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Because theosophical writings make frequent reference to some of the several systems of Indian philosophy, it is well to give an overview of them. Furthermore, early books such as Esoteric Buddhism by Alfred P. SINNETT, The Secret Doctrine by Helena P. BLAVATSKY, and The MAHATMA LETTERS TO A. P. SINNETT compiled by Alfred T. Barker stress especially MAHĀYĀNA Buddhist and ADVAITA VEDĀNTA concepts, with occasional reference to SĀNKHYA and Nyāya. It would be useful to put these several systems in some kind of overall perspective.
A traditional view is that there are six different schools or systems of Indian philosophy, a view repeated in H. P. Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (cf. SD I:269 and 278). But such a tradition must have started sometime after the 14th century CE, since earlier philosophers make no such mention of it. Perhaps it is based on the notion that the orthodox (astika) systems, that is, those which accept the validity of the VEDAS (at least in principle), are all claimed to have begun with sūtra literature. But since the Sankhya Sūtra cannot be dated earlier than the 14th century, the tradition of classifying Indian Philosophy into six is not quite accurate. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that Vedānta is actually three quite different schools of thought, and it omits JAINISM and the several schools of Buddhist philosophy altogether. A better overview is to treat all the systems, orthodox and non-orthodox (n€stika), together and discuss each briefly in terms of its philosophic point of view (darana). This follows the scheme developed by Karl H. Potter in his Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, in which various types of pluralism are put at the left of the diagram and various types of monism (or, more precisely, non-dualism) are at the right, with several varieties of realism in the center.
First of all, it should be noted that Indian philosophy, unlike most philosophy in Greece, Rome, Europe, and America, exists in schools of thought rather than in the thought of individual philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, etc. That is, they all begin with the insights of a great thinker and are continued by followers of that thinker, who often make slight modifications of the original insights to meet the criticisms of other schools, but never make radical changes. Secondly, the followers often develop the original doctrine in commentaries (or sub-commentaries or word glosses) on the initial formulation of the ideas. Third, the original formulation, as suggested above, is often in brief and very cryptic sentences, called sūtras (literally “threads”), which give only the bare outline of the doctrine, thus necessitating a commentary to make them intelligible. In addition to these commentaries, followers of the schools occasionally wrote original (prakārana) works, often in verse form. Of course, they are written in the classical Sanskrit language, the most highly inflected language in the world. All this makes access to Indian philosophy much more difficult for the Western reader than, say, Chinese or Greek or European philosophy.
An ancient radically pluralistic, materialistic, and skeptical system of Indian philosophy was Lokāyata (“worldly”), also called Cārvāka (probably a corruption of cāru-vāka, literally “sweet-talk”). It denied the validity of the Vedas, saying that they were just invented by lazy brahmins to enable them to make money performing the various sacrifices and to keep the rest of the population suppressed. Obviously, it was atheistic. The soul or self, they claimed, was just an epiphenomenon of matter, hence did not survive the death of the physical body. The only appropriate goal in life was sensual pleasure, such as good food, alcoholic drink, and “the embrace of big-breasted women.” It even denied the validity of logical inference, claiming that sense-perception alone gave one the truth. Its ideas were severely attacked by all the other schools of Indian philosophy and most of its texts have long since disappeared. Theosophy, too, would reject its ideas.
The various forms of BUDDHISM are also pluralistic, and, if not atheistic, at least non-theistic. There were two major schools of THERAVĀDA (called pejoratively “Hīnayāna” or “Lesser Vehicle” by the Mahāyāna or “Greater Vehicle” Buddhists): Vaibhāika and Sautrāntika. Both are realistic. They analyzed human nature into various constituents of being (called dharmas), meditation upon which was considered to be necessary to attain enlightenment. Their ideas were criticized by the great Mahāyāna philosopher NĀGĀRJUNA.
There are also two major schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism: Madhyamaka (also called Mādhyamika) and YOGĀCĀRA. The former was begun by Nāgārjuna (early 2nd cent. CE), based on his analysis of the Theravāda schools and upon certain texts called collectively “Perfection of Wisdom” (prajñā-paramitā). It is essentially a dialectical analysis of the dharma theory, showing it to be incoherent as well as inconsistent with the teachings of Buddha. Its basic statement is that all things are “empty” (śūnya), which has been misinterpreted as a form of nihilism and also has been reified into a kind of Absolute. Actually, all Nāgārjuna was trying to point out was that things are empty or void of any permanent, unchanging reality, since to claim permanence would be inconsistent with the Buddha’s teaching of impermanence (anitya, or anicca in Pāli). The latter school was begun by ĀRYĀSAŃGA and his brother Vasubandhu (3rd cent. CE) and is a kind of transcendental idealism, sometimes called the “Mind-Only Doctrine” (vijñānavāda or vijñāna- matratā). It claims that underlying this pluralistic world there is a basic substratum of consciousness, which it terms ĀLĀYA-VIJÑĀNA or “root-mind,” of which all individual minds are a part. Although most scholars see these two forms of Māhāyana Buddhism as incompatible, Chinese Buddhists often combined them into their own unique forms of Buddhism. Theosophists also find them compatible upon deeper analysis.
