Indian Philosophy: Astika Schools



The word samkhya means ‘empirical‘ or ‘relating to numbers’. It is the oldest of the orthodox philosophical systems in Hinduism, with origins in the 1st millennium BCE. It is a rationalist school (regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge. The criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive) of Indian philosophy, and had a strong influence on other schools of Indian philosophies. Sage Kapila is traditionally credited as a founder of the Samkhya school. Sāmkhya is an enumerationist philosophy whose epistemology accepted three of six pramāṇas as the only reliable means of gaining knowledge. These were pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference) and sabda (Āptavacana, word/testimony of reliable sources).
Samkhya school espouses dualism between consciousness and matter. It regards the universe as consisting of two realities: Puruṣa (consciousness) and prakriti (matter). Prakṛti accounts for whatever is physical, both mind and matter-cum-energy or force. Jiva (a living being) is that state in which puruṣa is bonded to prakriti in some form. This fusion, state the Samkhya scholars, led to the emergence of buddhi (awareness, intellect) and ahankara (individualized ego consciousness, “I-maker”). The universe is described by this school as one created by Purusa-Prakriti entities infused with various permutations and combinations of variously enumerated elements, senses, feelings, activity and mind
Samkhya philosophy includes a theory of gunas (qualities, innate tendencies, psyche). Guna, it states, are of three types: Sattva being good, compassionate, illuminating, positive, and constructive; Rajas guna is one of activity, chaotic, passion, impulsive, potentially good or bad; and Tamas being the quality of darkness, ignorance, destructive, lethargic, negative. Everything, all life forms and human beings, state Samkhya scholars, have these three gunas, but in different proportions. The interplay of these gunas defines the character of someone or something, of nature and determines the progress of life. Samkhya theorises a pluralism of souls (Jeevatmas) who possess consciousness.
The existence of God or a supreme being is not considered relevant by the Samkhya philosophers. Samkhya denies the final cause of Ishvara. Although the Samkhya school considers the Vedas a reliable source of knowledge, it as an atheistic philosophy
Samsāra or bondage arises when the puruṣa does not have the discriminate knowledge and so is misled as to its own identity, confusing itself with the Ego/ahamkāra, which is actually an attribute of prakṛti. The spirit is liberated when the discriminate knowledge of the difference between conscious puruṣa and unconscious prakṛti is realized by the puruṣa. Samkhya regards ignorance (avidyā) as the root cause of suffering and bondage (Samsara). Samkhya states that the way out of this suffering is through knowledge (viveka). The soteriology (doctrine of salvation) in Samkhya aims at the realization of Puruṣa as distinct from Prakriti;this knowledge of the Self is held to end transmigration and lead to isolation (kaivalya) and freedom (moksha). Moksha is described by Samkhya scholars as a state of liberation, where Sattva guna predominates.


Yoga philosophical system aligns closely with the dualist premises of the Samkhya school. The Yoga school accepts Samkhya psychology and metaphysics, but is considered theistic because it accepts the concept of personal god (Ishvara), unlike Samkhya. The epistemology of the Yoga school, like the Sāmkhya school, relies on three of six prāmaṇas as the means of gaining reliable knowledge: pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference) and śabda (āptavacana, word/testimony of reliable sources)
The Yoga school builds on the Samkhya school theory that jñāna (knowledge) is a sufficient means to moksha. It suggests that systematic techniques/practice (personal experimentation) combined with Samkhya’s approach to knowledge is the path to moksha. Yoga shares several central ideas with Advaita Vedanta, with the difference that Yoga is a form of experimental mysticism while Advaita Vedanta is a form of monistic personalism.
The systematic collection of ideas of the Yoga school of Hinduism is found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Yoga school’s systematic studies to better oneself physically, mentally and spiritually has influenced all other schools of Indian philosophy. The values to be observed are called Niyamas, while values to be avoided are referred in the Yamas in Yoga philosophy. Hindu philosophy recognizes many types of Yoga, such as rāja yoga, jñāna yoga,[80] karma yoga, bhakti yoga, tantra yoga, mantra yoga, laya yoga, and hatha yoga.
Like Samkhya, Yoga school of Hinduism holds that ignorance is the cause of suffering and saṁsāra. Liberation, like many other schools, is removal of ignorance, which is achieved through discriminative discernment, knowledge and self-awareness. The Yoga Sūtras is Yoga school’s treatise on how to accomplish this. Samādhi is the state where ecstatic awareness develops, state Yoga scholars, and this is how one starts the process of becoming aware of Purusa and true Self. It further claims that this awareness is eternal, and once this awareness is achieved, a person cannot ever cease being aware; this is moksha, the soteriological goal in Hinduism.


