Indian Philosophy

It must be admitted from the outset that it is not possible to summarise the history of philosophy from the Indian sub-continent in one blog post – not in a way that does any justice to its breadth or depth. However, I hope the following gives at least an initial flavour of Indian Philosophy.

While there are many similarities to Western Philosophy in terms of the questions being asked and the answers arrived at, in his overview of Indian Philosophy Grayling starts by explaining a key difference which unites Indian Philosophy. Each of the schools, known as darshanas, are doctrines of salvation (‘soteriological’). They seek to bring an end to the suffering that is existence by understanding the true nature of reality. They generally offer a complete package which combines metaphysics, epistemology and ethics in one system.

The period from 1500 to 500 BCE in north-western India is known as the ‘Vedic period’, when the Vedas (meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’) were written. The Vedas encompass much more than philosophy, but the main philosophical contribution of the Vedas comes from the Upanishads, which encapsulate the Vedas’ high meaning or purpose. There are several Vedic schools of Indian Philosophy and they are all known as ‘orthodox’. In contrast, the later ‘heterodox’ schools reject the authority of the Vedas (the most famous of which is Buddhism).

The Samkhya School

Grayling provides an overview of some of the most influential aspects of the orthodox schools, starting with Samkhya, the oldest.  On the subject of Materialism, it asserts a dualism between pure consciousness and everything else, claiming that both materially exist. Everything that is not consciousness (collectively called ‘prakriti’) is made up of three properties. The first is ‘sattva’ (essence), which has characteristics of clarity, harmony and goodness. Next is ‘rajas’ (dust), suggesting activity, passion and change. Lastly ‘tamas’ (darkness), suggesting lethargy, despair and chaos. When these three properties are in equilibrium, the world beyond consciousness is only a potential and does not really exist. When there is imbalance, the world manifests in its many forms. These include everything from the mind through to the elements space, air, fire, water and earth, which in different combinations form all the objects in the physical world.

What in the west we would call the mind is made up of three things: ‘manas’ (our sense perceptions, e.g. what we see and hear), ‘ahamkara’ (ego or our sense of self) and ‘buddhi’ (will or intellect). Our minds then are not directly part of pure consciousness, but do allow us to witness it. Our minds are made of matter, whereas consciousness is not, and the two exist as different forms of reality. The soteriological (liberation from suffering) message is derived from the separation of consciousness from everything else. We do not need to liberate our consciousness in order to escape suffering; the escape comes from understanding that our consciousness has and will always be free from the material world. With echoes of ancient Greek philosophy, liberation comes from understanding, suffering is caused by ignorance.

The Nyaya & Vaisheshika Schools

The Nyaya school makes contributions in epistemology and logic. It emphasises the importance of critical evaluation of sources of knowledge, which it defines as sense-perception, inference and expert testimony. Nyaya can be translated as ‘logic’, and much of it is concerned with methods of proof, i.e. proving that statements of truth are valid. The Nyaya school was developed into the Vaisheshika school, which is a philosophy of nature (it seeks to define and describe nature). It proposes an atomistic metaphysics where everything is composed of indestructible, invisible and eternal atoms. Grayling notes that the theory of causation developed by the Vaisheshika school is sophisticated. In short, everything is caused by a set of rigorously defined ‘primary existents’, which are substance, quality, motion, particular, universal, inherence and nonexistence. The primary existents are themselves considered objectively real, because they can be identified and discussed (even the absence of something can be identified).

In the Nyaya & Vaisheshika schools, there are considered to be four valid sources of knowledge: perception, inference, comparison and testimony. There are also three sources of error. One is to believe that something exists when it does not. The second is to believe that something that exists only in the mind exists in a material sense (e.g. dragons, which only exist in the mind). The third is to misperceive something, e.g. to not see something properly and to think it is something different.

Nyaya statements of logic take the following form. First a statement of the proposition, then a statement of the general principle behind the proposition, then a demonstration that the proposition is consistent with the principle, and finally the conclusion that the proposition is correct. Grayling gives the classic example: (proposition) there is fire on the hill, (evidence) smoke is rising from the hill, (subsumption) this event is consistent with the principle that smoke rises from a fire, (conclusion) the proposition that there is fire on the hill is proven. In this way, new knowledge can be inferred (there is fire on the hill) by applying a general principle which has already been logically proven.

The Vedanta & Carvaka Schools

The Vedanta school (meaning ‘end of the Vedas’), stresses the importance of reincarnation, and how accumulated karma impacts our reincarnation. Good karma is the only escape from the otherwise continuing cycle of reincarnation. Unlike Samkhya it is non-dualistic, teaching that the individual soul (‘Atman’) and the ultimate reality (‘Brahman’) are one and the same. Understanding that our souls exist as part of one ultimate reality is the knowledge needed to liberate ourselves from suffering.

Carvaka was the earliest of the heterodox schools, dating from the 8th century B.C. It has long been extinct, and the only knowledge about it comes from its detractors. It was reportedly radically empiricist, holding that sensory perception is the only source of knowledge, and radically materialistic, denying the existence of souls, gods or the afterlife. Nothing exists except the world around us, and the only purpose of life is enjoyment. In the soteriological sense, salvation from this shallow existence comes naturally through death. Grayling notes that there is much that modern people can relate to from the Carvaka School.


Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, probably in the 5th century B.C. Grayling asserts that this is a philosophy rather than a religion as it is non-theistic, and in the tradition of Indian philosophy it teaches liberation from suffering. In stark contrast to the Vedanta school it denies the existence of Atman and Brahman. There is no absolute reality, no self, and no permanence of any kind. In fact, the mistaken belief in a permanent self is the source of ignorance and therefore suffering. Buddhism sought to overturn these mistakes and show ‘how things really are’. Although there are many schools of Buddhism, they share the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to liberation from existence by the attainment of ‘nirvana’ (extinction). The Four Noble Truths are that life is suffering; suffering arises from desire and ignorance; suffering can be escaped; liberation can be achieved through meditation and by living an ethical life. The ethical life is shown by the Eightfold Path, which is Right Vision (understanding), Right Emotion, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood (work that doesn’t harm others), Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation.

While the consistent emphasis on liberation from suffering within each school of Indian philosophy is distinct compared to Western philosophy, I find the similarities to be striking, particularly when broadly contemporary ideas are compared. It is easy to apply the same categories of philosophy to both (such as metaphysics, epistemology, logic and so on), and it is clear that many of the same questions are being asked, and often similar answers are being arrived at. This can partly be explained by direct interactions between Europeans and people from the Indian sub-continent, but I like to think it suggests there are some questions and some answers that occur naturally to us as human beings, regardless of where we come from.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of A.C. Grayling’s ‘The History of Philosophy’, which this blog post is predominantly based on.

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