Theos Bernard – Philosophical Foundations of India


Philosophical Foundations of India



This book is an attempt to outline the essence of the six classic systems of Hindu Philosophy, namely: Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. All other schools of thought are but variations of these six. I felt it necessary to present only one additional school, namely Kasmir Saivism, which gives the most detailed analysis of the Ultimate Principle; however, it can hardly be fully understood until the other six systems are comprehended.

To understand correctly Hindu Philosophy, it is paramount that one realize that the basis of all the schools is the same. Together they form a graduated interpretation of the Ultimate Reality. Each school is based on the same metaphysical doctrine, while discussing some particular aspect of the whole.

For example: Nyaya discusses the means by which knowledge may be had of the Ultimate Reality; Vaisesika, the things to be known about that Ultimate Reality ; Samkhya, the evolution of metaphysical doctrine; Yoga, the metaphysical doctrine in relation to the individual; Mimamsa, the rules and method of interpreting the doctrine; Vedanta, the relationship between God, Matter, and the world; and Kasmir Saivism, the nature of the Ultimate Spirit and the Cause of the Initial Impulse.

This outline is intended merely to show the interrelationship of these schools and how each assumes the doctrines of the other while it solves its special problem.

In this introduction to the classic philosophical schools of India, there is no attempt to prove or disprove but rather to present the system of each school-—many eminent scholars have ably discussed the philosophical implications in full detail. My problem has been one of deciding what should be omitted rather than what should be included. Only the essentials of each system are presented.


Knowledge without application is like medicine that is not taken


According to the classic schools of Hindu Philosophy, the method by which the individual can evolve himself during this life is through the practice of Yoga. This is the universal technique recommended to enable man to acquire actual insight into the true nature of things. All schools agree that until the faith is fortified with understanding, little progress can be made, for knowledge without application is like medicine that is not taken.

To aid those who do not have a knowledge of Sanskrit, each term, in most cases, is defined when it is introduced, giving the seed concept of the word, so that the intended metaphysical idea can be more readily grasped. For future reference, a glossary of all important terms has been provided in the hope that it may aid those who wish to read some of the recommended bibliographical material. In the use of the English translation of these technical Sanskrit terms, one is cautioned not to Various writers have used different translations which will be the source of confusion at first. However, if one learns to use the technical term, he will soon grasp its full connotation.

This work is a synthesis rather than an original contribution. In its preparation, I have relied extensively upon the writings of recognized authorities on Hindu Philosophy. For the sake of simplification, I have avoided extensive use of quotations and footnotes, and I have made use of the traditional chronology throughout without comment.

In conclusion, I wish to express my gratitude to those authors, listed in the bibliography, from whose works I have drawn. Special mention should be made of two outstanding guides: Indian Philosophy, by S. Radhakrishnan, and A History of Indian Philosophy, by S. Dasgupta. I am also indebted to Professor Herbert W. Schneider, for many helpful recommendations in the preparation of the manuscript, and to Professor Louis H. Grey, for his constructive criticism and technical assistance.

Theos Bernard,

Santa Ynez Mountain Lodge,
Santa Barbara, California.

October, 1945



There is innate in the human heart a metaphysical hunger to know and understand what lies beyond the mysterious and illusive veil of Nature. This is true from savage to savant. Each in his own way according to his own capacity, tries to fathom the eternal mystery of life. From the beginning of time, teachers have endeavoured to bridge the gap between the seen and the unseen and to show cause for the inescapable experiences of sorrow and suffering that engulf mankind. But the questions still remain: What is the nature of Reality? What is the nature of human existence? What is the cause of pleasure an pain? How can Liberation be attained?


In the West, man’s perceptual knowledge of the external world has been the measuring rod, his basis for theorizing


The solutions and explanations offered by man range from the simple. superstitions to the most subtle philosophical speculations. In the West, man’s perceptual knowledge of the external world has been the measuring rod, his basis for theorizing. The primitive who is unable I see beyond the physical manifestation of forces displayed by Nature constructs an animism or a pantheism; the scientist examining the depths of matter with his microscope and sweeping the heavens with his telescope postulates a materialism. Nowhere is there any accord. Mystery still remains.

Since the dawn of Western Civilization, there have been few achievements in the realm of philosophy that have been able to outlive the scientific findings of a single century. With the advent of every new discovery, we have to revise our scheme of things. The entire sea of science is strewn with theories that have had to be abandoned because the inventive genius of man has been able to bring to light new facts that would not fit into the previous theories. The latest ideas are always called improvements and “evolution”.

