Indian religious thought has expressed itself in a number of philosophies. From the point of view of
Hindu theology, a study of the philosophies can be traced back to 800 B.C. or even earlier. The main
systems of philosophy are: Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva MimAmsa and Vedanta. A brief
introduction to these six systems are presented in three parts:
Part I: Nyaya and Vaiseshika
Part II: Samkhya and Yoga
Part III: Purva MimAmsa and Vedanta
Elaborate discussions are beyond the scope of this article and interested readers should refer to
Nyaya Vaisesika and Modern Science
by Aruna Goel Price: $25.00 (Amazon.com)
Prakrti : The Principle Matter in the Samkhya and Yoga Systems of Religious Thought (Asian Thought
and Culture, 30) by Knut A. Jacobsen
Mind-Body Dualism : A Philosohpical Investigation (Contemporary Researches in Hindu Philosophy &
Religion, No 6) by Alpana Chakraborty / Hardcover / Published 1996
Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies : Samkhya : A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy Vol 4
Bhattacharya, et al / Published 1987
Religion and Culture, by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, India.
Some Issues in Nyaya, Mimamsa and Dharmasastra byUjjwala PAnse. Publisher. Indian Book Center,
Sources of Indian Tradition Volume I Discussions Let us try to study the common features within
these three groups to understand their distinct features.
Hinduism, by K. M. Sen, Penguin Pocketbooks, Baltimore, Maryland.
Vedantic Missions such as Chinmaya Mission, Ramakrishna Mission, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam,
Sivananda Yoga Centers, Vedanta Press, and others carry books on Vedanta, Upanishads, Gita and
relatedd titles. Using the Internet Search Engines such as Alta Vista, it is possible to trace down
Mimamsa and Other Schools of Vedanta are also discussed in the Advaita Vedânta Home Page
maintained by Vidyasankar Sundaresan. URL: http://www.erols.com/ramakris/advaita/mimved.html
Part I Nyaya and Vaiseshika (Historical Perspective of Indian Religious Thoughts)
The Nyaya primarily deals with logical methods and the Vaiseshika uses analytical methods to study
the the nature of the world. Nyaya and Vaiseshika accepts and applies each other's methodology in
understanding the atomistic constitution of the world. The Nyaya recognizes four sources of
knowledge: perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumanA), analogy (upamana), and credible
testimony (sabda). The principle of causation is accepted by the Nyaya school. In addition,
considerable attention is paid to problems arising from noncausal antecedents, plurality of causes,
etc. Gautama was the most important exponent of the Nyaya was Gautama, who lived in the third
century B.C. His Nyaya Sutra is the first systematic exposition of its approach.
Gangesa of MithilA was the founder of the Modern Nyaya School (about 1200 A.D.) His Tattva
cintAmani is the standard text for the Modern Nyaya school of thought. Gangesa tried to build up a
more rigorous structure for the discipline to describe the external world. There were various critics of
the Nyaya school,and the critics more often than not used the methods of reasoning of the Nyaya
school to dispute the claims. This really illustrates the importance of this school in Indian
The Vaiseshika is more interested in cosmology. All material objects, it claims, are made of four kinds
of atoms. Different combinations of these atoms of earth, water, fire, and air make different materials.
Additionally, five subtle substances: space, time, ether (AkAsa), mind, and soul were included. It
accepts a personal God who created the world, but not out of nothing. The nine substances (four
material and five subtle) existed before the world was formed; He fashioned them into an ordered
universe. God is thus the creator of the world, but not of its constituents. Therefore, the philosophy of
the Vaiseshika, while not atheistic, is different from that of most schools of traditional Hindu theology.
Sankara, the champion of the Advaita Vedanta, described the followers of Vaiseshika as
ardhavainAsikas, i.e. half-nihilists.
The first notable theologist was KanAda (third century B.C.), whose Vaiseshika Sutra occupies in this
system about the same place as the Nyaya Sutra in the Nyaya school. The evolutions of the two
systems have, throughout the history, been very closely linked with each other. Together they
represent the relatively analytical branch of the early Hindu philosophical thoughts.
