The Concept of Astika (Existence) in Hinduism

Astika

by Jayaram V

Summary: The essay is about the meaning and concept of Astika, with a brief explanation of different Astika schools of Hinduism


In Hinduism, Astika refers to the belief system which acknowledges the existence of either an eternal God (Brahman) or an eternal Self (Atman) or both, in contrast to Nastika, which denies their existence. As we will see later, they are not the same as the theism and atheism of the western belief systems.

Etymology

The word, Astika is derived from the root word, asti, which means being, existent, present, is, and is there. Nasti, is the opposite, meaning not there, nonexistent, nonbeing and not present. Closely related words are, astamaya (sunset) and astitva (existence). The word svasti, from which Svastika (of swastika) is derived, is also derived from asti only. It is a compound word (su + asti) meaning being well, existing well, being auspicious, so be it, and so on.

Astika and western theism and atheism

Although astika is loosely translated as theism or the theistic belief system and nastika as atheism, the lines between theism and atheism are not clearly drawn in Hinduism or in India’s religious traditions as in Abrahamic religions. For example, Buddhism believes in neither an eternal God nor an eternal soul. However, it believes in the existence of karma, reincarnation or transmigration, existence of heavens and hell, and countless Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, gods and celestial beings. Buddha is also regarded in Hinduism as an incarnation of Vishnu.

Jainism does not believe in the existence of an eternal God or creator God, but believes in the existence of eternal souls, gods and pure beings (jinas) who are endowed with omniscience. The Samkhya school does not believe in the existence of an eternal God, but of countless individual souls who are subject to the cause and effect of desire ridden actions, delusion and suffering.

Even in case of Astika schools, which believe in the existence of God and souls, you will not find unanimity. Some believe that God is an active creator or the ultimate cause who directs Nature to manifest things, while others consider him to be a passive witness who does nothing except enjoying whatever Nature manifests or the senses perceive.

They also disagree on the subject of whether God and souls are the same or different. Some believe that they are the same, some that they are different, and others that they are somewhat different. Thus, we have no clear-cut demarcation of theistic and atheistic schools in Hinduism.

The broader meaning of Astika

In conclusion, we may state that Astika is not just a theistic belief system in Hinduism. Any person or school can be considered Astika, who believes in one or more of the following.

  1. Belief in God or Supreme Self
  2. Belief in individual souls
  3. Belief in the inviolability of the Vedas
  4. Belief in divinities, Nature, celestial beings and other worlds
  5. Belief in afterlife and eternal life
  6. Belief in karma, bondage and transmigration
  7. Belief in liberation through transformation

In other words, in Hinduism there is no clear demarcation between a theist and an atheist. An atheist need not necessarily be irreligious or nonspiritual, and a theist need not necessarily worship God or gods or visit temples. You cannot apply the western definition of theism and atheism to Hinduism, nor can you clearly differentiate a materialist from a spiritualist or a believer from a nonbeliever. A materialist who believes in the non-existence of God may still practice Vedic rituals and pursue liberation, without looking to God for grace, and a spiritual person who believes in the material realism or pluralism of existence rather than in God, may still strive for liberation and pursue righteous living, without practising any rituals or worshipping God. Dharma in Hinduism represents an ethical way of life, which may or may not be God-centric.

In truth, Asti and Nasti are relative viewpoints. God is both existence and nonexistence, known and unknown, and being and nonbeing. They are part of the duality to which we are subject. The relationship between asti and nasti is beautifully summed up in one of the Upanishads, which suggests that the reality of Brahman cannot be known by thinking what he is, but by knowing what he is not. It is known as the not-this and not-this (nasti-nasti) approach. By focusing upon what he is not and taking that thought process to its logical conclusion, having considered all possibilities and probabilities, one may eventually realize what he is (asti) or what he is not (nasti).

