The early beginnings of the Indian systems of philosophy take us back to the pre-Buddhist era. They develop gradually, the Brahminical systems side by side with the Buddhist, often criticizing each other, often borrowing from one another. Before the beginning of the Christian era, six Brahminical systems had taken shape and crystallized themselves, out of the welter of many such systems. Each one of them represents an independent approach, a separate argument, and yet they were not isolated from each other but rather parts of a larger plan.
The six systems are known as:
- Mimamsa, and
The Nyaya method is analytic and logical. In fact Nyaya means logic or the science of right reasoning. It is similar in many ways to Aristotle’s syllogisms, though there are also fundamental differences between the two. The principles underlying Nyaya logic were accepted by all the other systems, and, as a kind of mental discipline, Nyaya has been taught throughout the ancient and medieval periods and up to today in India’s schools and universities. Modern education in India has discarded it, but wherever Sanskrit is taught in the old way, Nyaya is still an essential part of the curriculum. It was not only considered an indispensable preparation for the study of philosophy, but a necessary mental training for every educated person. It has had at least as important a place in the old scheme of Indian education as Aristotle’s logic has had in European education.
The method was, of course, very different from the modern scientific method of objective investigation. Nevertheless, it was critical and scientific in its own way, and, instead of relying on faith, tried to examine the objects of knowledge critically and to proceed step by step by methods of logical proof. There was some faith behind it, certain presumptions which were not capable of logical treatment. Having accepted some hypotheses the system was built up on those foundations. It was presumed that there is a rhythm and unity in life and nature. There was belief in a personal God, in individual souls, and an atomic universe. The individual was neither the soul alone nor the body, but the product of their union. Reality was supposed to be a complex of souls and nature.
The Vaishesika system resembles the Nyaya in many ways. It emphasizes the separateness of individual selves and objects, and develops the atomic theory of the universe. The principle of dharma, the moral law, is said to govern the universe, and round this the whole system revolves. The hypothesis of a God is not clearly admitted. Between the Nyaya and Vaishesika systems and early Buddhist philosophy there are many points of contact.On the whole they adopt a realistic approach.
The Samkhya system, which Kapila (c. seventh century B.C.) is said to have shaped out of many early and pre-Buddhist currents of thought, is remarkable. According to Richard Garbe: ‘In Kapila’s doctrine, for the first time in the history of the world, the complete independence and freedom of the human mind, its full confidence in its own powers, were exhibited.
The Samkhya became a well-coordinated system after the rise of Buddhism. The theory is a purely philosophical and metaphysical conception arising out of the mind of man and having little to do with objective observation. Indeed, such observation was not possible in matters beyond its reach. Like Buddhism, Samkhya proceeded along rationalistic lines of inquiry and met the challenge of Buddhism on the latter’s own ground of reasoned argument without support of authority. Because of this rationalistic approach, God had to be ruled out. In Samkhya thus there is neither a personal God nor an impersonal one, neither monotheism nor monism. Its approach was atheistic and it undermined the foundations of a supernatural religion. There is no creation of the universe by a god, but rather a constant evolution, the product of interaction between spirit, or rather spirits, and matter,though that matter itself is of the nature of energy. This evolution is a continuous process.
The Samkhya is called dvaita, or a dualistic philosophy, because it builds its structure on two primary causes: prakriti, or an ever active and changing nature or energy, and purusha, the spirit which does not change. There is an infinite number of purushas or souls,or something in the nature of consciousness. Under the influence of purusha, which itself is inactive, prakriti evolves and leads to the world of continuous becoming. Causality is accepted, but it is said that the effect really exists hidden in the cause. Cause and effect become the undeveloped and developed states of one and the same thing. From our practical point of view, however, cause and effect are different and distinct, but basically there is an identity between them. And so the argument goes on, showing how from the un-manifested prakriti or energy, through the influence of purusha or consciousness, and the principle of causality, nature with its immense complexity and variety of elements has developed and is ever-changing and developing. Between the lowest and the highest in the universe there is a continuity and a unity. The whole conception is metaphysical, and the argument, based on certain hypotheses, is long, intricate, and reasoned.
The Yoga system of Patanjali is essentially a method for the discipline of the body and the mind leading up to psychic and spiritual training. Patanjali not only crystallized this old system but also wrote a famous commentary on Panini’s Sanskrit grammar.This commentary, called the ‘Mahabhashya’ is as much of a classic as Panini’s work. Professor Stcherbatsky, of Leningrad,has written that ‘the ideal scientific work for India is the grammar of Panini with the Mahabhashya of Patanjali.
