Pre-Islamic Indian Thought by C.A Qadir, M.A, Professor of Philosophy, Government College, Lahore (Pakistan)
Maurice Bloomfield says paradoxically in The Religion of the Rig‑Veda that “Indian religion begins before its arrival in India.”1 By this he means to imply that Indian religion is a continuation of the primitive faith of the Indo-European race to which the Aryans that came to India belonged.
“The Sanskrit word deva (to shine) for God is similar to the Latin word deus; yaj a Sanskrit word for worship is common to more than one Indo‑European language; while the Vedic god Mitra has his counterpart in the Iranian god Mithra.”
From a comparative study of the beliefs and practices of the Teutonic, Hellenic, Celtic, Slavonic, Italian, Armenian, and Persian peoples which all sprang from the Indo‑European race, it has been established beyond the slightest doubt that the basis of their religion was an animistic belief in a very large number of petty gods, each of which had a special function.
They were worshipped with sacrifice, accompanied with potent formulas and prayers. Magic was highly regarded and much used.
It is greatly regretted that there is neither any formal history nor any archaeological remain to throw light on the early home of this ancient race or on the time when the great historical people hived off from it. Our principal source for the history, religion, and philosophy of the Indian branch is the Vedas besides the Epics and the Puranas.
Among the Vedas, the oldest is Rg‑Veda which consists of more than a thousand hymns composed by successive generations of poets during a period of many centuries. The hymns are connected in various ways with the sacrifices, the domestic ceremonies, and the religious speculation of the time, and are concerned chiefly with the worship of gods, who represent personification of natural forces, and the propitiation of demoniac beings.
In the Indo‑Iranian period the refreshing drink prepared from the somaplant was offered to gods in a special ritual and the singing of a hymn was a necessary part of the ritual. The Aryans brought this custom with them and continued to compose verses for the sama‑ritual and for the occasions of annual sacrifices in their new homeland. As the hymns were to be sung, a class of priests arose whose duty it was to recite poems of praise in honour of gods.
The priests who could sing better hymns and were in possession of a secret lore, which enabled them by conducting sacrifices in the right way to win the favour of gods for their patrons, were in great demand. Consequently, a number of priestly families vied with one another in composing hymns in the best language and metre then available.
The Rg‑Veda gives evidence of seven such families each bearing the name of a patriarch to whom the hymns are ascribed.
At first the hymn collections of six families were brought together and then of nine. At a much later stage some scholars collected one hundred and ninety one poems which were taught as the last section of the oral curriculum of hymns. Thus, there became ten books of the Rg‑Veda.
The mantras of the Atharva‑Veda consist largely of spells for magical purposes and advocate pure and unalloyed polytheism. The other Vedas are entirely sacrificial in purpose. The Sama‑Veda consists of verses borrowed from the Rg‑Veda to be applied to soma‑sacrifice. The Yajur‑Veda consists of ritual formulas of the magical type.
For a long time the number of the Vedas was limited to three, the Atharva Veda being totally excluded from the group of the Vedas. In support of this contention the following verse from Manu can be cited: “From Agni, Vayu, and Ravi, He drew forth for the accomplishment of sacrifice the eternal triple Veda, distinguished as Rik, Yajush and Saman.”2 Similarly, in Satapatha Brahnmanas it is said, “The Rik‑Yajush‑Saman verses are the threefold science.”3
A probable reason for the exclusion of the Atharva‑Veda from the Vedas is that “it consists mostly of magic spell, sorcery, and incantations which were used by the non‑Aryans and the lower classes to achieve worldly goods such as wealth, riches, children, health, and freedom from disease .... The Atharva Veda was recognized later on when hymns relating to sacrifices seem to have been added to it to gain recognition from the orthodoxy.” 4
The religion of the Vedas is polytheism. It has not the charm and grace of the pantheon of the Homeric poems; but it certainly stands nearer the origin of the gods. All gods whether great or small are deified natural phenomena. The interesting thing about them is that they are identified with the glorious things whose deifications they are and are also distinguished from them.
They are still thought of as being sun, moon, rain, wind, etc., yet each god is conceived as a glorious being who has his home in heaven and who comes sailing in his far‑shining car to the sacrifice and sits down on the grass to hear his own praise recited and sung and to receive the offerings.5 The hymns sung by the priests were mainly invocations of the gods meant to accompany the oblation of soma‑juice and the fire‑sacrifice of the melted butter.
The Vedas are not consistent in their account of the gods. In one myth the sun is a male, in another‑a female. The sun and the moon are mentioned in one place as rivals, elsewhere as husband and wife. The dog is extolled in one place as a deity and in another mentioned as a vile creature. Again the sun, the sky, and the earth are looked upon sometimes as natural objects governed by particular gods and sometimes as themselves gods who generate and control other beings.
In the Rg‑Veda, heaven and earth are ordinarily regarded as the parents of gods, pitra6 or matra.7 In other passages heaven (dyaus) is separately styled as father and the earth (prithivi) as mother.8 At other places, however, they are spoken of as having been created.
Thus it is said,9 that he who produced heaven and earth must have been the most skilful artisan of all the gods. Again, Indra is described as having formed them, to follow him as chariot wheels do a horse. At other places the creation of the earth and the heaven is ascribed to Soma and Pushan.
Thus, while the gods are regarded in some passages of the Rg‑Veda as the offsprings of heaven and earth, they are at other places considered independent of these deities and even their creators.
In various texts of the Rg‑Veda the gods are spoken of as being thirty‑three in number. Thus it is said in the Rg‑Veda: “Come hither Nasatyas, Asvins, together with the thrice eleven gods, to drink our nectar.”10 Again, “Agni, the wise gods lend an ear to their worshippers. God with the ruddy steeds, who lovest praise, bring hither those three and thirty.”11
In the Satapatha Brahmanas this number of thirty‑three gods is explained as made up of eight vasus, eleven rudras, and twelve adityas, together with heaven and earth, or, according to another passage, together with Indra and Prajapati instead of heaven and earth.
The enumeration of gods as thirty‑three is not adhered to throughout the Vedas. In the Rg‑Veda, the gods are mentioned as being much more numerous: “Three thousand, three hundred, thirty and nine gods have worshipped Agni.”12 Thus verse which is one of the many shows that the Vedic Indian believed in the existence of a much larger number of supernatural beings than thirty‑three.
The gods were believed to have had a beginning; they were stated to be mortal, but capable of overcoming death by the practice of austerity. The Rg Veda says that the gods acquired immortality by drinking soma. Still the gods are not self‑existent or unbeginning beings.
It has been seen that they are described in various passages of the Rg‑Veda as offsprings of heaven and earth. In various texts of the Rg‑Veda the birth of Indra is mentioned, and his father and mother are also alluded to. 13
The Vedic gods can be classified as deities of heaven, air, and earth:
The oldest god is Dyaus, generally coupled with Prithivi when the two are regarded as universal parents. Another is Varuna, the greatest of the Vedic gods besides Indra. It is he who sustains and upholds physical and moral order. In the later Vedas, when Prajapati became creator and supreme god, the importance of Varuna waned, and in the post Vedicperiod Varuna retained only the dominion of waters as god of the sky.
Various aspects of the solar activity are represented by five gods, namely, Mitra, a personification of the sun's beneficent power; Surya, the proper name of the sun, regarded as the husband of dawn; Savitri, the life‑giving activity of the sun; Pusan, a pastoral deity personifying the bountiful power of the sun; and Visnu occupying the central place in this pantheon.
The most important of these gods is Indra, a favourite national deity of the Aryan Indians. He is not an uncreated being. It is said of him, “Thy father was the parent of a most heroic son; the maker of Indra, he also produced the celestial and unconquerable thunder . . . was a most skilful workman.”14 Again, “A vigorous (god) begot him, a vigorous (son), for the battle; a heroic female (nari) brought him forth, a heroic soul.”15
His whole appearance is golden; his arms are golden; he carries a golden whip in his hands; and he is borne on a shining golden car with a thousand supports. His car is drawn by two golden steeds with flowing golden manes. He is famous for slaying Vrta after a terrific battle, as a result of which water is released for man and light is restored to him.
Certain immoral acts are also attributed to him. He occasionally indulges in acts of violence such as slaying his father or destroying the car of Dawn. Less important gods of this group are Trita, Apamnapat and Matarisvan. The sons of Rudra, the malignant deities of the Vedas, are the Maruts (the storm‑gods) who help Indra in his conflicts. The god of wind is Vayu while that of water is Apah.
‑Rivers are deified. Thus Sindu (Indus), Vipas (Bias), and Sutudri (Sutlej) are invoked in the Rg‑Veda. The most important god is Sarasvati, often regarded as the wife of Brahma. Another very important god is Agni, the god of fire. The number of hymns addressed to him far exceeds those addressed to any other, divinity with the exception of Indra. In the Rg‑Veda he is frequently spoken of as a goblin‑slayer. Another god is Soma, the divine drink which makes those who drink it immortal. A priest says in the Rg‑Veda: “We have drunk Soma, we have become immortal, we have entered into light, and we have known gods.”
