Indian Philosophies – Part 1 Introduction

Philosophies are often considered as mere mental exercises on useless triflings for armchair academicians.  This is not true. Philosophies are a serious matter. This general negative commentary on philosophy is mainly due to the fact that philosophy doesn’t produce quick material benefits like science does. In ancient India, philosophies were not accepted as philosophies unless they have direct applicability in our everyday life. All Indian philosophies have, infact, a practical segment, called “sadhana”, which is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘tool’. They are the tools for everyday practice of the philosophy that it upholds.   Formal education in ancient India was never considered as ‘complete’ until a student studies and practices the teachings contained in the Upanishads, which are the seedbeds of all Indian philosophies.  Bertrand Russell had once said, “The study and practice of philosophy opens up whole new worlds for us, making us think beyond ourselves and start seeing the bigger, more fulfilling picture in life.” 

Other than the immense practical value that the Indian philosophies offer us for our evolutionary processes, they  also  help us in establishing  a sound social structure based on ethics and morality.  As a shining example, the edifice of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga is built on Yama and Niyama, which are the “dos and don’ts” in our everyday life.   Yama are the guidelines that we need to observe in our  everyday interactions with our external world. Niyama provides guidelines on our own relationship with ourselves.  However, Yama and Niyama are seldom highlighted in the everyday practice of Yoga today, due to the excessive compartmentalization of the popular versions of Yoga practices.  An overall understanding of philosophies behind the practice and an appreciation of  the bigger picture of life is essential to derive maximum benefit from the yoga practices. The Indian philosophies provide this bigger picture in its totality. 

Most people practice Asanas and Pranayamas today for limited purposes such as physical well-being, peace of mind or as a therapy for certain ailments etcetera, instead of taking “Yoga” for its intended purpose of effecting our total transformation into our higher evolutionary possibilities. Consequently, we miss out  on consciously establishing ethical codes of behaviour in our everyday life. We  also hold ourselves back from taking major conscious steps towards realising our full human potential. We have heavily compartmentalized our Yoga practices today.  This tendency for compartmentalization is also evident in the way the six great Indian Philosophies are generally seen and treated  as six separate philosophies.  In order to derive the full benefit from the Indian Philosophies, it is extremely important to develop an overall understanding of these six Indian  philosophies, in its context and its direct applications in our everyday life. 

Philosophy is essentially the unravelling of the Ultimate Truth about life. Swami Bhoomananda Tirtha defined philosophy as the ‘wisdom or knowledge and inquiry into the cause of things and the world’. Darshana is the Sanskrit word for Philosophy.  The  Sanskrit expression ‘Shad Darshanas’ means the ‘six philosophies’. They refer to the six great Indian philosophies. They  are   Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Samkhya, Mimamsa, Vedanta and Yoga. We will realise that these six philosophies are not  six different stand-alone philosophies when we sufficiently understand their bigger picture and context. They are, in fact, merely different milestone stages of an evolving articulation of developing knowledge on one single common central theme.   That central theme in all of them is about finding ways and means to end human suffering! All Indian Philosophies are attempting to answer some of the fundamental existential questions that have haunted humanity for millennia. The following are some of those fundamental questions.  Who am I? Where have I come from? Why have I come here?  What is my essential nature? What is the essential nature of this Universe? What has caused the Universe to exist?  Why do I suffer?  Why is it that everyone suffers in their lives? How can I gain freedom from suffering in life?  What is death? Do I live after my death? What are the guidelines for my actions when I am alive? What is the Ultimate Truth? How do I arrive at logical and rational conclusions on all of these questions?   The Six Indian Philosophies are the sequential answer to all of these questions. We can experiment with these answers in our life and verify them too. Only when we experientially realise the truth of these answers that knowledge really becomes ours. 

All of the six classical Indian Darshnas are various discussions on these fundamental  topics and they offer systematic unfolding of a solution for these questions.  Indian philosophies are best compared to a river originating as a lone stream in the high mountains  and steadily flowing to the plains below. This stream is joined by other streams on its way and together they become a mighty river that eventually joins the ocean. Each stream is a value adding tributary to the mighty river. Likewise, the various schools of Indian philosophies deal with the same single truth as revealed from different angles of vision, and eventually they contribute to the same objective of attaining freedom from human suffering. 

