Asian Philosophies
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Asian Philosophies

John M. Koller

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eBook - ePub

Asian Philosophies

John M. Koller

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With an inside view from an expert in the field and a clear and engaging writing style, Asian Philosophies, Seventh Edition invites students and professors to think along with the great minds of the Asian traditions. Eminent scholar and teacher John M. Koller has devoted his life to understanding and explaining Asian thought and practice. He wrote this text to give students access to the rich philosophical and religious ideas of both South and East Asia.

New to this seventh edition:

  • Added material on Confucianism, including focused coverage of (1) the Analects and society and (2) ren and nature;
  • Additional information on Theravada Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism as well as new in-depth coverage of ecological attitudes in Buddhism;
  • Expanded coverage of ecological attitudes in all of the Asian traditions;
  • Brief excerpts from primary sources to help better explain the key concepts;
  • Added timelines for essential texts in each tradition;
  • Improved Glossary and Pronunciation Guide;
  • Additional text boxes, to help students quickly understand key ideas, texts, and concepts;
  • Updated Further Reading sections.

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Part One

South Asian Philosophies

South Asian Chronology

Events and Thinkers
Indus civilization.
Beginnings of Vedic, Sanskritic India; Rig Veda, Atharva Veda.
Yajur and Sama Vedas; the Mahabharata war.
Early Upanishads (Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya); the Mahabharata epic.
Development of Jainism (Mahavira); beginning of Buddhism; Ramayana (oral form).
India united under King Chandra Gupta and King Ashoka. Treatises on dharma, artha, kama; Yoga Sutras; Vedanta Sutras; early Sankhya. Development of Hinduism and the great systems of philosophy: Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, Vedanta, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Jainism, Buddhism, and Carvaka.
200 BCE—200 CE
Perfection of Wisdom tradition; Mahayana Buddhism; Theravada Buddhism established as state religion in Sri Lanka (101–77 BCE); Nagarjuna; Madhyamaka.
Asanga and Vasubandhu develop Yogacara; Buddhism goes to Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia.
Period of the great commentaries on the philosophical systems. Guadapada (6th c.), Shankara (8th c.); Buddhism enters Tibet; beginning of Islam in South Asia (612).
India comes under Muslim rule; Ibn Sina (981–1037); Al Ghazali (1059–1111); Ibn Arabi (1165–1240); development of theistic philosophies of Vaishnavism and Shaivism; Ramanuja (12th c); Madhva (13th c.); Kabir (1440–1518). Tibetan Buddhism flourishes.
Guru Nanak (1449–1538), founder of Sikhism; Akbar (r. 1556–1605); Shaikh Ahmad (1564–1624); Dara Shikoh (1615–1659).
Colonization by Western powers; British Raj; Ram Mohun Roy (1772–1833), founder of Brahmo Society; Dayananda Saraswati (1824–1883), founder of the Arya Society; Ramakrishna (1836–1886).
Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941); Gandhi (1869–1948); Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950); Mohammad Iqbal (1877–1938); Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975); Indian independence (1947); Pakistan established (1947); Bangladesh established (1971); Dalai Lama flees Tibet (1959).

South Asian Texts: A Timeline

2000–1200 BCE
Rig Veda
800–600 BCE
Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads
700–500 BCE
Taittiriya, Katha, Kena, Mundaka, Isa, Mandukya, and Aitareya Upanishads
600–200 BCE
Early Sankhya and Yoga texts (mostly lost)
563–480 BCE
Lifetime of the Buddha; early teachings, oral, collected later as Nikayas
400 BCE
Mimamsa Sutra of Jaimini
500–100 BCE
Bhagavad Gita
350–300 BCE
Acaranga Sutra and Sutrakrtanga (early Jain texts)
300 BCE
The Dhammapada (early Buddhist text)
300 BCE
Nyaya Sutra of Gautama
300 BCE
Vaisesika Sutra of Kanada
200 BCE
Brahma Sutra of Badarayana
200 BCE
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
180 CE (ca.)
Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamaka) by Nagarjuna
200 CE (ca.)
Sankhya Karika of Ishvarakrishna
650 CE
Bodhicaryavatara of Santideva
700–750 CE
Brahma-sutra-bhasya and Upadeshsahashri of Shankara
800 CE (ca.)
Tattvasamgraha of Santarakshita
1017–1137 CE
Vedarthasamgraha of Ramanuja
1180 CE
On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy by Ibn Rushd (Averroes)
1197–1276 CE
Anu-Vyakhyana and Dasa Prakharana of Madhva
1250 CE (ca.)
Syadavadamanjari of Mallisena
1934 CE
The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam by Mohammad Iqbal
1929–1934 CE
The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Mohanda K. Gandhi
1924–1934 CE
The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga, Aurobindo Ghose
1952 CE
The Philosophy of Sarvapalli Radhkrishnan (ed. Paul Schilip)

