Indian Philosophy-A Synoptic View-III

Prof. M.L. Koul

June 2011


It is the first written record of mankind and its hymns though addressed to various gods contain seed ideas that are essentially philosophic in content. It provides an amazing insight into that hoary past of which minimum or negligible records and notices are available. The hymns underpin a thinking that rotates round ‘religion myth and mystery’. Most of them contain ‘germs of thought’, ‘hints at surmises about truth’ and ‘flashes of insight into the Supreme Being’. In the hymns questions of perennial significance are raised, but not answered. They do not present a pattern of thought that is coherent and consistent, but they reflect a mind that is vigorous, this-worldly and brimming with vivacious life. The Rigvedic seers seem to be opening new vistas into the realms of philosophical speculation by raising meaningful questions about the nature of universe and meaning of human life. The philosophic mood of the Rigveda set the tone and temper for future evolution of Indian philosophy. To Max Muller, ‘the Vedas were unique and priceless guides in opening before us tombs of thought richer in relics, than the royal tombs of Egypt and more ancient and primitive in thought than the oldest hymns of Babylonia and Acadian poets’.

The Rigvedic gods symbolise nature powers and are anthropomorphic representations of various phenomena of nature. Observes Max Muller, “These gods were the first philosophy the first attempt at explaining the wonders of nature”. The gods that are purported as agents behind the natural phenomena reveal the religious consciousness of the Indians in a seminal form. ‘The Hymn of Creation’ underpins an intense curiosity to probe the ultimate origin of the universe. It radiates a consciousness that swings between ‘being’ and ‘non-being’ and reveals a mood of wonderment at the prospect of cosmos and underpins a reflective seriousness to know the origins of it.


The Upanishads as texts of Indian wisdom have attracted the deep attention of thinkers and scholars of all shades and persuasions. To Schopenhaur, they were the products of the highest wisdom and as such were ‘the solace of his life and solace of his death’. But, to Max Muller, the Upanishads contained a heap of rubbish from which fragments of gold had to be extracted. The first encounter that the European scholars had with the Indian wisdom was through the Upanishads. They were baffled and dazzled. With a view to downgrading their importance in terms of philosophy most of them came out with irrelevant appraisals lacking in historical perspective. An Indian scholar, Ranade, evaluated the available texts from a historical stand-point without taking them as excellent and flawless bits of human wisdom.

The Upanishads, in fact, mark the burgeoning of the seeds that were sown in the garden-bed of Rigveda in particular and other Vedas in general. Among other connotations the Upanishads imply ‘rahasya’ or secret or esoteric predilections. The Vedic texts had emphasised ‘sacerdotalism’ and ‘complexus of ceremonies’. But, the Upanishads emerged as a protest against these ritual crafts and marked a milestone towards ‘deepening inwardness’. Seriously doubting the utility and purpose of sacrifices and rituals, the Upanishads fixed their accent of emphasis on ‘Atman’ or self, a region deeper and vaster than the external world. ‘Sacerdotalism’ with its barren-ness and superfluity had misled spiritual aspirants from the region of inner world as a locus of probing and fathoming. ‘Quest within’ is the cardinal principle of Upanishads ruminations. Lacking in an integrated frame, the Upanishadic are interspersed with ‘flashes of insight’ and ‘gems of thought’. They impacted the entire Indian stream of culture and thought and more than most the trends of thought outside the purlieux of India.

As per the Upanishadic stipulations, Atman as self or soul is the fundamental essence of man. It originally meant ‘breath’ but subsequently donned another layer of meaning signifying everything from gross body to the finest principle underlying the existence of man. Finally it came to constitute an essential part of anything, especially of man, his self or soul. To Sankara, ‘Atman’ is all pervading, it is the subject and it knows, experiences and illuminates the objects. It is immortal and immutable’. In its profounder connotations, Atman means the self-conscious being within man underpinning the ultimate reality. The Upanishads as a whole explain Atman as the innermost existence and body and mind as ‘the trappings that dress reality’.

