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The Systems of Indian Philosophy

by T.N. Dhar 'Kundan'

Philosophy, says Bertrand Russell, is a No Man’s Land between theology and science. Dogma is the realm of theology and definite knowledge that of science. The Sanskrit word for philosophy is Darshan, which means ‘seeing’. There are three things that in our view are shrouded in mystery, namely, God, World, and the Self. Innumerable questions confront us in relation to these three, their nature, their origin and so on. We seek answers to these questions either on the basis of inherited religious and ethical conceptions or through logical reasoning and scientific investigation. This gives rise to a viewpoint or vision and that vision constitutes one's philosophy.

The Vedas comprise a vast body of sacred literature containing divine knowledge as seen by ancient seers. Since it was revealed and heard, it is called ‘Shruti’. It used to be called ‘Veda Trayi’, the triple Vedas, because knowledge (Jnana), ritual (Karma) and devotion (Bhakti), formed the three major streams dealt with in the Vedas. In due course of time, seers and sages engaged themselves in interpreting, investigating and analysing the Veda Mantras. They wrote their conclusions in a form called ‘Sutra’ (literally meaning - a thread) or aphorism method. This necessitated writing of commentaries and treatises called Bhashya, and Vartika. Since different scholars wrote these commentaries, different systems of Indian philosophy emerged out of these texts. There are six major theistic schools that are usually clubbed in three groups of two schools each.

Sankhya and Yoga.

Nyay and Vaisheshika.

Poorva Mimansa and Uttara Mimansa (also  called Advaita).

Buddhism and Jainism provided two major heterodox systems and the Charvaka propounded a purely materialistic viewpoint.

The usual method was to take up a theme (Vishaya), discuss its relevance (Prayojana), consider its dissentient view (Poorva Paksha), and then arrive at the conclusion (Uttara Paksha). The norms or sources of knowledge (Pramana) employed were perception or experience (Pratyaksha), inference (Anumana), verbal testimony or revealed word (Shabda). Some scholars also accepted other sources namely, analogy (Upmana), presumption or postulation (Arthapatti) and non-apprehension (Anupalabdhi). Some facts of knowledge were treated as self establishing (Swatah Pramanya). A distinction was made between the gross body of flesh and blood called ‘Sthula Sharira’ and the subtle body called ‘Sookshma Sharira’, between reality and appearance (Sat and Asat). Relationship was established between the individual soul and the universal soul (Jivatma and Parmatma). A correlation (Smanvaya) was observed between the individual entity and the universe (Pinda and Brahamanda) and it was proclaimed that ‘as in individual, so in the universe’ (yatha pinde, tatha brahamande).

The rationale for different systems was already given by the Vedas themselves by stating “Ekam Sat Viprah bahudha vadanti”- The Truth that exists is one but the wise describe it in many ways. Even so, the Indian philosophy differs from the western philosophy for the ancient Greek philosophers confined themselves in investigating the individual being, the world and the Divine and social, political and religious tenets only .The Indian philosophers, on the other hand were concerned with suffering of the mankind, materially, morally and spiritually, its eradication, the relationship between the individual being, the nature and the Divine as also the means of attaining the Truth and self-realisation. Thus the Indian philosophers had a definite direction and goal though their paths were different. In fact the difference in these paths itself may be apparent rather than real as these paths are either complementary to each other or relevant at various stages of spiritual investigation and progress. Now let us examine how and with what purpose did these systems develop and flourish.

Saankhya literally means enumeration. The word is derived from Sankhya meaning numerals. Evidently Saankhya is purported to describe a definitive knowledge as definite as a numeral denotes. This system is concerned with duellist cosmology explicating the concepts of bondage and liberation and is in search of discriminating knowledge. The oldest text on this system of philosophy is the Saankhya Karika of Ishwara Krishna dating back to 4th century, yet it is attributed to sage Kapila of 15th century. It is a boldly speculative system of duellist metaphysics. It does not base itself on Vedic revelation and its basis is a proto-scientific inductive reasoning. It is knowledge of super sensual elements of reality discovered through a form of inference from analogy. This kind of inference supersedes sensual perception as one is removed from the world of perceived effects to unperceived cause. It believes that the knowledge that discriminates between the world of effects and the world of causes is a liberating knowledge and justifies the saying: “Sa Vidya ya Vimukhtaye”- knowledge is that which liberates. Two ultimate eternal realities are recognised in this system, viz.; Purusha, the Spirit and Prakriti, the Nature. Besides these two there are twenty-three other elements that form this universe. These evolve from Prakriti whereas Purusha is non-matter or pure spirit. Two types of liberation are conceived in this system: “Jeevan Mukhti” or liberation during the life time when the self ceases to be affected by life’s vicissitudes and “Videh Mukhti”, liberation after death when the spirit is released from the psycho-physical organism and remains eternally unconscious.

