Adapted from Chapter 9 of Titus, Smith and Nolan, LIVING ISSUES IN PHILOSOPHY (9th ed., 1995) Coauthor Nolan is editor of this website. The book may be ordered from publishers linked within the Living Issues in Ethics subsite.

There is great diversity among world religions. For hundreds of millions of Asians, their religion - no matter what form it takes - is a vital concern of their daily lives, not a mere one-day-a-week observance. The peoples of non-Western cultures see religion as integrally related to and inseparable from all the other areas of life and experience. They generally look upon their religion as the basis of their culture, which gives form and meaning to the rest of existence. Our attempt here is to understand certain beliefs about the transcendent, humanity, and the universe that have been the basis of well-established cultures and beautiful art in the Asian world. Asian philosophy is a way of life.

The Hindu Tradition

"Hinduism, literally ‘the belief of the people of India,’ is the predominant faith of India and of no other nation."2 Taken as a whole, Hinduism is one of the oldest religious traditions in the world. But it is difficult to study, for it is also one of the most diversified religious traditions. There are divisions and subdivisions into which we cannot go, and you should be aware that we are necessarily oversimplifying in this discussion. The problem is further complicated by the fact that there are no exact equivalents in English for certain Indian terms and concepts.

Philosophy (darshana) in the Hindu tradition means "seeing the truth" and applying this truth to the problems of everyday life. Thus, for Indian thinkers, the purpose of studying philosophy is not merely to gain knowledge for its own sake or to satisfy one's curiosity, but to discover and live the highest kind of life, the life that will bring permanent self-realization or bliss. People must recover truths themselves, not just accept them on blind faith or from the testimony of others. Unless people have convictions and live in accordance with them, they are not philosophers.

Hinduism arose on Indian soil and is largely confined to Indian people. India, however, has known other traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. What is called Hinduism today has influenced many other parts of Asia and is steadily growing in parts of Europe and the United States.


One indication of the difficulty of setting forth the central points in Hindu thought is that there are many texts that, collectively, can be called Hindu Scripture. First, there are the Vedas (literally "knowledge" - that is, sacred knowledge). These are texts written some fifteen hundred years before the common era (B.C.E., equivalent to B.C. ). The earliest texts are the Rig Veda, a collection of over one thousand hymns addressed to the gods - hymns to Indra, the god of civilization, war, and storm; to Varuna, the guardian of morality; and to many others, most of them now forgotten. Included in the Vedas are the Brahmanas, lengthy treatises concerned with the details of the sacrificial ritual administered by the Brahmin class. Finally, in the eighth to fifth centuries B.C.E., there were added to these the most famous of the early Indian writings, the Upanishads, which attempted to explain the inner meaning of the reality behind the religious quest in a philosophical manner. All these writings form the essential canon of sacred scriptures in the orthodox Hindu tradition.

In the period following the Upanishads, there was, within Hinduism, a great development of devotional religion. This was expressed strikingly in the most famous of Indian scriptures, the Bhagavadgita, or "Song of the Lord." There is some doubt as to when the Gita was compiled, but it was probably some time during the period 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. (the common era, equivalent to A.D.)

No other scripture is more widely read in India today. To read the Gita is to be introduced to some of the main themes of Hindu thought as well as to some of the main practices of Hindu life. It also introduces one to splendid Hindu poetry and to the god Krishna.

It is convenient to name four major periods of Hindu thought: first, the early period of Vedic polytheism; second, the period of the Vedanta (literally, "the end of the Veda"), with its descriptions of Absolute Brahman; third, a period beginning about 200 B.C.E., with an emphasis on bhakti (devotional worship of a theistic god); and last, the modern period, with its response to Western influence.3 “During the classical period - those centuries between 450 B.C. and A.D. 600 - occurred the emergence of a Hindu culture that absorbed into itself many different strands of mythology, ritual, and doctrine. This luxuriance of religious standpoints may sometimes baffle the outsider, but it testifies to an important and enduring characteristic of Indian culture - its desire to express and to nurture as many different approaches to the Truth as possible, and to conserve within itself the multiplicity of cultural influences that have affected the Indian subcontinent.”4


Central to much of Hindu philosophy is the emphasis on the one unchanging reality that transcends space, time, causality, and all particular things. This Absolute cannot be comprehended by human thought or adequately expressed in words and concepts. According to the nondualistic view (which emphasizes the oneness of existence) only Brahman is real, and the individual souls and the universe are illusory veils obscuring Brahman. Other views hold that the self and the physical world may be real, although they are finite and imperfect. There are also differences among philosophical thinkers about whether the ultimate reality is nonpersonal, superpersonal, or personal. But all agree on the possibility of every soul's attaining liberation (moksha) from the bondage of the physical world.

