Shat-darshana: The Philosophical Schools of Sanatana Dharma

By Frank Morales – University of Wisconsin-Madison

The philosophical traditions of Hinduism are quite different from what we know as contemporary Western philosophy . Generally speaking, the modern Western approach seeks to find an objective vantage point from which to analyze and properly order the many subjective perspectives which constitute what is then termed “reality”. The Indian approach, by contrast, has sometimes been called a subjective attempt to find the ultimate objective. While the modern West solely stresses theory, dialectic and discursive deductive reasoning, Asia has been said to put more of an emphasis on intuitive insight and introspection, intimately coupled with reason. The Hindu philosophical schools have traditionally taken a more holistic, interactive and experiential approach to acquiring knowledge. One could say that Asian philosophers took Socrates’ recommendation to “know thyself” and ran with it… and this many centuries before Socrates was born.

The contrast between these two relatively distinct approaches becomes even more apparent when we look at the respective goals of each. For the modern Western philosopher, knowledge is something which is usually considered to be divorced from the actual practical activities and behavior that the philosopher engages in. Truth is not lived and practiced, it is merely thought. This is not the case for the traditional Hindu philosopher, for whom philosophy necessarily serves as a pragmatic guide to everyday life, in addition to a cognitive road map to loftier metaphysical concerns. For most Hindu philosophers, one’s philosophy is something which is not merely thought, but is something which necessarily informs and guides the entirety of one’s life.

While theory and practice are – ideally – meant to go hand-in-hand for the traditional Hindu philosopher, this emphasis on a lived philosophy is not to be enjoyed at the expense of reason and the other tools which we in the West have come to associate with the philosophic enterprise. According to Mahanamabrata, a contemporary philosopher in the tradition of Jiva Gosvamin, the task of the traditional Hindu philosopher consists of “…formulating a rational and systematic account of the nature of God, man and the world, and the relation between God and man, God and the world, and man and the world, considered cosmologically, psychologically and epistemologically” (Mahanamabrata, 36). The most conspicuous feature of Hindu philosophy, then, seems to be an attempt to employ the tools of rationality to better gain a direct experience of the transrational, or the metaphysical.


This approach to the philosophic enterprise became institutionally manifest in the six traditional philosophies of India, known as the Shad-darshanas. These schools include Samkhya, Nyaya, Yoga, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. First systematized by the sage Kapila, Samkhya is possibly the most ancient of these six schools. Samkhya thought represents a dualistic system in which the two distinct and formative principles of purusha (spirit) and prakriti (matter) dominate. As Surendranath Dasgupta explains the doctrine, “The Samkhya philosophy as we have it now admits two principles, souls and prakriti.” (238) Purusha is the conscious principle which constitutes the multiple individual selves that inhabits and animates the bodies of every living thing. Being pure consciousness in and of itself, it is eternal, incorruptible, self-illuminated and self-illuminating, unalterable, uncaused and all-pervasive by nature. The individual conscious self transcends the limitations of the body, mind, senses and intellect. Its present connection with the force known as prakriti is one of temporary entrapment. Prakriti is the very antithesis of spirit, being by nature limited, changable, enervating and corrupting. Prakriti, calm, equipoised and unitary in its quiescent state, devolves from this state of equilibrium to a reality of multiplicity and diversity as a result of contact with purusha. The goal of life, according to the Samkhya school, is for purusha to regain his state of freedom beyond the bondage of prakriti’s influence.

Nyaya was founded by Gautama and is the Indian tradition of logic and epistemology. Generally speaking, the objective of the Nyaya school is to create a “concrete method of discriminating valid knowledge from invalid…” (Tigunait, 69), as well as truth from falsehood using the tools of logic and discursive reasoning. Nyaya employs a very systematic regime of logic involving sixteen different divisions of philosophical concerns, goals and means. These divisions, known as the padarthas, are outlined in the following chart:


pramana: the valid sources of knowledge.

prameya: the proper object of knowledge.

samshaya: the state of doubt or uncertainty.

prayojana: the aim of the philosophical endeavor.

drshtanta: the example.

siddhanta: the proper doctrine.

avayava: the constituents of inference.

tarka: hypothetical arguments.

nirnaya: conclusion.

badha: discussion.

jalpa: discursive wrangling.

vitanda: irrational arguments.

hetvabhasa: specious reasoning.

chala: unfair reply.

jati: a generality based upon a false analogy.

nigrahasthana: the grounds for defeat.