Need of philosophy in life 

We humans  are not just beings with a body. We have an overactive and highly imaginative mind and a powerful intellect too. Almost always, we suffer from our mental world, either from our indulgence in our memories of the past or from our anxieties of the future.  We can see that all our actions begin as a thought in our mind. If we examine the nature of our thoughts, we can see that all our thoughts are eventually linked to the matters of the external world in one way or another.  Even though, as humans,  we have great intellect using which we have reached unprecedented levels of technological advancements and greater comforts in life, our experience shows that the happiness we derive from them is always short-lived.  In spite of  knowing that these unfulfilling experiences of happiness derived from the objects  of the external world are short-lived, Indian philosophies point out that we  continue to strive hard to derive happiness from the same external world again and again. 

Another peculiar nature that we can observe in ourselves is that we constantly live from our minds. Our mind is always thinking on its own and we always act as per the dictates of our minds. Still worse is that we are not even aware that we are always thinking of something or other. Yet, we act on our unconscious thinking too. This characteristic of ours stands in stark contrast to that of animals, where they conduct their lives by instincts and not by their minds. Possessing a relatively ‘free’ mind is clearly an evolutionary advantage for humans. But, the question is are we using our minds correctly? 

Animals do not seem to suffer from any thoughts in their minds. If two cats fight with each other, once the physical part of the fight is over they quickly part with one another and go on their separate ways; they forget about the fight and never seem to suffer from the fight that took place. They do not seem to plan a revenge and continue to suffer from the fight that was long over. If we were to be in the place of the  fighting cat, that fight would leave a permanent scar in our minds. We would think about the fight repeatedly and harbour vengeance in our minds. Consequently we suffer from those thoughts as well as from the actions those thoughts would inevitably generate later. The major difference in the life mechanisms of humans and animals is the excessive involvement of  a “mind” in the case of humans.  If we can somehow make our  mental activities pure and disciplined, our suffering will be drastically reduced. Even though humans have reached the moon, most humans cannot even manage simple interpersonal relationships with one another; humans need to turn to friends, doctors, teachers, priests, and psychologists for peace and solace! This strange ineptitude is due to the lack of an understanding of life – lack of a philosophy of life – to wade us through  various experiences in our life, as a beacon of light. Philosophy is that beacon of light in our life. We seem to be disinterested in the bigger picture of life.  Life without a philosophy is like a ship in the storm without an able captain to steer it. Without understanding the greater picture of life, without understanding  our own nature and the nature of the world around us and without building the right relationship between us and the world around us, we are  bound to feel insecure and live in a world of constant fear and anxiety. That is how important Philosophy is in our life. 

All Indian Philosophies thus help us in understanding who we are, what life is, what should be our relationship with everything else in life, and what is the purpose of life. They help us in developing the right relationship with everything else in life with a disciplined mind, and turning us into ethical humans. Staunchly remaining on ethical behaviour and  consciously practicing a lifestyle  that  Indian Philosophies provide us, we will eventually gain freedom from suffering in life.  That is how important philosophy and ethics are for us in our practical life. 

Philosophy is Not Religion

Indian Philosophy has nothing to do with any religion. It is the science and technology for the liberation of humans from suffering, which is equally relevant to all members of the human species,  regardless of  their race or religion.  Indian philosophy has nothing to do with rituals, dogmas, institutions or anthropomorphic deities. It is the science behind a  workable technology  that takes humans beyond the boundaries of the senses, and a thinking  mind  and gives them a direct experience of the transcendental Reality.  This knowledge and skill is  available not just for Indians but is for the entire humanity.

