Major philosophical thinkers and schools: Six Schools of Indian Philosophy

Major philosophical thinkers and schools: Six Schools of Indian Philosophy

  • Once the state and the varna-divided social order had been firmly established, the ancient thinkers advocated that a person should strive for the attainment of four goals. These were:
      • regulation of the social order or dharma,
      • economic resources or artha,
      • physical pleasures or kama, and
      • salvation or moksha.
  • Each of these objectives was expounded in writing.
    • Matters relating to economy were treated in the Arthashastra written by Kautilya.
    • Laws governing the state and society became the subject of the Dharmashastra.
    • Physical pleasures were discussed in the Kamasutra.
  • All these three branches of knowledge were primarily concerned with the material world and its problems.
    • They occasionally touched marginally on the question of salvation.
  • Salvation or moksha became the central subject of the texts on darshana or philosophy.
    • It meant deliverance from the cycle of birth and death, which was first recommended by Gautama Buddha but later emphasized by some brahmanical philosophers.
    • By the beginning of the Christian era, six schools of philosophy developed. These were known as
      • Samkhya,
      • Yoga,
      • Nyaya,
      • Vaisheshika,
      • Mimamsa (or Purva Mimamsa), and
      • Vedanta (or Uttar Mimansa).
  • These 6 schools of philosophy are the astika schools, originally called sanatana dharma. It consists of six systems of philosophy and theology. Each school has a set of sutras or aphorisms that forms its nucleus and gives the essential teaching of the school.
  • The first four of these schools accept the authority of the Vedas, but do not derive their philosophical principles from the statements of the Vedas.
    • They are based on the teachings of individual Rishis or sages.
  • The last two schools, i.e. Purva Mimamsa and Vedanta, however, base their theological systems specifically on the statements of the Vedas.
    • The four Vedas, namely the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, are each divided into four parts known as Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad.
    • The first two parts are predominantly ritualistic.
    • The Aranyakas mark the shift from ritual to theology, which finds its culmination in the Upanishads.
    • The Purva Mimamsa, (“the earlier deliberation”) bases its principles on the earlier (purva) parts of the Vedas, namely the Samhitas and Brahmanas.
    • Vedanta (lit. “the last part of the Vedas”) is the study of the later parts i.e. the Upanishads), and therefore,  is also called the Uttara Mimamsa, or the later deliberation.

(1) Sankhya

  • Samkhya, literally ‘count’, seems to have originated first. Kapila Muni is the founder of this system.
  • According to the early Samkhya philosophy, the presence of divine agency is not essential to the creation of the world.
    • The world owes its creation and evolution more to Nature or prakriti than to God.
    • This was a rational and scientific view.
    • Around the fourth century AD, in addition to prakriti, purusha or spirit was introduced as an element in the Samkhya system, and the creation of the world was attributed to both.
    • According to the new view, Nature and the spiritual element together create the world. Thus, at the outset the Samkhya school of philosophy was materialistic, but later it tended to become spiritualistic.
  • Sankhya accepts two basic tattvas or principles
    • prakriti or primordial matter (matter, creative agency, energy)
      • Purusha, also called atma, is immutable, eternal and conscious by its very nature.
    • purusha or individual conscious being (self or soul or mind)
      • Prakriti is inert and undergoes modifications while in association with a purusha. It evolves from subtle to gross, and manifests the visible world.
  • Jiva (a living being) is that state in which puruṣa is bonded to prakṛti in some form.
    • The universe is described by this school as one created by purusa-prakṛti entities infused with various permutations and combinations of variously enumerated elements, senses, feelings, activity and mind
    • It is a dualist philosophy, although between the self and matter rather than between mind and body as in the Western dualist tradition
  • According to this school, a person can attain salvation through the acquisition of real knowledge, and his misery can be ended for ever.
    • A living being can become free from ignorance by understanding that purusha is distinct from Prakriti (the twenty-four elements that constitute matter).
    • This knowledge can be acquired through perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana), and hearing (shabda). Such a method is characteristic of a scientific system of inquiry.
  • The existence of God or supreme being is not directly asserted, nor considered relevant by the Samkhya philosophers.

