16 Sep 2021

In the history of Western Philosophy, we usually find the different schools coming into existence successively. Each school predominates till another comes in and replaces it. In India, on the other hand, we find that the different schools, though not originating simultaneously, flourish together during many centuries, and pursue parallel courses of growth. The reason is to be sought perhaps in the fact that in India, philosophy was part of life. As each system of thought came into existence, it was adopted as a philosophy of life by a band of followers who formed a school of that philosophy. They lived the philosophy and handed it down to succeeding generations of followers who were attracted to them through their lives and thoughts. The different systems of thought thus continued to exist through unbroken cains of successive adherents for centuries. Even today, we find the active followers of some of the chief philosophical schools in different parts of India, thought development of indigenous philosophy has been much retarded now, owing to social and political vicissitudes. 


According to traditional principle of classification, most likely adopted by orthodox Hindu thinkers, the schools or systems of Indian Philosophy are divided into two broad classes, namely, orthodox (astika) and heterodox (nastika). To the first group belong the six chief philosophical systems (popularly known as sad-darsana), namely Mimamsa, Vedanta, Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisesika. These are regarded as orthodox (astika), not because they believe in God, but because they accept the authority of the Vedas. The Mimamsa and the Sankhya do not believe in God as the creator of the world, yet they are called orthodox (astika), because they believe in the authoritativeness of the Vedas.


The six systems mentioned here are not the only orthodox systems; they are the chief ones. There are some other less important orthodox schools, such as the Grammarian school, the medical school, etc., also noticed by Madhavacarya. Under the other class of heterodox systems, the chief three are the schools of the Materialists like Carvakas, the Buddhas and the Jainas. They are called heterodox (nastika) because they do not believe in the authority of the Vedas.


To understand more clearly, we should know something regarding the place of the Vedas in the evolution of Indian thought. The Vedas are the earliest available records of Indian Literature, and subsequent Indian thought, especially philosophical speculation, is greatly influenced by the Vedas, either positively or negatively. Some of the philosophical systems accepted Vedic authority, while others opposed to it:


  1. The Mimamsa and the Vedic authority, while others opposed it. The Mimamsa and the Vedanta may be regarded as the direct continuation of the Vedic culture. The Vedic tradition had two sides, ritualistic and speculative (karma and Jnana). The Mimamsa emphasised the ritualistic aspect and evolved a philosophy to justify and help the continuation of the Vedic rites and rituals. The Vedanta emphasised the speculative aspect of the Vedas and developed an elaborate philosophy out of Vedic speculations. As both these schools were direct continuation of Vedic culture, both are sometimes called by the common name, Mimamsa; and for the sake of distinction, the first one is called Purva-Mimamsa (or Karma-Mimamsa) and the second Uttara-Mimamasa (or Jnana-Mimamsa).


  1. Though the Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisesika based their theories on ordinary human experience and reasoning, they did not challenge the authority of the Vedas, but tried to show that the testimony of the Vedas was quite in harmony with their rationally established theories. The Carvaka, Bauddha and Jaina schools arose mainly by the opposition to the Vedic culture and, therefore, they rejected the authority of the Vedas.


Bearing this fact of mutual influence in mind, we may try to understand the general process by which the systems originated and developed. The Vedas, as mentioned, are directly or indirectly responsible for most of the philosophical speculations. In the orthodox schools, next to the Vedas and the Upanisads, we find the sutra literature marking the definite beginning of systematic philosophical thinking ‘Sutra’ etymologically means ‘thread’ and in this context, it means a brief mnemonic statement. As philosophical discussions took place mostly orally, and as they were passed down through oral traditions handed down by teachers to students, it was necessary to link up or thread together the main problems, answers possible objections and replies to them.

A sutra-work consists of a collection of many sutras or aphorisms of this kind, arranged into different chapters and sections according to different topics. The Brahmasutra of Badarayana, for example, contains the aphorisms that sum up and systematize the philosophical teachings of different Vedic works, chiefly the Upanisads, and also briefly mention and answer actual and possible objections to these views. This work is the first systematic treaties on the Vedanta. Similarly, we have:

  1. For the Mimamsa- the sutras of Jaimini
  2. For the Nyaya- the sutras of Gotama
  3. For the Vaisesika- the sutras of Kanada
  4. For the Yoga- the sutras of Patanjali
  5. For the Sankhya- the sutras of Kapila, who is regarded as the founder of the system. But the sutras now available are not recognized by all as the original sutras. The earliest systematic work available now is the Sankhya-karika of Isvara Krsna.


Let us now look all the various systems individually and in detail:




In Indian philosophy, the word- ‘Carvaka’ means a materialist. The Carvakas hold that perception is the only valid source of knowledge. They point out that all non-perceptual or indirect sources of knowledge like inference, the testimony of other persons etc., are unreliable and often prove misleading. We should not, therefore, believe in anything except what is immediately known through perception.


