Category Archives: Indian Philosophical Schools

Avidya (Ignorance)

Avidya is a Sanskrit word most commonly defined as ignorance. This can be misleading if we think of ignorance as a lack of knowledge. Avidya is not simply a lack of knowledge; it is a lack of  what Hindu philosophers sometimes refer to as true knowledge (Singh 394-395). The knowledge we have of the material world around us, our minds, thoughts, bodies, and emotions is worldly knowledge. Avidya is our mistaken belief that these things make up reality, or our true self (Puligandla 218).  Avidya, then, is not simply ignorance, but spiritual ignorance (Lipner 246). It is ignorance of our true selves and of the true nature of reality (Puligandla 244). “It is no accident that light and the reflection of light are common symbols in Hinduism of vidya and the knowing process, respectively. Avidya is spiritual ignorance, symbolized by darkness” (Lipner 247).

Frequently in literature on Hinduism, avidya is said to be synonymous with, ajnana, prakrti, and maya (Nikhilananda 43). There are fine distinctions that need to be made between these words in order to better understand Hindu literature and philosophy. Ajnana is a Sanskrit word that can also be translated to ignorance or without knowledge. More specifically, without true knowledge, or knowledge of one’s true self. Avidya is also a lack of higher knowledge. Both terms allow for lower, or worldly knowledge. Avidya and ajnana can be used synonymously (Chatterjee and Datta 49).

The Sankhya or Samkhya system of Hindu philosophy is based on the dualistic principles of purusa and prakrti (Singh 75). Purusa and prakrti are separate and distinct. Purusa is pure consciousness, spirit, or self. Prakrti is nature or matter. In Sankhya, prakrti is the cause of our minds, bodies, thoughts, and feelings (Puligandla 115). The elements that make up the universe as well as all the physical properties in the universe are prakrti (Chatterjee and Datta 257).  The air we breathe, sunlight, our physical as well as mental composition are all prakrti. Our bodies and minds, and our interaction with the finite, ever-changing world in which we live cause us to have a perception of ourselves and the world that is not true reality. The way we look, feel, and behave is not the true essence of who we are.  In this way, prakrti is the same as avidya, as these are the causes of our false knowledge, or false sense of reality; our ignorance of purusa, the true self. The only way to know purusa is to rid one’s self of avidya (Puligandla 123).

The Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism can be traced to the Upanisads, which are the last part of the Vedas.  Advaita means oneness or non-dualism. It is here that the concept of avidya is explored and tied to the concepts of maya, Atman, and Brahman (Puligandla 244). Unlike the separate and distinct entities prakrti and purusa in the Sankhya system, Atman and Brahman are identical. In Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualism comes from the belief that Atman (the true self) is Brahman (reality, pure consciousness). They are not separate, but one (Puligandla 244). That is to say, we are always Brahman, but because of the delusion caused by maya, or avidya, we are ignorant. Avidya is our ignorance to the fact that we are Brahman. When avidya is extinguished, we recognize Atman, which is Brahman (Puligandla 244).

Maya is most often translated as illusion. Maya is also sometimes referred to as magic, magical power, and even fraud. Much like prakrti, maya presents us with a material or false reality that keeps us from seeing our true self or Absolute Reality (Atman and Brahman) (Deutsch 28-29). “Maya generally signifies the cosmic illusion on account of which Brahman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer of the universe. It is under the influence of avidya that Atman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the jiva, or individual self. Prakrti is the material out of which the universe is evolved. But Vedantic writers do not always strictly maintain these distinctions” (Nikhilananda 43). So prakrti is to purusa as maya is to Brahman, they are both illusions that keep us from seeing our true self.

Dualist or non-dualist, avidya is what keeps one from seeing one’s true self. Avidya is the cause of samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth that keeps us trapped in a worldly existence (Chatterjee and Datta 18). In order to be freed from samsara, avidya must be destroyed. Samsara is caused by illusion and once the illusion is destroyed, moksa, or liberation from samsara is achieved (Deutsch 75-76). Once you realize that worldly existence is not reality, there is nothing tying you to it. Avidya is the antithesis of vidya, which is the Sanskrit word for knowledge, or insight.       According to all Indian schools of philosophy, humanity’s state of suffering is due to ignorance (avidya) of his true being and nature (Puligandla 22-23). The Upanisads teach that a person’s true being is Atman (Brahman), which is infinite, eternal, and immortal (Nikhilananda 35). But in ignorance (avidya), one identifies themselves with perishable things such as their mind, body, ego, and thereby develop attachments to them and suffer sorrow when they inevitably lose them (Puligandla 22-23).

Buddhism also recognizes avidya, and it is also defined as ignorance. Buddhists believe that there are four Noble Truths. These are: 1) Sorrow/Suffering: All living, sentient beings experience suffering; 2) Origin/Cause: The major cause of suffering is craving or desire for the illusory; 3) Cessation/Ending: The ending of suffering is the ending of the craving that causes it. This ending of craving, which is an ending of the condition of ignorance at its root, is described as nirvana. 4) Path: The Noble Eightfold Path is prescribed in Buddhism as a means of attaining nirvana (Robinson and Rodrigues 192).  The ignorance referred to in the third Noble Truth is avidya, and its cause is also the illusory. In Buddhism, the ending of the illusion is nirvana, or enlightenment. Just as in Hinduism, liberation from samsara comes through the ending of avidya.

The fact that the end of avidya is the path to liberation (moksa), or enlightenment (nirvana) does not mean that these can only be achieved at the end of one’s life or after death. Ideally, it can be achieved in this lifetime and then one can live without the suffering caused by avidya (Puligandla 23). Siddhartha Gautama achieved nirvana in his lifetime and this is how he came to be known as the Buddha (Enlightened one) (Chatterjee and Datta 115).



Chatterjee, S., & Datta, D. M. (1968) An introduction to Indian philosophy. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deutsch, E. (1969) Advaita Vedanta: A philosophical reconstruction. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.

Indich, William M. (1995) Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kumar, R., & S. Ram (2007) Hinduism-religion and philosophy. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.

Lipner, J. (1994) Hindus: Their religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge.

Murthy, B. S. (1985) The Bhagavad Gita. Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications.

Nikhilananda (1963) The Upanishads: Katha, Isa, Kena, Mundaka, Svetasvatara, Praśna, Mandukya, Aitareya, Brihadaranyaka, Taittiriya, and Chhandogya. New York: Harper & Row.

Puligandla, R. (1975) Fundamentals of Indian philosophy. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Robinson, T. A., & H. Rodrigues (2006) World religions: A guide to the essentials. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Singh, S. P. (2004) Vedic vision of consciousness and reality. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Advaita Vedanta











Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Robin Wilcox (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Prakrti: Material Consciousness

The Sankhya Hindu philosophy is one of the six orthodox darsanas (world outlooks). It is considered orthodox because of its adherence to the Vedas and the caste system. In the Sankhya philosophy, prakrti is part of a dualistic philosophy that explains the states of consciousness by listing the components of reality. The Sankhya darsana explains the creation of the world with the intertwining of purusa and prakrti, resembling explanations in the Vedas. The materiality of the world is the workings of prakrti (Larson 167-168). The identification with all material things is what the Sankhya darsana explains as material consciousness. This sense of consciousness cannot be the true self because it is corrupted. Purusa is the true self and can only be achieved when all senses of prakrti are removed. Yoga is applied to the Sankhya darsana to attempt to reach moksa (full liberation) (Burley 36-38).

To list the components of reality that make up the cosmos, Sankhya philosophy begins by dividing pure, real consciousness from the illusion of consciousness that is within all entities of the cosmos. These separate states of consciousness are purusa and prakrti. Purusa is pure consciousness that can only be attained when prakrti returns to it dormant state. To achieve complete consciousness, the Sankhya philosophy promotes the advancement through the different elements of prakrti to realize that the material consciousness is false. Once all false identifications are let go, prakrti is dissolved and purusa is achieved. Reaching the state of purusa is to be free of all false identification (Jacobsen 8).

Prakrti is composed of twenty-three tattvas. Tattvas are elements that can be listed ranging from their coarseness to how subtle they are. As the progression from the coarse tattvas to the subtle ones occurs, the proportions of the three gunas changes (Parrot 60-63). These gunas (qualities) are tamas, rajas, and sattva; each guna is attributed a different set of qualities. The sattva guna is the quality of enlightenment, intelligibility and clarity. The tamas guna is classified as vague and dull, and the rajas guna is passion and activity (Ramakrishna Rao 64-65). Within one’s life, they will experience all three gunas in different proportions. When one is not distracted with the tamas and rajas gunas, the clarity that is the sattva guna is able to dissolve the illusion of consciousness created by prakrti (Jacobsen 8).

The twenty-three tattvas of prakrti can be divided into five categories. The mahabhutas are the coarsest elements; they are; earth, fire, water, air, and space. All materiality of the world is based on these five elements, so the manifestation of prakrti relies on the identification with these elements. The subtle tattvas are what is absorbed through the senses (odor, flavor, texture, sound, shape and color) (Larson 236-237). The tattvas that are necessary for the continuation of material life are the five action tattvas; reproduction, excretion, motion, communication, and accumulation. The five knowledge senses allow one’s ego to identify with the grosser tattvas; these elements of knowledge are the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell). These twenty tattvas make up the materiality of the world. Without the identification and connection that one has with these tattvas the manifestation of prakrti would not be able to occur. Because materiality is intertwined with purusa in the creation of the cosmos prakrti is an evitable part of life. The last three tattvas, that compose citta are essential to the separation of material consciousness and the internal liberation that lies hidden amongst the tattvas that are prakrti.

The material consciousness that is made up the twenty tattvas must be combined with of the last three tattvas is called citta. Citta is attributed to the mind and thought; it is the perceived enlightenment of prakrti. Without the mind to identify with the world there is no consciousness, perceived or real. Citta is comprised of three elements manas, anhankara, and buddhi (Larson 236). Manas is the inner agency that persuades one to believe in the material consciousness that is prakrti. Anhankara is one’s ego. The ego identifies with the heavier tattvas making full liberation a difficult concept to believe. Anhankara generates a false sense of self that is based solely on the materiality of the world around (Parrot 70-72).