Essentially, religion is nothing but a  moral and ethical platform that regulates or controls the behaviour of a certain group of people in a society.  Religions do  not automatically push anyone to go beyond the religion and become spiritual on its own. We need the help of a relevant  Philosophy to make us grow from religion. Philosophy frees one to contemplate beyond the confines of one’s body, mind and intellect and liberates one to the realm of spirituality – the greater dimensions of life. It is said that where religion ends, spirituality begins.  Religion divides but spirituality units. True study and practice of Indian Philosophy makes one deeply spiritual, no matter what  religion one practices. 

Role of Ethics in Indian Philosophy

We have observed a while ago that if we can somehow make our  mental activities pure and disciplined, our suffering from unnecessary thoughts and avoidable consequent actions will be drastically reduced. This disciplined mind is the starting point of Ethics.  Disciplines related to body and mind are Ethical Laws. Practical aspects of all Indian philosophies are based on such disciplines. All Indian Philosophies try to  build a peaceful outside and a peaceful inside so that there is an internal equilibrium and tranquility at all times. When the external environment is disturbed, it is extremely hard to maintain internal tranquility.   

A correct understanding of the philosophies will uplift us to the adherence of these inner and outer disciplines as a voluntarily accepted commitment of behaviour. Practical aspects of all Indian Philosophies are based on this inner acceptance of ethical living as a prerequisite for inner peace. We have to accept that all ethical rules are our personal rules and not externally enforced by an authority.    In other words, a correct understanding of the philosophies will make us ethical humans. We instinctively understand that ethics are not laws enforced by the government,  they are rather honest commitments accepted voluntarily by us to create external peace and harmony that is an absolute prerequisite for internal equilibrium and peace. No stable joy or happiness is possible without this inner peace and tranquility. No inner peace and tranquility is possible without a disciplined mind and pure thoughts.  This becomes more understandable when we realise that all our actions are triggered by our thoughts. If our thoughts are ethical  our actions will also be, therefore, automatically ethical. Ethics is an inseparable part of all six Indian Philosophies. More on ethics in Indian Philosophy is discussed further ahead.

Origin of the Six Indian Philosophies. 

The origin and development of all six schools of Indian Philosophies are from the Vedic literature.  When we discuss Vedic literature, we inevitably need to discuss a few fundamental facts about them. Vedas were not written by anyone. They fall into the category of “sruti” in Sanskrit, meaning, that which was “heard” intuitively by highly evolved human beings. More on this type of knowledge will be discussed a little later, when we discuss “direct experiences”.  “Sruti” is an inner intuitive knowing that occurs to those with phenomenally high consciousness. Both Vedic and Tantric literature of ancient India are of Sruti origin. The great teachings  were taught and practiced by word of mouth from teacher to student, until they got written down some 6000 years ago. Vedic path followed a strict and puritan adherence to Sruti teachings. Tantric path followed a less strict and accommodating adherence to the same Sruti teachings. This is because not everyone was able to adopt a lifestyle based on puritan adherence to  the Sruti teachings. People always have different capacities to understand and adhere to a teaching.  Nevertheless, in course of time, both the streams of Vedic and Tantric practices reached the pinnacles of ultimate perfection and effectiveness on their respective course. Both streams of practices had inspired and influenced one another.  

Both Vedic and Tantric practices eventually got documented. Vedic literature was more open and accessible and hence they naturally became extremely  popular. Vedic literature was open because its practices needed a strict puritan lifestyle which was not easy for many and hence the misuse of the vedic system was unlikely.  On the other hand, the Tantric literature was discrete and highly regulated in sharing its philosophy and  practices. Therefore, the Tantric system was lesser known and was shrouded in mystery in comparison to Vedic literature. The Tantric system was discrete as the chances of its misuse was high due to its liberal and accommodative  lifestyle that mostly everyone can adopt. However, those who have studied both Vedic and Tantric Systems will recognize that both are nothing but just the two branches of the same tree, holding the same potential and effectiveness for reaching the ultimate evolutionary goal of human life.

