Book Review: Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy by Ramakrishna Puligandla

‘Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy’ is a highly recommended reading to get a grasp of the vastness of Indian philosophy.

Ramakrishna Puligandla’s book, ‘Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy’ is a masterpiece book. It is a textbook apparently for many western university courses, and India should do the same at college level, especially for the non-philosophy students. It gives a complete picture of the Indian philosophy, something we have never been taught unfortunately at the school and college level. The six systems of Indian philosophy are dealt with in a crisp and illuminating manner. The reading is very easy and is bound to stimulate people for further reading. Indians would realise the sheer strength and depth of the Indian philosophy. The antiquity of Indian philosophy is something, which most people in the country are completely unaware of. The Western philosophers have been either too ignorant of Indian thought or too arrogant to think that the East has nothing to contribute to philosophical thought. There have been great exceptions of course. Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Voltaire, and Schopenhauer were deeply influenced and impressed with Indian philosophy. But, most western philosophers would equate philosophy with only western thought. It would be as if only they had the right to speak and think about humanity and existential questions. They did not realize that any person in the world and at any time in history can have philosophical insights, which applies to humanity. As the author says, only Bertrand Russell made a distinction and wrote books on Western philosophy acknowledging the differentiation between the Eastern and the Western thoughts. For most, philosophy meant western thought only.

The Indian philosophical system is classified as orthodox or non-orthodox depending on whether they accept the Vedas as the oldest and the most sacred scriptures of Hindus. The non-orthodox systems are Charvaka (materialism), Buddhism, and Jainism. The orthodox systems include the six systems called Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimansa, and Vedanta. The first four are neither orthodox nor non-orthodox since they originated independently of the Vedas without accepting or rejecting them. It is pertinent that Indian philosophy allows atheism and theism in the ambit of Vedic systems. Samkhya and Yoga in the original forms were atheistic, but its later evolution saw more theism without greatly altering the philosophical structure. The orthodox schools are combined in pairs. Yoga-Samkhya, Nyaya-Vaisesika, and Mimansa-Vedanta. The first element is the practice and the second element pertains to theory.

Except for materialism, all schools have the following common characteristics, in the words of the author:

  1. Reason and experience can never be sacrificed to explain or account for reality.
  2. Any philosophy should aid man to realize the chief ends of human life. It should not be a mere intellectual exercise. Philosophy should have soteriological power-the power of intense individual transformation from ignorance and bondage to freedom and wisdom.
  3. Man’s spirituality is acknowledged and the purpose of philosophy is to teach that the state of ignorance and suffering is not due to original sin, but original ignorance.
  4. There is no limit to the perfectibility of man.
  5. Moksha or complete liberation must be acquired here and now in the present state and birth and not in some future life or place.
  6. The practical aspects of Yoga are accepted in all forms to reach the state of liberation.
  7. Karma and rebirth are the essential pre-requisites in the scheme of things, but is pertinent only to the empirical world and not the ultimate reality.
  8. Reality cannot be understood by the senses or the intellect, but can be grasped in an intuitive, non-perceptual, and a non-conceptual manner. It is mystical in insight and cannot be subjected to the rigours of scientific experimentation and proofs.
  9. All philosophies are initially pessimistic that they speak of ignorance and misery, but ultimately become optimistic as they give immense hope and proclaim the triumph of human spirit in gaining the ultimate state of eternal happiness. They categorically reject the philosophies of the Absurd, Angst, and Nothingness.

The pinnacle of all philosophies, of course, is the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara, where the reality as Brahman is the only thing. The world, which is a superimposition is neither existent nor non-existent. The concepts of illusion, Maya, karma, bondage are explained in fantastic manner.