Part II Samkhya and Yoga (Historical Perspective of Indian Religious Thoughts)
The SAmkhya school was founded by Kapila, who lived probably in the seventh century B.C. The
system can be regarded as dualistic, since it recognizes two basic categories in the universe - the
purusha and the prakriti. (Chapter 13 of Bhagavad Gita discusses Samkhya philosophy in greater
details). The Purusha consists of selves or spirits, eternal entities of consciousness. The prakriti
represents the potentiality of nature, the basis of all objective existence. It does not consist of matter
alone and includes all resources of nature, material and psychical. The Prakriti is thus the fundamental
substance out of which, the SAmkhya claims, the world evolves. This evolution of the prakriti is
possible only under the influence of the purusha, and the history of the world is the history of this
SAmkhya believes very strongly in the principle of causation and in fact uses this to show the
necessity of assuming the eternal existence of prakriti, for something cannot come out of nothing.
But, claims the SAmkhya school, while the cause and the effect are different things distinct from each
other, the effect is always present in the cause. The former is just a different arrangement of the latter,
both consisting of the same substance. A jar is not a lump of clay from which it is made, but they
consist of the same substance. There is an underlying assumption of the indestructibility of
Another important SAmkhya contribution to Hindu thought is the doctrine of triguna, the three
qualities of nature. The three three qualities are sattva (light, purity, harmonious existence), rajas
(energy, passion), and tamas (inertia, darkness). These three conflicting aspects of prakriti play
different parts in its evolution. Sattva is primarily responsible for the manifestation of prakriti and the
maintenance of its evolution. Rajas causes all activity and tamas is responsible for inertia and
restraint. While these qualities conflict with each other, they all have their part in the evolution.
Evolution proceeds through various stages. There is first the development of buddhi (intellect),
described as the mahat (great). Then evolves the self-sense, the feeling of ego. Gradually develop the
five cognitive organs, the five motor organs, and the disciplined mind. (Bhagavad Gita discusses in
greater detail the three qualities of nature (Gunas) in chapter 14).
For emanicipation from the bondage of one's body, what is needed is the knowledge of the distinction
between the purusa and the prakriti, the self and non-self. The self tends to confuse itself with buddhi,
the intellect. When the knowledge of the distinction is achieved, the soul is no longer bound by the
prakriti. The person becomes a disinterested spectator of the happenings in the world. At death the
bond between the purusha and the prakriti is completely dissolved and the emancipated soul, unlike
other souls, is free from rebirth. Bondage according to this philosophy, is due to ignorance, and
emanicipation comes through knowledge.
The SAmkhya has been described as an atheistic philosophy, though this is not entirely correct. The
Samkhya pravacana Sutra (attributed to Kapila) finds it unnecessary to make the assumption of the
existence of God, though it does not deny it either. It maintains that the existence of God cannot be
proved by evidence. The later SAmkhya philosophers seem to abandon this agnostic position and the
existence of God is later accepted. VijnAnabhikshu even tries to reconcile the Samkhya views with
those of the Vedanta.
The philosophical basis of the Yoga is the same as that of the SAmkhya, except that a personal God is
introduced into the system. God controls the process of evolution and is, as one might expect,
Omniscient and Omnipotent. Periodically He dissolves the cosmos and then initiates the process of
evolution again. The Yoga of Sage Patanjali set forth the process of pshychological discipline by
which one could attain this release from the misery of mundane experience and transmigration and all
emphasized knowledge of one kind or another. In practice, the Yoga system of discipline consists of
exercises of the mind and the body, including the very difficult exercise of not exercising them at all. In
addition to making us healthier in mind and body in this world, these exercises are supposed to
Unlike the SAmkhya system, the Yoga school does not believe that freedom comes only from
knowledge; the discipline of the mind and the body is supposed to contribute to the process. Various
methods of concentration are recommended, as well as methods of suppressing those mental
activities that increase our bondage by making us more dependent on prakriti. The Yoga system of
exercises is still commonly practised in India. Apart from those seeking emancipation, there are those
who find it a useful way of keeping their mind and body healthy. Some have been attracted by its
promise of prompt development of supernatural powers, a promise that, surprisingly, seems to have
just as much appeal in this age as in any previous period in history.
Part III Purva-MimAmsA and Vedanta (Historical Perspective of Indian Religious Thoughts)
The main text of Purva-MimAmsA is the Purva-MimAmsA Sutra by Jaimini (400 B.C.). It is a scholastic
piece of work and confines itself almost entirely to the interpretation of the Vedas. This school of
philosophy is interested mainly in inquiring into the nature of dharma (right action), and since it
accepts the Vedas to be both infallible and the sole authority of dharma, one can call it a fairly
orthodox school. Its interest is more practical than speculative and its importance is less as a school
of philosophy than as a useful system of interpreting the Vedas.
