Ancient Indian Philosophy

Philosophy developed as a social science in Slave society. From the inception of history of philosophy, there had been two trends – materialism and idealism. Between 7 – 1 B.C. philosophy developed in India, China and Greece. We do not know anything concretely and precisely about the development of philosophical ideas during the period of Indus valley civilization. But basing on the importance that had been given to various Gods in their religious rituals, we can say that their religion and religious ideas developed from the magic of primitive agricultural tribes. Aryans entered India as pastoral tribes. The Karma Kanda performed in Yagna and other rituals were also of magic. But, in line with the position of women in pastoral tribes, in Aryan magic women were put in much inferior position when compared with that of agricultural tribes. In the later periods, when the class society got established and growing, we can still see the traces of magic of Aryans and non-Aryans in various darshanas.

Indian philosophy started to blossom between 7th–5th centuries B.C. It was the transition period between decay of primitive communist society and emergence of new class society. That was the period when old philosophical ideas and beliefs were challenged. Jain and Buddhist philosophies emerged during that period challenging Vedic religion. During 5th– 4th centuries B.C. Sutras and Darsanas (philosophical schools) appeared. Indian philosophy developed in a multi-faced way.

The Yagnas and other Karma kanda (rituals) became a serious obstacle to the emerging needs of new agricultural society. Yagna became the symbol of hegemony of Brahminical class. In that period Jain and Buddhist philosophies which advocated ahimsa (non-violence) were popular because these ideas would help development of cattle breeding and spread of agrarian society. They challenged the authority of Vedas and hegemony of Brahminism. On the other hand the Kshatriya class tried for supremacy over Brahminical class. Buddhist philosophy represented these interests of new society. It got the approval of Kshatriyas and vysyas.

On the other hand, those who accepted the authority of Vedas also rejected the ‘Karma’ path (the rituals like Yagna and yaga), and various schools which advocated ‘Jnana’ path emerged and claimed their source in Upanishads. By rejecting karma marg these schools also represented the interests of the new society. Broadly speaking, Indian darshanas could be categorised into two:

Darshanas which accept the authority of Vedas

  1. Purva Mimamsa or Mimamsa
  2. Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta
  3. Sankhya
  4. Nyaya
  5. Vaisesika
  6. Yoga

Darshanas which do not accept authority Veda’s

  1. Buddhism
  2. Jainism
  3. Lokayata

Purva Mimamsa

During 200 B.C. – 200A.D. Jaimini compiled Mimamsa sutras. Around 400B.C. Sabara wrote Sabara Vyakhyana basing on these Sutras.

* This darshana rejected the existence of God. Srishti, Sthiti, Layas are not true. There is no evidence regarding the existence of God.

* They have seen Vedic Gods from a different angle. Havis (offerings) in the yagnas is not received by the gods. The sounds of mantras themselves are form of gods. Rituals will lead to results because of natural forces only. So the yagnas and karma kanda were part of “technique of magic.” The Vedic rituals were adopted by them from the point of view of the technique of magic but not from religious point of view.

* Mimamsa philosophical school showed the signs of primitive magic and elements of materialism. It had supported the Yagna and other Karma kanda. This school could not reflect the interests of new society. Hence this school could not spread extensively. In medieval times Prabhakara and Kumarila, tried to justify this primitive magic. They had opposed philosophically the Advaita idealism, which became dominant trend in the medieval times. They sharply attacked Sankara’s Mayavada. They refuted Nayayika’s attempt to prove the existence of God. Nayayikas argued: As the conscious potter is responsible for the pot, God is the creator of this world.” Kumarila replied: “If God is Omnipotent he must have produced each and everything in this world. If he were to be creator of each and every thing, then potter is not creator of the pot. If potter were to be the real creator of pot then God is not omnipotent and is not the creator of God”. But while attacking Mayavada of Advaita Vedantins, they adopted a friendly attitude towards

Nayayikas. Kumarila said that the ‘Yoga Samadhi’ advocated by Sankara’s-Advaita (which became popular in medieval times) is an illusion. Pallavas Vishnu Kundins, Chalakyas adopted Mimamsa philosophy. The Mimamsakars fought the Mayavada from the standpoint of primitive magic.

