The Six Systems of Vedic Philosophy
Vedic knowledge comprises the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sāma, and Atharva) with their numerous Samhita, 108 Upanishad, 18 Purāna, Mahabharata, dozens of Tantra texts, and so forth. The above texts, however, are not exhaustive; for example, they don’t contain meticulous details on astronomy, linguistics, grammar, logical reasoning, life sciences, architecture, economics and government, music and art, and so forth. The Vedic texts are also so expansive that it is difficult for anybody to even read all the texts in one life, let alone comprehend their meanings, or their ultimate conclusion. Considering these problems, the Six Systems of Vedic Philosophy were devised to (1) provide a detailed explanation of the key Vedic ideas, (2) present philosophical ideas separate from stories for academic development, (3) apply the Vedic knowledge to practical matters, and (4) complement Vedic texts with the works of other teachers who were followers of the Vedic tradition, but whose voice may have been left out of the Vedic texts. This post discusses the relevance of the Six Systems of Philosophy both for understanding the Vedic mainstream, as well as for how their approach can be the mainstay of academic activity.
Table of Contents
Understanding the Six Systems
By far the best known of the six systems today is Vedānta. It has become popular because people lost the ability to read and understand expansive books, and there was a need to summarize the conclusions of Vedic philosophy in a succinct form for the common man. The term “Vedānta” literally means the “conclusion of knowledge”. It deals with the nature of reality beyond the phenomena, the questions of how this reality produces the phenomenal world, how the living entity enters the phenomenal world, and how he can get out of the miseries of the present world. Vedānta is the attempt to condense extremely vast and complex ideology into simple and accessible conclusions.
Once we understand the conclusions of knowledge, obviously we have to do something about it. That something involves a practice which we commonly call “religion”, dharma, etc. What is our dharma, duty, or practice, given that the conclusion of all knowledge is given by Vedānta? What should the common man and woman do, after they understand the conclusion? What is the best method for exiting the life of temporary happiness or suffering and attaining eternal happiness by transcending material existence? The inquiry into these questions is called Mimānsa. Unlike the Vedānta school which is preoccupied with the theoretical questions of the nature of reality and our entanglement, the Mimānsa School is preoccupied with the pragmatic practice of religion, and how by the realization of reality one can become freed of the material entanglement.
To transcend the material world, we have to understand how the material world binds us into the repeated cycle of birth and death through guna and karma. We cannot solve a problem unless we know what the problem is. Vedānta tells us how we entered the world, but what keeps us bound to the world? To understand our bondage we need to know the nature of matter and how it creates the living body. This gives rise to two further schools of philosophy called Sāńkhya and Yoga. The Sāńkhya school deals with the study of material elements including the sense objects, the senses, the mind, intellect, ego, and morality, the nature of time, the material desires of lifetimes, and how these elements are organized hierarchically into a tree-like structure from abstract to detailed.
The Yoga school incorporates the understanding developed in Sāńkhya and extends it to the understanding of the living body, including the working of the prāna or life force, how the soul is covered by its past habits called guna, which create the consequences of actions called karma, which lead to the transmigration of the soul in which prāna carries the soul from one body to another. Yoga philosophy deals with the different types of material coverings such as the gross body, the subtle body, and the causal body, and how the life force energizes all these bodies. It concludes that since the life force takes the soul from one body to another, by understanding the life force and learning to control it, the soul can transfer itself into the desired type of body, or become free of all bodies.
By and large this covers practically everything given in the Vedic texts, but the philosophers of yore were not satisfied simply by enunciating the different types of bodies and various types of material elements. They wanted something even more fundamental and rigorous. Thus arose two more schools of philosophy called Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika which deal with logical argument and atomism respectively. The idea was simple: the world is comprised of atoms which are combining according to rules of logic, and therefore we have to find the most fundamental atoms and the laws of their interaction.
Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika correspond to what we call “science” in modern times. Nyāya is the fundamental principles of reasoning, which are formalized as logic and mathematics today. Vaiśeṣika corresponds to what we call physics in modern times. The goal of these two systems of philosophy was to construct the most parsimonious foundations to describe the working of the material world. Since material nature in Sāńkhya is built from three modes, one of the key goals of Vaiśeṣika was to describe how the three modes of nature combine to produce complex “atoms” such as paramānu, anu, dvīanu, trisarenu, etc. Since reality is conceptual, the rules of combining these atoms were the rules of logic by which simple concepts were combined to create complex concepts.
Philosophy, Science, and Technology
The six systems of philosophy are paired together into three couples: (1) Vedānta and Mimānsa, (2) Sāńkhya and Yoga, and (3) Nyaya and Vaiśeṣika. Of these, Vedānta is the most philosophical because it deals with the highest conclusions which are all transcendental to the material world; the material world only enters this system in the attempt to explain the soul’s fall down and suffering. Mimānsa is also philosophical because it deals with the question of the ideal method for liberation. It recognizes the existence of many processes, dharma, or religious practices. But which is the best of them? We could call Mimānsa “comparative religion” because it recognizes the possibility of many paths to liberation and yet undertakes the analysis by which we know the best path.
Yoga is more pragmatic as it deals with the details of rituals, mysticism, mind and body control, meditation, the performance of day-to-day duties, deity worship, etc. The term “yoga” is today nearly synonymous with physical exercises, but the term had a very broad connotation in Vedic texts due to which there were many kinds of yoga such as karma-yoga, jnana-yoga, astanga-yoga, and bhakti-yoga; by perfecting these practices one could obtain extraordinary powers and good life, besides transcending the world. In that respect, the can be considered “technologies” by which one lived a worthy and useful life.
Sāńkhya, Vaiśeṣika, and Nyaya deal with the structure of the world, the material elements that make up conscious experience, their fundamental constituents, and the laws by which the body evolves; these systems can be said to constitute a “material science”.
Over the past several centuries, the Vedānta system has expanded considerably while the other systems have gradually declined. For example, much of the philosophical knowledge in Mimānsa that compares the different processes of practically leading a moral life, the foundations of karma and dharma, and the theories underlying social, economic, and political morality have disappeared. What remains is a rudimentary analysis of Vedic mantra and how to perform some rituals using them. Mimānsa is today erroneously equated with hermeneutics or the process of interpreting the meaning of texts, when in fact its original purpose was defining the nature of dharma or right and wrong.
Similarly, the understanding of prāna in the body, how this prāna carries the will of the soul, and how it carries the soul from one body to another is now largely lost in the Yoga system. What dominantly remains is asana and pranayama or bodily exercises and breath control. Similarly, Sāńkhya as a system of philosophy practiced today is not only out of touch with the Sāńkhya system as described in the Vedic texts, but also far more primitive, when as a system of philosophy we would expect it to be far more detailed.
Finally, Nyaya and Vaiśeṣika as systems of reasoning and proof have have been almost completely lost except for some preliminary understanding of the different kinds of proof or pramana. The connection between these systems and the other four systems is now almost never visible and therefore it is impossible to see how they are “theistic” philosophical systems, let alone how they were expansions of Vedic ideology. Finally, as much of this knowledge has been lost, whatever remains is so primitive that it cannot present a viable alternative to modern mathematics and physics.
The Neglect of the Six Systems of Philosophy
Vedic knowledge at present lies neglected. Not only is the number of people studying it declining, but the deeply scientific nature of this knowledge is also not known. For most people, Vedic texts are synonymous with “Hinduism”, which is then equated with the caste system, idol worship, and many other misconceptions. Even those who read the Vedic texts sincerely, only make feeble attempts to understand the philosophy, and have no inkling of its profound scientific nature. In fact the parts that deal with the nature of the material world, the nature of space and time, the atomism that builds the macroscopic world, and the laws by which the atoms combine are completely ignored.
While Vedānta as a system of philosophy has expanded over the last several centuries due to the works of Shankarāchārya, Madhavacharya, Ramānujacharya, Nimbārkacharya, and others, a systematic exposition of the differences between their philosophical positions is also presently missing. Most people are occupied not with understanding the nature of the Absolute Truth, but with petty ritualistic differences. Even the Advaita philosophy of Shankarāchārya is confused with the māyāvāda philosophy of 20th century “reformers” of Hinduism who never fail to underwhelm the great tradition.
