified the sutras into what came to be called Patanjali Yoga Sutras. This Patanjali is believed to have lived during the early years of the Christian era and is not to be confused with the grammarian (mentioned in previous chapters) who lived around 2nd century B.C. Today, Yoga is a common word used around the world but is not well understood, mostly being associated with the ability of a person to assume contorted positions of the body or sit still for long periods of time. Yoga in its essence is much more than these purely physical manifestations. It is based on a psychological conception that with proper training the mind can be raised to a higher level of consciousness wherein a person is able to find out things for himself without any reference to, or assistance from, preconceived theories. Perfect control of the body and senses is an essential prerequisite to achieve this highly enlightened state.

In the Yoga system, the broad position regarding the soul, nature, and cosmology is the same as propagated by the Samkhya system. The essential difference is that the Yoga system brings in the belief in a personal god to assist the individual in concentration. This leads to Iswara or God being more important than the concept of atman in yogic practices. After vigorous practice of disciplining the mind and body, the later stages of yogic achievement is said to lead to a condition of complete ecstasy. The fundamental physical fitness required to concentrate the mind is achieved through the various ‘asanas’ or postures prescribed in the Sutras. These exercises relaxes and tones up the body, achieving strength and fitness without wasting energy and therefore can be practiced by people of all ages. The system also postulates the need for ethical preparation through non-violence, truthfulness, continence etc., prior to undertaking Yogic philosophical training. The fundamental belief is based on reason that creates the atmosphere for control of the mind that in turn leads to intuition.

No one of these Yogas gives up reason, no one asks you to be hood-winked or to deliver your reason into the hands of priests of any type whatsoever…Each one of them tells you to cling to your reason, to hold fast to it.

Swami Vivekananda

Yoga and Samkhya are different ways to bring about liberation of the soul and develop it towards self-actualisation; one through the acceptance of God and the other through the denial of God. It is possible that the two are only divergent schools of thought that originated in one fundamental Samkhya school, becoming the Kapila Samkhya and the Patanjali Samkhya in later days. Essentially Yoga is an experimental system that probes the psychical background of an individual in order to develop control of the mind.

All Raja-Yoga depends on this perception and experience—that our inner elements, combinations, functions, forces, can be separated or dissolved, can be newly combined and set to formerly impossible uses, or can be transformed and resolved into a new general synthesis by fixed internal processes.

Sri Aurobindo’s definition of Yoga

Quoted in Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 198.


The term Mimamsa is derived from the root ‘man’, meaning to think, or arrive at a rational conclusion, and is based on the ritualistic and systemised code of principles called Purva Mimamsa. In the early days, the incantations used in the Vedas were open to interpretations that led to disputes even regarding the general construction of sentences and their meanings. Mimamsa formulated the principles for common, rational, and uniform understanding of the Vedas. It also indulged in speculation regarding the external world, the soul, perceptions of life, the validity of the Vedas and other such philosophical topics. It endeavours to demonstrate man’s relationship to nature through sacrifices and mantras and it is the preliminary discussions that make it a system of philosophy. The maxims to interpret a word or text that were laid down in Purva Mimamsa in ancient times is still in vogue and followed meticulously.

The Mimamsa Sutras are attributed to Jaimini and the most celebrated commentary on them, Bhasya, is by Sabara. Mimamsa literature is enriched by two famous commentaries by a teacher and pupil duo—Kumarila Bhatta and Prabhakara. It is said that Prabhakara, although the student, used to criticise his teacher so much that the teacher, in sarcastic exasperation used to call him Guru, meaning teacher. It came to pass that Prabhakara’s commentary or collection of opinions was called Guru Mata and that of the teacher Bhatta Mata. Even today Hindu Law accepts the maxims and principles of Mimamsa without reservation.


The word Vedanta means ‘the end of the Vedas’ that is the Upanishads. The Vedanta Sutras, the summarised version of the general views expressed in the Upanishads, is divided into four adyayas, or books, each book having four padas or chapters. The Vedanta system is based on the monistic philosophy of the Universe, wherein Prakriti and Purusha—the volatile energy and the unchanging spirit—of the Samkhya system is considered a single reality, the Absolute. The first commentary of Vedanta Sutra, also called Brahma Sutra was by Baudhayana, but this treatise has been lost and not available for perusal now. The earliest available commentary on the Vedanta Sutra is by Shankara (referred to as Shankaracharya, meaning Shankara the Teacher) who conceived and developed a system called Advaita Vedanta meaning non-dualistic Vedanta.

Advaita Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta is based on pure monism and believes that the only and ultimate reality is the Atman—the Absolute Soul. Shankaracharya’s commentary subtly explains the intricate theory of knowledge and its nuances, and logically builds up the complete system of Advaitism or non-dualism. The system propagates the non-divisiveness of the Atman which is equated to Universal Space and believes that ‘freedom’, or ultimate enlightenment, is achieved by realising this unity of the individual with the Absolute Soul. Shankaracharya accepted the Brahmanical concept of social structure and daily life based on caste as the representation of the collective experience and wisdom of the race. However, he also believed that anyone from any caste could aspire to, and attain, the highest levels of knowledge. The philosophy of Shankaracharya has an element of self-sacrifice and detachment, and of world negation and withdrawal, to facilitate the search for the freedom of the self.

Shankaracharya (? 788 – 820 A.D.)

