Indian Philosophy has a rich and vibrant tradition that dates back thousands of years. From the simpler Vedic hymns to the esoteric Upanishads, it encompasses a diverse range of beliefs and practices that have shaped the cultural and intellectual landscape of the Indian subcontinent.
There are two main classifications in Indian philosophy: Āstika and Nāstika.
The Āstika schools believe in all or one of these three criteria:
- The Vedas being a valid source of knowledge
- The existence of Brahman or Atman (i.e. belief in existence of God and the Soul); and
- Belief in afterlife and Devas.
The Nāstika schools of philosophy, usually do not believe in the existence of God or the authority of the Vedas. However, later writings in some schools (like in Buddhism) try to reconcile the concept of a Supreme Being with their original teachings.
The different schools of Āstika philosophy can be broadly categorised into six main systems: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta.
The atheistic schools include Jainism, Buddhism, Ajivika, Ajñana and Carvaka.
Let us take a closer look at each of these main schools of Indian philosophy.
The Āstika Schools of Philosophy
The Nyaya school focuses on logic and epistemology. It presents a systematic approach to acquiring knowledge through observation, inference and testimony. According to Nyaya, the ultimate goal of life is to attain peace and happiness through a proper understanding of the world and oneself.
Founded by Sage Gautama, the Nyaya system is based on a set of sixteen basic principles, which outline the methods for gaining knowledge and the nature of reality. The Nyaya school was concerned with questions of perception, inference, proof, and the nature of self, among other topics. It made significant contributions to the development of Indian logic and epistemology, and its teachings continue to influence later Indian philosophical traditions and modern Western philosophy.
The Vaisheshika school is concerned with metaphysics and natural philosophy. Founded by Sage Kanada, it highlights the importance of observation and experience in gaining knowledge. It posits that everything in the world can be reduced to a set of distinct and unchanging atomic substances. These atoms combine to form substances and qualities, including matter and consciousness, which make up the material world.
The school also deals with questions of ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics, and is known for its emphasis on pluralism and the acceptance of multiple viewpoints. The ultimate goal of life in Vaisheshika is to attain release from the cycle of birth and death through the realisation of ultimate reality.
The Samkhya school of philosophy presents a dualistic view of reality. It asserts that ultimate reality is composed of two eternal and unchanging principles: Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (matter). The philosophy explains the creation and evolution of the universe as the interplay of these two principles.
Founded by Sage Kapila, it is one of the oldest philosophical systems in India. The goal of the Samkhya tradition is to attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death through a realisation of the distinction between Purusha and Prakriti. The school has had a significant impact on Hinduism and influenced later Indian philosophical and yogic traditions.
The Yoga school of philosophy places a strong emphasis on meditation and concentration as the means to attain a state of inner peace and union with ultimate reality. The Yoga system focuses on the importance of controlling the mind and senses in order to attain spiritual insight and liberation.
The Yoga tradition was founded by Sage Patanjali and is closely associated with the Samkhya school. The school outlines eight limbs of practice, known as Ashtanga Yoga, which includes ethical conduct, physical postures, breath control and meditation. The aim of the Āstika schools finds resonance here with the school’s focus on liberation from the cycle of birth and death through the realisation of one’s true self. The ultimate goal of Yoga is the attainment of Samadhi, a state of deep meditation and unity with the divine.
Note: A distinction is to be made between what is understood as Yoga in modern times (a means of physical exercise) versus the philosophy that focuses on meditation and concentration as the means to attain Samadhi. Yoga in its present form is just the tip of the school’s philosophy.
This school focuses on the correct interpretation of the Vedas and the interpretation and performance of ritual actions that have been described therein. It talks of the importance of right action and the pursuit of worldly goals, such as wealth and power, as a means of attaining ultimate liberation.
Mimamsa philosophy was founded by Jaimini and is one of the oldest philosophical systems in India. It asserts that the ultimate goal of human life is the attainment of heaven and that this can be achieved through the performance of correct ritual actions. The school also deals with questions of epistemology and metaphysics. Its teachings continue to influence the interpretation of Hindu scriptures in modern times.
The Vedanta school of philosophy has been the dominant form of Hindu philosophy for centuries. It presents a monistic view of reality and ultimate reality. The system asserts that the ultimate reality of the universe is the unchanging, eternal, and all-pervading Brahman. It posits that the ultimate goal of life is to realise the unity of the self (Atman) with Brahman. It also teaches that the individual self, or Atman, is essentially identical with Brahman and that the ultimate goal of human life is to realise this unity.
Founded by Sage Badarayana, Vedanta philosophy is based on the Upanishads. It has been interpreted and reinterpreted by numerous renowned philosophers, including Adi Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva.
