Indian Philosophy

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Indian Philosophy
, along with Chinese philosophy, one of the foremost Eastern traditions of abstract inquiry. Indian philosophy, expressed in the Indo-European language of Sanskrit, comprises many diverse schools of thought and perspectives and includes a substantial body of intellectual debate and argumentation among the various views.

Among the main classical schools of Indian thought are (1) the so-called orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, which include Exegesis (Mimamsa), Vedanta and its numerous subschools, Atomism (Vaisesika), Logic (Nyaya), Analysis (Samkhya), and Yoga; and (2) the Buddhist (so-called nonorthodox) schools of Madhyamika, Buddhist Idealism (Yogacara), and Abhidharma (which includes numerous subschools). Indian philosophy also comprises the materialist and skeptical philosophies of Carvaka and the religious schools of Jainism.

Classical Indian philosophy extends from approximately 100 BC to AD 1800, which marks the beginning of the modern period. Ancient Indian thought, which is also philosophic in a broader sense, originated as early as 1200 BC and appears in scriptures called Veda. Ancient Indian philosophy also includes the mystical treatises known as Upanishads (700 to 100 BC), early Buddhist writings (300 BC to AD 500), and the Sanskrit poem Bhagavad-Gita (Song of God, about 200 BC). Classical Indian philosophy is less concerned with spirituality than ancient thought; rather, it concentrates on questions of how people can know and communicate about everyday affairs.

Indian philosophy of the later classical and modern periods (1200 to present) may be distinguished from most Indian religious and spiritual thought. Among the exceptions are philosophies represented by famous advocates of ancient Indian spiritual views, such as mystic philosopher Sri Aurobindo Ghose—a nationalist revolutionary who opposed British rule of India in the early 20th century—and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who was president of India from 1962 to 1967, within the period immediately following the country's struggle for independence.

Indian philosophy is extensive, rich, and complex. Scholars analyze not only its significance and its insights, but also its classical teachings about knowledge and language. Meanwhile, the majority of Western students of Indian thought have been drawn to its religious and mystical teachings.

Relationship with Western Philosophy

Indian and Western civilizations have maintained some form of contact for at least 2500 years. In the 4th century BC, for example, the Greek emperor Alexander took troops across the Indus River, which borders the western edge of the Indian subcontinent. Even so, while trade contacts seem to have been ongoing, political contact between India and the West was largely insignificant until the 16th century. Western philosophical and religious views were carried by political emissaries and traders during voyages in the 15th and 16th centuries. Some scholars have argued that Platonism (the philosophy of ancient Greek thinker Plato) and neo-Platonism (a 3rd-century movement based on Platonism) were greatly influenced by Indian thought. Nevertheless, the traditions of Indian and Western philosophy developed largely in ignorance of one another, and, until modern times, showed few signs of influencing one another.

Despite this, it is possible to discern common interests and intellectual positions between Western and Indian philosophy, such as positions concerning logic and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Furthermore, when Indian philosophers ask the question "What is real?" (the subject of metaphysics) and respond by directing their attention to everyday experience and discourse, other interesting parallels to Western traditions become evident.

On the other hand, contrasts between Western and Indian thought dominate the arenas of religion and religious philosophy. For example, there is a certain type of Indian theism that shares similarities with the monotheism of the West. But the nirvana (enlightenment) goal of Buddhism, the mystical monism of Advaita Vedanta (the idea that all reality is a single spiritual being), and the theorizing that forms the foundation of polytheism (belief in the existence of multiple deities) in Hinduism are instances of Indian philosophy that have no, or at best minor and incomplete, parallels in Western philosophy.

Most ethical teachings in Indian philosophy are found in Indian literature but are influenced by religious association. Western types of ethical propositions ("one should behave in a certain manner because of [argument X]") do occur in Indian philosophy—for instance, the famous Jaina argument that since animals are capable of pain, humans have an obligation not to harm them—but there is little wrestling with the question of the criteria of ethical norms (standards), unlike in the West. Indian classical philosophers often think about ethics in connection with Indian views about actions, or habits (karma), and rebirth (the belief in reincarnation). Nevertheless, Indian philosophy is characterized by a highly refined ethical sensibility (common among Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism), along with standards of character and conduct that are common to many other cultures.