Perhaps the most influential system of philosophical systems
has been, and still is Vedanta. It springs from the Upanishads and its central thesis is the Upanishadic
doctrine of the Bhraman. Its founder was BAdarayana, whose Brahma Sutra (also called the
Uttar-MimAmsA) makes up, along with the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, the foundation of the
The most famous exponent of the Vedanta was undoubtedly Sankara, who lived in South India in the
eighth century A.D. There are two main divisions in the Vedanta school, one rigidly non-dualistic
(advaita)in its outlook and the other tolerating various degrees of dualism (dwaita). Sankara was the
champion of advaita.
Sankara was preceded by gaudapAda, a believer in a very strict form of monism. He asserted
categorically that the external world was unreal, the only reality being the Brahman. Outer objects are
purely subjective, and dreams are hardly different from our experiences while we are awake. The
whole world is a vast illusion and nothing exists other than the Brahman. Like the Buddhist spiritual
absolutist NAgArjuna, GaudapAda denies the possibility of change or the validity of causation. 'There
is no destruction, no creation, none in bondage, none endeavouring [for release], none desirous of
liberation, none liberated; this is the absolute truth.
Sankara's position is less extreme. While asserting the identity of the Brahman with the Atman, and
denying that the world was outside the Supreme, he did-not accept the description of the world as a
pure illusion. Waking experiences are different from dreams and external objects are not merely forms
of personal consciousness. Sankara explains the appearance of the world with an analogy. A person
may mistake a rope for a snake. The snake is not there, but it is not entirely an illusion, for there is the
rope. The appearance of the snake lasts until the rope is closely examined. The world can be
compared with the snake and the Brahman with the rope. When we acquire true knowledge, we
recognize that the world is only a manifestation of the Brahman. The world is neither real nor quite
unreal; it is an appearance based on the existence of the Brahman. The precise relationship between
the Brahman and the world is inexpressible and is sometimes referred to as mAyA.
Statements about Brahman, to be intelligible, must use empirical forms. The wise recognize these
forms to be necessities of concrete thought, but fools take them to be the real truth. One must also
recognize that the relationship between the Brahman and the world is not reversible. There will be no
world without the Brahman, but the existence of the Brahman does not depend on the appearance of
the world, just as the appearance of the snake depends on the existence of the rope but not vice versa.
The Jiva, or the individual soul, is a particular manifestation of the Brahman. Because of avidyA
(ignorance), the root of all troubles, the ego-feeling exists. The end is liberation, and that is achieved
through a practical realization (not merely a theoretical acceptance) of the oneness of the self with the
Absolute. If a person reaches this state he becomes jivan-mukta, i.e. liberated while alive. Realizing the
oneness of all, his life becomes one of unselfish service. At death his freedom from bondage is
complete. Casting off the physical body, the soul becomes completely free.
Somewhat different interpretations of the Upanishads were put forward by some later Vedantists. Two
Vaishnava scholars Ramanuja and Madhva, were prominent among the branch of-the Veddnta that is
sometimes called dualistic(dvaita). Ramanuja's philosophy was in fact a different version of the
advaita doctrine. To put it in a few words, he claimed that the world, the Atman and God (Ishvara) are
distinct though not separate. The individual souls and the concrete world are like the body of God,
and Ishvara possessed of the two is the Brahman. Thus, everything is within the Brahman, but still
individual souls are different from Ishvara. The thesis, as we shall see later, helped the intellectual
acceptance of the Bhakti movement, i.e. the approach to the God through devotion rather than
Ramanuja belonged to the eleventh century. Madhva came in the thirteenth. He believed in the dualism
of the Brahman and the jiva (the individual souls). His philosophy is, thus, called Dwaita. In fact he also
accepted the existence of the physical world, thereby introducing a third entity. Brahman, or God
(Vishnu), is of course complete, perfect, and the highest reality, but the world too is real. The
differences between Sankara's philosophy and that of Madhva can be readily noticed. The Vaishnava
movement, as one might imagine, owed much to the contribution of Madhva.