Yoga, loosely translated yoga means combining or total absorption. This system shows methodicity and may be termed as a formulator of a meditative technique for attaining liberation. While Saankhya is in search of discriminating knowledge Yoga lays emphasis on ascetical methods constituting discipline of body, mind and soul. In philosophical terms it agrees with most of what Saankhya says, only it differs in technique. It accepts the theory of twenty-five elements but adds one more element of the Supreme Being as eternal, all pervading and omniscient which brings about the association of Purusha and Prakriti. This system is based on the Yoga Darshan of Acharya Patanjali, which has been explained and elaborated by scholars like Vyasa, Vachaspati Mishra, Vijnan Bikshu, Raghavanand and Nagesh Bhatt. In this system eight steps of yogic practices have been envisaged. These are Restraint (Yama), Discipline (Niyama), Comfortable posture (Asana), Breath control (Pranayama), Control of senses (Pratyahara), Contemplation (Dharana), Meditation (Dhyana) and the attainment of complete Merger (Samadhi). The aim of both Saankhya and Yoga is attainment of perfect isolation called Kaivalya. This is a state where the individual spirit is liberated from the bondage of matter by vigorous effort and self discipline.

Nyaya: This system of pure logic aiming at liberation through clear thinking is attributed to Gautama, a sage of the 2nd century. In this system a well defined procedure has been developed to arrive at a well reasoned conclusion after ironing out arguments, counter-arguments, objections, doubts, and debatable aspects of the issue involved. There are two streams of this philosophy. One piloted by Gautama is called categoristic since it details sixteen different aspects to be considered before accepting a proposition. This is also called Prachina Nyaya or the ancient logic. The second one originated by Acharya Gangesh is called Navya Nyaya or the modern logic. This is a highly sophisticated school of logic developed in the 13th century. This system accepts the existence of God as all pervading, creator and controller of every thing. It treats the creation as an effect and God as its cause.

Vaisheshika: This system is almost like the modern Physics as it analyses the specifics of material reality and therefore justifies its name, which means Specific Knowledge. It is attributed to the sage Kanada, believed to have lived in first or second century. Originally this system was atheistic and believed that creation was the result of combination of atoms. Later with its merger with the Nyaya it accepted God as a secondary creator periodically creating worlds from eternally existent matter. Vaisheshika has explained the various forms of matter, the difference between Time and Direction, Nature and Function, Ordinary and the Special, Existence and Non-existence, Knowledge and Nascience and the concept of sky, ether, relationship etc; As against other systems the Vaisheshika accepts only 17 elements of sight, taste smell etc; About Dharma Kanad says: “Yato- abhyudayah nih-shreyas siddhih sa Dharma “ - that which helps achieve spiritual upliftment is Dharma.

Purva Mimamsa: Mimansa literally means a critical investigation. Vedas have two major subjects, Karma Kanda and Jnana Kanda, i.e. ritual and knowledge. Since this system makes a critical investigation of the ritual portion of the Vedas, it is called Mimansa. The investigation of knowledge is made under the system called Vedanta. The former is known as Purva Mimansa or earlier exegesis and the latter Uttara Mimansa or Later exegesis. Mimansa has its origin in the Mimansa Sutra of Jaimini (1st century BC) on which a commentary has been written by Shabara Swami. Two scholars further elaborated this Shastra during the 8th century. They were Kumaril Bhatt and Prabhakar Mishra. The main aim of Mimansa has been to propound Dharma for which it considers Veda as the sole authority. Veda, according to it, contains five topics viz.

Vidhi - or procedure, which are directional in character

Mantra - or the specified chanting at the time of performing rituals

Namadheya - or the nomenclature of various Yajnas

Nishedha - or forbidden acts and

Arthavada - or eulogising the qualities and relevance of any matter.