Influence of Religion

In ancient Indian philosophy (before 100 BC), philosophy and religion cannot be meaningfully separated, primarily because of the cultural integration of religious practices and mystical pursuits. For example, ceremonies celebrating birth, marriage, and death, performed with recitations of Vedic verses (mantras), were important for bonding within ancient Indian societies. Later in classical Indian philosophy, different social practices developed. Thus, the orthodox classical schools of thought are distinguished from nonorthodox classical schools by their allegiance to established forms of social practice rather than to the doctrines of the Veda. Buddhism, for example, constitutes much more of a break with Vedic practices than with the ideas developed in Vedic traditions of thought. In fact, the Upanishads, mystical treatises continuous with the Vedas, foretell many Buddhist teachings. In ancient India, religion did not entail dogma, but rather a way of life that permitted a wide range of philosophic positions and inquiry.

Mysticism, the claim that ultimate truth is only obtainable through spiritual experience, dominates much ancient Indian philosophy. Such experiences are thought to reveal a supreme and transmundane (beyond ordinary experience) reality and to provide the meaning of life. Mysticism shapes much classical and modern Indian thought as well. Through meditation and the meditative techniques of yoga, it is believed that one discovers one's true self (atman), or God (Brahman), or enlightenment (nirvana). The presumed indications of mystical experiences, such as atman or God, were especially debated in the ancient period and influenced much subsequent Indian philosophy, including the reflections of professional philosophers of late classical times.

In some schools of classical Indian philosophy, such as Nyaya (Logic), neither religion nor mysticism is central. Rather, the questions of how human beings know what they know—and how they can mean what they say—are given priority.


The oldest literature of Indian thought is the Veda, a collection of poems and hymns composed over several generations beginning as early as 1200 BC. The Veda was composed in Sanskrit, the intellectual language of both ancient and classical Indian civilizations. Four collections were made, so it is said that there are four Vedas. The four as a group came to be viewed as sacred in Hinduism.

Most of the poems of the Veda are religious and tend to be about the activities of various gods. Yet some Vedic hymns and poems address philosophic themes that became important in later periods, such as the henotheism that is key to much Hindu theology. Henotheism is the idea that one God takes many different forms, and that although individuals may worship several different gods and goddesses, they really revere but one Supreme Being.

Indian philosophy was more decisively established with the Upanishads (secret doctrines), the first of which may have been written in the 7th century BC. Early Upanishads, which dominate the late ancient period (475 BC to 100 BC) of thought, were key to the emergence of several classical philosophies. In the Upanishads, views about Brahman (the Absolute, or God) and atman (one's true self) were proposed.

Buddhism, now a major world religion, also appeared in the ancient period of Indian philosophy. The Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, lived during the 6th century BC. He preached a goal of a supreme personal good—enlightenment (nirvana)—that may be compared to the later mystical so-called Brahman-knowledge of Upanishadic philosophy. In the reign of the Buddhist emperor Asoka (3rd century BC), an enormous canon of literature, sometimes called the Southern Buddhist Canon, or the Pali Canon, was compiled. Other scriptures, eventually key to a Northern or Mahayana tradition, were composed later.

Most of the great classical schools of Indian philosophy, seven or eight in number, were first articulated in texts dating from as early as 100 BC. The founders of these schools are largely unknown except by traditional names—such as Gautama, with the Logic (Nyaya) school, and Badarayana, with Vedanta. Early classical Indian philosophy is expressed in aphoristic (sutra) texts complete with elaborate commentaries. The Sanskrit word sutra means thread and, by extension, an "aphorism" that captures a philosophic tenet in a succinct statement. The sutra texts, usually accompanied with commentaries made by a second great thinker of a tradition, express world views, or philosophies, organized around reasons and arguments.

The most outstanding individuals in subsequent classical Indian philosophical writing include Buddhist Idealist Dharmakirti, who lived in the 7th century; Advaita Vedantin Samkara, of the 8th century; and Logic philosopher Gangesa, of the 14th century. The writings of these thinkers represented a steady advance in persuasiveness over previous arguments. As a whole, Indian philosophic reasoning and reflection advanced—both in overall sophistication of argument and in the volume and scope of new texts—by the gradual effort of numerous authors.

Indian Thought


The Mimamsa-sutra of the Exegesis school appears to be the oldest text (100 BC) of an emergent philosophic sastra (craft or science). Exegesis is primarily concerned with questions of Vedic interpretation. Broadly philosophic questions—such as, "Why is the Veda sacred?"—come to be addressed, and, in general, a realist view of nature (the belief that a world exists independent of the mind) and a common-sense view of knowledge (human beings know things by directly perceiving them or by deducing from other known things) become part of the basis of the philosophic system. Exegesis arguments about dharma (Sanskrit for "duty" or "the right way to live") have been the focus of philosophic efforts through most of the many centuries of this school. In the later classical period, Exegesis philosophy focuses less on dharma, and more attention is given to technical issues in the philosophy of language. The school continues into the modern period.