The buddhi is the subtlest tattva. This part of citta allows one to realize that the manas and anhankara use the grosser tattvas to create material consciousness and that is not its true self. The ability to discriminate between the false sense of self that is prakrti and the ability to gain true consciousness is what makes buddhi the greatest tattva [Buddhi is often referred to mahat, which means the great or highest intelligence]. To achieve purusa, the sattva guna must be in its highest proportion. In this state of clarity one is able to wish to achieve pure consciousness. The awareness that buddhi has of material consciousness allows one to escape from the false identifications made by manas and anhankara. When one stops falsely identifying they are released from prakrti and are able to achieve the pure consciousness that is purusa. Purusa never stopped functioning when prakrti was present; it acted as an observer, waiting for the right moment to be revealed (Sharma 149-153). The Sankhya darsana promotes that advancement through the different elements of prakrti to the so that the identification of the true self is not another false identification. One must experience the material consciousness so that when it is time to identify the true self it will not mistaken it for something else (Ramakrishna Rao 61-63).

When purusa is realized all traces of prakrti disappear. The tattvas engulf into themselves and essentially disappear; this is possible because the Sankhya darsana presents both purusa and prakrti as transcendental, but real entities. When the material consciousness that is prakrti is gone, one is then left with their true self. Liberation is widely known as moksa in Hinduism, but is also referred to as kaivalya in the Sankhya orthodox philosophy. When kaivalya is attained one is fully liberated for all materiality. When one is advancing through the tattvas that make up prakrti it is important that they do not become consumed in them; the ultimate goal is to become liberated from prakrti, not to master living in a world of it. The Sankhya darsana adopts this philosophy while other sects of Hinduism focus on the mastery of the tattvas. Prakrti is escapable if one wishes to find true liberation. Sankhya darsana tells of the difficulty that is prakrti, but encourages and supports that finding one’s true self is much more fulfilling than the materiality of prakrti (Widgery 234-237).



Burley, Mikel (2006) Classical Samkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience. Online: Taylor and Francis.

Larson, Gerald James (1998) Classical Samkhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning. London: Motilal Banarsidass.

Parrot, R. J. (1986) “The Problem of the Samkhya Tattvas as Both Cosmic and Psychological Phenomena.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 14: 55-78.

Ramakrishna Rao, K.B (1963) “The Gunas of Prakrti According to the Samkhya Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 13, No. 1: 61-71.

Sharma, Chandradhar (1997) A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Widgery, Alban (1930) “The principles of Hindu Ethics.” International Journal of Ethics Vol. 40 No. 2: 234-237.


Related Research Topics

Sankhya Philosophy









Related Websitesṛti


Article written by: Jillian Koenen (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Dasanami Samnyasins

The development and the components of Hindu monasticism may appear complex. Sankara, the famous Indian philosopher, founded a Hindu monastic federation referred to as the Dasanami Order (Wade nd). Hindu monks, known as samnyasin, were divided into ten lineages which trace back to Sankara and compose the Dasanami Order. The ten different monk/renouncer groups were then divided up among the four monasteries founded by Sankara (Clark 2). The four monasteries (mathas) are located in the east, west, south, and north of India and they are respectively called Govardhan, Sarada, Srngeri, and Jyotir (Clark 115). This order is the most respected and influential in the Hindu tradition (Werner 148).

Historically, it has been viewed that the four monasteries are representative of Sankara’s travel and his spiritual authority. Sankara’s life is regarded as somewhat legendary. He lost his father at a young age and he was an admirer of the samnyasin life style. Sources claim that at the age of eight, Sankara was captured by a crocodile while he bathed in a river. Sankara told his mother that if he did not receive her blessing to become a samnyasin the crocodile would have taken his life (Pande 31). Historians believe that three factors contribute to why Sankara is held in the highest regard. It is said that Sankara was an incarnation of Siva (Pande 73). His strong connection to and the belief in his embodiment of Siva could be due to Sankara’s connections to miracles. Secondly, the implementation of authentic practices was to emphasize the social and spiritual claims of the reorganized monasteries. The final aspect which made Sankara legendary was the expansion of the Advaitic and non Advaitic schools (Pande 73). The rationales behind legends of his incarnation have been to fortify the Vedic faith and help spread the spiritual way of living across India (Pande 82).

Samnyasin (renouncing) is the final stage of one’s life. One may renounce after they have completed the householders’ stage grahastha (Miller 3). However, some Hindus enter renunciation earlier, once they have completed their education, though such young renouncers are less common. A renouncer is considered to be a wise holy man. He is expected to withdraw from society. From that point on, his life is dedicated to the attainment of moksa (Werner 147). A renouncer’s withdrawal from society is theoretical because, he may live in close proximity to society and interact with its members however, physical detachment is essential (Olivelle 272). One must leave their family and possessions in order to discover the meaning of life and gain inner peace (Burghart 635). Renouncers are placed outside of the caste system and are highly valued. A renouncer who receives offerings and praise from Hindus is not uncommon.

Once Hindu monks formally renounce, they are categorized in relation to the method of initiation and their way of life (Wade nd). Renouncers may fall into one of three distinct categories: the dandis, nagas, or paramahamsas. However, all Dasanami consider themselves as Siva (Clémentin 2). Many Dasanami renouncers decorate themselves with rudrāka beads and put three white horizontal stripes on their forehead to embody the symbolism of Siva and Visnu (Clémentin 3). Each type of renouncer group is affiliated with one of the four monasteries. To formally renounce, a monk must attain a new identity. He is given one of the ten surnames which made him a part of that particular spiritual lineage. The name one receives is linked to the monastery they are associated with and reflects their caste as well as their renouncing lifestyle. The monasteries from the south and west are mainly composed of dandi renouncers. The lineages commonly assigned to these monks, once they formally renounce include: Bharati (speech), Sarasvati (learning), Tirtha (sacred bathing), and Asrama (hermitage). Puri (town) and Giri (hill) are lineages linked to naga renouncers. Other names, sometimes received by all types of renouncers include: Vana (woods), Aranya (forest), Parrata (mountain), and Sagara (ocean) (Dazery na). Receiving a new name is significant because it symbolizes the relationship one has under a guru which acts as an investiture. An opportunity for the new renouncers to teach and ordain followers is given (Clémentin 16). Once a name is received, one is able to initiate another person into the samnyasin stage of life. All three branches of the Dasanami (dandi, nagas, and the paramahamsa) have networks of mathas (monasteries) spread across India.

The dandis traditionally come from a high caste background and hold knowledge of the Sanskrit language. They are the wanderers who usually carry a staff. The staff may be embellished with a saffron cloth with an axe head under it (Clark 28). Generally, dandi renouncers were previous householders, have short hair, and believe that they are the true samnyasin (Clark 41). Their initiation ceremony is completed by a guru and the name given depends on what matha one is affiliated to (Clark 41). One of the four brahmacari names is given at the ceremony either being Svarup, Prakasa, Ananda or Caitanya (Clark 42). The second ceremony a dandi partakes in is called the viraja home (Clark 89). A short sacred utterance that presumably encapsulates the essential wisdom of Vedanta from the monk’s monastic lineage is spoken (Wade nd).

Renouncers, who fall under the paramahasa grouping, discard all belongings including their staff, perform the most asceticism and obtain the highest amount of respect (Clark 102). They more frequently live in mathas and are affiliated to an akhara. However, paramahamsan monks are not deeply connected to the akharas life compared to the nagas (Clark 42).

Lower caste members form the naga renouncer group (Clark 39). Some scholars refer to them as “naked fighting monks” (Wade nd).  The naga have been known to travel nude and they cover their entire bodies (sometimes just their private areas) in ash, especially on festive holidays (Clark 35). The nagas are organized into seven akharas (Clark 48). To be initiated into the akhara as a naga, one must go through a third process referred to as the tang tode (Clark 98). This is a unique initiation among the three groups.

Typically, males are the ones who enter the stage of renunciation. However, women renouncers have recently been reported. About ten percent of female renouncers belong to the Dasanami (Clark 31). However, women may become brahmacarini, but they cannot enter the second stage of initiation in becoming “full” samnyasin (Clark 33). Women remove all jewelry as a symbol of their renunciation. The majority of women belong to the paramahamsa renouncer group. Two known monasteries exclusively admit women. The least number of women belong to the naga group (Clark 34).

A life apart from society cultivates detachment through a community which shares similar perspectives (Clémentin 2). Some renouncers may choose to join a monastic community (Tambiah 300). Monastic communities provide a shared living space between many samnyasin monks. It is where asceticism is ingrained through tradition (Clémentin 2). This concept of communal settlement was introduced by Sankara, and is referred to as the matha system (Miller 4). The purpose was to create a sense of solidarity through group support. The matha was a larger unit comprised of temples, a traditional Sanskrit school, a library, and a shelter for lay followers (Clémentin 4). The caste system was embedded into the institution. Individuals were born to specific gurus. Gurus raised money to support children’s education for their caste (Aya 58). Donations from patrons allow for monks to teach, provide medical care, and help feed the community (Miller 5). Service to the community was viewed as important and resembled Hindu cohesion. Monks may continue traveling, but if they remain in a community for an extended period of time they are less respected, except if it is the rainy season (Olivelle 271).  Clémentin addresses that, “the important point to stress is that they do not owe their allegiance to a monastery, but to a lineage of spiritual succession” (3). Sankara’s successor, a Sankaracarya (head of 1 of the 4 monasteries) essentially becomes “the teacher of the world” by representing the founder of his lineage (Clémentin 6). Sankaracaryas have substantial spiritual power and settle disputes within the matha by helping with court cases (Clark 79). For example, cases may include initiation and personal affairs, adultery, abuse, and caste pollution. Sankaracaryas help decide the punishment of a fine, a fine, forms of social exclusion, and sometimes even excommunication ceremonies (Clark 80).