With such a sustained neglect of the intellectual, philosophical, and academic traditions, we can hardly be surprised if the Vedic system is today considered to be on par with many other religions where such traditions either never existed, or only existed in far more primitive forms. How can people be attracted to Vedic knowledge when its best “marketers” fail to highlight its greatest strengths?
The Importance of the Six Systems
We must view the Six Systems of philosophy as a hierarchy that begins in the ultimate conclusion or Vedānta, which then spawns a practice and duty called dharma. This dharma includes not just ritual and worship (which are only one part of the dharma) but conducting a moral society organized on the basis of the Varṇāśrama system.
The understanding of this system involves the pragmatic knowledge of how society must be organized, how the economy should be managed, and how the political class must govern society. We make a grave mistake when we limit dharma to meditation, mantra chanting, or deity worship, because this only constitutes a small fraction of our daily life. When the rest of our life—e.g. earning, social interactions, political system, and leisure—are out of sync with dharma, then the above mentioned limited notion of dharma has fewer benefits. The scope of Mimānsa is not the analysis of mantra but the analysis of dharma, which in the broadest sense comprises the Varṇāśrama system.
The life of dharma in turn depends on the understanding of material nature, the principles of healthy living, how the mind and body are connected, how the intellect controls the mind, how the intentions control the intellect, and how everything is subordinate to the moral principles or dharma. In short, just knowing that we have to lead a life of dharma isn’t enough. We must know how dharma expands into intentions, intellect, mind, senses, sensations and then sense objects. This understanding of nature is called Sāńkhya and Yoga by which we understand body, sense, mind, and other controls.
While a philosophical understanding of Sāńkhya and Yoga can take us far into the process of dharma, ultimately one needs a rigorous science in order to convincingly answer difficult questions. Philosophy, unfortunately, is the victim of innumerable misinterpretations. Since it deals in the most general and accessible concepts, it appears amenable even to the most uninformed minds. But in their hands, philosophy only becomes a playground of idea-twisting and needless hair-splitting.
Philosophy becomes wasteful without the rigorous methods of proof. The systems of Nyaya and Vaiśeṣika were therefore preoccupied with the problem of proof. Without such rigorous methods, there can be no scientific understanding because it becomes impossible to weed out the false interpretations and twisted ideologies without rigor.
Academic Rediscovery of Vedic Knowledge
Today we have a range of surviving work from the different schools of Vedānta but the other five systems of philosophy comprising the practice of dharma, the scientific basis of this dharma in the principles of material nature and the transmigration of the soul, founded on the rigor of conceptual analysis and reasoning are missing.
The future of Vedic knowledge depends not just in knowing the ultimate conclusions but also on the science by which we arrive at the conclusions. In other words, we need not just the system called Vedānta but the other five systems too. They may or may not be called by the same names, but their importance is unquestionable. Only when all these six systems of philosophy are understood can we claim to see the Vedic system scientifically.
Since the Acharya of the past few centuries have primarily focused on the enunciation of Vedānta, the other systems that deal with the scientific basis of the Varṇāśrama system, the theories of material nature, and the logical basis of reasoning and proof are at the present missing. The job of academic inquiry lies in establishing the other five systems of philosophy pursuant to the highest conclusions of Vedānta philosophy.
This task might seem difficult, but it is not impossible, simply based on the fact that Vedic texts did not primarily deal with the substance of the other five systems even in the past; at best the practice of dharma was cursorily described in texts such as Manu Smṛti, the basic categories of matter along with some high-level descriptions of the living body were presented in some Purāna. Based on these texts, later sages and seers were able to generate the other five systems of philosophy. The six systems have been called āstika or “theistic” not because they directly originated in the Vedic texts themselves, but because they were derivative theories based on the ideas often found in the Vedic texts.
There is no reason why a similar effort in modern times cannot substantively rediscover a new science that presents a rigorous explanation of the material world using which society can be organized morally to practice dharma by which people can become happy in the present life and transcend the repeated cycle of births at the point of death. We just have to look at the six systems for the inspiration that such a feat could be accomplished.