The West refuses to accept the postulate that the world of mind and matter is but an appearance of a deeper reality which lies beyond the perception of our senses, regardless of how magnified these may be by powerful instruments of precision. One of the reasons for this is the preconceived notion that man cannot know metaphysical truths by direct experience; therefore, at best, metaphysical truths can only be speculations, inferences, or ungrounded faith. Even if it were possible the West maintains that no man has ever attained such supreme knowledge. Another attitude is that all systems of thought must be mutually contradictive, and that, if one of them be true, the rest must be false.  There is little place left for various interpretations of a single philosophy to suit different minds.

In the Orient, it has been accepted that man can know metaphyscial truths by direct experience. He need not depend upon speculation, inference, or faith. The literature is replete with the writings of men who are said to know the whole truth of Nature and human existence and the teachings of these men have been set forth in the philosophical systems of ancient India.


All systems of Hindu Philosophy are in complete agreement that the purpose of philosophy is the extinction of sorrow and suffering and that the method is by the acquisition of knowledge of the true nature of things, which aims to free man from the bondage of ignorance, which all teachers agree is the cause of human suffering.

Hindu Philosophy does not attempt to train one to discern metaphysical truths; it offers a way of thinking to enable one rationally to understand the reality experienced by self-fulfilled personalities, and thereby to lead one to the realization of Truth. In this light, philosophy is seen as an art of life and not a theory about the universe, for it is the means of attaining the highest aspirations of man. It is not for the discovery, but for the understanding of Truth.
There are said to be three stages by which the student can arrive at this realization of the true nature of things. They are (1) Faith ; (2) Understanding; and (3) Realization.

The first stage is that of accepting the laws of nature as taught by the great minds of the past. In the next stage, through the process of analysis, the student arrives at a rational and logical conviction; however, reasoning and speculation about transcendental principles can never lead to more than probability, for there can never be certainty in reason as a means of discovering transcendental truths. At best reasoning is merely a means of understanding the principles of Nature and it is the purpose of philosophy to guide and aid the reasoning of the student. The last stage enables the individual actually to become one with the Ultimate Reality. This is accomplished through the practice of Yoga. The techniques and methods used for the attainment of this end have been treated at length in a previous book by the author.1
1 Hatha Yoga, Columbia University Press, 1944, and shortly to be published by Rider, London.

These stages are not unlike those employed in teaching geometry. First, the student is given the proposition that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. This must be accepted as axiomatic until it is finally demonstrated through reason to be an actual fact. Still, it is only a rational conviction which does not necessarily carry certainty. The truth of this proposition can be verified only by actually cutting out from a piece of paper a triangle and measuring the angles, thereby actually experiencing beyond any measure of doubt that the sum total of the three angles is 180 degrees or the equivalent of two right angles. This last procedure of obtaining direct knowledge or realization of a geometrical truth might be said to correspond to the realization of transcendental truth through Yoga.


Philosophy is one of life’s noblest pursuits; although its wisdom is the reward of few, it ought to be the aspiration of all. If a philosophy is going to satisfy the intellectual life of the modern world, its conclusions must be able to withstand the acid test of analysis in the dry light of reason. Nothing can be taken for granted; the necessity of every assumption must be established. It must be capable of explaining all things from the Great Absolute to a blade of grass; it must not contradict the facts of experience, conceptual or perceptual. Its hypothesis must satisfy all the demands of our nature; it must account for all types of experience: waking, dreaming, sleeping, and those moments which are claimed by the religious ascetic during his deep contemplation. It must be realistic as well as idealistic; it must not be a brutal materialism, worshipping facts and figures and ignoring values, idealizing science and denying spirituality. Nor must it be predominantly a philosophy of values which evades and ignores all connection with facts. It must be comprehensive enough to account for every new discovery of science; it must embrace all the concepts of religion and other philosophical systems. All ideas must receive recognition and find their proper place within the border of its synthesis; every fact of the universe, every aspect of life, every content of experience must immediately fall within the scope of its mould. The March of Science must justify it at every step.

It is not enough merely to interpret reality as perceived by the senses; it must explain both sides of reality, the changing and. the unchangeable, being and becoming, permanent and impermanent, animate and inanimate. The emphasis on one or the other of these two aspects brings about many of the radical differences in philosophy. The need is to unite them in a deep abiding harmony. All these conditions have been satisfied by the philosophical systems of India.