Vaiśeṣika philosophy is a naturalist school (belief that only natural laws, as opposed to supernatural or spiritual, operate in the universe). It is a form of atomism (physical world is composed of fundamental indivisible components known as atoms) in natural philosophy. It postulates that all objects in the physical universe are reducible to paramāṇu (atoms), and that one’s experiences are derived from the interplay of substance (a function of atoms, their number and their spatial arrangements), quality, activity, commonness, particularity and inherence. Knowledge and liberation are achievable by complete understanding of the world of experience, according to Vaiśeṣika school. Vaiśeṣika darshana was founded by Kaṇāda Kashyapa around the 6th to 2nd century BC.Vaiśeṣika metaphysical premises are founded on a form of atomism, that reality is composed of four substances (earth, water, air, and fire). Each of these four are of two types: atomic (paramāṇu) and composite. An atom is, according to Vaiśeṣika scholars, that which is indestructible (anitya), indivisible, and has a special kind of dimension, called “small” (aṇu). A composite, in this philosophy, is defined to be anything which is divisible into atoms. Whatever human beings perceive is composite, while atoms are invisible. The Vaiśeṣikas stated that size, form, truths and everything that human beings experience as a whole is a function of atoms, their number and their spatial arrangements, their guṇa (quality), karma (activity), sāmānya (commonness), viśeṣa (particularity) and amavāya (inherence, inseparable connectedness of everything).
The epistemology of the Vaiśeṣika school, like Buddhism, accepted only two means to knowledge as reliablepratyakṣa (perception) and anumāṇa (inference). The Vaiśeṣika school and Buddhism both consider their respective scriptures as indisputable and valid means to knowledge, the difference being that the scriptures held to be a valid and reliable source by Vaiśeṣikas were the Vedas.


The Nyāya is a realist school (things have mind-independent existence, i.e. that it is not just a mere appearance in the eye of the beholder) of āstika philosophy. The school’s most significant contributions to Indian philosophy were its systematic development of the theory of logic, methodology, and its treatises on epistemology. Aksapada Gautama had composed Nyāya Sūtras, a foundational text for Nyaya school, that primarily discusses logic, methodology and epistemology.
Nyāya epistemology accepts four out of six prāmaṇas as reliable means of gaining knowledge – pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference), upamāṇa (comparison and analogy) and śabda (word, testimony of past or present reliable experts).
It holds that human suffering results from mistakes/defects produced by activity under wrong knowledge (notions and ignorance). Moksha (liberation), it states, is gained through right knowledge. This premise led Nyāya to concern itself with epistemology, that is, the reliable means to gain correct knowledge and to remove wrong notions. False knowledge is not merely ignorance to Naiyayikas; it includes delusion. Correct knowledge is discovering and overcoming one’s delusions, and understanding the true nature of the soul, self and reality.
Early Naiyyayikas wrote very little about Ishvara (literally, the Supreme Soul). Evidence available so far suggests that early Nyaya scholars were non-theistic or atheists. Later, and over time, Nyaya scholars tried to apply some of their epistemological insights and methodology to the question: does God exist? Some offered arguments against and some in favor.


