Indian philosophy

From New World Encyclopedia

The term Indian philosophy may refer to any of several traditions of philosophical thought that originated in India. Indian philosophy has a longer history of continuous development than any other philosophical tradition, and philosophy encompasses a wide variety of schools and systems. Almost every school of Indian philosophy is associated with a religious sect, including the six orthodox (astika) schools (darshanas) of Hinduism, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa, and Vedanta; and the heterodox schools (nastika) which include Buddhism, Jainism and the materialistic Carvaka school.

All the schools of Indian philosophy are characterized by some common themes. Indian philosophy conceives of man as spiritual in nature, and relates him to a spiritual or metaphysical concept of the universe. Indian philosophy is intimately associated with practice in everyday life. It takes an introspective approach to reality, concerning itself with knowledge of the inner life and self of man (atmavidya), rather than with the nature and structure of the physical world. Indian philosophy is predominantly idealistic. Intuition is often accepted as the only method for knowing the ultimate truth; truth is generally not “known” intellectually, but must be “realized.” Indian philosophy accepts the authority of ancient philosophers and innovations are represented as extensions of older systems of thought. Flexibility and the tendency to synthesize are also characteristic of Indian philosophy. Indian schools generally embody the doctrines of karma and rebirth; man must be perfected before he can achieve salvation. Except for the Carvaka school, all accept the moral order of the universe, and justice as the law of moral life.

During the twentieth century, Indian philosophical emphasis on intuitive understanding and self-cultivation has made an impact on Western thought.

Common Themes

Indian philosophy has a longer history of continuous development than any other philosophical tradition, and until the arrival of Islam in the sixteenth century, was practically unaffected by outside influences.[1] It is difficult to pinpoint an exact chronology or to find detailed information about a particular philosopher, because these details were always secondary to the philosophical systems themselves. Some of the famous names to which philosophical systems are attributed are known to be legends. In other cases, the author is well known but none of his original works are extant.[2]

Indian philosophy encompasses a wide variety of schools and systems, but they are all characterized by some common themes. Indian philosophy has been intensely spiritual, conceiving of man as spiritual in nature, and relating him to a spiritual or essential universe. It is concerned with the spiritual destiny of man; except for the materialistic Carvaka school, material welfare is not the goal of life. Most Indian philosophical literature is directed towards the promotion of spiritual life or reform.[3] Almost all schools of Indian philosophy are also religious sects.

In every school of Indian thought, philosophy is intimately associated with practical life. Theory does not exist without a practical application. Philosophy is pursued, not as an academic discipline, but as a necessary guide for man’s life. A knowledge of the truth needs to be cultivated in order to understand how life can best be led. It became customary for and Indian writer to explain at the beginning of a philosophical work how it served human ends (puruṣārtha).[4]

Indian philosophy takes an introspective approach to reality, concerning itself with the inner life and self of man rather than with the nature and structure of the physical world. Philosophy pursues knowledge of the self (atmavidya); the keynote of all schools of Indian philosophy is, “See the Self.”[5] Ethics and psychology are the main fields of philosophical exploration. Indian scholars made great advances in mathematics and the study of natural science, but these studies were considered outside the field of philosophy.

Indian philosophy is predominantly idealistic. Reality is ultimately one and ultimately spiritual, though this tendency towards monistic idealism takes many forms. Even the systems that espouse dualism or pluralism have an underlying monistic character[6].

Though Indian philosophy makes extensive use of reason and logic, intuition is accepted as the only method for knowing the ultimate truth. Truth is not “known” intellectually, but must be “realized.” The word “darshana” means “vision” and “instrument of vision.” It represents the direct, immediate and intuitive vision of Reality, the actual perception of Truth, and also includes the means which lead to this realization.[7]Reason is used to create systematic formulations, to demonstrate the truth, and to engage in polemics, but ultimately direct perception and a deeply personal realization beyond words is the highest knowledge of truth. [8]

All schools of Indian philosophy accept the authority of ancient philosophers. Truth is not viewed as the possession or achievement of a few learned men, but as something which has existed eternally, in its entirety, sometimes forgotten and sometimes grasped by a sage or teacher who was able to direct mankind toward a greater understanding of it. Many great Indian philosophers are regarded by tradition as incarnations of Vishnu, born on earth to educate men in the knowledge of truth. The Vedas were therefore considered to be without authorship, an expression of eternal truth to be understood and expounded on. The philosophers who built the great systems of Indian thought chose to represent themselves as commentators on ancient traditions, though they were introducing radical innovations. This respect for ancient sages as people who realized the truth did not make Indian philosophy dogmatic, however, as demonstrated in the widely varying concepts and treatment of God among the different schools[9].