According to Indian tradition there is only one Ultimate Reality, but there are six fundamental interpretations of that Reality. These are called the Sad DarSanas or “six insights,” because they give man sight of the sensible verities and enable him to understand in the light of reason the super-sensible Truth attainable only through the revealed scriptures or through the experience of rsis (sages). The word darSana comes from the root drs, “to see,” and is the Sanskrit term used for philosophy. The six darsanas constitute the classic philosophical systems of India. They are Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. They are not the creation of any one mind nor the discovery of any single individual. The real founders are unknown, and there is considerable controversy as to when they were first reduced to writing, but neither of these conditions detracts from the value of their principles. Together they form a graduated interpretation of the Ultimate Reality, so interrelated that the hypothesis and method of each is dependent upon the other. In no way are they contradictory or antagonistic to one another, for they all lead to the same practical end, knowledge of the Absolute and Liberation of the Soul.

They have many characteristics in common. They all grew out of the Upanisads, the philosophical portion of the Veda which is accepted as the supreme authority; they are delivered in the Sutra style, that is as aphorisms; as such, they are extremely concise, avoiding all unnecessary repetition and employing a rigid economy of words, making it difficult to understand them correctly in their original form without the use of commentaries, for they use many of the same terms, but each system gives its own meaning to the use of the term. They rest their conclusions on several common concepts: all accept the eternal cycle of Nature which is without beginning and end, and which consists of vast periods of creation, maintenance, and dissolution; all accept the principle of regeneration of the soul that maintains that life and death are but two phases of a single cycle to which the soul is bound and to which it dings because of ignorance of the true nature of things; all accept Dharma as the moral law of the universe that accounts for these eternal cycles of Nature, as well as the destiny of the human soul; all agree that knowledge is the path to freedom and that Yoga is the method to attain final liberation.

For the purpose of study, the six Darsanas have been classified into three divisions:

Nyaya — Vaisesika
Samkhya — Yoga
Mimamsa — Vedanta

The first division lays down the methodology of science and elaborates the concepts of physics and chemistry to show how manifestation of phenomena comes into being; the second division sets forth an account of cosmic evolution on purely logical principles; and the third division critically analyses the basic principles; developing them in greater detail and furnishing arguments to substantiate them, as well as making incidental contributions on points of special interest.

Nyaya was founded by Gotama. It is purely a system of logic, concerned with the means of acquiring right knowledge which it classifies under sixteen topics.

Vaisesika was founded by Kanada. It classifies all knowledge of the objective world under nine realities and discusses how the various combinations of these nine basic realities bring all things into being.

Samkhya was founded by Kapila who is considered the Father of Hindu Philosophy. This system comprehends the universe as a sum total of twenty-five categories. In no way does it discard the basic realities of the previous system. It only shows that they are not final, in the same way that the breaking down of the atom to electrons and protons did not discard the existence of the atom, but only showed that it was not the last possible reduction of matter. It shows that all derived things in this world are not produced from the nine realities, but from two realities, Spirit and Matter, which are considered as the Ultimate Realities. It discards the creation of the Vaiesika system and shows that all things are evolved out of pre-existing material which is the static background of the universe and which simply unfolds itself as a rose unfolds from its seed.

Yoga was founded by Patanjali. This is the individual aspect of the system laid down by the Samkhya doctrine. Here the concern is with the ways and means by which the individual can know Reality by direct experience.
Mimamsa was founded by Jaimini. It is concerned chiefly with the correct interpretation of Vedic ritual and texts.

Vedanta was founded by Badarayana. It is an inquiry into the nature of the Ultimate Principle (Brahman). It does not discard the finding of Samkhya, but it endeavours to show that there can be only one Ultimate Reality which makes its appearance to the sense as an illusion (maya). Its analysis of the process of cosmic evolution is virtually the same as the Samkhya with only those differences which must logically follow from its original premise. It shows how the world with its infinite variety is only an appearance, and that all things are one and the same, only appearing differently.


Three schools have developed from the interpretation of the opening sutra of the Vedantasutra, the classic text of the Vedanta system written by Badarayana:
“Now, therefore, enquiry should be made into Brahman [the Ultimate Principle].1”
1 Vedantasutra, i, I, 1.