Mīmāṃsā is a Sanskrit word that means “reflection” or “critical investigation” (of Vedic texts). The Mīmāṃsā school emphasized hermeneutics (theory and methodology of interpretation) and exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text). It is a form of philosophical realism. The classical Mīmāṃsā school is sometimes referred to as pūrvamīmāṃsā or Karmamīmāṃsā in reference to the first part of the Vedas. The central text of the Mīmānsā school is Jamini’s Mīmānsā Sutras
The metaphysics of the Mīmāṃsā school consists of both atheistic and theistic doctrines, and the school showed little interest in systematic examination of the existence of God. Rather, it held that the soul is an eternal, omnipresent, inherently active spiritual essence, then focussed on the epistemology and metaphysics of dharma. The core tenets of Pūrva Mīmāṃsā are ritualism (orthopraxy) and anti-asceticism. The central aim of the school is elucidation of the nature of dharma, understood as a set ritual obligations and prerogatives to be performed properly. To them, dharma meant rituals and duties, not devas (gods), because devas existed only in name. The Mīmāṃsākas held that the Vedas are “eternal authorless infallible”, that Vedic vidhi (injunctions) and mantras in rituals are prescriptive karya (actions), and that the rituals are of primary importance and merit. Mīmāṃsā argues that the Gods named in the Vedas have no existence apart from the mantras that speak their names. To that regard, the power of the mantras is what is seen as the power of Gods. They considered the Upanishads and other texts related to self-knowledge and spirituality to be of secondary importance, a philosophical view that the Vedanta school disagreed with.
Mīmāṃsākas considered orderly, law-driven, procedural life as the central purpose and noblest necessity of dharma and society, and divine (theistic) sustenance means to that end. The Mimamsa school was influential and foundational to the Vedanta school, with the difference that Mīmāṃsā developed and emphasized karmakāṇḍa (the portion of the śruti which relates to ceremonial acts and sacrificial rites, the early parts of the Vedas), while the Vedānta school developed and emphasized jñānakāṇḍa (the portion of the Vedas which relates to knowledge of monism, the latter parts of the Vedas).
Beliefs, such as those in the scriptures (Vedas), must be accepted to be true unless its opponents can demonstrate the proof of validity of their own texts or teacher(s). It is epistemological theory of the intrinsic validity of all cognition. Thus, what is to be proven is not the truth of a cognition, but its falsity.


The word Vedanta literally means the ‘to the end of the Vedas‘ and originally referred to the Upanishads. Vedanta is concerned with the jñānakāṇḍa or knowledge section of the vedas which is called the Upanishads. The denotation of Vedanta subsequently widened to include the various philosophical traditions based on to the Prasthanatrayi (Three Sources).
The Vedānta school built upon Prasthanatrayi  i.e.the teachings of the Upanishads (Śruti prasthāna), Brahma Sutras (Nyaya prasthana) and Bhagavad Gita (Smriti prasthāna) from the first millennium BCE and is the most developed and best-known of the Hindu schools. The epistemology of the Vedantins included, depending on the sub-school, five or six pramanas as proper and reliable means of gaining any form of knowledge.
The emergence of the Vedanta school represented a period in which a more knowledge-centered understanding began to emerge, focusing on jnana (knowledge) driven aspects of the Vedic religion and the Upanishads. These included metaphysical concepts such as ātman and Brahman, and an emphasis on meditation, self-discipline, self-knowledge and abstract spirituality, rather than ritualism.


Advaita (by Adi Shankaracharya) literally means “not two, sole, unity”. It is a sub-school of Vedanta, and asserts spiritual and universal non-dualism. Its metaphysics is a form of absolute monism, that is all ultimate reality is interconnected oneness. Its first great consolidator was the 8th century scholar Adi Shankara, who continued the line of thought of the Upanishadic teachers, and that of his teacher’s teacher Gaudapada. According to this school of Vedanta, all reality is Brahman, and there exists nothing whatsoever which is not Brahman. Its metaphysics includes the concept of māyā and ātman. Māyā connotes “that which exists, but is constantly changing and thus is spiritually unreal. The empirical reality is considered as always changing and therefore “transitory, incomplete, misleading and not what it appears to be”. The concept of ātman is of soul within each person, each living being. Advaita Vedantins assert that ātman is same as Brahman, and this Brahman is within each human being and all life, all living beings are spiritually interconnected, and there is oneness in all of existence. They hold that dualities and misunderstanding of māyā as the spiritual reality that matters is caused by ignorance, and are the cause of sorrow, suffering. Jīvanmukti (liberation during life) can be achieved through Self-knowledge, the understanding that ātman within is same as ātman in another person and all of Brahman – the eternal, unchanging, entirety of cosmic principles and true reality


