Transliteration Key

There are various traditional schools of philosophy in India, often classified into orthodox (Astika) and heterodox (nAstika) systems. This classification is mainly based upon the acceptance or otherwise of the vedas. [***] The vedas are four in number - Rg, yajus, sAma and atharva. Each veda consists of mantra portions (hymns), also called karma kANDa, and brAhmaNa portions (in prose and verse) including upanishads (esoteric doctrine) and AraNyakas (forest treatises), also called jnAna kANDa.

A key concept in understanding the structure of Indian philosophies is that of purushArtha - the goals of mankind. As far as life in this world is concerned, these goals are three - dharma - to lead an ethical life, artha - to acquire wealth, position and social/political status, and kAma - to fulfil all other desires, including sexual desire. The fourth purushArtha, namely moksha - salvation/liberation, deals not with life in this world, but with the eternal destiny of the individual. The various Indian schools of philosophy and religion differ mainly on questions of dharma and moksha.

The heterodox Indian schools explicitly reject the claim of the vedas to being an independently valid source of knowledge about dharma and moksha. These schools are:

The cArvAka school has died a natural death in India. It is said to be based on the lokAyata sUtras of bRhaspati. Most of our information about the cArvAkas comes from the tattvopaplavasimha of jayarASi, and from later anthological texts. It is usually portrayed as a crass materialism, which promoted immoral behavior, and endorsed an early Indian equivalent of Machiavellian politics. The cArvAkas are said to have recognized only artha and kAma as valid goals in life, both dharma and moksha not being amenable to direct perception, and therefore invalid. A more charitable view regards this school as an Indian version of skepticism.

Buddhism is a world religion, having spread to all parts of Asia, and is now spreading to Europe and the Americas too. In India itself, Buddhism has more or less died out, except in the north-east, and in Ladakh, near Kashmir. Buddhism is returning to India in recent times, with the formation of the neo-Buddhist communities in Central India, and the presence of Tibetan refugees and the Dalai Lama. In contrast, Jainism has always flourished all over India, and is practised by large numbers of Indian trading communities. Jainas are found from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the south to the Gangetic plains in the north. Gujarat and Rajasthan have significant Jaina populations. Both Buddhism and Jainism place a high value on dharma and moksha, but deny the validity of the vedas in this regard.

The orthodox schools are traditionally counted as six in number (shaD darSana), usually grouped in pairs, to form three pairs. These are:

nyAya-vaiSeshika: nyAya is the school of Indian logic. It is based on the nyAya sUtras of gautama, and a long tradition of commentaries. It is very realistic in outlook, and has historically amalgamated itself with the vaiSeshika, which is the old Indian school of atomism. The vaiSeshika sUtras of kaNAda (or kaNabhuk, the `atom-eater') and its line of commentaries form the basis of this school. Here, the entire universe is considered to be ultimately composed of `atoms' (aNu)of the old five elements (earth, water, fire, light and space). Laws of combination of atoms to form `molecules' (dvyANuka, tryANuka etc.) were also formulated. Authors of nyAya and vaiSeshika works freely drew upon each other's principles, to form the combined school.

According to nyAya-vaiSeshika thought, the individual soul is supposed to be a substance, atomic in size and other qualities. Another one of the important features of nyAya thought is that it offers a number of cosmological, teleological and anthropic arguments for the existence of a Creator God. The vedas are generally regarded to be compositions of this Creator. The standard solution to the question of human liberation is to follow the teachings of the vedas, and perform the requisite sacrifices, in order to attain a heaven. A number of these arguments are extremely similar to those offered by theologians from the Judaic, Christian and Islamic religions. The nyAya-vaiSeshika school has not seen any new developments for a long time now. They have been mostly replaced by the navya-nyAya (neo-nyAya) school, which specializes in a rigorous logical formalism, comparable with modern mathematical formal logic.

sAm.khya-yoga: The first teacher of the sAm.khya school is said to be kapila, one of the famous Rshis or siddhas in Indian mythology. The oldest texts of the sAm.khya school are the sAm.khya kArikas of ISvarakRshNa. This text and its commentaries enumerate 24 fundamental principles, which constitute the universe. 22 of these are evolutes of one more basic principle, called prakRti. The other principle is purusha, the individual soul, whose liberation consists of isolation from prakRti. Thus, the basic scheme is one of duality, based on two fundamental principles, prakRti and purusha, although this school also allows for an infinite number of purushas. There is no real place for a Creator God in this scheme, nor is there any great emphasis on the vedas. However, none of the sAm.khya authors explicitly deny the validity of the vedas, which allows their inclusion among the Astika thinkers. There is another set of texts, deriving from the so-called sAm.khya sUtras, attributed to kapila. There is a commentary in this line, by vijnAnabhikshu, a 17th century author, but after him, there has not been much development of sAm.khya thought.

The yoga sUtras of patanjali form the basis for the yoga school of thought. Generally, the principles of sAm.khya are accepted in the texts on yoga, so that these two schools are usually paired together. However, ISvara, an Omniscient God, as a 25th principle, is an important feature of the yoga school. There is a commentary on the yoga sUtras by vyAsa, to which SankarAcArya has written a sub-commentary. The metaphysics and psychology of yoga (and sAm.khya, through yoga) have been absorbed into the vedAnta schools. Indeed, most of the post-Sankaran non-advaita schools of vedAnta can be seen as restatements of the sAmkhya pluralism, with an added theistic dimension, which comes from the influence of bhakti in Indian religion.

Thus, these four schools emphasize one or more of logic, psychology, ontology and metaphysics. They do not necessarily rely on Sruti (i.e. the vedas) as an independent pramANa (valid source of knowledge), though they do not explicitly reject it either. vaiSeshika, sAm.khya and yoga schools of thought do not offer an exalted place to the vedas. The nyAya school makes these texts to be the compositions of a Creator God, but the existence of this Creator is itself established only through the inferential arguments proposed by the logicians. Thus, the validity of the veda is dependent on the validity of their logical analysis. When the nyAya authors say that the vedas also offer evidence for the existence of a Creator God, they commit the fallacy of arguing in a circle - the veda is valid because it was composed by a Creator God, and the Creator God exists because the veda says so. This is a logical fallacy committed by most theologians, and is not acceptable to the mImAm.sA and vedAnta schools of thought.


*** An alternative definition of an Astika school is acording to its acceptance of an Omniscient, Omnipotent Creator God. In this viewpoint, all the usual nAstika schools remain so, but both sAm.khya and pUrva mImAm.sA would have to be described as nAstika. It is very interesting to note that such a notable mImAm.sA author as kumArila bhaTTa argues vigorously for the unquestioned validity of the vedas, and equally vigorously against the notion of a Creator God. And it should also be noted that, according to this definition, the ajAti vAda school of advaita vedAnta would be considered nAstika by rival schools of vedAnta. Therefore, the demarcation of Astika/nAstika thought, according to the acceptance of the vedas or otherwise, is historically and doctrinally more accurate.

Online Resources: The Encyclopedia Britannica has well-written articles on the schools of Indian Philosophy. The Darshana Page is a very useful and informative site.


Last updated on May 5, 1999

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