The Indian Systems of Philosophy

Hari Om

The Hindus classify the systems of philosophy into two classes, namely, the nâstika and the âstika. The nâstika (na asti “it is not”) views are those which neither regard the Vedas as infallible nor try to establish their own validity on their authority. These are principally three in number, the Buddhist, Jaina and the Cârvâka. The âstika-mata or orthodox schools are six in number, Sâ@mkhya, Yoga, Vedânta, Mîmâ@msâ, Nyâya and Vais’e@sika, generally known as the six systems.

The Sâ@mkhya is ascribed to a mythical Kâpila, but the earliest works on the subject are probably now lost. The Yoga system is attributed to Patañjali and the original sûtras are called the Pâtañjala Yoga sûtras. The general metaphysical position of these two systems with regard to soul, nature, cosmology and the final goal is almost the same, and the difference lies in this that the Yoga system acknowledges a god (Îs’vara) as distinct from Âtman and lays much importance on certain mystical practices (commonly known as Yoga practices) for the achievement of liberation, whereas the Sâ@mkhya denies the existence of Îs’vara and thinks that sincere philosophic thought and culture are sufficient to produce the true conviction of the truth and thereby bring about liberation. It is probable that the system of Sâ@mkhya associated with Kâpila and the Yoga system associated with Patañjali are but two divergent modifications of an original Sâ@mkhya school, of which we now get only references here and there. These systems therefore though generally counted as two should more properly be looked upon as two different schools of the same Sâ@mkhya system—one may be called the Kâpila Sâ@mkhya and the other Pâtañjala Sâ@mkhya.

The Pûrva Mîmâ@msâ (from the root man to think—rational conclusions) cannot properly be spoken of as a system of philosophy. It is a systematized code of principles in accordance with which the Vedic texts are to be interpreted for purposes of sacrifices.

The Vedic texts were used as mantras (incantations) for sacrifices, and people often disputed as to the relation of words in a sentence or their mutual relative importance with reference to the general drift of the sentence. There were also differences of view with regard to the meaning of a sentence, the use to which it may be applied as a mantra, its relative importance or the exact nature of its connection with other similar sentences in a complex Vedic context. The Mîmâ@msâ formulated some principles according to which one could arrive at rational and uniform solutions for all these difficulties. Preliminary to these its main objects, it indulges in speculations with regard to the external world, soul, perception, inference, the validity of the Vedas, or the like, for in order that a man might perform sacrifices with mantras, a definite order of the universe and its relation to man or the position and nature of the mantras of the Veda must be demonstrated and established. Though its interest in such abstract speculations is but secondary yet it briefly discusses these in order to prepare a rational ground for its doctrine of the mantras and their practical utility for man. It is only so far as there are these preliminary discussions in the Mîmâ@msâ that it may be called a system of philosophy. Its principles and maxims for the interpretation of the import of words and sentences have a legal value even to this day. The sûtras of Mîmâ@msâ are attributed to Jaimini, and S’abara wrote a bhâ@sya upon it. The two great names in the history of Mîmâ@msâ literature after Jaimini and S’abara are Kumârila Bha@t@ta and his pupil Prabhâkara, who criticized the opinions of his master so much, that the master used to call him guru (master) in sarcasm, and to this day his opinions pass as guru-mata, whereas the views of Kumârila. It may not be out of place to mention here that Hindu Law accepts without any reservation the maxims and principles settled and formulated by the Mîmâ@msâ.

The Vedânta sûtras, also called Uttara Mîmâ@msâ, written by Bâdarâya@na, otherwise known as the Brahma-sûtras, form the original authoritative work of Vedânta. The word Vedânta means “end of the Veda,” i.e. the Upani@sads, and the Vedânta sûtras are so called as they are but a summarized statement of the general views of the Upani@sads. This work is divided into four books or adhyâyas and each adhyâya is divided into four pâdas or chapters. The first four sûtras of the work commonly known as Catu@hsûtrî are (1) How to ask about Brahman, (2) From whom proceed birth and decay, (3) This is because from him the Vedas have come forth, (4) This is shown by the harmonious testimony of the Upani@sads. The whole of the first chapter of the second book is devoted to justifying the position of the Vedânta against the attacks of the rival schools. The second chapter of the second book is busy in dealing blows at rival systems. All the other parts of the book are devoted to settling the disputed interpretations of a number of individual Upani@sad texts. The really philosophical portion of the work is thus limited to the first four sûtras and the first and second chapters of the second book. The other portions are like commentaries to the Upani@sads, which however contain many theological views of the system. The first commentary of the Brahma-sûtra was probably written by Baudhâyana, which however is not available now. The earliest commentary that is now found is that of the great S’a@nkara. His interpretations of the Brahma-sûtras together with all the commentaries and other works that follow his views are popularly known as Vedânta philosophy, though this philosophy ought more properly to be called Vis’uddhâdvaitavâda school of Vedânta philosophy (i.e. the Vedânta philosophy of the school of absolute monism). Variant forms of dualistic philosophy as represented by the Vai@s@navas, S’aivas, Râmâyatas, etc., also claim to express the original purport of the Brahma sûtras. We thus find that apostles of dualistic creeds such as Râmânuja, Vallabha, Madhva, S’rîka@n@tha, Baladeva, etc., have written independent commentaries on the Brahma-sûtra to show that the philosophy as elaborated by themselves is the view of the Upani@sads and as summarized in the Brahma-sûtras. These differed largely and often vehemently attacked S’a@nkara’s interpretations of the same sûtras. These systems as expounded by them also pass by the name of Vedânta as these are also claimed to be the real interpretations intended by the Vedânta (Upani@sads) and the Vedânta sûtras. Of these the system of Râmânuja has great philosophical importance.

