This chapter is designed with the aim to explain the Indian philosophic thoughts. This module will also help the learners to understand the continuity and change in Indian Thought and Practice.


Indain Philosophy

Indian Philosophy

  • Orthodox and Heterodox
  • Ancient, Medieval, Modern
Orthodox Schools

Six schools: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedanta

Heterodox SchoolsFive major schools: Jain, Buddhist, Ajivika, Ajñana, and Cārvāka
General Concerns
  • Metaphysics: Creation of universe and evolution
  • Epistemology: what and how can we know
  • Theology: God's existence, role in relation to world and law of karma
  • Ethics: Karma, Rebirth, Bondage, Liberation
  • Logic

Introduction to Philosophy


Philosophy (literally "love of wisdom") is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument and systematic presentation.

Important Branches of Philosophy

BranchField of studyBasic question it tries to answer
MetaphysicsStudy of ExistenceWhat's out there?
EpistemologyStudy of KnowledgeHow do I know about what's out there?
EthicsStudy of ActionWhat should I do?
TheologyStudy of GodIs there God? What is - His nature, purpose, role, etc.
AestheticsStudy of ArtWhat can be the life like?
PoliticsStudy of ForceWhat actions are permissible?

Common Themes

Indian philosophies share many concepts such as dharma, karma, samsara, reincarnation, dukkha, renunciation, meditation, with almost all of them focussing on the ultimate goal of liberation of the individual through diverse range of spiritual practices (moksha, nirvana). They differ in their assumptions about the nature of existence as well as the specifics of the path to the ultimate liberation, resulting in numerous schools that disagreed with each other. Their ancient doctrines span the diverse range of philosophies found in other ancient cultures.

Relation between Religion and Philosophy

Classification of Indian Philosophical Thoughts

  • Chronological Classification
    • Philosophy in Ancient India
      • Orthodox Schools (six major schools - Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedanta)
      • Heterodox Schools (five major schools - Jain, Buddhist, Ajivika, Ajñana, and Cārvāka)
    • Philosophy in Medieval India
  • Classification based on purpose
    • Religious philosophy
    • Political philosophy

Orthodox Schools

Samkhya Philosophy

Term Samkhya originated from Sankhya representing the logic and reason, which is given utmost importance in Samkhya system.


  • Kapila, who wrote the Samkhya sutra.
  • He is one of the most influential sages who ever existed in India.
  • Period: 


1] Creation of the universe and its evolution

Samkhya theory of Creation

It holds that reality is constituted of two principles (hence dualism):

  • Purusha: the male principle; mere consciousness, hence it cannot be modified or changed
  • Prakriti: the female principle; constituted of three attributes - satva, rajas and tamas (thought, movement and change)

Prakriti and Purusha are completely independent and absolute. The Samkhya philosophy tries to establish some relationship between Purusha and Prakriti for explaining the creation of the universe and its evolution.

2] Theory of guṇas (qualities, innate tendencies):

  • There are three gunas - sattva, rajas and tamas.
  • Everything, all life forms and human beings have these three guṇas, but in different proportions.


3] Liberation: The end of imbalance and bondage is called liberation, or kaivalya.

4] God: Samkhya philosophers don't assert the existence of God or supreme being. A key difference between Samkhya and Yoga (to which it is most related) schools is that Yoga school accepts a "personal, yet essentially inactive, deity" or "personal god".

Yoga Philosophy

Literally, Yoga means the union of the two principal entities written in the second century BC. Samkhya system has most profound influence on Yoga system.


  • Patanjali, who wrote Yogasutra.

Important Philosophies

1] Liberation (Mukti):
By purifying and controlling changes in the mental mechanism, yoga systematically brings about the release of purusha from prakriti. Yogic techniques control the body, mind and sense organs.
2] Yoga:
Yoga also means the practise of rules for attaining liberation. This freedom could be attained by practising:

  1. self-control (yama)
  2. observation of rules (niyama)
  3. fixed postures (asana)
  4. breath control (pranayama)
  5. choosing an object (pratyahara)
  6. fixing the mind (dharna)
  7. concentrating on the chosen object (dhyana)
  8. complete dissolution of self, merging the mind and the object (Samadhi)

Yoga admits the existence of God as a teacher and guide.

