By Prof. Roy Mathew

Philosophy has been the hub and center of Indian culture and civilization. Since its very inception, philosophy influenced all aspects of life in the Indian subcontinent and vice versa. Both arts and sciences had intimate ties with philosophy and so did religion, politics, and economics. The influence of philosophy was so protean and profound that its separation from the other disciplines is difficult.

Indian philosophy differs from the Western philosophy in several ways. Logic and reason are important corner stones for both but the philosophy in India gives equal significance to intuition. In fact the argument that the most sublime truths are beyond the intellect has been repeatedly voiced. Talking and writing about it is meaningless without personal experiences. Such experiences depend upon a life style marked by asceticism and self denial. This certainly was true of most ancient Indian philosophers of repute.

In the West, especially in modern times, philosophy and the physical sciences are seen as incompatible. In India, science and philosophy compliment each other and no antagonism existed between the two. In fact, in ancient times the sciences were regarded as appendages to philosophy.

Similarly philosophy and religion also had intimate ties. In India there is no religion without a philosophy and no philosophy without a religion. The history of Indian philosophies and Indian religions is one and the same. From the very early days the religion in India, loosely called Hinduism, sought to absorb all the new religions and philosophies that grew from the Indian soil or came to its shores. To the Indian, religion is not a business transaction with the almighty, it is not ingratiating God through praises and gifts, it is not winning God’s grace by persuading more people to join any one religious sect, and it is not winning god’s favor so that heaven is guaranteed after death. It is simply a quest for meaning, purpose, and substance. It is an intellectual exercise and at the same time it is an intuitive one. Its goals are unclear and it is generally acknowledged that there is no one right way. Composed of a wide array of beliefs and practices, Hinduism is an amalgam of the highest and the lowest, the most sectarian and non-sectarian, and the most concrete and the most abstract.

The origins of Indian philosophy can be traced back to 2500 BC or even earlier to the magnificent civilization that flourished in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Archeological artifacts unearthed from the Indus valley ruins clearly attest to the religious life that existed there. In fact, a number of the religious practices of the Indus valley civilization can be found in contemporary Indian religious life, especially in the south. For example, in India both males and females mark their foreheads with ashes, sandal wood paste, or other materials. Indus valley figurine shows similar markings on the forehead. In contemporary India most temples have large ponds. Devotees take ritual baths before entering the temple and apparently this practice was prevalent in the Indus valley as well. The swastika has tremendous philosophical and spiritual significance in contemporary India. Swastika has also been found among Indus valley diggings. According to many scholars, the popular Hindu god Siva had his origins as an Indus valley deity.

While there is no question that the Indus valley inhabitants had a religion, much is not known about the underlying philosophy. Although the Indus valley inhabitants had a script, to date it has not been meaningfully deciphered. We do not know a great deal about who these people were, where they came from, and where they went. We know that they had a highly developed civilization but the unknown the clearly overwhelms the known. Philosophy and religion are no exceptions.

The Indus valley inhabitants were agrarian and essentially peace loving. The warring Aryan Nomads that came across the Hindukush, sounded the death knell for the Indus valley civilization. While most scholars accept this view, a few, especially in India argue that the Aryans had their roots on the Indian soil itself. Whatever their origins were, it is clear that Aryan dominance sank India into illiteracy for the following 1000 years or so. The language of the Aryans, Sanskrit, did not have an alphabet. In the absence of a written language, they carried their philosophy and religion in their minds in the form of verses passed on from generation to generation. The three Vedas, Rig, Yajur, and Sama constituted the bulk of the Aryan religious and philosophical thought. The fourth Veda, Atharva, that stands apart, is more controversial. Some scholars argue that the fourth Veda is the Aryanized version of the Indus valley religious and philosophical practices. As the Indus valley civilization and philosophy faded into obscurity, Aryan religion and philosophy gained popularity.