After going through each of the philosophies in a systematic, brief, and lucid manner, the author raises two very important issues regarding Indian philosophy. One is the question of time and historicity in Indian philosophy; and second, the ignorant debate about Advaita being in opposition to Buddhism. It is a myth perpetuated by ignorant people and enhanced by political agendas that Buddhism was in some sort of a clash with Hinduism. There never was any. Buddhism went out of the country and it dwindled perhaps in the country of origin on its own. After Buddha died, Buddhism became a divided religion with many schools and teachings, which included a good amount of ritualism, something which Buddha never encouraged in his life. It was an offshoot of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma and peacefully co-existed with it. The story of Adi Shankara driving away all the Buddhists is just that; a story. In fact, Advaita philosophy is closer to Buddhism than to some other orthodox Indian philosophy schools.

The central concepts of Advaita are:

  1. Brahman is the unchanging reality which is unborn, eternal, uncreated, and immutable.
  2. Atman is the inmost Self of man, which is also unborn, eternal, uncreated, and immutable.
  3. Brahman and Atman are the same and are both beyond names and forms.
  4. Ignorance is thinking that our senses and intellect along with the phenomenal world is the ultimate reality. Ignorance is beginingless, but can end when the knowledge dawns that the Atman and Brahman are the same.
  5. Maya is the power of Brahman to manifest the phenomenal world. Maya has no existence apart from Brahman and it is in the form of superimposition. It is neither real nor unreal nor both. It is present, but it is not the ultimate reality. The oft repeated criticism that the Vedantins believe the world to be illusory and hence non-existent; which in turn becomes the reason to stay away from the world stems from a lack of correct understanding.
  6. Karma is a state of bondage from man’s ignorance and is generated by his own thoughts, words, and deeds.
  7. Moksha is freedom from ignorance, which is to be attained here and now.
  8. Knowledge and Truth are of two kinds-the higher and the lower. The lower is the product of our senses and the intellect and the higher is transcendental. The higher knowledge is soteriological-capable of intense transformation.

The basic concepts of Buddhism are:

  1. Existence is pure flux. There are no eternal entities. Flux is a continuous process produced by craving.
  2. The impermanence of everything leads to unhappiness.
  3. Ignorance is the absence of correct knowledge to this reality.
  4. Karma generates by words, thoughts, and deeds; and is responsible for the constant chain of incarnations.
  5. Nirvana is release from the bondage to be attained here and now, which releases a man from his bondage and chain of reincarnations.
  6. Knowledge is of two kinds-the higher and the lower. The former is non-conceptual, non-relative, and intuitive. The latter is a product of the senses and the intellect, and this applies to the phenomenal world.

It is important to note that all Indian schools, including Advaita and Buddhism gave importance and relevance to the phenomenal world. It was never antithetical to science, logic, arts, literature, and metaphors when applied to the phenomenal world. This allowed science, technology, arts, and literature to progress without any fear of persecution. This contrasts with the Abrahamic religions, where science was in constant clash with religion; and many times, the scientists and artists had to come out of the ambit of religion to do their work. The process is still continuing in the West, where religion somehow is always in a bit of a clash with science. There is a tolerance now; but the full-fledged acceptance is still difficult to come by. This conflict is prominently and particularly missing in Indian thought. The acceptance of both levels of the phenomenal world and the ultimate reality has never resulted in any persecution of science and arts from the religious side. When the Chairman of ISRO breaks a coconut at Tirupati temple before the launch of a satellite or when the surgeon prays before his surgeries; there is no contradiction.

It is easy to see that there is a lot of similarity between both the philosophies. Advaita says that there is a Brahman as an unchanging reality, whereas Buddhism speaks of Sunyata, silence and nothingness- not eliciting an answer. Apart from this difference in nuance, the philosophical principles are very similar.

The author further points out how both Buddhism and Advaita place time and history as of secondary importance in the realm of the phenomenal world. The higher Truth and reality is beyond time and history and hence, this knowledge becomes timeless and eternal. So, both warn against the futility of trying to gain liberating knowledge through history, which belongs to the phenomenal world. The study of history reveals to us a man in bondage, not man in his primordial reality; it shows man in the state of his ignorance, not the liberated man. Hence, history can never liberate man. And both are very equally emphatic about this. This is perhaps the reason why the Marxists can never be Advaitins or Buddhists, because for them history is the only thing!