Nyaya Philosophy

Nyāya (Sanskrit: न्याय, ny-āyá), literally means "rules", "method" or "judgment". The historical development of Nyaya school is unclear. In early centuries BCE, the early Nyaya scholars began compiling the science of rational, coherent inquiry and pursuit of knowledge. This school's most significant contributions to Indian philosophy was systematic development of the theory of logic, methodology, and epistemology. Nyaya school like other schools of Hinduism believes that there is a soul and self, with liberation (moksha) as a state of removal of ignorance, wrong knowledge, the gain of correct knowledge and unimpeded continuation of self. 

It is most closely associated with Vaisheshika school of philosophy. Nyaya system has accepted metaphysics of Vaisheshika and the Vaisheshika syatem has accepted epistemosogy of Nyayyikas.


Aksapada Gautama (2nd century CE) composed Nyayasutras, a foundational text for Nyaya school, that primarily discusses logic, methodology and epistemology.


Like any other philosophical school, the Nyaya school developed its theories of knowledge. But it's epistemology has widely influenced other schools of Hinduism. The focus here is how correct knowledge can be acquired, how one knows, how one doesn't, and to what extent knowledge pertinent about someone or something can be acquired.


Theory of causation: It deals with the relation between cause and effect.



The Naiyyayikas believe that the bondage of the world is due to false knowledge, which can be removed by the true knowledge. But the later Nyaya school also maintains that the God's grace is essential for obtaining true knowledge.


  • God:
    Early Nyaya scholars published little to no analysis on the existence of supernatural power or God. They were non-theistic or atheists.
    Later Nyaya scholars, such as Udayana, examined various arguments on theism and attempted to prove existence of God.
    Other Nyaya scholars offered arguments to disprove the existence of God.

Vaiśeṣika Philosophy

Vaisheshika or Vaiśeṣika (Sanskrit: वैशेषिक) is one of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism (Vedic systems). Although it developed independently from the Nyaya school, the two became similar and are often studied together. The similarity lies in their philosophical procedures, ethical conclusions, though the Vaisheshika school retained its difference in epistemology and metaphysics. 

Acharya Kanad

Acharya Kaṇāda


An Indian sage Kanada (Kaṇāda) (Sanskrit: कणाद), also known as Kashyapa or Uluka founded the Vaisheshika school. His traditional name "Kanada" literally means "atom eater".

He is estimated to have lived between 6th century to 2nd century BCE. He is known for developing the foundations of an atomistic naturalism in Indian philosophy in his Sanskrit text Vaisheshika Sutra.

Kaṇāda mentions various empirical observations and natural phenomena such as the falling of objects to ground, rising of fire and heat upwards, the growth of grass upwards, the nature of rainfall and thunderstorms, the flow of liquids, the movement towards a magnet among many others, asks why these things happen, then attempts to integrate his observations with his theories on atoms, molecules and their interaction.


  • It accepted two reliable means to knowledge: perception and inference.
  • It considers scriptures (Vedas) as indisputable and valid means to knowledge. 


Acharya Kanad

Acharya Kaṇāda, the first atomist

  • Universe: All the objects of the universe are composed of five elements–earth, water, air, fire and ether. Creation and destruction of the universe is a cyclic process according to the Vaisheshika philosophers.
  • Theory of padārthas: It postulates that, all things that exist, that can be cognized and named are padārthas, the objects of experience. These can be classified into six categories most important being the Dravya (substance), Guṇa (quality) and Karma (activity). Dravya are nine in number which also include the pancha mahabhutas. 
  • Theory of Atomism: Acharya Kaṇāda was perhaps the first scientist to postulate the existence of atoms and molecules. He explained the existence of matter as a combination of atoms and molecules. His theory also explains the mechanical process of formation of Universe.


  • Law of Karma: The living beings were rewarded or punished according to the law of karma, based on actions of merit and demerit.
  • Liberation


  • God: It is the wishes of God which is responsible for the creation and destruction of universe.

Mimansa Philosophy

Vedanta Philosophy

Heterodox (Śramaṇic schools)

Charvaka Philosophy


The meaning of term Charvaka (Sanskrit: चार्वाक) is uncertain.

