Philosophy spreads within countryside

Mac Kenney

India’s ancient society has given rise to a myriad of philosophies and schools of thought.

These many systems represent a shift in thought that took place in India around 600 B.C., when individual reasoning and questioning religious authority became acceptable. The catalysts for this change were Buddhism and Jainism. Both of these systems appealed to Hinduism’s common people: laborers, artisans and merchants. Hinduism had to redefine its ideas and develop new ones in order to survive such changes and prevent further conversions to Buddhism and Jainism.

The branching of Hinduism can be represented as nine basic schools of thought. There are three heterodox schools, which opposed the classic Vedic texts: Buddhism, Jainism and Carvaka (a form of Hindu materialism). Both Buddhism and Jainism tend toward religious systems, and we have few primary works from Carvaka. The remaining six systems are the orthodox schools, which did not contest the ancient teachings of the Vedas, although some, such as Yoga, invented new means to the accepted ends. The title “Indian Philosophy” usually refers to the orthodox schools of thought.

While there are distinct differences among the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy, there are certain ideas that run through them all. Through these ideas we can gain a basic understanding of philosophy in India.

A common tenet of Indian philosophy is that all life, in its most basic form, is suffering. The physical, or empirical, world is temporary and less real than eternal reality or the transcendental world. The things of this empirical world, like envy and passion, are temporary and cause suffering. To avoid suffering, one must become detached from this illusionary empirical world. Through a cultivated detachment from these passions, suffering can be lessened and eliminated. Only eternal truth and ultimate bliss is left for the philosopher, and it is this attainment of eternal bliss that is the goal of the Indian philosophical life.

Indian philosophy can perhaps be generalized as a model of progress, or a path, to guide us through life. It assumes that the discovery of philosophy can have no objective substitute: it can only be reached subjectively. Indian philosophy is a model not an answer. It is a model because these eternal truths are not in fact discovered but attained, and the Indian philosophical discourse is meant to guide the reader toward this attainment. Indian philosophy is a way to live, with the intent of that life being an arrival at universal truth.

The willingness of these philosophers and men of faith, since some still affirmed the Vedas, to listen to the ideas of another, understand what they are saying, and then reaffirm their own beliefs is a wonderful lesson that everyone needs reminding of from time to time. Together with India’s diverse religions, the many branches of Indian philosophy are the roots of coexistence in India, and these roots run deep.