Yoga is a word well-known now in Europe and America, though little understood, and it is associated with quaint practices, more especially with sitting Buddha-like and gazing on one’s navel or the tip of one’s nose. Some people learning odd tricks of the body presume to become authorities on the subject in the West, and impress and exploit the credulous and the seekers after the sensational. The system is much more than these devices and is based on the psychological conception that by proper training of the mind certain higher levels of consciousness can be reached. It is meant to be a method for finding out things for oneself rather than a preconceived metaphysical theory of reality or of the universe. It is thus experimental and the most suitable conditions for carrying out the experiment are pointed out. As such a method it can be adopted and used by any system of philosophy, whatever its theoretical approach may be. Thus the adherents of the atheistic Samkhya philosophy may use this method. Buddhism developed its own forms of Yoga training, partly similar, partly different. The theoretical parts of Patanjali’s Yoga system are therefore of relatively small importance; it is the method that counts. Belief in God is no integral part of the system, but it is suggested that such belief in a personal God, and devotion to him, helps in concentrating the mind and thus serves a practical purpose.
The later stages of Yoga are supposed to lead to some kind of intuitive insight or to a condition of ecstasy, such as the mystics speak of. Whether this is some kind of higher mental state, opening the door to further knowledge, or is merely a kind of self-hypnosis, I do not know. Even if the former is possible, the latter certainly also happens, and it is well-known that unregulated Yoga has sometimes led to unfortunate consequences so far as the mind of the person is concerned.
But before these final stages of meditation and contemplation are reached, there is the discipline of the body and mind to be practised. The body should be fit and healthy, supple and graceful, hard and strong. A number of bodily exercises are prescribed, as also ways of breathing, in order to have some control over it and normally to take deep and long breaths. ‘Exercises’ is the wrong word, for they involve no strenuous movement. They are rather postures—asanas as they are called-—and, properly done, they relax and tone up the body and do not tire it at all. This old and typical Indian method of preserving bodily fitness is rather remarkable when one compares it with the more usual methods involving rushing about, jerks, hops, and jumps which leave one panting, out of breath, and tired out. These other methods have also been common enough in India, as have wrestling, swimming, riding, fencing, archery, Indian clubs, something in the nature of ju-jitsu, and many other pastimes and games. But the old asana method is perhaps more typical of India and seems to fit in with the spirit of her philosophy. There is a poise in it and an unruffled calm even while it exercises the body. Strength and fitness are gained without any waste of energy or disturbance of the mind. And because of this the asanas are suited to any age and some of them can be performed even by the old.
There are a large number of these asanas. For many years now I have practised a few simple selected ones, whenever I have had the chance, and I have no doubt that I have profited greatly by them, living as I often did in environments unfavourable to the mind and body. These and some breathing exercises are the extent of my practice of the physical exercises of the Yoga system. I have not gone beyond the elementary stages of the body, and my mind continues to be an unruly member, misbehaving far too often.
The discipline of the body, which includes eating and drinking the right things and avoiding the wrong ones, is to be accompanied by what the Yoga system describes as ethical preparation. This includes non-violence, truthfulness, continence, etc. Non-violence or ahimsa is something much more than abstention from physical violence. It is an avoidance of malice and hatred.
All this is supposed to lead to a control of the senses; then comes contemplation and meditation, and finally intense concentration, which should lead to various kinds of intuition.
Vivekananda, one of the greatest of the modern exponents of Yoga and the Vedanta, has laid repeated stress on the experimental character of Yoga and on basing it on reason. ‘No one of these Yogas gives up reason, no one asks you to be hood-winked or to deliver your reason into the hands of priests of any type whatsoever…. Each one of them tells you to cling to your reason, to hold fast to it.’ Though the spirit of Yoga and the Vedanta may be akin to the spirit of science, it is true that they deal with different media, and hence vital differences creep in. According to the Yoga, the spirit is not limited to the intelligence, and also ‘thought is action, and only action can make thought of any value.’ Inspiration and intuition are recognized but may they not lead to deception? Vivekananda answers that inspiration must not contradict reason: ‘What we call inspiration is the development of reason. The way to intuition is through reason… .No genuine inspiration ever contradicts reason. Where it does it is no inspiration.’ Also ‘inspiration must be for the good of one and all; and not for name or fame or personal gain. It should always be for the good of the world, and perfectly unselfish.
Again, ‘Experience is the only source of knowledge.’ The same methods of investigation which we apply to the sciences and to exterior knowledge should be applied to religion. ‘If a religion is destroyed by such investigation it was nothing but a useless and unworthy superstition; the sooner it disappeared the better.’ ‘Why religions should claim that they are not bound to abide by the standpoint of reason no one knows… .For it is better that mankind should become atheist by following reason than blindly believe in two hundred million gods on the authority of anybody … Perhaps there are prophets, who have passed the limits of sense and obtained a glimpse of the beyond. We shall believe it only when we can do the same ourselves; not before.’ It is said that reason is not strong enough, that often it makes mistakes. If reason is weak why should a body of priests be considered any better guides? ‘I will abide by my reason,’ continues Vivekananda, ‘because with all its weakness there is some chance of my getting at truth through it…. We should therefore follow reason, and also sympathise with those who do not come to any sort of belief, following reason.’ ‘In the study of this Raja Yoga no faith or belief is necessary. Believe nothing until you find it out for yourself.
