God/Isvara in Indian Philosophy

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This entry deals briefly with the Isvara concept in the six schools of philosophy in Hinduism, usually called the orthodox schools because they were thought to believe in the authority of the Vedas. The schools are Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purvamimamsa, and Uttaramimamsa, also called Vedanta. This article is not a philosophical discussion of the nature of Isvara but is a description of how Isvara is viewed in these schools.

Each of the main schools has a foundational text called sutras. The word sutra means "a thread" and is usually a brief sentence of a few words that convey the basic philosophy of the respective school. As these sutras are difficult to follow without some explanation, commentaries called bhasyas emerged from erudite commentators, which in turn spawned commentaries on commentaries that went on for a long time up until the present day. One could generally assign the period between the second century to the fifith century CE as the point of origin for these schools of philosophy. The authors of the first sutras of Nyaya was Gautama, of Vaisesika Kanada, of Samkhya Kapila, of Yoga Patanjali, of Purvamimamsa Jaimini and of Vedanta Badarayana, also called Vyasa. These sutras are all written in the oldest language of the world, Sanskrit, which was the language of religion and philosophy for most of Hinduism's history. Each of these schools has a unique approach to the understanding of Isvara.

It is useful to remember that in Hinduism, within which one has to view the six schools, Isvara cannot be equated with the concept of God as it is understood in the Abrahamic religions. Isvara does not have the role of creator because Isvara does not create the world and the selves from "nothing." The theory of karma and the cyclical evolution and dissolution of the universe in periodic cycles, in keeping with karma, does not allow Isvara the same role that is assigned to God in the Abrahamic religions. Hindu schools of philosophical thought have liberation or moksa as their highest value, and each school develops its ontology and epistemology in order to realize this eschatological value.

All the orthodox schools share in the belief that the self (also called variously as atman, jiva, purusa, and so on) is an eternal entity born into the world and associated with a body and other faculties in accordance with the karma that belongs to it from the past. The ego or sense of "I" that one normally associates with notions of one's identity is not the real self in these schools. The real self is the atman, which is the inner essence, and it is the quest for this inner self and its realization that constitutes ultimate freedom or moksa, which, in an extended sense, also means breaking the chain of subsequent births and deaths in the world. This quest for the true self is also situated within the inner efforts of individual earthly selves and so, on the surface at least, there is no role for Isvara in the way these sutras were initially formulated. As Isvara does not also have a role in the direct evolution of living beings in the world, the concept of Isvara is something that is sneaked into the sutras sometimes by later commentators in order to serve other needs. Since there is no uniformity of approach in the methodology followed for this purpose in the different schools, our task is to examine how this is done in the different schools and how the Isvara concept is made to fit into the general philosophy of the different systems.


Although Nyayasutras and Vaisesikasutras were composed by different authors, because of certain similarities in the way they viewed ontology and epistemology, they gradually came to be discussed jointly in all discussions of the philosophical schools. I shall also deal with them together in this entry.

Nyaya and Vaisesika are realistic schools and trace the origin of the real from basic atomistic principles. They have minor disagreements in the number of metaphysical categories and also in the emphasis that each brings into the discussion. Whereas Vaisesika concentrates on discussing in detail the metaphysical categories and the ultimate realistic principles, Nyaya is more concerned with developing the epistemology of gaining right knowledge of reality, which is to realize the true nature of atman.

The ultimate realities that explain the whole universe are the atoms of earth, water, fire, air, ether (akasa ), space, time, mind, and self (atman ). As can be seen from the above, the system is not purely materialistic. The self is considered to be eternal and many. Though omnipresent, it is confined to the body to which it is associated. The theory of causation is teleological; the karma called adrsta (unseen potential of past dharma and adharma ) is sufficient to determine the coming together of the eternal atoms to form bodies for the selves to continue their cycle of lives until they attain liberation through a discrimination between the true nature of atman and the false identity it has with the body and other material substances. Thus the initial sutras of Gautama and Kanada did not really have a place for Isvara though Gautama refers to Isvara in a weak sense in one place (Nyayasutras IV 1.21)

