The most common formulation of Hindu philosophy is the Shaddarshana or ‘six schools’ (or six visions, views or perspectives) which are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta, considered as ‘orthodox’ (unlike Buddhist or Jain approaches) in that they acknowledge the authority of the Veda. However, as the indologist Wilhelm Halbfass demonstrates, there were many other schools and this list of six became fixed only comparatively recently. Notwithstanding the convention of six schools, there were debates and disagreements within them, with the school of Vedanta covering several different philosophies often treated as schools in their own right. Moreover, only two of the schools (Mimamsa and Vedanta) actually involved the interpretation of Vedic texts.
The schools are often presented in complementary pairs: Nyaya and Vaisheshika, Samkhya and Yoga and Mimamsa and Vedanta. Nyaya focuses on logic and the valid sources of knowledge, said to be perception, inference, comparison, and testimony. This complements Vaisheshika’s specialism in metaphysics and ontology which analyses reality into six or seven categories (substance, quality, action, generality, particularity, inherence and sometimes non-being). Samkhya distinguishes between active unconscious nature (Prakriti) and inactive conscious selves (Purusha), understanding the spiritual goal (Kaivalya or ‘isolation’) to be freeing the self from material nature. Yoga sets forth an eight-limbed spiritual discipline (Ashtanga Yoga) to achieve such liberation, encompassing positive and negative moral precepts, physical postures, breathing techniques, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation and transcendence. Mimamsa and Vedanta share a stress on Vedic exegesis according to which Mimamsa is styled Purva Mimamsa, meaning Prior Investigation and referring to the earlier part of the Veda, the Samhitas and Brahmanas, and Vedanta is styled Uttara Mimamsa, meaning Final Investigation and referring to the later part of the Veda, the Upanishads or Vedanta (Veda + anta or end). Mimamsa seeks to uphold the performance of ritual and Vedanta to promote insight into truth or ultimate reality (Brahman).
Of all these philosophies, it is Vedanta, or to be more precise Advaita Vedanta in its recent neo-Vedantic form, that is probably most familiar. Advaita Vedanta, associated with the eighth/ninth-century thinker Shankara, gave a non-dual account of Vedanta, identifying the Self (Atman) with ultimate reality (Brahman) at the higher level of truth and relegating the plurality of selves and physical objects to the lower level of truth. In the modern era, Advaita Vedanta was reworked by Vivekananda (1863-1902) and popularised by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), typically, involving an emphasis upon the empirical reality of the world and an appeal to the oneness of humanity that accorded greater significance to ethical action in the world rather than renunciation, monasticism and spiritual liberation. Neo-Vedanta promoted a positive image of Hinduism as tolerant and inclusive, defending it against allegations of confusion and incoherence arising out of the variety of its forms. This was accomplished by appeal to the principle of hierarchy as allowing Hinduism to accommodate a range of different beliefs and practices as a unity in diversity. For such reasons, Neo-Vedanta has proved hugely influential in modern Hinduism, endorsed by leading nationalists and reformers, and contributing towards the postcolonial project of forging a new Indian identity. It has also been attractive to Westerners who have been persuaded that Vedanta in this sense is central to Hinduism (if not also India).
However, other Vedanta schools are also very important and reveal major differences between Vedantic thinkers. Vishishtadvaita (non-dualism with distinctions), of which the twelfth-century thinker Ramanuja is the most famous exponent and Dvaita (dualism), following the teaching of the thirteenth-century Madhva, are theistic in contrast to Advaita’s relegation of a personal deity/deities to the lower level of truth. Similarly, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita are realist about the material world in contrast to Advaita’s idealism that regards the world as ultimately illusory. Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita have been very influential in Hindu devotional traditions that prioritise the relationship of the devotee with a personal God. It was the need to reconcile Vedanta with Vaishnava bhakti (devotion) to a personal God that inspired Ramanuja to present an alternative to Advaita’s impersonal absolute, by retaining some distinction between God and individual souls, while Madhva taught a dualistic vision in which God and individual souls are separate entities. His teaching is followed by ISKCON today.
Is philosophy the best label for the Saddarshanas? Some Western philosophers, drawing upon the distinction made between theology and philosophy in the European Enlightenment, might query whether the Shaddarshana qualify as philosophy, if philosophy is understood as the independent exercise of reason without deference to external authority such as that represented by religious traditions. However, the label ‘theology’ can also be queried. Although Nyaya proposes arguments for the existence of God that invite comparisons with the cosmological and teleological arguments of Christian philosophy of religion, Samkhya does not need a divine creator to explain the origin of the universe. Even where a deity or deities are featured, they may not correspond to the theistic idea of a Supreme God. Perhaps these schools could be seen as ‘psychology’, as the cultivation of mental discipline is central, not only in Yoga but more widely. Yet this also seems inadequate given the subjects addressed by the schools, some being neither religious nor psychological in scope or purpose, such as Vaisheshika’s proto-scientific investigations of the physical world. It is important to note that not all of the Saddarshana were originally primarily concerned with liberation, and that there is space for atheist and realist thinking within the huge scope of Hindu tradition. Even Mimamsa, arguably the most orthodox of the Saddarshana in its concern for interpretation of the Vedic texts and correct ritual, could be described in these terms.
Attempting to understand the Shaddarshana in terms of ‘philosophy’, ‘theology’, or ‘psychology’ illustrates the issues that arise when applying Western academic categories and classificatory systems to non-Western cultures. It may be worthwhile imagining what would happen if India determined global cultural and cognitive paradigms and these were applied to the Western history of ideas.