In addition to these, there is a host of abstract deities and also deities of less importance which cannot be described here for want of space. Suffice it to say that an attempt was made by the sages (rsis) to introduce order in the bewildering multiplicity of gods. As several gods had similar functions, they were in some cases bracketed together, so that it might be said that when Indra and Agni performed identical functions, Agni was Indra or Indra was Agni.
Hence arose many dual gods. A farther effort in the direction of systematization was made through what Max Miller has called henotheism a tendency to address any of the gods, say, Agni, Indra, Varuna, or any other deity, “as for the time being the only god in existence with an entire forgetfulness of all other gods.”
Macdonell has a different theory to explain the so called henotheism by ascribing to it exaggeration, thus retaining the charge of polytheism against the Veda. Some modern Hindus under the influence of Swami Dayananda repudiate both these theories as inconsistent with the true spirit of the Vedas “16He is One, sages call Him by different names, e.g., Agni, Yama, Maarishvan.”17
No doubt, a few verses of this nature can be found in the Vedas; but the consensus of scholars is that monotheistic verses are a product of the later Vedic period and that they do nt express the dominant strain of the Vedic thought. Shri Krishna Saksena in his chapter “Indian Philosophy” in A History of Philosophical Systems edited by V. Ferm says that the early mantras contain a religion of nature‑worship in which powers of nature like fire (agni) and wind (vayu) are personified.
In later hymns and the Brahmanas, monotheistic tendencies began to crop up a little. Swami Dayananda was a product of Hindu‑Muslim culture and his insistence on monotheism shows the extent to which Muslim thought has influenced Indian religious beliefs.
The Rg‑Veda makes no distinct reference to a future life except in its ninth and tenth books. Yama, the god of death, was the first of the mortals to die. He discovers the way to the other world; guides other men there, assembles them in a home, which is secured for them for ever. He grants luminous abodes to the pious and is an object of terror for the wicked.
Yama is said to have two insatiable dogs with four eyes and wide nostrils that act as his messengers and convey the spirits of men to the abode of their forefathers. After a person's dead body has been burnt, his spirit soars to the realm of eternal light in a car or on wings and enters upon a more perfect life which fulfils all of his desires and grants him unending happiness.
Since the Vedic gods did not have purely spiritual pleasures but were often subject to sensual appetites, it can be said that the pleasures promised to the pious in the world to come were not altogether spiritual. Yama is described as carousing with the gods,18 Gandharvas, a class of gods who are described as hairy like dogs and monkeys, often assume handsome appearance to seduce the earthly females.19 Indra is said to have had a happy married life.
Each of the four Vedas has three sub‑divisions: the Samhitas (sacred texts), the Brahmanas (commentaries), and the Aranyakas (forest books): The Brahmanas are, therefore, an integral part of the Vedas. Sayana, a great scholar of the Vedas, says, “Veda is the denomination of the Mantras and the Brahmanas.”20 (Swami Dayananda differs on this point.)
By the Mantras are meant hymns and prayers; and the Brahmanas are intended to elucidate objects which are only generally adverted to in the hymns. The Brahmanas comprise precepts which inculcate religious duties, maxims which explain those precepts, and arguments which relate to theology.
Considering the fact that the Brahmanas often quote from the Vedas and devote themselves to the clarification of the ritualistic and the philosophical portions of the Vedas, it may be concluded that the Samhitas must have existed in their present form before the compilation of the Brahmanas was undertaken.
In fact in the Brahmanass, we find fully developed the whole Brahmanical system, of which we have but faint indications in the Vedas.
We have the whole body of religious and social institutions far more complicated than the simple ritual of the Samhitas; four castes with the Brahmins at the top and the Sudras at the bottom have been recognized both in theory and in practice‑all this shows that the Brahmanas must have been composed a long time after the Vedas.
It is, however, obvious that the Brahmanas were a kind of a scriptural authority for the Brahmanical form of worship and social institutions.
The third integral part of the Vedas, namely, the Aranayakas, intended for the study of the anchorites in the forests in the third stage of their life, led ultimately to the Upanisads or Vedantas as the concluding portion of the Vedas. These were meant for the ascetics in the fourth stage of their lives called the Sannyasa Asrama.
Literally, the word Upanisad means “a sitting besides.” i. e., a lesson taught by the teacher to the pupils sitting by his side. These discourses expounded in enigmatic formulae a series of esoteric doctrines to the selected few students, mainly Brahmins, who were deemed, fit to receive such a course of instruction.
Considering the age which gave birth to the Upanisads for understanding some of the major problems of life, one marvels at the depth and insight of the early Hindu seers. Their attitude towards the Vedas was not one of veneration; it was on the contrary an attitude of doubt and disrespect. While they considered Vedas to be of divine origin, they felt at the same time that the Vedic knowledge was inferior to the true divine insight and could not liberate them.21
They were not concerned with the world of phenomena and denounced with all the force at their disposal the rich and elaborate ritualism then prevalent. Sacrifice, an integral part of the Vedic faith, had no significance for then. Their interest lay not in the outer world but in the inner and, within that, in the mystery of the self.
The introverted Brahmins were accordingly carried far beyond the realm of the anthropomorphic deities of the early Vedic period and devoted attention to that all‑transcending principle from which all natural forces and events were supposed to proceed. The Upanisads, however, fall short of offering a coherent presentation of the Brahmanic doctrine of the Universal Soul‑in‑all‑things. “This is only found in them in fragments, some small, some large. And in addition these fragments are the work of various schools and various ages. Those who have described the Upanisads as chaotic are not altogether wrong.”22
It would be hard to say what philosophical opinions might not be supported on their authority, for the most part contradictory statements find a place in them, yet the tendency is on the whole towards pantheism. The Upanisads teach the identity of the soul of all beings both animate and inanimate with the Universal Soul. Since the Universal Soul dwells in all, one finds one's own self in all things, both living and nonliving.
In this light alone can the meaning of the famous tat tvam asi (That art thou) of the Upanisads be understood. The human self is not a part of the Divine Self, but is the Brahman‑Atman whole and undivided. The Self is consequently a single principle, which, philosophically speaking, can offer an explanation for the entire spectacle of nature.
It is often said that the pillars on which the edifice of Indian philosophy rests are Atman and Brahman. These terms have no fixed connotation in the Upanisads. Generally speaking, Atman is used to designate self or soul, while Brahman is used to denote the primary cause of things.
What is remarkable about these terms is that though their significance is different, one denoting an inner world of subjectivity and the other an objective principle of explanation, yet in course of time the two came to be used interchangeably‑both signifying an eternal principle of the universe.
The notion of the self was arrived at through introspection and it was thought by the Upanisads thinkers that the outer reality should correspond exactly with the psychical reality within. In this way what was simply a psychical principle came to be recognized as a world principle.
This strain of thought was supported by another which objectively traced the visible universe to a single source, namely, Brahman, and Brahman was identified with the Atman. Thus, two independent currents of thought met together and paved the way to monism of an idealistic type which has remained till now the hallmark of Indian philosophy.
By combining subjective and objective principles into one, the ultimate principle partook of the characteristics of both‑it became infinite as well as spiritual. All this is very well expressed in Chandogya‑Upanisad in a dialogue between a father and a son. The sum and substance of the story is that the primal spiritual principle is all‑comprehensive and that the principle is no other than the self of the person then engaged in the discussion.
With regard to the nature of Brahman (the Absolute) there is a great divergence of opinion. At some places He is conceived as cosmic, i.e., all‑comprehensive, at others acosmic, i.e., all‑exclusive. Further, at some places Brahman is imagined as the impersonal Absolute without attributes; at other places he is recognized as the highest spiritual Being that unites all forms of perfection in Himself.
Hence it would be no exaggeration to say that though the Upanisads contain flashes of insight, yet they are not a self‑contained homogeneous system and that they also lack completeness.
It is for this reason that Samkara believes that there are two types of doctrines in the Upanisads: esoteric, understanding God as the impersonal, unknowable Absolute without attributes, and the other exoteric, regarding God as a Person who manifests Himself in the various divinities.
The second interpretation of the Absolute as a Person led to the development of a theology largely theistic in spirit yet polytheistic in practice, since it sanctioned symbol‑worship which expressed itself in various forms of idolworship. The Upanisads are not, however, responsible for the excesses of later theology. In them breathes a spirit of monism. They preach a cult of mystical union with the Absolute, and suggest practical methods for its realization.
In the main the stress is laid upon complete detachment from all that is mundane and belongs to the world of phenomena. Accordingly, one finds in the Upanisads a whole series of sayings in which complete renunciation is recommended. “When all desires which are in his heart disappear, then man becomes immortal.
Here he has already reached Brahman. As the old slough of a snake lies on an ant‑hill, so now does the body lie there.”23 According to the Upanisads, the highest merit called Preryas, which consists in the realization of one's true self, can be reached through knowledge alone. The purpose of ethics, on the other hand, is quite distinct, namely, mundane good called Preyas which is reached by moral actions.
