Religion & Philosophy

In ancient India the Vedic religion per­meated every aspect of the culture, includ­ing philosophy and the sciences. Through the Brahmin or priestly caste, Vedic know­ledge has remained the central feature of In­dian thought. Religion and philosophy don’t compete: philosophical wisdom has the status of religious truth. Students had to gain a deep knowledge of the Vedic mantras and the correct Sanskrit phonetics before going on to participate in philosophical dis­cussions at a pursed or academy. Orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy hold that the Vedic texts are the ultimate authority.

One of the great wellsprings of mystic philosophy is the Upanishads, the oldest of which are deemed to be Vedic. They pro­mote the notion of an all-pervading, uni­versal One, in which there is no split between matter and spirit (no dualism). But the Vedic texts and the Upanishads them­selves offer more than one path: either striv­ing to make this life better, or renouncing society to seek Enlightenment.

Butt unorthodox ideas developed as well. Buddhism rejected the concept of atman (soul), but retained the notions of karma (ret­ributive justice for past deeds) and the goal of moksha (liberation from reincarnation). Jainism holds to the concept of navu, the idea that there are many perspectives of re­ality, all of which are partially valid.

The challenges from Buddhism, and later Islam, spurred a shift in Hindu thought. Looking to turn the tide, the Keralan-born Hindu saint, theologian and philosopher, Shankaracharya (AD788-820) promoted nondualism and jnurm (the importance of knowledge) as a means to salvation, arguing that you should be free to pursue your own reasoning, as long as it doesn’t contradict the Vedic scriptures. His view was chal­lenged by the Tamil Brahmin Ramanuja who, influenced by the southern bhakti cult (devotion to a personal god and rejection of Brahminic ritual), promoted the idea that while knowledge was one path to salvation, it was not the only path or even the most ef­fective one.

While Islam and Hinduism are very differ­ent religions, Sufi mystics were important missionaries for Islam and used indigenous ideas such as yoga and fasting to spread the word.

In the 19th century the Bengali Rama­krishna and his disciple Vivekananda started a reform movement in Hinduism that acknowledged that other religions were striving towards the same goal as Hin­duism.

Leading philosophers of the 20th century include Sri Aurobindo, who moved from political activism to the study of yoga, and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi, who took trad­itional ideas such as ahimsa (nonviolence) and remoulded them as tools in the struggle against British rule.

In the ancient era Indian philosophy and science crossed paths frequently. In about 600 BC the philosopher Kanada proposed the existence of an indivisible unit of mat­ter he called purmunu (atoms). He believed that different states of matter (fire, water, earth) had different parmunit, and that pur­manu join to become a divinka (molecule) with some of the properties of each.


The study of sciences such as mathematics, medicine and linguistics stretches back to Vedic times when the Aryan rituals were anthologised. The study of linguistics by the 4th-century BC Sanskrit grammarian Panini claims to be the first scientific analy­sis of an alphabet. Indian mathematics emerges from the 5th-century BC Shulva­szctrus, which examined geometry and al­gorithms. Also about this time a theory of numbers developed, which included the concepts of zero and negative numbers and the use of simple algorithms using place­value notations. The concept of zero is in fact an Indian contribution to the world of mathematics that arrived in Europe via Arab traders.

About the same time as the Shulvasub•as were being penned, the great Keralan math­ematician Aryabhara also concluded that the earth’s shadow was responsible for the waxing and waning of the moon and that the earth rotated on its own axis, while the moon rotated around earth. Aryabhara also came up with a value for pi. Brahmagupta, born in Gujarat in AD 598, collected and edited a work on astronomy and mathemat­ics that was used for centuries. He also helped refine the concept of zero.

The classic works on Ayurvedic medi­cine, the Charak Samhita and the Su.rhrita were written in the 6th century BC. Sur­geons such as Susruta were even experi­menting with plastic surgery in this age.

In 1930 Sir Chandrasekhar Venkata Raman won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on how light changes when passing through transparent bodies (the Raman ef­fect). Since Independence the government’s emphasis has been on space technology, nu­clear power and electronics. The latter sowed the seeds for India’s increasingly important software industry. Some argue there has not been enough emphasis on ‘social’ sciences, a point reinforced in 1998 when Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his contribution to the field of welfare eco­nomics. Sen lives and works in the UK but was born in India, where few of his ideas have been effectively put into practice.