The over-riding concern of the Upanishads is to probe the primordial source of cosmos. It is this sense of pre-occupation that has motivated the Upanishadic seers to establish an entity called ‘Brahman’ as the life-breath of cosmosas a whole. The word ‘Brahman’ is derivable to the root ‘brh’ meaning ‘to grow’ or ‘to burst forth’. Brahman’ is that which naturally ‘bursts forth’ as world and soul. As per the Taittiriya Upanishad, all existence is traceable to the fount of ‘Brahman’ is that which naturally ‘bursts forth’ as world and soul. As per the Taittiriya Upanishad, all existence is traceable to the fount of ‘Brahman’, ‘from which all beings originate by which they are sustained and into which they are withdrawn’.

Though packed with stray and disjointed ideas, the Upanishads have established the spiritual unity of all forms and varieties of existence through lofty utterances of deeper import. The opening verse of Isha Vasya Upanishad posits Isha (Supreme Lord) as the omnipresent reality of the entire creation. The Mandukya Upanishad opens a new vista through the utterance ‘This Atman is Brahman’. The same idea is crystallised through the utterance ‘Thou Art That’ as available in the Chandogya Upanishad. The Brhihadaranyak Upanishad establishes the identity of man with Supreme Truth through its utterance ‘I am Brahman’. These utterances are gems of thought and highlight a trend-setting standpoint impacting the struggling minds to free themselves from cold and frigid doctrines of deism. Observes Krishna Chaityna that the current set in motion by these resounding utterances ‘flowed to the mystics of Persian Sufism, the mystic logos-doctrine of the neo-Platonists and the Alexandrian Christians, to the radical doctrines of Eckhardt and Tauler”.

That the universe functions like a machine is not what the Upanishadic seers hold and trot out. Nor do they subscribe to the view that ‘world is a phantom or a mere appearance’. They endeavour to discover an underlying unity, essentially spiritual, amidst diversities of life and world. Man is seen as undergoing a continuous process of becoming with a view to getting identified with ultimate reality. As a seeker he is required to achieve ethical excellence leading to the awakening and fruition of his faculties and urges to share the final beautitude and bliss.


Himansa as a school of thought owes its origins to Jaimini who found discerning intellects like Prabhakara and Kumarilla Bhat to elaborate and propound his views. Though ‘Mimansa’ implies critical analysis and investigation, yet it as a system of thought remains stuck in the grooves of Vedic ritualism with its enormous superfluities. To Jaimini and all shades of mimansakas, Vedas are a revealed knowledge and a plethora of commands and injuctions allied with them are eternal and unchangeable. Owing total servility to the Vedas the manner of explicating  issues relating observance of rituals by the mimansakas is downright traditional and fossilised. Performance of rituals is so vital for the mimansakas that it has nearly grabbed the position of God as its ground principle. Despite many a lacuna, the Mimansa has evolved a sound theory of knowledge. It appears that it has accidentally strayed into the field of linguistic analysis through the tools of logic. It also counters the standpoint of the Buddhists and Nayayki as regarding their exposition of language and theory of knowledge.

To Himansakas, knowledge is ‘apprehension that is immediate, direct and valid, not tainted by defects and not to be made invalid by subsequent knowledge’. They stick to the position that no erroneous cause or condition is required to validate knowledge. In fact, knowledge, to them, is self-valid and ‘itself certifying its own truth’. To Kumarilla Bhat, knowledge lies in ‘apprehending an object only to be set aside by the discrepancies arisen by its non-confirmity to the inherent nature of the object’. To Prabhakar, ‘all cognitions as cognitions are valid and their lack of validity depends upon their disagreement with the nature of objects’. Mimansakas are considerably aware of deficient tools that render knowledge invalid.

Mimansa as a school of thought is broadly realistic in its approach to and treatment of issues relating philosophy. The system that it has built is not propped upon the crutches of God. In fact, the agency of God or a transcendent being is missing in it. But doctrines like transmigration of soul, law of Karma and eternal world do provide the strengthening support to the edifice of Mimansa as a thought system. The creation and dissolution of the world does not find favour with the proponents of Mimansa as it conflicts with its basic assumption of holding the Vedas as eternal and revealed knowledge.

Doctrinally speaking, Mimansa is barren and a mis-mash of borrowed view-points from different systems of thought. As a structured system it is so fragile that it comes tumbling as and when authority of the Vedas is questioned or doubted. Mimansa holds that absolute obedience to the Vedas and their injunctions is the definite path that can lead a seeker to heaven as a matter of redemption  from the tangles of birth and death. Ethical life as a tool of salvation is more stressed than that of knowledge or contemplation.