Viśiṣṭādvaita (by Ramanuja) advocated the concept of a Supreme Being with essential qualities or attributes (Saguna). Viśiṣṭādvaitins argued against the Advaitin conception of Brahman as an impersonal empty oneness (Nirguna). They saw Brahman as an eternal oneness, but also as the source of all creation, which was omnipresent and actively involved in existence. To them the sense of subject-object perception was illusory and a sign of ignorance. However, the individual’s sense of self was not a complete illusion since it was derived from the universal beingness that is Brahman. Ramanuja saw Vishnu as a personification of Brahman.


The Dvaita school (by Madhvacharya) believes that God (Vishnu, supreme soul) and the individual souls (jīvātman) exist as independent realities, and these are distinct.Dvaita Vedanta is a dualistic interpretation of the Vedas, espouses dualism by theorizing the existence of two separate realities. The first and the only independent reality, is that of Vishnu or Brahman. Vishnu is the supreme Self, in a manner similar to monotheistic God in other major religions. The distinguishing factor of Dvaita philosophy, as opposed to monistic Advaita Vedanta, is that God takes on a personal role and is seen as a real eternal entity that governs and controls the universe. Like Vishishtadvaita Vedanta subschool, Dvaita philosophy also embraced Vaishnavism, with the metaphysical concept of Brahman in the Vedas identified with Vishnu and the one and only Supreme Being. However, unlike Vishishtadvaita which envisions ultimate qualified nondualism, the dualism of Dvaita was permanent. Salvation, in Dvaita, is achievable only through the grace of God Vishnu.


Dvaitādvaita (by Nimbarka)  belives that there are three categories of existence: Brahman, soul, and matter. Soul and matter are different from Brahman in that they have attributes and capacities different from Brahman. Brahman exists independently, while soul and matter are dependent. Thus soul and matter have an existence that is separate yet dependent. Further, Brahman is a controller, the soul is the enjoyer, and matter the thing enjoyed. Also, the highest object of worship is Krishnaand his consort Radha, attended by thousands of gopis; of the Vrindavan; and devotion consists in self-surrender.


Śuddhādvaita (by Vallabha Acharya) belives that Brahman or Ishvara has created the world without connection with any external agency such as Māyā (which itself is His power) and manifests Himself through the world. That is why Shuddhadvaita is known as ‘Unmodified transformation’ or ‘Avikṛta Pariṇāmavāda’. Brahman or Ishvara desired to become many, and he became the multitude of individual souls and the world. The Jagat or Maya is not false or illusionary, the physical material world is. Vallabha recognises Brahman as the whole and the individual as a ‘part’ (but devoid of bliss) like sparks and fire.
Despite their differences, all schools of Vedanta share some common features:

  • Vedanta is the pursuit of knowledge into the Brahman and the Ātman.
  • The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras constitute the basis of Vedanta, providing reliable sources of knowledge (Sruti Śabda in Pramana)
  • Brahman, c.q. Ishvara (God), exists as the unchanging material cause and instrumental cause of the world. The only exception here is that Dvaita Vedanta does not hold Brahman to be the material cause, but only the efficient cause.
  • The self (Ātman/Jiva) is the agent of its own acts (karma) and the recipient of the consequences of these actions.
  • Belief in rebirth and the desirability of release from the cycle of rebirths, (mokṣa).
  • Rejection of Buddhism and Jainism and conclusions of the other Vedic schools (Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, and, to some extent, the Purva Mimamsa.)

The Nāstika Schools of Indian Philosophy are covered in the following blog posts:

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