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The Nastika Schools – Unorthodox Schools

Philosophy can be understood as either belonging to the orthodox school of thought or otherwise. This piece deals with the Nastika schools, or those which do not use the Vedas to establish their own authority.


Hindu Philosophy in Indian thought encompasses within it various diverse and complex schools. The schools did not follow each other in some sort of logical progression. In India philosophical debate started at a period of time of which there is no record. There are many different and divergent streams of thought flowing as tributaries of a stream. The original treaties of the Vedas and Upanishads were written in short sentences containing only key words, almost like prompters for students in a lecture. These in later centuries gave rise to different commentaries and at times wholly divergent schools of philosophical thought and debate in India the basic quest has been one : the search for the understanding of the ultimate truth or the essence, the Atman. Though philosophical thought other then the Upanishads must have existed, there is scant or no record of it.


The Hindus classify philosophical systems in two classes, the nastika and the astika. Nastika refers to the schools that do not regard the Vedas as infallible and do not use the Vedas to establish their own authority. These are the Buddhist, Jaina and Carvaka. The astika or orthodox schools which believe in the sanctity of the Vedas are six in number; Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Vedanta and Mimamsa.


In the Upanishads, the materialists were the two schools of the Carvakas. The name Carvakas originated from Carv which means to eat. They did not believe in any religious or moral duty. The Carvakas did not believe in the authority of the Vedas or any other scripture. They did not accept the existence of soul and believed that life and consciousness was merely a combination of matter. Since they did not believe in the existence of anything other than the physical being, they did not believe in any theory of after life. This meant that even the concepts of sin or virtue were of no importance of them. The purpose of life was enjoyment as after death there was no further existence.


The Dhurtta school of the Carvakas believed that nothing but the four elements of earth, water, air and fire existed and atomic combination resulted in the body. The Susiksita Carvakas did allow the existence of a soul apart form the body but it was destroyed with the death of the body. The original work of the Carvakas was probably written by Brihaspati. Alongside the Carvakas existed a philosophy propounded by Makkahali Gosala believed by many to be a Renegade disciple of the Jaina saint Mahavira.


This was total determinism denying absolutely, the free will of man and his moral responsibility for supposed good or evil. The essence of the philosophy was that there was no cause either proximate or remote for the depravity or purity of man. Nothing depends on human endeavour or enterprise. Everything is merely a combination of fate, environment or their own nature.


Buddhist philosophy is said to have drawn a lot from the Samkhya-Yoga schools. It is well accepted that conflict with the Buddhist systems of thought led to a lot of enquiry in the other schools. Gautama, the Buddha is said to have been born in or about the year 560 B.C. in the Lumbini grove in the town of Kapilavastu, in what is now the dense Terai region of Nepal. Legend has it that it was prophesied that he would become an ascetic when he saw a dead man, a decrepit man, a diseased man and a monk. His King-father tried his best to keep him surrounded with riches and luxury.


Siddhartha as he was known then, was confronted by these sights everytime he ventured from the palace. Ultimately he determined to find a way to remove the torment of man. For the fulfillment of this task he renounced all and turned ascetic. After years of extreme asceticism he discovered that the path of enlightenment was not severe self discipline but instead balanced course. Through this method he finally obtained enlightenment The teachings of this great saint have spread throughout the world. Indian philosophy of all schools was rejuvenated due to these teachings.


The Buddhist scriptures were contained in three different collections, the Sutta : relating to doctrines, the Vinaya : relating to discipline of the monks and Abidhamma : relating to doctrines but in a technical and scholastic manner.


Early Buddhist Philosophy did not accept any fixed entity as determining all reality. All phenomena was transitory. They had a causal theory of dependent origin. The series of events which occurred were dependent of each other for their happening. The concept of existence is also known as the wheel of existence. The Buddha accepts rebirth as a fact and does not offer any criticism of the concept. Buddha said that there was no Atman (soul).


He said that when people speak of having found the soul they are only taking of being aware of the aggregates of bodily and psychical states. Thus, seeing the soul is merely perceiving one of the states of consciousness.


In later centuries there arose two main different schools of Buddhism. These arose from schools which had formed when attempts were being made to record the Buddha’s oral teachings – the Mahayansutras also known as the Vaipulyasutras and were in the form of instructions from the Buddha. Nothing is known of the compilers of theses sutras. Hinayana was the other school that arose at around the same time and was contrasted with the Mahayana school.


Hinayana is generally translated to mean small vehicle, Mahayana on the other hand meant big vehicle. These translations though do not symbolize the two schools. The reason for the names is believed by some to be that, considered from the point of view of religion, Mahayana occupies a bigger place as opposed to the other school.


The Jaina school of philosophy presents to the outer world certain superficial similarities with Buddhism. The Jaina school is a completely distinct school and existed at least as far back as Buddism did. Vardhamana Mahavira, the most famous saint of this school was therefore a contemporary of Buddha. Mahavira though was not the founder of the sect, he was a seer and the last prohet, Tirthankara, of the school. His predecessor, Parsva is predecessor in turn is said to have died 84,000 years before Mahavira’s Nirvana. Orthodox Jainism believes that this philosophy is eternal as is proved by the Tirthankaras.


There are mainly two sects of Buddhism, the Svetambaras : those who wear white cloth and the Digambaras : who do not clothe themselves. The tenets of the Digambaras are rather severe. They believe that perfect saints like the Tirthankaras live without food. They also believe that salvation cannot be attained if one wears cloth or owns property. They are sure that women cannot attain salvation.


The Digambaras do not believe in the existence of canonical works, which the Svetambaras believe in. The Digambaras believe that they are the main followers, the Svetambaras deny this and in turn believe themselves to be the principle follwers of the Jain philosophy. Though the main ideology behind the two schools is the same the rituals and literary history is separate and distinct.


The Sanskrit works of the Digambaras go back in antiquity further than the Svetambaras. The Jains believe that there were two kinds of sacred books, the fourteen Purvas and the eleven Angas. The Purvas were gradually lost and therefore the Angas are the oldest existing works from this school. This is the contention of the Svetambaras . The Digambaras believe that all the old texts are lost and the present ones are fake. The main principle is not to hurt any living creature. The Jains did not believe that qualities could only be perceived, as did the Buddhists. The Jains believed that there was some permanent entity which lead us to call the continuum of qualities a substance.


This brings us to their theory of relative pluralism or Anekantavada. This doctrine being opposed to the extreme absolutism of the Upanishads and the pluralism of the Buddhists. This school believes that nothing can be affirmed absolutely. All affirmations being true only under certain conditions and therefore up to certain limits. This leads in turn to the doctrine of Syadvada which propounds that the most contrary characteristics can be ascribed to a substance depending on the standpoint.


All affirmations therefore would be true in one sense, false in another and indefinite or inconceivable in another. This is very unique school of thought which believes that a thing may be true, untrue or both or neither. They held that the main test of true knowledge was that it helped achieve the desrired purpose. The Jains believed in perceptual and non-perceptual knowledge and the difference being that the former was more vivid than the latter. The world according to Jain cosmology is eternal. Loka is the place where sorrow and happiness are experienced, as a result to virtue or vice.


It is composed of three parts : where the gods reside, our world and hell . Only in this three part Loka does Dharma reside, elsewhere there is only space. Yoga is the cause of salvation. Yoga consisting of knowledge of reality as it is, faith in the teaching and cessation from doing all evil. The Jains do not believe any omniscient power created the universe, rather it came into being out of its own nature.