Vedanta or Uttara Mimamsa

Vedanta philosophy came into existence by taking Idealist philosophical aspects from Upanishads and further interpreting Upanishads. Badarayana (BC 200) is said to be responsible for Brahma sutras which are the main source of this philosophy. Brahma sutras had many interpretations. The Gaudapada’s interpretation, (AD –8th century) became basis not only for the Advaita’s variety of idealism, but also for Indian idealism of later day in general. After Gaudapada’s Bhashya, Sankara’s Bhashya acquired great popularity. It reflected the interests of ruling classes in feudal stage.

* Vedanta philosophy unlike Purva Mimamsa took Jnana path. It did not reject totally Yagna and Karma kanda like Buddhists and Jainas. Overall it reflected to some extent the needs of the new agrarian society. Like Plato’s objective idealism Vedanta Darshana completely got separated from practice and showed clearly the parasitic class nature. It belittled practice (labour).

* Gaudapada in his ‘Mandukya Karika’ proposed ‘Mayavada’ or ‘Jaganmidhyavad’. This idealist trend, which does not accept the existence of the world even nominally, had become most popular with the ruling classes in Middle Ages and turned into a most reactionary philosophical outlook.

* Brahman is true and Atman (soul) is true. Moksha (freedom) is nothing but the realization of Atman or Brahman. Philosophically speaking, since it does not recognise anything except Brahman as real, this idealism cannot accept religious beliefs or the gods of religion. But from the pragmatic point of view it accepts god and thus religion.

* Since it considers that there is no existence except Brahman (the embodiment of Jnana or Pure consciousness), this school is called Advaita or monism (which means there does not exist two – consciousness and matter, only one exists i.e.  Brahman or pure consciousness).


Broadly speaking, this Vedanta tradition has not become popular when class society had begun to lake roots. During that period Buddhism had been challenging Vedic thought and religion. Vedanta and idealism did not reach the stage of domination. In that period the darshanas, which did not accept the authority of Vedas, the Sankhya and the Nyaya-Vaisesika darshanas with strong materialist traditions also developed. These schools adopted the materialist aspects of Upanishads and developed them philosophically.


The Sankhya was the strong materialist darshan developed from the materialist current in Upanishads. Kapila (6th – 5th centuries B.C.) is said to have compiled Sankhya philosophy. But Sankhya texts are not available now. At present the source of Sankhya is from those who opposed Sankhya philosophy. In feudal age, Sankara wrote Brahma sutras in which he condemned the rest of the darshanas in 43 sutras where as he spared 64 for refuting Sankhya alone. He said that, the refutation of Sankhya is amounts to the refutaion of all other darshanas.

* Sankhya philosophy begins with the question – which is prime cause of this world? It rejects omniscient Iswar and Brahman completely.

* Without going into mysticism or speculations, they took up rational methods.

* They subscribed to the causal theory which is called Satkarya vada or Mahatkaryavada (evolutionism). For each effect there is a cause. As we know the cause from effect, we have to investigate the cause of this world.

* World is basically material. So the cause of this world is material. Chief cause is nature (prakriti). So theirs is the “prakriti pradhanavada”. The “Prime” or “nature” is material.

* Primordial nature was in microscopic stage in the beginning. That was Avyakta stage. We can only speculate that. The concept of primordial nature is related to the materialist explanation of matter.

* This Avyakta is the mixture of three physical elements. Sattva (jnana aspect), Rajah (motion), Tamah (inertia).

* Replication of Tamas (mass) Rajah (energy) is the reason for diversity of material world. Thus Sankhya with its consistent materialism condemned idealism. It tried to explain the world with materialist outlook. But in later periods, Yagnas and karmakanda is introduced. At the fag end of this period, the concept of Purusa was introduced. As Chinese Taoism is changed into idealism, there were attempts to change Sankhya into idealism. That was why the concept of ‘purusa’ became contradictory.

