The content of Indian philosophy signifies the unbroken philosophical lineage beginning with the Rig Veda (ca. 2000 BCE), flagging one of the oldest continuing philosophical traditions in the history of global culture. This entry summarizes the basic orientations of some of the textual and conceptual regions selected from this vast philosophical history, paying special attention, whenever appropriate, to the anthropological trope of the human person.
The four Vedas, composed by anonymous poets (rishis, or seers) in the context of an oral tradition in the classical Indic language of Sanskrit, collectively constitute the ur texts of Indian civilization in general and Indian philosophical and religious traditions in particular. The four Vedas are called the Rig Veda, the Atharva Veda, the Sa-ma Veda, and the Yajur Veda. The Rig Veda is relatively more important for the later development of the Indian philosophical traditions. The Rig Vedic text, expressed in the form of hymns to the gods, largely voices a polytheistic tradition, where the gods signify the deification of natural elements. Within this universe of hymnal offerings, attesting to the multiple conceptual weavings implicit in the text, a significant philosophical shift can be located between the two sorts of theism: polytheism and kathanotheism, where the former assumes ontological equality between the various gods, whereas the latter, working within a general polytheism, attributes ontological superiority to the particular god to whom a given hymn is being devoted. Going beyond the theistic framework altogether, nested in a famous series of questions, the famous Nasadiya hymn (Hymn to Creation), made the startling claim that the Gods came after the creation of the world, thus robbing theism of its ontological status. Instead of giving a response to the question of how creation arose, the hymn offers a series of questions, professing ignorance regarding the question of cosmic origin. Even the gods do not have an answer to the ultimate onto-logical question because they themselves were born after creation. In this way, in the narrative of this pivotal hymn, the gods lose their earlier metaphysical status. It is clear that this particular hymn is keen on dismantling Vedic polytheism, making possible for the philosophical redescription of Ultimate Reality. The nontheistic and theistic articulations of ultimate metaphysical reality by the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, respectively, provided such redescriptions.
The Upanishads proposed a nontheistic formulation of the nature of the metaphysical substratum of reality. In the Upanishadic posture, the metaphysical structures of the human person along with the nature of objective world reality were fundamentally thematized. This formulation proceeded to provide one of the most important hermeneutic arcs under which much of the later developments in Indian philosophy would unfold. The Upanishads, collectively naming multiple texts, had as one of its central aim the postulation and elaboration of the concepts of Brahman and Atman. The former points to an underlying metaphysical substance that, unpresentable to everyday cognition, provides the foundation of world presentation to experience. The latter is the underlying reality that allows for the ontological constitution of the empirical self. In other words, in the Upanishadic worldview, an underlying metaphysical substance anchors both the subjective and the objective orders of phenomenal experience. These notions, though transcendent to phenomenally conceived subject and object, categorically do not have any theistic resonance and thus cannot be conflated with the idea of a personal theistic God sustaining the empirical order. Indeed, for the Upanishads, Brahman, the underlying metaphysical substance of the world, is nongendered and cannot be conceived as being invested with a personality. Furthermore, in defining Brahman and Atman negatively as Neti Neti (not this, not that), the Upanishads summon the notion of ineffability by positing that Ultimate Reality escapes the significations of language. The Upanishads also consider the relationship that can possibly obtain between Ultimate Reality construed objectively (Brahman) and subjectively (Atman). In the famous formulation “tattvamasf (“thou art that”), the nondualist thesis is suggested whereby in the final analysis, the distinction between the subject and the object dissolves at the transempirical, metaphysical level. The issue concerning the relation between these two orders of reality attains central significance in the later philosophical developments of Vedanta, one of the schools of classical Indian philosophy.
