Idealism in Hinduism An Overview


by Jayaram V

Summary: In this essay we examine the various aspects of idealism in Hinduism from different perspectives and according to various schools of Hindu philosophy with specific reference to Vedanta.

One of the fundamental questions which attracted the attention of many philosophers since the earliest times has been whether there is a basis for the reality that we experience. In other words, whether the world in which live is unique and original in itself, independent of outside causes, or a copy, effect, model, version, reflection or projection of a preexisting reality, cause, design, force or archetype. If it is so, what that source or cause can be and whether it is a part of the same reality or different from it and whether it can be discerned with our faculties.

Secondly, whether the reality which surrounds us is just a product of random and spontaneous causes, without any particular purpose or aim, and if there is such an aim whether it can rationally be discerned, explained and validated with our minds, senses and intelligence. Thirdly whether we play any role with our knowledge, minds, senses, actions and intelligence in creating, altering, influencing or sustaining that reality, apart from any other cause which we may not discern. In short, who is behind all this or what is behind all this or is there anyone or anything behind all this? These are important existential questions to which we still do not have valid answers. Scholars and academicians continue to speculate upon them.

Idealism means

Centuries ago Plato came up with the rudimentary idea that everything existed in the universe as an archetypal idea, quality or essence, which may variously appear in different objects according to the situation, condition, need or circumstance. Thus, for example, the same archetypal beauty or the essence of beauty may manifest in a flower or a person or an object in different ways, producing a diversity of beautifulness, each unique in its own way, but having the essence of beauty.

Plato’s ideas generated a lot of speculation in ancient Greece as well as in today's world. In the last two centuries various versions and interpretations of idealism came into existence due to the efforts of various scholars and philosophers such as Berkeley, Hume, Kant, etc.1. The Western notions of idealism revolve around the notion that mind or “something mental” is the foundation or the basis of reality, and since mind is the source, all knowledge must be considered in some sense a form of self-knowledge2.

Idealism is an important aspect of Hinduism also. However, the idealism of Hinduism is not the same as the idealism of the Western philosophies. According to Hinduism, by idealism we mean that the reality which we experience preexists in creation as ideas, ideals, potencies and possibilities in the realm of God who is their source and support. They are not products of the mind 3or the actions of the beings upon earth, since both are effects of other causes. They may manifest in the mind before they manifest in the physical realm, but their ultimate source is non-mental or transcendental, but in any case, certainly immaterial. Since the mind is a recipient of ideas from the universe, it may appear to be the source, but the real source or the ultimate source of all knowledge, ideas and ideals is God himself. In the following discussion, we examine the various aspects of idealism in Hinduism from different perspectives and according to various schools of philosophy4.

Idealism and Nyaya

Just as the Greek philosophers, and perhaps even before them, ancient Indian seers, sages and philosophers also pondered over the nature of reality and came up with different interpretations and speculative possibilities. For example, the proponents of Nyaya School proposed logical realism, according to which the external world is independent of the mind. In other words, things, truths and ideas do not exist because the mind perceives them or conceptualizes them. The mind perceives or conceives what already exists out there in the world in physical or subtle forms and makes sense of it through reason, discernment or simple observation.

However, since the mind is subject to many impurities and deficiencies, we need proper means to ascertain valid knowledge or the truth of the reality that we perceive and cognize. Hence, the Nyaya Schools relied upon certain standards or proofs (pramanas) to ascertain valid knowledge. According to the school, valid knowledge meant that knowledge which was in conformity with the idea, reality, nature or the essence of the object. Things do not change by our knowing or not knowing. They always exist, whether we exist or not. Things are real, not illusory, and so is the world. The same holds true with regard to even God. Whether we believe in him or not, he exists. If we use proper means, we may exactly know him as he is. Otherwise, we may come up with numerous faulty ideas and judgments about him. Right knowledge is therefore necessary not only to know the right from wrong and live upon earth but also to achieve liberation by overcoming delusion and ignorance.

