Characteristics of Indian philosophy

Most of us living in India, take Indian culture and philosophy for granted. When I asked a friend of mine to review a recently launched culture website, she said it was lovely but her non-resident Indian friends would find it more interesting. It’s only when we become global citizens and start interacting with people from various countries and cultures, do we wish to know more about India and its philosophy in particular.

This article is a precis of a chapter from the book Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D. I have added insights too.

Indian philosophy is inward looking, and aims to help human beings deal with 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 an intellectual pursuit and Indian philosophy that relies on a direct vision of truth 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 some common characteristics. Some of the important ones are -

Direct experience: All systems of Indian philosophy claim to be derived from the Veda but the Veda itself is a record of the sages who realized the truth within. To solve life’s questions related to nature of life, death, birth, and cosmic or individual existence, they started making rational inquiries and observations. Unable to find satisfactory answers, they discovered various methods of meditation that help one attain higher levels of consciousness in which one may directly experience 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 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. Hence, the tendency to rely on the work of a realized teacher is maintained in Buddhism, too.

Scholar and former President of India Dr S Radhakrishnan wrote in volume 1 of Indian Philosophy about what is common to Upanishadic and Buddhist thought. He also said that the four noble truths of Buddhism correspond to the four truths of Samkhya.

Harmony among schools: All systems of Indian philosophy have a unique quality of cooperating with one another. During a debate, the intent is not to destroy another’s philosophy but to clarify one’s own theories and thoughts. This has enabled various schools to live in harmony. Indian philosophers realized that every human mind is unique and it must be allowed to follow a philosophy of its choice.

Parallel growth and coexistence of various schools: The various systems of philosophy flourished and grew simultaneously. The 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. Thus, 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 the students at different levels of realization.

There is Saivism in Kashmir and Kerala, and Vaishnavism, Shaktism, and Yoga throughout India. These five schools of Vedanta exist till date. All these systems continue to undergo change and grow to meet the needs of modern man without deviating from the basic teachings of their founders. Followers of a sect do not fight with each other. Instead a student of another school is to be defeated on the strength of intellectual arguments rather than by using a gun.

Open-mindedness: A broad outlook that reflects its unflinching devotion to truth distinguishes Indian philosophy. Each school is open to views of all other schools. It was nothing like there is a best way to achieve 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 continuous 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 is willing to listen to another person’s point of view is likely to have a better understanding of the situation. It is one of the reasons why Indians have taken to Western culture so easily. We are able to adjust in just about any environment, be it U.S., Australia, Britain or 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 a 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. This reason only justifies what intuition or experience has already 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.

The 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 needs to be done is, discovery of Self within, that lies in a perfect state of bliss. Man’s physical existence depends on his karma (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 karma because it is the attachment to the results that motivate 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 the only motivation to do something is enjoyment of the results, one is bound to be unhappy because he will not always get what he wants. It is the act of being 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 or 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 life with his past lives. By connecting between the past and present, births his perspective towards life has changed.

Karma is not fate or kismat. 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 one’s relationship with others and is the cause of emotional problems. Emotions need to be disciplined and channelled correctly. Disciplines related to the body and mind are generally known as moral and ethical laws. 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 tranquillity.

Acknowledgement of suffering: Most quests for self-realization start with the reason behind pain and suffering. The goal of each system is to overcome suffering. Buddha began his philosophy by saying there is suffering, next he dictated that there is a cause for it, there is a state in which suffering ceases and finally there is a way to attain freedom from the pain. These statements are called the Four Noble Truths. The pain and suffering is due to our inability to experience the inner self. One suffers because of one’s attachment with worldly objects. The moment we start looking within, freedom from pain gets initiated.

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. People who have read the Bhagwad Gita would agree that the holy book is not just about religion, but tells us how to handle the crests and troughs 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 ultimate goal. Thus, every human being has to look within, understand his own nature, and figure out his path to self-realization. It’s not like this is the only way. It’s all about direct experience, as referred above.

The way to reach this goal include selfless love, service to others, purification, and self-control. Because of their usefulness and practicality, each system of Indian philosophy is as relevant today as it was when written thousands of years ago. It is this quality of our philosophy that has enabled India to survive through dark periods.

Also read
1. Unconscious forces: a survey of some concepts in Indian philosophy
2. Why did Buddhism vanish from India
3. Shad Darsanas - 6 systems of Indian philosophy

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