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Schools of Indian Philosophy

Projecting the past based on present, some opine that ancient India was replete with bigotry, superstitions and lacked an intellectual culture. Britishers purposefully created a system which was designed to make Indians ashamed of themselves and look up to West for cultural refinry and intellectual imports. Nothing can be farther to truth. In this post I seek to outline the philosophical schools of India.

Pre-Islamic India was one thriving with lively debates between [philosophical] experts of different persuasions in royal courts, temples and other places. The Vedas [themselves peer-reviewed over several centuries] were constantly reinterpreted, discussed and debated. I endeavor to briefly outline the major philosophies here.

Two primary categories exist : Orthodox [which accept testimony of Vedas] and Heterodox [don't accept Vedas]. Consequently, the original words are astika (for orthodox) and nastika (for heterodox) which we translate these days as believers and non-believers respectively. But this categorization is incorrect as we are only referring to whether the school has Vedic basis or not.

II)           Heterodox


Orthodox comprised six schools earlier.

These are presently regrouped into 3 for conceptual reasons

            1) Nyaya-Vaisesika
2) Samkhya-Yoga
3) Mimamsa-Vedanta

Vedanta further is subdivided into six schools.

But sectarian classification in today's terms is highly difficult as pure cults exist only in isolated pockets and most present-day Hindus are smarthas – largely nonsectarian or liberal and combine the practises of all philosophical schools while believing in all Gods across cults of Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism . Its not easy to permanently map these three cults with philosophical schools too, one can probably follow any philosophical school and claim adherence to any cult (atleast as far as my present understanding is concerned, but my efforts to explain this to some tamil-brahmin friends, who locate themselves unambiguously in one side of the Vaishnava–Shaiva divide,  have been in vain).

Non-Vedic Orthodox schools although still studied probably don't have any exclusive adherent groups today.

Yoga which is a highly lucrative business in US/India today owes its origin to Hinduism. Although some so-called gurus teaching in west have made some attempts to dislocate yoga from Hinduism to give it a more universal, trans-religious appeal making it more presentable & marketable to West, it remains irrefutably a part and parcel of Hindu tradition. All Hindu traditions including yoga aim at dovetailing our activities to achieve moksha. The practice of yoga merely for material gains such as improved mental and physical health as being advocated by some gurus is incorrect for the means cannot be delinked with the purpose (distinctly dharmic). Using parts of well-established system and concocting some gyan while stealing some knowledge from other sources doesn't make yoga non-Hindu. Of course adaptation and improvisation is always welcome, but the source has to be acknowledged, otherwise it amounts to theft. [read The Hindu Roots of Yoga to learn more on this.]

Nyaya-Vaisesika school engages in mental gymnastics like speculation and reasoning and have argued on the basis of logic that God exists. However with the cultural and societal disruption due to Islamic invasions in India, the atmosphere congenial to support such intellectual debates ceased to exist and they declined by 15th century.


Today it is commonly felt that Indian philosophy is purely a spiritual one. That's wrong. Much of the ancient Sanskrit literature also contains commentaries critical of Vedic concepts and present a largely materialist philosophy such as:

            1) Buddhism
2) Jainism
3) Carvaka (philosophy of skepticism similar to the present Western philosophies)

Buddhism and Jainism although widely classified as separate religions are very much a part and parcel of Hindu commonwealth of schools and sects. The titles Buddha [Awakened One] and Mahavira [Great Hero (of Self-Conquest)] were well in use much before Gautama and Vardhamana assumed them. Subsequently, both borrowed heavily from existing dharmic philosophies and carried on some concepts such as rebirth, liberation, dharma, karma, moksha, nirvana etc. And they received patronage and freedom to propagate their teachings from a primarily Vedic-cult people.

While Buddhism disappeared from the Indian landscape due to Islamic invasions wherein their monasteries were burnt and monks killed, Jains partly averted this fate because of their social binding and taking up trading profession (Buddhists being ascetics couldn't outgrow loss of valuable monasteries & peaceful places).

Carvaka is a purely materialistic philosophy which criticizes Vedic (and also Buddhist, Jain) seers for relinquishing pleasures on earth in anticipation of imaginary joy. It sees sense gratification as the ultimate purpose of life. (how modern? ;) )

Interaction, Debates and Commonalities

Due to interaction between various cults, several positives from all sects were well appreciated and integrated into the belief system of other groups. For example, later day Vedic seers moved away from the animal sacrifice (Buddhist influence) and advocated strong vegatarianism (Jain influence).

Debates were arranged between experts of different cults and were promoted by kings.  But this was done in a purely intellectual fashion wherein mockery and sometimes even abuse of the other party's philosophy was prevalent, but that's about it. There was seldom any violent confrontation or suppression of any group by kings (irrespective of their personal adherence to a sect). Thus, Kamal Hassan's story of a violent rift between Vaishnavas & Shaivas in Dashavataram (movie) is just that – story, which doesn't have adequate historical basis. To this day, these sects don't see eye to eye in many matters, but physical prosecution of the other is a different matter altogether.

Backward projection of the prevailing scenario is many times inaccurate. For example, in its heyday both Buddhism and Jainism were atleast on equal footing with respect to Vedic propronents in terms of royal patronage if not more ; rather Buddhism and Jainism received more patronage than the Hindus at one point. Hence, the popular myth that Hindus caused the decline of Buddhism in India is wrong. Of course, in intellectual debates with Shankaracharya many Buddhist monks were fast losing resulting in loss of prestige & following. But what ultimately caused wholesale decline was loss of institutions and monasteries during Islamic invasions which killed many and forced the survivors to escape India [many such landed in Tibet resulting in flourishing of the religion in that region.]

Despite the apparent differences few commonalities bind all Indic religions :

  • Belief in possibility of experiencing spirituality first-hand instead of communicating with God/Supersoul (or whatever is considered Supreme) via some mediator.  (in contrast with Islam/Christianity where men communicate via Prophet/Jesus).
  • Ahistorical perspective of religion: Time is generally non-linear and cyclic. Its not that one fine day, God decides to send a savior who reveals the divine message and that's about it. Here, Gods/saints appear again and again to restore dharma.
  • Non-finality of interpretation : All experiences are considered progressive and there is no final message after which there is no scope for improvement or changes. All texts are subject to reinterpretation and this isn't regarded as blasphemy deserving strict action.
  • The Others : Those following other sects are sure mocked upon. But they are not considered evil who deserve punishment. Importantly, there is no call of duty to wage a war in terms of "us" and "others".

One may find some exceptions here & there. But overall, there was markedly peaceful coexistence and its  outrageous to show the later Islam-Hindu conflicts in the same light as earlier Hindu-Buddhist-Jain conflicts (putting Hindu in one camp and combining Buddhists & Jains into another is itself mischievous, as even Jain-Buddhist conflicts are recorded). While one at the very worst was largely restricted to intellectual attacks, insults and mockery; the other at the very least involves widespread terror, killings, subjugation, temple-destruction & other physical & cultural violence.

Lastly, the society was secular and while kings (and thus state) did patronize certain sects, they seldom prosecuted others owing to religious-motives. The Dharmashastras which guided law implementation were followed by kings irrespective of their personal allegiance to a sect, they were designed thus. Alberuni, an Arab chronicler who visited India around 10th century made the following comment " the utmost they [Indians] fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy."

That pretty much sums up what kind of intellectual freedom and what level of civilizational maturity India once had.

PS: I've just outlined the philosophies, its basics, categories etc and have considerably watered them down due to space constraints. These are meant as an introduction only.


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