The origins of the Dasanami Samnyasin illustrate the prominence of Sankara’s philosophical influence in creating the order. Spiritual lineages of the samnyasin monks are traced back to Sankara. The samnyasins aquire a new religious identity in which they abide by certain roles, codes, and practices (Clark 2). The different groupings of renouncers across the four cardinal directions are symbolic of Sankara’s spiritual journey and the prominence of Brahman (Wade nd). The caste system is significant to the Dasanami Order because it allows for different renouncer groups to exist. Subtle differences exist among the samnyasins such as, their appearance, initiation process, status, and their affiliation to a distinct lineage (Clark 39). The matha system was important for the development of education and philosophical ideas for the samnyasin and their lay followers (Clémentin 4). Life consisted of days of expressing bhakti in prayer, meditation, and lectures (Werner 147). Overall, evidence suggests that the Dasanami Order has been very influential and is a representation of Sankara’s philosophy. 


References and Further Recommended Readings

Burghart, R., (1983) “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia”. Man18(4), 635–653.

Clark, Matthew (2006) Dasanami Samnyasis. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2006) “Replacing the Abbot: Rituals of monastic ordination and investiture in modern Hinduism”. Asiatische Studien, Etudes Asiatiques, Vol.60, 535- 573.

Ikegame, A (2012) “The Governing Guru”. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London & New York, NY: Routledge 5, 46.

Miller, D. M., & Wertz, D. C (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

 Olivelle, P. (2001)”The Renouncer Tradition”. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism,  G. Flood (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing  271-287.

 Pande, G. C (1994) Life and thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

 Tambiah, S. J. (1982) “The renouncer: his individuality and his community”. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 15(1), 299-320.

Wade, D. (2012) “Dasanamis.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from < hinduism/dasanamis-BEHCOM_9000000043>

Werner, Karel (2013) Love Divine: Studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism, London & New York, NY: Routledge 147-152.


Topics for Further Investigation

The Ramanadi Order



The Four Monasteries




Noteworthy Websites


Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Female Ascetics in Hinduism

Women in Hindu society generally take on a role of and are identified as householders, thus providing for a husband and family. However, some women, though a clear minority, choose a different life path which is the life of the ascetic. An ascetic is regarded as someone who abstains from worldly pleasures often in search of spiritual goals through renunciation (Denton 2). Ascetics seek to free themselves from the cycle of rebirth entirely and thereby reach salvation. Although there are a variety of ascetic forms such as celibacy and tantrism, renunciation and the sannyasas or sannyasinis are the most recognizable.

The term sannyasa (male) or sannyasini (female) means ‘abandonment’ or ‘laying aside completely’. Entry into this lifestyle involves a dramatic ritual to symbolically discard the world in which they currently live. To take on the role of a sannyasini one must establish their ritual death. This is done by figuratively cremating oneself or performing their one’s own funeral rites and also by uttering the phrase “None belongs to me, to none do I belong” or a simpler yet no less powerful phrase “I leave absolutely everything behind” (Denton 94). Initiation ceremonies into ascetic life differ from one ascetic to the next, but ritual details such as offering balls of rice to ancestors and creating grass statues of themselves which they later burn to symbolically represent cremation, remain consistent elements to the initiation process (Leslie 219). This initiation ritual into asceticism marks the rejection or separation from householdership; a commitment to a particular path towards ideals such as liberation (moksa), acquiring knowledge of the Absolute (Brahman) or salvation (mukti) through union; and the admittance into a community of fellow ascetics. This initiation process completely relieves a woman of their original social identity and alters the former relationship they had with householder women. They thereby embrace a new set of values far different than those of the ideal woman, wife and householder in Hindu society (Leslie 214). As the practice of world renunciation is seen as a primarily masculine way of life usually for male twice-borns, females who take on the path of renunciation are seen as ones who have left the orthodox norm behind. However, they may often be found to say what is in the minds of many orthodox housewives in regards to their disagreement with family life, ties and what is expected of women at the householder stage (Clementin-Ojha 1988). Some ascetic women have declared nothing but relief over their choice to leave householdership. As one renouncer-ascetic (sannyasini) stated, “In the householder life, you know great pleasure and sorrow, but you cannot know peace. That life is in a state of constant change and so your mind cannot become still. In the ascetic life, you are single-minded and so you can achieve salvation” (Leslie 215). Each sannyasini is different in their pursuit of activities or religious path in that some focus on study, meditation and wandering, where others are found to focus on preaching and teaching ascetic values, hymns and sermons to householder disciples who visit (Denton 95).

An interesting fact about ascetic women and girls is their variation in appearance. One may choose to wear a white sari while others wear red; some tie ochre (gerua) cloth around their torso whereas others may choose to wear white or bright yellow (kesar). In regards to hair, some ascetics choose to have their heads shaven, others with loose and flowing hair; some will trim the hair at earlobe length and oil it and others form it into matted strands (jata) by rubbing ashes into the hair (Leslie 218). The vast majority of ascetic women fall in a cluster around the age of 60, but in the city of Varanasi there is a diversity in the age group of ascetics which correlate well with two types of asceticism, celibacy and renunciation (Denton 122). Since the majority of younger ascetics are unmarried and from high-caste families, it suggests that their families cannot afford dowries thereby leaving their daughters unwed and undesirable. This causes families to send their daughters to Varanasi where young girls will enter brahmacarya or celibacy, which guards their purity and guarantees them a ritual standing higher than that of an ordinary orthodox householder (Denton 123). While the younger ascetic females are free to leave Varanasi and ascetic life at any time, most choose to stay in the city or frequently travel to other city centres where ascetic festivals and feasts occur (Leslie 220). Cities such as Varanasi give proof that although ascetics may give up traditional values of the Hindu social world, they do not necessarily give up society and can actually be found to be comfortable with and accepted by others.

Ascetics tend to put forward a religious reason as to why they chose this life path of worldly renunciation to find their salvation (Clementin-Ojha 1988). However it is difficult to describe a religious practice of a female renouncer because in choosing the life of the ascetic one is no longer committed to a specific path (Leslie 22). A female renouncer-ascetic may follow a “path of knowledge” (Leslie 221) by engaging in the repetition of a mantra or “sacred utterance” (Rodrigues 70) and focusing on meditation. Some may also choose to devote the hours in the day to yoga or sitting in the lotus posture, while others may offer rituals of worship to a goddess such as Durga (Leslie 221). Since renunciation itself bestows such large amounts of freedom upon each individual that one can choose how they devote themselves to a religious path and how they explain their beliefs as well.

The life of a renouncer-ascetic may cause orthodox Hindus to put these women under criticism and scrutiny. Dharma is righteousness, duty, morality, law, social obligations or particular religious teachings (Rodrigues 546) that an individual is expected to follow in Hindu society. To not live according to one’s dharma is considered to be a main offense in Hindu tradition. Women who renounce the life of the householder and the orthodox traditions expected of them are considered to be adopting ‘adharmic’ behavior. They can be seen as rebels, as renunciation from the world is considered to be an effort at achieving their own individual freedom instead of following the life that the orthodoxy had prescribed for them (Clementin-Ojha 1988). Female renouncer-ascetics have strong beliefs, but do not use these beliefs as a way to criticise traditional aspects of Hindu society. By living amongst orthodox Hindus, ascetics show and encourage other members of society to respect their svadharma (one’s own dharma) as they respect the orthodox traditions and its stri-dharma (woman/wife’s code of righteous behavior (Rodrigues 564). Not only do these ascetic women respect the traditions of Hindu society, they often discourage other females to do what they themselves have done by leaving householdership. In research conducted by Catherine Clementin-Ojha, the late Svami Karapatri, a supporter of orthodoxy but also an ascetic, upheld that women could obtain a higher state of consciousness and could become ascetics and guides. However, he did not allow women into his ascetic order and denied that there have never been a “single real sannyasini in India” (Clementin-Ojha 1988).

Although not as common or influential, two other types of female asceticism exist: celibacy and tantrism, both different phenomena from renunciation. Celibate asceticism or a celibate student (brahmacarya) is often one of the first stages of life (asrama) prescribed for twice-born males. It can also occur in a number of other ways, such as a female choosing an institutionalized lifestyle of celibacy and regarding themselves as brahmacarinis, like the classical rite into studentship, or the first twelve years prior to initiation into sannyasa (Denton 96). Celibacy is the intention to remain pure for as long as possible and avoid pollution. Tantric asceticism on the other hand relies mainly on oral tradition. However, there is no ritual of initiation into tantric asceticism as there is for orthodox renunciation and celibacy. Those who define themselves as tantric undertake a “fierce discipline” (Leslie 225) and are said to have achieved powers (siddhi) by practicing difficult acts. It is believed that these acts include sex rituals (maithuna) and a disciplined relationship between themselves and their teacher (Leslie 225). Unlike renunciation, tantric asceticism acknowledges full liberation but also full divinization, putting emphasis on finding a state of bliss (ananda) or madness (pagalpan).

Evidently the life of a female ascetic in Hinduism is a complex, underappreciated and understudied phenomenon in Hindu society. With only little research conducted on the life of female ascetics, mostly over the past few decades, it is hard to determine what truly prompts a Hindu woman to leave the orthodox life of a householder, wife and mother, but it is exceptional to see that these women are willing to defy the norms of traditional Hindu female expectations and let themselves become equal with their male sannyasa counterparts and live out their svadharma and find liberation at their time of physical death.


References and Further Recommended Readings

Bose, Mandakranta (2010) Women in the Hindu Tradition: Rules, Roles and Expectations. New York: Routledge Hindu Studies Series.

Chowdhry, Prem (1996) “Marriage, Sexuality and the Female ‘ascetic’: Understanding a Hindu Sect.” Economic and Political Weekly 31.34 2307–2321.

