2. Indian Philosophy


Philosophy signifies a mark of sophistication in the way of thinking and should not be taken synonymous with rationality.  It is not concerned with mundane things but with ideas and concepts, for instance, finding a way of deliverance.  Philosophy thus deals with metaphysics but not ethics or morality, although moral principles do figure in practical living.  Philosophy, besides metaphysics also includes study of psychology and logic.

Origin and development of Indian philosophy

Indian philosophyoriginated in the Vedic age and reached its final fruition in the Advaita Vedanta of Sankara and his followers.  Vedic age started with the philosophy of Vedas and ended with the Upanishads.  Development of Indian philosophy can be studied under following heads.

Philosophical Speculation in the Vedas

When philosophical speculation started in India, cannot be predicted accurately.  The Vedic age, whose time period is also not known exactly, was not generally the age of deep and critical thinking, but one of religious and vigorous living in the midst of the forces of Nature, personified as gods, as living on earth, in the sky and in the heaven beyond.

Philosophy of the Upanishads

It was later in the Upanishadic period that people started in philosophical speculations.  The achievement of deliverance from earthly existence by the absorption of individual soul (Atman) in the world soul (Brahman) through correct knowledge is mainly the purpose of the teachings of the Upanishads.

Philosophy of the Epics

After the age of Upanishads came the age of the Epics (600BC to 200AD) culture the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.  Both these works were meant to inculcate high ideals of ethics, based on the philosophical views embodied Vedas and the Upanishads.  The Bhagavad Gita and the Santiparva which are parts of Mahabharataare highly philosophical.  The Ramayana is less philosophical, except for its companion volume Yogavasistha Maharamayana, written by Valmiki and contains philosophicalteachings imparted to prince Rama by his family preceptor Vasistha.

Philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita

It contains the teachings of Lord Krishna imparted to Arjuna on the eve of Mahabharata war.  The ordinary human life is characterized by Ignorance, suffering, bondage to the ‘Law of Karman’ and repeated births and deaths.  There is, however, the possibility of an ideal state which can be realized by man, in which there is no suffering, no bondage, no experience of births and deaths and in which utmost peace, unending joy and unbounded freedom are experienced; and when this state is realized nothing else remains to be attained.  It is called by various names such as the state of Sthitaprajna (of balanced intellect), Brahmi Shiti (a state akin to that of the Brahman) etc.

The way to reach or become Brahman or God is called Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita.   The Yoga of Gita is all comprehensive, including within it self-knowledge (Jnana), meditation (Dhyana) of the self (Atman), devotion to god (Bhakti) and Selfless performance of one’s duties (Karma).

Philosophy of the Yogavasistha: It also teaches a philosophy similar to that of the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita but there is some difference.   The approach of Yogavasistha is more rational, empirical, liberal and metaphysical.  It lays greater stress on man’s own thinking (mind) and effort than on the authority of sastras (Scriptures), dependence on teacher and Divine Grace.  When mind desires, imagines and wills, it becomes individual and object, and when it ceases to do so it becomes or is Brahman.  Man’s ultimate goal is to realize oneself as the Absolute Brahman which is consciousness, power and bliss. The method of realizing Brahman is called Yoga.

Philosophy of the Puranas and the Smritis

The Puranas and some of the Smritis (Dharma Sastra) like that of Manu further amplify and popularize the teachings of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and Yogavasistha by mixing them with popular religious beliefs and rituals.

Indian philosophical systems

Along with the development and spread of Upanishadic thought and its popularization through the Epics and the Puranas, there arose great philosophicalsystems.  We know nine of them which are most important and influential.  They are the Charvaka, Jaina, Buddha, Vaisesika, Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta system.  They are divided into two groups:

  1. Astima or Orthodox system: This system believes in the authority of the Vedas and includes Vaisesika, Nyaya, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta system.
  2. Nastika or Heterodox system: This system discards the authority of Vedas and includes Charvaka, Jainism and Buddism.

Charvaka system

Also called Lokayata Darshana (the philosophy of masses) propounds gross materialism.  Sense perception is the only source of knowledge; unconscious matter in the form of the elements is the only essence of man; the king is the only God; death is the only end of man; and enjoyment of sense-pleasures the only object of life.  There is no conscious entity like mind or soul apart from human body in which consciousness arises temporarily by virtue of a certain fusion of elements.  There is no life beyond death, no heaven or hell and so no fear of after death consequences of good or evil deeds done in this life.  There is no law of Karma and no rebirth.


