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Document status: July 7, 2004

Maintained as reference

May be used as an outline of Indian Philosophy – for inclusion in another work or for a work on Indian Philosophy if needed



Comments on the Spirit of Indian Philosophy

1        The Vedic Period: 2500 - 600 BC

2        The Epic Period: 600 BC - 200 AD

2.1        The Epics

2.2        The Heterodox Systems

2.3        Origin of Doctrines and Philosophies

3        The Sutra Period: from 200 AD

4        The Scholastic Period: till the 17th century AD

5        Modern and Contemporary Indian Philosophy


This brief overview is not academic. It is important to me because it is in Indian Philosophy that I find two significant ideas. The first is the Vedantic principle of the identity of the personal with the universal. The second is the principle of the Gitâ that I take to be that of action in the face of doubt and ignorance

Action and thought interact to produce meaning…which may be expressed in words

Of course, the Gitâ is more than that - and I am interested other messages and other expressions of Indian Philosophy as further expression of the principles mentioned, other ideas of interest - such as Yoga, the expressions of the “Indian” mind, Buddhism…and as a sub-conscious and ongoing source of my ideas and identity

Radhakrishnan divides the history of Indian Philosophy, as is conventional, into four periods:

The Vedic Period: 2500 - 600 BC

The Epic Period: 600 BC - 200 AD

The Sutra Period: from 200 AD

The Scholastic Period: till the 17th century AD

A fifth period is added:

The Modern Period: after the decline of Indian Philosophy in the 17th century due to the influence of Muslim and British cultures and the resulting “Anglophile” orientation among educated Indians

Much work has gone into the reinterpretation of Indian Philosophy, both by Western and Indian scholars. The modern rendering is necessarily marked by interpretation…this is all that there can be, of course - except that we can also breath new life into old work, adapt it to our times. The outline that follows draws from Radhakrishnan

Comments on the Spirit of Indian Philosophy

Recent reviews have tended to contradict the following characterization due to Radhakrishnan:

Concentration on the spiritual

Intimate relation between philosophy and life

Introspective attitude toward reality…and therefore, idealistic

Intuition is the only way to knowledge of the ultimate though reason may be used

Acceptance of authority…militates against any attitude contradicting the basic characteristics of spirituality, inwardness, intuition, strong belief that truth is to be lived and not merely known

Overall synthetic tradition…in contrast with the analytic tradition of Western Philosophy

1           The Vedic Period: 2500 - 600 BC

The Vedic Period is characterized, successively, by religion, superstition and philosophy

Sruti is the word for revealed, authoritative texts. There are four Veda: Rg, Yajur, Sâma, and Atharva

Rg: 1017 hymns in ten books. Philosophically, the most important

Yajur: sacrificial formulas

Sâma: melodies

Atharva: has a large number of magical formulas, spells and incantations for healing, long life…perhaps the beginnings of “Indian” medicine

Each Veda has four parts:

Mantra or Samhitâ - hymns - by “poets” - that move from polytheism to monotheism to suggestions, in the later mantras of the Rg, of monism

Brâhmana - religious documents - by priests - ritual and sacrificial

Âryanka - meditations for the forest dweller who, in the classic stages of life, has progressed beyond the ritual of the householder - by philosophers - transitional between the Brâhmana and the Upanishads

Upanishads - philosophical, abstract - by philosophers - spiritual monism… The real which is at the heart of the universe is reflected in the infinite depths of the self. Brahman - the ultimate as discovered objectively - is Âtman - the ultimate as discovered by introspection

The traditional number of Upanishads is 108 but there are more than 200. The fourteen principle Upanishads are Isâ, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mândukya, Taittriya, Aitareya, Chândogya, Brhadâranyaka, Svetâsvatra, Kausitaki, Mahânârâyana, and Maitra

The authors are not known. The doctrines are associated with the sages Aruni, Yajnavalkya, Bâlâki, Svetaketu, and Sândilya

2           The Epic Period: 600 BC - 200 AD

Smrti is the name for the traditional texts of this period. Doctrines are presented, often in mythic form, in non-systematic and non-technical literature. There are four classes of text and tradition

2.1         The Epics

Râmâyana tells of the conflict between the Aryans and the Dravidians

Mahâbhârata is of the dynastic struggle among the descendants of Bharâta - the Pandavas and the Kurus. Bhagavad Gitâ is a part of Mahâbhârata. Regarded[1] as one of three most authoritative texts of Indian Philosophy

The epics are the occasions for cosmology and ethics

A theme is that of Brahmanism adjusting to the needs of different communities, being taken into the Aryan fold. In addition to the great work of synthesis, the Bhagavad Gitâ, there also resulted the Prâsupata, Bhâgavata, Tantra systems of thought and practice

2.2         The Heterodox Systems





2.3         Origin of Doctrines and Philosophies

Skepticism, naturalism, materialism

Orthodox systems

Heterodox systems: Cârvâka, Buddhism, Jainism…

2.4 Dharmasâstras - treatises on ethical and social philosophy

Code of Manu

Artha-sâstra of Kautilya

3           The Sutra Period: from 200 AD

A period of orderly, systematic, aphoristic, extremely brief and enigmatic texts

The systems of this period are:

Nyâya - logical realism - Gautama: Nyâyasutra, 300 AD

Vaisesika - realistic pluralism - Kanâda: Vaisesikasutra

Sâmkhya - evolutionary dualism - Sâmkhya: Sâmkhya-pravacanasutra, 300 AD. Also attributed to the legendary Kapila


Purva Mimânsâ - early investigations of dharma, duty as stated in the Veda. Jaimini: mimânsâsutra

Vedânta. Also Uttara Mimânsâ, Vedânta sutra, Brahmasutra - since it deals with the doctrine of Brahman and Sârirakasutra since it deals with the embodiment of the unconditioned self. Attributed to Bâdârayana but not usually called Bâdârayanasutra. There are 555 sutras of two or three words each…the attempt is to systematize the teaching of the Upanishads - especially its spiritual monism. Since the sutras are so terse, the commentaries are important. Three significant commentaries are Samkara’s non-dualism - Samkara is regarded as a thinker of the first rank; Râmânuja’s qualified non-dualism; and Madhva’s dualism. These commentaries are regarded more highly than the original sutras of Bâdârayana

4           The Scholastic Period: till the 17th century AD

This is the period of commentaries upon the sutras. The writing of this period is characterized by much commentary upon commentary, “logic-chopping”, noisy controversy. But, the best work is of very high quality - the work of some of the greatest of Indian Philosophers: Samkara, Kumârila, Sridhara, Râmânuja, Madhva, Udayana, Bhâskara, Jayanta, Vijnâbhiksu, Raghunâtha…see the discussion of the commentaries under Vedânta, above

5           Modern and Contemporary Indian Philosophy

After the decline of Indian Philosophy under Muslim and British influence and the Anglophile tendencies:

19th century reform - philosophical and religious renaissance of the Brâhmo Samâj and Ârya Samâj

Since establishment of India as a nation “consciousness of the greatness of India’s philosophical past.”

Contemporary Period [2]

Sri Aurobindo - Aravinda Ghose, 1872 - 1950. “The greatest mystic philosopher of present day India.” Author of The Life Divine

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, 1888 - 1975. Author of An Idealist View of Life, The Philosophy of the Upanishads

There is a list of modern Indian philosophers in Design for a Journey in Being

[1] The two other authoritative texts are the Upanishads and Samkara's commentary on the Vedânta

[2] Radhakrishan is writing in the 1950's. Recent developments have been discussed and characterized in a number of works. One tendency is to reject India's philosophy as primarily spiritual

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