(2) Yoga

  • This system was founded by Hiranygarbha and later systematized and propagated by the sage Patanjali.
  • Yoga gives the practical steps to realize the purusha distinct from prakriti.
  • According to the Yoga school, a person can attain salvation through meditation and physical application.
    • In order to obtain salvation, physical exercises in various postures called asanas are prescribed, and a breathing exercise called pranayama is recommended.
    • It is thought that through these methods, the mind gets diverted from worldly matters and achieves concentration.
    • These exercises are important because they not only presuppose some development of the knowledge of physiology and anatomy in ancient times, but they also indicate a tendency to run away from worldly difficulties.
  • Practice of control over pleasure, the senses, and bodily organs is central to this system.
  • Yoga accepts the twenty five principles of Sankhya school along with Isvara or God as the twenty-sixth. So it is more theistic.
  • Patanjili defines yoga as cessation of all mental modifications. To attain this state he gives eight steps, hence this system is also called astanga (eight limbed) yoga, reminiscent of Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path.
    • These are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
    • The goal is to quiet one’s mind and achieve kaivalya (solitariness or detachment).

(3) Nyaya

  • The Nyaya school, or the school of analysis, is based on the Nyaya Sutras, written by Gautama Muni in the 2nd Century B.C.
  • Its methodology is based on a system of logic that has subsequently been adopted by the majority of the Indian schools.
  • According to it, salvation and release from suffering can be attained through the acquisition of knowledge. The veracity of a proposition or statement can be tested through perception, inference, comparison and testimony. An example of how they used logic is given below:
      • There is fire in the mountain
      • because it emits smoke;
      • whatever emits smoke contains fire such as the hearth.
  • It holds that human suffering results from mistakes/defects produced by activity under wrong knowledge (notions and ignorance).
  • The stress laid on the use of logic influenced Indian scholars who took to systematic thinking and reasoning.
  • Nyaya school shares some of its methodology and human suffering foundations with Buddhism; however, a key difference between the two is that Buddhism believes that there is neither a soul nor self; Nyaya school like other schools of Hinduism believes that there is a soul and self, with liberation (moksha) as a state of removal of ignorance

(4) Vaisheshika

  • The Vaisheshika school was founded by Kanada in the 6th Century B.C., and it is atomist and pluralist in nature.
  • The Vaisheshika school gives importance to the discussion of material elements or dravya. They draw a line between particularities and their aggregate.
    • Earth, water, fire, air, and ether (sky), when combined, give rise to new objects.
  • The Vaisheshika school propounded the atom theory believing that all material objects are made up of atoms.
    • Kanada postulated that the world is made of atoms (paramanu).
    • All objects in the physical universe are reducible to a finite number of atoms, and Brahman is regarded as the fundamental force that causes consciousness in these atoms.
  • Kanada taught that there are seven padarthas or ontological entities and understanding these leads to self-realization.The seven padarthas are
    • dravya (substance),
    • guna (quality),
    • karma (movement),
    • samanya (generality),
    • vishesha (speciality),
    • samavaya (inherence),  and
    • abhava (non-existence).
  • The Vaisheshika thus marked the beginning of physics in India, but the scientific view was diluted by a belief in god and spiritualism, and this school put its faith in both heaven and salvation.
  • The Vaisheshika and Nyaya schools eventually merged because of their closely related metaphysical theories (although Vaisheshika only accepted perception and inference as sources of valid knowledge).

(5) Purva Mimamsa or Minamsa

  • This system was propagated by sage Jaimini, a disciple of Veda Vyasa.
  • Mimamsa literally means the art of reasoning and interpretation.
    • However, reasoning was used to provide justifications for various Vedic rituals, and the attainment of salvation was made dependent on their performance.
  • The main objective of the Purva Mimamsa school is to interpret and establish the authority of the Vedas.
    • It requires unquestionable faith in the Vedas and the regular performance of the Vedic fire-sacrifices to sustain all the activity of the universe.
    • According to the Mimamsa school, the Vedas contain the eternal truth.
  • The principal object of this philosophy was to acquire heaven and salvation.
    • It says that the essence of the Vedas is dharma.
      • By the execution of dharma one earns merit which leads one to heaven after death.
      • If one does not follow one’s dharma or prescribed duties, then one incurs sin and as a consequence suffers in hell.
    • A person will enjoy the bliss of heaven so long as his accumulated acts of virtue last.
    • When his accumulated virtues are exhausted, he will return to earth, but if he attains salvation he will be completely free from the cycle of birth and death in the world.
    • In order to attain salvation, the Mimamsa school strongly recommended the performance of Vedic sacrifices, which needed the services of priests and legitimized the social distance between the various varnas.
    • Through the propagation of the Mimamsa philosophy, the brahmanas sought to maintain their ritual authority and preserve the social hierarchy based on Brahmanism.