Later commentators, however, found a place for Isvara in both Nyaya and Vaisesika by using various arguments. The eternal atoms and the eternal selves (jivas ) are not created by Isvara. However, there was a need to bring together the jivas and their future embodied lives in consonance with past karma. Since karma itself was not a conscious category, there was room for the introduction of an intelligent, superconscious atman who could fulfill this task. Thus, some of the reasons for the existence of Isvara in Nyaya-Vaisesika are: (1) because the world as an effect needs an agent as an efficient cause equal to the task of coordinating the different phenomena of the world; (2) the atoms being basically inactive, Isvara enables them to combine in accordance with the past karma (adrsta ) of jivas ; (3) the manifestation and destruction of the world in cyclical rhythm is due to Isvara.

Liberation called apavarga in these two schools is, however, still an individual effort, and Isvara has no role to play in the achievement of the highest value of liberation (moksa ) for the atman. It comes about by correct knowledge of things of which Isvara is also just one more thing.


The Samkhyakarika of Isvarakrsna and the Yogasutra of Patanjali are used for this discussion. Like Nyaya and Vaisesika, Samkhya and Yoga also share some metaphysical ideas; they both believe in two ultimate realitiesone called prakrti, the material reality and the building block of the worldand the other the spiritual reality called purusa, which is another word for atman. Even though there are many purusas in these two schools, they are not different from one another in essence. Whereas in Nyaya-Vaisesika atman only has knowledge as an adventitious property, in these schools it is also characterized as being pure consciousness.

The coming into being of the world and its properties in both the schools is from prakrti alone without the assistance of any outside agency. The proximity of purusa and prakrti is a sufficient condition for the evolution and involution of the world. Prakrti is viewed as constituted of the three gunas (characteristics) of sattva, rajas, and tamas. These gunas are not properties of prakrti but its very nature. Prakrti as constituted by the gunas is in constant motion. When the gunas are in equilibrium, there is no evolution of the world, and the world evolves when there is disequilibrium of the gunas. Thus evolution and involution is a teleological process governed by the past karma associated with purusas. The evolution is also explained as serving the twin purposes of purusa : experience in the world and gaining liberation or kaivalya.

Philosophically there are many difficulties, among them (1) the conception of many purusas who are all of the same nature of pure consciousness, (2) an insentient prakrti sufficient to explain the evolution of the world, (3) the problem of what initiates the disequilibrium in the first place, and so on. This article, however, confines itself to Isvara in the system. Thus, as seen above, it is clear that there is no role for Isvara in the Samkhyakarika. The final goal of liberation or kaivalya also comes through discrimination between the true nature of purusa and prakrti gained by correct knowledge. Thus Isvara does not figure either in the coming into being of the world or in the attainment of kaivalya for purusa.

Although Yoga shares with Samkhya the belief in the ultimate two realities of prakrti and purusa, there is a weak introduction of Isvara in the system, described as an excellent purusa. The excellent purusa (Isvara) is unaffected by karma in the past, present, and the future. By arguing from experience that there is a graded scale of knowledge, wisdom, power and so on, Patanjali describes Isvara as the one who represents the utmost excellence and who is also an aid to the practice of yoga by being an object of support (alambana ) in meditation. But, at the same time, Isvara is only one among many supports in meditation. He is also called the first guru who teaches the Vedas to the sages. His symbol is Om, and he is one that brings the association and disassociation of purusa and prakrti to start the evolution and involution of the universe. Though philosophically these are weak arguments, Isvara has been accommodated in a backhanded manner into Yoga philosophy by Patanjali. However, because Isvara does not play any role in the manifestation of the world, in the evolution of individual purusas, or in the granting of liberation, one can conclude that Yoga also does not accommodate Isvara in the usual sense of the term.

Purvamimamsa and Uttaramimamsa

The earlier sections (purva ) of the Veda, the mantra and ritualistic or brahmana sections, deal with rituals and are therefore called the karmakanda (sections dealing with rituals) while the latter sections (uttara ), the Upanisads, deal with knowledge of reality and so are called the jnanakanda (sections dealing with knowledge). Both the schools believe implicitly in their respective sections of the Veda. I shall first consider Purvamimamsa (PM) and then talk about Uttaramimamsa (UM) or Vedanta.