They are: The Advaita (non-dualism), ViSisfadvaita (qualified non-dualism), and Dvaita (dualism), founded respectively by Samkara (eighth century), Ramanuja (eleventh century), Madhva (twelfth century). Fundamentally they have a single conception which they individually develop to suit particular minds. The Advaita school contends that all phenomenal existence is an illusion, called maya in Sanskrit, and that only the Ultimate Principle (Brahman) is real; the Vi§i§jadvaita system maintains that there is only One Reality, but that in the objective world it manifests itself as a duality ; the Dvaita school treats the evolutionary scheme in the same way as Samkhya. Its only contribution is the way in which it deals with the Supreme Deity. Special mention should be made of the leaders of these three schools.


The name Samkara has become almost synonymous with Vedanta, for his commentary on the Vedantasutra is the foundation for the largest and most popular religious sect of modern Hinduism called Vedanta. In his mind, the Sutras of Badarayana unfold into the fullness of their magnificence, liberating the subtlest insight man can obtain into the eternal scheme of things. He is the undefeated champion of the Sutras; he leaves not a stone of doubt unturned; he embraces every tenet as the sun embraces the diversified objects of this earth. Within his exposition all conflicts and doubts find harmonious equipoise; for he is the master of reason and resolves every difference to the ultimate source from which all things come. Here the teachings of the Upanidads find their greatest advocate, exponent and interpreter.

His achievements were many, but his greatest was in the field of speculation, in constructing his system of Monism, called Advaita in Sanskrit} meaning “non-dualism,” the central position of which is that all is One, only the Ultimate Principle has any actual existence, everything else is an illusion (maya). The literature expounding the details of the arguments which he advances to sustain his position is extensive and readily accessible. He believed this system to be the best way to reconcile the teachings of his times with the traditional literature. Much of his intellectual attainment was a reaction against the ascetic tendency of Buddhism and the devotional tendencies stressed by the Mimamsa school. Here his effort was to save the Vedic texts from any exaggerated viewpoint and to bring them into the light of reason. He tried to revive the age of intellectual speculation which abounded when the Upanisads were compiled and when the earlier systems of thought reached the fullness of their glory. He was impelled by the spiritual direction of his age to formulate a philosophy and to lay the foundations of a religion which could satisfy the ethical demands and spiritual needs of his people better than the systems of Buddhism, Mimamsa, and Bhakti. In the course of his life he accepted every faith that had the power to elevate man and refine his nature, thus learning from all. He was one of the great philosophers of his day, the sage of his century, the saint of his race.

Indian literature is barren of biographical accounts of their spiritual and philosophical leaders of the past; therefore, very little is known of the life of Samkara. It is generally held that he lived between a.d. 788 and 820, but tradition records that he flourished about 200 B.c.; however, all accounts are in accord that his life was short but vital, crowded with accomplishment and enshrined with profound philosophical insight, and that he left this world at the age of thirty-two. For what little detail there is on his life, we are indebted to his disciples Madhava, who wrote Samkaradigvijaya, and Anandairi, who left us his Samkaravijaya. Other students wrote brief accounts, but these are considered the most outstanding.
Sariikara is believed to have been born at Kaladi, on the west coast of the peninsula in the Malabar. His family was of the learned but hard working Nambudri sect of Brahmans. Their family-deity, according to tradition, was Siva, and Samkara was a Sakta by birth. Early in his youth he went to a Vedic school presided over by Govinda, the pupil of Gaudapada. Here he learned the principles of the philosophy which he later made famous. At the age of eight, he is said to have revealed his genius, and early in his youth he gave up the world to become a sannyasin. At no time did he become a passionate recluse, for he wandered throughout India, teaching and discussing his beliefs. Everywhere he challenged the leaders of other schools to philosophical debate. He founded four mathas, or monasteries, the chief of which is the one at Srngeri in the Mysore Province of Southern India. The others are at Puri in the East, Dvaraka in the West, and Badarinath in the North in the Himalayas. He is believed to have died in the Himalayan village of Kedarnath.

In the course of his life he wrote many texts, the most important being his commentaries on the Prasthanatraya which consists of the Upanisads, Bhagavadgita, and Vedantasiitra.  His general position is revealed in his Vivekacudamani and Upadesasahasri. Besides these he leaves many other works that mirror the power of his mind and the genius of his soul. They are: Aptavajrasuci, Atmabodha, Mohamudgara, DasaSloki, Aparoksanubhuti, and commentaries on Visnusahasranama and Sanatsujatiya.


