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The Astika Schools – Orthodox Schools

Philosophy can be understood in two distinct contexts, as either belonging to the orthodox school of thought or otherwise. This piece deals with the Astika schools, or those which use the Vedas to establish their own authority.

The astika or orthodox schools which believe in the sanctity of the Vedas are six in number; Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Vedanta and Mimamsa. These schools argue that the philosophy as expounded by the Veda texts contain all the knowledge of the universe. The differences in these schools occur because the texts are cryptic sentences containing only key words and therefore allowing many explanations.

The Samkhya-Yoga school is believed, by many philosophers, to be the earliest schools of thought. The Samkhya is said to have originated from Kapila. The earliest works of this school are lost. The main commentaries of this system are the Samkhya karika written by Isvarakrsna and the Samkhya Sutras which seem to be the work of an unknown scholar after the ninth century. A famous commentary on the Sutras being that of Vijnana Bhikshu.

The word Yoga was used in the sense of achieving the unachieved. The Yoga system is attributed to Patanjali and the original sutras are called the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. There exists a was corpus of literature of this school of important philosophical value.

These two schools had similar metaphysical propositions. They had similar explanations for the soul, nature and cosmology and the final goal was the same. The distinction lies in the fact that the Yoga system acknowledged the existence of an Isvara or God as different from the Atman or soul and laid stress on certain physical exercises as essential for the attainment of liberalization. The Samkhya on the other hand denies the existence of Isvara. Caraka, one of its early proponents, interpreted the Samkhya system as consisting of six elements, air water, sky, etc. From a different viewpoint in the same school, the elements were considered to be ten, the five cognitive and the five conative senses. Purusa is the permanent unchanging, also considered the cause. If Purusa were not the cause each would have to be responsible for the acts of others. Prakriti represents change. Purusa and Prakriti from the unmanifested and manifested universe. In later time Purusa as soul and Prakriti as essence of all matter were the two basic principle of the school. Thought is illuminated by Purusa which is the intangible buddhi and intelligence. Evolution is because of Prakriti. According to this school rajas and tamas were states within the body which were considered negative. Sattva was considered favourable. Efforts had to be made to increase the satvik component and decrease the rajas-tamas ratio. The ultimate state of emancipation is either absolute annihilation or uncharacteristic absolute: the Brahman.

The Samkhya school believes that sincere thought and culture would bring about awareness of truth leading to liberation. This school is one which provides a well though out logic to balance the teaching of the Upanishads and the rituals of sacrifice. It is important to note that both Buddhism and Jainism arose in strong opposition to ritualism and sacrifice. In the Samkhya-Yoga doctrine all Jaina and Buddhist sayings are interpreted in such a way as to incorporate both the theories of permanence of the Jains and theory of momentariness of the Buddhists. This may be due to the fact that each of these three schools of thought were heavily influenced by the other.

The Nyaya-Vaisesika philosophy provides a critique of the earlier three schools of thought. The word Nyaya is derived from ni, which means ‘that, by which words mean one thing and not the other’. Nyaya was composed of two branches, the debate on religion and the theory of logic and debate. It is thought that Gautama, also known as Aksapada, would have written the earlier text of this school. Vatsyayana, one of its important scholar propounders, wrote the earliest commentary on it. He concentrated on the importance of logic since most scholars were already in agreement on the importance of the metaphysical aspect.

The Vaisesika sutras may have been written before the Nyaya because they contain reference to systems of reference which do not include Nyaya theories. The Nyaya school believed that five premises were needed for a syllogism as opposed to the idea that they needed ten. The Vaisesika sutras begin with the purpose of explaining Dharma, virtue. Dharma is attained by prosperity and salvation. It then states that the validity of the Vedas is in the fact that it leads to both. Salvation is the result of real knowledge. It then tells of substance and its characteristics. Substance is dravya, the qualities are guna, class concept, particularity and inherence. The Vaisesika sutras were so well developed that the whole of Caraka’s medical physics was based on Vaisesika physics. This school is very important not only because it is a systematic study of logic in its simple and complex forms, but also of atoms. The school propounded the theory that the whole of matter was made of minute particles. Their theory of causation states that effect exists in cause. Apriori principles cannot be used to deduce cause or effect, they have to be in conjuction. The Vaisesika sutras believe in the perception of negation; abhava through the perception of the focal point to which such negation refers. The Nyaya sutras also state that negation or absence or non-existence can also be perceived. Though both agree on the perception of negation their methods at arriving to this conclusion are different. The new school of Nyaya known as Navya Nyaya began with Gangesa Upadhyaya of Mithila. This school dealt mainly in developing a system of linguistic notations to specify accurately and precisely any concept or its relation with other concepts. The technical expressions invented by this school were generally accepted by other schools also, whenever accuracy was required. The Nyaya Vaisesika school held that things were permanent until conditions change and the substance is changed so far as to be destroyed. Things do not exist because of our perception but because of our perception but because it is one of their characteristics to do so, existence being the most general characteristic of all things. Time, in this school, is also regarded as a separate entity.