The “centrist” schools in Potter’s scheme, are Mīmāmsā, Nyāya, Vaieika, and Jaina (or Jainism). The Mīmāmsā system split into two schools. Both are orthodox Hindu schools whose main emphasis is the analysis of Vedic rituals. Oddly, they are also atheistic, interpreting the many Vedic references to gods (devas) as “grammatical datives” (i.e., one sacrifices “to Rudra” or “to Indra”)! Nyāya is a thorough-going realism as well as a pluralism, with some similarities to Plato, Aristotle, and the early Bertrand Russell. H. P. Blavatsky makes passing reference to it in The Secret Doctrine, only to reject its theory of causality. Its main contribution to Indian philosophy was its development of logic (the name of the system means “method” or “rule”). Because its categories were similar to those of Vaieika, the two became combined into a single hyphenated school, Nyāya-Vaieika. The name Vaieika means “difference” or “differentiation.” It is a form of atomism, which, oddly, gets very little attention in early theosophical writings, despite numerous mentions of atomism in The Secret Doctrine and clairvoyant investigations of the atom in such later theosophical writings as Occult Chemistry by Charles W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant. Probably that is because the Vaieika concept of the atom (anu) as a dimensionless sphere is quite different from the concept of the atom in theosophical literature.
JAINISM is perhaps the most interesting system of all. Because of its great tolerance for other points of view, and because of its general doctrine of internal relations (in order to know any one thing completely, one would have to know everything), it accepts both pluralism and monism — that is, things are both unities and pluralities as seen from different points of view. But the individual souls (jīvas) are infinite in number, neither atomic in size (as Nyāya claims) not all-pervasive (as Vedānta claims), but rather elastic, expanding or contracting to fit the size of the body they happen to inhabit in any particular incarnation. Jainism is also atheistic, offering several interesting arguments against the existence of God — although some contemporary Jains would claim that the j…va, especially of perfected beings (tīrthānkaras), are, in some sense, gods, so it is not really atheistic.
Sāńkhya is a radical dualism, and like such dualisms in the West was criticized by other systems of Indian philosophy (especially Advaita Ved€nta) as incoherent. Matter (termed pradhāna or prakti) is insentient, one, and infinitely divisible. Spirits or consciousnesses (termed puruas, literally “persons”) are, as in Jainism, plural and infinite in number. Since matter and consciousness have nothing in common, they cannot interact. Nevertheless, somehow (which Sāńkhya never explains) each individual consciousness is psychologically attracted to and identified with the body and psyche (both of which are evolved from matter, hence are actually insentient). This body-psyche component of humans is often called “the psycho-physical mechanism” to stress the idea that it is not itself conscious, but only has a kind of borrowed consciousness from the misidentification of purua with it; it is only a kind of insentient machine. The purpose of life is by analysis of the constituent parts of one’s nature (the name of the system means “enumeration”) to make consciousness realize that it is not really associated with matter at all, thus attain freedom from it (termed kaivālya in this system). The relation between the two basic constituents of the universe is likened to a crippled man (i.e., purua) riding on the shoulders of a blind man (i.e., prakti). Without the legs of the blind man, the crippled one would not be able to get around; but without the eyes of the crippled man, the blind one would not know where to go. Matter is conceived as having three aspects or guńas (literally “strands”): sattva, rajas, and tamas. These are variously translated as “harmony” or “equilibrium,” “mobility” or “excitability,” and “darkness” or “interia” respectively. The Bhagavad-Gītā adopts this guńa system and applies it to types of people, types of food, types of worship, etc. Theosophists, too, have often utilized the guńa system in their writings, as well as other Sāńkhya categories, especially those of the psycho-physical mechanism: manas (mind), buddhi (insight or intuition), citta (individuated consciousness), and ahamkāra (ego or the I-making tendency).
Sāńkhya is atheistic. The system of philosophy termed Yoga is essentially the same as Sāńkhya except that it accepts the existence of God (Īśvara). Its classic text is Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, which has been translated by several theosophists, including Iqbal K. Taimni. Philosophically it has no relation to what is usually considered yoga in the West, i.e., breathing exercises and various bodily postures (Āsanas). The term “yoga,” which is cognate with the English word “yoke,” simply means a discipline which leads to union with one’s true spiritual nature. As such bodily health is important, but is not the main emphasis of the system.
The Vedānta schools may be divided into three main sub-schools: Dvaita, Viśisādvaita, and Advaita. In addition, the theistic school known as Kashmiri Śaivism has some affinity with Advaita Vedānta. Dvaita, as its name indicates, is a radical dualism, like Sāńkhya, although it is a theism, not an atheism. It is the most recently developed school of Indian philosophy (excepting those which arose in the 20th century), having been propounded by Madhva (1197-1276), who lived in South India during the resurgence of the great Chola Empire. God is identified as Visnu; everything else is subordinate to and dependent upon Him. But He cannot be approached directly, rather only through a mediator, identified by Madhva as the Vedic wind god Vāyu. Dvaita, like Jainism, is also a hylozoism, i.e., everything on earth is alive or ensouled. Dvaita is rejected by theosophists as well as by most contemporary Indian philosophers.
