Philosophy-A synoptic view

By Prof. M.L. Koul

January 2011

Be it said in all fairness that philosophy in India did not begin as an independent segment of human investigation. It actually overlapped with religion which to a large extent concealed it under a covering of myths & credos but never hampered it from assuming its bold contours. As is well known, India is a land of multiple & multiform religions that have all long sought support & succour from philosophy to buttress & fortify their essential doctrines & positions. This link between philosophy & religion, not in any way tenuous, resulted in generating new taxonomies of ideas & concepts that enriched the content of religions & also provided a nisus to the process of weaving the warp and woof of systematic thought models. The close inter-relationship between philosophy & religion in India is in no way a matter of weakness on part of Indian philosophy. In reality, the culture and civilization of India, on the whole, have the inspiration of religions behind them & religions have the inspiration & energy of philosophy behind them. To the Western mind, this weltans chung appears to be an anathema & that is how scholars in the west are misled into wrong assessments about the nature of the Indian philosophy. Thinkers in the west are fed & nourished by the Green thought, which in its broad essentials was based on the pedestal of rationalism. Their absolute commitment to reason deters them from placing the Indian thought structure in the category of philosophy. Their categorization of the Indian philosophy is that of religious philosophy in letter & spirit. Karl Potter an eminent scholar of Indian philosophy, is of the view that all systems of Indian philosophy are goal-oriented & hence they be evaluated by standards peculiar to them, certainly not conforming to the standards applicable to philosophy in the west. But objectively speaking, the nature of philosophy in India is not different from that of the philosophy in the west. The Indian philosophers have never repudiated reason, never sealed discussions on the nature of Reality, never taken well-founded beliefs at their face value & never stopped from asking questions about the universe and the real meaning of human existence. True as it is, the Indian thinkers were not mere theoreticians, but, for them, philosophy as view of life was inseparable from philosophy as way of life. Winternitz, colebrook, Neitzehe, Scholpanhauer & many other orientalists had an appreciative understanding of the Indian cultural ethos & their evaluations of the entire corpus of the Indian literature in general  and philosophy in particular are more objective & precious than those that verge on pre-occupied opinions. As in the west, so in India, philosophers were in quest for the ultimate truth and the systems they have structured are as coherent and well-knit as many other systems in the west. Indian thinking is the product of its own milieu and it has to be evaluated as it is. Indian philosophers loved wisdom or sophia, evined a keen curiosity to plumb the depths of atman and its nexus with the world that evolves. The total spectrum of thought processes leads us to believe that Indian thinkers were motivated by an intellectual quest for goals that were metaphysical and spiritual in essence and for  practical realisation of truth. The vedic and upanishade visionaries from Uddalak, Yajn-avalak, Kapil, Kanad, Patanjali  to sankar and off the beat thinkers like Buddha and Mahavir and others possess all the credentials for entry into the famed hall of pre-eminent thinkers.

Religions in India were far from being rigid and dogmatic. They had no set codes to reduce vast numbers of Indian masses to the sheer position of obedience and conformity. They had intrinsic proclivity to allow openness & variety of thinking that led to the formation of a broad mosaic in which each thread of thought merged on the pattern but at the same time stood out of it to attract attention. From a bird’s eye view of the broad mosaic of Indian culture, one gathers the idea of a key role that tradition has played in preserving age-old religious mores and also in assimilating any new model of philosophy and enquiry within its ambit and perpetuating its bonds with centuries old thought process without hampering such an enquiry from burgeoning into an independent philosophical thinking. The close nexus the religions in India had with philosophy desisted them in a large measure from ossifying into rigid and lifeless dogmas and tradition cemented the bond between the two without playing the negative role of stunning and stultifying the growth of either of them. Numerous thought proceses with varied approaches and premises to essential problems of life and world have come into being in India and tradition deep-rooted as it has cemented their links with the essential genius of India. Tradition elsewhere has proved reactionary and retrogressive by way of discouraging and even suppressing new trends of thought, but in the Indian cultural model, it has not worked fetters on the wings of speculative thought. Instead it has aided all stirrings in the minds of men towards new horizons of thinking by way of raising a corpus of questions regarding man’s existence and the world where he held his being. To hold that tradition in India was always healthy and positive certainly smacks of conservatism and parochialism. But what is significant about India is the growth of regenerative and assimilative movements after every crisis caused by the choking impact of tradition at a time when it proved a hurdle in the development of new thinking processes.

Various systems of philosophy that had their genesis and growth in India are essentially rooted in the empirical experience but most of the systems ultimately find their apogy in transcendentalism. In fact, empirical data and observable facts have been culled and gleaned and utilized as ‘building blocks’ to structure and construct these transcendental systems. The philosophers in India are in no way contented with the mere analytical explanations of the world process and the mass of data provided by them to the human senses, but they have posed the essential hypothesis of absolute Reality as the creator, defender and supporter of the world. In fact, thinkers in India by and large have a ‘metaphysical hunger’ to know and understand what lies beyond the ‘elusive and mysterious veil of nature’. They have offered a concept of absolute Reality which is a changeless principle, infinite and beyond the precincts of temporality. Most systems of Indian philosophy pose, discuss and explain the concept of  absolute Reality from their own positions. In fact, these systems are ‘insights’ affording man ‘sight of the sensible verities’ enabling ‘him to understand in the light of reason the super-sensible truth”. The systems, in fine, afford a mine of debate and discussion of Reality, which is generally believed to be one of the essential functions of philosophy.

To distinguish between ‘Reality’ and ‘appearance’ is one of the commonplace functions of Indian philosophy. Reality is immutable and is the uncaused cause of appearances. Reality in Advait-vedanta is pure, untouched and undefined by appearances. Brahman as Reality in Vedanta is transcendental. But Paramsiva in ‘Saivadvaya philosophy of Kashmir is both transcendental and immanent Reality. Brahmana is Sat, cit and anand, away from the gross impurities and defilements of the world of Maya, but Paramsiva is directly involved in the cosmic process. The nexus between reality and appearances have been discussed and analysed from dualistic, dual-cum-non-dualistic and non-dualistic stand points. Reality is being, unchangeable and permanent and appearances are becoming, changeable and immanent.

It is commonly believed that architectonics of philosophy in the west are put on the pedestal of reason. Philosophers from Aristotle to Bertand Russel have never ignored and repudiated the primacy of reason and intellect in their efforts to structure their philosophies and the systems they have constructed are reason-oriented and logic-based. But, contrary to the western standpoint, the Indians do not commit themselves to reason though the systems they have structured provide ample evidence of reason-reoriented analysis and explanation of the empirical data. Liberation or moksa from the bondage and trammels of birth and death is the principal goal they assiduously pursue with a deep sense of faith. Observes Karl Potter, “Pract-ically all philosophical systems view liberation as the highest aim of mankind and Advaita is no exception…liberation consists of release from the process of birth, life, death and transmigration”. Puts Dr. Theos Bernard, “Hindu Philosophy does not attempt to train one to discern metaphyiscal truths; it offers a way of thinking which enables one rationally to understand the Reality experienced by self-fulfilled personalities and thereby to lead one to realisation of Truth. In this light philosophy is seen as art of life and not a theory about the universe”.