A Short History of Religious And Philosophic Thought in India

by Swami Krishnananda

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Paperback: xiv + 188 pages
ISBN: 81-7052-108-4
Book Dimensions: 7.00 x 5.00 x 0.50 inches
Shipping Weight: 190 grams

Table of Contents

Inside Cover  
Publishers’ Note v
Preface vii
Introduction xiii

Chapter I

The Vedas and Their Classification 3
The Theme of the Vedas 5

The Concept of Law and Sacrifice in the Vedas

Karma and Reincarnation 11
The Vedas as Fountainhead of Development 11

Chapter II

The Period of Transition 13
The Quest for Reality 14
The Philosophy of the Upanishads 15-34
     The Doctrine of Creation 15
     Metaphysics 19
     Personal God 24
     Ethics 25
     Psychology 28
     Eschatology 30
     Practice of Yoga 32
The Spirit of the Age 34

Chapter III

The Rise of the Epics and Puranas 36
History and Symbology as Modes of Teaching 40
The Metaphysics of History 47
The Puranas 53


Chapter IV

The Context of the Gospel 57
The Immortality of the Soul 58
God, the Almighty 59
The Incarnations of God 62
The Secret of Right Action 63
Universal Religion 67
Yoga 68
The Liberated Sage 70
Death and After 72
The Spirit of the Bhagavadgita 74

Chapter V

The Anu-Gita 78
Method of Self-Control 81
Basic Ethics 86
The Main Contents of the Puranas 88
Philosophical Trends 91

Chapter VI

Preliminary 97
The Ideal Character of the World 98
Life after Death 100
The Absolute 101
Means to Liberation 102
The Stages of Knowledge and Liberation 103

Chapter VII

The Need for a Personal God 105
Narayana or Vishnu 107-123
     The Avataras 110-123
Siva 123
Ganesa 125
Devi 126
Brahma 129
Skanda 130
Surya 133
Hanuman 135
Minor Gods 138-142
     Sasta 138
     Loka-Palas 139
     Kama 141
Other Deities, Demi-Gods and Objects of Worship, Reverence and Awe 142-147

Chapter VIII

General Characteristics 148
The Meaning of Ritual 151-167
     Its Purpose and Method 151
     Puja or Worship 157
     Japa 160
     Prayer 162
     Ceremonies 163
The Laws of the Stages of Life 167-176
     The Purusharthas 167
     The Asramas 169

Karma, Bondage and Liberation




Inside Cover

There are two ways of studying a subject: to approach it as a process and to appreciate it as an essence. In the former procedure of study, the subject is viewed as history; while, in the latter, it is taken in its capacity as that permanent element which moves unaffected through history, as the thread which connects its parts. This dual role of any feature is seen to be mutually related in all things,—in the individual, the society and the universe. Just as, for instance, the human being is a changing and growing process of personality and experience and is at the same time something unique in itself, incapable of comparison and timeless in essence, all manifestations, qualities and relations, forms and actions, embody this peculiarity of nature. The history of philosophy busies itself with the process of the unfoldment of reality through the vehicle of human thought; the philosophy of history unravels the pearl that is hidden beneath the waves of historical movement.

The themes presented in this book reveal the manner in which different sources of knowledge in India have attempted to portray the truths of life in their ultimate references. From the richly grown valley of the Vedas, there is a rise to the towering peaks of the Upanishads. Further on, it is not another ascent, but an artistic display of the beauty of human emotion in a blend of love and dignity which is lavishly raised as a fitting superstructure on the esoteric grandeur of these sky-scraping cliffs,—a work marvellously executed in the Epics and the Bhagavadgita and proclaimed untiringly in the Puranas. The other outer reaches of this superb achievement of human genius are the laws of society, the rules of living and the cry of the soul for the Infinite, which longs for the God of the cosmos on one hand and the subliminal consciousness on the other, between which there has never been a choice. Man speaks to himself in his innermost secrecy.


Among the publications of the Divine Life Society, the present book on the structure of Inner India is one of a special kind, for it offers to students of Indian Culture a taste of its quintessential essence and, to those who are eager to know what India is, a colourful outline of the picture of the heart of India.

The survey of thought covered in this book ranges from the Vedas and the Upanishads to the Smritis, including the Epics, Puranas and the Bhagavadgita, as well as the religious modes of conduct and the philosophic tradition of the country.