The Nyaya Vaisesika school is a pluralistic system which neither tries to reduce the diversity of experience to any universal principle nor dismiss patent facts of experience on the basis of the need for logical coherence of abstract thought. Its classification of several types of categories due to which a thing is perceived is called padhartha.

The Mimamsa school produced the Mimamsa sutra a systematic compilation which was written by Jamini. The commentary on it was written by Sabara, but a systematic elaboration was made by Kumarial, who preceded Kumarial and Sankaracharya. Mimamsa literature has had a great influence on Hindu thought. Most present day explanations of rituals and religious commentaries are from the Mimamsa school. The foundation of Mimamsa philosophy is the doctrine of the self validity of knowledge or svatah pramana. This school asserts that all knowledge, except remembering, is self validating, we are never aware of any objective fact before knowledge reveals it to us. Nothing reveals knowledge to us. According to this school there are two kinds of perception, in two stages. The first stage is indeterminate perception, nirvikalpa and the second is determinate or savikalpa.

Indeterminate perception is the first perception of an object by the senses, thus being simple and non-determinate. Though the complexity is present right at the first moment of perception, yet we do not perceive it, because we do not remember the grounds for differentia.

In the second stage, the self connects present impression with past and realize the universal and particular characteristic of the object of perception. Knowledge may be perceptual; pratyaksha or inferential; anumana. All knowledge involves the knower, the object known and the knowledge at the same moment. On their explanation of ignorance the Mimamsa school follows the principle of akhyati. This is distinct from the Buddhist school which believes the flow of perception to be responsible for knowledge and ignorance: this is the atmakhyati doctrine. The Nyaya, Vaisesikha and Yoga believe in anyatakhyati or viritakhyati: that ignorance steam from the faulty connection between observation of only the similarities between the object perceived and the object it is thought to be. The differences between the two objects is not perceived. The Mimamsa accepts the existence of soul. It is regarded as distinct from the body, it is eternal, omniscient and one is present in each body. Salvation is reached when man exhausts the fruits of his good and bad actions and performs sacrifices and guards against sin. Though the Mimamsa universe is made up of parts, the theory does not admit the existence of any God. Since there is no creator the world has eternally been.

The Brahma sutras provide a refutation of all the other schools of Indian philosophy of those times. Therefore it could not have been written very early, perhaps around the 2nd century BC. Sankara’s commentary on the Brahma sutras was the basis of this vast and important school of philosophy, the Vedanta school. IT seems that Badrayana, the author of the Brahma sutra, was most probably an atheist rather than an absolutist, like his commentator, Sankara. The Vedanta claims to be the philosophy which explains the Upanishads as summarized in the Brahma sutras. The Upanishads from the last par of Vedic literature and so their study is also called Uttara Mimamsa or the later Mimamsa, as opposed to the Mimamsa of Jamini.

Sankaracharya’s commentary on the Brahma sutra has attained the most value amongst all of its many commentaries. This was because he revitalized the thought process by his explanations of concepts which were not being adequately sustained by the other orthodox schools. This school also has a coherent series of literary works available for present day study. The fundamental of Vedanta philosophy is Advaita, non dualism. The Sankara school of Vendanta believes that the ultimate and absolute truth is the self, which is one though appearing as many in different individuals. Tat tvam asi, (that thou art) forms the cornerstone of Vedanta philosophy. The essence of the universe and the individual are one, the Atman. This Atman being omnipresent. The world around us is merely Maya, or illusion, which after meditation and penance will be revealed to be just that. Sankara advocated only spiritual study and discipline, jnana yoga, to be learnt from teachers as the path to liberation, but a later and equally famous saint advocated even devotion, Bhakti yoga as a means of achieving the eternal.