Philosophy in Ancient India

The Bhagavad Gita is revered as a sacred text of Hindu philosophy. The name 'Bhagavad Gita', when translated into English, literally means 'Song from (the mouth of) God'. Its written format is that of a poem which is 700 verses long, originating from the famous puranic epic Mahabharata (Bhishma Parva chapters 23 40.).

Commonly referred to as The Gita, it is a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna which takes place on a battlefield, just prior to the start of a climactic war. During the conversation, Krishna proclaims that he is God Himself (Bhagavan), and at the request of Arjuna, displays His divine form, which is described as timeless, that leaves the latter awestruck. The conversation summarizes a number of different Yogic and Vedantic philosophies, explaining the meaning and purpose of life and existence. The Bhagavad Gita refers to itself as an 'Upanishad'.

It is not exactly clear when the Bhagavad Gita was written. Astronomical evidence cited in the Mahabharata place the incidents upon which the Gita is based in the year 3137 BCE, while the Puranas suggest a date of c. 1924 BCE. Scholarly estimates place the actual writing of the Gita in the latter half of the 1st millennium BC (roughly 4th century BC), making it a contemporary of the older Upanishads. Continued

Hindu Philosophy

Hindu philosophy (one of the main divisions of Indian philosophy) is traditionally seen through the prism of six different systems (called darshanas in Sanskrit) that are listed here and make up the main belief systems of Hinduism. The characteristic of this philosophy is to consider being (consciousness) together with the other issues and is part of the thought systems of the vast Vedic religion of Hinduism.

The Six Main Schools of Thought


Samkhya is widely regarded to be the oldest of the orthodox philosophical systems in Hinduism. Its philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two eternal realities: purusha and prakrti. The purushas (souls) are many, conscious and devoid of all qualities. They are the silent spectators of prakrti (matter or nature), which is composed of three gunas (dispositions): satva, rajas and tamas (steadiness, activity and dullness). When the equilibrium of the gunas is disturbed, the world order evolves. This disturbance is due to the proximity of Purusha and prakrti. Liberation (kaivalya), then, consists of the realisation of the difference between the two.

This was a dualistic philosophy. But there are differences between the Samkhya and Western forms of dualism. In the West, the fundamental distinction is between mind and body. In Samkhya, however, it is between the self (purusha) and matter, and the latter incorporates what Westerners would normally refer to as "mind". Samkhya was originally atheistic, but in confluence with its offshoot Yoga later, it accepted God.


The Nyaya school of philosophical speculation is based on a text called the Nyaya Sutra. It was written by Aksapada Gautama at an indeterminate date, but probably in the second century BCE. The most important contribution made by this school is its methodology. This is based on a system of logic that has subsequently been adopted by most of the other Indian schools (orthodox or not), much in the same way that Western science and philosophy can be said to be largely based on Aristotelian logic.

But Nyaya is not merely logic for its own sake. Its followers believed that obtaining valid knowledge was the only way to obtain release from suffering. They therefore took great pains to identify valid sources of knowledge and to distinguish these from mere false opinions. According to the Nyaya school, there are exactly four sources of knowledge (pramanas): perception, inference, comparison and testimony.

Knowledge obtained through each of these can of course still be either valid or invalid, and the Nyaya scholars (Naiyanikas) again went to great pains to identify, in each case, what it took to make knowledge valid, in the process coming up with a number of explanatory schemes. In this sense, Nyaya is probably the closest Indian equivalent to contemporary Western analytical philosophy. The later Naiyanikas gave logical proofs for the existence of God (see Ishvara) and also for his uniqueness, especially during their arguments against the Buddhists who at that time were fundamentally atheistic. An important later development in Nyaya is the system of Navya Nyaya (New Logic).


The Vaisheshika system, which was founded by the sage Kanada, postulates an atomic pluralism. In terms of this school of thought, all objects in the physical universe are reducible to a certain number of atoms. God is regarded as the fundamental force who causes conscioussness in these atoms.