Prakriti and Purusa are from time immemorial. The world is created when these two combined. World is real. Attaining liberation is man’s aim. Liberation is achieved through wisdom. These are the new concepts introduced after the introduction of Purusa into Sankhya. This version of Sankhya adopts a dualistic standpoint with regard to the fundamental question of philosophy.

Sakteya, Lavalisa, Kapalika and Kashmira Saivam, etc. sects of Saiva religion adopted this dualism. Saivam said purusa means Siva and all men are animals. That is why Siva is called Pasupati. The worldly desires and emotions chain the men with this material world. We got liberation with the worshipping of Pasupati.


Patanjali compiled the yoga sutras. The yoga sutras never rose to the level of a darshan. So it is better to consider yoga as some ancient practices aimed at achieving some super natural powers. Though it was said that the source of yoga was Upanishads, it is evident that yoga practices were existed from the time of Indus valley civilization. These practices are akin to the primitive technique of magic. Early yoga practitioners considered the forces they wanted to get into control exist in the physically existing human body and in the material world itself.

So they concentrated on studying the properties of material world and human body in particular. And in the process the yoga contributed to the development of sciences. The ancient yoga scientists studied human anatomy and chemistry. In later days these practices degenerated into hathavada, rasavada and tantricism. In fact, various darshanas and even Buddhism and Jainism contained and discussed the yoga practices. In Vedanta the yoga considered as the means to get rid of the maya i.e. the illusion that the world is in existence and to attain Brahman the pure consciousness.

Patanjali on the basis of Purasa Sankhya compiled the yoga sutras. And thus the yoga sutras compiled are similar to the Purusa Sankhya.

* The difference between Sankhya and Yoga is that Iswar was replaced in place of Purusa. That was why, Sankhya was called “Atheist Sankhya” and Yoga was called “Theist Sankhya.”

* Yoga means freeing oneself from bonds. Yoga is the control of consciousness through making body and soul undergo rigorous exercises by following yoga’s method. The ‘Samadhi’ concept in yoga entered into Vedanta and Buddhist philosophies.

* Yoga has materialist traditions and got influenced from Buddhists and Jaina traditions. Not only that, they penetrated into those philosophies too. In later stage, mysticism dominated this school.

Nyaya-Vaisesika darshanas

Gautama (BC 3rd century) was said to be the founder of Nyaya and Kanada is said to be the founder of Vaisesika. These two darshanas had strong elements of materialism and stood firmly against the later day dominant idealist stand of rejecting the reality of the material world. Like Lokayata, the consistent materialist darshana of ancient India, these darshanas too accepted the real existence of the world. And they tried to device means to understand that reality. From the beginning these two darshanas closely related and later over a period do time they merged to form single darshana Nyaya-Vaisesika. This later day Nyaya-Vaisesika clearly theistic and accepted the atman, but continued the materialist tradition in its epistemology and logic.


* Despite of the acceptance of the idealist concepts such as atman the Nyaya did not accept the existence of Brahman (god).

* Epistemology is an important component of Nyaya school. They concentrated on the sources of knowledge. They recognised four such sources: 1. Pratyaksha Pramana (perception); 2. Anumana Pramana (inferences); 3. Upamana Pramana (comparison); 4. Sabda Pramana (Veda pramana).

* The Nyayiks were the creators of Indian formal logic. Nyaya philosophers like Vatsyayana, Udyotkara, Viswanatha supported atheism, but later philosophers Vachaspati, Udayana and Vardhamana introduced idealism into -Nyaya philosophy. They used epistemology and the pramanasastra to prove the existence of God.


* Vaisesika is closely linked to the natural sciences.

* According to Vaisisikas there are two worlds: Sensory and extra sensory. As regards to the sensory world, theirs is materialistic outlook.

