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The Six Systems of Philosophy in India
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on May 8, 1997)

What we consider as a school of philosophy is a system of investigation into the ultimate cause and meaning of any thing or event. The essential feature of philosophical investigation is that it goes to the root of the matter—what are the causative factors behind the occurrence of an event or the appearance of any form, sentient or insentient. There are various attempts in this direction, carried on both in the East and in the West.

We have in India the famous six systems of philosophy known as Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. We may say that these six represent a kind of gradational advance in the vision of things, and one is not supposed to contradict the other. The higher vision may supplant and supersede the vision that is a little lower, but the lower is not rejected by the higher. Therefore, it would be an erroneous approach on the part of any deep thinker to imagine that schools of thought which vary are self-contradictory. They are facets of perception, and there can be any number of facets and phases in the perception of anything whatsoever.

Just as we have the well-known six systems of philosophy in India, we may note that in the West also, six great thinkers arose, among many others. But these six systems in the West cannot be regarded as a gradational ascent, as it is in the case of the schools in India. They are independent philosophical schools, standing by themselves, though as a student of the history of philosophy, we may see a kind of sequential advance that is made in some way or the other.

For instance, in ancient times, Plato and Aristotle form one group of thinkers; in the medieval period, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas go together; and in the modern period of Western thought, we have Kant and Hegel. I was reminded of this wonderful similarity in comparison with the schools of thought in India.

All these systems—Nyaya, Vaisheshika, etc.—were originally written down in very short, pithy notes, called sutras. In those days when these systems were initiated, there were no large textbooks. Everything had to be memorised, and in order to keep in memory the essential foundational features of any particular school of thought, the originators put them in brief, knotty sayings, called sutras.

Nyaya Sutra and Vaisheshika Sutra confined themselves to the ancient system of physics and logical induction and deduction. The Nyaya is primarily concerned with syllogism, including inductive processes and deductive processes. The Vaisheshika is pure physics, enumerating the categories of ultimate realities, considering that there is a multitude of realities, or manifold realities. We can note how the thought advances. There is logical argumentation to establish the principle of the multitude of realities, as a sense of perception would reveal, and intellectual arguments would confirm.

The Samkhya is of a different nature. There are not many realities for Samkhya. It also has its own logic. Every school of thought has its own logical system to establish the validity of its proposition. While many realities are posited by the Nyaya and the Vaisheshika, only two are recognised in the Samkhya. The entire experience, cosmic or individual, is explicable through the interaction of two realities: consciousness and matter. There is nothing anywhere except these two things. There is a knowing individual, a consciousness that is aware, and an object of which consciousness is aware. The Samkhya has its own terminology. The object of perception, which is inert in its nature, is by Samkhya designated as prakriti, the matrix of all things. The knowing principle, consciousness proper, is called purusha. Purusha does not mean 'man'. It is only a way of putting things for the purpose of explanation. It means the primary intelligence which observes, interprets, and comes in contact with the matter of the universe.

I am briefly introducing you to the methodology adopted by the six schools of thought. The Samkhya considers that matter is ubiquitous. Everywhere there is matter. Matter is immeasurable and permanent, and it cannot be destroyed. Its constituents change and modify themselves in the process of evolution and involution, but matter is not destroyed. It stands as it is, and as it shall always be.

The peculiarity of the Samkhya that consciousness is manifold in its nature is contrary to expectations. That is to say, the observers of the object are many in number. They have made a mistake here in confusing psychological consciousness with metaphysical awareness. However that be, we are not here to argue for or against Samkhya. It is only a statement of the position made by the Samkhya. There are multiple perceiving centres of consciousness, called purushas, and there is one inert matter, called prakriti.

Hence, there are the twins Nyaya and Vaisheshika on the one hand, and Samkhya and Yoga on the other hand. Yoga adds one more principle to the existing or accepted two principles of Samkhya. For Samkhya, only two things are sufficient. There is no need for any other principle. Consciousness and matter, and their interactions, explain everything, every situation, in any condition. By 'Yoga' here I do not mean the actual practical side of it—asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. This is not what we mean when we think of the Yoga school of thought. The school proper is a logical foundation. The Yoga considers that the two principles of the perceiver and the perceived cannot explain matter.