Vivekananda’s unceasing stress on reason and his refusal to take anything on trust derived from his passionate belief in the freedom of the mind and also because he had seen the evils of authority in his own country: ‘for I was born in a country where they have gone to the extreme of authority.’ He interpreted— and he had the right to interpret—the old Yoga systems and the Vedanta accordingly. But, however much experiment and reason may be at the back of them, they deal with regions which are beyond the reach or even the understanding of the average man— a realm of psychical and psychological experiences entirely different from the world we know and are used to. Those experiments and experiences have certainly not been confined to India, and there is abundant evidence of them in the records of Christian mystics, Persian Sufis, and others. It is extraordinary how these experiences resemble each other, demonstrating, as Romain Rolland says, ‘the universality and perennial occurrence of the great facts of religious experience, their close resemblance under the diverse costumes of race and time, attesting to the persistent unity of the human spirit—or rather, for it goes deeper than the spirit, which is itself obliged to delve for it—to the identity of the materials constituting humanity.
Yoga, then, is an experimental system of probing into the psychical background of the individual and thus developing certain perceptions and control of the mind. How far this can be utilised to advantage by modern psychology, I do not know; but some attempt to do so seems worth while. Aurobindo Ghose has defined Yoga as follows: ‘All Raja-Yoga depends on this perception and experience—that our inner elements, combinations, functions, forces, can be separated or dissolved, can be newly combined and set to novel and formerly impossible uses, or can be transformed and resolved into a new general synthesis by fixed internal processes.
The next system of philosophy is known as the Mimamsa. This is ritualistic and tends towards polytheism. Modern popular Hinduism as well as Hindu Law have been largely influenced by this system and its rules which lay down the dharma or the scheme of right living as conceived by it. It might be noted that the polytheism of the Hindus is of a curious variety, for the devas, the shining ones or gods, for all their special powers are supposed to be of a lower order of creation than man. Both the Hindus and Buddhists believe that human birth is the highest stage that the Being has reached on the road to self-realization. Even the devas can only achieve this freedom and realization through human birth. This conception is evidently far removed from normal polytheism. Buddhists say that only man can attain the supreme consummation of Buddha-hood.
Sixthly and lastly in this series comes the Vedanta system, which, arising out of the Upanishads, developed and took many shapes and forms, but was always based on a monistic philosophy of the universe. The purusha and prakriti of the Samkhya are not considered as independent substances but as modifications of a single reality—the absolute. On the foundation of the early Vedanta, Shankara (or Shankaracharya) built a system which is called the Advaita Vedanta or non-dualist Vedanta. It is this philosophy which represents the dominant philosophic outlook of Hinduism today.
It is based on pure monism, the only ultimate reality in the metaphysical sense being the Atman, the Absolute Soul. That is the subject, all else is objective. How that Absolute Soul pervades everything, how the one appears as the many, and yet retains its wholeness, for the Absolute is indivisible and cannot be divided, all this cannot be accounted for by the processes of logical reasoning, for our minds are limited by the finite world. The Upanishad had described this Atman, if this can be called a description thus: ‘Whole is that, whole (too) is this; from whole, whole cometh; take whole from whole, (yet) whole remains.
Shankara builds a subtle and intricate theory of knowledge and proceeding from certain assumptions, step by step, by logical argument, leads up to the complete system of advaitism or non-dualism. The individual soul is not a separate entity but that Absolute Soul itself though limited in some ways. It is compared to the space enclosed in a jar, the Atman being universal space. For practical purposes they may be treated as distinct from one another but this distinction is apparent only, not real. Freedom consists in realizing this unity, this oneness of the individual with the Absolute Soul.
The phenomenal world we see about us thus becomes a mere reflection of that reality, or a shadow cast by it on the empirical plane. It has been called Mayi, which has been mistranslated as ‘illusion.’ But it is not non-existence. It is an intermediate form between Being and non-Being. It is a kind of relative existence, and so perhaps the conception of relativity brings us nearer to the meaning of May&. What is good and evil then in this world? Are they also mere reflections and shadows with no substance? Whatever they may be in the ultimate analysis in this empirical world of ours there is a validity and importance in these ethical distinctions. They are relevant where individuals function as such.
These finite individuals cannot imagine the infinite without limiting it; they can only form limited and objective conceptions of it. Yet even these finite forms and concepts rest ultimately in the infinite and Absolute. Hence the form of religion becomes a relative affair and each individual has liberty to form such conceptions as he is capable of.