Flexibility and the tendency to synthesize are another characteristic of Indian philosophy. Many philosophers included explanations of all the other existing schools of thought in their own commentaries. The Sanskrit term for "philosopher" is dārśanika, one who is familiar with the systems of philosophy, or darśanas.[10] A famous concept is that God is one, but men call Him by many names. Metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, religion, psychology, facts and values are not treated as separate disciplines, but as aspects of one life and experience. Except for the Carvaka school, all Indian philosophical systems culminate in a final vision of liberation, though they differ in how it is defined and the means of achieving it.[11]

All the schools agree on the definition of a “good life” on earth: one in which the individual lives a normal life and fulfills his social and familial responsibilities, but does not become emotionally entangled in the results of his actions. The individual lives in the world, but achieves a mental and spiritual superiority to worldly values and is not enslaved by them. All embody the doctrines of karma and rebirth; man must be perfected before he can achieve salvation. Except for the Carvaka school, all accept the moral order of the universe, and justice (ṛta, "righteousness" or "the cosmic and social order"[12]) plays a pervasive role as the law of moral life.[13]

All the Hindu schools have a further common element, acceptance of the four-fold division of society (the four castes of priests, kings, merchants and laborers) four stages of life (student, householder, forest-dweller, and wandering monk); and the four basic values (obedience to the moral law, wealth or material welfare, pleasure, and liberation or emancipation from the cycle of rebirth).

Indian philosophy is marked… by a striking breadth of outlook which only testifies to its unflinching devotion to the search for truth. Though there were many different schools and their views differed sometimes very widely, yet each school took care to learn the views of all the others and did not come to any conclusions before considering thoroughly what others had to say and how their points could be met…. If the openness of mind—the willingness to listen to what others have to say—has been one of the chief causes of the wealth and greatness of Indian philosophy in the past, it has a definite moral for the future."[14]


Ancient Indian philosophy has been divided into broad divisions:[15][16] -

  1. The Vedic Period (1500 B.C.E. – 600 B.C.E.) The expansion and development of the Aryan culture and civilization took place during this period. The literature of this period, though it was not captured in writing until centuries later, consist of the four Vedas (Rg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda), each of which has four parts: Mantras, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. The Mantras (hymns), especially those of the Rg Veda, constitute the beginnings of Indian philosophy.[17]. The Aranyakas and Upanishads contain discussions of philosophical problems.


  1. The Epic period (600 B.C.E. – 200 C.E.) This period is characterized by the informal presentation of philosophical doctrines through nonsystematic literature, 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. During this period, many of the Dharmasastras, treatises on ethical and social philosophy, were compiled.[18]


  1. The Sutra Period (after 200 C.E.; "the first centuries of the Christian era") During this period, the systematic treatises of each of the various schools were written, and the systems took their basic forms. The doctrines were presented in brief, aphoristic sutras, which some scholars believed were simple aids to memory, intended to evoke the substance of much more elaborate philosophical discussions with which the initiated were already familiar through oral tradition. The sutras contain polemics against other systems as well as positive developments of their own systems. The Sutra Period marks the definite beginning of systematic philosophical thinking.[19] A sutra-work consists of a collection of brief statements, aphorisms, or problems, with answers, objections, and possible replies. The Brahma-sūtra of Bādarāyaṇa, for example, sums up and systematizes the philosophical teachings of various Vedic works, chiefly the Upanishads, and also mentions and answers both actual and possible objections to those views. It is the first systematic treatise on the Vedanta literature.[20] Similarly we have for the Mimamsa the sutras of Jaimini, for the Nyaya the sutras of Gotama, for the Vaisheshika the sutras of Kanada, and for the Yoga the sutras of Patanjali.


