Ancient History & Civilisation


The antiquity of Indian philosophy—Its prominent rôle—Its scholars—Forms—Conception of orthodoxy—The assumptions of Hindu philosophy

The priority of India is clearer in philosophy than in medicine, though here too origins are veiled, and every conclusion is an hypothesis. Some Upanishads are older than any extant form of Greek philosophy, and Pythagoras, Parmenides and Plato seem to have been influenced by Indian metaphysics; but the speculations of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and Empedocles not only antedate the secular philosophy of the Hindus, but bear a sceptical and physical stamp suggesting any other origin than India. Victor Cousin believed that “we are constrained to see in this cradle of the human race the native land of the highest philosophy.”54 It is more probable that no one of the civilizations known to us was the originator of any of the elements of civilization.

But nowhere else has the lust for philosophy been so strong as in India. It is, with the Hindus, not an ornament or a recreation, but a major interest and practice of life itself; and sages receive in India the honor bestowed in the West upon men of wealth or action. What other nation has ever thought of celebrating festivals with gladiatorial debates between the leaders of rival philosophical schools? We read in the Upanishads how the King of the Videhas, as part of a religious feast, set one day apart for a philosophical disputation among Yajnavalkya, Asvala, Artabhaga and Gargi (the Aspasia of India); to the victor the King promised—and gave—a reward of a thousand cows and many pieces of gold.56 It was the usual course for a philosophical teacher in India to speak rather than to write; instead of attacking his opponents through the safe medium of print, he was expected to meet them in living debate, and to visit other schools in order to submit himself to controversy and questioning; leading philosophers like Shankara spent much of their time in such intellectual journeys.57 Sometimes kings joined in these discussions with the modesty becoming a monarch in the presence of a philosopher—if we may credit the reports of the philosophers. The victor in a vital debate was as great a hero among his people as a general returning from the bloody triumphs of war.58

In a Rajput painting of the eighteenth century59 we see a typical Indian “School of Philosophy”—the teacher sits on a mat under a tree, and his pupils squat on the grass before him. Such scenes were to be witnessed everywhere, for teachers of philosophy were as numerous in India as merchants in Babylonia. No other country has ever had so many schools of thought. In one of Buddha’s dialogues we learn that there were sixty-two distinct theories of the soul among the philosophers of his time.60 “This philosophical nation par excellence” says Count Keyserling, “has more Sanskrit words for philosophical and religious thought than are found in Greek, Latin and German combined.”61

Since Indian thought was transmitted rather by oral tradition than by writing, the oldest form in which the theories of the various schools have come down to us is that of sutras—aphoristic “threads” which teacher or student jotted down, not as a means of explaining his thought to another, but as an aid to his own memory. These extant sutras are of varying age, some as old as 200 A.D., some as recent as 1400; in all cases they are much younger than the traditions of thought that they summarize, for the origin of these schools of philosophy is as old as Buddha, and some of them, like the Sankhya, were probably well-established when he was born.62

All systems of Indian philosophy are ranged by the Hindus in two categories: Astika systems, which affirm, and Nastika systems, which deny.* We have already studied the Nastika systems, which were chiefly those of the Charvakas, the Buddhists, and the Jains. But, strange to say, these systems were called Nastika, heterodox and nihilist, not because they questioned or denied the existence of God (which they did), but because they questioned, denied or ignored the authority of the Vedas. Many of the Astikasystems also doubted or denied God; they were nevertheless called orthodox because they accepted the infallibility of the Scriptures, and the institution of caste; and no hindrance was placed against the free thought, however atheistic, of those schools that acknowledged these fundamentals of orthodox Hindu society. Since a wide latitude was allowed in interpreting the holy books, and clever dialecticians could find in the Vedas any doctrine which they sought, the only practical requirement for intellectual respectability was the recognition of caste; this being the real government of India, rejection of it was treason, and acceptance of it covered a multitude of sins. In effect, therefore, the philosophers of India enjoyed far more liberty than their Scholastic analogues in Europe, though less, perhaps, than the thinkers of Christendom under the enlightened Popes of the Renaissance.

Of the “orthodox” systems or darshanas (“demonstrations”), six became so prominent that in time every Hindu thinker who acknowledged the authority of the Brahmans attached himself to one or another of these schools. All six make certain assumptions which are the bases of Hindu thought: that the Vedas are inspired; that reasoning is less reliable as a guide to reality and truth than the direct perception and feeling of an individual properly prepared for spiritual receptiveness and subtlety by ascetic practices and years of obedient tutelage; that the purpose of knowledge and philosophy is not control of the world so much as release from it; and that the goal of thought is to find freedom from the suffering of frustrated desire by achieving freedom from desire itself. These are the philosophies to which men come when they tire of ambition, struggle, wealth, “progress,” and “success.”

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