The uncompromising logic of Samkara initiated a strong reaction led by the equally famed teacher Ramanuja, who is credited with having brought the soul back to philosophy. Both were outstanding spokesmen of their times, but they were poles apart in character. Samkara was the great logician, while Ramanuja was the great intuitionalist, surrendering to his feelings and setting forth his religious views. Ramanuja stressed the theistic aspect of the Upanisads, while Samkara held strictly to the intellectual. Samkara locked thought in the vacuum chamber of the mind and closed the doors to the light of intuition. It was the purpose of Ramanuja to reconcile the Vedantasutra, Upanisads, and the Bhagavadgita with the faith and beliefs of the Vaisnava saints.

The system founded by the famed Vaisnava leader Ramanuja is called Viii§tadvaita, or qualified non-dualism. He admits that the Ultimate Principle is real and exists, but he qualifies his position by arguing that souls are also real, though their reality is dependent upon this Ultimate Principle. He maintains that the Spiritual Principle is the basis of the world, which is not an illusion, as is argued by Samkara. Ramanuja insists on the continued existence of the individual soul after its release from worldly chains. He holds that the Ultimate Principle, the world, and souls, form a single unity with the souls and world existing only as the body of the Ultimate Principle. He agrees that, in the end, there is nothing but the Ultimate Principle, but maintains that during the period of manifestation, the world and souls are separate in order to serve the Ultimate Principle.

His aim is to proclaim the doctrine of salvation through bhakti, or devotion, regarding it as the central teaching of the Upanisads, Bhagavadgita, and Vedantasutra. The effectiveness of his arguments is seen by the movements that have stemmed from his teachings as led by Madhva (twelfth century), Vallabha (fifteenth century), Caitanya (fifteenth century), Ramananda (thirteenth century), Kabir (fourteenth century), and Nanak (fifteenth century).

Though both Samkara and Ramanuja were motivated by the same problem, used the same assumptions for their methods, their results were amazingly different. As Samkara was restrained by the rules of logic, Ramanuja was driven by the fever of the religious instinct. Ramanuja embraces all in religious feeling, while Samkara unites all in the realm of reason. Ramanuja’s philosophical spirit was not altogether wanting, but his religious need was greater; so he tried to reconcile the demands of religious feeling with the claims of logical thinking and thereby bridge the gulf between religion and philosophy.

Ramanuja was born a.d. 1027 in Srperumbudur, a town located a few miles west of Madras. He lost his father early; studied Vedanta under Yadavaprakasa of Conjeevaram; and was initiated by Perianariibi, the learned disciple of Alavandar. Marital incompatibility proved to him that renunciation was a necessary condition for attaining his highest aspirations of human perfection ; so he gave up the world and became a sannyasin, settling down at Srirahgam. His life was dedicated to study and converting large numbers to Vaisnavism which he accomplished during his tours of South India where he restored many Vaisnava temples. His great commentary (Sribhasya) on the Vedantasutra is the classic text for the Vaisnavas to-day. Other works attributed to him are Vedantasara, Vedarthasamgraha, Vedantadipa, and a commentary on the Bhagavadgita. Tradition has it that he lived to be 120 years of age.


The opposite interpretation to Samkara’s is set forth by the Kanarese Brahman Madhva. His system is popularly known as the Dvaita, or dualistic system. He denies that the Ultimate Principle is the cause of the world, and contends that the soul is a separate principle having an independent existence of its own, and is only associated with the Ultimate Principle. He stands firm for unqualified dualisms, whereas Samkara upholds a pure monism.

The orthodox biographical account of the life and work of Madhva is Ndrayandcarya’s Madhvavijaya and Manimanjari.  Madhva is also known by the names Purnaprajna and Anandatirtha. He was born in the year 1199 in a village near Udipi of the South Kanara district about sixty miles north of Mangalore. At an early age he became proficient in Vedic learning and soon became a sannyasin. After spending several years in prayer and meditation, study and discussion, he went forth to teach and preach. He founded a temple for Krsna at Udipi, where he taught until his death at the age of seventy-nine.