(6) Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta

  • The Vedanta, or Uttara Mimamsa, school concentrates on the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads (mystic or spiritual contemplations within the Vedas), rather than the Brahmanas (instructions for ritual and sacrifice). The Vedanta focus on meditation, self-discipline and spiritual connectivity, more than traditional ritualism.
  • Vedanta means the end of the Veda.
  • It refutes the conclusion of Purva Mimasa and states that the essential teaching of the Vedas is to realize Brahman, the Absolute Truth, and not the dharma in the form of injunctions.
  • The Brahmasutra of Badarayana compiled in the second century BC formed its basic text.
  • Later, two famous commentaries were written on it, one by Shankara in the ninth century and the other by Ramanuja in the twelfth.
    • Shankara considers brahma to be without any attributes, but Ramanuja’s brahma had attributes.
    • Shankara considered knowledge or jnana to be the chief means of salvation, but Ramanuja’s road to salvation lay in practising devotion/loving faith.
  • Vedanta philosophy is traced to the earlier Upanishads.
    • According to it, brahma is the reality and everything else is unreal (maya).
    • The self (soul) or atma coincides with brahma.
    • Therefore, if a person acquires the knowledge of the self (atma), he acquires the knowledge of brahma, and thus attains salvation.
    • Both brahma and atma are eternal and indestructible.
    • Such a view promotes the idea of stability and unchangeability. What is true spiritually could also be true of the social and material situation in which a person is placed.
  • The theory of karma came to be linked to Vedanta philosophy.
    • It means that in his present birth, a person has to bear the consequences of his actions performed in his previous birth.
    • Belief in rebirth or punarjanma becomes an important element not only in the Vedanta system but also in several other systems of Hindu philosophy. It implies that people suffer not because of social or worldly causes but because of causes which they neither know nor which they can control.
  • Vedanta is widely accepted as the apex of all six systems because it deals exclusively with the Absolute Truth and explains the Reality most consistently.
  • Due to the rather cryptic and poetic nature of the Vedanta sutras, the school separated into six sub-schools, each interpreting the texts in its own way and producing its own series of sub-commentaries:
    • Advaita (the best-known, which holds that the soul and Brahman are one and the same),
    • Visishtadvaita (which teaches that the Supreme Being has a definite form, name – Vishnu – and attributes),
    • Dvaita (which espouses a belief in three separate realities: Vishnu, and eternal soul and matter),
    • Dvaitadvaita (which holds that Brahman exists independently, while soul and matter are dependent),
    • Shuddhadvaita (which believes that Krishna is the absolute form of Brahman),
    • Acintya Bheda Abheda (which combines monism and dualism by stating that the soul is both distinct and non-distinct from Krishna, or God).
  • These can also be categorized into two divisions:  personal and impersonal.
    • In the former, devotion to a Personal God is the means to perfection. In the latter, one realizes oneself as the all-pervading, impersonal Absolute Truth.
    • According to the impersonal school called Advaita, the Absolute Truth or Brahman is formless and devoid of any attributes. It is eternal and conscious. Brahman is the only reality. The phenomenal world is an illusion and is perceived out of ignorance of Brahman. Individual beings are non-different from Brahman.
    • In contrast to it, the personal school says that the Absolute Truth is a person, and is designated as Bhagavan or Purusottama. He has a spiritual form and many variegated attributes. The impersonal feature described above is but the brilliant light emanating from the transcendental body of this Absolute Person. The world, being a creation of Bhagavan, is real but undergoes cycles of creation and dissolution. The individual beings (jivas) are part of Bhagavan’s potency and can never be absolutely non-different from Him.

Sub schools of Vedanta:


  • “Advaita” literally means “not two”, and is often called a monistic or non-dualistic system which essentially refers to the indivisibility of the Self (Atman) from the Whole (Brahman).
  • Advaita refers to the recognition that the true Self, Atman, is the same as the highest Reality, Brahman.  Followers seek liberation/release by acquiring knowledge of the identity of Atman and Brahman. Knowledge of Brahman destroys Maya, the illusory appreances which cover the Real, Brahman.
  • The principal exponent of the Advaita Vedanta-interpretation was Adi Shankara in the 8th century, who systematised the works of preceding philosophers.
  • Adi Shankara is most known for his systematic reviews and commentaries (Bhasyas) on ancient Indian texts.
    • Shankara’s masterpiece of commentary is the Brahmasutrabhasya (literally, commentary on Brahma Sutra), a fundamental text of the Vedanta school of Hinduism.
    • His commentaries on ten Mukhya (principal) Upanishads and on the Bhagavad Gita are also important.
  • Adi Sankara organised the Hindu monks under four Mathas, with the headquarters at Dvaraka in the West, Jagannatha Puri in the East, Sringeri in the South and Badrikashrama in the North.