The two ends are consequently poles apart, one concerned with the timeless good and the other with the temporal and evanescent good. It is said in Katha‑Upanisad24 that the ethical and the spiritual goals are opposed to each other as light and darkness and cannot co‑exist. A man has to renounce all activity for worldly goods if he wants to achieve spiritual unity with the Supreme Being. One cannot, therefore, select both knowledge and action as two ends of life, since the highest end must be one and not many.
The ideal of detachment was emphasized by the Indian thinkers not only for the reason that it was necessitated by their theory of human deliverance, but also because they regarded the whole phenomenal world of names, forms, and plurality as maya or a mere unreality, an illusion having only a temporary reality which is transcended ultimately in the being of the Supreme Self.
The Upanisads demand the votaries of Brahma to ponder over the illusoriness and unreality of the world of senses and to extricate themselves from its temptations and enchantments by contemplation of a transcendental reality within the soul of each person. Thus can a person get to spiritual heights and achieve mukti or salvation.
Hence along with the renunciation of the phenomenal world another thing required is the concentration of the spirit on the supersensible reality. The Upanisads contain detailed instructions on this subject.
The aim is to reach a stage of ecstasy in which a person has the psychical experience of feeling one with the Ultimate Reality.
The ethics‑negating tendencies, however, could not be maintained consistently in face of the demands and concrete realities of life. The ideal of human salvation as outlined by the Upanisads cannot be achieved easily and so many are destined to fail. This is realized by the Indian sages. “What is hard for many even to hear, what many fail to understand even though they hear: a marvel is the one that can teach it and lucky is its obtainer; a marvel is he that knows it when taught by the wise.”25
The majorities are born again after death and can win release from the cycle of births and deaths through the performance of good deeds. Thus ethics rejected by Brahmanic mysticism enters through the doctrine of the Transmigration of Souls‑a doctrine unknown to the Vedas.
The doctrine referred to above appears in connection with a myth. “All who depart from this world go to the moon. The waxing half fills itself with their lives; in the waning half it is effecting their rebirth. The moon is the gate of the heaven. He who knows how to reply to it, him it allows to pass by.
He who cannot reply, it sends him as rain down to the earth; he is reborn here and there according to his deeds and knowledge as worm, moth, fish, bird, lion, wild bear, jackal, tiger, man, or whatever it may be. For when a man comes to the moon, the moon asks: `Who art thou? 'Then he ought to answer: Iam thou . . . .'
If he speaks thus, then the moon lets him get away, out above itself.”26 One finds no reference to the myth in the Vedas. From this it is concluded that it is not Aryan in origin but belonged to the religious world of the aboriginal inhabitants of India.
The law which governs the kind of birth a soul is destined to have after each death is the law of karma, which signifies that nothing can happen in the moral world without a cause. But the recognition of the fact that moral events are caused by antecedent factors cannot explain the palpably indemonstrable and poetic way in which the moral causes are believed to operate.
Those moral causes can work in samsara, that is to say, in a series of births and deaths, all of which do not necessarily pertain to human beings, is a hypothesis of a very doubtful nature and utility.
That the doctrine of reincarnation is inconsistent with the Brahmanic mysticism of the identity of the individual with the Universal Soul goes without saying. Instead of the doctrine that every individual soul returns to the Universal Soul after inhabiting the body once, we are required to believe in a theory which starts from new premises altogether.
This theory is based on the supposition that souls are prisoners in the world of sense and can return to their Primal Source not at once after their first death, as required by the theory of mystical absorption of the Brahmins, but after undergoing a long process of reincarnation necessitating a series of births in the animate and inanimate realms.
Schweitzer thinks27 that the acceptance of this doctrine created insuperable difficulties for Hindu thought. On the older hypothesis of mystical reunion with the Divine Source it was easy to explain world redemption on the assumption that all souls returned to their Source after their death.
But if the theory of reincarnation is accepted, world redemption becomes possible only if all souls reach the level of human existence and become capable of acquiring that knowledge and conduct which is required for liberation and of which human beings alone are capable.
The Epic Period – Two great events belong to this period. The first is the expedition of Rama from Oudh to Ceylon to recover his wife Sita who had been carried off by Ravana, the king of that island, and the second is the struggle for supremacy between two rival Ksatriya groups, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, in which Lord Krsna played a significant part.
Rama is an avatar, i. e., a divine incarnation of Visnu, who being the preserver of the universe had to leave his celestial abode very often and to assume different forms in order to destroy evil and establish truth. The purpose of this avatar was to kill the ten‑headed Ravana, who had pleased the mighty gods through his austerities and as a result had received a boon from them which was that he could not be killed by any god.
Feeling secure, he started a campaign of terror against both gods and men. The gods approached Brahma who had granted immunity to Ravana. He remarked that Ravana could be killed by a god assuming the form of a man since Ravana had not been granted immunity from mankind. Visnu undertook to be born as a man to rid the world of evil.
He was accordingly born in the house of a king, Dasaratha by name, who ruled over Ayodhya and bore the name of Rama. As he came of age he married Sita, who “was an incarnation of Laksmi, Visnu's wife, and was born of no woman but of mother earth herself, and was picked up by Janaka from a paddy field.”28
Rama became the victim of court intrigues, and for fourteen years had to suffer exile in jungles from where Sita was carried off by Ravana. To rescue Sita from the clutches of Ravana, Rama contracted military alliance with ganuman, the king of monkeys, with whose active support he reached Ceylon and learnt the secrets of Ravana's power from a brother of Ravana. Then ensued a fierce battle in which the armies suffered losses.
At last Ravana came out and met Rama in a single combat. “Each like a flaming lion fought the other; head after head of the ten‑necked one did Rama cut away with his deadly arrows, but new heads ever rose in place of those cut off, and Ravana's death seemed no wise nearer than before. The arrows that had slain Maricha and Khara and Bali could not take the king of Lanka's life away.
Then Rama took up the Brahma weapon given to him by Agastya, the Wind lay in its (weapon's) wings, the Sun and Fire in its head, in its mass the weight of Meru and Mandara. Blessing that shaft with Vedic Mantras, Rama set it with his mighty bow and loosed it and it sped to its appointed place and cleft the breast of Ravana and, bathed in blood, returned and entered Rama's quiver.”29
The most popular avatar of Visnu is Lord Krsna, whose main object was to kill Kansa, a demon born of a woman, and who was well known for his childish tricks and many practical jokes on milk‑maids. He was, however, a great warrior and a strategist. He killed many demons and kings.
Bhagavad‑Gita - It was Lord Krsna who sang the Bhagavad‑Gita (the song celestial) to Arjuna, giving the most widely accepted view of life among the Hindus. Says Mahatma Gandhi, “I find a solace in the‑Bhagavad‑Gita that I miss even in the Sermon on the Mount. When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not a ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavad-Gita. I feel a verse here and there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies, and if they have left no scar on me I owe it all to the teachings of the Bhagavad‑Gita.”
According to Sankaracharya, a great scholiast, the main function of the Gita is to epitomize the essentials of the whole Vedic teachings. A knowledge of its teachings leads to the realization of all aspirations. The real purpose of this great song, as Zimmer thinks,30 is to harmonize the non‑Brahmanical pre‑Aryan thought of aboriginal India with the Vedic ideas of the Aryan invaders.
The Gita, therefore, “displays a kaleidoscopic interworking of the two traditions that for some ten centuries had been contending for the control and mastery of the Indian mind. Its teachings are founded upon the Upanisadic principle of an all‑unifying, transcendental reality, but they also accommodate not only the gods of the earlier Vedic pantheon but also the philosophic and devotional formulae of the non‑Aryan and aboriginal tradition.
It was not an easy task. The Gita had to pick up scattered and heterogeneous material to reconcile the irreconcilable tendencies of that age and to present a unified view of life. Little wonder that the attempt has appeared to the Western scholars as no better than an `ill‑assorted cabinet of primitive philosophical opinions.'31
There were the Vedas with their belief in multiple divinities; there were the Upanisads with their revolt against the ritualism of the Vedas and their anthropomorphic conception of gods; there was the doctrine of renunciation; and finally there were the Sanikhya and the Yoga principles. And if we add to them the heretical tendencies, particularly those represented by Buddhism, we realize how confusing the situation was and what an uphill task Lord Krsna had before him.
It would be futile to look for a consistent and neat metaphysical system in the Gita, for the Gita is not primarily a book of recondite and abstruse thinking, written with the object of presenting a world‑view. It has a much loftier purpose, which is to relate the broad principles of metaphysical reality to the fundamental aspirations of mankind. This is not accomplished through abstract reasoning which only a few can understand but by selecting a specific situation involving a moral dilemma and pointing out how it is overcome.
The occasion was a battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The latter were led by Arjuna whose spirits were unmanned and who felt reluctant to start the battle seeing on both sides his friends, relations, and teachers who were likely to be killed in the event of a war. At this juncture his charioteer who was none other than Lord Krsna himself addressed to him the Song Celestial, propounding to him as well as to the whole of mankind the Yoga of selfless action (karma‑yoga).