For instance, there is action and reaction in every experience, and every action produces a result which pounces upon the experience, even if it be a thought, speech or deed. These reactions are to be properly dealt with. That is to say, there should be a dispenser of justice. If an individual has done good deeds, those deeds have to be rewarded. Otherwise, if the action has gone in a wrong way, it has to be rectified by necessary recompense, by punishment. Now, a person who commits the deed cannot reward or punish himself or herself. There must be a judiciary for that. A third principle is essential. This was noted by the Yoga metaphysicians. An all-knowing Ishvara, or creative principle, was posited by the Yoga System. Here we must note that the Ishvara of Yoga is quite different from our idea of God. For us, God is the creator of the world. But the Ishvara of Yoga is not the creator of anything. He is a witness of the operations of purusha and prakriti; and, according to the nature of the deeds of the purusha, rewards and punishment will be meted out by the ordinance of Ishvara.

Now we come to a very difficult twin school of philosophy, known as Mimamsa and Vedanta. The Mimamsa and the Vedanta schools are founded, basically, on the Vedas and the Upanishads. Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya and Yoga have nothing to do with the Vedas or the Upanishads. They are purely intellectual schools. Their basis is pure rationality, argumentation, and syllogism. Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa are the two schools of Mimamsa, also known as Karma Mimamsa and Brahma Mimamsa. Mimamsa means investigation.

What is the investigation carried on by the Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa? In the case of the Purva Mimamsa, the investigation is pure ritual, as enumerated in the ritualistic sections of the Vedas, known as the Brahmanas. Here, the word brahmana does not mean the Brahmin caste. It is a series of textbooks. There are four Vedas: Rik, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Each of the Vedas has four sections, known as Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad. Samhita is a prayer book. The Purusha Sukta, Rudradhyaya, etc., that is recited in temples comes under the Samhitas, which is a collection of prayers. These are the most prominent part of the Vedas. When people say they are studying the Vedas, generally they mean they are studying the Samhita or the prayer, the hymn, aspect of the Vedas.

The next section of the Vedas is called the Brahmana, which is a descriptive catalogue in prose of all the methods to be employed in using these mantras, or hymns, of the Vedas in sacrificial or ritualistic performances. The Purva Mimamsa mainly concerns itself with ritual, how a particular mantra or a hymn of the Veda is to be utilised to invoke a particular God. “Indraya svaha, Varunaya svaha,” etc., we say. There is a very complicated and mathematical process of the Purva Mimamsa, which gives great details of the method of performance of these sacrifices for the satisfaction of the gods in heaven. Every mantra of the Samhita portion of the Veda is an invocation of a divinity. It is a prayer to a particular god, and it is believed that the form of the deity is hidden in the structural pattern of the mantra itself. We may say that the mantra is a geometrical pattern which explains the nature of the deity—so much so, that when we recite the mantra properly, the deity immediately manifests itself. The deity is summoned, provided our recitation has the correct intonation and pronunciation, which is to be very exact, very precise. If we make a change in the intonation of the mantra, it will produce adverse effects.

In this connection, there is a story of an event which took place in heaven. There was a battle between the gods and the asuras, and someone who was against Indra wanted the celestial priests, the rishis, to perform a sacrifice by which a deadly foe of Indra would rise from the fire and destroy him. But the rishis did not want such a sacrifice to be performed. Why should they participate in a sinister sacrifice which attacks Indra, who is the god of the heavens? But they agreed to perform the sacrifice. What they did was, they uttered the mantra, which literally meant “enemy of Indra, rise from the fire”: Indra shatru, vivardhasva. But “enemy of Indra, rise” can have a dual meaning. What is the meaning of “enemy of Indra”? It may be an enemy to be devastated by Indra, or it may be something which will devastate Indra. It is like the Oracle of Delphi. People used to ask the Oracle of Delphi whether the Greeks would win or the Romans would win, and the oracle would say, “The Greeks the Romans shall conquer.” What do we make from this statement? Who will conquer whom? It can be either way. Likewise, in an equivocation the rishis changed the tone of this invocation. Though according to the literal pronunciational aspect of the chant it looked as if a destroyer of Indra would be produced, due to a change in the intonation, what happened was the reverse. Something was produced which was to be destroyed by Indra. This is the greatness of the Veda mantra.

