Introduction To Asian Philosophy (Part One): India


The Summation of All Philosophy 

“Many to One” has been the major drive of all human philosophical thought. Many always become One at some point, most often this One is “behind”, within, or underneath all the Many ‘Things’: the Vedic gods give way to the Upanishadic Brahma, the temporary Egyptian monolatry of Aten, the Ugaritic/Canaanite gods are culled from El – who is revealed to be the One god YHWH, the Greek pantheon fades in the light of the Logos, the Buddha’s singular enlightenment for the eventual benefit of many, the folk superstitions of China fade from The Dao and return anew in the Celestial Masters, and so on. One particularly fascinating example is the idea of divine contraction in mystical Jewish Lurianic Kabbalah. In this system a great Tzimtzum, or “Divine Condensing” occurred at the beginning of everything; G-d withdrew his divine Light so that a space for finite beings could exist – the withdrawal of the One for the purpose of creating space for the Many.

But, ironically, this general idea of “ONE” invariably leads to many interpretations and soon we are back to Many (Protestants/ Catholics, Theravadans/Mahayanists, Soto/Rinzai Zen Buddhism, Capitalists/Communists, etc). It almost seems like the One is always a seed: harbouring some new Manys that will fly away and eventually lead to a desired return to the Oneness, repeat ad nauseam. It is the figurative relationship between 0.00001, the many in-between, and 1, infinity many in-between (0.00001 ∞ 1), moving back and forth, the rhythm/vibration of the known Universe – thus pattern/rhythm(s) is our most wondrous and fundamental expression (first perfected literally in Africa at the dawn of humanity).

With that in mind, it is fun to read philosophical works and contemplate how every generation of human has tried to wrestle with Many Into One Behind Many, and the various religious and philosophical traditions of what we would call “the East” are no exception. In previous posts I have outlined how we “Westerners” have tried to resolve this dialectic, and thus I thought it would be interesting to start a series of introductory posts on the Eastern attempt.

(Since this will be a basic introduction, I will focus primarily on the works and authors whom I am most familiar with, thus most of what I write about will have a strong connection to Buddhism.)

jain temple


One of the most fascinating aspects of Asian philosophy and religion is the Indian preoccupation with organization and systems. Right from the Vedas onward we see India as a place of systematic thought on any/all subjects, no matter how sacred or mundane. This inclination led to the creation of some of humanity’s earliest and most complex systems of thought: an amazing legacy to the world. Anyone calling themselves a philosopher or thinker in any world tradition must have a running knowledge of traditional Indian thought, so let’s begin our journey with the Vedas.

The Vedas (1700 – 1100 BCE): an ancient set of Aryan hymns, formulas, mantras, rituals and spells, considered by Hindus to have been created by Brahma, or to others, at least not by humans. They consist of four groups: the Rg, Yaju, Sama, and Atharva Vedas, with each serving a different, mystical purpose. Out of these ancient lines come the see ideas that eventually lead to the creation of commentaries on their contents, known as the Upanishads. The Rgveda in particular praises the various gods of the Aryan people, especially Indra, for facilitating the wholesale slaughter of thousands of their enemies, including the 27th hymn of the Tenth Book (Verse 2) where they take hallucinogenic soma and slay atheists.

The Upanishads (compiled 600 – 400 BCE): A collection of Vedic texts, these works (also known as the Vedanta) are the source of most of the fundamental ideas contained in Buddhism, Jainism, and especially Hinduism. They were written by various (unknown) authors and transmitted orally through special verses (śloka) over the space of several centuries, the Bhagavad Gitaand the Brahmasutra being two famous examples of commentary on the Upanishads; with all three together known as thePrasthanatrayi, the three canonical texts of Hindu philosophy. Though the Vedas were mystical, the Upanishads were more philosophical and sought to understand and express the universe as one fundamental reality underlying the myriad forms and ideas. The Vedic scriptures all speak to the ability to create growth or the “swelling” (Brh) of life. This dynamic, potent “energy” both produces and sustains what we know as Reality. This supreme being-essence is Brahman, which/who is also the ground for one’s Selfhood (ātman). By becoming unattached to all that is not divine ergo good, one overcomes the delusions of this world (māyā), and achieves libration from it into the ultimate state of bliss/union with Brahman (moksha). This could takle many lifetimes of being reborn into the world i.e. māyā, and thus Brahman patiently waits and works to help one with the effects (karma) of their past lives, both good and bad. In later Hinduism, Brahman becomes conceptualized as the creator, maintainer, and destroyer of worlds/reality in the form of the gods BrahmaVishnu, and Shiva.