The significance of this teaching will become obvious if we refer to the two ideals which were prevalent then: one, the negative one of renunciation and the other, the positive one, of active life. The first recommended complete withdrawal from the work a day world and the second encouraged living in society undertaking all the obligations implied thereby.
The object of the Gita is to discover a golden mean, to reconcile as it were the claims of renunciation and active participation in the affairs of society. This is done through the doctrine of karma‑yoga which means doing one's duty without the thought of consequences.
“Giving up or carrying on one's work, both lead to salvation; but of the two, carrying on one's work is the more excellent,” says Lord Krsna in the Bhagavad‑Gita. He also says, “Neither does man attain to (the state of) being without work by undertaking no work, nor does he reach perfection by simply shunning the world.” What is required is a spirit of detachment where the heart of a person is free from the outward motives to action. “Thy interest shall only be directed to the deed, never to the fruits thereof,” says Lord Krsna.
A natural consequence of this theory is that even what is judged as evil from human standards can be approved of, if the agent feels that the task selected by him is one which must be fulfilled. “Even if a thorough scoundrel loves me and nothing else, he must be deemed good; for he has well resolved.”32 “Even if thou wert the most sinful of all sinners, yet thou wouldst pass over all guilt with the boat of knowledge alone.”33 With these words Arjuna is urged to fight against his relations, for his killing would not be an evil: it would be a necessary consequence of the duty he has to discharge.
The ethics of detachment as preached by the Gita is laudable no doubt, but, as Schweitzer says, “It grants recognition to activity, only after activity has renounced natural motives and its natural meaning.”34 An action loses its significance when it ceases to be purposive. The Gita raises a voice of protest against the soul‑killing and life‑negating cult of renunciation, but it has not gone far enough.
Renunciation remains when the end of an activity is no concern of a person. “The Bhagavad‑Gita has a sphinx‑like character. It contains such marvellous phrases about inner detachment from the world, about the attitude of the mind which knows no hatred and is kind, and about loving self‑devotion to God, that we are wont to overlook its non‑ethical contents.”35
Among the systems which defied the authority of the Vedas may be mentioned the Carvaka, Jainism, and Buddhism:
This system seems to be fairly old. It is mentioned in the Rg‑Veda, the Epics, and the Bhagavad‑Gita. The main work on the system, the Brhaspati‑Sutra (600 B.C.), is lost and its teachings have to be reconstructed from criticism of it in other works.
The Carvaka is a non‑Vedic, materialistic, and anti‑supernaturalistic doctrine which holds that only this world exists and there is nothing beyond. There is no future life. Madhava Acharya says in Sarvadarsanasangrgha, “The efforts of Carvaka are indeed hard to be eradicated, for the majority of living beings hold by the refrain:
While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death's searching eye:
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it e'er again return?”36
“The mass of men, in accordance with the Sastras of policy and enjoyment are found to follow only the doctrine of Carvaka. Hence another name for that school is Lokayata ‑ a name well accordant with the thing signified.”37
The four elements alone are the ultimate principles and these are earth, water, fire, and air. Only the perceived exists; the unperceivable does not exist, simply for the reason of its never having been perceived. The only source of knowledge and the criterion of validity is perception. Every other source including that of inference is rejected. Inferential knowledge involves inductive relations and can never be demonstrably certain.
Empirical generalizations may possess a high degree of probability, but their operation in unknown cases can never be guaranteed. To avoid this difficulty, if it is maintained that the empirical laws connect the common features of the particular instances observed by a person, the Carvaka objects to it by saying that such a course would leave the particulars unrelated and that it is the particulars alone which matter.
As against the Upanisads which postulated five elements, the Carvaka admits of only four discarding the fifth one, viz., space. The whole universe including souls is interpreted strictly in terms of these elements. The self is nothing but the physical body as characterized by sentience. “The soul is but the body characterized by the attributes signified in the expressions, I am stout, I am youthful, I am grown up, I am old, etc. It is not something other than that body).”38
The Carvaka rejects outright all types of spiritual values and has faith in the present world only. “There is no world other than this; there is no heaven and no hell; the realms of Siva and like regions are invented by stupid impostors of other schools of thought ....
The wise should enjoy the pleasures of this world through the proper visible means of agriculture, keeping cattle, trade, political administration, etc.”39 The authority of the Vedas is repudiated not only on the ground that their teachings are irrational, but also because of the inconsistencies which render it impossible to know what they really teach.
The Carvaka is a protest against the excessive spirituality of the early Brahmanic thought. It recognizes neither god nor conscience. It cares not for a belief in the life to come. Hence the ethical ideal is pleasure in this life and that too of the individual.
Since the main trend of Hindu thought: has been idealistic, the Carvaka system has contributed very little to the sum of Indian thought,40 and this is rather unfortunate. In view of the fact that the Vedas, the Upanisads, and the Gita reject the evidence of the senses as illusory, the Carvaka contention might have served as a corrective.
Jainism, according to Tomlin,41 is the most perplexing of all religions, for it is not only incredible but also impracticable. It denies life to the extent of recommending suicide as the most sacred act of which man is capable, and yet it has survived for two thousand years.
The founder of Jainism, Mahavira, was born in a Ksatriya family. His father was a wealthy person belonging to a religious sect which was opposed to the Vedas. This school of thought had materialistic tendencies and sceptical attitude very much akin to that of Carvaka. But it was not a thoroughgoing materialism.
It shared with the masses the horror of rebirth and advocated slow suicide through starvation as a remedy against transmigration. Mahavira's father got his wife converted to his viewpoint and in due course shared with her the martyrdom they desired.
Before following the example of his parents, Mahavira embarked upon a quest of wisdom and adopted an ascetic life. After two years of abstinence and self‑denial he withdrew himself from civilized life and dispensed with all the amenities of life including those of clothing. During the first six years of his peregrination, he observed frequent fasts of several months duration.
He voluntarily exposed himself to be maltreated by the Mlechcha tribes of Vajrabhumi and Lat who abused and beat him, and shot arrows at him, and baited him with dogs, to all of which he offered no resistance. At the end of the ninth year, Mahavira relinquished his silence, but continued the practice of self‑mortification.
The whole of the time spent by him in these preparatory exercises was twelve years acid six months, and of this he fasted nearly eleven years.
The Jains have a tradition that saviours are sent to the world whenever mankind is plunged in corruption and sin. Mahavira was twenty‑fourth in the line.
Mahavira denied the divine origin and infallible authority of the Vedas. His religion is, therefore, reckoned as a heterodox religion. Its cosmology and anthropology is non‑Aryan. While Brahmanism is the representative of Vedic Aryan thought and beliefs, Buddhism; Jainism, and a host of other doctrines relate themselves to the native genius and expose the pessimistic dualism which underlies so much of Indian philosophy.
Jainism is a philosophy of the profoundest pessimism. It visualizes the world as a round of endless rebirths, full of sufferings and entirely useless. One shall have to pass through periods of inconsequential pleasures and unbearable pains unless one obtains a release through austerities and self‑abnegation.
In the Jaina‑Sutras, suicide is called “the incomparable religious death,” requiring in some cases a whole life‑time to cultivate a proper frame of mind for its performance.
It is essential that all types of longings including those of death be completely eradicated from one's consciousness. Hence one has to bring about one's extinction in a mood beyond both desire and aversion.
As regards the philosophy of Jainism, it may be said that an eternal and presiding First Cause forms no part of this system, nor do the Jains admit of soul or spirit as distinct from the living principle. They do believe in the independent and eternal existence of spirit and matter, but by spirit they do not mean universal spirit as they have no faith in the Supreme Soul.
The spirits called jivas are eternal but limited and variable because of which they can adjust themselves to the size of the body they happen to inhabit. Their essence is knowledge which is not empirical or sensory. As a matter of fact, perception is a check upon the absolute sight of the soul. In order that the soul may regain its true nature, it is necessary that limitations imposed by the senses be done away with.
The Jains believe in both transmigration and karma. The latter operates by itself. Being a subtle particle of matter, it enters the soul and soils it. Hence no supreme being in the form of God is required to allot rewards and punishments.
Mahavira says, “The world is without bounds like a formidable ocean; its cause is action (karma) which is as the seed of the tree. The being (jiva) invested with body, but devoid of judgment, goes like a well‑sinker ever downwards by the acts it performs, whilst the disembodied being which has attained purity goes ever upwards by its own acts like the builder of a palace. “42
Ajiva, the second predicate of existence, comprises objects or properties devoid of consciousness and life. It is regarded as five‑fold. Out of these, matter is atomic in the final analysis. It possesses the qualities of colour, taste, odour, and touch.
All the atoms are supposed to possess souls so that the whole universe seems to be pulsating with life. Time, another ajiva, is eternal. The world has neither an origin nor an end.
As already observed, the karmic particles are mingled with the life‑monads. It is held that they communicate colours to them which may be white, yellow, flaming‑red, dove‑grey, dark‑blue, or black. These colours are perceived by the Jaina Tirthankaras by virtue of their boundless intuition or omniscience.
Ordinarily, black is the characteristic colour of the cruel and the merciless, dark‑blue that of the greedy and the sensual, dove‑grey of the reckless and the hot‑tempered, red of the prudent, yellow of the compassionate and the white of the dispassionate and the impartial.