Vaisheshika Idealism

With some variations, the Vaisheshika School also believed in the same idealism of the Nyaya. However, it is a materialistic philosophy which held that even the spiritual entities namely mind, time, space and self, were substances only (dravyas). According to the school, the world is real but essentially substantial or material and pluralistic. So are all the objects. Objects can be reduced into atoms or minute particles, which are universally the same, but by their permutations and combinations they manifest differently to create diversity. The school also held that cause and effect are not related but different from each other. The effects do not exist until they come into existence. In other words, there is no guarantee that the same cause always produces the same effect. Similarly, the sum of parts is wholly different from its parts. The reality of the world is the made up of seven distinct aspects of materiality (padarthas), which can be perceived (jneya), conceived (prameya) and distinguished (abhideya). The knowledge of them is essential to discern the reality of things and achieve liberation. The seven aspects are, substance, quality, activity, generality particularity, existence and absence or nonexistence.

Samkhya Yoga Idealism

The Samkhya and Yoga schools also believe in the idealism of existence, although they do not believe in the existence of a universal, creator God. According to both schools the cause and effect are related. Everything that manifests in the world as an effect already exists in its cause as a seed, potential or possibility. In other words, nothing new is ever created. Effects are hidden in the causes and manifest in their own time when the causes are activated. The objective reality is made up of preexisting, finite realities of Nature and triple modes (gunas). Their permutations and combinations result in the diversity of creation. The reality of the individual Selves is ditinct from the relaity of Nature. Together they constitute the reality of existence. Nature is a set or of causes which are already programmed to become active according to preexisting laws and the predominance of the modes. When right circumstances are present, the effects manifest, which we perceive as the reality. Therefore, by discerning the causes and knowing their effects, one can engage in transformative practices to overcome suffering and achieve perfection (siddhi) and liberation. Yoga is the means to achieve that goal.

The idealism of Vedanta

The Vedanta school also believes in idealism, and it is closer to the metaphysical idealism of the West with the exception that it considers the Spirit or the Self as the source of the archetypal ideas and ideals rather than the mind. God himself is the highest ideal. He personifies the best, the highest and the most excellent. He is complete, pure, untainted, eternal, indestructible, universal, all pervasive, omniscient and the ultimate cause of everything. In short, he is what the beings are not. Therefore, he is the highest goal (parandhama), to be achieved by the beings who are caught in the cycle of transmigration.

Since, the Vedanta school considers God the source of everything, it logically follows that there is no other creator. As human beings, we do not create things. This is true even with regard to mental objects, notions and concepts. Things already exist in God’s creation as subtle or material objects, notions, ideals, ideas, impressions, qualities, movements, thoughts, possibilities and potentials. We either perceive them or manifest them according to our own desires, inclinations, attachments, knowledge, ignorance, egoism, delusion, and predominance of qualities and propensities.

In our ignorance we may assume that we are the cause or the source of what we seemingly earn, own, create or enjoy, whereas the truth is that God is their source and the true cause of all that. This erroneous thinking is why we become responsible for our actions and incur sin, which leads to our suffering and bondage. Therefore, the right approach is to acknowledge God as the source of all, surrender our egos, and attribute all our actions and achievements to God. By performing actions in his name and by offering our actions to him with sacrificial attitude and by renouncing ownership and doership we can free ourselves from karma and bondage.

The Vedanta school is further divided into sub schools such as the Advaita (nonduality), Dvaita (duality), Dvaita Advaita (duality and nonduality), Vishishtadvaita (qualified nonduality), etc. The main ideas regarding the role of God as the creator, the preexistence of things or their essence, the means to liberation, nature and functions of the mind, etc., are the same. The difference is mainly with regard to the relationship between God and soul, the essential nature of soul and the nature of existence.

For example, Advaita holds that Brahman or the Supreme Being is the only absolute, eternal reality, and everything else (including notion of the individual Self) is an illusion and projection or reflection of God in the materiality of Nature. Dviata holds that both God and his creation are distinct realities and both are real. Creation may be a dependent reality since it depends upon God. However, it is not an illusion. If we set aside these differences, we can still see that both schools acknowledge God as the ideal and the source of all. Everything that we perceive, conceive or believe to create exists already in God’s creation. We are not creating anything anew that is not God or not of God. We are just manifesting his will and his powers through our actions and ignorantly believe that we are their cause.

