Hindu philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 24, 2019, from

1. General presuppositions

Hindu schools of philosophy developed in close, lively dialogue with other philosophical trends and schools. As early as 400–300 bc, both Pāṇini and the author of Manusmṛti (a third century bc book of laws) identified two major intellectual trends, one involving belief in the sacred texts known as the Vedas, and one involving their rejection. Those who considered the Vedas as their authority later developed into what we know as the Hindu schools.

With a few exceptions, most of the religious and philosophical movements aimed at liberation, complete freedom from life and rebirth. From about the eighth century bc, belief in rebirth was found among most philosophical and religious leaders. At first, the mechanism of rebirth was thought to be prompted by bad actions. It was also believed that by good actions a person became good and by evil actions a person became evil. Since with time this must have come to be perceived as rather simplistic, the idea of rebirth became more complex. A person was reborn just by acts, regardless of whether those acts were good or evil. Liberation from rebirth could be achieved by an absence of desire; desire of any sort, whether a craving for food, say, or for a new thing, entangled a person in the worldly mechanism of repetition (see Karma and rebirth, Indian conceptions of).

The various thinkers and teachers were specifically concerned with effective ways of achieving liberation. This meant establishing the basic presuppositions of the theory, such as what it is that truly exists, how this could be proved, and how liberation was to be viewed, and, moreover, how to promulgate such beliefs. There were constant discussions, an ongoing search for better ways of arguing with opponents. The formal requirements for building an argument were much disputed; each school believed that only its tools for debate were necessary, and that any others were useless.

An axiom held by most followers of the Vedic tradition was that there is a self (ātman) which travels from life to life. The ‘life’ in question need not be human; it can also be that of an animal.

In the early philosophical sources, the Upaniṣads, there is little room for any sort of agency beyond individuals with selves. It is only later that we find the idea of God or gods actively creating the universe and directing individual persons towards liberation or towards realizing some sort of aspiration towards the divine. Sometimes both these aims were combined.

Citing this article:
Clear, Edeltraud Harzer. General presuppositions. Hindu philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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