Education and Indian Philosophy

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Education and Indian Philosophy

Saranindranath TAGORE


This essay aims to show some ways in which classical Indian philosophy can contribute to issues in educational practice and philosophy. Some relevant themes drawn from classical Indian philosophy are identified, and the implications of these themes for educational practice are then discussed.


The Indian philosophical tradition has one of the longest continuing histories in the civilisations of the world. Beginning with the hymns of the Rig Veda, the tradition continues to this day, covering a wide array of positions and arguments. Noting the broad goals of this volume, my discussion begins with a brief historical exposition of the tradition, followed by the identification of three philosophical topics that can be fruitfully taught in schools, and ending with a consideration of the philosophy of education from the perspective of Indian philosophy.

The Indian Philosophical Tradition: A Brief Historical Exposition

The concerns of Indian philosophy begin with the Vedic tradition. Of the four Vedas—Rig, Atharva, Sama and Yajur—the Rig Veda is most imbued with philosophical resonance. In this text, a collection of hymns composed over a stretch of time, one can distil three distinct metaphysical positions that attempt to give an account of reality. The first position, polytheism, posits a transcendent realm populated by multiple gods,each representing a natural force. The second position, christened kathanotheism by scholar Ninian Smart (1996), operates within a broadly designed polytheistic structure but posits nonetheless that one god rules supreme over the others. In this shift, one can discern a philosophical move that economises the horizon of the transcendent through a gradual privileging of the one over the many. Thirdly, in the developmental history of the Rig Vedic hymns, the Nasadiya hymn (the Hymn to Creation) proclaims that the gods came after creation and that the highest of the gods may or may not know the answer to the mystery of creation (The Rig Veda, trans. O'Flaherty, 1981). Crucially, this hymn injects an attitude of scepticism into early Indian philosophical thinking and, perhaps even more importantly, erases the earlier Vedic inscriptions about the transcendent in order to reopen the question of Being. The open-ended critical spirit of the philosophical enterprise can be located in these early hymnal texts, whereby positions are developed and then critically dismantled to make way for further thinking.

The second important textual constellation, collectively called the Upanishads, attempts to rethink the question of Being in a way that avoids the posture of theism, namely, the belief in god, singular or multiple. The fundamental thesis of the Upanishadic literature posits a structure of reality that grounds the empirical reality of everyday cognition. A pure level of consciousness underlies and holds together the flux of subjective (psychological) and objective (physical) realities, called Atman and Brahman respectively. These metaphysical notions, immensely important for the later development of Indian philosophy, are articulated in the Upanishads in non-theistic lines as they are impersonal entities not to be confused with the personality-endowed gods of the Rig Veda. Brahman, the foundation of the world, is also conceptually different from the supreme singular God of monotheism because such a being, unlike in the Upanishadic position, is also invested with a personality albeit replete with the qualities of omniperfection of potency, knowledge and benevolence. Indeed, the transcendence of Brahman is such that it cannot be captured in the texture of language: “neti, neti”, not this not that, is the Upanishadic descriptor of Brahman. Further, in a seminal philosophically charged move, Brahman and Atman are identified in a famous phrase “Tat Tvam Asi”, translated as “You are that”. The phrase takes the idea of singularity to its logical conclusion: at the deepest level of reality, there is no metaphysical distinction to be made between subjectivity and objectivity. “Aham Brahmasmi,” the Upani shads magisterially states in another juncture: “I am Brahman.” The thesis that reality is one (monism), of course, generates its particular problems and issues, which were systematically taken up at a later time by the Vedantic school of Indian philosophy. The Rig Vedic and the Upan ishadic texts comprise the horizon against which the great drama of India's philosophical thinking is played out.

Classical Indian philosophy is best understood in terms of schools of philosophy, each characterised by a set of philosophical commitments.1 Debates and arguments took place within and across these schools of thinking, leading to the enlargement and refinement of ideas on various issues. The schools in turn are divided into two groups: the orthodox and the heterodox. The former term picks out the schools that do not fundamentally reject the Vedic—Upanishadic position, whereas the latter term picks out those schools that are in sharp disagreement with that orientation. It may be appropriate to state that the orthodox schools accept Brahman and Atman as the core organising features of reality, whereas the heterodox schools beg to disagree. The orthodox schools are Vedanta, Nyaya, Vaishesika, Mimansa, Yoga and Samkhya; and the heterodox schools are Buddhism, Jainism and Carvaka.