Note: Like they often do with the Chinese move from Confucian to Mencian thought, Western writers often compare the move from the Vedas to the Upanishads to the development of Platonic thought after the pre-Socratic philosophers, or the relationship Apostle Paul had with the theology of Jesus Christ. I think this bias towards Greek thought as the paradigm for human thinking is one of the major faults of Western philosophy in so far as we attempt to “make sense” of the East. The Pre-Socratics sought a physical rather than metaphysical rational for Reality, while the Upanishads do not. To favor ancient scientism over ancient theo-philosophical thought is modern, and does not do either subject justice. Personally, I think the relationship between the Vedas and the Upanishads is just as apt a source for comparison to the later Pre-Socratic attempts at finding a material source to all things, as both are human attempts to look both beyond and within. This bias occurs, I think, because the Pre-Socratics lean toward what we might call a (rather crude) scientific approach rather than the philosophical Upanishads, and thus are considered “closer” to some kind of “truth” about the world. Science has its place and the Western world has a particular historical fondness for empirical science. But this cannot discount the Upanishadic approach, and thus I call attention to this bias. Science, philosophy, and faith all have their place, and each serves a purpose. Science tells us what is (so far), philosophy tells us what could be, and faith tells us how we should feel about it. One should choose accordingly, if not know the difference.

 I will say though that often such traditions become tools of oppression, and/or this knowledge is distributed only to those considered “worthy” of it, almost invariably excluding opponents of the ideology/State and women from this process. In this regard the Socratic tradition was public, and women would have been able to hear and discuss it in public if not on the Areopagus.

I will also admit, too, that most Westerners are more familiar with the Platonic continuum… so maybe this also speaks to a lacuna in Western education concerning what we call “Asia” (of which India is actually a part). Maybe, we should be as familiar with the Upanishads or someone like Mencius, considering his influence on billions of Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Singaporeans, and Japanese down through time, and the socio-economic rise of modern day China? At the very least, a thorough study of Asian thought in particular reveals a number of extremely interesting individuals worthy of inclusion in any study of philosophical and/or creative human thought.

Rishabha (???): Also known as Adinatha, Rishabha is considered the first true Jainist teacher; Jainism being a religion which preaches strict non-violence and self control as the path to liberation from the cycle of life and death. He is considered to be the first Tīrthakara, a purified being who thus helps others achieve freedom from the never-ending physical cycle of death and birth.

Siddhārtha Gautama (c. 563 – 483 BCE): There are no entirely reliable sources for the life and teachings of the Buddha, though there are many accounts of him by his followers. But the following biography is generally believed to be factual. A prince of the Shakya tribe of Lumbini, India, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) grew up in the region of Kapilavastu, close to the Nepalese border. A kshatriya (member of the warrior caste) like his father Suddhodana, Siddhartha was wealthy and privileged. According to legend, he became disillusioned with status and wealth, and left his princely life behind at 29 years of age to study the various religious ascetic traditions of the day, mastering all yet being satisfied with none.