In the ethics of Mahavira, social life has no place. It is perfect nonactivity in thought, speech, and deed that is recommended. One should be dead to pain and enjoyment and also to all other interests including the intellectual, social, and political to achieve liberation from the bondage of physical existence. Cessation of activity is a stepping‑stone to the superhuman sphere‑a sphere which is not only above human beings but also beyond gods.
The doctrine of ahimsa which means renunciation of the will to kill and to damage is an article of faith with the Jains. In the Ayaramgasutta, a Jaina text, it is written, “All saints and Lords . . . declare thus: One may not kill, nor ill‑use, nor insult, nor torment, nor persecute any kind of living beings, any kind of creature, any kind of thing having a soul, any kind of beings.”43
The Jains do not offer bloody sacrifices, do not eat meat, never hunt, and take care that they do not trample on creeping things and insects. The laying down of this commandment is a great thing in the spiritual history of mankind; but it has to be said that the principle is altogether impracticable. It has been assumed that non‑killing and non‑harming are possible of fulfilment in this world of ours.
Even on purely biological grounds, if on no others, it becomes necessary sometimes to kill as well as to damage both intentionally and unintentionally. “It is crueler to let domestic animals which one can no longer feed die a painful death by starvation than to give them a quick and painless end by violence. Again and again we see ourselves placed under the necessity of saving one living creature by destroying or damaging another.”44
As a prince, Buddha's name was Siddhartha and his family name Gautama; his father's name Suddhodana, and his mother's Maya. It is interesting to note that all these navies have meanings from which it is conjectured that Buddha might not have been a historical person. Suddhodana means “he whose food is pure,” Maya means “an illusion,” Siddhartha means “he by whom the end is accomplished,” while Buddha signifies “he by whom all is known.”
These meanings suggest an allegorical signification, very much in the style of the Pilgrim's Progress. The city of Buddha's birth, Kapilavastu, which has no place in the geography of the Hindus, lends weight to this supposition.
But, in spite of the allegorical interpretation as suggested by the etymology of the names, the historians are pretty well agreed in regarding Buddha as a historical person who lived six centuries before Christ and who was so much disturbed by the transience and miseries of the earthly existence that he renounced his power and wealth and devoted himself to solitary meditation.
He engaged himself in sacred study under different Brahmins, but dissatisfied with their teaching he retired into solitude. For six years he practised rigorous austerities. Finding their effect upon the body unfavourable to intellectual energy, he desisted from it and adopted a more genial course of life. At last knowledge dawned upon him, and he was in possession of the object of his search, which he communicated to others.
Buddha had no doubt that the mundane existence is replete with sorrows, afflictions, and tribulations. Not only this; he also believed that the misery of life is unending. All fulfilment of desires is attended by pain. The causes of pain, according to Buddha, are not economical, social, or political. They are rooted in the very nature of human life because of the fact that like everything else it is ephemeral and transitory.
Even souls are impermanent and our ignorance on this point is the major reason of our suffering. Everything is in a flux. We deceive ourselves into thinking that there is a permanent base for change. It is the Law of Causality which binds together the continuous vibration and infinite growth which characterize this world.
Buddha did not believe in any ontological reality which is permanent and which endures beneath the shifting appearances of the visible world. He also repudiated the Upanisadic view of a permanent Atman and held that search for a permanent soul inside the body is in vain.
Buddha supposed that the law of karma worked into our very nature and that there was no escape from it, the present and the future being the result of the past. Karma is overcome through nirvana which puts an end to the cycle of births and deaths.
Nirvana literally means blowing out; hence it suggests extinction. It is sometimes contended that nirvana is not a negative goal; it has a positive aspect as well. It is not simply extinction but also a state of blessedness or perfection. It is a kind of existence, devoid of egoity and full of peace, calm, and bliss.
To achieve nirvana, Buddha recommended a path of self‑discipline which is eight‑fold: right faith, right resolve, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right thought, and right concentration. The emphasis is on right living which is different in the case of a layman and a monk. The first four are applicable to all, while the remaining four are applicable especially to the priestly class.
The practical part of Buddha's system has the same duality. Five negative injunctions, namely, not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, and not to use strong drinks, are binding on all, while not to take repasts at improper times, not to witness dances and plays, not to have costly raiments and perfumes, not to have a large bed or quilt, and not to receive gold or silver, are meant for priests only.
Similarly, the virtues of charity, purity, patience, courage, contemplation, and silence have to be cultivated by all, but there are twelve observances binding on recluses only.
They have to use clothes made of rags picked up from burning grounds, to have only three such suits all sewn by the wearer's own hand, to have a cloak of yellow wool prepared in the same manner, to live only on food given in charity, to take only one meal daily, never to eat or drink after midday, to live in forests, to have no roof but the foliage of trees, to sit with the back supported by the trunk of a tree, to sleep sitting and not lying, never to change the position of the carpet when it has once been spread, and to go once a month to burning grounds to meditate on the vanity of life on the earth.
Thus, there is a complete distinction between the religion for the masses and the discipline for priesthood. The former is quite human while the latter is cold‑hearted and unnatural. Ultimate release from transmigration can be attained, in the opinion of Buddha, only after one becomes a monk. The religion of the masses is good for human relationship, but not for the liberation of the soul from the cycle of births and deaths.
For Buddha a Brahmin is one who cares not for others, who has no relations, who controls himself, who is firmly fixed in the heart of truth, in whom the fundamental evils are extinguished, and who has thrown hatred away from him. No doubt, one finds here an emphasis on the cultivation of ethical virtues but renunciation and condemnation of worldly ties are also evident. Buddha wants men to be occupied with their own redemption and not with that of their fellow‑beings.
Buddha attaches no importance to such knowledge as entangles a man in the net of life. There are no doubt practical and theoretical systems of knowledge which enable people to acquire skills and crafts, but ultimately they have no value. Says Buddha, “Such knowledge and opinions, if thoroughly mastered, will lead inevitably to certain ends and produce certain results in one's life.
The enlightened one is aware of all these consequences and also of what lies behind them. But he does not attach much importance to this knowledge. For within himself he fosters another knowledge, the knowledge of cessation, of the discontinuance of worldly existence, of utter repose by emancipation.
He has perfect insight into the manner of the springing into existence of our sensations and feelings and their vanishing again with all their sweetness and bitterness, into the way of escape from them altogether, and into the manner in which by non‑attachment to them through right knowledge of their character he has himself won the release.”45
Religiously, Buddhism is divided into two great schools, the orthodox, known as the Hinayana, and the progressive, known as the Mahayana. The former, representing Buddhism, faithfully believes in the relentless working of the law of karma and refuses to assign any place to God in the scheme of things. The individual has to win his liberation through his own efforts by treading the path of rightness as delineated by Buddha.
The responsibility of achieving salvation falls squarely on the shoulders of the individual. Before Buddha breathed his last, he advised his followers to work out their salvation with diligence. Philosophically, the Hinayana Buddhism advocates pure phenomenalism, maintaining the non‑existence of substances or individuals. What exists is merely passing entities, there being feelings but no feeler, thoughts but no thinker.
The Hinayana school could not satisfy the masses because of its abstract, dry, and arid approach to the problems of life and also because of its denial of God. Its ethics smacked of egoism, since the Hinayana Buddhist was exclusively concerned with his own emancipation, having nothing to do with the moral needs of others. The Mahayana school sought to rectify these mistakes by taking a more realistic view of religion.
Instead of the ideal of personal liberation it recommended the “liberation of all sentient beings” as the summun bonum of human life. It also rehabilitated God, by identifying Buddha with a transcendental reality behind the world of phenomena, Gautama being an incarnation of the Buddha.
The Hinayana school denied reality to the Self: but the Mahayana school resuscitated the Self too, by holding that it was the little individual self that was false and not the Self of all beings, the one transcendental Self (Mahatman).
Though Buddha had abhorrence for metaphysical jargon, his religion being an ethical system with no supernaturalism yet his followers failed to keep themselves away from ontological and epistemological questions of abstruse nature. Consequently, there emerged four schools, two under the Hinayana and two under the Alahavana sect, on the basis of their metaphysical predilections.
1. The Madhyamika School of Sunyavada - According to this school, everything is void and the universe is totally devoid of reality. In support of their contention they argue that the knower, the known, and knowledge are interdependent and if any one in the series is proved false it will entail the falsity of the other two.
It is maintained by the proponents of this theory that cases of illusion demonstrate the falsity of knowledge; consequently, the truth of the other two factors in this epistemological trinity cannot be guaranteed.
2. The Yogacara School of Subjective Idealism ‑ This school was one with the Madhyamika in dismissing all external reality as illusion, but could not see eye to eye with it in respect of mind. It was urged that if mind was pronounced unreal along with matter, then all reasoning and thinking would be false. It would be as impossible to establish your own position as to demolish the position of your adversary, once mind is dismissed as maya.