The standard treatises of his school are the commentary which he composed on the Vedantasutra and a work called Anuvydkhyana in which he justifies his interpretation. Other works that help to elucidate his central position are his commentaries on the Bhagavadgita and the Upanisads, his epitome of the Mahabharata called Mahabharatatat-paryanirnaya, and his gloss on the Bhagavatapurana. These are considered his most important, although he wrote many others. Much can be gleaned from the study of Jayatirtha’s commentary on Madhva’s Sutrabhdsya and that on Madhva’s Anuvydkhyana called Nyayasudha. Still another work of importance is Vyasatirtha’s gloss on Jayatirtha’s commentary called Tatparyacandrika.

The influence of these three leaders, Samkara, Ramanuja, and Madhva has been far reaching, in fact their history is still in progress; however, there are many other outstanding commentators who have contributed valuable material to the history of thought. A few of them are Bhaskar a (tenth century), Nimbarka (eleventh century), Yadavaprakasa (eleventh century), Kesava (thirteenth century), Nilakantha (also known as Srikantha (fourteenth century), Caitanya (fifteenth century), Vallabha (fifteenth century), Vijnanabhiksu (sixteenth century), and Baladeva (eighteenth century).
kasmir Saivism.

No account of the philosophical systems of India would be complete without Kasmir Saivism, for its analysis of Nature is more comprehensive than any of the six Darsanas; therefore, it must be included. It is a system of Ideal Monism founded by Vasugupta in the ninth century. Its central position is that there is only one Ultimate Principle, but that this principle has two aspects, one transcendental and the other immanent. Its analysis of the process of cosmic evolution postulates thirty-six categories (tattvas). What the other systems assume, Kasmir Saivism explains, for it shows the origin of Spirit and Matter ; it discusses the nature of the Ultimate Principle; and it explains the cause of the initial impulse in Nature.
Kasmir Saivism is a philosophical system based on the Sivasutra which is one of the texts of that vast body of Indian literature called the Tantras. There is probably no body of traditional literature that has suffered such widespread criticism, from Western and Eastern scholars alike, as the Tantras, due mainly to their esoteric character which made it impossible for scholars to obtain adequate information of their true content. The ban on their investigation was finally removed by the fruitful labours of the late Sir John Woodroffe, the first to defend the outraged Tantras, and now the field of Tantrik literature can be intelligently investigated. For a correct and complete understanding of Indian culture, it is imperative that this body of traditional literature be properly understood; therefore, a brief outline of their position in the history of Hindu thought will be helpful.


The word Tantra is derived from the root tan, “to spread,” and the agential suffix tra, “to save,” meaning that knowledge which is “spread to save.” It is a generic term under which a whole culture of a certain epoch of Indian history found expression. According to their own definition, Tantra denotes that body of religious scriptures (sastra) which is stated to have been revealed by Siva as a specific scripture for the fourth and present age (Kali Yuga). They are without authorship, for they are revealed by divine inspiration to rsis (sages) who record them for the benefit of men living during this age.

According to Indian tradition there are four ages (Mahayuga)— namely, the Satya Yuga, or golden age ; the Treta Yuga (age), in which righteousness (dharma) decreased by one-fourth; the Dvapara Yuga (age), in which righteousness (dharma) decreased by one-half; and the present Kali Yuga (age), in which righteousness (dharma) has decreased three-fourths, considered the most evil of all ages. Each age has its appropriate scripture (Sastra), designed to meet the requirements and needs of men of each age in their effort to attain liberation.
The Hindu Sastras (scriptures) are classified into Sruti, Smrti, Purana, and Tantra; the last three assume the first as their base, in fact, they are merely special presentments of it for the respective ages : Sruti for the Satya Yuga ; Smyti for the Treta Yuga; Purana for the Dvapara Yuga ; and Tantra for the Kali Yuga. The orthodox view is that the means used during the Satya Yuga became void of power; therefore, a new interpretation had to be given for each age in order to meet the needs of environment and the temperament and capacity of men living in each age. Sruti is that knowledge which is seen by the fsis (sages), therefore without authorship; Smrti is that knowledge which has been remembered by the rsis (sages); the Puranas preserved the teachings and doctrines of the Veda for the declining intelligence and spirituality of men by means of mythology and stories; the Tantra is the universal scripture (sastra) for this age and is therefore considered as a Yuga Sastra. It is only a reinterpretation of the Veda for modern man and therefore is frequently called the Fifth Veda.

A Tantra is generally cast in the form of a dialogue between Siva, the deification of the Ultimate Principle, and his female consort, Parvati, the active aspect of the Ultimate Principle. When Parvati asks the questions and Siva answers them, the treatise is called an Agama, that which has come down; when Siva asks the questions and Parvati answers them, the treatise is called a Nigama. The Tantras are said to be the truest exegesis of the Vedas, and their origin is certainly as ancient as those of some of the classical Upanisads.

