A Glimpse of Indian Philosophy
Answer: Man among all living beings is endowed with intellectual ability to be curious about and to question his own condition and the life around him. Questions like the purpose of one’s life, death and beyond, existence of good and evil, fortunes and misfortunes, differences in circumstances into which each is born, differences in wealth, health and vicissitudes in life faced by different people, nature of creation and so on have made man turn to philosophy and arrive at various suppositions and theories as answers.
Question: Sir, Philosophy is a subject considered to be too abstract and dry by the majority of people. Can you begin by defining Philosophy in simple terms?
Answer: Philosophy is indeed a tough subject and certainly not every one’s cup of tea. To answer your question, Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. The purpose of studying Philosophy is to gain an understanding of existence as a whole.
Question: Please tell me how one can go about studying philosophy and whether a systematic study is possible.
Answer: First of all, one needs to have an inquisitive and analytical mind-set to begin with. As you said, philosophy is certainly dry and one can easily get bored with it as against reading a novel or a salacious story. Therefore, an abiding interest and commitment to plod through abstract texts are essential for a student of philosophy.
Question: I am interested in learning about philosophical ideas which evolved in the Indian system and how they are different from other philosophical developments.
Answer: The basic questions that lead to philosophical thoughts are the same for all traditions. As I said earlier, the aim is to understand existence as a whole. Broadly, modern philosophy studies have been classified into five elements - Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics and Aesthetics. Let me explain in simple terms what they are.
Metaphysics is the study of existence – What is out there?
Epistemology is the study of knowledge – How do I know about it?
Ethics is the study of action – What should I do?
Politics is the study of force – What actions are permissible?
Aesthetics is the study of art – What can life be like?
Question: That seems to be looking at it from the Western point of view. What about our tradition?
Answer: Though the terminology is Western, the basic questions remain the same. As you know there was a transition from the prayers of the Mantra Samhitas to the philosophical thoughts of the Upanishads. The aim of Hindu philosophers was to find answers to how one should live with reference to the Purusharthas-namely, Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. The efforts of many Indian intellectuals in studying and interpreting Vedas resulted over a period in the postulation of traditional Darshanas or philosophies which are six in number.
Question: These are..?
Answer: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa or Upanishads. These are called Astika schools as they accept the validity of the Vedas. There are also Nastika schools which, though they have emerged from the same tradition, reject the validity of Vedas. These are Buddhism, Jainism, Charvaka, Ajivika and others. All the systems emerged from 1000 BC onwards over a period of thousand years or so. Surprisingly, quite a few of the systems are non-theistic or even atheistic contrary to popular perception.
Question: Can you explain briefly and in simple terms what each system is all about so that a common man like me can understand?
Answer: Philosophers tend to classify and list various entities that according to them exist. They also explain the qualities of such entities and specify the relationships among them. As you probably know almost everyone agrees that there are five basic elements- Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space. We call these Pancha Bhoothas- Prithvi, Apa, Agni, Vayu and Akasha. Philosophers also classify how we know what we know. What we call Pramana in the Indian tradition. The six Pramanas of our tradition are Pratyaksha(Direct Perception), Anumana(Inference), Upamana(Comparison), Shabda(Hea;p[d from others), Arthapatti(Postulation) and Anupalabdhi(Non-comprehensible). Different schools of philosophy accept Pramanas differently.
Question: I think it is getting complicated. However, just the basics of each school please.
Answer: Let me try and keep it simple.Of course, I can only give the bare definitions.If you need to learn more, you will have to put in a great amount of studying and introspection.
Nyaya is a system depending on logic and analysis. The system accepts four of the six pramanas, namely, Pratyaksha(Direct), Anumana(Inference), Upamana(Comparison) and Shabda(Testimony).
The Vaisheshika school is atomist and pluralist in nature. The basis of its proposition is that all matter can be reduced to atoms and that atoms are different in qualities from each other. The school is of the belief that Brahma is the creator of all matter. Generally, Nyaya and Vaisheshika are clubbed together while classifying different philosophies.