This, then, becomes the major point of divergence from other religions, where history plays a very important role. For both a theist, who believes God and its creation of history as real, and an atheist who believes only history as god; reality will remain elusive. The historicists worshipping history and its mistress, the goddess of progress remain frustrated as far the reality is concerned; and become nihilist by tormenting doubts about the perfect nature of man. This is because progression of history rarely leads to the perfect and full blossoming of the human life.

It is interesting to note how most of the questions, which have been asked by the western philosophers in their age of enlightenment during 16th to 18th centuries and later perfected, have been asked and answered thousands of years back. The schools of Indian philosophy together have asked and found answers to most of the existential questions much before the western philosophy took its roots in Ancient Greece. By the time of the Greek philosophers, the basic framework of philosophical thought of India had been completely sorted out and has remained unchanged. There has been no need for modification or reconciliation to any new progress in science and technology. That has been the solid strength of Indian philosophy. I highly recommend reading this insightful book to get a grasp of the vastness of Indian philosophy.

‘Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy’ by Ramakrishna Puligandla can be purchased from Amazon.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

  • Very interesting review. It is truly unfortunate that young (and old) people today have no idea of Indian philosophy. Our epistemological foundations were much more superior than those of western knowledge systems – yet our folks are ignorant. For example, ALL our philosophical systems accept pratyakSha pramANa (empirical evidence) as a valid means of knowledge. On the other hand, western mathematics, which all Indians are taught in schools today, does NOT accept pratyakSha pramANa (empirical evidence). Yet mathematics is considered a valid knowledge system, whereas our darshanas are not. That is the tragedy of being slaves for so long – 800 years of Islamic hordes, 200 years of Christian barbarians and 60 years of Nehruvian communist goondaism – we fail to accept what is right there below our noses.

  • SM

    Advaitia and Buddhism are poles apart in their explanation of Ultimate Reality. Bhraman as described in Advaita (Sat, Chit, Ananda) is fountainhead of the universe bearing Maya. But the concept of Sunnayata is based on Nothingness. There are many logical fallacy in Sunnayata vada. Likewise there are some other fallacy in this article, either due to ignorance of the author of this article or coming from the original book being reviewed.

  • MA Alwar

    There are several factual errors either in the original book or in the words of the reviewer (which is not clear when one reads the review). For example, it is mentioned : “The orthodox systems include the six systems called Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimansa, and Vedanta. The first four are neither orthodox nor non-orthodox since they originated independently of the Vedas without accepting or rejecting them.” This is grossly because the very third aphorism of the Vaisheshika Sutra-s of Saga Kanada is as follows: तद्वचनात् आम्नायस्य प्रामाण्यम् and the last and final sutra of the same treatise is तद्वचनात् आम्नायस्य प्रामाण्यम् इति. In the Nyaya Sutras of Sage Gautama, it is specifically stated ‘मन्त्रायुर्वेदप्रामाण्यवच्च तत्प्रामाण्यम् आप्तप्रामाण्यात्’ and there are more than 5 sutras that specifically intend to prove the authenticity of the Vedas. Similarly the Sankhya and Yoga systems specifically accept the authority of the Vedas. Hence the above statement is grossly incorrect.

    I feel India facts is a very valuable and authentic portal that intends to give out correct information and is highly respected for the same by both the layman and the scholar. But when such reviews / articles appear that prove the ignorance of the author, it defeats the purpose of the organization. Hence I suggest that there should be peer-review / review by authentic experts before posting on the website. I hope this comment will be taken in the right spirit in the interest of the standards of india facts.

