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Indian Schools of Philosophy and Theology

By Satyanarayana Dasa

Indian civilization is the oldest living civilization in the world. The reason for it to survive even after being subject to the onslaught of foreign invaders and rulers for thousands of years is its roots that are grounded in philosophy. The very word Bharata means the land where people are devoted (rata) to enlightenment (Bha).  Indian philosophy is typically divided along two main lines, astika (orthodox or theistic) and nastika (unorthodox or atheistic). Buddhist, Jain, and Carvaka philosophies are unorthodox because they do not accept the authority of the Vedas. The Vedas are commonly accepted by their adherents as having originally emanated from God. Therefore in the Indian tradition, any system of thought not grounded in the Vedas, even if it includes belief in God or gods, is considered atheistic, nastika.

The astika schools, originally called sanatana dharma, are collectively referred to as Hinduism in modern times. Hinduism consist s of six systems of philosophy and theology. These are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Yoga, Samkhya, Purva Mimamsa and Vedanta. Each school has a set of sutras or aphorisms that forms its nucleus and gives the essential teaching of the school.  The first four of these schools accept the authority of the Vedas, but do not derive their philosophical principles from the statements of the Vedas. They are based on the teachings of individual Rishis or sages.

The last two schools, i.e. Purva Mimamsa and Vedanta, however, base their theological systems specifically on the statements of the Vedas. The four Vedas, namely the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, are each divided into four parts known as Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad. The first two parts are predominantly ritualistic. The Aranyakas mark the shift from ritual to theology, which finds its culmination in the Upanishads. The Purva Mimamsa, (lit. “the earlier deliberation”) bases its principles on the earlier (purva) parts of the Vedas, namely the Samhitas and Brahmanas. Vedanta (lit. “the last part of the Vedas”) is the study of the later parts i.e. the Upanishads), and therefore,  is also called the Uttara Mimamsa, or the later deliberation.

Here is a brief overview of these six systems of thought:

1. Sankhya

Kapila Muni is the founder of this system. Sankhya accepts two basic tattvas or principles i.e. prakriti or primordial matter, and purusha or individual conscious being. The purusha, also called atma, is immutable, eternal and conscious by its very nature. Prakriti is inert and undergoes modifications while in association with a purusha. It evolves from subtle to gross, and manifests the visible world. The first modification of prakriti is called Mahat or the cosmic intelligence. This further evolves into ahankara or ego. Ahankara gives rise to mind, five cognitive senses, five working senses, five tanmatras or subtle elements that further evolve into akasha or space, vayu or gases, tejas or heat and light, jalam or liquids, and prithvi or solid objects.  The central idea in this system is that a living being can become free from ignorance by understanding that purusha is distinct from the twenty-four elements that constitute matter.

2. Yoga

Yoga accepts the twenty five principles of Sankhya school along with Isvara or God as the twenty-sixth. Yoga gives the practical steps to realize the purusha distinct from prakriti. This system was founded by Hiranygarbha and later systematized and propagated by the sage Patanjali. He defines yoga as cessation of all mental modifications. To attain this state he gives eight steps, hence this system is also called astanga (lit. eight limbed) yoga. These are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.

3. Nyaya

This is also called Indian system of logic.  It is known for its five step syllogism. It states that there are sixteen padarthas or categories knowing which one can attain the ultimate goal of liberation. The sixteen padarthas are pramana, prameya, samshaya, prayojana, drishtanta, siddhanata, avayava, tarka, nirnaya, vada, jalpa, vitanda, hetvabhasa, chala, jati, and nigraha-sthana. Most of these categories are related with logic and debating. Nyaya was propounded by Gautama Muni.

4. Vaisheshika

This system was developed by sage Kanada. He taught that there are seven padarthas or ontological entities and understanding these leads to self-realization. Kanada also postulated that the world is made of atoms (paramanu). The seven padarthas are dravya (substance), guna (quality), karma (movement), samanya (generality), vishesha (speciality), samavaya (inherence),  and abhava (non-existence).

5. Purva Mimamsa

This system was propagated by sage Jaimini, a disciple of Veda Vyasa. It says that the essence of the Vedas is dharma. Dharma means the commandments found in the Vedas which are mainly in the form of yajnas. By the execution of dharma one earns merit which leads one to heaven after death. One will live happily in heaven without facing any miseries. If one does not follow one’s dharma or prescribed duties, then one incurs sin and as a consequence suffers in hell.

6. Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta

Vedanta was taught by Veda Vyasa, the compiler of the Vedas. It refutes the conclusion of Purva Mimasa and states that the essential teaching of the Vedas is to realize Brahman, the Absolute Truth, and not the dharma in the form of injunctions. It has two branches—personal and impersonal. In the former, devotion to a Personal God is the means to perfection. In the latter, one realizes oneself as the all-pervading, impersonal Absolute Truth. Vedanta is the most popular of all the schools.

The six systems are generally paired into three groups, Sankhya and Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisheshika, and Purva Mimamsa and Vedanta. However, Vedanta is widely accepted as the apex of all six systems because it deals exclusively with the Absolute Truth and explains the Reality most consistently. It is the only school that has maintained its relevance through the modern era, even though Yoga is also popular now. There are various schools of thought within Vedanta, which can all be categorized into two divisions: impersonal and personal.

Impersonalism & Personalism

According to the impersonal school called Advaita-vada, the Absolute Truth or Brahman is formless and devoid of any attributes. It is eternal and conscious. Brahman is the only reality. The phenomenal world is an illusion and is perceived out of ignorance of Brahman. Individual beings are non-different from Brahman.

In contrast to it, the personal school says that the Absolute Truth is a person, and is designated as Bhagavan or Purusottama. He has a spiritual form and many variegated attributes. The impersonal feature described above is but the brilliant light emanating from the transcendental body of this Absolute Person. The world, being a creation of Bhagavan, is real but undergoes cycles of creation and dissolution. The individual beings (jivas) are part of Bhagavan’s potency and can never be absolutely non-different from Him.

Utility of Six Schools in Modern Times

devotee studyingEvery human being , irrespective of one’s background, gender or belief system , suffers from three types of miseries namely those coming from one’s own body and mind, those caused by other living beings (such as terrorists, mosquitoes, ferocious animals, etc.), and those meted out by nature (such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, etc.).  The root cause of all suffering is ignorance of one’s self. We know a lot about things around us but hardly anything about ourselves.

The basic inspiration behind each philosophical system has been to make the individual being free from suffering. By the study of these systems one’s outlook about life and the world expands and by following the process prescribed by them, such as by Yoga or Vedanta, one can become peaceful and happy in any situation.

Modern life is full of anxiety and stress. Most of the diseases spring from stress, wrong lifestyle, improper diet, etc., which are all rooted in ignorance of our selves. Modern education trains one to earn wealth but not how to use it beneficially. It gives facility to live comfortably but does not teach how to live. It gives knowledge but does not inform about its purpose. In other words, the modern education does not bring fulfillment in life. If the knowledge of Hindu systems is added to the present education, one will be able to lead a better life in all respects, be it economic, social, political or spiritual. The evils of society such as corruption, crime, family disunity, exploitation, etc., will be uprooted if people are trained in Indian knowledge systems, especially Vedanta. These systems have been used for thousands of years in the past and brought glories to India. The glory of India faded when its traditional knowledge systems were uprooted, but if it takes advantage of its indigenous knowledge systems it can inspire the whole world.