29th August, 1994



There have been written several histories of religion and philosophy and it is not my intention to present here another chronicle along similar lines; for the task that I have taken upon myself is a different one. My purpose has been to suggest a proper method of the interpretation of values and a correct approach to the study of the religion and philosophy of India, which I regard not only as the right thing to do, but also essential to instil into the minds of students that perspective of life which can be safely called comprehensive and tolerant, rather than merely add some more information to the existing histories on the subject. It is my observation that religion and philosophy are not being taught in the way in which they ought to be, and this is the primary reason why this great theme of human life is being relegated to the position of an ‘optional’ or even an ‘encumbrance’ in the educational career, in present-day universities. While in the discourse on ‘Resurgent Culture’ I have attempted to point out the philosophical and psychological background of the universal nature of the religious consciousness more than the forms which religion takes in the different social patterns of mankind, it is my endeavour in this book to touch upon the fundamental principles involved in the development of this consciousness through the ages, as embodied in the canonical scriptures and the teachings of the great sages of India. In this sense of the tracing of the growth of the religious consciousness through the passage of time, it is a history; but in the sense of a mere tabulating of events and thoughts, it is not. The religious spirit is eternal, while the structure of the religions of the world is temporal, being adapted to the changing demands of the human mind. The phases of the true religious spirit are the content of our study.

To search out the religious content amongst the teachings of the religions and absorb the philosophic spirit from the thoughts of the various philosophers is not an easy undertaking; for there is always the fear of one’s being drowned under the waves of an ocean. Teachers spoke in different languages and in varying accents, but stressed the same truth, though their emphasis was on one or more of its aspects suited to the times in which they lived. This should not, therefore, make religions appear as severed from one another, with no common element among them, for that would be a travesty of approach to the reality of religion. If religion is the way to perfection, the religious fanaticism that we generally see prowling on the surface loses its meaning. Religion makes one broad-minded, loving, charitable and divine, and philosophy is the rationale behind religion. Philosophy and religion are inseparables.

The historical trend present in this study naturally provides some material for further reading and research, and it may be taken as a pointer to the rich treasures hidden in the scriptures and the teachers of India, whose profundity calls for great patience and tenacious aspiration on the part of the student.

The earliest documents to be studied are the Veda-Samhitas and their culmination as the Upanishads. These constitute the magnificent heritage of the Indian people. The Epics and the Puranas follow as an expatiation of their theme in a lofty style which stirs emotion and heightens understanding. The Bhagavadgita is a unique specimen belonging to this type of literature. The Yoga-Vasishtha is like a mystical edifice constructed on the towering peaks of realisation recorded in the Upanishads. Religion and ethics are like the wings of the spirit in man who tries to soar into the empyrean of the unknown. The Agamas and Tantras form a practical manual of the rule and conduct which fulfils itself as the worship of God in the world as well as in sanctified shrines. The schools of philosophic thought (Darshana) are a kind of graded series of the development of human aspiration to know Reality. The Charvaka, or the materialist, sees only the external physical world in its crass objective features and everything appears to be a mode only of matter. The Vaiseshika and the Nyaya see behind matter certain constituents which seem to be ultimate. The Mimamsa works upon the material diversity of constituents and posits divinities behind them. The Sankhya confronts a difficulty in holding that there are many ultimate constituents in the objective universe and reduces all variety of manifestation to a single matrix, called Prakriti, which is counterposed by centres of knowing consciousness, called the Purushas. The psychology of the Sankhya is really an advance over the physics of the Vaiseshika and the Nyaya and the pluralistic theology of the Mimamsa. But consciousness cannot rest contented with a gulf between itself and the world outside. The Yoga school accepts the principle of God as a connecting element, but suffers due to a mechanistic relation which it introduces between its ultimate categories. This persisting difference is not satisfying and the spirit within seeks to overcome it by a profounder contemplation. This is the Vedanta which rises above the duality of subject and object and the trinity of God, world and soul, into a unity of universality of experience. This is the zenith which Indian thought has reached, or man’s mind can hope to reach.

The schools of Jainism and Buddhism provide an excellent psychological analysis and form important sections in the history of philosophy. The different schools, thus, may be regarded as complementary rather than contradictory, one helping the other in a higher fulfilment which is transcendent to and yet immanent in the lower. It is the exclusive emphasis laid by the followers of particular schools that has led to the erroneous notion of one school being opposed to the other. As a child cannot be said to be set in opposition to the adolescent or the mature in age, schools of thought and even faiths of mankind cannot be considered to be causes of obstructive distinctions, for they are intended to collaborate among themselves into a growing organism and furnish an ultimate support for man’s existence and living, through their creative activity.

