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If you have a basic understanding of Hindu traditions, you are likely to associate it with Yoga, meditation, festivals, puja, rituals, and other aspects of the Indian culture. But what does Hinduism as a religion stand for? What does it mean to be ‘Hindu’? What is the Hindu tradition?
Many Indians are not aware of the philosophical foundations of Hinduism. Polytheistic deity worship, festivals, and other rituals are only the superficial manifestations of an ancient tradition of knowledge-seeking and metaphysics. And while a singular interpretation of the religion is futile given a world of schools, beliefs, and practices within Hinduism, we can look back into the past to understand a few aspects of its evolution.
Hindu philosophy has several streams of beliefs, but they can be broadly categorized into two philosophies: Āstika and Nāstika. If you speak a native Indian language like me, you will recognize these words as meaning theistic and atheistic. However, in ancient Sanskrit, these words did not mean theism or atheism, and instead referred to their acceptance or rejection of certain fundamental ‘truths’.
Āstika comes from the Sanskrit word ‘asti’, which means ‘it is there’ or, ‘it exists’. Here, this refers to the ‘self’, and the belief in the supremacy of the Vedas as the ultimate source of knowledge. The negation nāstika then renounces the existence of a ‘self’, and rejects the Vedas.
Let’s explore naastika philosophy first since you might already be familiar with several of its schools.
Five main schools of Indian philosophy reject the Vedas and are considered ‘heterodox’ as they came up more recently in Indian history. The most famous of these is Buddhism, but there are four others.
This famous philosophical tradition is rooted in the teachings of Siddhartha, also known as Gautama Buddha.
Jainism is fundamentally transtheistic, and its beliefs can be attributed to its twenty-four Tirthankaras, including the famous Mahavira, who was the most recent.
An ancient school of Indian materialism that believes in direct perception and hedonism.
The term literally translates to ‘livelihood’ or ‘way of life,’ so their followers are ‘those who follow special rules with regard to livelihood,’ with core beliefs in absolute determinism, internal self-command, and no free will.
This is the ancient Indian school of radical skepticism with a focus on refutation. It holds that philosophical propositions are impossible to ascertain and that metaphysical knowledge is futile.
We now move to orthodox Hinduism and its six primary schools, all of which accept Vedas as an authoritative source of knowledge.
Nyaaya literally means ‘justice’ in Sanskrit, and this school contributed to the development of theories in logic and methodology. It holds that moksha (or liberation) is attained through the right knowledge. False knowledge, which is not only ignorance of core precepts but also delusion, leads to human suffering.
This school is close to the Nyaaya school in its conclusions but different in its epistemology and metaphysics. However, like the naastika tradition of Buddhism, this school accepts only direct observation and inference as sources of truth. According to the Vaisheshika theory, liberation is possible through understanding the world of experience.
This is a rationalist school that believes in three ways of achieving knowledge: through perception, inference, or testimony of reliable sources. It holds that the world is composed of two independent principles (dualism), Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha literally means ‘man,’ but here, it means consciousness or spirit. Prakriti literally means nature, but here it stands for matter, the human mind, and emotions.
This philosophy developed separately from the Samkhya tradition, and its main ideas can be found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a sage who organized this knowledge from ancient traditions. Like Samkhya, Yoga is dualistic in its concepts of Purusha and Prakriti, but believes in a personal God called Ishvara. Yogic practice includes eight elements, giving it the name ‘ashtaanga’ yoga (literally, the eight limbs of yoga).
This Sanskrit word means ‘critical explanation,’ and this school focuses on reflecting on the meanings of Vedic texts. Among its beliefs are the eternal soul, infallibility of the Vedas, finding dharma (individual duty) in social duties, and lack of focus on gods (devas).
Vedaanta developed separately from the Mimaamsa school and believes in three primary sources of knowledge: the Upanishads (later part of the Vedas), the Brahma Sutras (summaries of Upanishadic ideas), and the Bhagavad Gita (a part of the Hindu epic Mahaabhaarata that synthesizes several Hindu ideas of dharma, yoga, and moksha (liberation).
In later posts, I will focus on the Vedaanta philosophy with its history, core precepts, proponents, and practices.