Earlier schools of thought (Brahmanism, Materialism, Jainism, and others) were dominated by a search for ultimate objectivity in philosophical explanations. But Siddhartha thought that their efforts were dominated by faith, preferences, tradition, reflection on form, and a certain superficial delight in the contemplation of views, and as such were not necessarily capable of discerning truth. Ultimately Siddhartha renounced pure objectivity, as well as any mysterious substance (kiñci) as the explanation of phenomena, in favor of the doctrine of dependant arising. Phenomena are in a constant state of arising and ceasing, and people’s attachment to views, mystery and the ‘hidden’ is a/the cause of their perceptual and epistemological difficulties. Thus one who does not look for mystery and perceives things as they are enjoys peace of mind, and is elevated morally, intellectually, and spiritually. Thus, at age 35, while meditating in the shade of a bodhi tree, Siddhartha had the sudden realization of what he believed is the essential understanding of Reality, what he called the Four Noble Truths.

These truths were Siddhartha’s expression of the realization that (1) Life is filled with suffering, (2) the origin of all suffering is desire, (3) there can be a cessation of suffering, and (4) practicing an eightfold path of living provides the opportunity to achieve such cessation. If one practices the proper manner of viewing the world; intention, speech, livelihood, action, effort, concentration, and mindfulness of the world and other beings, then one can experience and recognize the normal pains of living without suffering from them. After this “awakening” Siddhartha referred to himself as the Tathagata, one who has “thus come,” and in scripture he is referred to as Shakyamuni, the “sage of the Shakya Clan.” He is also known as a spiritually “awakened” person (Skt: buddha). After Siddhartha’s death, his followers compiled a collection of what they believed were authentic sayings of his, the Dhammapada (roughly 200 years after his death), and “Buddhism” branched into several schools, categorized under two main branches: Theravada (which some Mahāyānists pejoratively referred to as Hinayana, the lesser of the two “vehicles” of Buddhism) and Mahāyāna – the “greater” vehicle – under which the esoteric Vajrayana schools are also categorized. The spread of Buddhism throughout India and beyond was greatly assisted by the conversion of the ruler (Ashoka) of the first Indian empire during the 3rd century BCE in which the great Theravada/Mahāyāna schism took place.

Mahāyāna and Theravadan Buddhism differ primarily in their conception of the Buddha. For Theravadans (at least initially) Siddhartha was a man living on the earth with all the accompanying frailties and affective vicissitudes, a mortal being devoid of transcendental or theistic elements. The deification of the Buddha not only gave the masses an opportunity to satisfy their emotional urges but also supported the Mahāyānist move towards the doctrine of the Buddha not being born of this world, rather making a show of existence for his followers. Zen (literally “meditation”) is an abbreviation of the word Zenna, the translation of the Sanskrit term dhyana (Ch: ch’anna). Dhyana refers to the state of collectedness of mind and/or deep contemplation where dualities such as truth/falseness or you/I do not exist. Zen originated in China as a meditation school of Mahāyāna Buddhism and, like many other schools of Chinese Buddhism, was shaped by Mahāyāna teachings and scripture.

Mahāvira (540 – 468 BCE): Also known as Vardhamana, he is considered to be the 24th and last Tīrthakara (so far) in the Jain religion. Appearing at roughly the same time as Siddhārtha, Mahavira too renounced princely life and went on a spiritual journey, resulting in his sacred state of kevala – “perfect isolation” from all bad karma.  The Jain idea of karma is much different from Buddhist or Hindu usages of the word. Jain karma is actually a substance, colorful and sticky, that adheres to one’s life force, preventing them from achieving kevala, and thus entering the world of liberated beings known as the Siddha Loka.

Bādarāyana (c. 500 BCE): Author of the Uttara-Mimāṃsā or the Brahmasutra (Aphorisms on the Brahman), a summary of the Upanishads. He was also considered by some to be an avatar of God, the Jnana-Shakti Avatara. The Brahma Sutra(s) were Bādarāyana’s way of explaining the various ideas and contradictions in the Upanishads, although his explanations themselves often need their own intricate interpretation. These later interpretations (by Adi Shankara and Ramanuja) themselves become schools of Vedantic thought.