To this school, mind is the only reality; the external objects exist simply as ideas. No object can be known without consciousness of it; hence the objects cannot be proved to have an existence independent of consciousness.
3. The Sautrantika School of Representationism ‑ This school believes in the existence of mind and also of the external world. The Sautrantikas maintain that illusions cannot be explained in the absence of external objects. Moreover the objects do not exist as ideas; rather our ideas are copies of objects which exist by their own nature.
4. The Vaibhasika School ‑ This school recognizes the reality of mind as well as of matter and further holds like the neo‑realists of the West that unless the object is perceived, there is no means of certifying that the so‑called copy is a faithful representation of the original. The only plausible position in that case would be subjective idealism of the Yogacara School; and if for some reason the theory of subjective idealism is untenable, then it should be conceded that objects are capable of being perceived directly.
There are six systems which are recognized as orthodox. Each is called a darsana or a view because it embodies a way of looking at the world. They are generally treated together, in pairs. The first pair includes the Nyaya or the school of Logic founded by Gautama and the Atomic school founded by Kanada.
There are, however, reasons to believe that the two systems were organized into one in the fourth/tenth century long after the Muslims had settled down in India and had made their mark on Indian thought and culture. The analysis of the ideas incorporated into the systems after their unification will amply bear this out.
Accordingly, these two systems will receive separate treatment after the other systems. The remaining four systems were organized into two pairs before the advent of the Muslims and will be discussed together.
While discussing these systems we shall have to ignore such thinkers as were born after the second/eighth century and whose contributions show unmistakable signs of Muslim influence. Their thinking is not purely Indian; it is at least not on conservative lines. There are radical departures both in the understanding of problems and their solutions, and these departures can be accounted for on no other hypothesis than the impact of Muslim thought on the Indian mind.
The first pair to be mentioned will include the Sankhya or Numeral system said to be founded by Kapila and the Yoga or the Mystic system founded by Patanjali; the second pair will include the Purva‑Mimamsa, the original decider, founded by Jaimini, and the Uttara‑Mimamsa, the second decider, said to be founded by Vyasa.
The authors of the various schools as given above are generally accepted by the Hindus as real, but there is a great deal of doubt about their authenticity. Rene Guenon writing about Gautama, the author of Nyaya, says:
“This name should not be taken as referring to any single individual and it is not accompanied in this case by any biographical details of the vaguest kind . . . the name denotes what is really an `intellectual aggregate' made up of all those who over a period . . . devoted themselves to one and the same study .... The same could be said of the proper names that we find associated in a similar way with each of the other darsanas.”46
1 & 2. Sankhya and Yoga ‑ These two systems are the outer and the inner aspects of a single discipline. In the Bhagavad‑Gita there is written, “Puerile and unlearned people speak of `enumerating knowledge' (Sankhya) and the `practice of introvert concentration' (Yoga) as distinct from each other, yet anyone firmly established in either gains the fruit of both.
The state attained by the followers of the path of enumerating knowledge is attained also through the exercises of introvert concentration. He truly sees who regards as one the intellectual attitude of enumerating knowledge and the practice of concentration.”47 Sankhya is a theoretical system describing the elements of human nature, its bondage and release, while Yoga is a practical discipline to gain the same end through the practice of yogic exercises.
According to Zimmer, “The main conceptions of this dual system are (i) that the universe is founded on an irresoluble, dichotomy of `life‑monads' (purusa) and lifeless matter (prakrti), (ii) that `matter,' though fundamentally simple and uncompounded, nevertheless exfoliates, or manifests itself, under three distinctly differentiated aspects (the so‑called gunas) which are comparable to the three strands of a rope, and (iii) that each one of the `life‑monads' (purusa) associated with matter is involved in the bondage of an endless `round of transmigration' (samsara).”48
Prakrti is a primal entity, out of which the physical universe with all its infinite diversity has evolved. It is all‑pervasive and complex. Its complexity is due to the fact that it is constituted of three gunas, namely, sattya, rajas, and tamas, which, though different, nevertheless work harmoniously to produce an ordered world. Sattya means what is pure, rajas signifies what is active, while tamas stands for what offers resistance.
These three gunas are present in every object since the effect cannot be other than its material cause. This doctrine, according to which nothing new can originate and the effects should be entirely determined. By their antecedent factors, goes by the name of “the doctrine of pre‑existent effect.” The gunas do not combine in the same ratio in every object and that accounts for the multiplicity and the infinite diversity of things.
The first thing to evolve from the prakrti was the intellect, which in turn produced egoism or individuality. From the sattya aspect of egoism there preceded five sense‑organs, while from the tamers aspect there emerged five motor organs.
Thus, the first to emerge in the course of evolution were those objects which parusa needed. Out of the simple and subtle elements arose gross elements, e.g., space emerged from elemental sound, air from space and elemental tough, fire from these two and elemental colour, so on and so forth.
So far we have naturalism in its most aggressive form, but it is diluted by its recognition of purusa alongside prakrti as an equally important principle in the constitution of the world. Purusa is manifold and simple in contradistinction to prakrti which is single and complex. How can two principles of contradictory attributes come to work together, is a difficult point in this theory.
Purusa is often defined as a pure spirit by virtue of the fact that it is non matter, and yet it has no spirituality about itself. It can be defined only negatively: it is without attributes, without motion “imperishable, inactive, and impassive.” After a person acquires full knowledge of the purusa, he becomes indifferent to both the subtle and the gross elements of his material existence.
When death comes finally, the subtle and the gross elements dissolve, but the purusa continues to exist having now been released once for all from the clutches of the gunas. This is “final aloofness,” or isolation, the summum bonum of yogic practices.
“Yoga consists in the (intentional) stoppage of the spontaneous activities of the life‑staff.”49 As the mind is in constant commotion, it assumes the shapes of the objects it cognizes. In order to understand its true nature all impulses from within and without have to be stopped.
The life‑monad is so to say in the bondage of life and consciousness; it has to reveal all the processes of the subtle and gross body. In its own nature it is propertyless, without beginning and end, infinite, and all‑pervading.
The only problem with man is to realize his actual freedom by separating the life‑monad from all distraction and turbulent conditions. To achieve this objective the Sankhya‑Yoga philosophy prescribes the suppression of right notions arising from correct perceptions, and wrong notions due to misapprehensions, fantasy, sleep, and memory.
When this is accomplished, the mind is stilled. The goal is isolation which becomes possible when the purity of contemplation equals the purity of the life‑monad.
This is explained by a commentator of Patanjali in the words, “When the contemplative power (sattya) of the thinking substance is freed from the defilement of the active power (rajas) and the force of inertia (tamas) and has no further task than that involved in transcending the presented idea of difference between itself (sattya) and the life‑monad (purusa) and when the interior seeds of hindrances (klesa) have all been burnt, then the contemplative power (sattya) enters into a state of purity equal to that of the life‑monad.
This purity is neither more nor less than the cessation of the false attribution of experience to the life‑monad. That is the life‑monad's isolation. Then the purusa having its light within itself becomes undefiled and isolated.”50
According to the Yoga philosophy, hindrances to the manifestation of the true nature of the purusa are ignorance; I am I, attachment or sympathy, repugnance or hatred, and the will to live. Moreover, the interplay of the gunas is a source of confusion. All these can be eradicated through asceticism, learning, and devotion, or complete surrender to the will of God.
Asceticism rids a yogi of passions and spiritual inertia; recitation of holy prayers initiates him in the art of religious detachment; while complete surrender to the will of God develops him spiritually, by making him regard God as the real cause of his achievements. Through this programme, the klesa, i. e., hindrances and impediments, are reduced to nothingness, the rajas and tamas are destroyed, and sattya alone remains to recognize the life‑monad in its pristine glory.
The yogic exercises of starving and torturing the body are calculated to eradicate not only the conscious but also the unconscious tendencies of our biological existence and so to attune the personality to a supersensible type of experience.
Through meditation and self‑torturing practices one reaches knowledge of the Truth, “Neither I am, nor is aught mine, nor do I exist.” Having gained this knowledge the purusa in peace and inaction contemplates nature which is of no interest to him, and at death attains its true life of isolation.
3 & 4. Mimamsa‑Purva and Uttara ‑ The object of the Purva-Mimasa, also called the Karama‑Mimamsa, i.e, Action‑Investigation, is to reach certainty on the subject of dharma or the religious duty of the Hindus, chiefly about the sacrifices and the methods of offering them. In course of time there came into vogue variant opinions and customs for the performance of every kind of ceremony.
The Brahmins had laid down very detailed instructions with regard to sacrificial duties but alongside them there had emerged local and family customs and conventions. These two were often hard to reconcile. Hence the problem was to bring the Brahmanic instructions intro harmony with one another and also with the existing family and local customs. A further problem was to discover in these customs a meaning that should satisfy every new generation.
The Purva‑Mimamsa consists of twelve books, all full of positive and negative injunctions about principal and subordinate rites concerning sacrifices. A cursory perusal of the Mimamsa clearly shows that the work is principally concerned with the interpretation of those Vedic texts as are required for sacrificial purposes and that it raises only incidentally, if at all, genuine metaphysical questions.