It is what we call discernment (vivekam) which arises from purified intelligence (prajna), which is another name for Brahman (prajnanam brahma). Some, like the Buddha, attain it and find that Brahman is nothing (nasti or not-self). Others, like the Vedic seers, attain it and find that he is everything (asti). Therefore, the debate goes on rather indeterminately just as existence (which even modern science also admits) is in itself indeterminate. As the Upanishads state, those who think that they know Brahman do not know him, and those who think that they do not know him, may perhaps know. Since Brahman is the sum of all dualities, Asti and Nasti may be two sides of the same eternal truth.

Further, whether it is Astika schools or Nastika schools, their focal point is existence (astitva). The questions which they try to answer or debate are what the reality of that existence is, and whether the existence, of which we are an integral part, is God, not God, real, illusion, born, unborn, being, non-being, permanent, temporary, the cause, the effect, matter, spirit, dependent, independent, and so on. It is where the Indian philosophical systems and religious traditions engage their attention and draw different conclusions according to their observation and interpretation.

Astika schools

The diversity and complexity of Hinduism and its philosophical thought arise from six schools of Hinduism, which are known as Darshanas (viewpoints, visions, or perspectives). Although, currently scholars tend to classify them all as Astika schools, it is doubtful whether it was the same in the past also, since some Nastika schools evolved overtime into Astika, or probably had some Nastika sub-schools or sectarian movements which disappeared or lost prominence. For example, the original Samkhya school was believed to be a Nastika school. The same is true with regard to Purva Mimansa school, which believed in the Vedic rituals as the source of existence rather than God or Brahman. The six Astika schools of Hinduism are listed below, with a brief note on each.

1. Nyāyá, the school which believes in the logical framework or the realism of existence, which according to it is independent of the thinking mind and its faculties. In other words, the knowledge of things preexist and the mind can only make sense of it, validate it, confirm it, or reflect it, but does not create it by itself. By liberating the mind from its impurities, one can discern the pure knowledge of things as they are, without mental formations.

2. Vaiśeṣika, the school which focuses upon the material reality of existence and on atomic pluralism. It believes that existence is made up of seven distinct categories of material-aggregates (padarthas). Things come into existence anew through cause and effect and the aggregation of atoms. Effects are independent of their causes and do not exist prior to their manifestation.

3. Sāṃkhya, the school which focuses upon the numerical reality of existence. It holds that existence is real, not an illusion, and Nature is an aggregate of independent, sub-realities or tattvas from which the whole diversity manifests. They also envelop the souls and subject them to duality, bondage, karma, etc. Since effects are hidden in their causes, through self-purification souls can resolve the causes and become free.

4. Yoga, the school of Patañjali which believes in the transformative and evolutionary potentialities of individual souls. The school draws heavily from the metaphysical doctrines of the Samkhya school. It holds that souls are bound as they become involved with the modifications of the mind. Hence, they can achieve liberation by silencing the mind through the transformative process of the Eightfold of Yoga.

5. Purva Mimāṃsā, the school of logical enquiry (mimansa) which believes in the ritual framework as enumerated in the Vedas as the basis of creation and existence. Strictly speaking, this qualifies as a Nastika school. However, since it accepts the Vedas as the ultimate authority in ascertaining truths, it is included in the Astika schools. In theory, it is closer to Nyaya and Vaisheshika and accepts logical realism.

6. Uttara Mimāṃsā or Vedanta, the school which believes in the existence of Supreme, Universal Self (Brahman) and individual Self (Atman) as the absolute realities of existence. Its knowledge is derived from the Aranyakas and the Upanishads or the end (anta) part of the Vedas. Hence, the name. The school is further divided into Advaita, Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita-Advaita, Suddha Advaita, etc.

Thus, it can be seen that the distinction of Astika schools in Hinduism is mainly with regard to their interpretation and cognizance of the existential reality, nature of knowledge and empirical or objective reality, cause and effect, Creation, God, Nature, bondage of souls and their liberation. The Astika schools are not necessarily theistic, in the sense that they do not necessarily believe in a creator God, but in their own ways accept or interpret the reality or the unreality of the reality, be it physical or metaphysical, and whether existence is in a state of dependence or independence.

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