Vyāsa (???): Attributed author of the Bhagavad Gitā (Song Sung By The Lord). The Bhagavad Gitā is classic of world philosophy and literature, teaching that mankind can attain the highest good by doing their duty for its own sake and not for their own exclusive personal benefit, written as a dialogue between a warrior named Arjuna (about to do battle) and his charioteer, who turns out to be Lord Krishna (an avatar of the god Vishnu). This dialogue has been studied and interpreted for centuriesin many ways, including the idea that the battlefield is a metaphor for the moral struggles of Life, or “the war within.” Like the Vedas and the Upanishadic literature, the Gitā is much too complex to be described succinctly, so I encourage you to read more about all of them elsewhere. I couldn’t possibly do it justice!

Ashoka (304 – 232 BCE): Also known as Asoka or King Piyadasi, Ashoka was a Mauryan emperor whom, upon being victorious in the war to conquer the State of Kalinga promptly undertook a major campaign of Buddhist proselytizing. This included the creation of what are known as the Edicts of Ashoka, a large number of stone pillars and (local) rock carvings spread throughout his empire that encouraged his subjects to adapt Buddhist morality as the core of their lifestyle. Rather than being mystical or highly theological, Ashoka’s edicts were focused on the common aspects of life and how average citizens could thrive via their own actions and interrelations with others. Though Ashoka was not known for being a great scholar, his renunciation of war, deep engagement with his faith, and passionate concern for his people’s welfare via his Edicts (and the breadth of their distribution) were a major development in Buddhism. On a side note it is interesting to that Ashoka (in Rock Edict No. 8) made it known that from that time on State business could be conducted at any time, anywhere, including when Ashoka was eating or “visiting” his harem.

Patanjali (between 200 BCE – 400 CE): Pantanjali is most famous famous for his text on Yogic meditation. “Yoga,” originally a philosophy of meditation, is now known as a physical regimen, which in fact is properly called Hatha Yoga. Patanjali’s Yoga writings were meant to be a practice designed to gain control over the mind through concentration and meditation, and achieve salvation from suffering (duhka). Hatha yoga, “physical postures” were a part of Patanjali’s overall system of austerity and morality. His idea of meditation (dhyana) was eventually transmitted to China where, fused with Chinese Buddhist thought, eventually became the basis for Ch’an Buddhism, which became known to the world through Japanese culture as ZenBuddhism.

Nāgārjuna (c. 100 – 200 CE): This philosopher, one of India’s most famous, is second only to the Buddha himself in terms of importance for Mahayana Buddhists, and his work is required study for any serious student of Zen. When I was staying at Tenryu-ji Temple outside of Kyoto, Japan, I was encouraged to read Nāgārjuna (and the work of China’s Hui-neng) as a supplement to the writings of master Dogen – the founder of their branch of Zen (Soto).

Nāgārjuna’s work The Fundamental Verses On The Middle Way is a classic of world philosophy and Buddhism, and the source document for the sect that followed, Madhyamaka Buddhism – “The Middle Way People.” He employed aTetralemma of logic, describing things as (1) existing, (2) not existing, (3) both existing and not existing, and (4) neither existing or not existing. How he applied this to Buddhist doctrine and logic would take me thousands of blog posts to properly explain…but… to summarize – Nāgārjuna’s ideas were essentially based on the idea of interdependence. Things cannot be fully explained or dismissed (1) by themselves or (2) in relation to other things. The nature of experience and reality is a form of interrelation and interpenetration. How Nāgārjuna described and explained this has been studied and debated for 2000 years, and there are still books being written about him to this day.

Vasubandhu (c. 300 CE)Vasubandhu was another important Buddhist philosopher around the time of Nāgārjuna. He is a founder (along with his brother Asanga) of Yogācāra Buddhism, a school concerned with the mind and consciousness, wherein there are multiple levels of consciousness and ways of understanding these consciousnesses relationship with karma, anddharma [the basic factor(s) of experience and Reality]. According to Vasubandhu, there is no ātman, and non-Buddhists will never attain liberation as they have a false understanding of Self.


© 2014 Daniel


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