It does raise the question of the absolute authority of the Vedas together with the doctrine of their eternity, and discusses in this connection the problem of the eternity of sound and the relation between the sound of a word and its meaning.
The Purva‑Mimamsa is not a treatise on philosophy. Nevertheless, certain metaphysical ideas are implied, or find incidental expression in it. A charge of atheism is often brought against this system. The advocates of the Purva Mimamsa say, “There is no God, or Maker of the world; nor has the world any sustainer or destroyer, for every man obtains a recompense in conformity with his own work.
Nor indeed is there any maker of the Vedas, for their words are eternal. Their authoritativeness is self‑demonstrated; since it has been established from all eternity, how can it be dependent upon anything but itself?51 “ “
But in Max Muller's view this charge is based upon a misconception. The system does not attribute the fruit of sacrificial acts to any divine agency, nor does it make God responsible for the injustice that seems to prevail in the world.
Further, it gives evidence of a firm faith in the operation of the law of cause and effect and, consequently, ascribes the inequalities of the world to the working of good and bad deeds. But all this would not make the system atheistic. It simply proves that the Mimamsa has an unorthodox conception of God. Max Muller's contention seems to conflict with the Mimamsa itself, for the latter says, “Wherefore God? The world itself suffices for itself.”52
Uttara‑Mimamsa or Vedanta ‑ the term Vedanta literally means the end of the Vedas or the doctrines set forth in the closing chapters of the Vedas which are the Upanisads. The Uttara‑Mimamsa or Later Investigations as against Purva‑Mimamsa which are Prior Investigations is usually called Vedanta‑sutras or Brahma‑sutras.
The latter name is given to indicate that Brahman is the spirit embodied in the universe. The work is attributed to Badarayana, but in reality many writers of different times appear to have made their contributions towards its compilation. In five hundred and five sutras which consist mostly of two or three words each, the whole system is developed. The sutras are, however, unintelligible by themselves and leave everything to the interpreters.
The Vedanta‑sutras discuss the whole theory of the Brahman in four chapters. The first chapter deals with the nature of the Brahman and his relation to the world and the individual souls; the second is polemical; the third deals with the ways and means of attaining Brahman‑vidya; and the fourth treats of the fruit of Brahman‑vidya and after‑life.
Badarayana believes both in the eternity and infallibility of the Vedas. He recognizes two sources of knowledge: sruti and smrti or perception and inference, and maintains that sruti is the basis for smrti. Similarly, he draws a hard and fast line between two realms: one amenable to reason and the other lying beyond it.
The area where reason is competent is that of prakrti together with its manifestations, while the realm of Brahman lies beyond the reach of discursive reasoning. Reason can flourish among properties, relations, and characteristics, while Brahman is devoid of all these things and, therefore, cannot be reached through inferential knowledge.
The only way to reach the Brahman is to cultivate intuition through meditation and devotion. It will reveal that the Brahman is the basis of reality: the material as well as the final cause of the universe. In creating the world God had no purpose to fulfil; what seems to be His activity is nothing but sport. God is omniscient, formless, and one, in whom the prakrti and the purusaof the Sankhya system combine, both being manifestations or modes of the same Ultimate Reality.
After creating the elements, Brahman entered into them and determined the characteristic manner of their development and production of other things. The Brahman, as it were, transforms Himself into everything that is caused by Him since cause and effect must have similar natures. Two illustrations are given to prove the identity of cause and effect; one is drawn from an inanimate object and the other from an animate object. It is said that when a piece of cloth is rolled up its real nature remains hidden, but when it is spread out it can be known truly.
Likewise a person is paralyzed if his breath is held but becomes active the moment his breath is released. In both these cases the qualities of the antecedent are different from those of the consequent although the object is the same, which shows that despite differences the cause and the effect remain identical. Brahman and the world are not disparate in spite of differences.
The wooden table is not different from the wood in its essential nature; similarly, Brahman is not different from the multiform objects of the universe.
The world is a sport or lila of the Brahman, which means that it is without purpose and without significance. It is hard to assign any meaning to the universe, since Vedantism declares, “Brahman is true, the world is false, the soul is Brahman and nothing else.” And again, “There is nothing worth gaining there is nothing worth enjoying, there is nothing worth knowing but Brahma alone, for he who knows Brahman is Brahman.”53
In calling the world a sport there is however no implication that God created sufferings for mankind to take pleasure out of them. This would be a very uncharitable view and altogether cynical. Sufferings, woes, and ills of men as well as of other objects, both animate and inanimate, are the result of their own karma ‑ a law of moral causation which works inexorably and leaves no scope for the interference of divine or non‑divine agencies. Likewise all evils and sins are due to karma; they are not caused by Brahman.
The self is concealed within five sheaths, that is to say, five superimposed psycho‑somatic layers which should be torn away through ethical discipline and self‑denial. Avidya (nescience) is lack of insight into the nature of reality and is a major hindrance in the path of moksa or release. It is an article of faith with Vedantism that liberation can be obtained through knowledge.
Since the Self is with us, though concealed and hidden behind five sheaths, when true knowledge is gained it will be seen that one realizes one's own true nature. This realization can be effected through yogic practices, critical thought, or any other orthodox way. Ethical discipline is also directed to the same end. Its object is to cleanse the soul through rigorous self‑discipline and impeccable conduct, in a spirit of non‑attachment.
The highest knowledge is Brahman‑vidya or vision of God which is attained through the realization of the Self. After an individual soul has reached Brahman there is no return for the liberated soul. This goal is expressed through the oft‑quoted verse from the Upanisads; “He who realizes Brahman through knowing becomes Brahman.”54
5. The Nyaya System ‑ As already observed, because of the singular absence or deficiency of historical data, little is known of Gautama, the author of Nyaya. He is as much a subject of fanciful legend as Kapila, the author of the Sankhya system.
The word nyaya means “propriety” or “fitness.” The system undertakes to declare the method of arriving at that knowledge of truth the fruit of which, it promises, is the chief end of man. The name is also used in a more limited application to denominate the proper method of setting forth an argument.
This has led to the practice of calling the Nyaya the Hindu logic, which by the way does not adequately describe the scope of the system. According to the author of the system, “Supreme felicity is attained through knowledge about the true nature of the sixteen categories (Padarthas).”55
The first work of the Nyaya system consists of sixty aphorisms, and the first sutra gives a list of the subjects to be discussed. These are sixteen in number:
(1) pramana or the means by which right knowledge may be gained; (2) prameya or the object of thought; (3) doubt; (4) motive; (5) instance or example; (6) dogma or determinate truth; (7) argument or syllogism; (8) confutation; (9) ascertainment; (10) controversy; (11) jangling; (12) objection or cavilling; (13) fallacy; (14) perversion, (15) futility; (16) conclusion or the confounding of an adversary.
Of the sixteen categories the first two are important; others are only subsidiary indicating the course which a discussion may take from the start to the finish, i.e., from the enunciation of the doubt to the confounding of the doubter.
The first category by the name of pramana signifies proof or evidence, and denotes the legitimate means of knowledge within the rational order. It enumerates four kinds of proofs, namely, perception by the senses (pratyaksa); inference (anumana) ; comparison (upamana) ; and verbal authority (sabda)including revelation and tradition. Inference, it says, is of three kinds: from cause to effect, from effect to cause, and by analogy.
The argument which is also called nyaya consists of five constituent members. These are: (1) the proposition to be proved (pratijnia), (2) the reason justifying this proposition (hetu), (3) the example cited in support of the reason (udahrana), (4) the application of the first proposition to the particular case in question (upanaya), and (5) the result (nigamana), which is a statement of the fact that the proposition has been proved.
A typical Indian syllogism would be as follows:
1. Yonder mountain has fire.
2. For it has smoke.
3. Whatever has smoke has fire.
4. Yonder mountain has smoke such as is invariably accompanied by fire.
5. Therefore, yonder mountain has fire.
The linguistic form is not considered necessary to syllogism. This is common to all forms of Indian logic.
According to the Nyaya, a notion or a concept can be either right or wrong. In the first case it is obtained through perception or inference or comparison or revelation. A wrong notion is one which is not derived from proof and originates either from doubt or from false premises or from error. A wise man avoids these as well as passions and aversions and is profoundly indifferent to all action.
Blessedness is deliverance from pain. The primary evil is pain. There are twenty‑one varieties of evil which spring from the organs of sense, from the objects of sense, from mental apprehensions, and even from pleasure. “The soul attains to this deliverance by knowledge, by meditation on itself, by not earning fresh merit or demerit through actions sprung from desire, and by becoming free from passions through knowledge of the evil inherent in objects. It is knowledge . . . and not virtue which obtains final deliverance from the body.”56
The Nyaya is predominantly intellectual and analytical. Its value lies in its methodology or the theory of knowledge on which it builds its philosophy. This theory it applies not only to one system but to all systems with modifications here and there. Chatterjee and Datta observe that “the Nyaya theory of pluralistic realism is not so satisfying as its logic. Here we have a common sense view of the world as a system of independent realities .... It does not give us a systematic philosophy of the world in the light of one universal absolute principle.57
The Indian syllogism bears a close resemblance to Aristotelian syllogism especially when it is simplified or abridged, consisting either of the last three or the first three terms only. It is, therefore, suggested by a good many historians that either Aristotle or the builders of the Nyaya system drew inspiration from the other. It is also possible that the obligation is mutual.