  • Some consider it to be "sweet-tongued" (Sanskrit's cāru meaning "agreeable" and vāk meaning "speech").
  • Others consider charv meaning to eat possibly alluding to the hedonistic precepts of "eat, drink, and be merry".
  • Other theory believes it to be eponymous in origin, with the founder of the school being Charvaka, a disciple of Brihaspati.

The traditional name of Charvaka is Lokayata. It was called Lokayata because it was prevalent among the people, and meant the world-outlook of the people. The dictionary meaning of Lokāyata (लोकायत) signifies "directed towards, aiming at the world, worldly". This indicates the materialistic outlook of the philosophy.


There are alternate theories behind the origins of Charvaka. Bṛhaspati is sometimes referred to as the founder of Charvaka or Lokāyata philosophy. The primary literature of Charvaka, such as the Brhaspati Sutra is missing or lost. The tenets of the Charvaka doctrines are traced to the relatively later composed layers of the Rigveda, while substantial discussions on the Charvaka is found in post-Vedic literature. 

Though there is evidence of its development in Vedic era, Charvaka emerged as an alternative to the Āstika schools as well as a philosophical predecessor to subsequent or contemporaneous philosophies such as Ājīvika, Jainism and Buddhism in the classical period of Indian philosophy. The earliest documented Charvaka scholar in India is Ajita Kesakambali. Although materialist schools existed before Charvaka, it was the only school which systematised materialist philosophy.

Charvaka was a living philosophy up to the 12th century in India's historical timeline, after which this system seems to have disappeared without leaving any trace.


The Charvaka epistemology holds perception as the primary and proper source of knowledge. External perception arising from the interaction of five senses and worldly objects, and internal perception of inner sense, the mind are the only means of knowledge.


Charvakas denied metaphysical concepts like reincarnation, an extracorporeal soul, the efficacy of religious rites, other worlds (heaven and hell), fate and accumulation of merit or demerit through the performance of certain actions. Charvakas also rejected the use of supernatural causes to describe natural phenomena. To them all natural phenomena was produced spontaneously from the inherent nature of things.


Charvaka did not believe in karma, rebirth or an afterlife. Charvaka believed that there was nothing wrong with sensual pleasure. Since it is impossible to have pleasure without pain, Charvaka thought that wisdom lay in enjoying pleasure and avoiding pain as far as possible.


Charvakas rejected many of the standard religious conceptions of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, such as afterlife, reincarnation, samsara, karma and religious rites. They were critical of the Vedas, as well as Buddhist scriptures. They declared the Vedas to be incoherent rhapsodies whose only usefulness was to provide livelihood to priests.

Jain Philosophy

Jain philosophy is the teachings of a Tirthankara which are recorded in Sacred Jain texts. Most importantly, Jain philosophy attempts to explain the rationale of being and existence, the nature of the Universe and its constituents, the nature of bondage and the means to achieve liberation

The distinguishing features of Jain philosophy are:

  • Belief on independent existence of soul and matter.
  • Refutation of a supreme divine creator, owner, preserver or destroyer of the universe.
  • Potency of karma, eternal universe.
  • Accent on relativity and multiple facets of truth and
  • Morality and ethics based on liberation of soul.


The 24 Tīrthankaras are considered the originators of the Jain philosophy. Jains trace the origins of its philosophy to Rishabhanatha, the first Tīrthankara. Of the 24, the first 22 Tīrthankaras are considered mythical figures. The tradition holds that the ancient Jain texts from these figures were lost and hence, historically, the Jain philosophy can be traced from Mahavira's teachings. Post Mahavira many intellectual giants amongst the Jain ascetics contributed and gave a concrete form to the Jain philosophy within the parameters set by Mahavira.


Knowledge for the Jains takes place in the soul, which, without the limiting factor of karma, is omniscient. Humans have partial knowledge – the object of knowledge is known partially and the means of knowledge do not operate to their full capacity. 