Sankhya is basically a dualist philosophy. According to Sankhya, everything in reality stems from the interaction of Purusha( Soul-Sentient) and Prakriti(Matter-Insentient). When realisation takes place of the soul being different from external matter, Moksha occurs. Sankhya is Atheistic.
Yoga which is generally clubbed with Sankhya believes in training the body and the mind to attain Moksha. The difference with Sankhya is in that there is a Theistic element in Yoga with the worship of Istha Devata(chosen deity) as part of its philosophy.
Purva Mimamsa firmly believes in the validity and authority of the Vedas and postulates that Moksha can be attained by performing all the rituals, sacrifices, yagas and yajnas as prescribed in the Vedas religiously.
Uttara Mimamsa or Upanishads discuss the path of Jnana or knowledge to help attain ultimate realisation. The later schools of Advaita, Dvaita, Vishisthadvaita and others were developed from the study and interpretation of the Upanishads, All the theories of Karma, Maya, Non-duality, Duality etc. emerged from the Upanishads.
Carvaka is called a Materialist philosophy which does not accept Purushartha wholly accepting only Artha and Kama and rejecting Dharma and Moksha. It accepts only Pratyaksha(Direct perception) Pramana as valid. It is also known as Lokayata and is Atheistic.
Buddhism is a Non-theistic school of philosophy and rejects the validity of the Vedas though the theory of Karma is accepted. It postulates that life is nothing but suffering and that one should attain Nirvana through Meditation and Self-realisation.
Jainism is much older to Buddhism and also rejects the validity of the Vedas. It is also Non-theistic and exhorts disciples to follow the teachings of the Tirthankars or Saints who became worthy (Arhan) through meditation and introspection. Jainism also believes in the Karma theory.
Question: That is quite a lot to digest and I hope I will be able to spend more time studying the systems.
Answer: I must also mention the Bhagavad Gita which stresses the importance of doing one’s duty and surrendering to God totally for salvation. It believes that God will come to one’s rescue when one is in trouble and seeks His blessings. It highlights the importance of suppressing one’s ego and living a life doing one’s given duties leaving the results of one’s efforts to God. As you probably know, Brahma Sutras, Bhagavadgita and Upanishads are called the PrasthanaTraya of our heritage and are central to understanding Hinduism.
Question: There seem to be quite a lot of arguments about Advaita, Dvaita and Vishisthadvaita. Can you explain in simple terms what these stand for?
Answer: The Vedas and Upanishads have references to Mono-theism (there is but one God though may be in many forms), Monism (All-encompassing consciousness being the only reality) and Ritualism(Strictly following what is laid down in Brahmanas and KalpaShastra). Advaita proposed by Adi Shankara’s Guru Gaudapada and further developed by Shankara(8th Century AD) says that the reality is not dual and accepts the principle of Monism. However, it infers that the external world we live in and all matter are illusory (Maya). Advaita says that there is a Nirguna Brahman without any attributes and that the Brahman and reality are the same. You can call Advaita Non-theistic.
Vishisthaadvaita says that though the reality is one, soul and body are part of that reality having been created by the supreme God, Narayana who is a Saguna Brahman. It is called Qualified Monism and was propounded by Ramanuja(11th Century AD)
Dvaita propounded by Madhvacharya(12th Century AD) says that Soul or Consciousness and Matter are different and accepts five differences in the world. Both Dvaita and VishisthaAdvaita accept the concept of Swarga (Heaven) and Naraka(Hell) to which souls are sent after death to fulfil the effects of their Karma and reincarnated in different bodies depending on the nature of their Karmic effects.
Question: One last question. What is the difference between Religion and Philosophy?
Answer: Religion is a question of faith with a belief in a supreme power whereas Philosophy is the study of existence based on reason and analysis. Both address the same issues with different outcomes. In our tradition, both religion and philosophy have evolved from the same sources, namely, Vedas.
Question: I think I have had enough for the first session and will pick your brains for any doubts that will certainly arise in future. Thank you very much for the enlightenment.
Answer: My pleasure.