Coming back to the origin of Indian Philosophies,  all philosophical seeds contained in all of the six Indian philosophies have originated from the Vedic literature consisting of Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. Although the 20,000 verses of Rig Veda appear to be simple prayers exalting the powers of nature, they are  so craftly articulated in highly symbolic vedic Sanskrit hiding great philosophical and metaphysical knowledge. It took a very long time and many generations to understand the Vedic  teachings  fully and develop them into a logical theory and a fulfilling practice for human evolution.  Vedic  knowledge and teachings were expounded in stages over a  very long period of time.  Upanishads are the final culmination of Vedas distilled and decoded, which can be rightly termed as the storehouse of philosophical gems. All of the systems of Indian philosophies in its seed form are there in Upanishads

All humans are born with different levels of awareness and capabilities.  All of us have different ‘samskaras’ (our latent inborn tendencies and attitudes) and our capacity to comprehend a subject is also different from one another. We are all so diverse in our social, cultural and religious backgrounds. It is not, therefore, possible for all of us to adopt the same lifestyle or the same type of practices, as pointed out while discussing the Vedic  and Tantric streams of practices originated from Sruti. One size will not fit all! If we are to teach computer sciences to fourth standard students, the way we teach it will be entirely different from the way we will be teaching the same subject to graduate level students.  Because of these natural differences in inborn capabilities, the same single reality cannot be revealed to  all of us alike in its entirety. For this reason, in the Upanishads, the Ultimate Truth is revealed  in various stages, in various degrees and grades. Likewise, all of the Indian Philosophies represent the same Single Truth, but they are revealed at different levels and from different perspectives, each with its own accent and style. It must be remembered that the different systems of Indian philosophy were developed at different points in time, in the last 6000 years,  depending on the needs and the average general level of awareness of the prevailing society at that time. 

Each school of Indian Philosophy is associated with the name of a Rishi, who expounded on a certain part of the vedic teaching  and brought those philosophical thoughts to the people of his times in order to give them a theory and practice for gaining freedom from suffering. It must be remembered that it is not this Rishi who developed the original philosophy; He studied it in Vedic literature, experimented it, experienced it and then codified and reconciled all the associated aspects of it in a manner that others can also do and experience the same. Several Rishis have contributed and added to  establish  a philosophy, even though only one specific Rishi’s name is usually  attributed to a philosophy for having mainly spearheaded this great task. All these philosophies had been peer debated, experimented, experienced and re-experienced several times through several generations before they were finally crystallized into a grand philosophy all by itself.

Although Buddhism, Jainism and Charvaka System are also considered as Indian Philosophies, they are not included in the ‘Shad Darshanas’ of India since they do not  rest their allegiance to Vedas. There are definite founders for  these three Indian philosophies, and they do not claim any connection with Vedas. However, one can see many common concepts from Vedas in all of them.  

Likewise, Saivism, Shaktism, and Tantra are also not included in this study here even though they too are Indian Philosophies.  They are also as vast and as voluminous as Vedas themselves are. Saivism and Shaktism are Tantric pathways to reach the same goals. Tantric pathways are as important as Vedic pathways are. Tantric pathways  truly deserve as much separate treatment as Vedic pathways do.  As pointed out earlier, Veda and Tantra are twins born in the same Sruti tradition, each specialised in teaching the same subject to two different sets of audiences with differing tendencies and capabilities. At the higher level of practices both Vedic and Tantric methods are heavily intertwined.  When we say that Vedas are the seedbeds of Indian Philosophies, we should know that the expression  ‘Veda’ in this context also implies the inclusion of Tantric tradition.  

The six Indian philosophies of   Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Samkhya,  Mimamsa, Vedanta and  Yoga are discussed here in that order.   This is because we can broadly classify the six philosophies into four sections based on its teaching outcome. Nyaya and Vaiseshika prepare the ground by giving us the knowledge on how to approach the topic. Samkhya gives us the knowledge of where we stand now in our life and what our present condition is. Mimamsa and Vedanta give us the knowledge on what should be our target destination in our life. Finally, Yoga gives us a methodology and pathway to reach our target condition.

Together, they serve as invaluable ‘Guide books’ to the students who want to master Vedic/Tantric teachings and climb the evolutionary possibilities open for them.