Here is a simple breakdown of the Āstika schools:
|Nyaya||Logical reasoning, epistemology and the nature of knowledge|
|Vaisheshika||Metaphysics and Natural Philosophy. Atomism, the nature of matter and the classification of substances|
|Samkhya||Dualism, the nature of reality and the distinction between Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (matter) and Spirituality|
|Yoga||Meditation and Concentration. Mind-body connection, the control of the mind and the path to liberation|
|Mimamsa||The interpretation of Hindu scriptures and the nature of ritual action|
|Vedanta||Monism and Ultimate Reality. The ultimate reality of Brahman, the unity of all things and the realisation of Atman-Brahman identity|
The Nāstika Schools of Philosophy
Jainism is a non-theistic tradition that emphasises the importance of non-violence, self-control and spiritual liberation. The goal of Jainism is to achieve Moksha, which is the release from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, by following the path of the Jinas (or enlightened beings).
Jainism teaches that every living being has a soul and should be treated with respect and compassion. Its primary focus is on avoiding injury to all forms of life and promoting peace and harmony. Jainism also speaks of the importance of spiritual knowledge and self-control, with a goal of living a life of purity and detachment from material desires.
The Buddhist philosophical tradition focuses on liberation from suffering and the attainment of inner peace by following the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. It teaches that all phenomena are impermanent and lack an unchanging self, and that attachment to worldly things leads to suffering.
The ultimate goal of this school is to attain Nirvana, which is a state of spiritual liberation and freedom from the cycle of rebirth. Buddhism emphasises the importance of mindfulness, compassion, and ethical conduct, and has a rich tradition of meditation and spiritual practice.
Today, Buddhism has come a long way from being just a philosophical school. It is practised by millions and has had a profound impact on the cultural and religious traditions of many nations and cultures.
Ajivika was a major Indian philosophical tradition around two millennia back – around the same time when Gautam Buddha started preaching his philosophy to his followers. The Ajivika school was founded by Makkhali Gosala who taught that all events and actions are predetermined and that human effort cannot change one’s fate.
The followers of this school believed that the universe operates according to a fixed law (called Niyati) and that the ultimate goal of life is to live in accordance with that law. They emphasised detachment from material desires and the acceptance of one’s destiny.
Ajivika was one of the several contemporary philosophical and religious movements that Buddha encountered and engaged with in his teachings. Although Ajivika has not survived as a separate tradition, its teachings influenced the development of later Indian philosophical schools.
The Ajñana school is one of the rare philosophy schools that did not preach their own doctrine but only refuted the metaphysical nature of different schools. It also negated the prominence given by other schools to their philosophical propositions. It was a major competitor to Buddhism and Jainism in their early years and represents the radical scepticism that is inherent to the Indian culture. It seems our tradition of questioning everything has a philosophical basis after all.
The Carvaka (also known as Lokāyata) school denies the existence of a divine reality and the soul. It posits that the only reality is that which can be experienced through the senses, and that life is to be enjoyed in the present moment. Though there is little literature on this school in comparison to others, its focus on enjoying life by being in the present rather than focusing on an unknown future or a Supreme Being makes it one of the most potent for transference into a new ideal for the modern age.
Here is a simple breakdown of the Nāstika schools:
|Jainism||Non-violence, self-control, and asceticism as a path to liberation|
|Buddhism||Suffering, impermanence, and the path to enlightenment|
|Ajivika||Destiny, determinism, and the idea that all events are predetermined and unavoidable|
|Ajñana||Scepticism and the rejection of all claims of knowledge|
|Carvaka||Materialism and the rejection of all claims of spirituality and afterlife|
Which Indian Philosophy School is the Best?
There is no clear-cut answer to this as you can find sanctuary and solace in each of these schools if it rhymes with your inner beliefs. You can also take the best of some of the schools and combine them into a personalised philosophy of your own.
However, if you are unaware of these schools and looking for one or two to make sense of yourself and the world, then here is a simplistic answer.
If you seek solace in the concept of Brahman and Atman, then the Nyaya school that focuses on logic and epistemology and the Vaisheshika school which emphasises on pluralism and the acceptance of multiple viewpoints are good starting points to develop a deeper understanding of the self and the world around you.
On the other hand, if you have had it with the tomfoolery that goes on in the name of religion today, then among all the schools, there are two: Ajñana and Carvaka that can be studied and can form the basis of a philosophical movement that cuts through the vague, opaque (so-called) cultural rendition of philosophy that finds prominence today. Their focus on scepticism and living in the moment can serve as your philosophical guideposts for life as long as you don’t get carried away in self-righteousness.
And if you are somebody who is at peace with the knowledge that all religions are essentially the same and just have different names for the same Supreme Being and have and follow different customs and rituals to achieve the same end, then you can choose ideas from the different schools to create a personalised philosophy for yourself. It does not matter what or in whom you believe or not, what is important is that you live a life that is the best version of yourself. Whatever philosophy or ideas help you achieve this, are ideal for you.