PM is a realistic school and considers the Vedas as an infallible authority. This discussion is based on Jaimini's PM sutras and on some later commentaries. PM primarily focuses on the right interpretation of Vedic statements and in the correct performance of rituals or karma. It differs from all other schools in not believing in the periodic evolution and involution of the world. According to PM, there never was a time when the world was different from what it is now. PM believes in the law of karma as an unseen power, in the individual selves that are ruled by the law of karma, and in moksa which, though initially the attainment of svarga (heaven), gradually changed to the attainment of the true nature of atman in later commentaries. It is attained by the exhaustion of dharma and adharma by the disinterested performance of one's own karma. The ultimate authority being the Veda, there was no need of an Isvara in the system. Karma classified in various ways was sufficient to explain the coming into being of the individual selves and their ultimate achievement of moksa.

Uttaramimamsa or Vedanta is based primarily on the Upanisads, which are the basis of Badarayana's Brahmasutras (BS), also called the Vedantasutras. Although there are many Vedanta schools based on differing interpretations of the BS and the Upanisads, this entry shall be dealing only with Advaita Vedanta and very briefly with Visistadvaita and Dvaita philosophies. Samkara (c. eighth century CE), Ramanuja (c. eleventh/twelfth century CE) and Madhva (c. thirteenth/fourteenth century CE) are the important commentators on the BS for Advaita (nondualism), Visistadvaita (qualified nondualism), and Dvaita (dualism), respectively.

Samkara declares the ultimate ontological reality as Brahman and identifies the individual self called atman with this Brahman. Because there is only one Absolute Reality, the so-called reality of the world and all other things is only an appearance, according to Advaita (nondual)Vedanta. Brahman is described as nirguna (without any qualities) and cannot be viewed in a personal way. However, because the world appears to be real, in order to reconcile this world-reality with the ultimate reality, Advaita views reality as a threefold entity that includes the illusory (pratibhasika, such as dreams), worldly experience (vyavaharika ), and absolute reality (paramarthika-satta ). Because Brahman is also without any properties, it cannot be an agent of manifestation. Therefore, the necessity of explaining the world forces Samkara to introduce maya (cosmic ignorance), which, when associated with Brahman, is called saguna -Brahman (Brahman with qualities) or Isvara, which is then considered to be both the efficient and material cause of the universe. There are many ways in which maya and its association with Brahman are explained in order to maintain the nondual nature of Advaita, but that need not concern us here. Because this Isvara is not free to manifest the world and the selves but is bound by the karma of the individual selves in the manifestation of the world, and because Isvara does not have a role to play in the attainment of moksa of the selves, it is only a device to explain the so-called reality of the world. Liberation is achieved when, through correct knowledge, the atman realizes its identity with Brahman.

By the times of Ramanuja and Madhva, a fundamental change has taken place in the religious sphere. Devotion (bhakti ) has come to be valued as higher than knowledge in the attainment of moksa, and the highest entity Brahman is also now viewed in a personal manner. Brahmanvariously called Narayana, Visnu, Gopala-Krsna, Vasudeva-Krsna, and so onis capable of responding to the devotion of individual selves and even to mitigate the evil effects of karma, enabling the devotee to attain moksa. Moksa is also defined differently in a dualistic manner whereby the self retains its separation from the Supreme Brahman it worships. There are differences in the way in which the nature of the individual selves, the world, and the nature of Brahman are understood in Ramanuja's and Madhva's interpretation of the BS. But those are in the details. In both bhakti is a sufficient condition for moksa.

As long as the philosophical schools depended only on correct knowledge to attain the true nature of atman, there was no need for dependence on an outside agent called Isvara to enable atman to achieve its highest value. But when the religious atmosphere changed with the introduction of devotion as the paramount means for achieving liberation, it was possible for Isvara to play a role in many wayslike the reduction of karma, bestowing grace, and so onfor the atman to attain moksa.

See also Atomic Theory in Indian Philosophy; Brahman; Causation in Indian Philosophy; Indian Philosophy; Karma; Knowledge in Indian Philosophy; Liberation in Indian Philosophy; Meditation in Indian Philosophy; Self in Indian Philosophy.


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