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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.

Modern Perspective on Ancient Truth

By Bruce Martin

A friend of mine of rationalistic temperament, and one who considers himself agnostic, recently questioned me about scripture, raising doubt as to how a person could place trust in scripture as the revealed word of God and, as such, a source of infallible knowledge, when much of what has been proclaimed in scripture simply doesn’t hold up to critical examination. To do justice to this question we must first take into account the modern, scientific, rationalistic view itself, that the questioner is expressing, and that is largely taken for granted as the way present-day humanity views the world. At first glance the modern view seems to be in direct opposition to the dominant, scripturally-based, religious view of antiquity. Yet, on careful examination of the historical unfolding of events, modernity emerged, in significant measure, from the ongoing search for truth and the valid methods for its attainment, from the need for a more accurate understanding of self, nature and the world, from the value newly assigned to individual fulfillment, distinct from a person’s collective worth, and from the hard-fought right to question and expose dogmatic and oppressive authority. The pioneers of modernity, men like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and Descartes were all deeply spiritual, and, according to their own accounts, it was precisely this orientation that led them to new discoveries that yet challenged the traditional religious authority and world view of the day.

From this perspective, modernity can be viewed not retrogressively, as a movement away from Spirit, but rather, a forward step of Spirit awakening further to its own fundamental nature. The move away from traditional religious authority, though carrying with it the possibility of rejecting the transcendent altogether, freed the human psyche from the oppression of a merely conventional, culturally inherited or imposed religiosity. This individuation of self, rooted in the ever-expanding refinement of awareness and discrimination, is crucial to the growth of mature spirituality.

Relevance of Scripture Today

Let us, then, build on the gains inherited from the modern tradition to investigate the possible relevance of scripture today. From this perspective, it would serve the purpose of objective study to approach scripture as a body of evidence left by past researchers of consciousness, and subject it to the criteria of genuine scientific inquiry, rather than demand that it be upheld as a source of infallible knowledge to be accepted on faith alone, thus precluding any possibility of invalidation. A substantial body of research on altered states of consciousness across various traditions, from shamanism to Christian mysticism, to Kabbalah, to Buddhism, to Yoga-Vedanta-Hinduism, already exists. Increasingly, this will become a major field of study, as the modern world reconnects with its ancient roots.

The basic components of the scientific method include: hypothesis, the proposition to be proved or disproved; experiment, by which the theory can be tested and repeated by others who subject themselves to the same experimental criteria; and a body of data, the experiential findings, leading to validation or refutation of the theory. Applying this methodology to scripture, we can objectively investigate its claims to valid knowledge. Since scriptures are of many varieties, offering different perspectives, some apparently more comprehensive than others, our investigation would be enhanced by opening it up to a broad range of scripture across various traditions, rather than limiting the discussion to a single tradition.

Progressive States of Awareness

Scriptures themselves cover a range of topics, including, epistemology, ontology, cosmology, moral and ethical principles, methods of practice, such as ritual, worship, prayer, contemplation and meditation, and the progression of consciousness through ever more refined states of being, from psychic awakening, to subtle, archetypal awareness, and onward to liberation, nirvana, satori, mystical union, ecstatic love of God, or nondual awareness. For the purpose of this brief discussion, we can focus, particularly, on the methods of practice, correlating them to the states of awareness disclosed by those methods. This has been the focal point of study already undertaken in most of the research conducted to date. It is also the part of scripture most readily amenable to testing and repetition, and hence, to validation or refutation.

The basic claim of scripture, especially those of mystical orientation, is that anyone who undergoes the methodology, while meeting the emotional, moral, volitional and mental conditions required by that methodology, will experience a successive freeing of consciousness into correspondingly subtler and more expansive states of awareness and being. In their book Transformations of Consciousness, Jack Engler and Daniel P. Brown have reviewed a cross-cultural study of meditative states comparing the paths of Yoga-Vedanta, Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and Pali Theravada Buddhism. The evidence not only validates the claims of these traditions, but also indicates that in spite of divergent doctrinal views of reality, meditation in all three traditions proceeds through the same basic progression in terms of the deeper, underlying structures of consciousness.

A New and Higher Center of Gravity

When these findings are considered in the light of developmental theory, as posited by the growing field of transpersonal psychology, it would appear that meditation is a subtle technology for disclosing the higher reaches of consciousness. With this understanding, the scriptures delineating these methods can be viewed as a vast body of evidence pertaining to the highest potentials of human unfolding, and worthy of minute investigation and reevaluation in modern terms, free of dogmatic and oppressive claims.

The central concern of scripture, then, as the common thread running through divergent wisdom traditions, is not merely to access higher or altered states of awareness, but to shift the entire context of awareness—attention, feeling, volition and action—to a new and higher center of gravity. The aim, in other words, is to effect an integration of mind, body and soul within the all-encompassing ground and context of Spirit. In essence, the scriptural record is an investigation of this hidden, yet innate, human capacity, and it is the legacy left by past explorers of consciousness, as our common inheritance. To neglect it, is to deny and limit the fulfillment of our human potential, to impoverish our lives and the world in which we live.

Knowledge from the Vedas

Ancient Sanskrit ManuscriptThe Upanishads are part of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of the world. There are four Vedas, namely the Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva Veda. Each Veda is further divided into four parts which are called Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad. The first three parts of each Veda mainly deal with rituals. The Samhita part consists mostly of prayers to different deities and is used for sacrifices. The Brahmanas deal with how the sacrifices have to be performed, and the Aranyakas give the philosophy of the sacrifice. The Upanishads deal with the philosophy of the Vedas.

One can approach the Vedas with a traditional or a modern understanding. The tradition says that the Vedas were revealed by God himself to humans at the beginning of creation, therefore there is no date on them. Modern scholars have different opinions about when they were written, but they have no concept of who wrote them.

The word Veda means knowledge. The Vedas are the books of knowledge. In that sense they are not sectarian, because they are not related to a particular group of people or faith; rather, they are the manuals for human beings. They show how one should lead one’s life on earth and attain perfection.Babaji Satyanarayana Dasa

Another name for the Vedas is sruti, because they are heard from the teachers and “sru” means to hear.  If someone wanted to study the Vedas, traditionally he had to go to a teacher and hear them from him. Vedic knowledge is divided into two categories, known as karma-kanda and jnana-kanda. The former stresses the rituals and sacrifices for attaining material gain. The latter deals with the ultimate goal of life—realizing the Absolute. The bulk of the Vedas deals with karma-kanda. As part of karma-kanda the Vedic texts have to be chanted or recited in a particular way, just like music. That is similar to ragas which have to be sung in a specific tone. To attain a particular goal, the Vedas prescribe sacrifices. If there is even a slight discrepancy in the chanting of these mantras one could even get an adverse result.

Audio excerpt:

[audio:https://jivaseva.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Knowledge-from-the-Vedas.mp3|titles=Knowledge from the Vedas]