To most of us living in India we take Indian culture, philosophy for granted. When I asked a friend of mine to review a recently launched Culture Site she said it was lovely but her non resident Indians friends would find its content more interesting. It’s only when we become global citizens, start meeting people from different countries, cultures do we want to know more about India and its philosophy in particular.
This article is based on inputs from Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy by the respected Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PHD. Indian philosophy is inward looking, aims to help human beings deal with the ups and downs of life with the goal of self-realization.
The Sanskrit word for philosophy is darsana, which means direct vision. The words symbolize the difference between modern Western philosophy, which mainly relies on intellectual pursuit and Indian philosophy that relies on direct vision of truths and pure Buddhi (reasoning). Darsana is divided into two categories namely Astika (believer in the Vedas) and Nastika (non-believer in the Vedas). Astika are Nyaya, Vaisheshik, Sakhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. Nastika are Carvaka, Jainism and Buddism. Others are a mixture of the ideas of these systems. Although each school of philosophy is unique, they all have characteristics in common. Some of the important ones are -
Direct experience: All systems of Indian philosophy claim to be derived from the Veda but the Veda itself are a record of the sages who realized the truth within. To solve life’s questions related to nature of life, death, birth, cosmic/ individual existence, they started making rational inquiries, observations. Unable to find satisfactory answers, they discovered various methods of meditation that help one attain the higher levels of consciousness in which one may have direct experience of the truth. Each school originated with an enlightened teacher who described his experiences of the truth and method of attaining it.
Acceptance of authority: Respect for sages and ancient scriptures is a strong tradition in India. When a teacher advocates a new philosophical system, he cites established scriptures or the writings of authorized sages to support his statements. The Astika or orthodox schools always refer to the Veda to support their theories. The Nastika or unorthodox schools do not accept the authority of the Veda but follow the authority of their founder. Buddha for example reiterated many things said in the Veda but did not cite the Veda as the source of his views. And so the tendency to rely on the work of a realized teacher is maintained in Buddhism also.
Harmony among schools: All systems of Indian philosophy have a unique quality of cooperating with one another. When a debate takes place the intent is not to destroy another’s philosophy but to clarify one’s own theories, thoughts. This has enabled various schools to live in harmony. Indian philosophers realized that every human mind is unique, must be allowed to follow a philosophy of its choice.
Parallel growth and coexistence of so many schools: The various systems of philosophy flourished and grew simultaneously. The main reason is that the open-minded approach attracted students of various hues who were impressed with the practical aspects of that system of philosophy. When a particular teacher delivered a message, it was studied and teachings were put into practice by a group of people whom it suited. So was formed a school of philosophy. Each system continued to coexist because it provided a theoretical and practical philosophy to meet intellectual and emotional needs of students at different levels of realization.
There is Saivism in Kashmir and Kerala and Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Yoga throughout India. The five schools of Vedanta exist even today. All these systems continue to undergo change, grow to meet the needs of modern man without deviating from the basic teachings of their founders. One has never heard of these of the followers of these sects fighting with one another. Another student is to be defeated on the strength of intellectual arguments rather than by using the Gun.
Open-mindedness: A broad outlook that reflects its unflinching devotion to truth distinguishes Indian philosophy. Each school is open to the views of all other schools. There was nothing like this is the best system or is the only way to self-realization. The established system of philosophical exposition in the Indian tradition involves explaining and criticizing the prior view of the subject, then refuting the view and describing a subsequent view that takes you to a higher level or final theory. Because of a continuos exchange of ideas, the philosophical systems have with time, become more sophisticated and complete.
Simply put an individual who enters into a discussion with an open mind and willing to listen to another’s point of view is likely to have a better understanding of the situation. It is one reason why Indians have taken to the Western culture so easily, are able to adjust in just about every environment, U.S., Australia, Britain, South Africa.
