The Darshanas or Schools of Philosophy in Hinduism
Maha sathya suddha darshana bhagyam maha karma phalitham. The pure vision of the great Truth is the fruit of a great karma. Jayaram V
Darshana or darsana literally means seeing or making oneself seen. Figuratively, it means what has been seen, understood or known as the established truth. In Hindu tradition devotees visit religious places and temples to have a darshan of the deity. In the past kings in India would give an audience to the people and the officials who came to see them to give them an opportunity to interact with them or place their requests and appeals. It was part of the darshana tradition only.
In continuation of the tradition, even today people in India would eagerly wait for hours for the darshana of spiritual gurus and prominent public personalities. The darshana of a deity or a spiritual master is considered auspicious and purifying. Hence, people frequently visit them to declare their faith or allegiance. Thus, in a generally sense darshana means having a direct vision of a rare object, a holy person, or a person of great significance.
It is also used to mean a book or a scripture. For example, Tattva darshana means a book or a treatise on philosophy. The same holds true for Yoga Darshana, or Jnana Darshana. Darshana also means a perspective, view point, or a way of seeing eternal and philosophical truths. In the religions of Indian origin, a darshana refers to a body, system, or school of philosophy. In Hinduism there are six such darshanas or schools of philosophy, namely Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta. Each has a long history, believers, literary sources, and several sub schools. They variously speculate upon the nature of existence, God, soul, matter, Nature, reality, creation, truth, means to liberation, cause and effect, and so on according to their foundational beliefs. The following is a brief summary of the six Darshanas or schools Hindu philosophy.
Samkhya means any number. It is a reference to the number of realities (tattvas) that are present in existence. Our knowledge of the school comes to us mainly from the classical work, the Samkhya Karika by Isvarakrishna. According to the Samkhya school, there are primarily two realities, Purusha (person) meaning the individual soul, and Prakriti meaning that which exists in its natural state.
Purushas are numerous while Prakriti is a single entity. However, each Purusha is eternal and indivisible, whereas Prakriti is eternal but divisible into 23 realities or tattvas. Purusha and Prakriti together represent 24 realities or building blocks of life. Beings come into existence when the realities of Nature gather around the individual soul and embody it. This results in bondage of the soul and its forced existence in the mortal world as an embodied soul.
When the soul finally manages to escape from the field of Nature and the cycle of births and deaths, it becomes liberated. Their liberation or Moksha signifies complete freedom and return to their pristine state. Samkhya does not recognize the God principle and does not acknowledge any single source of creation. It holds that all effects are hidden in their causes and manifest when they are made active. In other words, manifestation or creation is an automatic process made possible by the inherent causes that are present in the realities of existence.
Since the school does not believe in God, it is considered atheistic. However, the classification seems ambiguous since it also believes in the eternal nature of the individual souls and their liberation. It appears that at some stage in its long development, the school came under the influence of theistic beliefs and Vedic philosophy. Hence, there may have been a few theistic Samkhya schools which acknowledged the Supreme Self or the Universal Being (Purusha) and became part of the Vedic tradition.
Apart from its well knowing meaning as the union or state, yoga also means a system of beliefs or philosophy. The actual origin of the school of Yoga is unknown. However, yoga as a spiritual or meditative practice has been wellknown to the Indians and Indian ascetic traditions since the beginning of the Vedic civilization. The Vedas, especially the Upanishads, contain the earliest references to the beliefs, techniques and practices of yoga.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is believed to be the most authoritative ancient text of the school providing a summary of the beliefs, essential doctrine, and practices of the tradition. It defines yoga as the means to calm the numerous modifications of the mind and consciousness. References to Yoga are also found in the works of other schools of philosophy, several ancient texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, including the Bhagavadgita, the Tantras and the Puranas. There are also a few Yoga Upanishads which are exclusively devoted to the subject of Yoga.
The school of Yoga is closely associated with Samkhya, and like its counterpart recognizes two fundamental realities, namely numerous Purushas and a single entity called Prakriti, which is further divided into several realities (tattvas). Yoga suggests the means to liberate the embodied Purushas who are caught in the cycle of births and deaths, and their return to their original state of absolute and eternal freedom. Unlike Samkhya, the Yoga school recognizes the individual soul as the lord of the body (Isvara) and constant worship and meditation upon him (isvara paridhana) as the best means to achieve total and unqualified self-absorption (samadhi) which results in liberation. Yoga also prescribes several self-purification techniques, which are traditionally known as the limbs of yoga, for the mind and the body to hasten the transformative process and facilitate mental stability and tranquilly.
Nyaya means rule, law, justice or right judgment. The Nyaya school deals with "logical realism" of the world as an independent realty that is separate from the thinking and cognizing minds. In other words, the world exists not because you think so but because it has an independent existence of its own which is verifiable through logical inquiry and parameters (pramanas) of truth. Thus, clearly the school is dualistic and attempts to establish the truths concerning the world and its numerous aspects by logical and rational means.