Clementin-Ojha, Catherine (1988) “Outside the Norms: Women Ascetics in Hindu Society.” Economic and Political Weekly. 23(18): WS34-6

Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Cranbury: Farleigh Dickinson University Press

Mitra, Kana (1983) ‘Women in Hinduism.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies. 20(4), 585

Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Hinduism – the eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Teskey Denton, Lynn (2004) Female Ascetics in Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Related Topics





Women in Hinduism

Women’s Roles in Hindu Society


Related Websites


Article written by: Kenzie Campbell (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Mimamsa Darsana

The Hindu tradition is composed of a number of darsanas, or philosophical systems (Padhi and Padhi 221). This should not surprise the keen observer of Hinduism as the religion itself encapsulates a variety of theological, ritual, and philosophical schools of thought and practice. Among the latter is found the Mimamsa darsana, the philosophical school of Vedic interpretation and apologetics. The Mimamsa philosophical system is also important for underscoring the ritualistic nature of the early Vedic literature and for its rigorous epistemological contributions to Hindu philosophy to bolster the truth contained in the Vedas.

The earliest exposition of the Mimamsa darsana is that of the Hindu writer Jaimini. His Mimamsa-Sutra contains over 2,500 aphorisms and is estimated to have been written in 200 CE (Padhi and Padhi 222). Scholars do not credit Jaimini with the creation of the Mimamsa system, but do recognize his systematic presentation of the oral traditions and interpretations of Mimamsa as foundational to the philosophical school of thought (Dasgupta 370). Jaimini’s Mimamsa-Sutra is divided into 12 chapters, 60 sections, and covers nearly 1000 topics. In this significant work Jaimini espouses the general rules (nyayas) with which to distinguish dharma, that is, action in accord with the cosmic order, from adharma, action that is not in proper accord with the cosmos (Padhi and Padhi 222). As such, the Mimamsa-Sutra elucidates the number of sacrifices and rituals that existed in the Hindu tradition at that time. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Jaimini’s work, and of the Mimamsa darsana more generally, is its epistemological contribution to the understanding of knowledge as to how it can be interpreted and derived from the Vedas, the holy scriptures of the Hindu tradition (Padhi and Padhi 222).

The oldest extant commentary on Jaimini’s Mimamsa-Sutra is the Sabarabhasya (Bronkhorst 1). This work was followed by other expositions contained in the Slokavartika in the eighth century and the Prakaranapancika in the ninth century (Clooney 51). A more succinct expression of Mimamsa’s philosophical position was put forward in the Manameyodaya, which was begun by Narayanabhattatiri around 1590 and finished by Narayanasudhi a century later (Clooney 51). The system of Mimamsa articulated by Jaimini and developed by the aforementioned commentaries is also known as Purva-Mimamsa. The name reflects Jaimini’s interpretation (mimamsa) of the earlier Vedic texts, more specifically, the ritually oriented Brahmanas (Padhi and Padhi 219). This distinguishes Purva-Mimamsa from the hegemonic Hindu philosophy of Vedanta, which is also known as Uttara-Mimamsa for its interpretive focus of the chronologically later Vedic texts, namely the Upanisads (Clooney 53). Although scholarship suggests that there exists a great deal of continuity between Purva and Uttara-Mimamsa [For further discussion on the continuity between Mimamsa and Vedanta see Bronkhorst (2007)], the two systems are often studied separately (Clooney 53). Consequently, Vedanta philosophy shall receive cursory treatment in the present discussion.

As previously stated, the primary aim of Jaimini’s Mimamsa-Sutra is to address those actions that are conducive to the realization of dharma (Arnold np). In doing so, the Mimamsa darsana shifts the ideological focus away from the principal Hindu concern of liberation (moksa) from the cycle of rebirth, and toward an orthopraxis, or correct performance, of the brahminic rituals of the Vedic texts. With the attainment of heaven (syarga) and success in the life hereafter hanging in the balance, it becomes essential for the Mimamsa philosopher to establish the orthodoxy of the Vedic ritualistic injunctions (Bronkhorst 1). Jaimini maintains that the characteristics (laksana) of dharma can only be known by means of Vedic injunctions (codana) and testimony (sabda) (Arnold np). As a result, the secondary focus of the Mimamsa darsana is to function as an apologetic school in defense of the Vedic scriptures. As such, the primary concern of subsequent Mimamsa theorists is to demonstrate the intrinsic validity (svatah pramanya) of the religious truth contained within the Vedas (Arnold np). Consequently, the Mimamsa system is heavy laden with discussions pertaining to semantics and grammar (Hiriyanna 299). In their simplest form, the Mimamsakas attempt to uncover the very principles according to which the Vedas were written so as to reveal the truths contained within them (Hiriyanna 298).

Arnold astutely observes that the philosophical project of the Mimamsakas to prove the intrinsic validity of Vedic language using the Vedas themselves seems counterintuitive from the perspective of Western philosophy. Francis Clooney, however, argues that this is not surprising given the epistemological position of Mimamsa. Clooney clarifies that Mimamsa regards truth as right knowledge (prama), which may be known by way of pramanas (hereafter, means of right knowing) (Clooney 45). Jaimini himself conceded three pramanas: perception, inference, and verbal testimony. However, he contended that the word (sabda) of the Vedas alone is the only infallible means of knowledge (Padhi and Padhi 225-245). As such, Mimamsa theorists maintain that the ritual words of the Vedas are firmly intertwined with the ritual realities they endorse (Clooney 52). This is derived from Jaimini’s proposition that one should appeal to as few unseen realities as possible, a notion not all that unlike Occam’s Razor in Western philosophy. Consequently, religious truth is best understood in terms of what is observable, that is, the language and ritual directives of the Vedas. From this it naturally follows that the orthopraxis of said rituals serve as positive affirmation of truth in and among the community of believers (Clooney 51-52).

Although continuity exists between Mimamsa and the other Hindu darsanas, it does depart rather significantly from the Vaiseshika, Nyaya, Samkhya, and Yoga schools of philosophical thought (Padhi and Padhi 221). Mimamsa is set apart primarily by its emphasis on the sole authority of the Vedic scriptures as the epistemological source of eternal truth. In order to preserve the eternal status of the Vedas, Mimamsa largely does away with the Hindu doctrines of creation and dissolution as well as rejects the notion of deities external to the Vedas, resulting in a deification of the holy scriptures themselves (Padhi and Padhi 249). Francis Clooney recognizes that appeals to gods would move the authority of the Vedas to a source external to and higher than the scriptures. As such, Mimamsa apologists refute the existence of any such deities so as not to displace the sole authority of Vedic scriptures (Clooney 51).

The Mimamsa darsana is but one of many attempts to articulate truth and the nature of the cosmos in the Hindu tradition. Its epistemological insight grants the scholar a privileged view of truth as it relates to the sacred Vedic literature revered by Hindus. Understanding Mimamsa’s emphasis and exposition of orthopraxy is essential to understanding the complex nature of brahminic rituals in Hinduism. Although Vedanta in all its continuity has taken over the mainstream of Hindu philosophical thought, a comprehensive understanding of Mimamsa is essential to understand the complex interaction of truth and ritual in the Hindu tradition, as it has been both understood and practiced throughout history and as such practices evolve today.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Arnold, D. (2001) “Of Intrinsic Validity: A Study on the Relevance of Purva Mimamsa.” Philosophy East & West, 51 (1), 26.

Bronkhorst. Johannes (2007) Mimamsa and Vedanta: Interaction and Continuity. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Clooney, Francis X. (2001) “From Truth to Religious Truth in Hindu Philosophical Theology.” In Religious Truth: A Volume in the Comparative Religious Ideas Project, edited by Robert Cummings Neville, 43-63. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Dasgupta, S.N. (1973) A History of Indian Philosophy. Vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hiriyanna, M. (1983) Outlines of Indian Philosophy. Bombay: Blackie & Son.

Moghe, S. G. (1984) Studies in the Purva Mimamsa. New Delhi: Ajanta Publications.

Padhi, Bibhu and Padhi, Minakshi (2005) Indian Philosophy and Religion: A Reader’s Guide. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Prasad, H. (1994) “The context principle of meaning in Prabhakara Mimamsa.” Philosophy East & West, 44 (2), 317.


Related Topics for Further Investigation



Hindu Epistemology

Nyaya School of logic

Vedanta philosophy

Vedic literature


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Nikolas Miller (February 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Vaisesika Darsana

The Vaisesika darsana is a system of ontology – it is concerned with ordering and classifying the universe into fundamental components and categories. It is therefore pluralistic and also realistic. The term Vaisesika means “particularist” and is based on the term visesa, meaning “particulars” (Raju 143). Visesa is one of the seven categories into which Vaisesika thinkers organize the universe and figures prominently into its composition. The darsana was founded by Kanada, who authored the Vaisesikasutras circa 400 B.C. (Raju 143).

The doctrine espouses seven categories of reality, called padarthas, which comprise all objects that can be perceived through any means logical or sensory (Hiriyanna 231). They are dravya (substance), guna (quality), karma (motion or activity), samanya (generality or universality), visesa (particularity), samavaya (inherence) and abhava (negation) (Raju 143). Dravya, guna, and karma define the observable physical nature and capabilities of objects, while the existence samanya, visesa and samavaya is demonstrated by logical discrimination. They are also subdivided into further categories.

Dravya can be understood as “that in which qualities inhere” (Raju 143). Dravya is split into two classes of substance, the first of which comprise the nonmaterial world. Firstly there are dis (space), and kala (time), each of which is eternal, infinite and indestructible. There is the mind, manas, which is separate from consciousness and more accurately seen as the integration of the physical senses and the ability to focus on it or selective elements of it (Hiriyanna 231). It is believed to be atomic in scale as the elements are and also the sensory object responsible for emotion and some physical sensations (Raju 148). Finally, there is atman, variously translated as “Self” or “consciousness.” This is consciousness in the overarching sense that is separate and yet observant of the body, senses, mind and other constituent elements of a single person – for each individual, there is a unique atman (Raju 146). The atmans are regarded as infinite and not located in physical space.

