Indian philosophy

Indian philosophy

The term Indian philosophy (Sanskrit: Darshanas), may refer to any of several traditions of philosophical thought that originated in the Indian subcontinent, including Hindu philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, and Jain philosophy. Having the same or rather intertwined origins, all of these philosophies have a common underlying theme of Dharma, and similarly attempt to explain the attainment of emancipation. They have been formalized and promulgated chiefly between 1,000 BC to a few centuries A.D, with residual commentaries and reformations continuing up to as late as the 20th century by Aurobindo and ISKCON among others, who provided stylized interpretations.

The characteristic of these schools is that they may belong to one "masthead" and disagree with each other, or be in agreement while professing allegiance to different banners. An example of the latter is the non-Vedic Jain and the Vedic Samkhya schools, both of which have similar ideas on pluralism; an example of the former would be the Dvaita and the Advaita schools, both of whom are Vedic. However, every school has subtle differences.

Competition between the various schools was intense during their formative years, especially between 800 BC to 200 AD. Some like the Jain, Buddhist, Shaiva and Advaita schools survived, while others like Samkhya and Ajivika did not.

The Sanskrit term for "philosopher" is , one who is familiar with the systems of philosophy, or .

Common themes

Indian thinkers viewed philosophy as a practical necessity that needed to be cultivated in order to understand how life can best be led. It became a custom for Indian writers to explain at the beginning of philosophical works how it serves human ends (). They centered philosophy on an assumption that there is a unitary underlying order, which is all pervasive and omniscient. The efforts by various schools were concentrated on explaining this order. All major phenomena like those observed in nature, fate, occurrences, etc. were outcomes of this order.

The earliest mention of this appears in the Rig Veda, which speaks of the Brahman, or the universally transcendent and "ethereal" building block of all the world. It is described as dimensionless, timeless and beyond reach of the known frontiers of happiness and knowledge.

The idea of , translated as "righteousness" or "the cosmic and social order" by Gavin Flood, also plays an important role.


pre-1500 BC - the Vedas and Upanishads

pre-500 BC - the Jaina, the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, the Manu Smriti

pre-300 BC - the rise of the orthodox Darshanas

200 AD - Nagarjuna and the rise of Mahayana Buddhism

600 AD - Shankaracharya and the rise of Vedanta

post-900 AD - rise of other Vedantic schools: Visishtadvaita, Dvaita, etc.


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

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" all of which cite Vedic authority as their source:

  • 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.

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 defined by Brahmins to be unorthodox (nastika) systems.

Jain philosophy

Jainism came into formal being after Mahavira synthesized philosophies and promulgations, during the period around 550 BC, in the region that is present day Bihar in northern India. This period marked an ideological renaissance, in which the patriarchal Vedic dominance was challenged by various groups. Buddhism also arose during this period.

Jains however believe that the Jaina philosophy was in fact revived by Mahavira, whom they consider as the 24th and final Jain Tirthankars (enlightened seers), a line that stretches to time immemorial. The 23rd seer, Parsva may be dated to around 900 B.C.

Jainism may not be a part of the Vedic Religion (Hinduism), , even as there is constitutional ambiguity over its status. Jain tirthankars find exclusive mention in the Vedas and the Hindu epics. During the Vedantic age, India had two broad philosophical streams of thought: The Shramana philosophical schools, represented by Buddhism Jainism, and the long defunct Samkhya and Ajinkya on one hand, and the Brahmana/Vedantic/Puranic schools represented by Vedanta, Vaishnava and other movements on the other. Both streams are known to have have mutually influenced each other.

The Hindu scholar, Lokmanya Tilak credited Jainism with influencing Hinduism in the area of the cessation of animal sacrifice in Vedic rituals. Bal Gangadhar Tilak has described Jainism as the originator of Ahimsa and wrote in a letter printed in Bombay Samachar, Mumbai:10 Dec, 1904: "In ancient times, innumerable animals were butchered in sacrifices. Evidence in support of this is found in various poetic compositions such as the Meghaduta. But the credit for the disappearance of this terrible massacre from the Brahminical religion goes to Jainism."

Swami Vivekananda also credited Jainsim as one of the influencing forces behind the Indian culture.

A Jain is a follower of Jinas, spiritual 'victors' (Jina is Sanskrit for 'victor'), human beings who have rediscovered the dharma, become fully liberated and taught the spiritual path for the benefit of beings. Jains follow the teachings of 24 special Jinas who are known as Tirthankars ('ford-builders'). The 24th and most recent Tirthankar, Lord Mahavira, lived in c.6th century BC, which was a period of cultural revolution all over the world. Socrates was born in Greece, Zoroaster in Persia, Lao‑Tse and Confucious in China and Mahavira and Buddha in India. The 23rd Thirthankar of Jains, Lord Parsvanatha is recognised now as a historical person, lived during 872 to 772 B.C.. . Jaina tradition is unanimous in making Rishabha, as the First Tirthankar.

One of the main characteristics of Jain belief is the emphasis on the immediate consequences of one's physical and mental behavior. Because Jains believe that everything is in some sense alive with many living beings possessing a soul, great care and awareness is required in going about one's business in the world. Jainism is a religious tradition in which all life is considered to be worthy of respect and Jain teaching emphasises this equality of all life advocating the non-harming of even the smallest creatures.

Non-violence (Ahimsa) is the basis of right View, the condition of right Knowledge and the kernel of right Conduct in Jainism.

Jainism encourages spiritual independence (in the sense of relying on and cultivating one's own personal wisdom) and self-control (व्रत, vratae) which is considered vital for one's spiritual development. The goal, as with other Indian religions, is moksha which in Jainism is realization of the soul's true nature, a condition of omniscience (Kevala Jnana). Anekantavada is one of the principles 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 infinite knowledge, can know the true answer, and that all others would only know a part of the answer. Anekantavada is related to the Western philosophical doctrine of Subjectivism.

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. 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). However, a major difference is the Buddhist rejection of a permanent, self-existent soul (atman). This view is a central one in Hindu thought but is rejected by all Buddhists.


Cārvāka 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 a materialistic movement within Hinduism.

Modern Philosophy

Modern Indian philosophy was developed during British period (1750- 1947). The philosophers in this era gave contemperory meaning to traditional philosophy. Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Anandkumar Swami, Raman Maharshi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan interpreted traditional Indian philosophy in terms of contemperory significance. Acharya Rajnish, also known as Osho, and J. Krishnamurti are rebellious philosophers who refused all the traditional schools, with the former an excellent example of synthesis of Eastern and Western schools.

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 4th century BCE 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. In turn it influenced the later movements for independence and civil rights, especially those led by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.

See also



  • Apte, Vaman Shivram (1965). The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Fourth Revised and Enlarged Edition, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
  • Chatterjee, Satischandra; Datta, Dhirendramohan (1984). An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Eighth Reprint Edition, Calcutta: University of Calcutta.
  • Flood, Gavin (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gandhi, M.K. (1961). Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha). New York: Schocken Books.
  • Jain, Dulichand (1998). Thus Spake Lord Mahavir. Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math.
  • Michaels, Axel (2004). Hinduism: Past and Present. New York: Princeton University Press.
  • Radhakrishnan, S (1929). Indian Philosophy, Volume 1. 2nd edition, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd..
  • Radhakrishnan, S.; Moore, CA (1967). A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Princeton.
  • Stevenson, Leslie (2004). Ten theories of human nature. Oxford University Press. 4th edition.
  • Hiriyanna, M. Essentialls of Indian Philosophy. Motilal Banarsidas.

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