Perception reveals to us only the material world, composed of the four bhutas or elements of matter- air, fire, water and earth, the existence of which we can directly know through the senses. All objects of this perceptible world are composed through these elements. There is no evidence that there is anything like an immaterial soul in man. Man too, is made wholly of matter. We say ‘I am stout’, ‘I am lean’, ‘I am lame’. These judgements also tend to show that the individual is identical with the body. There is of course consciousness in man, but consciousness, is the quality of the living body which is a product of matter. It should not be thought that because the elements of matter are unconscious, there can be no consciousness in objects made of them. There are examples even of the same substance acquiring new qualities under different conditions- Betel leaf, nut and lime chewed together acquire a red tinge originally absent in any of the constituents.


The survival of man in any form after death is, therefore, unproved. The existence of God also is a myth. God cannot be perceived. The world is made by the automatic combination of the maternal elements and not by God. It is foolish, therefore, to perform any religious rite either for enjoying happiness after this life in heaven or for pleasing god. No faith should be put in the Vedas or in the cunning priests who earn their livelihood by exploiting the credulity of men.


The highest end of life, for a rational man should therefore, be the enjoyment of the greatest amount of pleasure here in this life, which is the only thing that we are sure of. It is foolish to forgo the pleasure of life simply because they happen to be mixed with pain. It would be as though one were to reject the kernel because of its husk or cease swing crops for the fear of cattle. We should try to get the best out of this life by enjoying it as best as we can and avoiding as far as possible the chances of pain.



The origin of the Jaina faith lies far back in the prehistoric times. The long line of teachers through whom the faith was handed down consists of twenty-four Tirthankaras or liberated propagators of the faith, the last of whom was Vardhamana (also styled Mahavira), a contemporary of Gautama Buddha.


The Jainas reject the Carvaka view that perception is the only valid source of knowledge. They point out that if we are to reject altogether the possibility of obtaining correct knowledge through inference and the testimony of other perons because sometimes they prove misleading, we should doubt the validity of perception also, because even perception sometimes proves illusory. In fact, the Carvakas themselves take the help of inference when by observing some cases of inference to be misleading they come to hold that all inference is invalid, and also when they deny the existence of objects because they are not perceived. The Jainas admit, in addition to perception, inference and testimony as a source of valid knowledge. Inference yields valid knowledge when it obeys the logical rules of correctness. Testimony is valid when it is the report of a reliable authority. In fact, the Jainas hold that it is on the authority of the teachings of the omniscient liberated saints (Jainas or Tirthankaras) that we can have unerring knowledge about certain spiritual matters, which out limited sense-perception and reasoning cannot reveal to us.


On the basis of these three kinds of knowledge, the Jainas form their view of the universe. Perception reveals the reality of material substances, composed of the four kinds of elements, as the Carvakas hold. By inference they come to believe in space (akasa), because material substance must exist somewhere, believe in time (kala), because changes of succession of the states of substances cannot be understood without it and also believe in the two causes of motion and rest respectively, for without them movement and cessation of movement in things cannot be explained. These last two are called respectively- Dharma and Adharma which should not be taken here in their otdinary moral sense, but in the technical sense of the causes of the motion and rest. But the physical world, consisting of the four elements of matter- space, time, dharma and adharma, is not all. Perception, as well as inference, proves the existence of souls in all living bodies. When we perceive the qualities of an orange such as its colour, shape, smell, we say we perceive the existence of the orange. On similar grounds, when we internally perceive pleasure, pain and other qualities of the soul, we should admit that the soul also is directly known through perception. Consciousness cannot be said to be the product of matter; the Carvakas cannot point out any case where the combination of material existence of the soul can also be inferred on the round that if there had been no conscious agent to guide them, material substances could not be formed into living bodies by themselves. Without a conscious substance to regulate them, the body and the senses could not do their work so systematically.


There are souls, the Jainas hold, not only in animals, but also in plants and even in particles of dust. The existence of very minute living beings (such as germs) in dust and other apparently non-living material things is also admitted by modern science. All souls are not equally conscious. Some, like those in plants or dust-bodies, have only the sense of touch and have tactual consciousness alone. Some lower animals have two senses, others three, still others four. Man, and some higher animals have five senses through all of which they know things. However, developed the senses may be, the soul in bondage is limited in knowledge; it is limited in power also and is subject to all kinds of miseries.