The ideas of the Upanishads service a philosophical anthropology that structures the human person in a counter-Cartesian fashion. In a positive characterization of Brahman, the Upanishads claim that Ultimate Reality is saccidanada, meaning sat+cit+ananda: truth, consciousness, joy. However, given that Brahman makes possible the world cognition, and further given that I am Brahman (Aham Brahmasmi) in the final description of reality, cit (consciousness) in the transcendental context cannot be understood as my psychoempirical self named by my name. Thus, the human person, for the Upanishads, is not only the Cartesian amalgam of mind and body but includes an underlying reservoir of consciousness, cit, captured in the notion of Atman. In other words, I am my body (sarira), my empirical self (manas), and the impersonal sustainer of my empirical being: Atman, which is not implicated by my (proper) name, but makes it possible nonetheless. In the context of contemporary philosophy of mind, the Upanishads is perhaps suggesting that a nonmaterial conception of consciousness (Atman) remains even if a reduction of mental states to brain states is effected on the argumentative grounds of materialism.
The G -ta- articulates Ultimate Reality in theistic terms. The text of this classic philosophical/religious text comprises a small portion of the massive epic of Sanskrit literature, the Mahabharata. Within the narrative structure of the epic, the GIta records a conversation between Arjuna, who is about to fight a war against the army of his cousins, and Krishna, his charioteer. In the course of this conversation, Krishna reveals himself as an incarnation of the absolute theistic reality, Vishnu. Krishna, then, is the name of God packed within a theology of incarnation. Thus, the Gltd, through the figure of Krishna, by providing a theistic ontology, gives a counter-Upanishadic account of the absence marked out by the Nasadtya hymn of the Rig Veda.
The quick review of the three early textual horizons allows one to see that from the very beginning, Indian civilization in general and philosophical thinking in particular exhibited a remarkable flexibility couched in a welcoming attitude toward plurality. The accent can be placed on this trope of plurality precisely because the early religious thrust of philosophical thought did not reduce Ultimate Reality to a singularity, attesting to a deeply motivated internal differentiation to the philosophical-religious tradition of India. It may be suggested that this valorization of plurality is based on an anthropological insight concerning the structure of the human person. The classical tradition provides a psychology of religious motivation that can be seen in the famous doctrine of the four yogas: karma yoga, jnaina yoga, bhakti yoga, and raja yoga. This doctrine recognizes that a given human being is a token of a certain psychological type. Thus, the doctrine of the yogas maintains that there are different ways in which one can achieve religious fulfillment. Bhakti yoga is the way of devotion, which requires a metaphysic of theism because prayer cannot be directed toward an impersonal absolute (Brahman). Alternatively, the Upanishads, eschewing a theistic orientation, finds its psychological counterpart in the way of knowledge (jnaana) that ultimately values the direct experience of Brahman. Ranging over all its dimensions, concern for plurality shapes much of the philosophical traditions of Indian civilization.
While the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the GIta provide the hermeneutic horizon for classical Indian philosophy, argumentative thinking is organized via the category of philosophical schools textured by their own histories and critical encounters. These schools are usually divided into two groups: the orthodox and the heterodox. The schools of the former type develop their views against the hermeneutic background of the Vedic-Upanishadic tradition, whereas the schools of the latter type begin only upon the critical rejection of the same textual history. The orthodox schools are Nyaya, Vaiueshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mlmamsa, and Vedanta. The unorthodox schools are Carvaka, Jainism, and Buddhism. These schools together traverse an astonishingly wide range of metaphysical and epistemological issues, such as causality, inference, perception, cognition, and truth, constituting a rich and powerful philosophical history. It is beyond the scope of this article to treat all these schools in detail. Accordingly, I will provide accounts of the schools of Vedanta, Jainism, and Buddhism as representatives of the classical tradition.
Vedanta ranges over three related schools: Advaita Vedainta (nondualist Vedanta), Viuistadvaita Vedanta (qualified nondualist Vedanta), and Dvaita Vedanta (dualist Veda- nta), each giving a different formulation of the relation between Brahman and Atman, the key Upanishadic concepts. We shall discuss each in turn.
The most influential thinker in the Advaita tradition was Sankara, who lived in the 8th century CE. In discussing Advaita, we will exclusively summon the philosophy of Sankara because in him, the presentation of Vcdantic nondualism reached the highest level of philosophical sophistication.