  1. The Scholastic Period (from the Sutra Period to the seventeenth century C.E.) Because the sutra form is by nature brief, their meanings were not always clear. During the Scholastic Period this gave rise to interpretive commentaries (bhāṣyas), 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.[21] In time, commentaries arose upon commentaries, and additional independent works were written in defense of particular views. The Scholastic Period produced a quantity of relatively worthless, unphilosophical debates, but it also produced the works of some of the greatest Indian philosophers, including Samkara, Kumarila, Sridhara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vacaspati, Udayana, Bhaskara, Jayanta, Vijnabhiksu, and Raghunatha.[22]

In the sense that the study of Indian philosophy is ongoing, and commentary continues to be produced, the Scholastic Period is still in progress. However, Indian philosophy lost its dynamic spirit in the sixteenth century, when the Muslims, and then the British, took control of the country. The Muslims undermined Aryan culture and thought, and the British sought to belittle Indian thought and impose European culture and values on the Indian people. The revival of education by the British, however, eventually gave rise to a revival of interest in Indian religion and philosophy. Nationalism and the re-establishment of India as an independent state brought about a renewed appreciation of the greatness of Indian philosophical heritage. During the twentieth century, Indian philosophers were influenced by Western thought, and Indian philosophy had a significant impact on the West through the works of contemporary thinkers.


Classical Indian philosophy can be roughly categorized into "orthodox" (astika) schools of Hindu philosophy, and "heterodox" (nāstika) schools that do not accept the authorities of the Vedas.[23]

Orthodox schools (Astika)

Many Hindu intellectual traditions were codified during the medieval period of Brahmanic-Sanskritic scholasticism into a standard list of six orthodox (astika) schools (darshanas), the "Six Philosophies" (ṣad-darśana), all of which cite Vedic authority as their source:[24][25][26]

  • Nyaya, the school of logic
  • Vaisheshika, the atomist school
  • Samkhya, the enumeration school
  • Yoga, the school of Patanjali (which assumes the metaphysics of Samkhya)
  • Purva Mimamsa (or simply Mimamsa), the tradition of Vedic exegesis, with emphasis on Vedic ritual, and
  • Vedanta (also called Uttara Mimamsa), the Upanishadic tradition, with emphasis on Vedic philosophy.

These are often coupled into three groups for both historical and conceptual reasons: Nyaya-Vaishesika, Samkhya-Yoga, and Mimamsa-Vedanta.

The six systems mentioned here are not the only orthodox systems, they are the chief ones, and there are other orthodox schools such as the "Grammarian" school.[27]

The Vedanta school is further divided into six sub-schools: Advaita (monism/nondualism), Visishtadvaita (monism of the qualified whole), Dvaita (dualism), Dvaitadvaita (dualism-nondualism), Suddhadvaita, and Achintya Bheda Abheda schools.

The shramana schools, including Jainism and Buddhism, also developed.

Heterodox schools (Nastika)

Schools that do not accept the authority of the Vedas are by definition unorthodox (nastika) systems.[28]


Carvaka is characterized as a materialistic and atheistic school of thought. While this branch of Indian philosophy is not considered to be part of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism, it is noteworthy as evidence of an atheistic and materialistic movement within Hinduism.[29]

Buddhist Philosophy

Buddhist philosophy is a system of beliefs based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince later known as the Buddha. Buddhism is a non-theistic philosophy, one whose tenets are not especially concerned with the existence or nonexistence of a God or gods. The question of God is largely irrelevant in Buddhism, though some sects (notably Tibetan Buddhism) do venerate a number of gods drawn in from local indigenous belief systems.

From its inception, Buddhism has had a strong philosophical component. Buddhism is founded on the rejection of certain orthodox Hindu philosophical concepts. The Buddha criticized all concepts of metaphysical being and non-being, and this critique is inextricable from the founding of Buddhism.

Buddhism shares many philosophical views with Hinduism, such as belief in karma, a cause-and-effect relationship between all that has been done and all that will be done, and in reincarnation. Events that occur are held to be the direct result of previous events. The ultimate goal for both Hindu and Buddhist practitioners is to eliminate karma (both good and bad), end the cycle of rebirth and suffering, and attain freedom (Moksha or Nirvana).