As with the other five schools of classical Hinduism, the chosen means of aquiring truth that we find in the Nyaya system are not considered ends in and of themselves, but are merely tools for achieving the final goal of all Hindu philosophical systems: liberation from the grips of samsara, the present realm of repeated births and deaths.

Yoga, our next school under discussion, is a very practical philosophy whose chief aim is to reunite the presently alienated soul with the Absolute. Though evidence of this school of thought can be traced back as far as the early Harappan/Indus Valley civilization (ca.2500 B.C.E.), the name most clearly associated with this path is Patanjali, the author of the famed Yoga-sutras (ca. 2nd century C E). In 1:2 of his sutras, Patanjali defines Yoga as citta-vrtti nirodhah, or “The restriction of the modifications of the mind”. In addition to the acquisition of knowledge that is stressed in other schools of Hindu philosophy, the classical Yoga system of Patanjali stresses eight limbs (astanga), or techniques, that lead their practicioners towards perfection. These eight limbs include: 1) yama, or five negative moral restraints, i.e., non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-possessiveness, 2) niyama, or the five positive observances of purity, contentment, austerity, study and devotion to God, 3) asana, or physical postures leading to psycho-physical harmony, 4) pranayama, various breathing exercises that give one control over prana, the vital life energy, 5) pratyahara, control of the senses, 6) dharana, concentration of the mind’s attention, 7) dhyana, meditation, and finally, 8) samadhi, or absorption of individual consciousness in the Supreme.

Founded by the sage Kanada, the school of Vaisheshika has been called the physics of India . The term vaisheshika itself is a reference to the attributiveness which is the main concern of this school. It is, generally speaking, an attempt to categorize the various components of reality into a coherent system. The goal of Vaisheshika is “…real knowledge, produced by special excellence of dharma, of the characteristic features of the categories of substance (dravya), quality (guna), class concept (samanya), particularity (vishesha), and inherence (samavaya).” (Dasgupta, 285) Over time, the Vaisheshika became very closely aligned with Nyaya.

The Mimamsa philosophy seeks to establish a methodology through which the teachings of the Vedas – the revealed scriptures of ancient India – can be understood. The specific focus of this exegetical school is the karma-kanda section of the Vedic literature, or the pre-Upanisadic literature, comprised of the Samhitas (four Vedas), Brahmanas and Aranyakas. Karma-kanda is essentially a technology of cosmo-geographic ascension which focuses on the exactingly intricate science of Vedic sacrifice as a means of both material prosperity, as well as spiritual progress. This school is also known as the Purva (earlier) Mimamsa in order to differentiate it from the Uttara (later) Mimamsa.

The Schools of Vedanta

The name by which the latter school is more widely known is Vedanta. It is no exaggeration to say that Vedanta is clearly the most important and influential school in the long history of Indian philosophy. Vedanta is predicated upon the teachings of three works, known collectively as the Prasthanatraya. These are a) the terse philosophical aphorisms attributed to Badarayana Vyasa known as the Brahma-sutras , b) the famous philosophical dialogue between Krsna and his disciple Arjuna, known as the Bhagavad Gita and c) the collection of philosophical scriptures known as the ancient Upanisads. For the most part, the history of Vedanta consists of a commentarial tradition centered around these works, the Brahma-sutras being the main work explicated.

Pre-Shankaran Commentators

It is established that the Vedantic commentarial tradition stretches back into the dating-resistant mists of Indian historical antiquity. Almost all of the ancient, pre-Shankaran, bhashyas are, unfortunately, no longer extant. In many cases, however, we know of the names of the authors of many of these ancient works because they are often mentioned and even cited by later Vedantic commentators. In his Vedartha-samgraha (130), for example, Ramanuja (1017-1137 C.E.) mentions the names of six teachers of Vedanta who are said to have expounded the philosophy of Vishishta-advaita. These are:

1. Bodhayana

2. Tanka

3. Dramida

4. Guhadeva (1st century B.C.E.?)

5. Kapardi

6. Bharuci

Other than the names of these individual Vedanta philosophers, we currently possess only very scant information about the more important details of their lives.