It is needless to say that it will be impossible to detail the philosophical structure of each school in this brief essay. For our purposes, I will discuss the main positions of Vedanta and Buddhism representing, respectively, an orthodox and a heterodox system. I will only concentrate on some key issues that will be important for my later reflections on education. The Vedanta school subdivides into three sub-schools: Advaita, Visistadvaita and Dvaita, respectively the non-dual, qualified non-dual and dual schools of Vedanta. Sankara (eighth century CE), Ramanuja (eleventh century CE) and Madhva (thirteenth century CE) are the pivotal thinkers representing each of these schools of thought respectively. These schools, orthodox in their orientation, accept the categories of Brahman and Atman but disagree among themselves on the question of how the two fundamental Upanishadic notions relate to each other. For the non-dual Advaita school, led by Sankara, Atman and Brahman are identical to each other. The world of everyday cognition, for Sankara, is maya (illusory); it is not unreal but, rather, is a field of being that is superseded by the absolute reality of Brahman. The qualified non-dualist school (Visistadvaita), represented by Ramanuja, argues that Brahman and Atman (and the World) are related to each other like properties qualify substances. The colour yellow as property qualifies a shirt in which the colour inheres. For Ramanuja, properties cannot be free-floating; they must be attached to a ground just as colours are always attached to material things. In this sense, the world of matter and individual Atmans qualify the field of Brahman. Unlike Sankara, for whom Brahman is ultimately beyond the possibility of qualification as it is the sole existent, Brahman for Ramanuja is qualified by the world but is not divisible from it. Thus, Ramanuja can argue for the qualification of Brahman and yet maintain the posture of non-duality. It is possible to conceptually separate out Brahman and Atman, but they are not ontologically separable. Finally, Madhva's dualist position (Dvaita) elaborates a sophisticated monotheism where Brahman is conceptualised as God the creator and Atmans as individual souls (jiva) that, along with the world, are seen as dependent on Him.

The salient point to note at this juncture is the philosophical commonality across the three Vedantic positions: all three of these metaphysical structures agree with the Upanishads that there is a foundational substance that makes possible the emergence of a world available to everyday cognition. The entire edifice of Buddhism disagrees with Vedanta on this central point. The Buddha himself elaborated a position that was agnostic towards metaphysical proposals. He believed that the primary purpose of human existence is to end suffering and that speculative reason acts as an obstacle to this higher aim. However, two metaphysical claims, the doctrines of Anitta and Anatta, provide the fundamental doctrinal orientation of Buddhist philosophy. The former posits that reality is not fixed and thus cannot be articulated in the vocabulary of substance; and the latter, as an implication of this view, argues that the idea of a fixed self (Atman) that resists flux is a fiction. In other words, conceiving of flux as the fundamental descriptor of reality, Buddhism rejects the notions of Brahman and Atman altogether, opting instead for a non-substance view of reality. The greatest of the Indian Buddhist thinkers, Nagarjuna (second century CE), would later argue, in defence of the Buddha's silence towards metaphysical claims, that philosophical reason cannot deliver stable truths about reality, thus furthering the reach of the non-substantialist posture. The Buddhist and the Vedantic views represent the two great philosophical polarities of classical Indian thought.

Three Goals of Education

A philosophy of education must be able to identify the goals of education. Without pretending to be exhaustive, allow me to identify three such goals that the contemporary educational world should attend to. First, living in an increasingly intersecting world serviced by global communication, it is important that education profiles the relation between cultures. Secondly, education ought to make clear that the power of reason is essential in any conception of a good life. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, education should generate a sense of who we are as human beings cutting across the differential sphere of cultures. The goals I identify concern the question of identity both at the level of individuals and of humanity in general.