The exact date of the Vedas is of controversy. Of the four Vedas, Rig is believed to be the oldest and most important. It was compiled around 1500 BC. The ancient composition is multi-authored and put together over a span of at least 100 years. The earliest parts of this text are clearly Aryan. However the later ones are amalgamations of the philosophy of the Aryans and the locals. While most of the texts deal with Aryan rites and rituals, and beliefs and practices other parts deal with abstract philosophical concepts. This is especially true of Rig Veda. The Aryans, awed and overwhelmed by the forces of nature, ascribed divinity to fire, earth, sky, thunder, sun, dawn, dusk, etc. Rig Veda provides an extensive list of such Gods and Goddesses that forms the basis for the Hindu Pantheon. However, Rig Veda goes past the ritualistic religion and examines such complex issues as creation. It also posits the concept of a universal law that governs the entire cosmos, Rta. Later religious documents expanded the concept of Rta to include dharma, i.e. the essence of ethics in a civilized society. Rig Veda also dealt with death and life after death. After death you go either to heaven or to hell. The former is presided over by “Vishnu” and the latter by “Yama”. Although Rig Veda is strongly theistic, some parts have been noted for their atheistic views. However being a minority their dissenting voices were drowned by the majority of devotees.

Upanishads, the jewels of Indian philosophical thought, occupy the end portion of the Vedas. They are around 200 in number of which 10 or 15 of them are better known. They are remarkable for their philosophical depth and freedom from dogma. Although a great deal has been written about the philosophy of Upanishads, all of them do not subscribe to the same philosophical view point. While some of them are strongly theistic, others are more spiritual and philosophical. Practices recommended by some are spurned by the others. Some support the caste system, while several others do not.

Most of them dismiss the mundane reality as insubstantial and ephemeral. The true reality can not be perceived. It is above and beyond perception. Although it can not be perceived and reasoned it can be experienced. Intellectual sophistication is of no avail. However purity of heart and simplicity of conduct enable us to be in touch with it. Those who proudly claim that they know it do not and those who declare they do not know it do know it.

True reality is beyond time and space. It is nothing but the creator himself in his primary form. It predates word and therefore it can not be described. Any attempted description will be futile. It is in excess of the intellect as the intellect has its basis in it. Thus it cannot be understood or explained. But it can be experienced. The creator also manifests through his mundane creations. Thus for the enlightened it is possible to catch glimpses of the creator through the creations. The creator is present in the human mind. Human mind is made up of overlapping sheaths representing the outer world, the body, and mental operations that center around the central core: consciousness. Consciousness represents the undisguised creator. It is consciousness, the divine spark within that makes everything else, even the unreal reality, possible. In order to experience the inner truth one has to train the mind to penetrate the outer sheaths to reach the inner depths.

All life, especially human life, cycles through three phases: wakefulness, and dream, and dreamless sleep. These phases represent various degrees of masking of the inner truth. The least disguised phase is the deep sleep. We are closer to reality in dreamless sleep than the other two phases. There is a fourth state of mind, which is beyond the language and can not be described. In this state of mind true reality is experienced in toto. It is called “turiya” or “chathurtha.” Here there is no subject and object, no time and space, no reality and unreality. This is the ultimate truth.

The Vedas are too ritualistic, the Upanishads are too philosophical and neither says a great deal about the tests and trials of day to day life. The two epics, “the ithihasas”, fill in this void. They are about two royal families: the Sun dynasty and the Moon dynasty. The two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, have been written and rewritten many times and northern and southern recensions also exist. Since they have been revised so many times, the date of the original composition is very controversial. Although there are references in the Mahabharata of Ramayana, the converse is not true. This would lead one to speculate that Ramayana is older than Mahabharata but this view is not accepted by many. They argue that only the more recent versions or Mahabharata contain references to Ramayana and that in actual fact, Mahabharata is the older composition.