The Tantras not only issued from the same source as did the Upanisads, but it is said that they have been as widespread in India. According to tradition, India had been divided into three regions called Krantas. These Krantas were Visnukranta, Rathakranta, and Asvakranta. Visnukranta extended from the Vindhya Mountain in Cattala (Chittagong), thus including Bengal; Rathakranta, from the same mountain to Mahacina (Tibet), including Nepal; and Asvakranta, from the same mountain to “the great ocean,” apparently including the rest of India. Sixty-four Tantras had been assigned to each region, and all of them could be classified according to the three interpretations of philosophy, Abheda, Bedha, and Bhedabheda, that is, non-dualism, dualism, and dualism and non-dualism.

A Tantra is said to consist of seven marks, or topics : (1) creation, (2) destruction of the universe, (3) worship, (4) spiritual exercises (Yoga), (5) rituals and ceremonies, (6) actions, and (7) meditation. They were the encyclopedias of knowledge of their time, for they dealt with all subjects from the creation of the universe to the regulation of society, and they have always been the repository of esoteric spiritual beliefs and practices, especially the spiritual science of Yoga.
There is much controversy over their antiquity which usually reflects a lack of full knowledge of their tradition and a failure to distinguish between the record and the doctrine. The Kali age is still in progress ; therefore it is believed that new Tantras will continue to appear as rsis (sages) record their intuitional insights on the needs of modern man, but the appearance of these records in no way dates the doctrine which they express, for the doctrine has existed in the minds of man since time immemorial.

The Tantras have many common characteristics. They all accept the Veda and are in no way hostile to the six Darsanas. Their purpose is to provide a way for the salvation of man during the present age (Kali Yuga). Their principles are of universal application without regard to time or place, temperament or capacity, as is witnessed by the many religious sects that have received inspiration from their teachings. They maintain that mere philosophical speculation on the ultimate nature of things is not enough to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the soul, no more than a description of a banquet is sufficient to satisfy the physical hunger of the body. Therefore they provide not only the principles of speculation, but also the basis for experience ; they not only argue, but they experiment. They provide a rational foundation for the spiritual exercises that will liberate man during one lifetime. These practices are referred to as Sadhana, derived from the root sddh, “to succeed,” that is, that success which leads to final emancipation of the soul. Their philosophy furnishes the reasons required to make the mind firm in its faith so that it will not despair in the early stages when all seems so hopeless. Other philosophies offer a theoretical explanation of the ultimate nature of reality which brings peace of mind, but the Tantras provide a basis for the actual absorption of the essence of man into the essence of Reality. Throughout their structure, the emphasis is placed on the practical aspect of knowledge.

The Tantras are aware of the fact that the world of name and form with its, sorrow and suffering cannot be dissolved by logic alone. They teach that only by growth and development can the obstacles of life be surmounted. They accept the world around us as it is, exalting everything, discarding nothing, relegating everything to its rightful place, and providing a spiritual prescription for an orderly life according to the Laws of Nature.

The many errors of interpretation which the Tantras have suffered are perhaps due to the fragmentary character of available material, the technical character of their terminology, the subtle and metaphysical character of their teachings, and the lack of general knowledge of the traditional background upon which they are based. Some of these problems may be solved when scholars bring to light the rich and untouched wealth of knowledge to be had in Tibetan literature, for in Tibet to-day that which has become tradition in India is still living.

The Tantras are commonly called Agama, and these are divided into three main groups according to which deity is worshipped : Siva, Sakti, or Visnu. Together they form the three principal divisions of modern Hinduism, namely Saivism, Saktism, and Vaisnavism. All of them have their seeds of origin in the hoary antiquity of time, and they have passed through many transitions according to the interpretations of their many leaders. As they exist to-day, they are considered as the outstanding religious systems of India and have their beginnings in the early period of the Christian era. Numerous schools have stemmed from each of these, but it will suffice to mention briefly the three principal fountain-heads.