The effects of idealism upon the beliefs and practices of Hinduism

From the above, one can see that idealism pervades the philosophy, principles and practice of Hinduism. The Sanskrit word for the ideal is “adarsh,” which means mirror (a + dash), copy, sample, example, or what is mirrored, seen or reflected from the real or the original (God). In other words, ideals are not human creations, nor are they produced by the mind. They are ideas, notions, qualities or possibilities that are mirrored or perceived by the mind from the reality of God, according to its purity and intelligence, to be used as examples of perfection, purity or excellence for guidance and conduct in the pursuit of ideals or aims. Hindu scriptures declare that the world is either a projection or a reflection of God (adarsh), just as the reflection of the Sun on the surface of water. It means whatever happens here, or whatever exists as a copy, already exists in the realm of God as an essence, seed or possibility. In this regard the following points are worth mentioning.

  1. God is the source of all things that have already manifested, that are currently manifesting, and that are yet to manifest.
  2. Just as all other beings, human beings are also his manifestations only. He is the source of their qualities, character, conduct and whatever they do, experience, create or enjoy in their lives, be it a thought, action, achievement, idea or innovation. They are variations of the archetypal cosmic being or person (Purusha).
  3. God  is also the source of all the scriptures, knowledge, ideals, morals, virtues, qualities, etc., and the ideal way of life which we are expected to follow upon earth. This is true with regard to the four aims of human’s life and the transformative practices of Yoga such as the Yamas and Niyamas.
  4. The progression and the direction of Creation and the idea and the ideals of the worlds and beings are already in the metaphysical realm. Their projected reality is the sum of numerous gross and subtle objects, names, forms, possibilities, potentials, realities, illusions, distortions, distractions, temptations, goals, paths, opportunities, dualities, desires and conflicts, which exist in the universe either in their latent or manifest form. God is their source.
  5. The mind is not a creator of anything. It perceives and conceives what is already possible or preexisting in the reality of creation, with God as its source. At the best, it is a receptacle of things, thoughts, memories and impression which already exist in God’s creation. To the extent the mind is pure, it can perceive or reflect the ideals, perfections and potencies of God and his creation in their pristine purity.
  6. Since human beings do not create anything anew and own anything, and since God is the inhabitant of all and the source of all, they should renounce egoism, doership and ownership and perform their actions as an offering or sacrifice to overcome karma and achieve liberation. This is an ideal in itself, revealed by God in the Vedas for the benefit of his devotees.
  7. The individual will, which living beings exercise in their lives, is neither independent nor separate nor distinct from God. He is the source of the individual wills of all, besides being the source of whatever ideals, thoughts, actions, etc., which emanate from them. Although the beings seem to be acting on their own, their independence is an illusion. Whatever they strive to accomplish or fail to accomplish is already a possibility or potential in the realm of God and the field of Nature.
  8. The created world is a world of duality. Everything appears here in pairs, and so are the possibilities, opportunities and failures, so that human beings upon earth have a choice to enact their roles in the play of God. Their ignorance and knowledge, and their idealism or the absence of it, are parts of that play. The world is purposely created to be confusing and chaotic, while beings have been presented with numerous alternatives to carve their paths and choose their destinies.
  9. Thus, the freedom which we seem to enjoy in worldly life by exercising our individual wills and pursuing our selfish desires is just an illusion. It is not true freedom at all. We are just unraveling or manifesting parts of God’s creation in our own ignorant and intelligent ways, without knowing that we are but playing it according to his will and design. We can choose from the set of alternatives that life offers to us (whose source is God), but we cannot create any new alternatives which God has not already conceived or which do not exist in their latent or manifest form.
  10. Therefore, whether you enjoy or suffer, live a virtuous life or fall into evil ways, know that you are just manifesting God’s will and design under the false impression or delusion that you are responsible for it, not knowing that there is nothing that you can do, which God has not included in the design of creation. Evil is a possibility or a potential just as virtue. Success is a possibility or potential just as failure. What happens in the course of your life are these possibilities and potentials, according to the actions you choose, actions, which also exist in God’s design as possibilities and potentials.

The validation of Idealism in mathematics

The whole idealism of Hinduism can be summed up in mathematical terms with numbers. For example, numbers 1 to 9 are not created by anyone. They already exist in the universe as the essential and integral parts of its structure and function. Their permutations and combinations, formulas, theorems, and equations also preexist and form part of its operating system. You may use them, discover them or find newer ways to make use of them. However, you cannot create any new numbers, formulas, patterns or equations that have not already been there. You may win a Noble Prize for finding newer ways of proving an equation or solving a theorem, but you cannot say that you have created what is not already possible or real in the realm of the universe.