Sankara adopts a philosophical methodology that uses a phenomenological strategy to establish onto-logical claims. He argues that the intentional content of consciousness continually undergoes corrections as it confronts newer experience. The content of the corrected experience has a higher ontological value. With this preliminary suggestion, Sankara proceeds to claim that consciousness is capable of types of experience that hook up to types of objects. Thus, the object of a nonveridical experience of, say, a mirage is corrected by the veridical experience of sand, leading to the conclusion that the objects of veridical experience has a higher ontological value than the objects of nonveridical experience. Similarly, the theoretical experience informed by subatomic physics that the table in front of me is mostly empty defeats the perceptual experience of the table as solid, leading to the point that theoretical objects have higher ontological value than perceptual objects. Through this phenomenological method, Sankara establishes an ontological hierarchy connecting types of experience with types of objects proceeding to the summit, which signifies the uncorrectable ground of all corrections. For Sankara, this realm of consciousness is nondual precisely because any type of consciousness that in principle is correctible must admit duality between subject and object and the plurality of objects. In Upanishadic language, this horizon of experience can be described in terms of the identity between Brahman and Atman. In such a metaphysical scheme, the phenomenal world (Maya), in which our phenomenal selves with their psychological states are embedded, is not unreal, but becomes so from the perspective of a higher-order experience, just as the table as solid becomes problematized only when a theoretical description of the table is admitted. For Sankara, then, reminiscent of Kant, the human person has an empirical and a transcendental dimension; but in the Advaita worldview, pace Kant, the transcendental self can be experienced in a transformative and liberating experience, couched in an eternal monistic identity that ultimately corrects the world-cognition. Sankara’s philosophy also captures the “negative metaphysics” implied by the Upanishads, because his account entails that Brahman is devoid of properties and is thus beyond linguistic description; such a view pushes the concept of Ultimate Reality into the region of absolute ineffability, experienceable but not describable.
The most significant thinker in the Viuistadvaita tradition is Ramanuja, who lived in the 11th century CE. Ramanuja provided an alternative account of the Brahman-Atman relation by arguing for a position that embraced a qualified view of the absolute but on nondualist grounds. Indeed, the name Viuistadvaita (viuista+advaita) means qualified nondualism. Ramanuja, appealing to a theory of meaning, endorsed the metaphysical thesis that properties attaching to a substance leads to an indefinite regression, because the substance in turn can become a property of another substance. To take an example: Consider the phrase “the strongly built athlete.” Here, “strongly” qualifies the nature of a physique, and in turn “strongly built” qualifies an athlete, which, in turn refers to a person, and so on. Ramanuja’s point is that given that properties have to inhere in a substance, all qualifications ultimately refer to an ultimate substance, which in Upanishadic terminology is Brahman. For Ramanuja, the system of difference that is the world is a real qualification of Brahman. While Sankara rejects the ultimate significance of the correctible realm of difference, Ramanuja endorses the position that Brahman, by including difference as its qualities, allows the objects of world cognition to be ontologically final. Such a position remains nondual precisely because the property is metaphysically linked to the substance. Ramanuja’s position, contra Sankara, may be aligned to theism, because bearing qualities, Brahman appears as an object of devotion and worship. Thus, Ramanuja develops a nondual but theistic hermeneutic of the Upanishads, which is perhaps nearer to the metaphysical spirit of the Git-. For Ramanuja, a nondual experience would be phenomenologically unintelligible; the liberating experience (moksha) for him is equally transformative, but duality is preserved: Brahman appears in the ultimate cognition as an intentional object of consciousness.
The most important Dvaita (dualist) philosopher is Madhva, who lived in the 13th century CE. Madhva adopts a position that conceives of Brahman as the monotheistic God creating a world, which is a system of differences. As part of his thesis concerning duality and difference, Madhva proposes five types of fundamental differences: difference between Brahman and matter, Brahman and Atman, Atman and matter, one Atman from another, and one material thing from another. To know something is to recognize it as being different from something else; knowing implies the disclosure of difference in reality. Furthermore, Atman and material things depend on Brahman, the sole independent substance. Conceptual patterns in Madhva’s dualist philosophy are perfectly consonant with the classical monotheistic conception of Ultimate Reality.