The second class comprises the physical world. They are the elements (bhutas): prthivi (earth), apas (water), tejas (light/fire), and vayu (air), which are composed of infinitesimally minute particles called paramanu. Therefore, Vaisesika is also an atomic theory – it proposes the existence of indivisible, imperceptibly tiny component particles of all physical substances. Paramanu are too small to have mass. Accordingly, two combine into a dyad, three of which combine into a triad, which is the minimum observable particle with mass (Raju 145). In addition, each of the four types of paramanu have inherent qualities – prthivi corresponds to smell, apas to taste, tejas to colour and vayu to touch. These are explained as the universal phenomena that allow those senses to function – light, for instance, is seen as necessary to perceive colour. Akasa (aether) is also one of the elements, but is not atomic. It is singular, universal and indivisible like dis and kala. The first four are directly perceivable, but the fifth can only be inferred (Raju 144).

Gunas, or qualities, are traits inherent to dravyas. There are 24 in total: “[C]olor, taste, smell, touch, number, quantity, separateness, contact, disjoining, distance, nearness, knowledge, pleasure, pain, will, aversion and effort… heaviness, liquidity, oiliness, impression, fate [which includes merits as well as demerits, and therefore counts as two], and sound” (Bhattacharyya 143). The most significant are the dual qualities Bhattacharyya lumps together as “fate,” more accurately translated as merit (dharma) and demerit (adharma). These qualities are seen as inherent to substances, but it is possible to conceive of them separate of any object or substance. Colour can be conceived of formlessly, for example. As such, they are considered a distinct category of existence (Hiriyanna 232). Gunas may not have further gunas – there is a distinction made between a quality such as taste and a visesana (variance/mode), such as sweetness. Generally, the distinction is that things considered “qualities” that are attributed to gunas may be scaled – a taste may be sweet or sour, but sweetness and sourness cannot be conceived of without the category of taste – therefore they are subordinate to it (Raju 148).

Karma here refers to action, meaning types of movement. They are rising and falling motion, contraction, expansion and composite or combined motion (e.g. the motions of a human leg) (Raju 149). These are seen as properties of the dravyas as well, although dis, kala and akasa are said to lack motion as they are infinite (Hiriyanna 233).

Samanya translates as “generality” or “universality” and refers to the inherent identifying nature of things. That is, the generic nature of “dogness” that makes all dogs recognizable as such – the combination of dravyas, gunas and karmas unique to dogs (Kak 12). That combination is the same for all dogs – there is one samanya of dogs, which is distinct from the samanya of cows, and so on (Hiriyanna 233).

Visesa, particularity, is the quality that defines two otherwise indistinguishable objects as separate. It is not physically observable itself, but inferred from the fact that two identical things exist in the first place. This is not used lightly – it is only applied to truly indistinguishable objects, which are atomic in scale. While two physical objects can almost always be distinguished from one another by some variance in their gunas, this quality is what distinguishes one atom from the next (Hiriyanna 235). It is also how manases or minds are said to be distinct from one another, as they are also believed to be atomically tiny (Raju 152).

Samavaya proposes the relationships binding these other categories together in coherent manners. It means “inherence” and refers to definitional relationships between inseperable concepts. Substances have this relationship with qualities and with actions, as each (that is, the gunas and karmas) would cease to have value without the former. Likewise, for samanya to be distinct, there must also be visesa, so their relationship is inseparable and necessary (Hiriyanna 236).

The seventh category, abhava, is not an original component of Kanada’s Vaisesikasutras. The category of negation was added as a logical extension of the system. Essentially it addresses the absence of an expected phenomena, object or truth. For example, if an observer is seeking an object and finds that it is missing, the cognized absence of the object is considered a negation – the observer is conceiving of the absence of the object as a distinct phenomenon (Raju 153). Abhava outlines several distinct types of negation – pragabhava and dhvamsabhava refer to the conceptions of an object in the periods before it has been created (e.g. visualizing a home before it has been built) and after it has been destroyed (e.g. remembering a favourite childhood toy, or looking at the broken pieces of an object and recalling its former configuration) to name two (Hiriyanna 238).

The atomic explanation of the composition of the universe begs the question – how is the universe originated? What is the material cause of the paramanu themselves? Later Vaisesika proponents theorize the existence of a God, called Isvara, responsible for creating them – and therefore, the universe. God is conceived of with no identity in particular – it is not Siva, Brahma, etc. Rather, God is the product of logical inference – the universe itself must have a material cause, there appears to be physical order to it suggestive of a controlling “lawmaker,” and the apparent existence of moral order implies an entity dispensing justice (Hiriyanna 243). Kanada himself did not include God in the Vaisesikasutra, but later philosophers such as Sridhara and Udayana consider its existence necessary to explain origination (Hiriyanna 244).



Raju, P.T. (1971) The Philosophical Traditions of India. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Hiriyanna, M. (1932) Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Bhattacharyya, S. (1961). “The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika Doctrine of Qualities.” Philosophy East and      West, Vol. 11, No. 3: 143-151


Related Topics for Further Investigation









Dharma and adharma



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Dan Phipps (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Nyaya Darsana

The Nyaya Darsana (or simply Nyaya) is one of the six orthodox Hindu schools of philosophy. It is highlighted as essentially being a school of logical thought, debate and reasoning. The word Nyaya itself may be translated as “right” or “justice” and therefore its practice, Nyaya-Sastra, translates as “the science of right judgement”. The school has a long history, with its first relevant text – the Nyaya-Sutras – purportedly composed by one Aksapada Gautama (or otherwise rendered Gotama) around 150CE (Vidyabhusana 1978:40-41).


Historical Overview:

Nyaya may be regarded as one of several schools of logic (Hindu and otherwise) that have flourished in and around the Indian subcontinent. Prior to the advent of Nyaya as a recognized branch of philosophy it was preceded by the Anviksiki (literally translated as philosophy) dating back as far as 1500BCE. This school bore a close resemblance to Nyaya as it was characterized by a rigorous study of the nature of the soul, and utilized similar technical principles such as tarka (reason), pramana (proof or evidences, and later means of cognition), and prameya (object of knowledge or cognition). So prominent was this system of philosophy that the Mahabharata records the exploits of the legendary Anviksiki practitioner Astavakra. This Anviksiki sage, on one occasion in his youth confounded a renowned sophist named Vandin, in a battle of wits that ended in Vandin’s death. Sometime during the 6th century BCE, the Anvisiki school divided into a school dedicated to pure philosophical speculation and a school dedicated to logic, which likely gave root to the Nyaya Darsana (Vidyabhusana 1978: 1,13-15).


The history and development of Nyaya as a self-contained school began roughly around 1CE. In this first century, the personality of Narada as a foremost expert in Nyaya-sastra becomes apparent as a character in the Mahabharata displaying expert deductive skills whose life intertwined with the likes of Krsna and the god Brahma. Although Narada was a legendary character there is speculation that he was also based on a real life practitioner of Nyaya-sastra (Naiyayika), to whom several aphorisms in Nyaya literature are attributed (Vidyabhusana 1978:40-44).


The formalisation of the school and its system of logic occurred as a result of the work of one Aksapada Gautama, who was the purported author of the Nyaya-Sutras. Significant mystery surrounds Aksapada as much of his persona is equated with far fetched myths involving the unusual title-name Aksapada derived from “aksa” meaning eye and “pada” meaning feet. One such myth details how Gautama, in a state of absent minded philosophical contemplation fell into a well, and upon his rescue was gifted with eyes in his feet to prevent further accidents due to his contemplative tendencies. It has also been speculated that Aksapada and Gautama may have been separate individuals that each contributed to the Nyaya philosophy [For a more detailed discussion of the identity of Gautama see Vidyabhusana (1975:i-xvi)]. Whatever the identity of the original author(s), the Nyaya-Sutras contain several quotations from Buddhist texts and references other Hindu philosophies which date to the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, which demonstrates that the work available today has been altered from its original form by these additions (Vidybhusana 1978: 46-50).


From the 4th century CE till the 13th century CE the practice of Nyaya-sastra became less popular as Buddhist and Jain forms of logic became more prominent and was in addition considered a heterodox philosophy generally (Vidyabhusana 1978: 152, 157). It was however during the 11th and 12th century CE that Nyaya Darsana became recognized as one of the six Saddarsana (orthodox schools or philosophies). This incorporation may have been due to the school actively supporting the authenticity and teachings of the Vedas. In addition this induction coincided with the recognition of the Naiyayikas as saivas or worshippers of Siva. These several factors likely contributed to the Nyaya school being adopted as an orthodox philosophy (Vidyabhusana 1978:152-156).


The latest significant contribution made to the Nyaya philosophy was the so called Navya-Nyaya or “New-Nyaya”. The philosopher Gangesvara Upadhyaya (or simply Gangesa) was purported to have composed the work called the Tattva-Cintamani. Ganesa, similar to the other contributors discussed, was himself mythologized as being gifted with a boon of logical reasoning by the goddess Kali due to a sacrificial offering. The Tattva-Cintamani was in use from the middle of the 15th century among Mithila Brahmans, and became popularized after the establishment of the Navadvipa University in 1503, which allowed its influence to spread throughout India. This text has been largely responsible for the adoption of the Navya-Nyaya variant of logic in pre-modern India (Vidyabhusana 1978:405-406).


The Classical Nyaya Logic System

The Nyaya-Sutras propose sixteen categories (padarthas) which are meant to represent all that can and does exist. These sixteen categories in order of discussion are instrument of cognition (pramana), object of cognition (prameya), doubt (samsaya), the objective (prayojana), familiar instance (drstanta), established tenet (siddhanta), member (avayava), disputation (tarka), ascertainment (nirnaya), discussion (vada), rejoinder (jalpa), cavil (vitanda), fallacy (hetvadhasa), quibble (chala), legitimate objection (jati) and deficiency (nigrahasthana) (Junankar 3). This extensive list has, however, been reduced by subsequent commentators on the Nyaya-Sutras to only include the first two categories, pramana and prameya. This is due to the following fourteen padarthas being included within the definition of pramana or prameya, as pramana pertains to the observer while prameya pertains to that which is observed. Therefore the investigation of pramana and prameya forms the foundation of the classical Nyaya Darsana. It is of note however that the Nyaya-Sutras ascribe equal importance and relevance to each of these sixteen categories (Junankar 11-12).



