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The genesis and evolution of early Indian thought-1

The genesis and evolution of early Indian thought-1

-A study into the evolution of Indian Philosophical Systems and their influence

—— © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary

(Note: This article is largely adapted from the works of Sri S. K. Ramachandra Rao, whose studies and research I have drawn from, apart from my own studies in the ancient Indian philosophies. Please see the reference list at the end of this article for three of Sri S. K. Ramachandra Rao’s published works that I have drawn from for this article)


The roots of most religious and philosophical thought of India are lost in the hoary past. Most Indian thought that we study today as a systematized body of knowledge, has its roots in the pre-historic mists, in the depths of the unconscious. The roots may be in the form of spiritual impulses arising from the unconscious minds of the pre-historic people which led to a multiplicity of traditions. What we know of the various sects, cults, traditions and religions of India today is largely based on later periods of time, especially post-vedic, when the various ideas were systematized as distinct schools of thought. Quite often the modern versions and interpretations are the result of careful evaluation of the particular school of thought as well as its rival schools of thought. At times certain compelling ideas of a different school of thought that was earlier perceived as a rival, were not only incorporated but also presented as part of one’s own school of thought. Thus for instance, Samkhya and Yoga, which were not within the Vedic fold originally, were later embraced into the Vedic corpus, resulting in a newer version.

The various traditional schools of philosophy of India are generally grouped under two heads- orthodox and heterodox. The believers of the Vedas base this classification based on the acceptance of the Vedas or otherwise. According to the classical version, the orthodox (astika) schools either accept the Vedas or at least do not oppose or contradict the vedas. The heterodox (nastika) schools explicitly reject the claim of the vedas to being an independently valid source of knowledge about dharma and moksha .

The Orthodox and Heterodox Philosophical Systems


Heterodox systems

The various Indian schools of philosophy and religion differ mainly on questions of dharma and moksha . The heterodox Indian schools explicitly reject the claim of the vedas to being an independently valid source of knowledge about dharma and moksha . These schools are:

  • Lokayatas and Charvakas (so called Materialists, at times referred to as the skeptics)
  • Bauddhas or Buddhists
  • Jainas or Jains

The Charvaka school seems to have died a natural death in India . The Charvakas are said to have recognized only artha and kama as valid goals in life, both dharma and moksha not being amenable to direct perception, and therefore invalid. A more liberal view regards this school as an Indian version of skepticism. On the other hand both Buddhism and Jainism place a high value on dharma and moksha , but deny the validity of the vedas in this regard.


Orthodox systems/Shad darsanas

The so called orthodox/theistic or Astika philosophies of India are six and referred to as the ‘Shad Darsanas’ . It is not uncommon to group these six schools into three based on some criteria.

•  Nyaya & Vaiseshika
•  Samkhya & Yoga
•  Purva mimamsa and Vedanta (also called Uttara Mimamsa)

It is actually a comparatively recent trend (post Samkaran) that both Samkhya and Yoga have been regarded as Astika or Orthodox systems.


The Tantric and Vedic Traditions

Broadly speaking there are two ancient traditions in India , both of which are independent as well as inter-mixed at times- the Tantric and the Vedic. In his commentary on Manu (II. 1.) Kullukabhatta, divides traditional knowledge into Vedic and Tantric. While some argue that both are same, the division is definitely not baseless. Though later Tantric writers made deliberate attempts to base their doctrines on the Vedas, certain orthodox sections within the Vedic tradition emphasize the anti-vedic character of the Tantras. Much of the systematized traditional knowledge is of later times, though the germs of these ideas belong to pre-historic times.