    • Pingali Gopal

      I can understand your agony of the possible misrepresentations of Indian philosophy in the book written by the author. You are an expert on the subject and I am not. I do not claim any expertise on Indian philosophy to begin with, but as a layman living in this country, as a practicing Hindu, it took me fifty years of my life even to realise that our systems of philosophy were so strong and clear. In fact, I was not even aware that there were six systems of Indian philosophy. This book is a fantastic introduction to Indian philosophy. I wanted to make a summary of that book and introduce it to other like-minded Indians to get into Indian philosophy. The review was more of a summary than anything else. The author makes a brief statement in the introduction, but in the later individual chapters, he elaborates on each of the systems.

      In the author’s words,’ Vaisesika originated as an unorthodox system but later turned orthodox by accepting the authority of the Vedas in certain matters.’ Also, ‘Vaisesika system in the original formulation of Kanada was atheistic, subsequent Vaisesika philosophers were avowedly theistic and consequently incorporated God into their system.’ Similarly, for Samkhya, the author says, ‘as formulated by its founder Kapila, is atheistic. Kapila teaches that not only that the existence of God cannot be proved but also that God does not exist. However, the later interpretations of Kapila are clearly theistic.’ Yoga is a practical method of attaining salvation and all the other philosophies incorporated it in its scheme of attaining salvation, but it developed independent of the Vedas.

      As a concluding remark, the author notes the important similarities and differences:
      1. Samkhya and Yoga: The goal of Yoga is the self’s realization of its true nature as the immortal and the all-pervading Purusa, separate from Prakriti.
      2. Advaita: the goal is the fundamental unity and identity of the individual self with the absolute self or Brahman.
      3. Yoga is the elimination of all pleasure, pain, joy, sorrow, and get a state of total repose devoid of even consciousness.
      4. Advaita, Samkhya, and Yoga disagree with Nyaya-Vaisesika on this point.
      5. Vaisesika rejects the notion of liberation as pure bliss. It is beyond both pain and happiness.
      6. Samkhya rejects God as both the creator and designer of the Universe.
      7. For Yoga, God is the Supreme person who aids men in attaining salvation.
      8. Advaita recognizes God but maintains that it is not the ultimate reality.

      The important point is, I came to know all of this perhaps for the first time in my life not concerning Advaita ( of which I have a decent understanding) and so did the scores of others in my circle of friends. Maybe, as an expert, you were angry at the probable misinterpretations, and I would seek apologies. The whole purpose of the book was towards the amateurs to get a further interest in Indian philosophy, which it certainly achieved. The problem is that, these kinds of basic books meant for the primary readers, would never be read by the experts. I would be very glad if you could read the book in its entirety and put forward a review so that the readers could be better informed. Probably, the author himself can be involved in the review, because there would be many points which only he can possibly answer much better, to your satisfaction. The author has his references very clear and he explains his positions in a very authentic manner. There can be no reason for an amateur like me to even smell that there could be some wrong things being said.

      Maybe, the harsh words were not required to put your point across. I accept your authority and I accept any misunderstandings I might have had in the reading or summarizing of the book.

      • MA Alwar

        Thanks for the clarification. I did not mean any offence. I very much appreciate your sentiments and your faith in our philosophical systems.

        The only important action point I would like to make and what i really mean by my comment was that India facts is a very reputed site and before publishing something it would be very appropriate to have the same reviewed by an expert. They can have a panel of experts for various subjects. That way the publications will be very authentic. As you know, there can be errors when some interpretations etc are involved, but there should not be factual errors since it undermines the validity of the essay / article as well as the reputation of the publisher.

        It is with this intention that I have written my comments and not meant to hurt anyone. I once again express my appreciation for your faith and conviction in the topic.

        • Karigar Medha

          One also needs to keep in mind that the book is written as an introductory course, so simplicity and overall clarity of categorical frameworks is paramount. The review is also in Swarajya magazine, which -great as it is – is not a peer reviewed journal. Reviewer has still given further points to show the historical evolution of Vaisheshika to the Veda etc.

          For more detailed scholarly work of Dr Puligandla, there are many more advanced papers etc available. Those might answer your higher level questions and issues