The concept of pramana as translated roughly means instrument or means of cognition and realization. According to the NyayaSutras the padartha, pramana may be further broken down to four forms of valid observation; perception, inference, verbal testimony and analogy (Junankar 12; Vidyabhusana 1975: 2-4). To these four pramana subcategories (or pramanas) four other methods of pramana are suggested; historical tradition, inclusion, implication and absence. These additional pramanas are however dismissed as being included within the scope of the first four (Junankar 38-44). The pramana of perception (pratyaksa) is considered foremost of the four pramanas. It is defined by the Naiyayikas as a sensory cognition of an object that is not itself flawed. This pramana within the framework of classical Nyaya requires an interface or contact between the self and sensory input. Furthermore, the self or atman must make contact with the mind and the senses with the object in order for perception to take effect. This system substantiates a clearly materialistic nature to the philosophy that places personal witness above other forms of cognition (Junankar 47-51). These are based on the use of the five senses (touch, hearing, sight, sound and taste) to apprehend the object in question. However, it also substantiates the existence of and a difference between self (atman) and mind (manas), the self as a transcendent feature of consciousness beyond the mind which in turn produces cognitions from the sense-object contact (Junankar 55-68).


Inference, the second pramana, can be summarized as the act of re-measuring a perception. This is derived from the Sanskrit word anumana, which is comprised of anu meaning “after” and mana meaning “measuring”(Junankar 117). Analogy (upamana) or comparison comes next in the series and “is the knowledge of a thing through its similarity to another thing previously well known”(quoted from the Nyaya-Sutra,Vidyabhusana 1975:3). Lastly, verbal testimony (from sabda meaning sound) which is defined as “the instructive assertion of a reliable person”(quoted from the Nyaya-Sutra, Vidyabhusana 1975: 4) , which according to the Nyaya-Sutra is someone with authority to communicate with regard to the object in question.



Of the two simplified pardarthas there remains prameya, the object of cognition. The prameyas listed in the Nyaya-Sutras are the soul or self (atman), body (sarira), sense organ(indriya), objects of sense (artha), intellect or apprehension (buddhi), mind (manas), activity (pravrtti), fault or defect (dosa), transmigration (pretyabhava), fruit or result (phala),pain (duhkha), and release (apavarga) (Junankar 4; Vidyabhusana 1975: 5-7). Of these prameyas the self (atman) and release from pain (apavarga), are of special importance. According to the Naiyayikas the self is the first prameya perceived, and the perception of the self leads to the perception and cognition of the other prameyas. Release or apavarga is in fact the ultimate goal of the Nyaya-Darsana, and is characterized by a release of the self from pain and pleasure in the attainment of bliss (ksema) through tattvajnana or true knowledge of the nature of things. It must be noted that apavarga differs rhetorically from that of liberation or moksa, yet both are correlated with renunciation and have the same semantic meaning in this context. This accomplishment may be met, according to Nyaya philosophy by the obtaining of true knowledge of all things or a true knowledge of the padarthas (Junankar 391, 465-467;Vidyabhusana 1975: 1).

Nyaya System of Proof and Debate:

The system of proof in the Nyaya system revolves around the use of five “steps” or “limbs” which each demarcate a stage in reasoning. These may be illustrated in the following often quoted example [The following is modified from Matilal (1999:4)]:

1) There is a fire on the hill.

2) For there is smoke.

3) Wherever there is smoke, there is fire, as in the kitchen.

4) This is such a case (smoke on the hill).

5) Therefore it is so, there is fire on the hill.

The first step presents the conclusion or thesis, the second explicates some piece of evidence, the third gives an example to uphold the second step. The fourth step instantiates that the case under investigation is like the example mentioned in the third step. The fifth step then simply states the conclusion again as valid. This system of proof was designed not to reflect the essential structure of reasoning, but rather to act as a way of convincing others of the thesis presented in step one. These steps reflect the attitude of debate possessed by ancient Naiyayikas and the goals of their argument structure (Matilal 1999: 4-5).


The classical system of Nyaya debate (katha) according to the Nyaya-Sutras is divided into honest or truth seeking debate (vada), debate that should be won by any means necessary (jalpa) and finally a debate meant to irrevocably and harshly defeat an opponent (vitanda).   The first katha, may occur between a master and his students where truth is the ultimate goal, the second between equals where victory (vijaya) is the goal. The third is characterized by a wholesale attack or rebuttal of the opponents view without giving time or credence to the opponent in any form, the goal being to merely dispute the opponents view, not substantiate ones’ own. In fact the enactor vijaya may be considered in a case such that the philosopher possesses no true opinion and is only intent on defeating his opponents’ position (Matilal 1986: 83-86).


Navya-Nyaya and Conclusion:

The New Nyaya or Navya-Nyaya, was introduced as an advancement over the older school of Nyaya. Its system differs in key aspects from the original school of Nyaya, one prominent aspect being the array of padarthas.


The Navya-Nyaya system details only seven padarthas, as opposed to the sixteen detailed by Gautama in the Nyaya-Sutras (though later scholars reduced them to two, as previously discussed). These padarthas are, substance (dravya), quality (guna), action (kriya), generic character or genus (jati), ultimate difference or that which distinguishes one indivisible object from another (visesa), inherence or self relation (samavaya) and absence (abhava). While it is obvious that these categories differ from the padarthas of Gautama, the most significant difference is the last padartha, abhava or the lack of substance (bhava). The recognition of absence as a part of the system allows the Navy-Nyaya logician to attribute the absence of a quality to an object rather than simply not mention it when categorizing objects (Ingalls 37-38). While the theme of absence was explored in the older Nyaya school particularly in application to the apprehension of the absence of an object it was formally dismissed (Junankar 39).


Another interesting feature of the school is the idea employed by its practitioners that all things that exist are knowable, but not necessarily knowable to human minds. They affirm that if it (whatever “it” may be) is not knowable to human minds, it is at least knowable to a god. Hence there is both determinate and indeterminate knowledge. Determinate knowledge is described as that knowledge that allows for a specific object to be distinguished from other objects, which knowledge is usually expressible in language. Indeterminate knowledge on the other hand is held by Naiyayikas to be knowledge which cannot be expressed in linguistic terms as linguistic terms only refer to determinate objects, not indeterminate objects. They therefore affirm that one may only infer the existence of indeterminate knowledge (Ingalls 39).


While the Nyaya Darsana has played a significant role in the development of the religious landscape of India and surrounding areas, in modern times it is largely framed as a subject of the past. Still its impact remains relevant as a realist philosophical contributor to the shape of the philosophical schools of India (Matilal 1986: 1-15).


References and Further Recommended Reading:

Ingalls, Daniel H. H. (1988) Materials for the Study of Navya-Nyāya Logic. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Junankar, N.S. (1978) Gautama: The Nyaya Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Matilal, Bimal K. (1986) Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.

Matilal, Bimal K. (1999) The Character of Logic in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Vidyabhusana, Satis Chandra (1975) The Nyāya Sutrās of Gotama. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation.

Vidyabhusana, Satis Chandra (1978) History of Indian Logic: ancient, mediaeval and modern schools. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


Related Topics for Further Investigation:




Vaisesika Darsana











Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic:


Article Written by: Jordan Pepper (April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.


In the year 599 BCE, a son was born to the ruler of a territory in India known as Kundalpura. The ruler’s name was Siddhartha, and his wife, Trisala, was sister to the king of a large collection of clans, the Vajjis. They belonged to a religion called Parsvanatha, whose contributing founders were known as Tirthankaras, little did they know that their child would eventually become the twenty-fourth and final. He was named Vardhamana, the name itself meaning “increasing prosperity,” or “Prosperous One,” (Law 19-20) and many Jainists will argue that he was aptly titled indeed, as he would go on to lay the framework for their modern-day religious practices. There were even more sudden implications however, as the fortunes of his father’s kingdom reportedly increased from the moment he was conceived.

Many stories exist detailing childhood events of the boy Vardhamana. Most serve to extol to us the promise evident in him, even as a boy. One such story tells of a group of youngsters, Vardhamana among them, playing in a mango grove. Allegedly a huge snake appeared, and as the other boys ran in fear, he calmly took it in his hands and carried it away. (Shah 29) Another describes a game in which the loser of a race was to carry the winner on his back. However, the story states that a heavenly being joined in, taking the form of a boy, and purposely losing the race. When Vardhamana sat on the back of this “boy,” he “started running and grew in size until he had taken the form of a giant” (Shah 29). Unfazed by this, Vardhamana, as the story goes, punched the giant so hard it was shocked at his incredible strength. It is believed that from this particular story, Vardhamana acquired his more widely used alias, Mahavira, or the Great Hero. Yet another, and perhaps the most important of the childhood stories, details an instance in which his parents where asked where in the house Mahavira was located. His mother replied upstairs, while his father, downstairs. Seemingly conflicting and mutually exclusive viewpoints, we are alerted to the fact that he was in fact on the middle floor, while his mother and father respectively on the first and third floors. (Shah 29) This story demonstrates a fundamental concept in Jainist philosophy of relative pluralism, the notion that contradictory statements can possibly both hold validity, when seen from the proper light. Many other stories exist that illustrate his physical and mental prowess; it was even claimed that he was born with three types of knowledge, mind-based, reasoning, and more incredibly, clairvoyance, the latter being a common theme among Tirthankaras. (Shah 31)

Two schools of thought exist on his interactions with the opposite sex. The Svetambara sect claims he married a woman named Yasoda and had by her a daughter Priyadarsana, while Digambara sects maintain he took his ascetic vows while still single. Regardless of the truth, taking into account the wishes of his parents to be a great warrior and ruler, Vardhamana waited until their deaths, and two years later, with the permission of his brother, Nandivardhana entered into the ascetic life. (Law 21) This is common in the Jainist school of thought, one cannot renounce with permission of one’s family.