The Veda in Mimansa is considered eternal and unchanging and ‘Apaursheya’ i.e. a divine revelation. The world is believed to have existed always and there is an endless process of becoming and passing away. Consciousness comes to the soul only when it is embodied. With the liberation, the soul becomes devoid of the body and the consciousness, both.

Uttara Mimansa or Vedanta - The subsequent enquiry or later exegesis is actually Vedanta, end or the goal of the Vedas. The sole aim of this system has been investigation of the knowledge of Brahman and therefore it covers the Jnana aspect of the Vedas. This system actually started with the composition of Brahma Sutra (aphorisms on the Divine) by Badarayan, who perhaps lived around 4th century BC. . The subject of investigation being what it is and the Brahma Sutra having been written in aphorisms, it was open to different interpretations. Consequently, a number of scholars wrote commentaries on Brahma Sutra along with the Bhagwat Gita and Upanishads, collectively called ‘Prasthana Trayi’. This gave rise to various streams within the system of philosophy collectively called Uttara Mimansa or Vedanta. There were differing views on the nature of the individual being (Jiva) and the Divine (Ishwara), and the relation of the former with the latter. In fact, these discussions form the core literature on the unique Indian philosophy aiming at ultimate liberation, self-realisation, emancipation and moral, mental, physical and spiritual upliftment of the mankind.

The first major interpretation on Brahma Sutra came from Gaudapada and Shankara, the disciple of his disciple Govinda. They propounded the theory of Monism (Advaita) stating that Brahman alone was the reality and everything else was an illusion (Maya). The catch word was from Chandogya Upanishad ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ - thou art that. Shankara’s philosophy was further elaborated by many scholars including Sureshwara and Vachaspati Mishra.

The next important exposition has been that of Ramanujacharya, who advocated qualified Monism (Vishishta Advaita). It was explained by him that the relationship between individual and the Divine is that of a part and the whole. Both have distinct identity. They are not identical, but everything conscious and unconscious exits in the Divine. This system gave rise to Vaishnava theology and introduced meditational devotion to Lord Vishnu.

The third line of thought was propounded by Madhavacharya, who was the exponent of Dualism (Dvaitavada). He advocated that God is eternal and transcends the world. The world and souls are also eternal but distinct from one another, and dependent on God. This ideology was further elaborated by an erudite scholar named Jayatirtha.

Three Sanskrit words describe the relationship between Jiva (Individual Soul) and Brahman (Universal Soul) according to the three major interpretations to Brahma Sutra provided by the three streams given above. These words are Saameepya (proximity), Saarupya (similarity), and Saayujya (identity). The Dualist philosophy believes that the individual soul as a devotee can attain proximity to God. The Qualified Monism believes that the individual soul can attain identical similarity with the God by his meditational devotion, and the Monist believes that the individual can attain complete identity with the God by merging with the Divine once the illusion melts away and Avidhya (nascience) and Ajnana (ignorance) are removed by true Vidya and Jnana.

Two other schools of philosophy within the Vedanta system are Dvaitadvaita (Dualism in Non-Dualism) of Nimbarka and Vishuddhadvaita (Pure Non-Dualism) of Vallabhacharya. The former school is also called Bhedabhed (Difference in Non-Difference). Nimbarka believed that the Brahman, the souls and the world are identical yet distinct. Even after their merger, they remain distinct. Vallabhacharya was of the opinion that Maya was not an illusion as stated by Shankara but it was the God’s creative activity.

The heterodox systems of philosophy presented a critical epistemology. They evolved a system of logic of complexity and refinement and thereby inaugurated a Philosophy consisting of a dialectic for destroying metaphysics through its own assumptions. However, in due course it gave rise to a counter dialectic which re-established metaphysical thought. Even so there was considerable mutual effect between the theistic (Astika) and heterodox (Nastika) schools of thought, the latter being Buddhism and Jainism. The one school that challenged the primacy of Brahman and Aatman was Charvaka Darshan. This school is attributed to Brihaspati (date not known) and Jayarashi Bhatt of the 7th century. They propagated that the liberation or Moksha was only an illusory goal and that the life ended with the death. There are no Gods nor any Aatman and the happiness alone is a sensible end. Obviously this materialistic viewpoint did not find Indian soil fertile enough for it to sustain. The Indian mind accepted God as an embodiment of Being, Consciousness and Bliss and Liberation or unity with Brahman as the highest goal. It was proclaimed “Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma” - everything here verily is Divine alone.

T. N. Dhar Kundan's Articles


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