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Chapter 25. Developments in Philosophy (Old NCERT History Ancient India)

25. Developments in Philosophy

Goals of Life

When the state and the varna-divided social order had been firmly established, the ancient thinkers laid down that a person should strive for the attainment of four goals. These were economic resources or artha, regulation of the social order or dharma, physical pleasures or karna and salvation or moksha. Each of these objectives was expounded in writing. Matters relating to economy were treated in the Arthashastra, on which the book written by Kautilya is well known. Laws governing the state and society became the subject of the, Dharmashastra and 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 on the question of salvation in a marginal manner. Salvation or moksha became the main 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 emphasised by some brahmanical philosophers.
By the beginning of the Christian era, six schools of philosophy developed. These were known as Samkhy,Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika Mimamsa and Vedanta


Samkhya, literally count seems to have originated earlier. 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 A.D., 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 &nd the spiritual element together create the world. Thus, in the beginning the Samkhya school of philosophy was materialistic. Then it tended to be spiritualistic. However, according to this school a person can attain salvation through the acquisition of real knowledge and his misery can be ended for ever. This knowledge can be acquired through perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumarta) and hearing (shabda). Such a method is typical of a scientific system of inquiry.
According to the Yoga school, a person can attain salvation through meditation and physical application. Practice of control over pleasure, senses and bodily organs central to this system. In order to obtain salvation, physical exercises in various postures called asana are prescribed and the 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 of running away from worldly difficulties.


Nyaya of the school of analysis was developed as a system of logic. According to it salvation can be attained through the acquisition of knowledge. What is more important, the veracity of a proposition or statement can be tested through inference, hearing and analogy. An example of how they use logic is given below:
1 There is fire in the mountain.
2 because it emits smoke.
3 whatever emits smoke contains fire as the hearth (kitchen).
The stress laid on the use of logic influenced Indian scholars who took to systematic thinking and reasoning.


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. According to it, material objects are made up of atoms The Vaisheshika thus marked the beginning of physics in India. But the scientific view was diluted with belief in God and spiritualism and this school put its faith in both heaven and salvation.

Mimamsa literally means the art of reasoning and interpretation. But reasoning was used to provide justifications for various Vedic rituals and the attainment of salvation was made dependent on their performance. According to the Mimamsa, the Vedas contain the eternal truth. The principal object of this philosophy was to acquire heaven and salvation. A person will enjoy the bliss of heaven as long as his accumulated acts of virtue last. When his accumulated virtues are exhausted, he welcome back to the 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 strongly recommended the performance of Vedic sacrifices, which needed the services of the priests and. legitimised the social distance between various varnas. Through the propagation of the JVIimamsa the brahmanas wanted to maintain their ritual authority and preserve the social hierarchy based on brahmanism.

Vedanta means the end of the Veda. Th6 Brahmasutra of Badarayana compiled in the second century B.C. 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 century. Shankara considers brahma to be without any attributes, but Ramanuja’s brahma possesses attributes. Shankara considers knowledge or jnana to be the chief means of salvation, but Ramanuja’s road to salvation lies in practising devotion loving faith.
The Vedanta philosophy is traced to the earlier Upanishads. According to it, brahma is the reality and everything else is unreal (mayo). The self (soul) or atma is identical with brahma. Therefore if a person acquires the knowledge of the self (atma) he realizes the knowledge of brahma and thus attains salvation, doth brahma and atma are eternal and indestructible. Such a view promotes the idea of stability and unchangingness. 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 be1 linked to the 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 punatjanma 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 can bring under control.

Materialist View of Life

By and large the six systems of philosophical teaching promoted the idealistic view of life. All of them became paths of attaining salvation. The Samkhya and Vaisheshika systems put forward the materialistic view of life. Kapila, the earliest exponent of the Samkhya, teaches that a man’s life is shaped by the forces of nature and not by any divine agency. Materialistic ideas also appear in the doctrines of the AJMkas, a heterodox sect in the time of the Buddha. But Charvaka was the main expounder of the materialistic philosophy. This philosophy came to be known as the Lokaydta, which means the ideas derived from the common people. It underlined the importance of intimate contact with the world (toka) and showed lack of belief in the other world. Many teachings are attributed to Charvaka. He was opposed to the quest for spiritual salvation. He denied the existence of any divine or supernatural agency. He accepted the existence reality of only those things which could be experienced by human senses and organs. This implied a clear lack of faith in the existence of brahma and God. According to Charvaka, the brahmanas manufactured rituals for acquiring gifts (dakshina). In order to discredit him, his opponents highlight only one of his teachings. According to it a person should enjoy himself as long as he lives; he should borrow to eat well (i.e take ghee). However, Charvaka’s real contribution lies in his materialist outlook. He denies the operation of divine and supernatural agencies and makes man the centre of all activities.
The schools of philosophy with emphasis on materialism developed in the period of expanding economy and society between 500 B.C. and A.D. 300. The struggle against the difficulties presented by nature in founding settlements and leading day-to-day life in the Gangetic plains and elsewhere led to the origin and growth of iron based agricultural technology, use of metal money and the thriving of trade and handicrafts. The new environment gave rise to a scientific and materialistic outlook. This was mainly reflected in Charvaka’s philosophy and also appeared in several traditional schools.
By the fifth century A.D., materialist philosophy was overshadowed by the exponents of the Idealist philosophy who constantly criticized it and recommended performance of rituals and cultivation of spiritualism as a path to salvation; they attributed worldly phenomena to supernatural forces. This view hindered the progress of scientific inquiry and rationed thinking. Even the enlightened people found it difficult to question the privileges of the priests and warriors. Steeped in the idealist and salvation schools of philosophy the people could resign themselves to the inequities of varna based social system and the strong authority of the state represented by the king.


1. Explain the meaning of the following terms and concepts: artha, kama, dharma, moksha, asana, karma. Idealist, materialist. What were the main systems of ancient Indian philosophy? Mention the characteristic features of each.
2. What were the four goals of life laid down by ancient Indian thinkers?
3. What is meant by the ‘idealistic view of life’ and the ’materialistic view of life’? Which of the ancient Indian philosophical systems can be termed ’idealist’ and which ’materialist’ and why?

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