Little is known about the dates of Bodhayana, Tanka, Dramida and Karpadi. We do, however, know something about the works ascribed to them. Bodhayana is supposed to have written an extensive vrtti (commentary) on both the Purva and Uttara Mimamsas, as well as a possible commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. It is known that Tanka wrote commentaries on both the Chhandogya-upanisad and the Brahma-sutras. While was previously believed that these two works were lost, Vishal Agarwal reports that manuscripts of both works have been recently discovered. Dramida is credited with writing commentaries on the Brahma-sutras, Chhandogya-upanisad and Mandukya Upanisad. Karpadi wrote several commentaries on the texts of he Taittiriya (Apastamba) recension of the Krsna Yajurveda. If Guhadeva is synonymous with the Vedantist known as Guhasvamin, then it is possible that he flourished during the first century B.C.E. Commentaries on the Apastamba-shrautasutra and the Taittiraya-aranyaka are attributed to him. Medhatithi (ca.950 C.E.) is known to have quoted Bharuci, thus placing him no later than the ninth century. Bharuci wrote commentaries on both the Manava-dharma-shastra, as well as the Visnu-dharma-shastra.

Extant Vedantic Commentators

The earliest extant bhashya, or commentary, is that written by the acarya Shankara (ca. 200-168 B.C.E. or 788-820 C.E.). Based upon a metaphysical system he called Advaita, Shankara’s is a radically monistic outlook. According to Shankara, reality consists of only one principle: Brahman, which is pure, eternal and perfect consciousness. Being an undifferentiated reality, anything which is considered as being distinct from this Absolute – including the phenomenal world, the beings inhabiting that world and the multifarious experiences of those beings – is perceived as such only due to illusion (maya) on the part of the observer. This ultimate reality is “…that state which is when all subject/object distinctions are obliterated” (Deutsch, 9). What will be considered crucially significant for later Indian philosophers is that, on Shankara’s account, this obliteration includes the complete eradication of any sense of subjective individuality.

The original Vedanta school of Badarayana Vyasa teaches that the individual sentient being is, in his/her essential identity, the eternal self, or atman. The Upanisads inform us that, like Brahman, atman is also of the nature of pure consciousness, being eternal, full of bliss and thoroughly perfect in its ontological makeup. These marked similarities being the case, Shankara later argued, the nature and identity of both atman and Brahman must be non-different. The so-called individual being is ultimately the universal Brahman itself, temporarily under the illusion that he/she has an identity differentiated from Brahman. Since individual living beings are viewed by Advaita Vedantists as being non-different from the Absolute, this concept of non-distinction necessarily leads to the eradication of any notion of individuality both on the part of humans, as well as on the part of God. Thus in Shankara’s system, the Absolute is rendered thoroughly devoid of personality and all the qualitative attributes that personality necessarily entails.

This non-dualistic account of Vedanta philosophy was not left unchallenged by post-Shankaran thinkers. Writing their own, theistic, bhashyas on the Brahma-sutras, several later philosophers would reveal the inconsistencies in Shankara’s reasoning. These thinkers were almost exclusively followers of the Vaishnava (theistic and personalistic) tradition of Hinduism. Among the first of these was Ramanujacarya (1017-1137 C.E.), the most important philosopher of the Shrivaishnava branch of the Vaishnava tradition and the most well-known proponent of the Vishishta-advaita school of Vedanta. Ramanuja’s famed Shribhasya commentary contained many arguments specifically directed at refuting the conclusions of Shankara.

Taking aim directly at Shankara’s view that the individual atman is thoroughly non-different from universal Brahman, Ramanuja argued that this view leads to a very fundamental logical contradiction. Reduced to its foundational analytic form, Shankara makes the following claims:

1. Brahman, being perfect, self-sufficient and unconditioned, is not subject to a state of subordination to illusion.

2. The individual self, atman, is in every manner non-different from Brahman.

3. If two beings are non-different in every perceivable and conceivable way, then they are the same being.

4. Atman and Brahman are non-different in every perceivable and conceivable way.

5. Therefore, atman is Brahman.

6. Atman is not currently aware of his true state as being non-different from Brahman due to being temporarily in a state of subordination to illusion.