Mahabharata has over 2000 chapters and it is several times as large as the entire Bible, Iliad, and Odyssey. It has stories within stories and provides a tremendous amount of information on the ancient India and the life within. Ramayana is remarkable for its poetic beauty. Unlike Mahabharata it is much more focused and succinct. Both epics deal with human life. The presence of Rama and Krishna, two incarnations of Vishnu, elevates them past the mundane into scripture. While Rama was the life and soul of correctness in conduct (dharma), Krishna was more practical minded. Krishna subscribed to the view that the end justifies the means; however Rama will not depart from the path of righteousness even for achieving a noble end. In many ways, Rama is more human than Krishna. For most part Rama does not know he is an incarnation of the divine. In the beginning, his teacher Vasistha, had to inform him about this. but still, he kept on forgetting it. Even when others remind him of his connection with the divine, he tends to dismiss it as inconsequential. He does not perform any miracles. He firmly adheres to the path of righteousness and he strives hard to set an example for the other human beings. Krishna, on the other hand, knew all along of his divine origin. He performs miracles on and off and he deviates from the path of righteousness and persuades other to do the same so long as their final goal is noble. While Rama is monogamous and extremely moralistic, Krishna has multiple wives and consorts. Krishna does perform miracles and uses the divine weapon, chakra.

There is a great deal of lessons to be learned from both epics. Although the ideals as recommended by the two are not always identical, Bhagavad Gita, the flower of Hinduism, is contained within Mahabharata. Gita is remarkable not only for its philosophical depth but also for its poetic beauty. Although it overlaps with the Upanishads to a very great extent, it goes beyond the Upanishads.

Gita places primary significance on duty. Each person has his duty to carry out and that has to have supremacy over everything else. In the performance of one duty one should not be attached to the results. The reward is inherent in the effort and not on the results of the effort. The ultimate duty is upholding righteousness and the destruction of evil. Truth is the heart and soul of righteousness and truth is God. In other words, the ultimate goal has to be communion with God, beyond pleasure and pain, gain and loss, and victory and defeat. This requires a unique state of mental equilibrium, which can be accomplished by withdrawing ones focus from the world of senses to the depth of ones inner self. The sensory world brings attachment, desire, and frustration. On the other hand, an inner focus will only move one closer to enlightenment. Most of the time, people are engrossed with worldly pleasures, oblivious of the true reality beyond the material world. Gita argues that one has to swim against the current to leave the mundane world and to experience the truth within.

People embark on such a spiritual quest when they are distressed and when they are in pursuit of knowledge or wisdom, or peace/happiness. There are many ways of accomplishing release from the mundane world and union with the absolute. The way one chooses will depend upon one’s calling in life, circumstances and temperament. Men of contemplation find God through knowledge/wisdom, while men of action resort to worldly activity. The devotees find truth through love of God. Gita reaffirms the supremacy of dharma. The divine incarnates as avatars from time to time to protect the good and to destroy the evil and to reestablish dharma.

Gita discusses various types of yoga (union with the absolute) but gives primary importance to the technique of Raja yoga, although the term Raja yoga is not used. The technique essentially consists of learning to disregard all sensory input and to focus ones attention on the inner world. Initially, space between the eyebrows may serve as the focus together with control of breathing. The mind becomes intensely focussed on the interior and leaves behind all perceptions, and emotions based on past and present perceptions. Deep into the meditative trance, ego is lost and thus one gains control over the inner world. In this stage the yogi is in union with the inner self that is God.

The epics brought philosophy to the common man. Both epics are very interesting and appealing to the masses. In fact the vast majority of Indian art-forms are based upon characters and incidents from the two epics. Rama and Krishna are worshipped as gods in numerous temples all over India. Several places mentioned in the two epics have become sacred. Gita is widely regarded as the Bible for Hindus.

There is a thread of continuity from the Vedas through the Upanishads to the epics. The Vedas and the epics support the caste system to some extent and thus reinforce the supremacy of the higher castes. However, in Ramayana, Rama disregards the caste system and embraces individuals of the lower castes, while in Mahabharata, Krishna states that caste is determined by ones actions and not by one’s birth. Upanishads, in general, do not go out of the way to support the caste system, although some of them also argue that caste is determined by ones action and not birth.

The majority of Indians do subscribe to the caste hierarchy in varying degrees. However, from the early days, a number rejected the caste system and the Brahmin sacerdotalism. They left the popular Vedic religion and pursued their spiritual enquiries elsewhere. Two such people ultimately founded their own religions that ultimately eclipsed Vedic Hinduism completely. Jainism founded by Vardhamana Mahavira is a religion of extreme self-denial. The devotee practices total nonviolence, denial of all material pleasures, and adheres to total truthfulness, and selflessness. Like Hinduism, the Jains also believe in release from the reincarnation cycle. However, Jain theology does not subscribe to the notion of a god. Jains reject the Vedas, the caste system, and the Vedic rites and rituals.