Although the Vaishesika system developed independently from the Nyaya, the two eventually merged because of their closely related metaphysical theories. In its classical form, however, the Vaishesika school differed from the Nyaya in one crucial respect: where Nyaya accepted four sources of valid knowledge, the Vaishesika accepted only perception and inference as being such.


The Yoga system is considered by some to have arisen from the Samkhya philosophy. Its primary text is the Bhagavad Gita, which explores the four primary systems: Karma-Yoga; Buddhi-Yoga; Dhyana-Yoga; and Bhakti-Yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita itself the Yoga system is described as being many millions of years old (See Chapter 4.1). It is essentially described as a universal method of union with The Supreme. There has been much debate on the personal/impersonal nature of the Supreme by various Yoga practitioners over the years.

The sage Patanjali wrote an extremely influential text on Raja Yoga (or meditational) entitled the "Yoga Sutra". The most significant difference from Samkhya is that the Yoga school not only incorporates the concept of Ishvara (a personal God) into its metaphysical worldview, which the Samkhya does not, but also upholds Ishvara as the ideal upon which to meditate. This is because Ishvara is the only aspect of Purusha that has not become entangled with prakrti. It also utilizes the Brahman/Atman terminology and concepts that are found in the Upanishads, thus breaking from the Samkhya school by adopting concepts of Vedantic monism.

The Yoga system lays down elaborate prescriptions for gradually gaining physical and mental control and mastery over the "personal self", both body and mind, until one's consciousness has intensified sufficiently to allow for the awareness of one's "real Self" (the soul, or Atman), as distinct from one's feelings, thoughts and actions. Realization of the goal of Yoga is known as moksha, nirvana and samadhi. They all speak to the realization of the Atman as being nothing other than the infinite Brahman. See the articles on Yoga and History of Yoga for an in-depth discussion.

Purva Mimamsa

The main objective of the Purva ("earlier") Mimamsa school was to establish the authority of the Vedas. Consequently this school's most valuable contribution to Hinduism was its formulation of the rules of Vedic interpretation. Its adherents (Mimamsakas) believed one must have unquestionable faith in the Vedas and perform the fire-sacrifices or yaj–as regularly. They believe in a magical power of the mantras and yaj–as which sustains all the activity of the universe. In keeping with this belief, they laid great emphasis on dharma, which they understood as the performance of Vedic rituals.

The Mimamsa accepted the logical and philosophical teachings of the other schools, but felt that these paid insufficient attention to right action. They believed that the other schools of thought, which pursued moksha (release) as their ultimate aim, were not completely free from desire and selfishness. In Hinduism, we are all illuminated under the light of god. When we have moksha, we believe that we become closer to god.

According to the Mimamsa, the very striving for liberation stemmed from a selfish desire to be free. Only by acting in accordance with the prescriptions of the Vedas could one attain salvation (rather than liberation) - which includes a belief in the varna and ashrama system. At a later stage, however, the Mimamsa school changed its views in this regard and began to teach the doctrines of God and mukti (freedom). Its adherents then advocated the release or escape from the soul from its constraints through what was known as jnana (enlightened activity). While Mimamsa does not receive much scholarly attention these days, its influence can be felt in the life of the practicing Hindu. All Hindu ritual, ceremony and religious law is influenced by it.



Carvaka also known as Lokayata, is a thoroughly materialistic and atheistic school of thought with ancient roots in India. It is a system of Indian philosophy that assumes various forms of philosophical skepticism and religious indifference. In overviews of Indian philosophy, it is classified as a "faithless" system, the same classification as is given to Buddhism and Jainism. It is characterized as a materialistic and atheistic school of thought. While this branch of Indian philosophy is not considered to be part of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, some describe evidence of a materialistic movement within Hinduism. The Carvaka school of philosophy had a variety of atheistic, materialistic, and naturalistic beliefs.