The Nyâya sûtras attributed to Gautama, called also Ak@sapâda, and the Vais’e@sika sûtras attributed to Ka@nâda, called also Ulûka, represent the same system for all practical purposes. They are in later times considered to differ only in a few points of minor importance. So far as the sûtras are concerned the Nyâya sûtras lay particular stress on the cultivation of logic as an art, while the Vais’e@sika sûtras deal mostly with metaphysics and physics. In addition to these six systems, the Tantras had also philosophies of their own, which however may generally be looked upon largely as modifications of the Sâ@mkhya and Vedânta systems, though their own contributions are also noteworthy.

Some fundamental Points of Agreement

I. The Karma Theory.

It is, however, remarkable that with the exception of the Cârvâka materialists all the other systems agree on some fundamental points of importance. The systems of philosophy in India were not stirred up merely by the speculative demands of the human mind which has a natural inclination for indulging in abstract thought, but by a deep craving after the realization of the religious purpose of life. It is surprising to note that the postulates, aims and conditions for such a realization were found to be identical in all the conflicting systems. Whatever may be their differences of opinion in other matters, so far as the general postulates for the realization of the transcendent state, the summum bonum of life, were concerned, all the systems were practically in thorough agreement. It may be worth while to note some of them at this stage.

First, the theory of Karma and rebirth. All the Indian systems agree in believing that whatever action is done by an individual leaves behind it some sort of potency which has the power to ordain for him joy or sorrow in the future according as it is good or bad. When the fruits of the actions are such that they cannot be enjoyed in the present life or in a human life, the individual has to take another birth as a man or any other being in order to suffer them.

The Vedic belief that the mantras uttered in the correct accent at the sacrifices with the proper observance of all ritualistic details, exactly according to the directions without the slightest error even in the smallest trifle, had something like a magical virtue automatically to produce the desired object immediately or after a lapse of time, was probably the earliest form of the Karma doctrine. It postulates a semi-conscious belief that certain mystical actions can produce at a distant time certain effects without the ordinary process of the instrumentality of visible agents of ordinary cause and effect. When the sacrifice is performed, the action leaves such an unseen magical virtue, called the ad@r@s@ta (the unseen) or the apûrva (new), that by it the desired object will be achieved in a mysterious manner, for the modus operandi of the apûrva is unknown. There is also the notion prevalent in the Sa@mhitâs, as we have already noticed, that he who commits wicked deeds suffers in another world, whereas he who performs good deeds enjoys the highest material pleasures. These were probably associated with the conception of @rta, the inviolable order of things. Thus these are probably the elements which built up the Karma theory which we find pretty well established but not emphasized in the Upani@sads, where it is said that according to good or bad actions men will have good or bad births.

