At least one out of every four people who believe in any religion, subscribe to the basic philosophies that I have outlined in the pages that follow – philosophies that are best described as ‘Indian’. Over the centuries, many scholars have differed on various finer aspects and nuances of these philosophies and their followers in turn, have described themselves as Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and various sub-sects or denominations of these. However, the underlying philosophies outlined here are fundamental to all these faiths that have their roots in the Indian sub-continent.
These philosophies helped me understand life, gave me the strength and confidence to take on its challenges, and the inspiration to work harder and do more with what I had. I hope what I have written here will help you better understand these philosophies, and through that, your own beliefs, or at least give you a head-start in that quest.
I didn’t subscribe to some of these basic philosophies myself, until a few years ago – even though I was born and brought up in India. For the better part of my life, I wasn’t convinced by the explanations I was given, and I refused to accept anything just because someone said so. Also perhaps, I didn’t delve on them long enough. I lived with the dichotomy of divergent views that remained in the back of my mind, while I focused on the more urgent need of pursuing a career, and meeting my responsibilities and obligations. But I never forgot the unanswered questions. They always came up when I had the time to mull over them, or the opportunity to discuss them with others. My understanding of these philosophies is drawn from discourses and published material of scholars on various faiths and religions. I am not a scholar or an expert on the subject and this is certainly not comprehensive or complete. My interpretation may even be a little more simplistic than some would have it. But as of today, they represent the best answers I have found to some of life’s fundamental questions.
Ancient Indian philosophers believed that there can be only one truth and that is absolute. We can only discover it, try to understand it and explain it. This was outlined as a premise or hypothesis if you will. Philosophers may agree, refute, or differ in their interpretation and explanation, and this is the basis of the different religions that emerged from the fountain-head of Indian Philosophy. While we can ascribe authorship to the various interpretations and find them documented in various religious texts, there is no mention of who may have originally postulated some of the fundamental philosophies outlined here. Indian philosophers believe this is absolute and eternal – ’Sanathan’ in Sanskrit and many Indian Philosophers refer to Indian Philosophy as ‘Sanathan Dharma’. Different religions are merely different interpretations of the eternal truth. Unlike some other cultures, ancient Indian society encouraged discussion, debate, and dissent; and allowed divergent views to co-exist in a complex conglomeration of sometimes contradictory beliefs that are collectively and very broadly referred to as Indian Philosophy.
In life, we are always seeking happiness. In this pursuit, we identify that which will take us towards our goal and that which will take us away. We seek happiness as individuals and as a part of society. If we are all seeking the same end, and the facts of life are common to all, why do we have so many different paths and philosophies? The answer, I believe is very simple – we look at striking a different balance between the individual and society and we look at life from different planes. Life looks very different on the ground, 35,000 feet above the ground, and as seen from another vantage point in space.
Indian philosophers, like all others, have reflected this wide diversity of views in all its variants and interpretations. Scholars can find examples of almost every philosophy in an ancient Indian text, ranging from occult, agnostic, atheistic, individualistic, materialistic beliefs to very abstract and sometimes utopian ideas that may seem far removed from reality and practicality. Yet, between these extremes, the vast majority of Indian philosophers had a lot in common with minor differences in interpretation or explanation. In the sections that follow, I have tried to explain my understanding of these widely accepted Indian Philosophies in the way that I have understood it.
I have written on various aspects of these philosophies and tried to explain it as I would to a non-Indian – sticking to the basics and avoiding details where the different faiths differ in their emphasis or interpretation. I have tried to explain the philosophies in terms that an analytical and scientific mind might relate to; and where possible I have tried to quote philosophers who have explained the interpretation I have included here.
Join me in this journey as I unravel explanations of ancient Indian philosophers and learn from their collective wisdom. Hopefully, we can get a better understanding of our lives and the secret to lasting happiness.