The same holds true for all the laws of Physics, Chemistry and Quantum mechanics. Einstein became famous with the discovery of the Theory of Relativity, but the fact is that the theory has been existing in the realm of the Universe as a working mechanism or an inherent operating principle since the beginnings of universe or perhaps even earlier. We discovered it some 14 billion years after it came into existence. With that knowledge we discerned even more truths, possibilities and potencies of the universe, which are now part of our reality, but which was not the case in the previous centuries. Thus, the reality of the world according to our perception has constantly been expanding in proportion to our knowledge of things. Perhaps, at some point in future we may even realize that the reality of our universe may not be the same as the reality in other universes, because that possibility may already exist in the realm of mathematical possibilities.


Our progress is an unraveling of God’s eternal secrets and hidden ideals and possibilities. We do not create anything new. We just copy the universe or Nature, which is its operating system. Whatever progress we have achieved, lifestyles we have adapted, discoveries and inventions we have achieved and problems we have solved, they already exist in the realm of God’s consciousness, in the design of Nature and the universe or God. Whatever we do has already been done or can possibly be done. The truth is we can only discern the truths of existence, but we cannot create them. The same holds true for the reality which we experience.

We may take credit for our achievements and innovations, but we are just unmasking what already exists in the universe as a possibility or probability. We may not know its existence in advance, but in God’s realm or in the field of Nature (which is also an aspect of God only) it already exists in some archetypal form as an idea, ideal, potential or possibility. Logically it follows that anything that is mentally, mathematically, imaginatively, scientifically or notionally possible must already exist in some part of the universe or in some other universe as a reality by itself or in association with other realities and possibilities. In its power to imagine, with infinite capacity, the mind has the potency of God. Imagination is also the basis of all ideals that we can conceive of, since ideals are hard to find in the perceptual world. Practically, they do not exist except in our imagination.

Therefore, whatever the mind can imagine, that may be reality in some sphere of creation. It is not irrational, but perfectly logical, consequential and scientific to thinik so. The world is chaotic and designed to be chaotic. Still, in the chaos of the universe we can discern order and regularity and numerous possibilities which may eventually lead to some certainties, routines and realities. Hinduism wholeheartedly agrees with such notions and the endless possibilities to which life and the world are vulnerable. Hence, it is not rigid in its assertions of truths, nor in its approach to the diversity of creation.

The Universe is the sum of endless possibilities, and so is God and his creation. God brings order and regularity out of the chaos. The chaos is in reality not chaos. It constitutes the soup of life and existence. God wakes up, after a long sleep, and unleashes an endless ocean of possibilities and potentials, from which the worlds and beings manifest as numerous aspects of him. They further set in motion waves and ripples of further chaos, possibilities and opportunities. Such is life, which no one can reduce into rigid, definable doctrines or philosophies. As the Upanishads proclaim, God is infinite, indescribable and indefinable. To define him, or give him specific name and form, is to limit him and limit all other possibilities and potentials that exist in him.

Suggestions for Further Reading



1. The German, British and American versions of idealism took shape in the 18th and 19th Centuries mainly due to the contribution of scholars such as Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

2. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Those who want to know about idealism may please check this paper.

3. According to the Hindu creation and evolution theories, the mind is not a creator. As a finite reality (tattva) of Nature, It is a receiver, perceiver and reflector of thoughts, ideas and objects that already exist in the realm of consciousness and acts more like a receptacle rather than a conceiver or creator,

4. This definition of idealism in this essay may not be the same as the metaphysical or ontological idealism of western philosophers, or it may agree only in parts. The idealism of Hinduism may also have some epistemological aspects, which are not clearly distinguished in this essay, since the objective was to present the idealism of Hinduism in its own framework because of its historicity and antiquity, without the compulsion to fit it into existing notions of idealism as proposed, interpreted and formulated by the western philosophies of the recent centuries.

5. An Idealist View of Life by S. Radhakrishnan is a good place to start to study idealism in Hinduism. Another interesting book on idealism is A Defense of Idealism, Some Questions and Conclusions by May Sinclair.


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