Jains came out with their doctrines of relativity used for logic and reasoning:

  • Anekāntavāda –  It is the theory of relative pluralism or manifoldness. It supports the notion that truth and reality are perceived differently from diverse points of view, and that no single point of view is the complete truth. The famous example Jain scholars give is "blind men and an elephant". According to the Jains, only the Kevalis — omniscient beings — can comprehend objects in all aspects and manifestations; others are only capable of partial knowledge. According to the doctrine, no single, specific, human view can claim to represent absolute truth.
  • Syādvāda – It is the theory of conditioned predication. It provides an expression to anekānta by recommending that the epithet Syād be prefixed to every phrase or expression. Syād means "in some ways" or "from a perspective" giving statement a conditional point of view and thus removing any dogmatism in the statement.
  • Nayavāda – Nayavāda is the theory of partial standpoints or viewpoints. Nayavāda is a compound of two Sanskrit words—naya ("partial viewpoint") and vāda ("school of thought or debate"). Naya, being a partial expression of truth, enables us to comprehend reality part by part.

Parable of Blind men and an elephant


Jain philosophy is the oldest Indian philosophy that separates body (matter) from the soul (consciousness) completely. 

Below are some of the important "tattva" (truths or fundamental principles) that constitute reality:

  • Jīva - The soul substance which is said to have a separate existence from the body that houses it. Jīva is characterised by cetana (consciousness) and upayoga (knowledge and perception). Though the soul experiences both birth and death, it is neither really destroyed nor created. Decay and origin refer respectively to the disappearing of one state of soul and appearance of another state, these being merely the modes of the soul substance.
  • ajīva - the non-soul
  • mokṣha (liberation)- complete annihilation of all karmic matter (bound with any particular soul).

The knowledge of these reals is said to be essential for the liberation of the soul.

In Jainism, karma is the basic principle which is conceived of as an extremely subtle matter, which infiltrates the soul — obscuring its natural, transparent and pure qualities. Karma is thought of as a kind of pollution, that taints the soul with various colours (leśyā). Based on its karma, a soul undergoes transmigration and reincarnates in various states of existence — like heavens or hells, or as humans or animals.
The Jain doctrine also holds that it is possible for us to both modify our karma, and to obtain release from it, through the austerities and purity of conduct.


The concept of non-injury or ahiṃsā lies at the core of Jain philosophy. According to the Jain tradition, "non-manifestation of passions like attachment is non-injury (ahiṃsā), and manifestation of such passions is injury (hiṃsā)." This is termed as the essence of the Jaina Scriptures. Vegetarianism and other nonviolent practices and rituals of Jains flow from the principle of ahiṃsā.


According to the Jain philosophy, the world (Saṃsāra) is full of hiṃsā (violence). Therefore, one should direct all his efforts in attainment of moksha. The path necessary to achieve the liberation is called Triratna.

According to the Jain text:

Right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct (together) constitute the path to liberation.— Tattvārthasūtra

  • Right Faith (Samyak Darśana) - It means belief in substances like soul and non-soul without delusion and misapprehension.
  • Right Knowledge (Samyak Jnāna) - When the nature of reality (substances) is ascertained with the help of the doctrine of manifold points of view (anekāntavāda), the knowledge thus obtained (free from doubts, misapprehension, and delusion) is said to be the Right Knowledge.
  • Right Conduct (Samyak chāritra) -The very nature of the soul; devoid of all passions, untainted, unattached to any alien substance is Right conduct. It is achieved by abjuring all sinful activities of the body, the speech, and the mind.

Buddhist Philosophy

Ājīvika Philosophy

Ajivika (Ājīvika) was one of the nāstika or "heterodox" schools of ancient Indian philosophy, and the ancient school of Indian fatalism. It was purportedly founded in the 5th century BCE by Makkhali Gosala from Magadha. He was a friend of Mahavira. Ajivika is considered as a Śramaṇa movement and a major rival of early Buddhism and Jainism.

Etymology and Meaning

The term Ajivika (Ājīvika, आजीविक) means "those following special rules with regard to Iivelihood", sometimes connoting "religious mendicants".

Its core belief was in "no free will" and complete niyati. Its basic premise was that, good simple living is not a means to salvation or moksha, but just a means to true predetermined livelihood. It believed in good simple mendicant-like livelihood for its own sake and as part of its predeterministic beliefs, rather than for the sake of after-life or motivated by any soteriological reasons.