Buddhism founded by Gautama Buddha resembles Jainism in many ways. However, unlike the Jains, Buddhists subscribe to a moderate approach: the middle path. They reject all extremes including total self abnegation. They believe that a healthy body is necessary for enlightenment. Although they too live lives without luxury, starvation and vegetarianism are not insisted upon. The Buddha believed that it is okay to eat meat provided the animal is not killed for that purpose. The four noble truths of Buddhism are: there is sorrow and suffering in the world, sorrow and suffering are caused by attachment and craving, craving can be overcome, and the way to overcome craving is to follow the eight fold path of righteousness: right beliefs, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right occupation, right effort, right concentration and right meditation.

Buddha too rejected the Vedic religion completely and did not adhere to the caste system. Like the Jains, Buddha too believed in the cycle of reincarnation and conceptualized nirvana as escape from the wheel of births and rebirths

After Buddha’s death, Buddhism split into many factions. The movement received a tremendous boost when Emperor Asoka became a Buddhist. He erected pillars all over the country with Buddhist teachings inscribed on them. He also sent missionaries to the neighboring countries. Under his tutelage Buddhism went to the Far East countries such as China and from there to Japan and to Sri Lanka. He may even have sent emissaries to Egypt. For over 800 years, Buddhism remained the dominant religion in India. Ultimately Hinduism accepted many of the Buddhist teachings and also the Buddha himself as an incarnation of Vishnu. It is often said Hinduism destroyed Buddhism through a fatal embrace. The brutal Muslim invasion weakened Buddhism substantially and finally it was pushed into obscurity by Samkara, the famous Hindu philosopher, who sought to reestablish the Vedic religion.

Although Buddhism as a religion is nonexistent in contemporary India, the Buddha’s teachings continue to influence life in India in many ways. Before the Buddha, even upper caste Hindus ate meat. Since Buddha meat eating declined in popularity and most spirituality seekers tend to avoid it. Kindness to animals can be traced back to the Buddha. He was totally opposed to the caste system and his religion was one of the earliest that was above and beyond caste differences. That ideal lives on in India. The orange garments, spiritual aspirants wear in India, is said to have originated with the Buddha. The wheel that adorns the Indian flag and the Indian seal were derived from the Buddha. Before the Buddha, drugs and alcohol were used for spiritual as well as entertainment purposes. Buddha banned the use of alcohol and drugs. Buddha had a vision of spirituality independent of religion. In his movement there was no room for religious ceremonies and priesthood. He was able to conceptualize spiritual experiences independent of worship and sacrifices. Some of his theosophical theories have received confirmation in science. For example, his belief that components of a material reality were interdependent and collectively unreal was supported by the theory of relativity, Einstein and his followers put forward. Buddha’s theory of spirituality was further developed by subsequent writers especially Nagarjuna. Samkara’s Advaita Vedanta has striking similarities with Buddha’s teachings. In fact, Samkara has been called Prachanna Buddha (Buddha in disguise) by other Hindu philosophers.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciple, Vivekananda, combined aspects of all Indian philosophies and other significant religions like Christianity. This non-theistic spiritual approach was espoused by such movements as the Theosophical society. In the fertile (philosophically speaking) Indian soil, a number of other movements such as Sikhism, Kashmir Saivism, Vaishnavism, Tantrism, etc also came into being. While many Hindus continue to practice Vedic Hinduism and the associated pantheon, the more intellectual ones go beyond religious rituals and try to establish contact with a formless and nameless absolute.


1) Radhakrishnan S. Indian Philosophy. Vols I and II, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1923

2) Davis Rhys TW and CAF. Dialogues of the Buddha. Vols. I, II and III: Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, Delhi, 1921

3) Max Muller F (Ed). The Sacred Books of the East. Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, Delhi 1965

Author: Prof. Roy Mathew M.D., Professor and Chair Dept. of Psychiatry, Texas Tech University, Odessa, Texas and author of "The True Path", Perseus Publishing, May 2001