Vedanta also has a long and distinguished history, as well as a bewildering number of subschools. Vedanta models itself after the philosophy of the Upanishads. For purposes of study, Vedantic philosophy may be said to fall into two subschools: (1) Advaita (monistic or nondual) Vedanta, and (2) theistic Vedanta. The main point of contention between the two schools is the reality of God, along with the reality of the world that God presumably has created, or emanated. Advaita Vedanta holds that Ultimate Reality (Brahman), which is identical with one's true self (atman), transcends all forms. Thus, God and the world are illusions. Theistic Vedantins disagree, holding that God and the world exist separately from one's self. The early 8th-century Advaitin philosopher Samkara is the most famous classical Vedantin. Vedanta extends through all periods of Indian philosophy and remains important among present-day philosophers in India, as well as among Hindus throughout contemporary society.


Like much Vedanta philosophy, Buddhism is concerned with mystical experience. Buddhist thinkers commonly compare enlightenment (nirvana) experience to awakening from a dream. (The Sanskrit word buddha means awakened.) Buddhists have contributed significant ideas in epistemology and metaphysics to Indian philosophy, and have exerted a complex influence on its overall history. Buddhist philosophies were prominent in the earlier classical period (100 BC to AD 1000). The 2nd-century Buddhist Nagarjuna and the 7th-century Buddhist Dharmakirti are two of the greatest thinkers in classical Indian philosophy. Nagarjuna was an advocate of skepticism and mysticism, and his arguments continue to influence a majority of Indian philosophic schools. Dharmakirti was an astute logician and pragmatist who worked largely on idealist premises, such as the idea that appearances are dependent on the mind, or consciousness. Dharmakirti taught that everything is, or is directly dependent upon, Buddha Mind or Buddha Body (awakened mind or awakened body).

Analysis and Yoga

Analysis (Samkhya) and Yoga are relatively minor philosophies, compared to others discussed in this overview. Both emerged before the 2nd century BC, but neither spawned a continuing philosophy comparable to that of the schools already mentioned. Neither school participated significantly in later classical debates. The Analysis school subscribes to a metaphysical dualism (the claim that two types of things ultimately exist) of individual souls and nature. The school is devoted to the analysis of nature, in order to aid one's knowledge of oneself as liberated from karma and rebirth, and as pure and blissful, self-conscious, and aloof from nature. Yoga takes a similar metaphysical stance, though it also pursues a psychological and yogic-practice dimension that the Analysis school lacks. Although few modern philosophers find substantial merit in Yoga's metaphysical claims, many find profound psychological wisdom in Yoga literature.

Logic and Atomism

Logic (Nyaya) and Atomism (Vaisesika) are schools that specialize in questions of epistemology (nyaya means critical inquiry) and of what sorts of objects and generalities we experience every day. Both schools have extensive literatures, and later Logic (after 1400) is known for its professional techniques of cognitive analysis. Founded in the early classical period, both schools relied upon early sutra texts, and their literatures are distinct for almost 1000 years. However, the traditions became combined with the great 11th-century innovator Udayana, and became known simply as Logic. From the inception of both schools, reflection about knowledge in Logic was matched, roughly, by Atomist views about what is known (the objects of knowledge).


The Carvaka school, a classical school of materialism and skepticism, is known for its attacks on religious practices, and, from a Western perspective, provides evidence that not all classical Indian philosophy is religiously or mystically oriented. The Logic school also rejects the influence of religious beliefs. But Carvaka, unlike Logic, goes beyond advocating knowledge based on natural experience by ridiculing what it sees as superstition, including the belief in rebirth widespread among all of the major Indian schools of thought.

Philosophical Perspectives

Most of the classical Indian schools present veritable world views—comprehensive philosophies formed by interlocking positions of the main branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics). Although systematic philosophies are intended to stand as whole bodies of thought, it is often desirable to separate and delineate issues within them, particularly in study and debate. In the case of Indian philosophy, examining specific classical arguments and general philosophic views also facilitates comparison with Western philosophy. This section is devoted to a broad contemporary perspective of classical Indian thought on some of the great issues of philosophy.


Religious, or spiritual, metaphysics, a field that currently receives little attention among philosophers in academia in the West, considers the question of the nature of a Supreme Being and its relation to the world. Indian Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and theistic Vedanta all have contributed to this debate. Within spiritual metaphysics, an insistence on spiritual monism (only one spiritual being ultimately exists) is probably the most important consideration that Indian thought upholds, though with numerous variations: Much Buddhist philosophy promotes the idea of the interdependence of everything; theistic Vedanta finds no gap between the world and God (the world is God's body); and Advaita Vedanta insists that everyone's true self is nothing other than Brahman, the Absolute.