One of the first stories of his ascetic life tells of the exodus from his city and of an old man, Harikesi. Upon hearing of the incredible occurrence of a prince relinquishing his wealth and status he “ran towards (Mahavira) to touch his feet and pay his respects.” (Shah 30) The masses expressed their distaste for the man, an outcaste, but were halted by Vardhamana. He indicated that he wished for the old man to proceed, and embraced him, to bid him farewell. Harikesi was overwhelmed with gratitude and wept as he paid his respects. This incident foreshadowed the dynamic social change that Jainist philosophy was to eventually advocate, that of universal equality.

At the moment of his renunciation, it is written that Mahavira acquired a fourth knowledge to accompany the three he was born with. Many believe that he came to possess the ability to “know the thoughts of all creatures in the world.” (Shah 31) From this moment on he “knew and saw all conditions of the world of the gods, men and demons: whence they came, whither they went, when they were born as men or animals, gods or infernal beings, according to their deeds.” (Law 31) This seems a little far-fetched and extraordinary, but regardless of what new powers were imbued to him on renunciation, if any at all, for the first twelve years of his ascetic life, Vardhamana endured great hardship. To a greater extent one can study the details of these twelve years in the Kalpa Sutra. The dawn of ascetic life came with a two-and-a-half day fast, whereupon it is said he “pluck(ed) out his hair (and) left his home forever.” (Shah 30) Soon after he gave half his robe to a poor Brahmin and when the other half became caught in a thorn bush, gave clothing up entirely, remaining from then on without possession. He took food only from the hollow of his hand, and erased from his mind all thought of pleasure, pain, pride, deceit, greed, lustful thoughts and severed his ties to the earth he knew. It is written that he did not ever spend more than one night in a single village, and no more than five in any town. He slept only occasionally, perhaps an hour at a time, and not ever for the sake of pleasure. (Shah 30-31) In short, he “abandoned the care of his body, he bore pain free from desire.” (Law 23) From the recounts of the Kalpa Sutra it is believe the area he covered corresponds to the current day state of Bihar, with forays into Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

Finally, after twelve long years, in what is described as the most important moment in his life, Mahavira “attained the supreme knowledge and final deliverance from the bonds of pleasure and pain.” (Shah 31) He had fasted without food and drink for more than two days, and was near the town of Jrimhikagrama. He sat in a squatting position in the field of a landowner, Samaga, on the bank of the Rujupalika river. Exposed to the sun and heat, with his head bowed, he obtained the supreme and infinite form of knowledge and intuition known as Kevala Jnaana. From then on we can describe Vardhamana as a Kevali or Arhat, one who has attained enlightenment. (Law 31) Another term frequently used to describe him from this point on is Jina, or one who has conquered himself. (Shah 31)

Now, at forty-two years of age, having achieved his liberation, Mahavira began the next stage of his life, and perhaps the most influential in contemporary life, the stage of religious teacher. His followers were to be referred to as Nirgranthas, and himself Nirgrantha, or he who is freed from all bonds. (Law 20) He travelled from place to place, spreading enlightenment. In particular, his first declaration was so moving it inspired many to join him, it went as follows:

“I am all knowing and all seeing and possessed of infinite knowledge. Whether I am walking or standing still, whether I sleep or remain awake, supreme knowledge and intuition are with me, constantly and continuously. There are, O Nirgranthas, sinful acts that you have done in the past which you must now undo by this acute form of austerity. Now that you will be living a restrained life as regards your acts, speech and thought, this will negate the effects of Karma for the future. Thus, by the exhaustion of the foroe of past deeds through penance, and the non-accumulation of the effects of new acts, [you are assured] of the end of the future course [of the effects of karma] and the resultant rebirths, of the destruction of the effects of karma, and from that the destruction of pain, and from that of the destruction of mental feelings, and from that the complete absence of all kinds of pain.” (Shah 32)

It is claimed that the main characteristics of Tirthankaras’ utterances was that “once it was heard by audience, it turned into their respective dialect and was easily understood by them,” (Nagraj 16) and Mahavira was no different. Though this claim is a little fantastic, it still expresses once again the desire to erase the bonds of classes and sexes in an attempt to communicate to all the people of the nation. In fact it is likely this just embellishes the novel practice he had of speaking to the lesser people in their indigenous languages instead of the Sanskrit they held little knowledge of.

Vardhamana was also a great leader and organizer, he divided his followers initially into two categories, those who could follow his teachings fully, ascetics, and those that were to be held to less strict standards, lay followers. The ascetics as they were to be known took the five great vows:

1. Ahimsa – non-violence and reverence for all life

2. Satya – truthfulness

3. Asteya – not taking anything without the owner’s permission

4. Brahmacarya – control over the senses, chastity

5. Aparigraha – non-attachment to worldly things (Shah 32-33)

From this classification and that of gender we arrive at the current-day four-fold structure that exists today. It is to be noted, however, that despite these divisions, they were nothing more than classifications, for Mahavira “made no distinction between people of one caste or class and another, nor between men and women; and he did not lay down one set of rules for monks and another for nuns, nor one for male lay followers and another for females.” (Shah 34)

In the year 527 BCE, on the banks of a lake outside the town now known as Pavapuri, Vardhamana attained Moksa and his physical form passed from this world. Records indicate that the eighteen kings of the surrounding kingdoms illuminated their respective lands “since the light of intelligence (was) gone.” (Shah 35) This day is even now marked by the illumination of the dark, and is known as Dipavali or Divali, the Festival of Lamps, “symbolizing the light of knowledge revealing the truth and illuminating the soul when the master was no longer physically present.” (Shah 36) Though contention remains as to whether the primary root of this festival is the great Jina; however, many claim the origins should be attributed to other influences.

Mahavira is widely regarded as the greatest sage to have ever lived. His legacy is a lasting one in the form of the religion he helped crystallize into what is known as modern day Jainism. It has experienced many downturns and revivals in the years since his passing, and is most known for its committed non-violence and respect for all living beings, which is paralleled in the vows its early followers took. Perhaps just as importantly, and as with Buddhist thought which followed, Vardhamana’s teachings brought about a push for greater equality in what is now known as India, among men, women, and divergent class/caste members.

Related Terms/Further Readings






Bhagavati Sutra



Dipavali, Divali





Kalpa Sutra














Uttar Pradesh




Law, Bimala Churn (2002) Mahavira: His Life and Teachings Kolkata: Maha Bodhi Book Agency

Shah, Natubhai (2004) Jainism: The World of Conquerors Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Nagraj, Muni (2003) Agama and Tripitaka: A Comparative Study of Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha New Delhi: Today and Tomorrow’s Printers and Publishers

Related Websites

Written by Jesse VanAlstine (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Sankhya Philosophy

Sankhya Philosophy is best described as a form of substance dualism. This form of substance dualism has a division between consciousness and matter, which is seen as independent from one another and relying on one another at the same time (Schweizer 846). This division is described in several ways, such as: thoughts and feelings versus intellect, nature versus soul, non-eternal versus eternal, non-spiritual versus spiritual, and impure versus pure to name a few (Majumdar 1926a: 255) (Everett 311). The most significant division related to Sankhya Philosophy is between the entity Purusa and the entity Prakriti. The other listed divisions are used to describe or explain Purusa and Prakriti (Majumdar 1926a: 255).

In order to understand Sankhya Philosophy it is necessary to understand that Purusa and Prakriti are two separate elements of consciousness (Everett 314). However, Purusa and Prakriti are not and cannot be independent from one another. “… Purusa has the power of perceiving, but no power of acting, whereas Prakriti has the power of acting, but no power of perceiving” (Majumdar 1925: 52). This quote describes the guidance versus activity relationship that Purusa and Prakriti share. Moreover, this quote demonstrates the point that Purusa needs Prakriti just as Prakriti needs Purusa. The union between Purusa and Prakriti is required to move through one’s life (Majumdar 1925: 53).

Although Purusa and Prakriti are united, each has distinct features of their own. Prakriti is in reference to objects, matter, all material that includes the mind and body. Antahkarana means inner instrument and refers to the three components of the mind, which is associated with Prakriti. The first component is manas, which means mind. Manas is described as cognition, perception, and low intellect. The second component is buddhi, which means intellect or reason. Buddhi is described as a high level of intellect function that uses intuition, insight, and reflection. The final component is ahamkara, which means ego. Ahamkara is described as what claims ownership and what makes something personal (Schweizer 848). Prakriti alone is subconscious, but is capable of consciousness through the influence of Purusa. This is clarified through an example; “… fire burns only when in contact with a combustible thing…” Prakriti is the fire and Purusa being what makes fire burn (Majumdar 1926b: 56).

Since Prakriti is mostly in reference to the subconscious it is understandable that Purusa is mostly in reference to consciousness. Each individual is thought to have their own Purusa and each Purusa is unique from the next, but all Purusas have similar characteristics (Majumdar 1925: 61). Purusa is described as awareness, intelligence, the subject, the self, and the soul (Schweizer 849) (Everett 311). A look at the features of both Prakriti and Purusa gives further knowledge in interpreting the Sankhya philosophical view of Prakriti and Purusa’s union with each other.

The union between Purusa and Prakriti is additionally explained through the concept of bandha, which means bondage. There are three kinds of pain associated with bondage. These pains are intrinsic, extrinsic, and supernatural. The pains arise from Purusa’s experience with Prakriti (Majumdar 1926a: 253). Purusa is eternally bound and never separate from Prakriti. Prakriti is emotions, possessions, wants, desires, etc. Purusa is consumed with Prakriti. Purusa is a forgotten self and only identifies itself combined with what Prakriti is. Misery is what results from the delusion of what Purusa identifies itself as (Majumdar 1926a: 254).

According to the Sankhya Philosophy there are different kinds of knowledge. The delusion that Purusa has of what it identifies itself as is due to avidya, which means false knowledge (Majumdar 1926a: 255). The false knowledge that Purusa holds is that it needs to separate itself from Prakriti and identify itself as an individual entity. However, separation of Prakriti and Purusa is not possible. What must happen is a modification of one’s view or perspective. This can be achieved through vidya, which is discriminative knowledge or the knowledge of distinction. Vidya can be found through extensive religious training and practices. When vidya is attained it is then possible to see that Prakriti and Purusa are both the same and separate. Furthermore, the relationship between Prakriti and Purusa is relative not absolute (Majumdar 1926a: 266).