These investigations are carried on by the Purva Mimamsa, though our subject is something different. All that I have told you is only a kind of preliminary introduction to the main theme—namely, the Brahma Mimamsa, investigation into the nature of the Supreme Being. It is called the Brahma Sutras. As I mentioned, the sutras are pithy statements; and especially the Brahma Sutras is very difficult. If we read just the sutra, we will make no sense out of it because it is only two or three letters. Without the help of a commentary, the sutra on Brahman cannot be understood. While the Purva Mimamsa, or Karma Mimamsa, is concerned with the mantras, the Samhitas and the Brahmana portion of the Vedas, the Brahma Sutras is concerned with only the Upanishads, which deal with the nature of the Ultimate Reality, or the Absolute.

The Brahma Sutras have four chapters, and the total number of sutras is five hundred and fifty-five. What does the First Chapter of the Brahma Sutras deal with? There are many statements in the Upanishads whose meaning is difficult to make out. They can mean one thing or another thing. The specification of the true meaning of a particular statement in the Upanishad is necessary so that we may not mistake its import. The First Chapter of the Brahma Sutras engages itself entirely in interpreting the true import and meaning of certain knotty passages in the ten major Upanishads. There are minor Upanishads also, totalling one hundred and eight or so, but the Brahma Sutras is concerned only with ten: Isa Upanishad, Kena Upanishad, Katha Upanishad, Prasna Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad, Mandukya Upanishad, Aitareya Upanishad, Taittiriya Upanishad, Chhandogya Upanishad, and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. These are the principle foundations of philosophical metaphysics in India. It is a very difficult subject. Many people do not go into the Chhangogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads, and confine themselves only to the lesser Upanishads. But the Brahma Sutras goes into the depths of these knotty passages occurring in the Upanishads. The First Chapter is not a commentary on the Upanishads. It is only the interpretation and explanation of the true meaning of certain unintelligible portions, statements, in the Upanishads.

The Second Chapter of the Brahma Sutras is entirely devoted to the refutation of contrary doctrines. There are schools of thought which do not believe in God, and such schools are refuted by proper argument. The logic of Nyaya, the physics of Vaisheshika, the dualism of Samkhya, the ritualism of Purva Mimamsa, and even the atomism of Jainism and the schools of Buddhism are dealt with elaborately, and every theme that is propounded by these godless schools is set aside as not in conformity with the ultimate nature of things. Generally, only the Second Chapter of the Brahma Sutras is prescribed in colleges and universities because it is intricate, highly argumentative, and intellectual in its nature. We shall not go into these things, as our purpose is mainly spiritual edification. We shall confine ourselves to the subject of the building up of our true self, the various efforts that we have to make in freeing ourselves from the bondage of samsara, and finding out ways and means of the salvation of the soul.

The Third Chapter deals with a very interesting aspect of the subject, namely, which passages of the Upanishads can be combined for the purpose of meditation. The Third Chapter deals with meditational processes according to the Upanishads. Every statement in the Upanishads is a prescription for meditation. In all the ten Upanishads, several such statements are made, and many of them of a similar nature and import can be brought together for the purpose of meditation. Which point of the Upanishad can be combined with which other point for the purpose of meditation is the subject of the Third Chapter.

The Fourth Chapter is the most important for us, as it deals with the cause of bondage and the release from bondage.

Thus, the Brahma Sutras is a pinnacle of Indian philosophic thought, which deals with and tackles every existent school of thought in India. It points out their inadequacies, rejects them wholesale, and substitutes for all these thoughts a more comprehensive vision of life, integrated in its nature, complete in every aspect, and wholesome in every means. The question is about our own selves. The Brahma Mimamsa, or Uttara Mimamsa, is also sometimes called Sharika Mimamsa. A sharika is a being who has embodied physicality. Whoever has a body is a sharika. Inasmuch as it studies the nature of the embodied soul, it also is called Sharika Mimamsa. As it is concerned with the establishment of the Supreme Absolute, it is called Brahma Mimamsa because it is posterior to the Karma Mimamsa. Mimamsa which is Purva is called Uttara Mimamsa. Varieties of names are given to this wonderful, spiritual, metaphysical textbook called the Brahma Sutras.