Support of logic and reasoning: Direct experience is the foundation of Indian philosophy, but reason and logic are the chief tools that enable the system to develop and grow. The theories are presented in a way that the rational mind can easily accept. All systems of Indian philosophy apply the methods of logic to argue their points of view and protect themselves from criticism. Reason only justifies that which intuition or experience has revealed. By virtue of being an important part of our philosophy, logic got ingrained in the Indian mind. Since computer software uses logic extensively, it has helped India gain recognition as a potential global software power.
Belief of Eternity: Each system of Indian philosophy proclaims that there is an eternal consciousness in man and the realization of this consciousness is the goal of life. Imperfections are a result of ignorance and are on the surface of our personality but what we need to do is to discover the Self within that lies in a perfect state of bliss. Man’s physical existence depends on his karma’s (actions) but the center of his life is eternal.
The law of karma: Every Indian school accepts this law which states that for every effect there is a cause and for every action there is a reaction. If a man becomes attached to the fruits of action, then he becomes a victim of his own karmas because it is attachment to the results that motivates him to perform future actions. The fruit has arisen out of the action and action out of the fruit. This cycle is the wheel of karma. When my only motivation to do something is because I want to enjoy the results, I am bound to be unhappy because I will not always not get what I want. I am more worried about the results than the act itself. All schools agree that the concept of karma is the only explanation for the existence of suffering. Nothing in life is accidental, what we are today is a result of our karma’s deeds in this or past life. A friend of mine has, with the help of astrology, been able to know about acts and omissions of his previous life. After discovering a substantial part of his inner self he is able to correlate the events of this and last life. Connectivity between the past and present birth has changed his perspective to life.
Karma is not fate or kismet. Karma means that every human being controls his future. You reap what you sow.
Moral and ethical teachings: Ancient seers realized that there must be some discipline in our lives with relations to family, society, and nation for without law and order, the world becomes disorganized resulting in misery. Eastern philosophers believed that for peace within there had to be peace outside. Lack of morality and discipline creates misunderstandings in relation with others and is the cause of emotional problems. Emotions need to be disciplined and channeled correctly. Disciplines related to body and mind are generally known as moral and ethical laws and the practical systems of Indian philosophy are based on these laws. These are commitments not commandments, accepted to create external peace without which there can be no internal tranquility.
Acknowledgement of suffering: Most quests for self-realization start with the reason for pain and suffering. The goal of each system is to overcome suffering. Buddha began his philosophy by saying there is suffering, next he said there is a cause for it, there is a state in which suffering ceases and finally there is a way to attain freedom from all pain. These statements are called the Four Noble Truths. The experience is due to our inability to experience the inner self. Suffering comes about because of one’s attachment with worldly objects, the moment we start looking within, and freedom from pain starts.
Thoroughness: Because of this broad outlook, there is an extreme thoroughness in Indian systems of philosophy. It is like the river Ganga that originates from a glacier, runs down the hills of Garwhal onto the plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Bengal collecting water from different sources before it reaches the Bay of Bengal and merges itself with the all embracing sea. Similarly, Indian philosophy started with simple levels of human understanding incorporated the direct experiences of sages down the centuries to become a vast and thorough body of knowledge. Tradition, respect for ancient sages and infinite quest for knowledge make Indian philosophy so vast that it is difficult for people of other countries to fathom how a group of men could have delved so deep into human nature.
Practicality: All systems of Indian philosophy contain a practical aspect called Sadhana. Thus the theoretical aspects of philosophy can be applied to everyday life. The ancient sages believed that any philosophy that did not enable man to handle the problems of day to day to life was of no use. Those of you who have read the Bhagwad Gita would agree that the holy book is less about religion but tells us how to handle the ups and downs of life.
Self-realization, the direct experience of ones inner nature is the goal of all systems of Indian philosophy. Every system prescribed its own way of overcoming pain to achieve the goal of life. Thus every human being has to look within, understand his own nature and figure out his way to self-realization. There is nothing that this is the only way. It’s all about direct experience referred to above.
The way to reach this goal include selfless love, service to others, purification and self-control. Because of their usefulness, practicality each system of Indian philosophy is as new today as it was three thousand years ago. It is this quality of our philosophy that has enabled India to survive through dark periods.