To notice other relevant points in connection with the Karma doctrine as established in the âstika systems we find that it was believed that the unseen (ad@r@s@ta) potency of the action generally required some time before it could be fit for giving the doer the merited punishment or enjoyment. These would often accumulate and prepare the items of suffering and enjoyment for the doer in his next life. Only the fruits of those actions which are extremely wicked or particularly good could be reaped in this life. The nature of the next birth of a man is determined by the nature of pleasurable or painful experiences that have been made ready for him by his maturing actions of this life. If the experiences determined for him by his action are such that they are possible to be realized in the life of a goat, the man will die and be born as a goat. As there is no ultimate beginning in time of this world process, so there is no time at which any person first began his actions or experiences. Man has had an infinite number of past lives of the most varied nature, and the instincts of each kind of life exist dormant in the life of every individual, and thus whenever he has any particular birth as this or that animal or man, the special instincts of that life (technically called vâsanâ) come forth. In accordance with these vâsanâs the person passes through the painful or pleasurable experiences as determined for him by his action. The length of life is also determined by the number and duration of experiences as preordained by the fructifying actions of his past life. When once certain actions become fit for giving certain experiences, these cannot be avoided, but those actions which have not matured are uprooted once for all if the person attains true knowledge as advocated by philosophy. But even such an emancipated (mukta) person has to pass through the pleasurable or painful experiences ordained for him by the actions just ripened for giving their fruits. There are four kinds of actions, white or virtuous (s’ukla), black or wicked (k@r@s@na), white-black or partly virtuous and partly vicious (s’ukla-k@r@s@na) as most of our actions are, neither black nor white (as’uklâk@r@s@na), i.e. those acts of self-renunciation or meditation which are not associated with any desires for the fruit. It is only when a person can so restrain himself as to perform only the last kind of action that he ceases to accumulate any new karma for giving fresh fruits. He has thus only to enjoy the fruits of his previous karmas which have ripened for giving fruits. If in the meantime he attains true knowledge, all his past accumulated actions become destroyed, and as his acts are only of the as’uklâk@r@s@na type no fresh karma for ripening is accumulated, and thus he becomes divested of all karma after enjoying the fruits of the ripened karmas alone.

The Jains think that through the actions of body, speech and mind a kind of subtle matter technically called karma is produced. The passions of a man act like a viscous substance that attracts this karma matter, which thus pours into the soul and sticks to it. The karma matter thus accumulated round the soul during the infinite number of past lives is technically called kârmas’arîra, which encircles the soul as it passes on from birth to birth. This karma matter sticking to the soul gradually ripens and exhausts itself in ordaining the sufferance of pains or the enjoyment of pleasures for the individual. While some karma matter is being expended in this way, other karma matters are accumulating by his activities, and thus keep him in a continuous process of suffering and enjoyment. The karma matter thus accumulated in the soul produces a kind of coloration called les’yâ, such as white, black, etc., which marks the character of the soul. The idea of the s’ukla and k@r@s@na karmas of the Yoga system was probably suggested by the Jaina view. But when a man is free from passions, and acts in strict compliance with the rules of conduct, his actions produce karma which lasts but for a moment and is then annihilated. Every karma that the sage has previously earned has its predestined limits within which it must take effect and be purged away. But when by contemplation and the strict adherence to the five great vows, no new karma is generated, and when all the karmas are exhausted the worldly existence of the person rapidly draws towards its end. Thus in the last stage of contemplation, all karma being annihilated, and all activities having ceased, the soul leaves the body and goes up to the top of the universe, where the liberated souls stay for ever.

Buddhism also contributes some new traits to the karma theory which however being intimately connected with their metaphysics will be treated later on.

2. The Doctrine of Mukti

Not only do the Indian systems agree as to the cause of the inequalities in the share of sufferings and enjoyments in the case of different persons, and the manner in which the cycle of births and rebirths has been kept going from beginningless time, on the basis of the mysterious connection of one’s actions with the happenings of the world, but they also agree in believing that this beginningless chain of karma and its fruits, of births and rebirths, this running on from beginningless time has somewhere its end. This end was not to be attained at some distant time or in some distant kingdom, but was to be sought within us. Karma leads us to this endless cycle, and if we could divest ourselves of all such emotions, ideas or desires as lead us to action we should find within us the actionless self which neither suffers nor enjoys, neither works nor undergoes rebirth. When the Indians, wearied by the endless bustle and turmoil of worldly events, sought for and believed that somewhere a peaceful goal could be found, they generally hit upon the self of man. The belief that the soul could be realized in some stage as being permanently divested of all action, feelings or ideas, led logically to the conclusion that the connection of the soul with these worldly elements was extraneous, artificial or even illusory. In its true nature the soul is untouched by the impurities of our ordinary life, and it is through ignorance and passion as inherited from the cycle of karma from beginningless time that we connect it with these. The realization of this transcendent state is the goal and final achievement of this endless cycle of births and rebirths through karma. The Buddhists did not admit the existence of soul, but recognized that the final realization of the process of karma is to be found in the ultimate dissolution called Nirvâ@na, the nature of which we shall discuss later on.

3. The Doctrine of Soul

All the Indian systems except Buddhism admit the existence of a permanent entity variously called atman, puru@sa or jîva. As to the exact nature of this soul there are indeed divergences of view. Thus while the Nyâya calls it absolutely qualityless and characterless, indeterminate unconscious entity, Sâ@mkhya describes it as being of the nature of pure consciousness, the Vedânta says that it is that fundamental point of unity implied in pure consciousness (cit), pure bliss (ânanda), and pure being (sat). But all agree in holding that it is pure and unsullied in its nature and that all impurities of action or passion do not form a real part of it. The summum bonum of life is attained when all impurities are removed and the pure nature of the self is thoroughly and permanently apprehended and all other extraneous connections with it are absolutely dissociated.