Every soul, however, can attain infinite consciousness, power, and happiness. These qualities are inherent in the very nature of the soul. They are obstructed by karmas, just as the natural light of the sun is obstructed by clouds. The karmas or the forces of passions and desires in the soul attract particles of matter which permeate the soul just as particles of dust permeates the light of any flame or the sun. In other words, the karmas lead to the bondage of the soul by matter. By removing karmas, a soul can remove bondage and regain its natural perfections.


The Jainas do not believe in God. The Tirthankaras, to whom all the godly powers like omniscience and omnipotence belong, take the place of God. They are adored as ideals of life. Sympathy for all living beings is one of the chief features of the Jaina faith. Coupled with this there is, in Jaina philosophy, respect for all opinions. The Jaina philosophers point out that every object has infinite aspects, judged by what it is and what it is not, from different points of view.


The Jaina philosophy is a kind of realism because it asserts the reality of the external world, and it is pluralism, because it believes in many ultimate realities. It is atheism as it rejects the existence of God.




The Bauddha system of philosophy arose out of the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the well-known founder of Buddhism. Gautama was awakened to a consciousness of human suffering by the sight of disease, old age, death and other miseries, to which man is the subject. He spent years in study, penance and meditation to discover the origin of human suffering and the means to overcome them. At last, he received enlightenment, the result of which was set forth by him in the form of what has come to be known as ‘the four noble truths’ (catvari arya-satyani). These are:

  1. The truth that there is misery:

This is admitted by all in some form. But with his penetrating insight Buddha saw that misery is not simply casual; it is ordinarily present in all forms of existence and in all kinds of experiences. Even what appears to be pleasant can really be a source of pain at the crucks.


  1. The truth that there is a cause of misery:

Buddha’s conclusion is deducted from his analysis of causation. He points out that the existence of everything in the world, material and mental, is caused by some other thing. There is nothing which is unconditional and self-existent. Nothing is therefore, permanent in the world. All things are subject to change.


  1. The truth that there is cessation of misery:

As suffering, like other things, depends on some conditions, it must cease when these conditions are removed.


  1. The truth that there is a path leading to the cessation of misery:

The fourth truth concerns the control of the conditions that cause misery. This path is known as the eight-fold right determination, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right endeavour, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These eight steps remove ignorance and desire, enlighten the mind and bring about perfect equanimity and tranquillity.


Buddha himself was not concerned with the problems of philosophy as with the practical problem of how human misery could be removed. He regarded it as a waste of time to discuss metaphysical problems, while man is writhing in misery. But though averse to theoretical speculation he could not avoid philosophical discussion altogether. Thus, we find the following theories from early literature among his teachings:

  1. All things are conditional; there is nothing that exists by itself
  2. All things are, therefore, subject to change owing to the change of the conditions on which they depend
  3. Nothing is permanent; therefore, neither any soul nor God or any other substance for that matter is permanent.
  4. There is, however, continuity of the present life which generates another life, by the law of karma


The later followers of Buddha, in and outside India developed the germs of philosophical theories contained in Buddha’s teachings, which resulted in many other schools coming into existence. The following are the four schools:

  1. The Madhyamika or Sunyavada School: According to them, the world is unreal (sunya); mental and non-mental phenomena are all illusory. This view is known as nihilism (sunyavada).


  1. The Yogacara or Vijnanavada School: According to them, all external objects are unreal. What appears as external is really an idea in the mind. But mind must be admitted to being real. It is self-contradictory to say that the mind is unreal; for then, the very thought that mind is unreal stands self-condemned, thought being an activity of the mind. This view is called subjective idealism (vijnanavada)


  1. The Sautrantika School: This holds that both the mental and non-mental are real. If everything that we perceive as external were unreal, then our perception of an object would not depend on anything outside the mind but absolutely on the mind. But if we find that mind cannot perceive an object, like a tiger, at any place it likes. This proves that the idea of the tiger, when we perceive it, depends on a non-mental reality, the tiger. From the perceptual idea or representation of a tiger in the mind, we can infer the existence of its cause, the tiger, outside the mind. Thus, external objects can be inferred to exist outside the mind. This view may be called the representationalism or theory of the infer ability of external objects (bahyanumeya-vada).


  1. The Vaibhasika School: This school agrees with the last point that both internal and external objects are real. But it differs from it regarding the wat external objects are known. External objects, according to Vaibhasika, are directly perceived and not inferred from their ideas or representation in the mind. For, if no external object were ever perceived corresponding to any idea it would not be possible to infer the existence of an external object from any idea. This view may be called direct realism, because it holds that external objects are perceived directly (bahya-pratyaksa-vada).



On religious matters, Buddhism is divided into two well-known schools- Hinayana, flourishing now in the south, in Ceylon, Burma and Siam, and Mahayana, found now in the north in Tibet, China and Japan. The first two of the four philosophical schools aforementioned come under the Mahayana and the last two under the Hinayana.