Jain philosophy

Main article: Jainism

Jaina philosophy, was founded by Mahavira (599–527 B.C.E.). Anekantavada is a basic principle of Jainism positing that reality is perceived differently from different points of view, and that no single point of view is completely true. Jain doctrine states that only Kevalis, those who have achieved infinite knowledge, can know the complete truth, and that all others can only know a part of the truth. Anekantavada is related to the Western philosophical doctrine of Subjectivism.

Political Philosophy

The Arthashastra, attributed to the Mauryan minister Chanakya, is one of the early Indian texts devoted to political philosophy. It is dated to fourth century B.C.E. and discusses ideas of statecraft and economic policy.

The political philosophy most closely associated with India is the one of ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha, popularized by Mahatma Gandhi during the Indian struggle for independence. It was influenced by the Indian Dharmic philosophy (particularly the Bhagvata Gita) and Jesus, as well as, secular writings of authors such as Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin.[30] In turn it influenced the later movements for independence and civil rights led by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr..

See also

  • Hindu philosophy
  • Indian logic


  1. Chandrahar Sharma. (2003) A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass), 13
  2. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. (Princeton Univ. Press, 1967), xvii
  3. Radhakrishnan and Moore, xxiii
  4. Satischandra Chatterjee and Dhirendramohan Datta. (1984). An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. (Eighth Reprint Edition, Calcutta: University of Calcutta), 12.
  5. Sharma, 13
  6. Radhakrishnan and Moore, xxv
  7. Sharma, 13
  8. Radhakrishnan and Moore, xxvi
  9. Radhakrishnan and Moore, xvii
  10. Vaman Shivram Apte. (1965). The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Fourth Revised and enlarged ed., (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers), 497.
  11. Radhakrishnan and Moore, xxviii
  12. Gavin Flood. 1996. An Introduction to Hinduism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 45, 47.
  13. Radhakrishnan and Moore, xxix
  14. Chatterjee and Datta, 3–4.
  15. "Periods of Indian Thought," in Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Indian Philosophy. Volume 1, 2nd ed. (Muirhead library of philosophy) (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1929)
  16. Radhakrishnan and Moore, xviii–xxi.
  17. Radhakrishnan and Moore, 1989, Introduction, xviii
  18. Radhakrishnan and Moore, 1989, xix
  19. Chatterjee and Datta, 10.
  20. Chatterjee and Datta, 10.
  21. Chatterjee and Datta, 11.
  22. Radhakrishnan and Moore, 1989, Introduction, xxi
  23. Chatterjee and Datta, 5.
  24. Flood, 231–232.
  25. Chatterjee and Datta, 5.
  26. Michaels, 264.
  27. Chatterjee and Datta, 5.
  28. Chatterjee and Datta, 5.
  29. Radhakrishnan and Moore, 1989, 227–249
  30. M.K. Gandhi. 1961. Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha). (New York: Schocken Books), iii

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Apte, Vaman Shivram. (1965). The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Fourth Revised and enlarged ed., Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. 2007. ISBN 8170301904
  • Chatterjee, Satischandra and Dhirendramohan Datta. (1984). An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Eighth Reprint Edition, Calcutta: University of Calcutta.
  • Flood, Gavin. 1996. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521438780
  • Gandhi, M.K. 1961. Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha). New York: Schocken Books.
  • Michaels, Axel. 2004. Hinduism: Past and Present. New York: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691089531
  • Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. 1929. Indian Philosophy. Volume 1, 2nd edition, (Muirhead library of philosophy) London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
  • Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, and Charles A. Moore. 1967. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton. ISBN 0691019584
  • Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli and Charles A. Moore. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. (Princeton University Press: (1957), Twelfth Princeton Paperback printing, 1989. Introduction. ISBN 0691019584
  • Sharma, Chandrahar. 2003. A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 8120803647 ISBN 8120803655
  • Stevenson, Leslie. 2004. Ten theories of human nature, 4th ed. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195169743

General Philosophy Sources


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