The field of analytic metaphysics, which examines everyday experience and language, is currently more prominent among Western philosophers. The Indian school of Logic offers a complex theory of generality (What is the reality of general ideas? For example, what is it to be a cow? What is a cow's essence?) The problem of generalities, or universals, has long been debated in Western philosophy.


One of the more active branches of philosophy in the West is epistemology, which attempts to answer questions involving the nature and limits of knowledge. In epistemology, too, the Indian Logic school has much to offer for contemporary analysis, as does the school of Buddhist Idealism (Yogacara). Logic lays out, with detailed elaboration, four methods of personal knowledge: perception; inference; analogical acquisition of vocabulary; and authoritative testimony. Logic also challenges skepticism, the view that true knowledge is impossible to obtain. According to Logic, even though humans are fallible, they may assume that they are justified in their established beliefs. Any doubt of those beliefs has to be reasonable or has to have its own grounds for consideration. Much Western reflection assumes that any and all doubts can undermine established claims of knowledge. Meanwhile, Buddhist Idealism takes a pragmatic middle ground between skepticism and Logic's defense of everyday beliefs. For the Buddhist Idealist, the test of truth and justification is whether humans actually get what they want—and avoid what they do not want. Thus, human concepts are shaped by human desires.

With a vast wealth of mystical literature and philosophic defenses of mysticism, Indian thought has much to offer the epistemology of religious belief. In particular, several Indian philosophers, of different schools, have over time advanced the argument that mystical experience has objective epistemic value in revealing a spiritual reality. These philosophers find a parallel between this value of mystical experience and the value of sense experience in revealing physical reality.


Another major branch of Western philosophy is ethics, which examines human actions. Classical Indian thought presents little philosophic ethics in the Western sense (for example, concern with the fundamental criteria of ethical norms). On the other hand, Indian interest in ethics—from the ethical teachings of enlightenment, to the caste system of society, and to Mohandas Gandhi's political philosophy of noninjury (ahimsa)—is much more widespread than interest in metaphysics or epistemology. Noninjury, properly qualified, is a persuasive candidate for a universal ethical prescription, transcending boundaries of culture as well as religion.

Indian philosophy also considers the ethical implications of the Indian classical theories of karma (action or habit). These theories usually presuppose rebirth—that is, reincarnation in a human or animal form, in this or in other worlds. Since, on the presumption of karma, the nature of one's deeds determines one's future state, the universe includes laws of moral payback. Indian classical philosophers weave numerous variations on such views into their overall stances, including Buddhist, Vedantic, Logic, and Carvaka views.

Contemporary Developments

There is comparatively little original philosophy still being written in Sanskrit. Philosophers in India now write in modern Indian languages and in English. Moreover, the advent of scientific thought and of the modern university has altered the Indian intellectual community. Classical philosophy survives mainly in the influences it exerts among its students.

Many philosophers, particularly in India, have discovered and championed important philosophic theses of classical Indian thought, and these individuals may eventually bring a global standing to classical Indian philosophy comparable to that of classical Greek philosophy. Prominent 20th-century Indian academics include K. C. Bhattacharyya, professor of philosophy at the University of Calcutta and the teacher of many important succeeding philosophers; T. M. P. Mahadevan, professor of philosophy at the University of Madras and the author of several books on classical Advaita Vedanta; and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the former President of India, vice chancellor of Benares Hindu University (1939-1948), and chancellor of Delhi University (1953-1962), who was known for his deft comparisons between Western and Indian thought.

Some of the great names of modern Indian spiritual thought are also great names of modern Indian history. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, sometimes referred to as the father of modern India, founded the Brahmo Samaj (Church of Brahman) in 1828 and was the first to articulate, in English, a synthesis of Western and Indian religious views. The late-19th-century spiritual leader (guru) Swami Vivekananda was an elegant writer in English on broadly philosophic and psychological topics. He founded the Ramakrishna Mission and gave it a modern version of Vedanta. Mystic and guru Sri Aurobindo Ghose also wrote elegant arguments in English. He originated a new Brahman-centered evolutionary world view sensitive both to science and mysticism.

Academic philosophy in India is deeply conversant with Western philosophy and addresses many of the same issues and methods. The Indian intellectual environment extends beyond the universities, where continuation of India's spiritual philosophy is influenced by religious and mystical practices, such as yoga, that are distinct or much more prominent in Indian culture.

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