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The History of Indian Philosophy

 The historians go on debating about the origin of the Aryans and the time-period when the Vedic civilization developed in India.

It is believed by the Western scholars that the Aryans descended from the regions of the North-Central Asia sometime around 1500 B.C., though this has been challenged by some other learned scholars. Some of the eminent Indian scholars also differ from their Western counterparts, saying that the Aryans were natives of India for long and that the Vedic civilization developed about 4000 to 8000 years ago. The renowned Indian scholar Lokamanya Tilak contends that the first Vedic hymns could have been composed nearly 6000 years ago and the later works like the Upanishads themselves could be nearly 3000 years old.

The philosophies develop over long spells of time.  It is difficult for the historians to ascertain the period for the development of a particular philosophy.

However, we can safely outline the history of Indian philosophies, as per Dr. Radhakrishnan,  as follows:

(1)    The Vedic period (1500 B.C. to 600 B.C.)

(2)    The Epic period (600 B.C. to 200 A.D.)

(3)    The Sutra  period (200 A.D. to 1700 A.D.)

(4)    The Scholastic period ( From Sutra Period to 17th century )


Let us get an idea of these periods:

(1)    The Vedic Period: This period can be regarded as the dawn of civilization in the world. It witnessed the real transformation of man from a prakrit man to a Sanskrit man. The Vedic period covers the rise and the development of the Aryan culture and civilization.   The literature of the Vedic period is considered to be the most ancient in the world. It consists of the four Vedas, namely, Rig Veda, Yajur  Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. Each of the Vedas is divided into four parts: The Samhitas (the Mantras) , the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads.

(2)    The Epic Period: It is the period of the development of the early Upanishads and the darshanas and is concerned with the enriching of intellect of man. The darshanas paved the way for the growth of the systems of philosophies in India. The invaluable dharma -shastras, the great treatises on ethical and social philosophy, are the gifts of this period. Apart from the extra-ordinary philosophical doctrines, the “non-systemic and the non-technical” literature appeared in this age. The great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are the gifts of this period.  The period is very significant because it witnessed the rise and early development of Shaivism and Vaishnavism as well as that of Jainism and Buddhism. The Jainism and the Buddhism are considered as heterodox religious philosophies as they do not endorse the authority of the Vedas.

(3)    The Sutra Period: Over a period of time, the Vedic literature and the subsequent works grew to a massive scale. The great scholars made efforts to safeguard the rich heritage. That is how the illustrious Sutras were written. The Sutras are, mostly, epigrammatic sentences in the verse-form. They helped to preserve and transmit the treasure of philosophies expressed in the voluminous ancient works. Badarayana (Veda Vyasa), one of the greatest scholars, wrote Brahma-Sutra, also known as Vedanta-Sutra. The Sutras laid the foundation of the different systems of philosophies in India. The six orthodox systems based on the Sutras are Vaisheshika, Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva-Mimamsa and Uttar-Mimamsa.

(4)    The Scholastic Period: This period coinciding with the Sutra period, witnessed the distinguished scholars like Shamkaracharya, Kumarila, Madhavacharya, Ramanujacharya, Sridhara and others. With the passage of time, the ancient literature became nearly incomprehensible. The Vedas, expressed in the Chhandas, the old form of Sanskrit, became difficult to follow. Even the interpretation of the Sutras posed challenges to the learned scholars. Hence the scholars wrote commentaries on the ancient literature in general and on the Sutras in particular. Then a number of commentaries were written. Very often a commentary was written on the original commentary or on an earlier one. Various scholars wrote commentaries on Brahma-Sutra according to their own interpretation. Chief among them were Shamkaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhavacharya. Incidentally, three schools of Vedanta were developed: Shamkaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta, Ramanujacharya’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta and Madhavacharya’s Dvaita Vedanta.