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Indian ThoughtBrahmanical Systems

In the Brahmanical systems, karmic actions are closely related to one's social duty (dharma), which is determined by the endogamous group (varna) into which one is born. Morality is not individual, but collective, and in making decisions one is not expected to decide for oneself what is and is not moral; rather, one determines what people of one's type ought to do in particular situations, and one group's morality might differ significantly from another's. For example, while killing is characterized as immoral for most groups, it is the duty of a member of the warrior caste (ksatriya) to slay enemies in a just war. The tension between the demands of dharma and the dictates of conventional morality is highlighted in the Song of God (Bhagavad Gita) in which the warrior Arjuna balks at the idea that in an immanent battle he will be required to kill relatives and teachers—people with whom he has intimate karmic obligations—and he decides to escape his dharma by becoming a world renouncer (samnyasin). The god Krishna informs him that this is not a viable option and that it would lead to ridicule from his fellow ksatriya s in this life and negative karmic consequences in future lives.


The Bhagavad Gita upholds a notion that is found in most Brahmanical systems: that every being has a permanent, unchanging essence or soul (atman) that transmigrates from life to life, appropriating bodies and life situations that are directly concordant with past karma. According to the Upanishads, however, the atman is not directly affected by the vicissitudes of one's rebirths; although in some texts it is described as being pure consciousness, it is not directly aware of, or affected by, change. It moves from body to body, but the individual is normally unaware of it. All beings have an intellect (buddhi), which when trained leads one toward direct understanding of the atman, but actual perception of it is the result of yogic training, in which one learns to control the senses and look within, differentiating the apparently real phenomena of perception and the truly real atman.

The search for the atman figures prominently in several Upanishads. In the Katha Upanishad, for example, a Brahman boy named Naciketas asks Yama, the lord of death, to reveal the truth of what becomes of the individual after the body dies. Yama first tests him to see if he is psychologically ready to learn the truth and, after Naciketas rejects offers of riches and fame as merely transitory, Yama decides that he has no interest in the material world and tells him of the eternal, unchanging atman. At the culmination of his speech, Yama pronounces the famous "great statement" (mahavakya), "You are that" (tat tvam asi), indicating that the individual atman is the same as the ultimate reality, referred to as Brahman. Brahman is described in the Upanishads as pure being (sat); it never changes, and it is the sole reality. All the phenomena of existence are merely projections of Brahman, and when a sage learns to perceive reality as it is, everything other than Brahman is revealed as illusion.

According to the Katha Upanishad, the sufferings of ordinary beings are due to their lack of control over their senses (indriya). Yama states that the intellect is like the reins of a chariot, which the charioteer uses to control his horses. The horses are compared to the senses. Without the restraint of a firm charioteer, the horses will run rampant, just as unrestrained senses pursue fleeting sense objects. A skilled charioteer gains control over his horses in the same way that a yogi restrains his senses through meditation. The chariot is compared to the body, which is motivated to pursue attractive things by unrestrained senses but attains a state of peace through meditative practice. The atman is like a passenger who travels along with the chariot, but exercises no control over it. Liberation is attained by those who directly perceive the atman. When one recognizes that individual existence is merely illusion, all sense of separateness from Brahman is transcended, and the individual atman is merged with it, like a wave that is absorbed into the ocean.

The world of appearances.

In the Non-dualist (Advaita) Vedanta system of shankara (c. 8th century C.E.), the world of appearances is said to be merely the sport of Brahman (brahmalila). Brahman projects the illusion of ordinary reality for its own enjoyment, but ultimately none of it is real. On the conventional level, phenomena operate according to laws, and so conventionally shankara accepts the validity of direct perception (pratyaksa). From the ultimate perspective the multiplicity of appearance is false, however, and so in seeking the truth one should learn to overlook the evidence of one's senses and initially rely on the Vedic scriptures (of which the Upanishads are a part), which reveal the way things really are. Scriptural statements are later confirmed by introspective meditation.

Arguments regarding valid means of knowledge (pramana) figure prominently in intersectarian disputes among Indian philosophers. Most schools of classical Indian philosophy accept the primacy of direct perception, as well as inference (anumana) based on sense experience. For shankara, however, the evidence of the senses is false, and so ultimately only scriptural testimony (sabda) is valid. The scriptures themselves require no validation, because they "are like the sun which reveals itself while revealing colors." The Vedas are part of the very fabric of reality and are eternally true. They have no author (apauruseya) and are directly perceived by "seers" (rsi), who reveal them, but do not alter their content.

The Nyaya school—which like Vedanta is regarded as one of the six "orthodox" (astika) traditions of Brahmanical philosophy—takes issue with several of these ideas. According to Nyaya, it is ridiculous to claim that the Vedic texts have no author; instead, the Naiyayikas hold that they are composed by God, who is omniscient. God's position as the being who knows all things serves to validate the truth of Vedic statements. In addition, God is also the author of the medical texts of the ayurveda, and the fact of their effectiveness serves as an analogical proof that Vedic statements that cannot be verified by ordinary humans are also true. They are further corroborated by the testimony of trustworthy persons (apta), and so ordinary humans can accept them with confidence.

Like the Advaita Vedantins, the Naiyayikas assert the existence of an eternal atman, which is the locus of each individual's karma, but unlike shankara, they claim that the atman is able to acquire knowledge, feeling, and volition. It is not the sort of spiritual entity postulated by Advaita Vedanta, and each atman has its own mind (manas), which is connected with it until it reaches liberation. At that point, the atman becomes completely liberated from everything, including mind. The path to liberation for Nyaya begins with reasoning, which brings correct knowledge.

In common with other Indian classical philosophical systems, the Nyaya asserts that living beings are caught up in transmigration as a result of ignorance (avidya), which manifests in the form of mistaken ideas. Correct reasoning, guided by scripture, is an essential prerequisite for liberation. It eliminates wrong ideas and reveals the truth of things, and thus serves to overcome ignorance. One does not engage in argument for its own sake; correct reasoning leads to certainty, and is in accord with Vedic statements. On this basis, one can engage in introspective meditation, by means of which one is able to directly validate the truth of scripture. Liberation in this system is not conceived of as bliss, as in some other Indian traditions, but rather as absence of pain. Bliss requires its opposite, but in the liberated state one transcends all qualities and dichotomies. In liberation the atman is separated from the physical body—and all other physicality—and attains a state of absolute neutrality.

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