Chapter 1

Historical Perspectives

TODAY when we look at South Asia, we see a number of nation-states: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Nepal in the north, Bangladesh in the east, Sri Lanka in the south, and India in the center. But these divisions of the Indian subcontinent are the result of relatively recent political developments and not relevant to the development of the various philosophies on the subcontinent. Historically and culturally, it is preferable to treat the Indian subcontinent as a whole and convenient to label all of these philosophies “Indian,” in the sense of culturally belonging to the Indian subcontinent.
When we look at the development of Indian philosophy over the last three thousand years, we can distinguish between different periods of development, each with its own distinct characteristics. We can also see an underlying continuity in which certain basic ideas and attitudes are dominant. This chapter provides an overview of the development of Indian philosophy as a historical context for the more detailed chapters that follow.

Historical Overview

Although critical and systematic philosophical thought first emerges in the Upanishads and early philosophical systems in the seventh to the fifth centuries BCE, deeply reflective thought is found already in the Rig Veda, composed at least a thousand years earlier. Since those early beginnings, Indian thought has produced a vast wealth of philosophical vision, speculation, and argument. It is difficult to approach Indian philosophy chronologically, however, for early Indian history is full of uncertainties with respect to names, dates, and places. Because so much emphasis was put on the content of the thought and so little emphasis on person, place, and time, authorship is sometimes attributed to schools rather than to individual persons and time is often reckoned in terms of centuries rather than years. Nevertheless, it is possible to see changes in philosophical thinking occurring in a certain historical sequence. That is, it is possible to see the antecedents and successors of various philosophical problems and solutions.
The historical approach is facilitated by adopting a generally agreed-upon classification of periods. The Vedic period stretches from about 1700 BCE to 700 BCE. The Epic period occurred between 800 BCE and 200 CE. The period of the great systems began in the fifth century BCE and continues, through the commentaries, up to the present time. The Commentary period commenced about 300 BCE and continued until about 1700. The Modern period, still in progress, began around 1800, under the influence of Western thought.

The Vedic Period

The Vedic age began when the Sanskrit-speaking peoples began to dominate life and thought in the Indus valley, probably between 1700 and 1500 BCE. Historians used to think that these Sanskrit-speaking peoples, who called themselves Aryans, came to the Indus valley in northwest India as conquerors some thirty-five hundred years ago. But recent scholarship has challenged this thesis of conquering Aryans. What we do know is that the earlier Indus culture, which flourished from 2700 to 1500 BCE, and which, judged by its archaeological remains, was quite sophisticated, declined at this time. We also know that the Vedic thought and culture reflected in the Rig Veda has a continuous history of dominance in India during the last thirty-five hundred years. It is likely that the cultural traditions of the Vedic peoples mingled with the traditions and customs of the Indus people. Indian thought may well be rooted in ancient cultures that flourished more than four thousand years ago.
Questions of How? What? and Why? are the beginning of philosophical reflection. At first, Vedic thinkers tried to answer these questions in terms of human agency, attributing events in nature to the gods, who are conceived of as superhuman persons. This tended to encourage religious rather than philosophical thought. Inquiring minds pushed further, however, probing into who the gods are and what lies beyond them. Not satisfied to merely accept the traditional goals of life, these thinkers sought to understand what is truly the highest good and how it can be achieved. They inquired into the nature of knowledge and thought. This kind of thinking in the Vedas marks the beginnings of Indian philosophy.
The main texts of the Vedic period, during which religious rituals were of paramount importance, are the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. Each Veda has four parts. The first part, the collection of verses called samhita, contains verses to the gods, questions and reflections, and chants and formulas for success. The second part, Brahmana, consists of arrangements of samhita verses for ritual use. The third part, Aranyaka, contains reflections on, and interpretations of, the rituals. The final part, the Upanishads, composed many hundreds of years after the Vedic verses, contains reflections on the basic questions underlying religious thought and practice.
Philosophically, the Upanishads are the most important Vedic texts, for they contain the most profound inquiries into the meaning of life. Three great visions of life proclaimed by the sages of the Upanishads, for the most part unknown to the earlier Vedic thinkers, have shaped India’s self-understanding for the past twenty-five hundred years. First, the innermost Self, the Atman, is one with the ultimate reality, Brahman. Second, because life is governed by karma, we can become good only by performing good actions. Third, only meditative knowledge can liberate us from the cycle of repeated deaths and suffering.