Buddhism is a religious and philosophical system founded in India by Siddhartha (called Buddha after Enlightenment), who was born in 560 BCE. The Buddhist philosophical tradition, rejecting the hermeneutic arc of the Vedic tradition, is an unorthodox system in the taxonomy of classical Indian philosophy. The fundamental tenor of Buddhism derives from the first sermon of the Buddha that enunciated the Four Noble Truths: suffering (dukkha) is the universal condition of existence; suffering originates in desire; cessation of suffering results from the overcoming of desire; to overcome suffering, one must follow the eightfold path: right understanding, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The qualifier “right” in each instance, reminiscent of Aristotle, points to a middle path driven between two extremes. The teaching of the Buddha privileged the human dimension of suffering and was less concerned with developing absolute metaphysical claims as per the Upanishadic horizon, which is a tendency that informs the tradition’s agnosticism. Indeed, the antiabsolutist stance can be found in two cardinal doctrines of Buddhism: the doctrine of change and the doctrine of no self. Echoing the contesting positions of Parmenides and Heraclitus from the pre-Socratic Greek tradition, the former rejects the substance metaphysics of the Upanishads and claims that the fundamental aspect of reality is flux; the latter extends the doctrine to an account of the self by proposing, like Hume, that the concept of an abiding self is a fiction, thus rejecting the Upanishad’s substance-based view of Atman.
The rejection of metaphysical absolutism was given a grand philosophical defense by the Indian Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna (2nd century CE), arguably the most influential Buddhist philosopher in history and the main spokesman for the Madhyamika system. Despite the Buddha’s reticence toward metaphysics, speculative philosophy indeed developed with great power in early Buddhism in a genre of philosophical literature called Abhidharma. Targeting particular extant positions including positions plotted out in the Abhidharmic literature, Nagarjuna aimed to show that in the final analysis, all metaphysical postures are unstable. Using a brilliantly conceived dialectical strategy, he used philosophy against itself to reach the metaphilosophical position that philosophical rationality cannot yield absolute and independent positions. He shows, for instance, that the notion of causation understood in terms of the cause-effect relation of identity, difference, both, or neither all lead to contradiction when each is considered exclusively. This does not mean that causation is denied, but rather the point is that it, like all other categories, originates through a pattern of ontological dependencies. Such a thesis fiercely rejects substantialist thinking that ontologically privileges an independent ground of existence such as Vedaantic Brahman or the Cartesian God. This nonabsolute and interdependent nature of phenomena is termed uunyata, or emptiness, in the Madhyamika tradition. Chandrakirti nicely summarizes the doctrine in his commentary on Arya Deva’s Catuhsatakam, when he states that dependently originating entities cannot have independent ontological status, and since all entities arise dependently, selfhood cannot have independent existence. The nonabsolute nature of things is their uunyataa. Nagarjuna’s main book, Mualamadhyamakakaarikaa, contains apart from causality, similar dialectical analysis of a parcel of key philosophical concepts, such as time, becoming, action, and self. The text also brings under dialectical scrutiny specifically Buddhist notions such as nirvana, the Four Noble Truths, and suffering. Nagarjuna’s philosophy can be seen as a vast hermeneutic gesture toward an understanding of Buddha’s silence directed at metaphysics. Such a gesture was influential in the development of other philosophical traditions in Buddhism that privileged practice over theory, such as Ch’an in China and Zen in Japan.
Like Buddhism, Jainism is a religious and philosophical tradition belonging to the class of unorthodox philosophical systems. As a religion, Jainism rejects the idea that a single person founded it, because the teachings are considered to be eternal; rather, the ideas of the religion are traced to a series of thirthankaras who are repositories and transmitters of religious truths. Mahavira, being the latest in the series, is usually considered to be the founder of the religion.