Closely allied to the concept of Brahman is the concept of the self, or soul, or atman. The true self of each person is identical with Brahman. From the transcendental standpoint, the self is immortal, free, and identical with Brahman. The divine nature of the self is veiled, but not destroyed, by false images and ignorance, for it is ultimately without traits and beyond language. The true destiny of the self is the realization of this identity with Brahman. From the phenomenal standpoint, there are many individual selves, enmeshed in the world of affairs and seeking deliverance from the round of births and deaths. Thus we need to distinguish between the real and the empirical self.

What are the relations among Brahman, the self, and the universe that we perceive? A Hindu scholar says: “Brahman is the sole reality, and it appears both as the objective universe and as the individual subject. The former is an illusory manifestation of Brahman, while the latter is Brahman itself appearing under the limitations which form part of that illusory universe.”5 The objects of the empirical world, although of a certain order of worldly reality, are appearances in that they belong to the world of cause and effect, to which Brahman does not belong. The individual self, however, is not illusory in this sense. The self is Brahman appearing under limiting conditions. It is not a phenomenon of ignorance the way physical objects are. Through an intuitive, non-logical experience one realizes the identity of the eternal self and Brahman.


All Hindu systems of thought seem to agree that there are four main values to be completed and brought to perfection in the course of rebirth. In ascending order of importance they are: (1) Artha (wealth) and (2) Kama (sensuality). These are the worldly or secular values. They are legitimate if they are kept in their places and do not stifle other values. Material prosperity, good health, and long life are desired by most Indians. However, both the life of activity and renunciation are recognized. (3) Dharma (social and individual duties) includes all caste roles and obligations of occupation, gender, kin, generation, and temperament, as well as other ethical responsibilities. (4) Moksha (release from finitude and imperfection) is the intrinsic or eternal value, and the supreme spiritual ideal. It gives liberation from the wheel of existence, and cannot be achieved without complete experience and resolution of the other three. Discipline is essential if we are to achieve illumination, and the overcoming of selfishness is essential if we are to realize our genuine self and attain release. Unless a person achieves release in this life, which is rare indeed, she or he is destined to repeat the round of more existences.

According to Hinduism, no soul is eternally damned. The law of karma, the law of sowing and reaping, determines the form that will be taken in each new existence. This is the law of cause and effect in human life. Through our conduct we determine our own destiny in that good karma is acquired by living up to our dharmic duties and bad karma by ignoring or violating our given dharma. An unethical life may lead to rebirth below the station of the present life, and a life of goodness may lead to a more favored existence or to ultimate liberation from the round of rebirths. Thus, the doctrines of karma and rebirth are said to be grounded in the moral structures of the universe. They permit freedom and ethical advance in that they are under our control and are not determined by cosmic or environmental forces completely beyond our influence.

Because of its intricate dependence on the structure of dharma, the theory of karma and rebirth determines a person's position in the traditional caste system, in. which there are four main castes and many subcastes or divisions within these. The caste system has been under attack in recent decades, having been outlawed in the Indian Constitution of 1949, and various outstanding leaders of Hinduism have called attention to the continued abuses of caste and have worked hard to bring about its practical elimination. Nevertheless, the caste system is highly resistant to change, not only because of the belief that a person's present social status is regulated by the law of karma but also because of ingrained social hierarchies based on notions of purity and contamination.

The concept of the four ashramas, or stages in the life of the individual, relates the goal of liberation to the needs and tasks of daily life in society. A man's duties are set by the stage of life at which he has arrived. The four stages are (1) the life of a celibate student under the mentorship of a teacher; (2) a long period of householdership, beginning with marriage, when a person assumes the responsibilities of parenthood and other social obligations and when one provides for those dedicated to the spiritual quest; (3) a period of increased religiosity, when householder duties can be passed on to the next generation, during which one retires to the forest with his wife to practice rituals and for meditation and reflection; and (4) by complete renunciation of family and caste and by practicing austerities and rigid self-control, a person seeks union with Brahman. If the person is successful in the fourth stage, struggle and strife cease and he gains peace and freedom through union with the all-embracing World Soul (Brahman). The inner spirit of humanity is the focus of attention, and its development, illumination, and release are the highest values. These stations were primarily for men. At the time of traditional Hinduism, women were excluded from the more rigorous structures of the ashramas and received their spiritual merit from working to uphold the dharmic obligations of their husbands.