The Rig Veda

The earliest Vedic literature is the Rig Veda, literally, “verses of wisdom.” These verses, composed by poet seers between 2000 and 1200 BCE and not written down for a thousand years, were part of an oral ritual tradition. Although concerned primarily with religious practice, occasionally reflective inquiry occurs as Vedic thinkers asked questions about themselves, the world around them, and their place in it. What is thought? What is its source? Why does the wind blow? Who put the sun—giver of warmth and light—in the sky? How is it that earth brings forth these myriad life-forms? How do we renew our existence and become whole?

The Epic Period

The wisdom of the Vedic literature was part of a sacred and carefully guarded tradition, often unavailable to many members of the society or, where available, beyond understanding. To compensate for this, there grew up a folklore recited in stories and poems that managed to transmit many of the ideals of the sacred tradition to the majority of the people. The two most notable collections of materials constituting this literature are the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita

The Mahabharata is an epic that tells the story of the conquest of the land of Bharata, the ancient name for the Indian subcontinent. It provides a guide to life in all its dimensions, from the philosophical and religious to the political. The single most influential part of the Mahabharata, familiar today to every Hindu, is the Bhagavad Gita, the “Song of the Lord.” The Gita, in a dialogue between Krishna (God manifested in human form) and Arjuna, explains the nature of humanity and reality, setting out ways of life that enable human beings to achieve spiritual freedom by acting in accord with the deepest nature of the self.
The Ramayana, a beautiful poem in four volumes, sets out an ideal order for society as a whole, and an ideal way of life for the individual. It presents an ideal for womanhood in the person and life of Sita and an ideal of manhood in the person and life of her husband, Rama, the divine hero of the epic. Through dance, theater, popular stories, and movies, the Ramayana is widely known and continues to inspire people even today.
During the Epic period, important treatises on morality called Dharma Shastras were written to explain how the life of the individual and society should be regulated. The Artha Shastra of Kautilya explains the importance of success and power and explains how they may be obtained. The Manu Shastra explains how justice and order may be secured in society by the king and the institutions of government. The treatise of Yajnavalkya emphasizes the attainment of success and order in the life of the family and the kama sutras explain how to fulfill desires, especially sexual desires.

Period of Philosophical Systems

The beginnings of several systematic philosophical explanations of the world and human nature were already established by 500 BCE, even though their full systemization would be achieved only hundreds of years later. These systems represent the first purely philosophical effort, for not only did they attempt to explain the nature of existence, but they also did so self-consciously and self-critically, engaging in careful analysis and argumentation to show the correctness of their answers. The summaries of analyses, arguments, and answers were preserved as sutras, literally the “threads” on which the whole philosophical system hangs. Extensive commentaries were developed to unpack and explain these summaries.

Major Philosophical Traditions

There are nine major philosophical traditions. Three of these, Buddhism, Jainism, and Carvaka, were designated nastika, or unorthodox systems, because their authors did not accept the pronouncements of the Vedas as true and final. Neither did the thinkers of these three traditions endeavor to justify their analyses and solutions by showing them to be in accord with the Vedas. The other six philosophical systems—Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta—especially in their later development, on the other hand, all accepted the authority of the Vedas and were concerned to show that their analyses and claims are in accord with the central Vedic teachings.
The major division, however, is between Carvaka and the other philosophical systems. Carvaka is the only completely materialistic system; all the others accept ways of spiritual life. Jainism, for example, attempts to show the way out of karmic bondage. It emphasizes a life of nonhurting that culminates in final release from bondage through meditative self-realization. Buddhism presents an analysis of the nature and causes of human suffering and presents the eightfold path as a cure for suffering. C...