Two doctrines of Jainism may be considered here: the doctrine of epistemic perspectivism and the doctrine of nonviolence (ahimsa-). The notion of epistemic perspectivism is a purely philosophical doctrine but interestingly enough emerges in the context of a religious account of the human condition. Jainism, a religion that rejects the theistic conception of God, teaches that the highest salvific state yields omniscience. Motivated by this view of salvation, Jainism develops its account of epistemic perspectivism to theorize the scope and limits of human knowledge. The account is motivated by the observation that an object can present itself to consciousness in a countless number of ways. Thus, the perspective that conditions the appearance of the object to consciousness colors any judgment we make about an object. Similarly, the truth of views, theoretical or otherwise, for the Jains, is relative to conceptual frameworks and cannot achieve absolute epistemic privilege. The Jains argue that this position has a normative resonance in its implication that divergent views should be tolerated because no single theoretical position can achieve totality.
The ethical doctrine of nonviolence, though originating earlier, is given a central role in the Jain system. Making a distinction between living substance (jiva) and nonliving matter (ajiva), the Jains argue that all forms of jiva have moral standing. Living beings are classified in a hierarchical order ranging from the human person to microbial forms, inclusive of plant life. Every effort ought to be made in Jain ethics to avoid harming living creatures. The recent efforts in arguing for the moral standing of nonhuman animals and the environment were anticipated by the Jain teachings. The notion of Ahimsa- influenced the political philosophy and activism of Mohandas Gandhi and through him had a bearing on many nonviolent political and civic agendas across the world.
Some Modern Considerations
A distinctive social and political turn in Indian philosophical thinking can be detected during the 19th and early 20th century. Postindependent Indian philosophy (contemporary) connects with the classical tradition in interesting ways. We examine each in turn.
The Decolonizing Period
The great thinkers of the decolonizing period were not philosophers in the narrow academic sense, but they developed political and social positions that have great philosophical resonance. This period roughly stretches from Rammohan Ray (1772-1833) to Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and includes, among others, seminal figures such as Ramakrishna (18361886), Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). These figures were responsible for theorizing a nationalism that did not descend into a narrow chauvinism. Indeed, a strand of thinking, inaugurated by Rammohan Ray, argued that decolonizing nationalism can pay heed to the normative tropes of cultural tolerance and pluralism. The charting of a nationalism that is rendered consistent with a globally scoped pluralism and replete with cosmopolitan sympathies stands in marked contrast with other forms of reductive nationalisms extant at the time and compellingly enunciates a distinctive modernity. Tagore succinctly articulated the cosmopolitan investments of Rammohan Ray, remarkable as they were for its time, when he wrote in an article titled “Way to Unity” that Ray’s great contribution lay in forcefully arguing that truth can never be foreign. Material production can be limited to the producing country but not knowledge, or ideas, or immortal forms of art. Indeed, a scholar with a great global range including the Sanskritic, Islamic, and the Western civilizational traditions, Ray was one of the earliest cosmopolitan thinkers of the modern world.
Tagore, whose grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore was a close friend of Ray and whose father Debendranath Tagore was one of Ray’s followers, was the great inheritor of Rammohan’s pluralist sensibilities. Indeed, in Tagore, a deep internationalist in the words of Isaiah Berlin, the cosmopolitan sympathies textured every nook of his social thinking, ranging from politics to education. In Santiniketan, Tagore founded a university, Visva-Bharati, founded on two cardinal principles: a child’s education must be able to disclose the continuity between the human and the environmental; and education must range over the cultures of the world. For Tagore, only such a holistic and plural educational experience can actualize the full potential of the human person and in the final analysis create persons with global sympathies required for cultural empathy. For Tagore, the global is not reduced to a facile recognition of alterity, but is organically linked to cultural inheritance. Tagore’s sustained presentation of the idea that the cosmopolitan and the plural need not reduce to incommensurate fragments shorn of tradition makes him, as Martha Nussbaum has noted, particularly relevant to the discourse of cosmopolitanism. We can add further that such a discourse needs to be driven between nostalgic nationalisms that valorize the singular and postmodern fragmentation that can arrive at the plural only through an overdetermination of the fragment.