In that approach Nyaya follows the Vaisheshika school, which strongly emphasizes the importance of right knowledge or valid knowledge, and the right means (pramanas) to perceive reality and establish truth. Right knowledge is the knowledge that corresponds to the nature of the object, without the distortions of the mind and the senses. Since it is an independent reality, it remains unaltered by our knowing or not knowing. It can be known only through pure perception, aided by right knowledge that is acquired through right methods of knowing and reasoning.
Nyaya goes to great lengths and suggests several techniques of reasoning to prove the existence of things and ascertain their valid knowledge. Suffering is the result of ignorance, or wrong knowledge, which causes delusion, whereby one develops wrong notions about the realities of existence. Liberation is gained by overcoming ignorance and delusion, and by gaining right knowledge. The Nyaya Sutras, composed by Akshapada Gautama, is the foundational work of the school, which expounds its essential philosophy and the methods of arriving at truth. Vatsayana (A.D. 400) wrote a commentary upon it.
The school recognizes the existence of individual souls and their bondage to the realities of Nature. However, like the other two previous schools, it does recognize God and acknowledge him as the first and the highest among the individual souls (Purushas). The souls are numerous, eternal and exist as solid realities among other realities. They remain bound to the cycle of births and deaths until they gain right knowledge through right means of reasoning and validation of truths.
Our knowledge of Vaisheshika philosophy primarily comes to us from the Vaisheshika Sutra of Kanāda. The Nyaya school has a close affinity with the Vaisheshika, which is described by scholars as the "atomic pluralism." The school relies heavily upon logical and realistic analysis of object and strict adherence to observable and verifiable facts.
Vaisheshika derives its name from the word vishesha, meaning particularity or specialty. As the name suggests it focuses upon the particularities or distinguishing properties of the objects or substances that are found in existence and how to ascertain truths regarding them. In this it relies heavily upon logical analysis and rational methods, very similar in approach to the methods used in today's scientific world to validate truths or test assumptions.
The Vaisheshikas believe that everything found in the existence is a substance, including the souls. What other schools view as concepts or intangible phenomena such as actions (karma), space (akasa), gunas (modes), etc., are also substantial realities. Based on the same logic and adherence to scientific realism they accept only two methods (pramanas) to arrive at truth, namely direct observation (pratyaksha) and inference or hypothesis (anumana).
Another distinguishing feature of the school is its the atomic theory, according to which all substances are made up of minute parts or atoms (paramanus) of different kinds which are indivisible and indestructible. Exceptions are those substances that are eternal and infinite such as souls and space. Atoms coalesce in different combinations to form a diversity of compounds and substances.
Vaisheshika identifies seven categories of (padarthas) of materiality found in Nature which make up the stuff of the universe. The substances possess one or more of the 24 qualities (gunas) the school identifies. It also upholds the idea that nonexistence is a material fact with four states such as nonexistence before the beginning of existence, nonexistence after the end of existence, etc. Unlike the Samkhya school, it proposes that effects come into existence only after they are produced. For the Vaisheshikas everything in the world is plural. Even the whole has its own particularity that is different from that of the parts that are present in it.
Historically, the school of Mimansa refers to both the Purva (Earlier) Mimansa and the Uttara (Later) Mimansa. However, in practice the former is popularly known as Mimansa and the latter as Vedanta. Etymologically speaking, mimansa means critical thinking, logical inquiry, or serious introspection. The Purva Mimansa school derives its philosophy from the ritual portion of the Vedas and consider their verbal testimony supreme in establishing the truths of existence. Its principal text is the Mimansa Sutra of Jaimini (400 B.C.). Because of its emphasis upon the rituals or religious duties, is also known as Karma mimansa.
The school holds the Vedas as supreme, self-existing, self-evident, eternal, and inviolable. The hymns of the Vedas have an existence of their own and do not depend upon either speech or the mind for their validation. Their efficacy depends upon the purity of the words and syllables, and their meaning, utterance, and interpretation. Hence, the school gives great importance to the subtle nuances of pronunciation and grammar in the recitation of the Vedic mantras.
According to the Mimansakas the Vedas are supreme because they contain the essential knowledge of dharma or religious duty, which is an eternal reality that does not depend upon God or any divine source for its existence. It is responsible for the existence of the worlds and their order and regularity. When followed faithfully, it can by itself purify and liberate people from the mortal world
It recognizes two kinds of religious duty, observances or do's (vidhi) and restraints or dont's (nishedhas). The observances that are prescribed by the Vedas are inviolable. By following them one acquires great merit. There are various types of observances, depending upon how frequently they have to be performed. Of them, some are have to be performed daily (nitya) and some occasionally. Some of them are obligatory, while some are optional.