The Pessimistic Attitude towards the World and the Optimistic Faith in the end

Though the belief that the world is full of sorrow has not been equally prominently emphasized in all systems, yet it may be considered as being shared by all of them. It finds its strongest utterance in Sâ@mkhya, Yoga, and Buddhism. This interminable chain of pleasurable and painful experiences was looked upon as nearing no peaceful end but embroiling and entangling us in the meshes of karma, rebirth, and sorrow. What appear as pleasures are but a mere appearance for the attempt to keep them steady is painful, there is pain when we lose the pleasures or when we are anxious to have them. When the pleasures are so much associated with pains they are but pains themselves. We are but duped when we seek pleasures, for they are sure to lead us to pain. All our experiences are essentially sorrowful and ultimately sorrow-begetting. Sorrow is the ultimate truth of this process of the world. That which to an ordinary person seems pleasurable appears to a wise person or to a yogin who has a clearer vision as painful. The greater the knowledge the higher is the sensitiveness to sorrow and dissatisfaction with world experiences. The yogin is like the pupil of the eye to which even the smallest grain of disturbance is unbearable. This sorrow of worldly experiences cannot be removed by bringing in remedies for each sorrow as it comes, for the moment it is remedied another sorrow comes in. It cannot also be avoided by mere inaction or suicide, for we are continually being forced to action by our nature, and suicide will but lead to another life of sorrow and rebirth. The only way to get rid of it is by the culmination of moral greatness and true knowledge which uproot sorrow once for all. It is our ignorance that the self is intimately connected with the experiences of life or its pleasures, that leads us to action and arouses passion in us for the enjoyment of pleasures and other emotions and activities. Through the highest moral elevation a man may attain absolute dispassion towards world-experiences and retire in body, mind, and speech from all worldly concerns. When the mind is so purified, the self shines in its true light, and its true nature is rightly conceived. When this is once done the self can never again be associated with passion or ignorance. It becomes at this stage ultimately dissociated from citta which contains within it the root of all emotions, ideas, and actions. Thus emancipated the self for ever conquers all sorrow. It is important, however, to note in this connection that emancipation is not based on a general aversion to intercourse with the world or on such feelings as a disappointed person may have, but on the appreciation of the state of mukti as the supremely blessed one. The details of the pessimistic creed of each system have developed from the logical necessity peculiar to each system. There was never the slightest tendency to shirk the duties of this life, but to rise above them through right performance and right understanding. It is only when a man rises to the highest pinnacle of moral glory that he is fit for aspiring to that realization of selfhood in comparison with which all worldly things or even the joys of Heaven would not only shrink into insignificance, but appear in their true character as sorrowful and loathsome. It is when his mind has thus turned from all ordinary joys that he can strive towards his ideal of salvation. In fact it seems to me that a sincere religious craving after some ideal blessedness and quiet of self-realization is indeed the fundamental fact from which not only her philosophy but many of the complex phenomena of the civilization of India can be logically deduced. The sorrow around us has no fear for us if we remember that we are naturally sorrowless and blessed in ourselves. The pessimistic view loses all terror as it closes in absolute optimistic confidence in one’s own self and the ultimate destiny and goal of emancipation.

Unity in Indian Sâdhana (philosophical, religious and ethical endeavours)

As might be expected the Indian systems are all agreed upon the general principles of ethical conduct which must be followed for the attainment of salvation. That all passions are to be controlled, no injury to life in any form should be done, and that all desire for pleasures should be checked, are principles which are almost universally acknowledged. When a man attains a very high degree of moral greatness he has to strengthen and prepare his mind for further purifying and steadying it for the attainment of his ideal; and most of the Indian systems are unanimous with regard to the means to be employed for the purpose. There are indeed divergences in certain details or technical names, but the means to be adopted for purification are almost everywhere essentially the same as those advocated by the Yoga system. It is only in later times that devotion (bhakti) is seen to occupy a more prominent place specially in Vai@s@nava schools of thought. Thus it was that though there were many differences among the various systems, yet their goal of life, their attitude towards the world and the means fur the attainment of the goal (sâdhana) being fundamentally the same, there was a unique unity in the practical sâdhana of almost all the Indian systems. The religious craving has been universal in India and this uniformity of sâdhana has therefore secured for India a unity in all her aspirations and strivings

(Excerpts from “A History of Indian Philosophy”).

GF’ Blessings.