Origins and Influence

Exact origins of Ājīvika is unknown, the ancient Buddhist and Jainist literature credit it to the Makkhali Gosala, a contemporary of the Buddha and Mahavira. Primary sources and literature of the Ājīvikas is lost, or yet to be found. 

The Ājīvikas reached the height of their prominence in the late 1st millennium BCE. The ancient city of Savatthi or Śravasti was the hub of the Ājīvikas. In the later part of Common Era, Ājīvikas had a significant presence in the South Indian state of Karnataka and the Kolar district of Tamil Nadu. The Ājīvika philosophy spread rapidly in ancient South Asia, with a Sangha Geham (community center) for Ājīvikas on the island now known as Sri Lanka and also extending into the western state of Gujarat by the 4th century BCE, the era of the Maurya Empire.

Conflict between Ajivikas, Buddhists and Jaina: Mauryan emperor Bindusara was believer of this philosophy, that reached its peak of popularity during this time. His son Ashoka was enraged at a picture that depicted Gautama Buddha in a negative light and issued an order to kill all the 18,000 Ajivikas in Pundravardhana. This led to near complete extinction of Ajivikas. The remaining influence started to decline once the common era started. Yet it continued to exist in south India until the 14th Century CE.

Inscriptions and Caves

Barabar caves of Bihar

Several rock-cut caves belonging to Ājīvikas are dated to the times of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (r. 273 BC to 232 BC). These are the oldest surviving cave temples of ancient India, and are called the Barabar Caves of Bihar. 

The Barabar caves were carved out of granite, has a highly polished internal cave surfaces, and each consists of two chambers, the first is a large rectangular hall, the second is a small, circular, domed chamber.

These were probably used for meditation.

Absolute Determinism

Ājīvikas believed in absolute determinism, absence of free will, and called this niyati. Everything in human life and universe, according to Ajivikas, was pre-determined, operating out of cosmic principles, and true choice did not exist.


Atomism: Ajivikas developed a theory of elements and atoms similar to the Vaisheshika school of Hinduism. Everything was composed of minuscule atoms. Qualities of things are derived from aggregates of atoms, but the aggregation and nature of these atoms was predetermined by cosmic forces.

Soul and rebirth: Ajivikas believed that in every being there is a soul (Atman). However, unlike Jains and various orthodox schools of Hinduism that held that soul is formless, Ajivikas asserted that soul has a material form, one that helps meditation. They also believed that the soul passes through many births and ultimately progresses unto its pre-destined nirvana (salvation).


Their ethics is also called as antinomian ethics, that is there exist "no objective moral laws". Ajivikas being the fatalists and non-determinists, did not believe in the law of karma. Therefore religious or ethical practice has no effect on one’s future, and people do things because cosmic principles make them do so, and all that will happen or will exist in future is already predetermined to be that way.


Ajivikas were an atheistic philosophy. They did not presume any deity as the creator of the universe, or that some unseen mystical end was the final resting place of the cosmos. 

Ajñana Philosophy

Ajnāna was an ancient school of radical Indian skepticism. It was a Śramaṇa movement and a major rival of early Buddhism and Jainism. They held that it was impossible to obtain knowledge of metaphysical nature or ascertain the truth value of philosophical propositions; and even if knowledge was possible, it was useless and disadvantageous for final salvation.

Ajnāna means the opposite of jñana. Since jñana is knowledge, ajñana is usually translated as “ignorance.”


The traces of scepticism can be found in Vedic sources such as in the hymn to sraddha (faith) in Rigveda. However the flourishing of sceptical thoughts occurred in a period just before the rise of Jainism and Buddhism. This was the period with diverse, conflicting, and irreconcilable theories of many different philosophical schools, regarding morality, metaphysics, and religious beliefs.


Ajñana philosophers wondered if any of these theories could be true at all. They were specialized in refutation without propagating any positive doctrine of their own.


Ajnāna does not just means the ignorance of any specific fact, but a an ignorance of our true spiritual nature. As a result of this ignorance we forget about who we really are and we become egocentric. The basic purpose of our existence is getting rid of this fundamental ignorance or attaining Self-Realization.

Comparison of Orthodox and Heterodox Schools

Philosophy in Medieval India

Political Philosophy


Unity and Continuity in Indian Thought

Unity in Diversity – Main Common Characteristics


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