Understanding Classical Indian Philosophy…

Understanding Classical Indian Philosophy

The Ancient Philosophy of India

T.S. Elliot once wrote that many Indian philosophers “make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys”.

I think he may be right about that…and you’ll see why.

Long ago, when India was just finding its place in the ancient world, Hindus were beginning to grasp what would become fundamental aspects of their beliefs and practices.

This foundation has come to be called the Classical Indian Philosophy.

It’s a fusion of two distinct traditions of thought: the Vedic tradition and the Sramana tradition.

The Vedic tradition is mainly concerned with the origin of the universe and the laws in nature, which led to some of the most popular ancient Indian texts- the Vedas and Upanishads.

The Sramana tradition, by contrast, was not as much concerned with the origin of the universe as much as it was with the way the universe interacts with us. It takes the perspective that the universe is full of suffering, and in order to rise above it, we have to practice renunciation and austerities.

The Six Schools of Indian Philosophy

Though there were only two main traditions, they ended up creating 6 distinct schools of philosophy, all of which accepted the Vedas:

  • Nyaya This was a school of logic used to prove the existence of God based on four sources of knowledge: perception, inference, comparison, and testimony. Of course, it didn’t stop there because those too could be valid or invalid. They had to be vetted and scrutinized. The Nyayan school also argued that God could only be one (monotheism) and that salvation (enlightenment) could only be attained through removing false knowledge.

  • Vaisheshika This school is closely related to Nyaya, and eventually merged with it. They believed that everything in the physical universe is reducible to a certain number of atoms. The biggest difference between the two is that this school only accepted perception and inference as sources of knowledge.

  • Samkhya– This philosphy sees the world as two realities: the Purusa (consciousness) and Prakriti (matter) with desire holding them together. There is no mention of God in their texts, but is inferred by the belief everyone has a soul. Believe it or not, this school actually had well known atheist subscribers.

  • Raja Yoga “Royal yoga” is based on enlightenment through deep meditation. Calming the mind leads to different stages of samadhi, which leads release of reincarnation.

  • Mīmāṃsā–  Meaning investigation, this philosophy was concerned with dharma  (the right way of living) by deeper understanding of the Vedas. Similar to Vaiheshika, they didn’t so much concern themselves with the concept of God.

  • Vedanta Gradually shifting its definition over time, it eventually came to mean the study of all the philosophical traditions involved with the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita. This philosophy is so broad that it came to have 10 different schools.

The Shift Toward Modern Philosophy

Ancient India was a powerhouse of intellectual and spiritual thought.

The depth of these philosophies and their debates between each school must have been monumental. If you click on the links above, you will see how thorough each one was in their studies.

But these days, there is a modern take on these ancient philosophies and their wisdom.

Teachers like Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Gandhi have all changed the way we think of  them.

There are so many different takes on these ideas and texts! Do you have a favorite teacher or philosophy you subscribe to?

Let us know below!

Pocket Baby Ganesh

This sweet Baby Ganesh statue will fit right in your pocket and bring you blessings throughout the day! Ganesh, or Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati, and is known as the remover of all obstacles.

Pocket Baby Ganesh


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Matt Caron

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Matt is the content manager of the Sivana blog, an enthusiastic Yoga teacher, and life voyager. He strives to inspire…

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