* Vaisesikas proposed atomic theory. They say that sensory world is made up of earth, water, light and air. These primordial elements are made up of atoms. The atoms are indivisible and immutable. The atoms are motionless. As atoms lack self- motion, they explained the combination and dissociation of atoms occur because of external causes only, that is due to apparent reasons only. But the ultimate cause for the motion is not apparent. This ultimate cause is only natural but not of any divine character. The atomic theory of Kanada is essentially materialistic. The main weakness of the atomoism of vaisesikas is their conception of inert atom. It proved to be the main concession to idealism and on that basis the creator, the God, the external force entered and made the Nyaya-Vaisesika theistic. Whereas its counter part in Greek philosophy overcame this weakness by attributing motion to atoms remained atheistic.

Jaina philosophy

Jaina philosophy, though it rejected the authority of Vedas and denied the God’s existence and had elements of materialism, but basically it remained as idealism. Mahavir was the last preachers among Jainas and he was a contemporary of Buddha (599 –527 B.C.)

* The mass that is basis for existence of matter is permanent. The characters and quality change. For example, the earth (mud) is permanent but it will change into pot.

* Permanence is as true as change is.

* Jainas accepted soul and Karma. Like an oily body attracts dust, Karma is attached to Atma,

* Plants, animals, birds and all five primordial elements (pancha bhutas) have life forever. The microscopic matter changes into Karma and enters into living organisms karma will not get destroyed. In the ‘non-living state” soul the soul gets liberated from Karma and reaches end of the Universe.

* In Jainas’ philosophy we could see primitive faiths.

* Jainas say that practice of Yoga help liberation of soul.

* Though their principle of Ahimsa reflected the needs of then society, by taking it to its logic extremity, they denied the process of production itself. It became unfit for practice. Jainism confined only to the merchant class, who do not have any direct relation with production.

Buddhist philosophy

Buddhism expressed the needs of the then consolidating class society and the interests of the then expanding agriculture more profoundly. That was why Buddhism could gain popularity and patronage of the then rulers. Buddhism had materialist elements.

Gautama Buddha (BC 563-483) was the prince of Sakha gana. He was moved by the inhuman conditions in which the tribal society was disintegrating. The reminiscences of the past society kindled in him the ideas of equality and brotherhood. His concept of Ahimsa and condemnation of Vedic religion and its philosophical ideas were helpful for the kshatriyas who were then representing the developing productive forces. But the concepts of equality were confined only to the Buddhist disciples.

*Buddhism recognised the reality of external world. Every thing is formed after combination of elements.

*It recognised the change. Buddhism preached doctrine of impermanence. Nothing is permanent. Everything is momentary. It is also called theory of momentariness or anityavada.

*If one uses wisdom and sees how things come into being, we cannot say, “nothing exists.” When we see the destruction we cannot say, “it exists here.” Thus they accepted the unity of opposites. But this dialectical conception, though not scientific is different from that of idealist method of Vedantins.

*The Nyayikas said that matter is a combination of some primordial atoms. Buddhists did not accept such immutable primary substances. In fact these are no things at all in the world, everything is a process and property only.

* One important feature of Buddhist philosophy is “Anatmavada” They do not recognise any soul.

* Buddhist philosophy is atheistic, denied the existence of God.

* But they accented Karma, rebirth and Nirvana (liberation)

*Though Buddha took materialist standpoint regarding matter and its motion, avoided addressing the fundamental question matter or consciousness, which one of these two is primary? Thus he failed to reach the consistent materialism of Lokayatas.

As the class society took roots, Buddhist Philosophy gradually changed into an out and out idealistic Philosophy. The Mahayana sect changed Buddhism into a religion and Buddha into God. In the later stages, Nagarjuna (1st –2nd centuries A.D.) peddled Midhyavada of Vedanta as Buddhism. The Mahayana took directly the idealist outlook of upanishads. Thus we can say that, Mahayana Buddhism is nothing but the second stage of Vedanta or Advaita. In fact it was Nagarjuna who laid the foundation stone to Sankara’s Mayavada, of course under the cloak of Buddhism.