  • VishishtAdvaita (“Advaita with uniqueness; qualifications”) is a non-dualistic school of Vedanta philosophy.
    • It is non-dualism of the qualified whole, in which Brahman alone exists, but is characterized by multiplicity.
    • It can be described as qualified monism or qualified non-dualism or attributive monism.
  • It believes in all diversity subsuming to an underlying unity.
    • Ramanuja, the main proponent of Vishishtadvaita philosophy contends that the Prasthana Traya (“The three courses”), namely the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutras are to be interpreted in a way that shows this unity in diversity.
  • According to Sankara, whatever is, is Brahman, and Brahman itself is absolutely homogeneous, so that all difference and plurality must be illusory.
    According to Ramanuja also, whatever is, is Brahman; but Brahman is not of a homogenous nature, but contains within itself elements of plurality owing to which it truly manifests itself in a diversified world.
  • The Brahman of Sankara is in itself impersonal. Ramanuja’s Brahman, on the other hand, is essentially a Personal God.
  • There are three key principles of Vishishtadvaita:
    • Tattva:
      • The knowledge of the 3 real entities namely, jiva (living souls; the sentient); ajiva (the insentient) and Ishvara (Vishnu-Narayana or Parahbrahman, creator and controller of the world).
    • Hita:
      • The means of realization, as through bhakti (devotion) and prapatti (self-surrender).
    • Purushartha:
      • The goal to be attained, as moksha or liberation from bondage.
      • Ramanuja (1017–1137 CE) was born in a Tamil family in the village of Sriperumbudur.


  • Dvaita, also known as Bhedavada and Tattvavada, is a school of Vedanta founded by Madhvacharya (1238-1317).
  • Dvaita stresses a strict distinction between God—the Brahman (Paramatman)—and the individual souls (jivatman).
    • According to Madhvacharya, the individual souls of beings are not created by God but do, nonetheless, depend on Him for their existence.
  • Dvaita Vedanta, a dualistic understanding of the Vedas, espouses dualism by theorizing the existence of two separate realities.
    • The first and the more important reality is that of Vishnu or Brahman. Vishnu is the supreme Self, God, the absolute truth of the universe, the independent reality. The second reality is that of dependent but equally real universe that exists with its own separate essence.
    • Everything that is composed of the second reality, such as individual soul, matter, and the like exist with their own separate reality.
  • Like Ramanuja, Madhvacharya also embraced Vaishnavism, which understands God as being personal and endowed with attributes. To Madhvacharya, the Vedantin Brahman was Vishnu. Madhva established the Krishna temple at Udupi.


  • Nimbarka, a Vaishnava Philosopher, hailed from Andhra Region. Nimbarka’s philosophical position is known as Dvaitadvaita (Bhedabheda vada).
  • The categories of existence, according to him, are three, i.e., chit (individual soul or jiva), achit (jagat), and Isvara. Chit and achit are different from Isvara, in the sense that they have attributes (Guna) and capacities (Swabhaava), which are different from those of Isvara.
  • Isvara is independent and exists by Himself, while ‘chit’ and ‘achit’ have existence dependent upon Him.
    • So, at the same time ‘chit’ and ‘achit’ are not different from Isvara, because they cannot exist independently of Him.
    • Here, difference means a kind of existence which is separate but dependent, while non-difference means impossibility of separate existence .


  • Shuddadvaita  is the “purely non-dual” philosophy propounded by Vallabhacharya (1479-1531 CE), the founding philosopher and guru of the Vallabha sampradaya (“tradition of Vallabh”) or Pushtimarg (“The path of grace”), a Hindu Vaishnava tradition focused on the worship of Krishna.
  • About the relationship between two realities, namely, the world and God, Vallabhacharya believes that God (Brahm) is pure and non-dualistic, but at the same time, unlike Shankaracharya, he strongly believes that the souls and Nature (universe) are not illusion but real.

Acintya Bheda Abheda: (inconceivable one-ness and difference)

  • It is believed that this philosophy was taught by the movement’s theological founder Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486 – 1534) and differentiates the Gaudiya (In Bengal) tradition from the other Vaishnava Sampradayas.
  • It can best be understood as an integration of a strict dualist (Dvaita) view of Madhvacharya and the qualified monism Vishishtadvaita of Ramanujacharya while rejecting the absolute monism Advaita of Adi Sankara.

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