Saivism worships Siva as the supreme being, regarding him as the source and essence of the universe. The temples dedicated to him are characterized by the Linga (phallus) which is symbolic of the attributes of Siva. The sect as it is known to-day is said to date from some time between the fifth and sixth century. It elaborated a distinctive philosophy called the Saivasiddhanta about the eleventh century. This is based on the tradition of the Vedas and the Agamas. Other works that have influenced the growth and development of Saivism are the Tamil Tolkdppiam and the Sanskrit Mahabharata and Svetasvatara Upanisad. Their other sources are twenty-eight Saiva Agamas, the hymns of the Saiva saints, and the works of theologians.

The chief of the twenty-eight Agamas is Kamika, including the section dealing with knowledge called Mrgendra Agama. These are referred to by the Tamil saints Manikkavasagar (seventh century) and Sundarar. The most outstanding compiler of devotional literature was Nambi Andar Nambi (a.d.iooo), and his hymns are collectively called Tirumwai. Other important works are Sekkirar’s Periapiircmam (eleventh century), describing the lives of the sixty-three Saiva saints and giving some other valuable information; Meykander’s Sivajnanabodham (thirteenth century), the standard exposition on the Saivasiddhdnta; Arulnandi Sivacarya’s SivajUdnasiddhiyar; and Umapati’s Sivaprakasam and Tiruarulpayan (fourteenth century). A systematic reconciliation of the two-fold tradition of the Veda and Agama was undertaken by Nilakantha (fourteenth century), who wrote a commentary on the Vedantasutra, interpreting that work in the light of the Saiva system.

Saivism is divided into two principal schools, the Northern school, known as Kasmir Saivism (to be discussed later), and the Southern school, known as the Lingayat sects, characterized by wearing a Linga around their necks. The first great leader of the Southern school was Lakulisa, believed to have been the last incarnation of Mahesvara and the founder of the sect of Paupatas. The influence of Saivism grew by its conflict with Buddhism and Jainism in the age of the great Pallavas king. The fact that it flourished in the Gupta era is attested by the Mathura pillar inscription of Candragupta II Vikramaditya (a.d. 380). The famed Cola Kings were likewise Saivas and did everything to further its influence.

This cult takes its name from its worship of Sakti, which is represented as the embodiment of the power that supports all that lives and which upholds the universe. Sakti is portrayed as the female aspect of the Ultimate Principle, for it is this force that brings all manifestations into being ; it is, therefore, deified as the wife of Siva. Around this principle an intricate system of ritual has developed. Its literature is specifically called the Tantras. All the followers claim great antiquity for their literature, teachings, and principles, tracing their origin to the Vedas. The literature tells of many famed personages believed to have attained enlightenment through the practice of the rites taught by the Saktas.


The chief characteristic of Vaisnavism is the intense devotion to the personal god Visnu, who is accepted not only as the preserver, but also as the creator and destroyer of the universe. As such, Vaisnavism is a form of monotheism, for it sets aside the original triune equality of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva in favour of the one god Visnu, often called Hari. His two manifestations in human form are said to be Rama and Krsna.

Vaisnavism is very tolerant, for it is always ready to adapt itself to other creeds when winning over other religions. It has no formal organization or selected leader ; it is always guided by the most outstanding mind which its teachings and doctrines can develop. Its first great leader is generally conceded to have been Natha Muni (a.d. 824-924), who was formally anointed in the Srirangam temple in South India. With him began a new era of Vaisnavism. Then followed Yamunacarya and Ramanuja (a.d. 1017-1137). It was Ramanuja who laid down the lines of its doctrine by elaborating the system of Visistadvaita. Vaisnavaite theology is based on the Vedas, Agamas, Puranas, and Prabandham, which consist of the hymns of the poet-saints called Alvars. The distinctive features of Vaisnavism are found in the Pancarata religion mentioned in the Mahabharata.

With the death of Ramanuja came a period of sectarian split among the Vaisnavas which finally ended about the thirteenth century in the permanent division in their ranks into two sects of Tenkalais (Southern school) and the Vadakalais (Northern school). The former regards the Tamil Prabandham as canonical, and is indifferent to the Sanskrit tradition; the latter accepts both the Tamil and the Sanskrit tradition as equally authoritative.

The founder of the Vadakalai (Northern school) was Vedanta Desika, also known as Venkatanatha (thirteenth century). He was one of the greatest successors of Ramanuja. Other outstanding leaders who have received their inspiration from the teachings of Ramanuja are Nimbarka (eleventh century), Madhva (twelfth century). Ramananda (thirteenth century), Kabir (fourteenth century), Nanak (fifteenth century), Vallabha (fifteenth century), and Caitanya (fifteenth century).