A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India
by Swami Krishnananda


There have been written several histories of religion and philosophy and it is not my intention to present here another chronicle along similar lines; for the task that I have taken upon myself is a different one. My purpose has been to suggest a proper method of the interpretation of values and a correct approach to the study of the religion and philosophy of India, which I regard not only as the right thing to do, but also essential to instil into the minds of students that perspective of life which can be safely called comprehensive and tolerant, rather than merely add some more information to the existing histories on the subject. It is my observation that religion and philosophy are not being taught in the way in which they ought to be, and this is the primary reason why this great theme of human life is being relegated to the position of an 'optional' or even an 'encumbrance' in the educational career; in present-day universities. While in the discourse on 'Resurgent Culture' I have attempted to point out the philosophical and psychological background of the universal nature of the religious consciousness more than the forms which religion takes in the different social patterns of mankind, it is my endeavour in this book to touch upon the fundamental principles involved in the development of this consciousness through the ages, as embodied in the canonical scriptures and the teachings of the great sages of India. In this sense of the tracing of the growth of the religious consciousness through the passage of time, it is a history; but in the sense of a mere tabulating of events and thoughts, it is not. The religious spirit is eternal, while the structure of the religions of the world is temporal, being adapted to the changing demands of the human mind. 'The phases of the true religious spirit are the content of our study.

To search out the religious content amongst the teachings of the religions and absorb the philosophic spirit from the thoughts of the various philosophers is not an easy undertaking; for there is always the fear of one's being drowned under the waves of an ocean. Teachers spoke in different languages and in varying accents, but stressed the same truth, though their emphasis was on one or more of its aspects suited to the times in which they lived. This should not, therefore, make religions appear as severed from one another, with no common element among them, for that would be a travesty of approach to the reality of religion. If religion is the way to perfection, the religious fanaticism that we generally see prowling on the surface loses its meaning. Religion makes one broad-minded, loving, charitable and divine, and philosophy is the rationale behind religion. Philosophy and religion are inseparable.

The historical trend present in this study naturally provides some material for further reading and research, and it may be taken as a pointer to the rich treasures hidden in the scriptures and the teachers of India, whose profundity calls for great patience and tenacious aspiration on the part of the student.

The earliest documents to be studied are the Veda-Samhitas and their culmination as the Upanishads. These constitute the magnificent heritage of the Indian people. The Epics and the Puranas follow as an expatiation of their theme in a lofty style which stirs emotion and heightens understanding. The Bhagavadgita is a unique specimen belonging to this type of literature. The Yoga-Vasishtha is like a mystical edifice constructed on the towering peaks of realisation recorded in the Upanishads. Religion and ethics are like the wings of the spirit in man who tries to soar into the empyrean of the unknown. The Agamas and Tantras form a practical manual of the rule and conduct which fulfils itself as the worship of God in the world as well as in sanctified shrines. The schools of philosophic thought (darshana) are a kind of graded series of the development of human aspiration to know Reality. The Charvaka, or the materialist, sees only the external physical world in its crass objective features and everything appears to be a mode only of matter. The Vaiseshika and the Nyaya see behind matter certain constituents which seem to be ultimate. The Mimamsa works upon the material diversity of constituents and posits divinities behind them. The Sankhya confronts a difficulty in holding that there are many ultimate constituents in the objective universe and reduces all variety of manifestation to a single matrix, called Prakriti, which is counterposed by centres of knowing consciousness, called the Purushas. The psychology of the Sankhya is really an advance over the physics of the Vaiseshika and the Nyaya and the pluralistic theology of the Mimamsa. But consciousness cannot rest contented with a gulf between itself and the world outside. The Yoga school accepts the principle of God as a connecting element, but suffers due to a mechanistic relation which it introduces between its ultimate categories. This persisting difference is not satisfying and the spirit within seeks to overcome it by a more profound contemplation. This is the Vedanta which rises above the duality of subject and object and the trinity of God, world and soul, into a unity of universality of experience. This is the zenith that Indian thought has reached, or man's mind can hope to reach.

The schools of Jainism and Buddhism provide an excellent psychological analysis and form important sections in the history of philosophy. The different schools, thus, may be regarded as complementary rather than contradictory, one helping the other in a higher fulfilment which is transcendent to and yet immanent in the lower. It is the exclusive emphasis laid by the followers of particular schools that has led to the erroneous notion of one school being opposed to the other. As a child cannot be said to be set in opposition to the adolescent or the mature in age, schools of thought and even faiths of mankind cannot be considered to be causes of obstructive distinctions, for they are intended to collaborate among themselves into a growing organism and furnish an ultimate support for man's existence and living, through their creative activity.

Swami Krishnananda
29th August, 1994