The union of Prakriti and Purusa is not perfect. The Sankhya Philosophy comments on the imperfect union by reflecting that things do not begin as perfect, but have the possibility to become perfect (Majumdar 1926b: 63). The goal is to achieve liberation or release. However, liberation or release cannot be achieved through just one life. Liberation and release may be achieved through many lives of true knowledge (Majumdar 1926a: 259).

The union of Prakriti and Purusa in Sankhya Philosophy view is equal to creation (Majumdar 1925: 57). The creation of this union allows one to move through one’s life. This is done by means of actions and guidance interacting with one another. Prakriti produces deliberate actions because it has the desire to release Purusa, but this is only made possible because Purusa guides Prakriti to do so. However, this is only workable after Purusa has had complete satisfaction of knowledge and enjoyment by Prakriti. Only then can liberation or release come (Majumdar 1925: 55).

Since Sankhya Philosophy considers the union of Prakriti and Purusa as creation and a beginning that consists of imperfection, Sankhya Philosophy also considers the union of Prakriti and Purusa as evolution. The perspective of Prakriti and Purusa being referred to as evolution comes from the many experiences Purusa goes through with Prakriti (Majumdar 1926a: 253). As with any other belief system, this philosophy is not different in acknowledging that every experience brings change and growth. The difference, however, is that this philosophy views that change and growth is done through many lives full of many experiences and acquirement of knowledge, not just one life’s worth of experiences and knowledge (Majumdar 1926a: 259). Therefore, according to Sankhya Philosophy, the union of Prakriti and Purusa from creation to liberation or release is a system that evolves through time.


Everett, C. C. (1899) “The Psychology of the Vedanta and Sankhya Philosophies”. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 20, 309-316.

Majumdar, A.K. (1925) “The Doctrine of Evolution in the Sankhya Philosophy”. The Philosophical Review, 34 (1), 51-69.

Majumdar, A.K. (1926a) “The Doctrine of Bondage and Release in the Sankhya Philosophy”. The Philosophical Review, 35 (3), 253-266.

Majumdar, A.K. (1926b) “The Personalistic Conception of Nature as Expounded in the Sankhya Philosophy”. The Philosophical Review, 35 (1), 53-63.

Schweizer, P. (1993) “Mind/Consciousness Dualism in Sankhya-Yoga Philosophy”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 53 (4), 845-859.

Related Topics for Further Investigation





The Sankhya Pravachana Sutram

Yoga Sutram

The Sankhya Karika





The Ekadasa Indriya


Noteworthy Websites Relate to the Topic

Written by Lynnette Johnson (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Carvarka (Materialist) Philosophy

The Carvaka (sweet-talkers), also known as Lokayata philosophy, is a heterodox Hindu philosophy named after its founder and often classified with its fellow dissenter philosophies of Buddhism and Jainism. However, unlike Jainism and Buddhism, Carvaka has not turned into its own religious sect and remains a philosophical ideal. Being a heterodox school of thought means that Carvaka rejects the idea that the Vedas are revealed texts (sruti) and also rejects the power of the Brahmin priestly class (see King 19). It is a materialistic philosophy that places most of its emphasis on the here and now and life as we perceive it as we live through it. The Carvaka system only accepts perceived knowledge to be true and therefore dismisses the concept of an afterlife. Although the philosophy is believed to be quite old, there are very few texts that deal directly with the system itself.

There is no single piece of extant literature that is solely based on the materialistic philosophy of the Carvaka. The few writings that clearly relate to the system are not very old in Hindu terms (a few centuries) but many scholars believe that there is evidence of criticisms of the Carvaka principles in earlier writings by adversary philosophers such as Sankara (Hiriyanna 187). The Carvakas played a significant role in the history of Indian philosophy (King 21). It was very unnerving to the leaders and priests of the orthodox tradition because of the rejection of their sacred texts and the rejection of immaterial forms of existence. The importance of the materialist philosophy is most likely underplayed because of the lack of extant texts of Carvaka or Lokayata itself. The Brhaspati Sutra apparently set out the principles of the system but the text has been lost. The orthodox opposition wrote the only known writings pertaining to the philosophy. The only possible extant writing on the Caravaka philosophy is Destruction of Philosophical Theories (Tattvopaplavasimha) by Jayarasi Bhatta (King 19). Even this is not directly Carvaka; it is explained more as radical skepticism than materialism. Still the fact that Jayarasi was from a school of skeptical Lokayatikas gives writings that are closely related to and are not completely critical of the Carvaka philosophy.

The lack of texts to support it made the tradition unlikely to survive, unlike its fellow heterodox traditions of Buddhism and Jainism adhering to their own sacred texts. The only possible extant writing on the Carvaka philosophy is Destruction of Philosophical Theories (Tattvopaplavasimha) by Jayarasi Bhatta (King 19). Even this is not directly Carvaka; it is explained more as radical skepticism than materialism. Still the fact that Jayarasi was from a school of skeptical Lokayatikas gives writings that are closely related to and are not completely critical of the Carvaka philosophy. There is also evidence of the Carvaka system in the Rgveda. The poets of the Rgveda never show a desire to reach another world but instead put emphasis on the here and now facts of life, just as the Carvaka system does (Raja 24). The philosophy receives much ridicule in ancient literature. This is presumed to be because of the gaps and deficiencies in the system of thought itself because fellow heterodox systems that reject the Vedas and authority of the priestly class do not receive such negative commentary. Since most of the writings on the Carvaka are by followers of opposing schools of thought, it may be misinterpreted and its weaknesses overly emphasized.

One of the reasons that many philosophers reject Carvaka is because of the dogma of perception. The doctrine states that the only valid knowledge (pranama) is that which is directly perceived– sense knowledge. Reasoning is completely rejected as a valid way of acquiring knowledge (King 132). The explanation for this is that there is not sufficient cause for believing in the truth of the inductive relation that forms the basis for the idea. The inductive relation can be different to each individual and is not physically apparent. It takes on the approach of modern science (Raja 30). Universal relationships can be accepted only if they can be warranted by direct observation (anubhava), much like a science experiment. Inference requires perceptual knowledge to establish its validity. Giving probabilities rather than definitive answers was the main reason for resistance to inferential reasoning (King 133). The limitations on thought and reasoning provide a rigid barrier to giving deeper meaning to life and thereby contribute any new ideas or perspectives to Indian philosophy (darshanas).

In ancient Hindu society the upper three varnas were allowed to participate in Vedic ritual practices and receive an education. The lack of inclusiveness of commoners may have provided a base for their support of Carvaka. Not being allowed to participate in Vedic rituals and having the powerful priestly class causing dissent made the philosophy’s position of rejection of the Vedas and Brahmins very appealing (King 17). It is easy to reject the power of the Vedic text when one is not allowed to participate in rituals or is unable to read them.

The specific purposes of human existence are undecided from the Carvaka philosophical viewpoint. In traditional Hindu society righteousness (dharma), pleasure (kama), worldly success (artha), and liberation (moksa) were the basic principles of human existence. The materialists believed that the main goal of life was kama or the pursuit of pleasure (King 18). A follower of the doctrine would try to maximize the pleasures in his or her life. The Carvaka promotes a lifestyle based on the avoidance of sorrow or suffering. Some scholars also believe that success or wealth (artha) was another main goal of the Carvaka life. The philosophy is often criticized because of these materialistic purposes for life. In later writings distinctions seem to have been made between refined materialism, which had a hierarchical scheme of pleasures, and approving of intellecual over sensual pleasure, and a more crude materialism (King 18). The hierarchal system is probably a more valid description of how the original philosophy was practiced, with intellect being important and adherents not having blatant disregard for the moral issues that go along with the attempt to have artha and kama.

Lokayata often has a negative reputation because of the lack of dharma as an absolute goal of life. The philosophy cannot just be projected as an unreflective hedonistic perspective. Dealing with moral issues and rejecting the actions that may cause harm to others has evidentiary support (King 19). Since there was a lack of the goal of righteousness derived from dharma, the idea of kama controlled actions of the followers. Kama was not believed to be for just oneself, but a universal goal to avoid suffering for oneself and others. Carvaka also condemned war and the Vedic animal sacrifices much like the Jainas and Buddhists (Chattopadhyaya 31). Both of these practices add to the suffering of other individuals, making them unacceptable to the Lokayata.

The doctrine dismisses all gods, devas and supernatural beings (Hiriyanna 193). It is also recognized that there is no god who governs the universe, no life after death, or conscience (dharma). The material world is all that exists and there are no other worlds in which to be reborn. This fixates a follower totally on the world of sense around them and does not inspire elevated thoughts of a deeper reality. There is no god who created the world, but a conglomeration of matter that is able to produce things out of itself (Dasgupta 175). Carvaka rejects the idea of Brahman because nobody has come back to relate to us what happens after death. Brahman is inferred, and cannot be perceived by the senses. Therefore the Carvaka rejects Brahman. Only the four elements of earth, fire, water and air are recognized and these together produce intelligence that is destroyed when the body perishes. Just like intelligence, atman or the soul is not believed to be a separate entity from the body as it is unable to be demonstrated that it does exists.

Although there are no remaining practitioners of the Carvaka philosophy it still remains an integral part of Indian philosophical history. There may be resurgence in the interest and study of such materialistic philosophies such as this with the changing views of western culture today.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Chattopadhyaya, D. (1968) Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.

Dasgupta, Surendranath (1962) A History of Indian Philosophy: vol. V. New York, N.Y.: The Cambridge University Press.

Hiriyanna, M. (1968) Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.

King, Richard (2000) Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. New Delhi: Maya Publishers PVT. LTD.

Raja, Kunhan C. (1974) Some Fundamental Problems in Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Brhaspati Sutra












Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Megan Gajdostik (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.