Shankara accepted the Brahminical organization of social life on the caste basis, as representing the collective experience and wisdom of the race. But he held that any person belonging to any caste could attain the highest knowledge.
There is about Shankara’s attitude and philosophy a sense of world negation and withdrawal from the normal activities of the world in search for that freedom of the self which was to him the final goal for every person. There is also a continual insistence on self-sacrifice and detachment.
And yet Shankara was a man of amazing energy and vast activity. He was no escapist retiring into his shell or into a corner of the forest, seeking his own individual perfection and oblivious of what happened to others. Born in Malabar in the far south of India, he travelled incessantly all over India, meeting innumerable people, arguing, debating, reasoning, convincing, and filling them with a part of his own passion and tremendous vitality. He was evidently a man who was intensely conscious of his mission, a man who looked upon the whole of India from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas as his field of action and as something that held together culturally and was infused by the same spirit, though this might take many external forms. He strove hard to synthesize the diverse currents that were troubling the mind of India of his day and to build a unity of outlook out of that diversity. In a brief life of thirty-two years he did the work of many long lives and left such an impress of his powerful mind and rich personality on India that it is very evident today. He was a curious mixture of a philosopher and a scholar, an agnostic and a mystic, a poet and a saint, and in addition to all this, a practical reformer and an able organizer. He built up, for the first time within the Brahminical fold, ten religious orders and of these four are very much alive today. He established four great maths or monasteries, locating them far from each other, almost at the four corners of India.One of these was in the south at Sringeri in Mysore, another at Puri on the east coast, the third at Dvaraka in Kathiawad on the west coast, and the fourth at Badrinath in the heart of the Himalayas. At the age of thirty-two this Brahmin from the tropical south died at Kedarnath in the upper snow-covered reaches of the Himalayas.
There is a significance about these long journeys of Shankara throughout this vast land at a time when travel was difficult and the means of transport very slow and primitive. The very conception of these journeys, and his meeting kindred souls everywhere and speaking to them in Sanskrit, the common language of the learned throughout India, brings out the essential unity of India even in those far-off days. Such journeys could not have been uncommon then or earlier, people went to and fro in spite of political divisions, new books travelled, and every new thought or fresh theory spread rapidly over the entire country and became the subject of interested talk and often of heated debate. There was not only a common intellectual and cultural life among the educated people, but vast numbers of common folk were continually travelling to the numerous places of pilgrimage, spread out all over the land and famous from epic times.
All this going to and fro and meeting people from different parts of the country must have intensified the conception of a common land and a common culture. This travelling was not confined to the upper castes; among the pilgrims were men and women of all castes and classes. Whatever the religious significance of these pilgrimages in the minds of the people might have been, they were looked upon also, as they are today, as holiday-time and opportunities for merry-making and seeing different parts of the country. Every place of pilgrimage contained a cross-section of the people of India in all their great variety of custom, dress, and language, and yet very conscious of their common features and the bonds that held them together and brought all of them to meet in one place. Even the difference of language between the north and the south did not prove a formidable barrier to this intercourse.
All this was so then and Shankara was doubtless fully aware of it. It would seem that Shankara wanted to add to this sense of national unity and common consciousness. He functioned on the intellectual, philosophical and religious plane and tried to bring about a greater unity of thought all over the country. He functioned also on the popular plane in many ways, destroying many a dogma and opening the door of his philosophic sanctuary to every one who was capable of entering it. By locating his four great monasteries in the north, south, east, and west, he evidently wanted to encourage the conception of a culturally united India. These four places had been previously places of pilgrimage from all parts of the country, and now became more so.
How well the ancient Indians chose their sacred places of pilgrimage! Almost always they are lovely spots with beautiful natural surroundings. There is the icy cave of Amaranath in Kashmir, and there is the temple of the Virgin Goddess right at the southern tip of India at Rameshwaram, near Cape Comorin. There is Benares, of course, and Hardwar, nestling at the foot of the Himalayas, where the Ganges flows out of its tortuous mountain valleys into the plains below, and Prayaga (or Allahabad) where the Ganges meets the Jumna, and Mathura and Brindaban by the Jumna, round which the Krishna legends cluster, and Budh Gaya where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, and so many places in the south. Many of the old temples, especially in the south, contain famous sculptures and other artistic remains. A visit to many of the places of pilgrimage thus gives an insight into old Indian art.
Shankara is said to have helped in putting an end to Buddhism in India as a widespread religion, and that thereafter Brahminism absorbed it in a fraternal embrace. But Buddhism had shrunk in India even before Shankara’s time. Some of Shankara’s Brahmin opponents called him a disguised Buddhist. It is true that Buddhism influenced him considerably.