Also called Uttaramimamsa, this school of philosophy means end or goal of the Veda and is found in Vedic hymns.  The doctrines of the Vedanta School are laid down by Badarayana in the Brahmasutra, with a comprehensive commentary by the famous philosopher Sankara.  The philosophyexpounded by Sankara is known as Advaita Vedanta.

The fundamental tenet of this school is tat tuam asi, ‘that thou art’, signifying the identity of the individual soul with God (Brahma).  The eternal, infinite and unchangeable Brahma is one and indivisible, and the individual soul is not a part of or an emanation from it but is identical with it.  As a result of ignorance (avidya) a multiplicity of phenomena are produced by way of illusion (maya).  This ignorance can be dispelled only by the attainment of true knowledge (Vedya).


Three important branches of Vedanta: Great commentators like Sankara, Ramanuja interpreted Vedanta in their own different ways thus formulating advaita, Visishtadvaita andDvaita.

  1. Advaita: Also called doctrine of monism, this founded by Sankara who was born in 800 AD at Kaladi in Kerala. According to him the Ultimate Reality is one, Only one, called Brahma and without a second by its side.  Brahma is the cause of the world and is changeless within itself. The quest of man according to Advaita is the final realization of the identity of his soul or innermost self (atma) with Brahma through spiritual training and meditation.  Sankara is famous for his well known commentaries on the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavad Gita and establishment of maths in all the four directions of India ——– Puri (east), Bradrinath (north), Dwarika (West) and Sringeri (South).
  2. Dvaita: This philosophy of dualism was founded by Madhva who was born in the 12th century AD in Udupi in Karnataka. According to him Brahma, the self and the world are completely distinct.  Based on the Upanishads, Madhva’s theory postulates that the individual soul is created by the God and in the state of highest bliss, draws infinitely close to godhead but it is always aware of its difference from God.
  3. Visishtadvaita: Ramanuja who formulated Visishtadvaita or ‘Qualified Monism’ was born in the 11th century AD in Sriperimbudur in Tamil Nadu. He gave bhakti a philosophical base by interpreting Vedanta in a different light from Sankara.  He transformed the idea of God from an impersonal force to a personal God.  The supreme person God Vishnu, eternal and Absolute, had diversified himself at the beginning of time and produced the cosmos.

Mimamsa (or Purva Mimamsa)

The school was formulated by Jamini in around 200 B.C. in its Karma-Mimamsasutra.  Mimamsa is not a system of philosophy in real since but is concerned with the practical (interpretation, application and use) side of Vedic religion, as found in Brahmanas and Samhitas, the literature on rituals.


Vaisesika School of philosophy was formulated by Kanad (around 2nd century B.C.) in his Vaisesika-sutra.  Kirnavali by Udyan and Nyaya Kandali by Sridhar are two important commentaries on this system.

This system is a realistic, analytic and objective philosophy of the word.  It derives its name from the word ‘particularity’ (Visesha), which is emphasized in its theory of atoms according to which world originated from atoms (anu).


Nyaya is a complementary development to Kanada’s Vaisesika system.  In definition and arrangement of logical ideas, both Nyaya and Vaisesika schools have a similar approach.  The founder of Nyaya was known as Akshapada, literally the eye-footed, i.e., with eyes directed on to the feet.  The tenets of this system are set forth in the Nyayasutra of Gotama.

The system is called Nyaya (logic) because it considers forms of logic in an exhaustive manner.  This system accepts all the categories recognized by the Vaisesika system and adds one Abhava (negation).  It also accepts all the substances admitted by the Vaisesika and considers God to be the creator of the world as its efficient cause. He is a soul (atman) free from the ‘Law of Karman’ and rebirth.



This system was founded by Kapila (Kapilasutra) who opposed the monistic theory of the early Upanishads. This system is dualistic in character i.e. it believes in two ultimate realities, both without beginning and end, but essentially different. They are matter (prakrti) on one hand and an infinite plurality of individual souls (purusa) on the other.


This system, as complementary to the Samkhya system, stresses on a peculiar form of mental asceticism.   It was formulated by Patanjali in Yogasutra, identified by some with the famous commentator on Panini’s grammar.  In order to make his system more acceptable he introduced the doctrine of a personal God in his Yogasutra.  Yoga which consists in the practice of yama (self control), niyama (observance of certain principles), asana, (fixed postures of the body), pranayama (breath-control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses and the mid from the objects of enjoyment), dharana (fixation of mind on some object and then dissolution of it in the self).  In the state of Samadhi the purusa gets its own experience and realizes its true nature.