As a separate school of thought Sankhya is a unique development in the annals of Indian philosophy. Its origins can be sought in the thinking moods and concepts that are found enunciated in the Upanishads and epics. The Sankhya as a word connotes ‘enumeration’ and ‘reasoning’. It is enumeration as the system has devised twenty-five categories to reinforce its positions. It is reasoning as it has formulated its positions logically and intellectually.

Sankhya is predominantly materialistic in its exposition of the realities of man and world. Despite its bold and novel doctrinal positions, it has been regarded as an orthodox school of thought. Debi Prasad Chattopadyaya has elaborately exposited the basic positions of Sankhya from a materialistic standpoint. But what makes the Sankhya system as a hall-mark in the realms of Indian thought is its reasoned discussion of the fundamental categories of Purusa and Prakriti and the process of cosmic evolution. The system is so logical and reason-oriented that it knocks the bottom out of the myth created by some Westerners that Indian thought is not a reasoned discourse. Observes theos Bernard, “The Sankhya is the oldest school of Indian philosophy for it is the first attempt to harmonise the philosophy of the Vdas through  reason”.

Kapil Muni is said to have authored the Sankya Sutras that are not now extant. Isharkrishna and Vachaspati Misra are the later authors who have expounded the Sankhya positions from their own perspectives. The exposition that they have offered form the substratum of the critical analysis of the system. The available Sankhya Sutras uphold the authority of the Vedas and primacy of the spirit over matter. That the Sankhya system is akin to the Tantric thought and tradition is established by Sankara calling the Sutras of Kapila as ‘tantrakhya’. It leads one to believe that the original Sankhya positions were materialistic and atheistic. Jacobi holds the same view but is outright rejected by Dr. Radhakrishnan who observes that Sankhya ‘at any stage of its development could never be identified with materialism’. Despite Radhakrishnan’s spirited defence of the Sankhya orthodoxy, the fact remains that Purusa is grafted on the system in a manner that it does not appear to be organically woven with the inner logic of the system.

The Sankhya in its basics is a dualism that rotates round two of its dominant categories, Purusa and Prakriti. It stipulates them as two separate and independent categories without any cogency for a meaningful contact or bond. Prakriti is stipulated as beginningless and endless matter constituting the basis of the world of name and form. It grows and evolves as per its own dynamics and does not depend on any external agency to impulse its growth and development. Prakriti is ‘absolute, eternal, unmanifest, ever dynamic and imperceptible’ and in this state it is known as Mula Prakriti or Pradhan. It is endowed with three attributes of satva, rajas and tamas. Satva is ‘static energy, psychological poise’, rajas is ‘dynamic energy and psychological extroversion’, and tamas is ‘physical inertia and mental apathy’. Constituting matter the three ‘gunas’ with their intrinsic energies maintain an equilibrium and ‘are inseparably linked and mutually condition one another’. The process of evolution is generated when the three gunas lose their equipoise and get disturbed. The evolutionary process implies change ‘which is homogenous and heterogeneous’. The cause for the loss of equipoise of the gunas is inherent dynamism or contradiction.

The Sankhya has delineated a sketch of a yogic discipline or praxis for attainment of release from the sorrows afflicting a man through his  contact with the ‘miserable and corruptible world’. There is no concept of grace as it does not sit well with its essential atheism. Redemption or release from the world in the parlance of the system is known as kaivalya.

The Sankhya thought is original, compact, analytical and more that most penetrating. Its impact on the formative processes of other systems has been tremendous and overwhelming. In fact, all systems with rare exceptions have ‘filled their husks’ with the Sankhya content including its structural elements. The entire corpus of Indian literature from the Mahabarta to the mythological Puranas are replete with they stray doctrines of Sankhya. It has given a comprehensive description of evolutionary processes which are not viewed ‘from angles metaphysical’ but are based on ‘the conservation, transformation and dissipation of energy’. The Sankhya thought has devised ‘a theory of matter, a theory of causality, a theory of knowledges and a theory of cosmic evolution’.

–(To be continued)