Sri Aurobindo is another nationalist philosopher from the decolonizing period who shaped the cosmopolitan virtues of Indian nationalism. He was also a metaphysician who gave an evolutionary account of the notion of Brahman. Aurobindo developed a speculative system in which matter is understood in terms of the “involution” of Brahman, which then proceeds through the evolutionary process to summon a state of divinized humanity. In his speculative thinking, Aurobindo attempted to synthesize evolutionary ideas with Vedantic conception of the Absolute. As a political and social thinker, consistent with the evolutionary thrust of his metaphysics, Aurobindo attempted to theorize the future in terms of a cosmopolitan account of unity when he claimed that nationalism will yield to a global consciousness that will not be merely an outward gesture, but will have a deep and abiding spiritual dimension.
Significantly, the respect for the plural was championed in the context of religious multiplicity. Ramakrishna famously maintained that different religions are different paths to the same goal, and his disciple Vivekananda preached this philosophy of religious pluralism in international forums, most notably at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893).
The respect for plurality animated the nationalism of Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed, the very concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence, on which Gandhi based his political movement is premised on such a respect. The ethical imperative of ahimsa, in the Gandhian scheme, commands that the same rule be applied to the wrongdoer who is an enemy as to the wrongdoer who is ones father or son. Ahimsa as politics when consistently applied translates into a nationalism that is respectful toward alterity and plurality. Gandhi extended this respect to the areas of feminism and animal rights.
In contemporary European philosophy, postmodern thinking critiques a posture of modernity originating in the Enlightenment that is taken to be hegemonic in its comportments because it rejects the plural. In the structures of the decolonizing nationalism of this period of Indian thought, we find an account of nationalism that by its cosmopolitan sympathies mounts an alternative to the European account of modernity.
The Postindependence Period
Contemporary philosophical thinking in India displays, among others, two general characteristics. First, attempts are made to provide interpretive frameworks for the classical tradition. In this sense, philosophy in India continues the tradition of philosophical creativity through the writings of commentary. Second, philosophers have concerned themselves with comparative philosophy where attempts are made to study identity and difference across philosophical traditions. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888— 1975) is a founding figure of the postindependent philosophical period. Much influenced by Tagore, on whom he wrote one of his first books, Radhakrishnan learned much from the towering intellectual figures of the decolonizing period, and in turn, he influenced the development of academic philosophy in the university setting of postindependent India. Radhakrishnan also embodied the two characteristics mentioned earlier: In important works, especially in Indian Philosophy (2 vols.), he developed creative interpretations of the classical tradition; and in books such as Eastern Religions and Western Thought, he made pioneering contributions to the field that is nowadays called comparative philosophy. Another towering figure of this period is K. C. Bhattacharya (1875—1949), who produced a highly original philosophy weaving elements from Vedanta and Kant. A philosopher who has defended a radical thesis concerning the nature of the classical tradition is the still-active Daya Krishna, who famously argued that the three ideas about the classical tradition—that it is “spiritual,” that it is classified by “schools,” and that it (at least the orthodox schools) relies on the authority of the Vedas—are myths and should be jettisoned.
A very influential contemporary philosopher is J. N. Mohanty (1928—), who has made powerful contributions to our understanding of the classical tradition, especially in his book, Reason and Tradition in Indian Thought. Mohanty is also one of the great scholars of Husserlian phenomenology, which makes his comparative observations especially trenchant. The economist Amartya Sen (1933—) belongs to the community of important postindependent philosophers. Many elements of his social thinking are inspired by the cosmopolitan spirit of the decolonizing period. Other notable philosophers of this period include, among others, S. N. Dasgupta, Kalidas Bhattacharya, P. T. Raju, and T. R. V. Murti.
The Indian philosophical tradition has one of the longest-running histories in the context of global philosophy. It has generated discussion of great analytical felicity and rigor in almost all areas of philosophical discourse, ranging from metaphysics to logic. The future of the tradition is enured, as Indian philosophy continues to flourish in all its varieties. This entry has been able to offer only a small sampling of this immense tradition.
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