Even during the Vedic times, there were non-conformists among the vedic seers themselves. And altogether outside the Vedic fold, there were some brilliant seers and thinkers. All these people seem to have been collectively referred to as the ‘Vratyas’. The Vraatyas included a multiplicity of local traditions and cults that resisted or at least seemed to be indifferent and unaffected by the Vedic impact. Those included under the Vratyas seem to range from the primitive, aggressive and erotic to the highly refined austere ascetics. Many scholars have sought to identify the vratyas. Some identify them with the Samkhya- Yoga ascetics. Some speculate that the vratyas were nomadic tribals. Yet others identify them with the forerunners of the Saivas. There is an entire sukta in the 15 th khanda of the Atharva veda called the ‘vratya sukta’. The Kesi sukta of the Rg veda also seems to be related to the same. In fact Siva-Rudra is referred to as ‘Eka- Vratya’.

The Tantric tradition seems to be a survival of this Vratya culture. Though later authors portray Tantra as part of the Vedic tradition, tantra seems to be non-vedic for long periods of time intermittently. The vratyas seem to be rebels within the same Vedic culture. Though the Veda and Tantra seem to be different at times, they are two ways of approaching the ultimate. The Veda and Tantra seem to be like two snakes coiled around each other, rather two paths that converge at regular intervals, but seem to diverge in between these points of convergence. This gives rise to two notions- one that they are the same, the other that they are different. It is hard to say anything with certainty. The wisdom (both Vedic as well as Tantric) itself is considered timeless- with no beginning or end. But historically both the paths seem to converge at certain times when it is recognized that they are the same, giving rise to statements that the Veda and Tantra are very much the same or that the teachings of tantra are vedic at heart. But it cannot be denied that during the periods of divergence, the tantric path seems to have been at divergence so much that certain ideas and practices of tantra come across as not merely non-vedic , but anti-vedic in nature.



The Yoga that we are acquainted with today is the Vedantic version with a theistic basis and not the same as the original version or the one that was redacted by Patanjali. It should be remembered that even by Patanjali’s own admission, he was not the founder of the system. Yoga in its earliest forms was a set of psycho-spiritual practices from the hoary past. The theoretical basis for Yoga was later supplied by Samkhya, the mother of all Indian philosophies. Gradually the heterodox practices of Yoga developed into a systematized world view which finds expression in Patanjali’s Yoga. The more ancient and original texts on Samkhya- like the Sashti tantra, Mathara bhasya and Atreya tantra- are no longer extant. In its original forms Samkhya was a protagonist of the naturalistic, pluralistic and materialistic viewpoints. Originally Samkhya seems to have been non-vedic. From this early non-vedic nucleus that gave rise to the distinct systems of Samkhya-Yoga, other heterodox Indian systems too seem to have evolved. While Jainism based its theory mostly on Samkhya, Buddhism took mostly to Yoga. Due to regular systematizations all these systems are now vastly different from their beginnings.

The impetus for systematization seems to have come from the Upanishadic phase when Vedic knowledge began to be systematized. In spite of the divergent paths that each of these systems seem to have adopted, all these systems continued to influence each other. There were a series of successful contacts between the Vedic tradition and the heterodox systems including earlier Samkhya-Yoga. One thing that was originally common to all these four great systems (Samkhya-Yoga, Jaina and Bauddha) is either the rejection or minimal involvement of any Supernatural principle. They were uncompromisingly pragmatic and there was hardly any role for grace. There was a heavy (if not absolute) reliance on human effort or purushardha. The Upanishads on the other hand rely also on grace and look to divine intervention, in spite of their emphasis on purushardha.

As already stated, in the ancient times Samkhya was considered veda bahya (non-vedic) if not veda viruddha (anti-vedic), and hence attracted criticism from most acharyas including Samkara, Ramanuja and Madhva. Samkhya was gradually incorporated into the Vedic tradition as it was systematized and reconstructed in various stages. Since the 16 th century both Samkhya and Yoga have been regarded as orthodox (astika) systems and were no more considered heterodox (nastika). What are the sources of Samkhya, apart from Iswara Krsna’s work (200AD) and the comparatively recent Kapila Sutras (1400AD?). While the original works like Sashti tantra, Matharas bhasya and Atreya tantra are lost and no more extant, Ahirbudhnya-samhita, Mahabharata and Bhagawad gita contain accounts of Samkhya. The Mahabharata itself mentions three distinct schools of Samkhya- one enumerating 24 tattvas (categories) which are all material (thus leaving no room for the spirit), a second school of thought that postulates 25 categories including the purusha as the spirit or conscious self, and a third that enumerates 26 tattwas including God as supreme being, Purushottama.