Borrowing a phrase from Japanese Indologist Hajime Nakamura (1969), “the ways of thinking” of the various peoples of the world are deeply textured by their respective philosophical cultures. This influence could be explicit or, as in most occasions, the dependence is largely silent. Under this view of civilisational formation, the study of philosophy is intensely important if one is to understand one's own being in relation to culture. The implication of such a formulation is twin-pronged: one needs to understand one's own cultural inheritance and also the relation between one's culture and others' cultures. Education that is cosmopolitan in its orientation should not only profile the overlapping cultural horizons that admit difference but also profile the networks of unity. The goal transcribed into a question is: Who am I as a cultural being?

Philosophy ushers in reason at its most abstract and universal level. In other words, reason is deployed by philosophy in the service of answering questions that underlie empirical science. Some examples can be given at this juncture. Physics assumes that there is a material world to be investigated; philosophy wonders whether there is a material world at all. Neuroscience assumes that consciousness is a function of the brain; philosophy asks whether consciousness is reducible to the brain or is something apart from material processes. Indeed, at the deepest level of disciplinary formation, the very nature of a discipline turns into a philosophical question. Witness the topic of this volume: philosophy of education. If a goal of education is the profiling of the power of reason, then the fundamental questions that reason can ask and attempt to answer ought to be explored. In other words, curricula should have space for the critical appreciation of philosophical arguments and counter-arguments. The goal transcribed into a question is: Who am I as a rational being?

Finally, the highest question that looms large over all issues of identity is the metaphysical question of human structure. Is the human being constituted of matter only or is there a component in us that is purely mental? Is the human being just body and mind or is there a third element to the structure? These are issues that summon a constellation of metaphysical notions pertaining to the question of what it ultimately means to be a human being. If a liberal education aims at probing what it means to be human, then I submit that the metaphysical horizon cannot be entirely ignored. The goal transcribed into a question is: What is the structure of my being?

I have argued so far for the conditional claim: if the three goals of education are accepted as legitimate pedagogical pursuits by a philosophy of education, then elements of philosophy should be incorporated in the curriculum. Now, I turn to the specific instance of Indian philosophy applied to educational practice.

Philosophy of Education from the Perspective of Indian Philosophy

The study of the Vedanta school and Indian Buddhism can be leveraged to explore the first question posed above. It is worthwhile to note that the primary thematic opposition between the Vedantic and the Buddhist approach to metaphysical questions has global civilisational resonance. The dialectic between the substantialist Vedantic position and the non-substantialist Buddhist position remarkably mirrors the great conceptual opposition between the Parmenidean and the Heraclitean position in the waking moments of European civilisation. Parmenides famously argued much like the Advaitins that Being is unitary and unchanging. Against this claim of immutability and singularity, Heraclitus' position stated, aligned with the Buddhists, that Being is in continuous, dispersed flux. It is well known that Plato attempted a grand synthesis of these claims by splitting reality into levels: the phenomenal world of change and the intelligible world of immutable entities he called forms. In a liberal educational framework, contextualised in a globalised cultural universe, it is important to explore the implications of such a civilisational parallel. Most importantly, as a corrective to the excesses of the politics of difference (see Huntington, 1996), it is crucial to profile the possibility that human reason, in spite of its richly diverse achievements constitutive of different cultures, perhaps at the deepest level of abstract theory illuminates a horizon of convergence. The answer to the question of who we are as cultural beings should summon diversity but not at the expense of unity.2 A comparative approach to philosophical issues can play an important role in illuminating these moments of intersection. The example I give is especially powerful because it conceptually marks out the time of conception of these two civilisational frameworks, thus adding fuel to the argument of civilisational unity. While I provide one example, the general point I am maintaining within the orbit of a philosophy of education is that the curriculum should be designed to profile difference across cultures but without sacrificing the idea of human solidarity. The best place to locate and defend the idea of human solidarity is in the intersecting loci of human reason as played out across philosophical cultures. In this endeavour, other philosophical cultures like those of China and Africa should also play a role.