6. The Vaisesika System ‑ Vaisesika is derived from visesa which means difference, signifying thereby that multiplicity and not unity lies at the basis of the universe. It is expounded by Kanada in the Vaisesika‑Sutra which contains about five hundred and fifty aphorisms. Book 1 discusses the five categories‑substance, quality, action, community or genus, and particularity; Book 2 deals with the substances earth, water, air, ether, space, and time.
Book 3 is concerned with the problems of mind and self and also touches the theory of inference; Book 4 is about the atomic theory and discusses the nature of body and the visibility of quality; Book 5 deals with motion; Book 6 contains duties of the four stages of life; Book 7 treats of quality, the atomic theory, the self, and inherence together; Books 8 and 9 deal with perception and inference; while Book 10 is concerned with causality and other related questions.
A fundamental assumption of this system is that objects are independent of the perceiving mind and also of one another. Philosophically, the doctrine may be called pluralistic realism. The entire world of experience can be divided into nine dravya or substances together with their properties and relations: These substances are earth, water, fire, air, akasa, time, space, self, and manas.
Besides substances which simply provide a framework for the whole universe there are padartha, or categories, seven in number, namely, guna, karma, visesa, samavaya, samanya, abhava, and dravya, which can be translated as quality, action, individuality, necessary relation, universals, negation, and substance.
Qualities depend upon substances, but they can be independently conceived and so exist by their own nature. No distinction is recognized between mental and material qualities or between the primary and secondary qualities. Quite consistent with its pluralistic standpoint, the doctrine holds that the substances reveal their nature through the qualities in which they differ and not in which they agree.
In regarding earth, air, water, and fire as substances, what is implied is that the entire structure of the universe can be interpreted in terms of material causes which are supersensible. The ultimate stuff of which this universe is made is the mass of atoms that are round, extremely minute, invisible, incapable of division, eternal in themselves but not in their aggregate form.
Even mind (manas) is regarded as an atom extremely small, because of which only one sensation can be conveyed to the soul at one time.
Vaisesika is basically a dualistic philosophy inasmuch as it recognizes the eternality both of atoms and souls. In fact every Hindu system regards matter as eternal. The only exception is the school of the Vedantists which takes matter as the illusive manifestation of the one Supreme Brahman who is Himself the all.
According to Kanada, the summum bonum for man is nothing but deliverance from pain, which can be achieved through knowledge, resulting in the soul getting into a state of a tranquil, unconscious passivity.
From the account of the six systems of Indian philosophy given above, such writers as were born after the advent of Islam in India have been excluded; not that they were in any way less important than those who saw the light of the day before the first /seventh century, but because their thinking shows unmistakable signs, implicit as well as explicit, of Muslim impact.
Details of this impact have been provided in a separate chapter of this volume. Here it will suffice to say that the impact was very deep, firm, and abiding, and left no aspect of Indian thought untouched.
The contact of the Muslims with the Indians began as early as the end of the first/seventh century, and still continues to the advantage of both. Islam was introduced into the Indian sub‑continent by Arab traders; it was propagated by mystics and saints; and it was established by Muslim rulers of various dynasties who made India their home like several other Muslim immigrants.
The Muslims brought with them their ideology, their philosophy and religion, their beliefs and practices, and, above all, an unconquerable passion to share this wisdom with others. The Sufis who were thinkers of no mean order succeeded by their example and precept in imparting to the natives that ideology and philosophy which the Muslims had expounded from their understanding of the Qur'an, the hadith, and the Sunnah.
Muhammad bin Qasim is ranked as the first Muslim who entered India as a conqueror in 94/712. His example was followed by a long line of Muslim rulers who wielded the sceptre of authority over the Indian sub‑continent till 1274/1857, when Indian “mutiny” took place and the Britishers found a splendid excuse to wipe off the last vestige of the Muslim Empire.
During a period of one thousand years when the Indian sub‑continent lay prostrate at the feet of the Muslim emperors, many of whom enjoyed full autocratic powers, it is very unlikely that the culture and philosophy which they cherished and treasured should have left no imprint on the thoughts and beliefs of the native population.
There was, however, no imposition of one culture over another. Culture can never be introduced by the sword, no matter how long and sharp. What happened on the Indian soil was not the replacement of one culture by another but an amalgamation of the two. It was a case of the willing acceptance of the salient features of Muslim culture and making them a part and parcel of the culture of India.
What Sankara and Ramanuja did in the sphere of philosophy was done by others in the fields of religion; ethics, and social polity. The result was a great upheaval in the world of Hindu thought. A re‑evaluation and a re‑appraisal of old values and thoughts took place on a gigantic scale.
Monotheism was stressed and so was universal brotherhood of mankind and a positive approach to life. Casteless society became the goal of social reforms and the Sudras, the accursed and the condemned, were accorded the right to live like others. All this was the product of the impact of Islam on Hinduism.
There is evidence to show that the Nyaya and the Vaiseska were organized into one system after Islam had firmly entrenched itself in India. Not only were the two systems welded into one, they also became monotheistic and advanced for the first time in the history of Hindu thought what are known as the Hindu proofs for the existence of God.
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- 1. Maurice Bloomfield, The Religion of the Rig‑Veda, Putnam, N.Y., 1908, p. 19.
- 2. Manu, I. 23.
- 3. Satapatha Brahmanas, IV: 6, 7.
- 4. Manunhai C. Pandya, Intelligent Man's Guide to Indian Philosophy, Bombay, 1935; p. 21.
- 5. Farqtihar, An Outline of the Religious Literature of India, Oxford University Press, 1920, p. 13.
- 6. Rg Veda, i:159, 2; iii: 3, 11.
- 7. Ibid., ix: 85, 12; x:35, 3.
- 8. Ibid., i : 89, 4.
- 9. Ibid., i: 160, 2.
- 10. Ibid., i: :34, II.
- 11. Ibid., i: 45, 2.
- 12. Ibid., iii: 39.
- 13. Ibid., iv: 17, 4, 12.
- 14. Ibid., iv: 17, 4.
- 15. Ibid., vii: 20, 5.
- 16. Sir Gokal Chand Narang, Message of the Vedas, New Book Society, Lahore, 1946, pp. 42‑56.
- 17. Rg‑Veda, i: 164. 46.
- 18. Ibid., x:135, 1
- 19. Atharva Veda, v:37, 11 f
- 20. M. Muller. Ed. Rg Veda
- 21. Radhakrishnan, The Philosophy of the Upanisads, Allen & Unwin London, 1924, p: 25.
- 22. Albert Schweitzer, Indian Thought and Its Development, Adam & Charles Black, London, 1951, p. 32.
- 23. Brhd‑aranyaka Upanisad, iv: 4.
- 24. Katha‑Upanisad, 2: 1‑5.
- 25. Ibid., I:ii 7.
- 26. Katha Upanisad, 2:1-5
- 27. Albert Schweitzer, op. tit., p. 51.
- 28. P. Thomas, Epic Myths and Legends of India, Bombay, p. 14.
- 29. Ibid., p. 17.
- 30. Zimmer, Philosophies of India, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1952, p. 378.
- 31. Hopkins, quoted by Desai in the Gita according to Gandhi, Ahmedabad, p. 13.
- 32. Gita, xviii: 48.
- 33. Ibid., iv: 36.
- 34. Albert Schweitzer, op. cit., p. 191.
- 35. Ibid., p. 195.
- 36. S. Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Oxford University Press, London, 1957, p. 228.
- 37. Ibid.
- 38. Ibid., p. 235.
- 39. Ibid.
- 40. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy, Allen & Unwin, London, 1932, p. 195.
- 41. Tomlin, The Great Philosophies: The Eastern World, Skeffington, London, 1952, p. 170.
- 42. Wilson, Essays and Lectures on the Religion of the Hindus, London, 1862, vol. I, p. 297.
- 43. Winternitz, A History of Indian. Literature, Calcutta University, Calcutta ii, p. 436.
- 44. Schweitzer, op. cit p. 84.
- 45. Digha Nikaya
- 46. Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines, Luzac, London, 1945 pp.239‑40.
- 47. Gita, 5: 4‑5.
- 48. Zimmer, op. cit., p. 281.
- 49. Pantanjali. Yoga-Sutras, I. 1-2.
- 50. Zimmer. op. cit., p. 293.
- 51. Ibid., p. 278.
- 52. Hiriyanna, op. cit., p. 135.
- 53. Max Muller op. cit., p. 160.
- 54. Mundaka‑Upanisad, 3. 2. 9.
- 55. Nyaya‑Sutra, Book I, Chapter IV, Sutra I
- 56. John Davies, Hindu Philosophy, Kegan Paul, London. 1884, p. 124.
- 57. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, Calcutta University, Calcutta, 1944, p. 247