29th August, 1994

Swami Krishnananda


The development of religious and philosophic thought in India comprises a many-sided presentation of the higher aspirations in man. While the Veda-Samhitas embody the prayers of the human spirit to the Universal Reality revealed in creation and record the vision of the One in the many, the Upanishads represent an attempt to dive into the One from the forms of the many. Though modern history sees an advance of thought from the Samhitas to the Upanishads, tradition does not permit any such bifurcation and sees in them two types of the vision of Reality, the former emphasising its aspect as creation and the latter its being, as it is. There is, no doubt, a tendency to view the essential nature of Reality as transcending creation, but it is not possible to ignore the creational aspect as a realm outside Reality, for creation also is within it. From this point of view, it seems quite reasonable to follow the way of ancient tradition that the Samhitas and the Upanishads are not to be divided as inferior and superior, but as pictures of one side and another side of Reality. It is an important aspect in the interpretation of the Vedas to regard them as a single body of scriptural lore, of which the Upanishads form the consummation. Without taking the purely historical view that the Upanishads transcend the Samhitas in their value, the former may be said to be an improvement upon the content of the latter in the sense that the Samhitas look upon creation and its Maker more in their cosmological significance maintaining a kind of awe-inspiring distance between man and God, while the Upanishads stir up within man a consciousness of the immediacy, in his own being, of that cosmic grandeur of God in creation. The distinction of God, world and soul, when it is handled by the Upanishads, resolves itself into the unitary Absolute.

But a very meaningful point of view which is sought to be emphasised here is the importance of the Epics and Puranas in the history of Indian thought. The ancient sages were quick to appreciate the necessity to appeal to the various sides of human nature and to alter the method of teaching in adjustment with this need. As it was stated earlier, Reality and creation are not to be regarded as two facts or problems to be encountered but two ways of witnessing the same thing. The human mind is composed not only of the rational powers but also the emotional and the instinctive elements which feel the presence and working of certain truths that rationality cannot explain adequately. The Epics and Puranas answer to that aspect of human nature which is other than the ratiocinating or the investigative. It is human egoism which asserts that only scientific discoveries and affirmations in their modern sense are real and there is nothing true in the world which observation and experiment cannot certify. It is forgotten that reason is not all and science is not the last word in knowledge. The heart revolts against the conclusion of science that tears of grief consist merely of certain chemical substances or that the beauty of a painting is just the effect of a combination of colours. Religion, likewise, is not an invention of human crotchet or an outcome of fear or even a social necessity but the answer to a living surge of conscious aspiration which cannot be intelligible either to reason or to science. Human nature is not a combination of scientific facts or a bundle of physical laws or chemical elements, but manifests in itself a meaning higher than all observable values in the world of mathematics, physics, chemistry or biology. The religious spirit of the Epics and Puranas is different from the beaten track of logical philosophy, for it reads an eternal meaning in the temporal structure of the world. The power and purpose of an Avatara, for example, infuses into the historical process of the universe a truth which is above history. Everything that is human has a touch of the mathematical and the logical in it,—whether it is history, or science. But the eternal religion is that which feels the existence and activity of a supernal Reality, even in what is earthly. The personalities and events described in the Puranas cannot always be taken as myths and fables which have no substance in them, for the universe is nothing but the Absolute beheld through the channels of human perception. In their attempt at a bringing together of the temporal and the eternal, the Epics present before us a picture of divine perfection commingled with human weakness. In these records of cosmic history, the usual meanings of past, present and future assume a different suggestiveness and it is futile to read into them a mere human viewpoint of understanding. It is here that we come face to face with the fact that religion is neither a social practice nor a human contrivance but the perennial activity of timeless being.

The Bhagavadgita is a part of the Mahabharata and thus occurs in the context of an Epic, and so it is called a Smriti (secondary revelation), as distinguished from the Sruti (primary revelation), which are the Vedas and the Upanishads. Yet, the Gita plays a unique role in the history of religious and philosophic thought. The Upanishads are like an extensive forest ranging over a wide area and covering almost everything which may be said to be of the nature of reality. The Bhagavadgita is, on the other hand, a kind of garden of select plantations which are deliberately nurtured, keeping in view the needs of human psychology. It is at once rationalistic, volitional, emotional and charged with a high spirit of activity. In the Upanishads, Reality seems to be musing over itself and contemplating its own glories, while in the Bhagavadgita it speaks to man in a language which is intelligible to the mind that sees meaning in pleasure and pain, reward and punishment, progress and evolution, bondage and liberation. The Bhagavadgita is a world-gospel which tries to link man with God, enlighten him on the concrete relation subsisting between the world and the Absolute, and solace him that there is a way leading from the finite to the Infinite.