* Mahayana adopted objective idealism as its outlook.

* It accepted Atma. Atma is Jyotirmay Swaroopa i.e. a form of a flame.

* It amended the Causal theory. The causality applies to only practical things but not to other worldly things. By saying this they revised the most progressive aspects of Buddhism.

* Nagarjuna said: If anything has cause, it is unreal. Matter is unreal. The world is unreal. The world is Sunya. Thus he founded the Sunyavada theory. Nagarjuna was nothing but Vedantin in the garb of Buddhism. Directly he took Midhyavada of Gaudapada and changed into Sunyavada.

There is one branch in the Mahayana, that is Vigyana vada. This took all the subjective idealist aspects of Upanishads and asserted that only mind is true. It negated all the valid sources of knowledge. They used their logic mainly to refute the reality of the external world.

Thus the Buddhism that originated as a challenge to the Vedas and their authority had transformed itself in into naked idealism. The Mahayana became a stepping-stone for the next phase of development of Advaita Vedanta.


Lokayata darshana that rejected the authority of Vedas developed form the non-Aryan Asura outlook which was in existence before the arrival of Aryans. This is the most consistent materialist darshana that developed from the technique of magic of primitive agricultural tribes. It not only condemned the Vedic rituals, but it opposed the Brahminical class, and also Varna vyavastha, the first class society of India. From this tradition the ancient alchemy, anatomy and medical science

developed. Lokayata magicians had the scientific knowledge of human anatomy hundreds of years before Charaka. Lokayatas challenged the then Varna vyavastha, which was the class society that was prevailing then. As a result they had to face the severe repression by the ruling classes.

* They considered this world as real, material and objective. Four material elements (maha bhootas) are the basis of everything in the world. The four elements: fire, earth, water and air. These four elements are spontaneously active due to the motion inherent to them.

* Only the existence of this world is true and there is no life after death. Thus they rejected the other world and rebirth in toto.

* There are no super natural divine powers. God is the creation of rich to deceive the poor. All the religious writings are nothing but the fantasies created by some selfish people.

* There is no soul as such which is independent of matter. The soul is nothing but the matter that can think.

* The roots of evil should be found in the injustice and cruelty in this world but not in the previous births. The theory of karma is a hoax.

* There is nothing in existence that is beyond the experience (i.e. god). The human beings could get real (direct) knowledge only through the sensations of their sense organs.

* But they failed to recognise the role of practice in the process of acquiring knowledge and the dialectical relationship between perceptual and rational knowledge.

The Lokayats targeted their attack on the brahminical religion and its rituals and against the class oppression in the form of Varna vyavastha.

Naturally they were hated and persecuted by the ruling classes. The ruling classes and brahminical religion in particular tried to eliminate the Lokayatavada. All the original texts of Lokayatas were destroyed. The Lokayata is available now only in the form of criticisms and abuses showered on it, but not in the form of texts.

In this way in India from ancient times the struggle between materialism and idealism continued. Here too the philosophy developed in the course of that struggle. Contrary to the claims of Hindutva and its votaries, there existed a strong materialist current in Indian philosophy. It is mainly the deception of imperialist and comprador intellectuals to describe East especially India as spiritual land and West as material. In fact from the beginning of Indian philosophy materialism existed along with its opposite idealism. In the ancient India, idealism never enjoyed monopoly though some are depicting the period as a golden era of Hindu idealism. It had been consistently challenged from both sides -Vedic and non-Vedic darshanas. In the later days even when Vedanta philosophy enjoyed the dominant position, the struggle continued but in disguise. Very often by nominally accepting the Veda pramana the materialist standpoints were elaborated and primacy of spirit over matter, the rejection of reality of the world and belittling the sensual knowledge were countered. So the contribution of materialism to the development of philosophy is in no way less in India.

From- Marxist Philosophy: Introductory Notes.

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