The Samkhya tradition ascribes itself to sage Kapila’s teachings. Kapila is said to have taught to his disciple Asuri, who in turn taught to Panchasikha. The atheistic school of Samkhya is generally ascribed to Panchasikha. Samkhya is a dualistic school based on Kapila’s teachings and deals principally with two main principles- the Purusha and Prakriti. The Samkhyans in keeping with the Tantric tradition, hold that natural laws (svabhava) are responsible for evolution and do not think it necessary to postulate any cause beyond nature (nimittaataranirapeksha). The ancient Samkhyan strikes a modern note while postulating that all evolution starts from the disturbance of an original state of equilibrium (saamyaavastha), wherein all gunas are balanced.

While Iswara Krsna’s work and the much later Kapila Sutras and its commentaries are well known, not many appreciate Panchasikha fully. The Mahabharata contains an account of Panchasikha’s school of Samkhya . From the account in Mahabharata as well as Hariharananda-Aranya’s annotation of the Samkhya sutras of Panchasikha, one can glean that Panchasikha had set the scene for psycho-cosmological speculations in India . In this sense Swami Vivekananda is right when he refers to Samkhya as the Mother of all philosophies. No wonder Charaka, one of the main fathers of Ayurveda as we know it today, relied heavily on Samkhya.


Samkhya-Yoga and Ayurveda

The Charaka Samhita is believed to have been around since 400-200 BCE. It is considered to be one of the oldest and the most important ancient authoritative writings on Ayurveda, the other one being Sushruta Samhita. Both the Charaka Samhita and Sushruta samhita narrate the legends connected with the origin and development of Ayurveda. It is Punarvasu Atreya who formed the Atreya school of physicians. Agnivesa, the best among the six disciples of Atreya , wrote the Agnivesha Samhita, that was later redacted by Charaka. Part of it was incomplete, which was later redacted by Dridhabala. Thus came the book Charaka Samhita as we see it today.

Now resuming the connection to Samkhya, both Charaka and Panchasikha retained the Tantric ideas along with the original Samkhya account by subscribing to deha-tattwa or the primacy of the body principle. While they admitted of the existence of the soul or purusha and also its possible occurrence as the transcendental Self, utmost importance was given to the empirical or embodied self (jivatma) in contradistinction to the transcendental purusha (Paramatma). Thus the word purusha comprehends both these aspects or states. Consciousness is seen more as an emergent phenomenon, arising out of the mind-body complex that is alive. The self (jivatma) merely upholds it.

Human constitution is of great interest to both Panchasikha as well as Charaka because of its pragmatic value for good health which in turn is necessary for emancipation. Here 24 categories are enumerated, in two groups- Prakrti and Vikaras (modifications). They employ a very interesting term ‘rasi-purusha’. Man is seen as a conglomeration (‘rasi’ means ‘heap’), a gestalt, a configuration, as a mind-body complex, of interrelated but discrete items. The phenomenal self is accepted by the Samkhyan, but he denies the soul any partaking of the Divine Spirit. Consciousness emerges from the gestalt, the conglomeration, the mind-body complex called ‘rasi-purusha’. Consciousness belongs to this organized conglomeration, but is not the essential nature of the Self. Consciousness is only a quality that is incidental to the involvement of the Self in the phenomenal mass or heap. The ancient Samkhyan held that consciousness continues only as long as one lives and ceases to exist at death.

