Published by the Oxford University Press, the Very Short Introductions series gives readers concise overviews of a wide range of subjects. The books are written by experts and are an easy way to learn about a new topic.
This book, on Indian philosophy, starts by highlighting the differences in how philosophy is viewed between India and the West. In the West, since Immanuel Kant, there has been a clear divide between religion and philosophy. Religion is a system of belief, whilst philosophy is the investigation of what can be known about the nature and structure of reality, by means of rational argument alone. In India however, religion and philosophy are combined, as people attempt to understand the meaning and structure of life. The term “Hinduism” in fact, was given by the West, to describe a multitude of different belief systems.
Central to the Indian worldview are Karma and rebirth. Karma, the action-consequence mechanism, acts as the fuel for the continuity of rebirth. The specific conditions of rebirth are linked to the specifics of earlier actions. Most Indian systems teach that gaining insight into the true nature of reality brings about liberation from Karmic continuity.
The book starts in the 5th century BCE by looking at the practices of Brahmin priests. The purpose of their ritual practices was the maintenance of cosmic continuity, and they had a sacrificial element to them.
Central to these practices were “the Vedas”, a set of manuals that outlined the sacrifices and rituals to be performed by the Brahmins. The Upanishads, known as the “end of the Veda” contain the first known record of the idea that human beings are reborn into circumstances conditioned by their actions in previous lives. They also introduce the concept of Moksha, the supreme goal of human existence. By achieving Moksha, one is able to escape the treadmill of rebirth and experience immortality.
Shortly after this period came Buddha, who lived from 485-405 BCE. Buddha was a renouncer, meaning he challenged Brahmin practices and their claims to authority. These renouncers sought answers by their own means, rather than believing what was taught by Brahmins. Buddha was born in Nepal to a well-to-do family and left his family home in his 30s, in search of answers to questions concerning the existential nature of humans. Using a penetrative form of meditation that he developed, Buddha claimed that he gained access to 3 insights:
Buddha summed up what he saw in 4 Noble Truths:
Dukkha is a Pali term referring to the intrinsic characteristic of human existence, that is identified in the first truth. It does not mean suffering, it is more closely defined as unsatisfactoriness, stemming from all factors of our world of existence being impermanent. Because all experiences are impermanent, they are ultimately unsatisfactory, in contrast to the assumed blissfulness of immortality. Because we do not accept this impermanence, and instead constantly seek and desire that things be permanent – such as youth, health, loved ones, possessions – this fuels the continuity of unsatisfactoriness. Ultimately, it is the cessation of Dukkha that results in Nirvana.
In face of the proliferating counter-claims to the knowledge of truth (such as those proposed by Budda), the Brahmins found their power being threatened. They had 2 lines of defense:
From the 4th to 1st century BCE, the early Buddhist tradition underwent division into different schools. For about a millennium after Buddha’s death, Buddhism flourished in India and even became the official religion. It also spread to other countries. It is not known how or why Buddhism virtually died out in India.
The book finishes by touching on another important aspect of the Indian tradition – the various mental exercises and meditative disciplines that were followed. These came to be known by the generic term Yoga. The common underlying principle behind Yoga was that normal life is characterized by being led astray by our senses, and by the misleading busyness of everyday cognitive activity. Yoga, therefore, is for the purpose of attaining control, calm and cognitive insight.