The second question concerns the nature and practice of reason. I have touched upon the theme of the unity of reason while discussing the first question. Here the issue relates to the practice of reason at its most universal and abstract level. As mentioned earlier, it is in the area of metaphysical theorising that the deployment of reason takes its most universal and abstract form. Classical Indian philosophy and classical Western tradition constitute two of the most fertile grounds of metaphysical reasoning. The study of the arguments leading up to some of the conclusions of the Vedantic and Buddhist traditions would be invaluable in addressing the second question raised above. Let us take a concrete example of a formidable use of abstract reason. In spite of Buddha's metaphysical agnosticism and his attendant silence towards speculative questions, an elaborate metaphysical literature has developed in Buddhism. Nagarjuna, the greatest of the Indian Buddhist philosophers, shouldered the philosophical task of defending the silence of the Buddha. Such a task is tantamount to attacking philosophy with the aid of philosophy, which is nothing short of developing an anti-philosophy through philosophy. The paradoxical nature of the task was overcome by him through the development of a deconstructionist strategy whereby, through arguments, he attempted to show that any position you take from a set of exhaustive answers to a given question can all be shown to be false (see Nagarjuna, 1995). Thus, the question itself, representative of the space of metaphysics/philosophy, is shown to be unstable. Two points can be made at this juncture. First, Nagarjuna's reasoning shows the absolute indispensability of reason in the formation of knowledge because even the claim that a certain kind of knowledge is not possible can only be established through the use of reason. Secondly, Nagarjuna's position shows that philosophical reasoning scaffolds and grounds all other forms of reasoning because, while the nature of science cannot be explored through the use of scientific reason since the question remains outside the referential domain of science, the question concerning the nature and possibility of philosophy—Nagarjuna's question—remains within the registry of philosophical reason. Thus, exposure to philosophical reasoning—Indian or Western or Chinese—can serve well the exploration of the second question.

The third question identified above concerns the nature of the human structure. Here Indian thought provides a distinctive response. Unlike the dominant Cartesian tradition of the West, where the human being is seen as an amalgamation of mind and body, classical Indian tradition makes a distinction between a psychological identity and a transcendental identity. The Upanishadic conception of Atman is not reducible to a proper name that indexes a series of psychological states; rather, Atman is a reservoir of pure consciousness that underlies and unifies successive psychological states. Indian philosophy is replete with complex phenomenological analyses of the different levels of consciousness that, for a lack of space, cannot be discussed here. But the point that I wish to highlight is that the study of Indian philosophy, especially its theories of consciousness, provides the richest possible resource for the exploration of the third question listed above.


The issue of the philosophy of education must be distinguished from the question of the place of philosophy as a discipline in the curriculum. The former asks normatively charged questions concerning the nature of education and attempts to construct its teleology. When John Dewey writes that the aim of education is growth and gives a detailed analysis of growth, he is primarily thinking as a philosopher of education (see Dewey, 1985). While surely related to the issues discussed in the philosophy of education, it is nonetheless a different question to ask whether the discipline of philosophy should be taught in schools. At this level, we need to ask whether the teaching of philosophy in schools furthers the aims of education as advanced by the chosen philosophy of education. In other words, philosophy of education, among other things, argues for the aims of education, whereas the second-order issue attempts to fit philosophy to the aims. In this brief essay, I have kept these two issues apart. First, I have enunciated (though I have not argued for) certain aims of education that can generate broad agreement. I have then attempted to show how the inclusion of philosophy, specifically Indian philosophy (given the task of the essay), can help in achieving these ends.


1 This is the standard way of proceeding, although it is worth pointing out that in recent times Krishna (1991) has voiced his opposition to the practice.

2 For wide-ranging discussions of multiple sources of identity and civilisational confluence, see Sen (2007).


Dewey, J. (1985). Democracy and Education. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Huntington, S. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Krishna, D. (1991). Indian Philosophy: A Counter-perspective. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Nagarjuna (1995). Mulamadhyamakakarika. Translated by J. L. Garfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nakamura, H. (1969). The Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India, China, Tibet, Japan. Honolulu: East—West Center Press.

O'Flaherty, W. D. (Trans.) (1981). The Rig Veda. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Sen, A. (2007). Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. New York: W. W. Norton.

Smart, N. (1996). The Religious Experience. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Further Reading

Gupta, B. (1998). The Disinterested Witness: A Fragment of Advaita Vedanta Phenomenology. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

King, R. (1999). Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Mohanty, J. N. (1992). Reason and Tradition in Indian Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Raju, P. T. (1985). Structural Depths of Indian Thought. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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Education and Indian Philosophy

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