Sacrifices are part of religious duty. They generate potencies in the souls of the sacrificers soon after they are performed, and remain so until their reward is fully reaped. Mimansakas believe that performance of rituals and sacrifices as stated in the Vedas are the only way to attain liberation or the ancestral heaven. In this neither God nor gods have any role.
God, according to the Mimansaka, does not exist. He is responsible for neither existence nor nonexistence. Even the role of gods in the performance of religious duties or sacrificial offerings is secondary. The potency of the sacrifices arises not from the gods but from the Vedas themselves. Existence is eternal without a beginning and without an end. What is important is the observation of dharma or religious duty by performing sacrifices and following the instructions enshrined in the Vedas to let their potencies manifest through sacrifices.
Literally speaking, Vedanta means the end (anta) of the Vedas. It is a reference to the knowledge of the Upanishads. Although both Mimansa and Vedanta derive their knowledge from the Vedas, both differ vastly in their approach and essential philosophy. The earliest work on Vedanta is considered to be the Brahma Sutras or the Vedanta Sutras of Badarayana, who is also known as Vyasa. It is also known as Jnana Kanda or the body of true knowledge.
In the Vedanta, the emphasis is upon the spiritual knowledge as enshrined in the Vedas, which leads to liberation. Ritual knowledge is beneficial, but it does not have the potency to liberate the souls. This idea is affirmed in the Upanishads, which declare the ritual knowledge of the Vedas as vastly inferior to the knowledge of the Self.
Unlike the Mimansakas, the school also recognizes Brahman as the Supreme Self, who is not only the lord (isvara) and the creator (karta) of the worlds but also their preserver and destroyer. He is eternal, indestructible, indivisible and the source of all. He pervades all and exists in all beings as their very Self (atman). The worlds exist for his very enjoyment. Hence, he is also known as the ultimate enjoyer whose essential nature is endless and eternal bliss.
Although in his highest state Brahman is free, in the mortal worlds and in the embodied states as individual souls, he is subject to bondage and delusion caused by the modifications of Nature. The embodied souls remain bound to the cycle of births and deaths until they achieve liberation either by their own effort or with the help of the Supreme Being (Isvara). Liberated souls attain the world of Brahman and forever remain free.
The Vedanata school is the most well known and widely discussed school of philosophy in Hinduism. It survived many attacks from rival schools and religions and continues to attract adherents from all the sects of Hinduism even today. Due to the numerous interpretations and commentaries of the Vedic scriptures, the school is further divided into several sub schools or systems. Important among them are the schools of nondualism (advaita), qualified nondualism (vishishtadvaita), and dualism (dvaita). They differ mainly with regard to the nature of the relationship between God and Nature and between God and the individual selves and whether they wholly or partially constitute the same reality, or are entirely different
Thus, it can be seen that Hinduism has a very rich and complex foundational base of religious and spiritual philosophy which distinguishes it from other religions. They provide cover a broad range of subjects, methods and approaches to observe the world and arrive at the truths regarding realty and the true nature of existence not only to gain a proper understanding of it but also to use such knowledge for our own, spiritual, and material advancement and final liberation.
Broadly speaking, the schools fall into two main categories, theistic (astika) and atheistic, those that believe in the existence of God and those that do not. The schools are predominantly atheistic in the sense that they do not recognize God as the source of creation or the ruler of the worlds. At the same they cannot be truly considered atheistic in the Western sense because they believe in the existence of the individual souls, their bondage, rebirth and salvation through spiritual effort.
All the schools hold the Vedas in high esteem and consider their verbal testimony valid in ascertaining the truths of the worlds and beings. They also acknowledge the existence of individual souls and the materiality or Nature as verifiable realities and eternal truths. However, they differ with regard to the nature of physical reality and hold it either as an illusion of the mind or a transient phenomenon or a solid, verifiable, and existential fact. They also differ about the existence of God and Nature, and their respective roles in creation and existence.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Main Sects and Schools of Hinduism
- Hinduism and Diversity
- Theism and Atheism in Hinduism
- What is Advaita or Advaita Vedanta?
- Advaita Vedanta Explained
- Brahman According to Advaita and Dvaita in Hinduism
- Creation in Hinduism As a Transformative Evolutionary process
- Creation in Hinduism As a Transformative Evolutionary Process
- Why is Hinduism Called Sanatana Dharma?
- Dvaita or Advaita What is the Truth?
- Panca Darsana - A New Theory of Knowledge
- The True Meaning of Prakriti in Hinduism
- The Advaita Vedanta - Non Duality
- Hinduism - The Nyaya and Vaishesika Philosophy
- Introduction to Hinduism - Prakriti
- The Kapila And The Pâtañjala Samkhya Yoga
- The Sankhya Philosophy of Hinduism
- Samkhya and Yoga in Hinduism and Buddhism
- Yoga and the Power of Subconscious
- Darsanas of Hinduism - Nyaya and Vaisheshika
- The Vedanta School of Hinduism
- The Essential Yoga philosophy
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