Viśistādvaita Vedānta or “qualified non-dualism” was propounded by Rāmānuja (1017-1127) who also lived in South India during the Chola resurgence. This was a time when the great mystic poets, the Ālvars and Nāyanars, were spreading their doctrine of devotion to God. Rāmānuja furnished a philosophic basis for their devotion or BHAKTI YOGA, in the process severely criticizing the non-dualism of Śańkara. As with Madhva, the world is real, not illusory (i.e., māyā), and is dependent for its existence on God. The soul, also, is dependent for its existence on God, but the two are not completely different — they have a similar nature, hence have a “qualified” non-dual relation. The relation of God to the human soul is said to be analogous to the relation of the human mind to the body, its controller but not of an entirely different nature from the body. The goal of the system is, by bhakti yoga, to free oneself from egoistic identification with the body and its sensual pursuits which limit one’s real consciousness. The soul, then, will be in constant adoration of God, though it never becomes one with Him. Although Rāmānuja identifies this underlying reality as Brahman, he also equates it with Visnu. As with dualism, theosophists tend to reject even qualified non-dualism as unrepresentative of the real nature of the universe. As H. P. Blavatsky puts it in The Secret Doctrine (I:522), “Dualistic and anthropomorphic as may be the philosophy of the Visishtadwaita, when compared with that of the Advaita — the non-dualists, — it is yet supremely higher in logic and philosophy than the cosmogony accepted by either Christianity, or its great opponent, modern [i.e., 19th cent.] Science.”
As the preceding quote indicates, it is the non-dualistic or Advaita Vedānta one which has the greatest affinity with theosophy. Its principle proponent was Śańkara or ŚANKARĀCĀRYA (788-820). Briefly, its claim is that the only reality is Brahman; all else has only a phenomenal, not a real, existence, hence is termed illusory (MĀYĀ). But unlike Viśistādvaita, it claims that the Self (ātman) is identical with Brahman, not merely similar to it. Although Śańkara criticizes Sāńkhya dualism as incoherent, he nevertheless accepts many of the Sāńkhya categories in a modified fashion. This includes the “psycho-physical mechanism” made up of the physical body, the mind (manas), the intuitive or discriminative faculty (buddhi), individuated consciousness (citta), and ego (ahamkāra), all of which are evolutes of basic matter (pradhāna or prakti). Since the basic outline of this system is described in other places in the Encyclopedia, it is not necessary to describe it further here.
The system known as Kashmiri Śaivism, also known as Advaita Śaivism, has attracted attention from some theosophists who see in it essentially the same ideas as those found in The Secret Doctrine. It started as an esoteric school, known only to its initiates; its basic ideas were not written down until the late 8th or early 9th century CE by Vasugupta, but since then its literature has grown considerably. This literature consists of three different kinds of text: precepts (āgama); basic doctrines, especially concerning creation by vibration (spanda); and polemics, containing summaries of the doctrine, arguments in support of it, and counter-arguments against its critics (pratyabhiñā, literally “recognition”). Included in the first is the Śiva Sūtra; included in the third is the Pratyabhiñāhdayam (“Secret of Recognition”) by Kemarāja (late 10th cent. CE). Both have been translated by I. K. Taimni. Basically, the underlying reality of the world, cit (usually translated “consciousness,” though that is not exactly accurate), is identified as Śiva, who creates the universe by means of vibration (spanda). It is stated that Siva’s very essence is to create and that He holds in potential all that is or ever could be manifested. This is its fundamental difference from Advaita Vedānta, which claims that Brahman is inactive. Manifestation, according to Kashmiri Śaivism, takes place in several stages, one of which is termed māyā tattva. Here māyā is conceived not so much as illusion (as in Advaita) as it is the force which measures out or delimits the universe (from the root meaning of mā, i.e., measure). This, in fact, is one of the meanings of māyā in The Secret Doctrine (for further discussion of this, see the entry for MĀYĀ). Freedom from the cycle of rebirth comes from recognition (pratyabhiñ€) of one’s true nature.
There are also two other forms of Śaiva philosophy — Vira-Śaivism (also called Lingāyata from the practice of its devotees wearing a Šiva lińga around their necks) in central India and Śaiva Siddhānta in South India — both of which have some interesting features, but neither of which is philosophically as sophisticated as Kashmiri Śaivism. They are mainly theological in character and are ignored in theosophical literature.
In addition to these “six” systems, H. P. Blavatsky claims that there is a “seventh” esoteric system of Indian philosophy which is not “found in full anywhere” but which “pertains to their synthesis”, i.e., “is the Occult doctrine” (SD I:269; cf. I:278). Whether this is a form of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Advaita Vedānta, or Kashmiri Śaivism is difficult to tell.