We have already mentioned that, for the Hindu, discipline is essential if one is to achieve illumination: discipline of both body and mind. Yoga is a technique of physical and spiritual training by which the bodily and psychic energies are controlled, unified, and directed in order to attain liberation from the world. Yoga is the liberating union of the self (atman) with the Self (Brahman).

In classical yoga, after the yogi has undergone a long initiatory period of training under a master - the guru - no one else need exist in his or her world. The yogi sheds not only material distractions but also psychic hindrances such as memories, desires, fears, yearnings, and the residue of dreams and impressions; all with the goal of liberation. The importance of classical yoga is that it teaches the complete independence and freedom of the self based on the confidence that the individual mind is able through its own powers to transcend the suffering caused by matter, illusions, and supernatural agencies. Only knowledge can bring liberation. Without this goal, everything - study, work, meditation - is valueless.


Traditional worship of a god in Hinduism is known as puja. It can be practiced by anyone regardless of gender, age, or station in life, from the most erudite philosopher to the simplist street sweeper. Because Hinduism is not normally a congregational religion that is practiced in a house of worship by people as a group, the performance of puja is left to the individual. Usually there is a puja room or niche within the Hindu home, where an image of the god or goddess is enshrined in a painting, a sculpture, or other symbolic referent with flowers, incense, and food. The divinity is invoked with symbolic sounds, prayers, and songs, and often worship includes the use of fire or water. The choice of god or gods, whether it be Krishna, Rama, Shiva, Kali, Shri, or any one of a great variety from the Hindu pantheon, is often a matter of family affiliation or the needs of a given worship. Hindu temples, cared for and presided over by priests, are usually dedicated to a specific divinity and provide an especially quiet place for individual devotion. Seasonal festivities commemorating local myths and figures are expressive and celebratory affairs, often lasting many days and including people from all social backgrounds. Finally, Hindu worship can take the form of pilgrimage to area shrines or to the holy city of Kashi (modern Banaras) and its sacred river Ganges. Possessing great adaptability and tolerance, Hinduism includes, rather than excludes, unique forms of religious expression. There are a number of reform movements in India today, and some outstanding thinkers have been remolding the Indian consciousness and outlook.6

In "The Spirit of Indian Philosophy," Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan,7 after pointing out the diversity of views held by Indian thinkers, indicates seven attitudes that are characteristic of the Indian philosophical mind. (1) Concentration on the spiritual. Philosophy and religion are closely related. Humans are spiritual in nature and are primarily interested in their spiritual destiny and not in material welfare. (2) Belief in the intimate relationship of philosophy and life. (3) The introspective attitude and concern for the inner life. The inner spirit of a person, the subject rather than the object, is the focus of attention and gives the best clue to the nature of the universe. (4) The affinity with idealism. Because reality is "ultimately one and ultimately spiritual," the tendency is toward nondualistic idealism. (5) The acceptance of direct perception as the only method through which reality can be known. When the mind becomes free from the impurities of attachment and aversion through the practice of yoga or spiritual disciplines, it perceives truth directly, as one perceives a fruit lying on the palm of one's hand. Reason is useful but insufficient; it leads the seeker as far as it can and then bows out. To know reality is to experience it or to become one with it. (6) A consciousness of tradition and an acceptance of the insights of seers who have lived in the past. This has not, however, made Indian philosophy dogmatic or creedal. (7) An "overall synthetic tradition." The systems of thought are seen as complementing each other. This stress on the synthetic vision had made possible an intellectual and religious tolerance toward differences within Hinduism and toward other faiths and systems of thought. Hinduism is thus not a fixed and uniform doctrinal system; it is broad, inclusive, and tolerant of different points of view.



2. R. K. C. Forman, (ed.)., Religions of the World, 3rd ed. (New York: St. Martin's, 1993), p. 83.

3. For a more detailed look at these periods, see Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989).

4. N. Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, 3rd ed. (New York: Scribner's, 1985), p. 126. We advise any student of religion to refer to this book in its most recent edition.

5. M. Hiriyanna, The Essentials of Indian Philosophy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1949), p. 158.

6. See V. S. Naravane, Modern Indian Thought: A Philosophical Survey (London: Asia Publishing House, 1964).

7. S. Radhakrishnan, and C. A. Moore, eds., A Source Book in Indian Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. xx-xxvi.