The phenomenal self becomes aware of the external world and internal feelings due to the involvement of sense organs and mind. All experiences occur within this framework. Pleasure, pain, knowledge, everything occurs only here. The ancient Samkhyan coined a remarkably modern expression for this- ‘kshetra’, meaning ‘field’. In other words the psycho-physical complex called man is according to the Samkhyan essentially a field wherein the body, senses, mind, ego and the elements operate as forces. All experiences are explained as due to the operation of these field forces. However in spite of the forces which are in an incessant flux, the field (kshetra) retains continuity and identity as long as the phenomenal self is involved in it. Consciousness occurs as a field-quality and has a source or core on which it is founded. But this core is unmanifest (avyakta) and is not committed to the field absolutely, and is the necessary background and support for the field. This is referred to as the ‘knower of the field’ or ‘kshetrajna’. Here the knower implies an ‘awareness’ rather than any real knowledge.

Both Panchasikha and Charaka regard the ultimate truth as a unified category, comprehending both nature (prakiti) and the person (purusha) or spirit. Absolute dualism of the later classical Samkhyan is missing in their thought. Nature involves the spirit or purusha in an unmanifest condition (purushaavasthamavyaktam). Hence Charaka groups the categories only into nature (prakrti) and the modifications thereof (vikaras). But what are the modifications (vikaras) due to? The consciousness of the details of the phenomenal world (samvedana) is due to the subliminal awareness which is inverted on itself (prati-samvedana). In other words consciousness of the details of the phenomenal world are brought about by the inverted awareness (prati-samvedana). This is what the early Samkhyan postulates. Charaka relies heavily on this early Samkhyan world view while laying the foundations of Ayurveda. It has to be remembered that Charaka’s work is only a redaction of Agnivesa’s work, which in turn is based on Atreya’s school of medicine, the other school being that of Dhanwantari Divodas (mentioned by Sushruta in the other Ayurvedic classic ‘Sushruta Samhita’). Charaka who belongs to the Atreya school of medicine, relies heavily on what seems to be the early Samkhyan view and is similar to Panchasikha’s view. It should be remembered that one of the three earliest texts of Samkhya that are referred to in other texts but no longer extant, is ‘Atreya Tantra’, the other two being ‘Sashti tantra’, and ‘Matharas bhasya’. Charaka (or even Agnivesa whose work Charaka redacted) being a follower of the Atreya school of medicine, may have relied on ‘Atreya tantra’ for the Samkhyan foundations.

The relationship between the psycho-physical ‘field’ (kshetra) and the unmanifest ‘field -knower’ (‘kshetrajna’) constituted an important issue in the later Samkhya discussions. The ‘kshetrajna’ was identified as an independent category, thus adding the 25 th category or tattwa. The ‘unmanifest’ was made a part of the field, as the living principle within the mind-body complex. Thus the ‘kshetrajna’ or ‘field knower’ functions as the foundation (adhishtana) for the field. This development over the early Samkhyan view is necessary for a theistic interpretation. But early Samkhya explains the relationship between the ‘field’ and ‘field-knower’ on the basis of inverted awareness or ‘prati-samvedana’.

A bird’s eye view of early Samkhya

The basic propositions are really simple. The world that we experience is real. It is evolved and is in an incessant state of flux. There are subjects of experience (purusha), objects of experience (artha) and instruments of experience (indriya). The subjects are numerous, each distinguished by a psychophysical complex called ‘deha’ or body. The subjects are not really materially important for evolution or experience. What matters is nature (prakrti) and is the most important (pradhana). Prakrti or Nature is the primal constituent or essential materiality. That is why Samkhya is also referred to as ‘Pradhana-vada’. While the spirit is unmanifest, Nature or Prakrti is productive (prasava-dharmi) because of the ‘Gunas’, which are the modes of being and are objective, ultimate constituents of experience. They are infinite in number, but are grouped under three types for the sake of understanding. The trigunas are- Sattwa, Rajas, Tamas.

—- to be continued in part 2


•  Rao S.K. Ramachandra, Darsanodaya. Early Indian Thought, Kalpatharu Research Academy , Bangalore , 1999.

•  Rao S.K. Ramachandra, “Rgveda – Darsana, Volume Seven”, Kalpatharu Research Academy , Bangalore , 2001.

•  Rao S.K. Ramachandra, “Rgveda – Darsana, Volume Eight”, Kalpatharu Research Academy , Bangalore , 2001.