These are fundamental propositions that any Advaitin would support. As Ramanuja points out, however, this argument contains a crucial flaw. The last proposition is directly contradicted by the first. If Brahman is not subject to illusion, and if atman is in fact Brahman, then how is it that atman can have fallen prey to an illusion which logically can not have overtaken it? In alternative language, if the individual soul is indeed God, and if this individual soul is presently subject to the bewildering effects of maya, then is maya not subjugating God? Would this not, Ramanuja asks, then lead one quite naturally to conclude that maya – illusion – is ontologically superior to Brahman? That is certainly a proposition which neither Advaitin nor Vaishnava would ever with to admit.

Ramanuja was followed by several other theistic philosophers who also took aim at Shankara’s Advaita system. These include (among many others): Nimbarka (d. 1162), who taught a Vedantic system known as Dvaita-advaita (duality-in-unity), Madhva (1238-1317), the founder of Dvaita (dualism) Vallabha (1473-1531), who taught Shuddha-advaita (pure non-dualism), and Jiva Gosvamin (1513-1598), who upheld the philosophy of Acintya-bhedabheda-tattva (inconceivable difference and identity).


1. What I am juxtaposing as Western versus Hindu philosophy throughout this work are not Indian versus Western philosophy in any geographical sense. Rather, I am contrasting traditional Hindu philosophy with modern Western philosophy as two distinct paradigmatic approaches, irregardless of whether the philosopher or idea in question is of Indian or European origin. Thus, even a contemporary Indian philosopher who uses methods, ideas, attitudes and approaches that stem from the Western philosophical tradition is to be considered someone who is engaging in Western philosophy. The distinction is one of method, approach and goal, rather than nationality.

2. One of the possible exceptions to this rule being the Nyaya school of philosophy.

3. In addition to these orthodox Hindu philosophical traditions, there are several other systems – both orthodox and heterodox – that have been recognized by both historians of philosophy, as well as within the history of Indian philosophy itself. In his Sarva-darshana-samgraha, for example, Madhava Acarya ( a 14th century Advaita philosopher) includes Carvakas (atheist empiricists), Bauddhas (Buddhists) and Arhata (Jains) among the non-Vedic schools, and Paniniya and Shaiva among the Vedic. The differentiation between orthodox and heterodox rests upon acceptance of the Vedic revelation, with the latter rejecting the sanctity of the Veda.

4. This school of philosophy is known by a variety of names, anvikshiki, tarka-shastra, nyaya-vistara, nyaya-darshana, hetu-vidya, hetu-shastra, vada-vidya, and pramana-shastra being several of the more important ones.

5. Among the earliest images that we have from ancient Indian civilization are Harappan seals from as early as 3,300 B.C.E. depicting people seated in what appears to be padmasana, or the easily recognizable “lotus pose”, found in hatha-yoga.

6. Among many others, by S. Radhakrishnan in his Indian Philosophy.

7. Sutras (literally “threads”) are overtly philosophical works. The style of these sutras involve very short aphorisms designed to communicate sophisticated philosophical ideas in such a way as to be easily memorized by students. A sutra work is ascribed to every school of Indian philosophy. For example, there are the Narada-bhakti-sutras and the Shandilya-sutras of the Bhagavata school. There is also a Nyaya-sutra, a Vaisheshika-sutra and a Yoga-sutra. Of the many different sutra works, the most famous by far are the Brahma-sutras of Badarayana. It is the Brahma-sutras which form the basis of the Vedanta school of Indian philosophy.

8. Something not widely known is that most of the major Vedanta commentators also did commentaries on the Visnu-sahasra-nama, thus making this work a fourth prasthana, so to speak.

9. Both are now listed in the New Catalogus Catalogorum (VII, 117 and IX, 178, respectively), but have yet to be translated.

10. For this section of my work detailing the history of the pre-Shankaran commentators, I am indebted to Vishal Agarwal of the University of Minnesota for his estimable ground-breaking research. His as yet unpublished manuscript, from which I derived the bulk of my information on these ancient Vedanta commentators, is titled The Ancient Commentators of the Prasthana Trayi.

11. For further readings on these Vaishnava philosophers, see the following works: B.N.K. Sharma’s three volume work The Philosophy of Shri Madhvacarya, Geeta Khurana’s The Theology of Nimbarka and Mahanamabrata’s Vaisnava Vedanta, which deals specifically with Jiva’s Vedantic thought. The Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, by Svami Taspasyananda is also a work which offers synopses of several Vaisnava Vedantists.