Shankara was an orthodox Brahman born in Malabar, situated in the far southern West Coast of India (in what is today the state of Kerala). He considered all the Vedic literature to be sacred and unquestionably true. He was a man of great energy and concentrated on action and activity, travelling incessantly across the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent, meeting innumerable people, discussing, debating, arguing, and convincing them of the importance, or even superiority, of Advaita Vedanta philosophy. He looked upon the entire sub-continent, from Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) to the Himalayas as a single entity held together culturally and spiritually by a commonality that was self-evident.

Shankaracharya, as he came to be known, was a complex mixture of a philosopher, scholar, teacher, mystic, poet and saint. He was also a practical reformer and organiser. He established four ‘Maths’, or monasteries, far away from each other, presumably so that they would further develop the fundamental Advaita Vedanta philosophy independently and individually. Perhaps he also wanted to encourage the idea of a religiously and culturally integrated India in the sub-conscious of his followers. These four Maths still function today as the foundational cornerstones of Hinduism: at Sringeri in Karnataka in the south; Puri in Orissa in the eastern coast; at Dwarka on the Kathiawar coast in the west; and Badrinath within the heart of the Himalayas. Shankaracharya died at the age of 32 at Kedarnath in the snow-covered upper reaches of the Himalayas.

The significance of the long journeys that he undertook, during a period when travel was difficult, slow, and fraught with danger, is that it brings out the essential unity of India, even in those far-off days. His ability to convey new ideas and expound a new system of philosophy through Sanskrit, the common language of the educated, indicate a commonality of intellectual and cultural life in the sub-continent.

There are a number of variant forms of dualist philosophy that claim that the original purpose of the Brahma Sutras was to encourage dualism. In fact the commentaries of learned people like Ramanuja, Vallabha, and Shrikantha opposed Shankaracharya’s teachings.

Shankara’s greatness lies in his brilliant dialectic. By able use of logical argument, and, we must admit, by interpreting some phrases very figuratively, he reduced all the apparently self-contradictory passages of the Upanishads to a consistent system which, though not unchallenged, has remained the standard philosophy of intellectual Hinduism to this day.

A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, p. 331.

Nyaya and Vaishesika

The Nyaya Sutras, attributed to Gautama, lays particular stress on the cultivation of logic as an art to analyse life itself. The Vaishesika Sutras, attributed to Kanada, is essentially the same with few minor differences and deals with metaphysics and physics. It argues that the Universe is made up of atoms as distinct from the soul, thereby separating the universes of matter and soul, which cannot then be the same.


The speculative demands of the human mind is such that it is naturally inclined towards abstract thought. However, the systems of philosophy prevalent in India did not develop because of this inherent inquisitiveness, but because of the deep and inherent craving to understand the religious meaning and purpose of life. Since there is an underlying religious foundation to the abstract thinking that has produced different systems of philosophy, all the systems have commonality and agreement regarding some basic points. The conditions to realise the meaning of life was common to all systems, the three more important ones being—the doctrines of Karma, Mukti, and Jiva.

The Doctrine of Karma. The presumption is that all actions of an individual leaves behind some residual amount of potency that has the power to ordain joy or sorrow for the individual in the future. When this lingering joy or sorrow cannot be enjoyed or dissipated in this life, the individual has to take another birth as a human or some other being to consume it, a cycle that will continue till the eventual neutralisation of the residual potency of all actions. Vedic rites were the earliest manifestation of the doctrine of Karma and rebirth.

The Doctrine of Mukti. The doctrine states that the cycle of births and rebirths, from the beginingless time and based on one’s actions in life, has to end at some stage. There is broad agreement on this aspect in all systems of philosophy. Ending the cycle is a quest that has to originate within the individual through the sanctification of the soul, which is believed to have been corrupted by the impurities of daily life. Self-realisation, through different methods prescribed in different systems, can break this cycle of birth and rebirth, thereby attaining ‘Mukti’ of the soul, salvation through ultimate dissolution.

The Doctrine of Jiva. This is based on the acceptance of the existence of a permanent entity called Jiva or Atman. In the different systems there is divergence of belief regarding the nature of Jiva but there is complete agreement that in the beginning, Jiva or Atman is pure and unsullied, becoming impure through human actions. There is also common belief that the transcendent form is achieved through the removal of all impurities, although the methods prescribed to achieve this exalted state vary.

Springing from the same root, all the philosophical systems agreed on the general principles of ethical conduct to achieve salvation—framed by broad overarching unity in philosophical and religious endeavours. However, the means to achieve this purification of body and soul prescribed by the different systems were varied and disparate. There is also commonality in accepting the identity of the individual soul and the larger Universe as reiterated in the Upanishads. The differences lie in the interpretation of nature and of the identity and character of the Absolute Soul. The leading theme of the Upanishads is ‘Tat Tvam Asi’, meaning ‘You (the individual) are That (the Absolute Soul)’, which was fundamental to the development of the different systems of philosophy—each searching for the salvation of the Absolute Soul.

The one eternal undifferentiated essence, above good and evil, is in a condition of consciousness which is beyond deep sleep (susupti), but is yet awake and living. Though it fills the whole of space, by a mysterious verity which defies logic but is proved by experience it dwells in the core of the human heart. … Thus the multifariousness and incoherence of the universe is explained away, and reduced to a single entity.

A.L. Basham, The Wonder That was India, p. 253.


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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

One Response to “Indian History Part 23: THE INDIAN APPROACH TO PHILOSOPHY”

  1. Absolutely outstanding work. Impressed

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