The phenomenon of poorly-documented authorship and dating of important writings is not unique to Buddhism. Surely, it’s not unique to any particular time or place. But the Buddha did emerge from a particular time and place in which important religious, political, and philosophical texts did not contain the handy timestamps that most every new piece of information receives today. That does not diminish the importance of the undated texts.
Thankfully for Buddhists and for nearly everyone else, there is a rich philosophical tradition that predated the Buddha and informed the discourses he delivered his entire life (and those that others claimed he delivered long after his final Nirvana).
Indian philosophy is replete with materialists, idealists, pluralists, and atomists, with logicians, mystics, and enumerators, with renunciates, with civic heroes. The originality and breadth of Indian philosophical thought cannot be adequately described. This page will provide very brief overviews of the Astika schools and a short discussion of the schools’ epistemological approach.
Put briefly, the “astika” label refers to the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy. More pointedly, the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy accept the authority of the Vedas (and, by extension, the Upanishads and the various epics and commentaries derived from the Vedic tradition). Indian philosophy is divisible into four periods: the first is the Vedic period (1500 BCE to 600 BCE), the second is the Epic period (600 BCE to 200 CE), the third is the Sutra period (200 CE to 1700 CE), and the Scholastic period (coincides with the Sutra period).1 The Vedic period produced the foundational texts of Indian philosophy, the Vedas. These include the Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sama-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. The Upanishads, also called “Vedanta,” or, the conclusion of the Vedas, is a subset of these texts. The Epic period gave rise to the famous Bhagavad-Gita, which is a section of the larger text of the Mahabharata. The Sutra and Scholastic texts drew upon, commented upon, codified, and refuted various aspects of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Epic texts.
The classifications of the Astika philosophical systems are Samkhya-Yoga, Vaisesika-Nyaya, Purva Mimamsa-Uttara Mimamsa (the latter Mimamsa school more popularly known as Vedanta).2
Vaisesika, “is essentially, realistic, practical, and analytical.”3 The system categories phenomena into substance, quality, actions/movements, universality/generality, particularity, inference, and nonexistence. This theistic system acknowledges eternal substances, including the self. Nyaya is the epistemological complement to Vaisesika’s phenomenology. Nyaya’s categories refer not to substances and their constituent atoms but to stages of a debate. Through the 16 debate-stage categories, and the four sources of knowledge (perception, inference, comparison, and verbal testimony) Nyaya infers the existence of God. Causation and analysis of particulars are twin goals of Vaisesika-Nyaya. Nyaya reasoning concludes that the world is an effect of a cause (God).
The Samkhya-Yoga systems, however, offer an explanation of being and causation which is rooted more firmly in realism, in the Upanishads.4 They note the scholarly consensus that, while the Upanishads gave rise to the realism of Samkhya, they also produced an idealistic tradition in the Vedanta (discussed later). This realism was the through-line that supported the phases of a Samkhya through time: from theistic monism to a combination of atheistic realism and spiritual pluralism. The concepts of Purusha and Prakriti, which date from the Vedic era, form the basis of Samkhya ontology. The concept of Purusha, the Cosmic Man, has roots in the Rig Veda, in which a Purusha is sacrificed and his constituent parts form the various aspects of the world and heavens. In Samkhya, the concept takes on more nuance. Purusha remains all-pervading, still, and immaterial, but its relationship to Prakriti is what defines it. The pure consciousness of Purusha pulls on the fundamental matter of which everything is made: Prakriti. This binding is the cause of life in the universe. Liberation of Purusha from Prakriti, and of Prakriti from Purusha, is the goal.
The term “Brahmanical” is often used as an appellation for the culture which bore the Astika schools. The term is understood in the context of Vedanta as the search for Brahman, of which the Atman is identical. The Nastika schools stand in contrast to the “Brahmanical” schools due largely to their refutation of the theistic implications of the Brahman.
The Vedanta schools–also called Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa–purport themselves to be the summaries of and authoritative expressions of the Vedas. They draw particular inspiration from the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavat Gita. The variety of Vedantin schools differ on many matters but hold the following in common:5
- The goal of existence is to free one’s self from the cycle of rebirth.
- The Vedic texts are the authority on the topic of ultimate truth.
- The self exists and acts in accordance with the law of karma.
- Brahman is the material and instrumental cause of the world.
- The creator god Ishvara is an emanation of Brahman, but Vedanta schools differ on the particulars of Ishvara.6
1Padhi and Padhi, 1988, 2.
2Padhi and Padhi, 1988, 3.
3Padhi and Padhi, 1988, 189.
4Padhi and Padhi, 1988, 193-194