Nevertheless, the Upanishads may be said to have sown the seeds for every thought that occurred later. In spite of their excessive concern with the trans-empirical Reality, whatever be its relation to the cosmos of creation, they make here and there profound statements, though at random, which sum up the principles of ethics, psychology and the path that leads to the Supreme Being. The Bhagavadgita is a detailed accentuation of some of the terse observations made already in the Upanishads. We have, for example, a statement on the nature of the universal Virat in a single verse of the Mundaka Upanishad, which may itself be said to be an inspiration after the Purushasukta of the Samhitas. The Isa, Katha and the Svetasvatara Upanishads have verses that embody some of the important themes of the Bhagavadgita, which, on the whole, manifests the spirit of God descended into the field of action.

The Yoga-Vasishtha rises to a high watermark in the philosophic thought of India. It is a classic inimitable in its kind. Through elaborate descriptions, almost in an epic style, it works upon the fundamental principles enunciated in the Upanishads and combines philosophy with a lofty psychology by which it explains creation, evolution and involution purely from a spiritualistic point of view. In this way, it tries to give an ultimate explanation of everything in terms of the Infinite consciousness which manifests itself as the objects of experience on one side and the experiencing subjects on the other side. The sorrows which follow in the wake of every effort of man for acquisition of happiness in a world of transient phenomena, the knowledge needed to diagnose the common malady of everyone, and the ethical prerequisites to be cultivated for the attainment of true freedom are its main subjects. The uniqueness of the methodology of the Yoga-Vasishtha is in its attempt to analyse all things in terms of consciousness which is the ultimate reality of everything. Health and disease, happiness and misery, success and failure, bondage and freedom are all explicable in terms of the right adjustment or maladjustment of consciousness. Finally, even birth and death are traced to this mysterious cause which cannot be directly seen, as it is involved in the seeing consciousness itself. Another text, known as the Tripurarahasya (Jnana-kanda), follows the lead of the Yoga-Vasishtha in the treatment of a spiritual idealism which it regards as the alpha and omega of all things.

An interesting part of the manifestation of Indian Philosophy as religion is its concept of the pantheon which has an immense practical significance in the day-to-day life of the country. The gods (Devatas) hold such sway over the minds of persons that the theological evaluation of life may be regarded as a commonplace throughout India. A final interpretation of any problem hinges upon a Daiva or a presiding deity, a heritage of thought which may be said to have directly come down to the present day from the Upanishads that viewed the universe as constituted of the object (Adhibhuta), subject (Adhyatma) and deity (Adhidaiva). There is nothing which is not involved in this triadic relation, in any stage of creation. It is interesting to note this concept of deity entering as an invariable concomitant of every stratum of evolution in the recent philosophy of emergent evolution, particularly in Samuel Alexander, who propounds this theme in his Space, Time and Deity. Herein he makes the principle of deity unavoidable in the evolutionary process on a nisus to progress upwards. It is needless to add that the Upanishads have already, many centuries back, anticipated in their intuitions this novel doctrine of deity, with an added significance and purpose, and even today it is impossible to remove from the minds of the Indian people the belief in the governance of the subject-object relation by a presiding deity. It is this presiding principle which the Bhagavadgita confirms as the final deciding factor in all actions and processes of man and the world. The crystallisation of this doctrine is the great religious theology of India, which posits various deities as the guardians of the cosmos and sets forth rules of their worship in the interest of man’s march towards his great destiny. Theology is an essential part of religion, which is a name for philosophy in practice.

The rules of conduct are a part of the religious way of life. The Smritis are the codes which lay down the laws of human behaviour in one’s personal capacity as well as in society. The ancient dictum of the Veda that Satya (truth as being) and Rita (truth as law) are the primary principles of Reality and its manifestation is the background of the canons of Dharma, or a life of righteousness. It is the intention of the Smritis to make explicit the forms of righteousness as they manifest themselves in practical life, which are only implicit in the principles of Satya and Rita or in the account of creation given in the Upanishads. The modes of living according to class (Varna) and order (Asrama) instituted for the purpose of ensuring mutual cooperation in society are the main contents of the Smritis. These texts not only deal with the ethical problems of man as an individual and as a member of a family or of society in general, but also dilate upon the rules of administration, politics and statesmanship, legal principles and statecraft. The Smritis of Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara, the Santi-Parva of the Mahabharata and the Arthasastra of Kautilya are the primary sources of information on this subject. The social, political and legal systems enunciated in these codes are ultimately spiritual in their tone, for they analyse the life of man into the fourfold scheme of practical endeavour, known as rectitude of conduct (Dhanna), and a righteous pursuit of economic values (Artha) and of the fulfilment of one’s normal desires (Kama), to culminate in the blossoming of the flower of existence into the experience of eternal bliss (Moksha). There is, thus, no clash between the individual and society, man and the State, or between God and creation.

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