Hindu and Buddhist Thought (2)


In order to systemically understand the worldviews we have been discussing, it will be helpful to consider more explicitly how the basic ideas we have discussed fit into the various branches of philosophy, here specifically metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology. For the study of both Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism this is especially important because both of these systems of thought maintain that the insight into metaphysical truths (epistemic understanding) is facilitated by certain meditative or yoga practices and an ethical form of life.

Metaphysics of Advaita Vedanta

Metaphysics studies the type of things that exist and includes reflections on ultimate reality. In the presentation of ideas so far, the views of Brahman and the self in Hinduism and the marks of existence in Buddhism, as well as related discussions of the five aggregates are all part of the subject matter of metaphysics. Reincarnation and karma also can be included in this area of philosophy, as they concern processes to which existent things are subject.

The discussion of the self in Advaita Vedanta offered earlier was incomplete. So far, besides discussing the self as we normally understand it — a given individual, named Sarah, for example — we discussed Atman, the world soul of which Sarah would be an expression. Beyond that, however, the Hindus speak of self in a further sense called jiva. Jiva is an individual soul, separate from the world soul, but also not identical with a specific person. The jiva undergoes reincarnation, passing through various reincarnations as specific individuals until it achieves Moksa, the full awareness that ultimate reality is one unified whole. While Sarah is the individual in a particular life time, the jiva is the soul that transmigrates from one life to another. Sarah in this life may become Shiela in the next. A typical analogy is that of water which can be poured from one container to another, taking on the form of whatever container it is in. So in one life the water is in the form of a cup (Sarah), in another it takes the form of a pot (Shiela). Another analogy is that of a pillow and a pillow case. The jiva is the pillow, in one life slipped in one pillow case (Sarah), in another slipped into another one (Shiela). This is supposed to happen until jiva (non-named since it always takes on the name of its present incarnation) learns the lessons it should and awakens to the deep truth of the fundamental unity of everything through a practice of yoga. That knowledge is sufficient to end the cycle of births and rebirths. The individual soul at that point simply disappears again into the primordial unity of Brahman. To return to our water analogy, the water is then returned to the ocean, where it simply exists in unity, losing its individual features.

Epistemology in Advaita Vedanta and Beyond

One of the great difficulties with any of these religious philosophical systems concerns how we are to know these difficult metaphysical truths — about the self and ultimate reality — that they expound.

Generally, we accept that we gain knowledge through reflection on our sense experience and logical deductions. But the spiritual systems propose metaphysical truths about which we have no sense experience. Generally, the religious systemizers will maintain that a type of internal sense, an internal sight, or insight, is possible that allows us to understand the metaphysical truths that are expounded. These Eastern systems in particular are less dogmatic than the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) tend to be.

Hinduism does have many sacred texts that are formative for all in the tradition, but it largely does not understand itself as a dogmatic belief system but as a living system. Gurus are thought to have the insights and to be able to guide others to have these as well. This requires the practice of various forms of yoga, which eventually should allow the insights among the practitioners. It is this kind of intuition that should lead individuals to accept the truth of the ideas of Brahman, Atman, reincarnation, and so on.

There are five general types of yoga: 1) Hatha yoga is the type of yoga most people are familiar with through yoga centers in the U.S. and Europe. In this form of yoga (at least understood within the monistic system we have discussed), one assumes asanas (or postures), engaging in physical practices that are to reform the mind, leading to Moksa.  2) Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. 3) Karma yoga is the yoga of service. 4) Raja yoga is the yoga of meditation. 5) Jnana yoga is the yoga of theoretical learning.

In Hinduism, the practice of these forms of yoga is related both to epistemology and ethics. Each of these practices should lead individuals to understand their ultimate unity with one another in Atman and Brahman. Knowing this, these individuals will also lose the egoism that drives selfish and immoral behavior. So, it is such practices, along with the adherence to a moral regime, that lead to insight about metaphysical truths.

Of course, it has to be acknowledged that only very few individuals will indeed have had such deep insight. But in the most charitable reading, one might note that few understand relativity theory or string theory either. But the assumption accepted is that with enough work they would be able to understand it. In these religious systems, the vast majority have some faith that they could, one day with enough practice, understand the truths that they now largely accept on faith.

Should we trust our cultivated inner perception?

A problem with such arguments about an inner perception is that there seems to be little agreement among those who maintain they have one (whether in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other traditions). Most of these worldviews maintain that some such insight is available, at least to some. Yet the fundamental descriptions of the metaphysical reality across these traditions are not in agreement, unlike the descriptions of relativity theorists, for example, in diverse places such as China, Germany, the U.S. and so on.

Reincarnation is also a process that practitioners of these Eastern systems maintain one might also have an inner perception of. Deja vu experiences, dreams, and the like are the general reports used in support of veracity of such views. The question for those considering such views is whether those experiences are best explained as indicating the reality of reincarnation, and as lending sometimes support for the mechanism of karma, or whether some other explanation might be more compelling.

Indeed,  given the lack of agreement among the various religious systems in the world about what that inner perception is — regarding views of God, the self, the afterlife — how reliable of a guide is it?  A later blog discussion of William James will take up some of these issues.

Buddhist Philosophy on Metaphysics

While some strands of Buddhism have very thick metaphysics, there are some forms with an extremely pragmatic orientation and a general focus on practices. Buddhism rejects that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing creator God. Buddhist emancipation is in some forms tied up with devotion to Celestial Boddhistavas, enlightened saints who are thought to have the power to ease others’ karma, but various forms of Buddhism do not accept or focus on this. In particular contemporary forms of zen Buddhism downplay the importance of such metaphysics. One of the best known tales of the early encounters with the Buddha makes this pragmatic stance toward metaphysics especially clear.

The monk and the arrow

Once when the Buddha was visiting a sangha (monastery), after some time a monk, Malunkya, who had been practicing diligently with the Buddha became quite dissatisfied with the fact that the Buddha had left various metaphysical questions unanswered. Malunkya thought to himself that he would ask the Buddha these questions and if he was given satisfactory answers he would devote himself to further study; otherwise he would leave the sangha. Meeting the Buddha, Malunkya then asked him him his questions: Was the universe finite or infinite? Were the body and soul one and the same or different?  Would the Buddha exist after his death or not? Mulunkya further informed the Buddha that if he refused to answer the questions, he would leave the sangha. The Buddha responded, asking if he had ever asked Malunkya to join the sangha so that he could get the answers to those questions. Malunkya acknowledged he had not. The Buddha continued, noting that Malunkya’s decision to leave the sangha for not having received the answers to those questions was similar to a man who had been shot by an arrow going to a doctor for help but then refusing to allow the doctor to help remove the arrow until he could answer many questions about the one who had shot the arrow: his caste, his clan name, his height, his skin color, the name of his home town, what type of a bowstring he used, the shape and material of the arrow, the poison used. The man would die before receiving the answers to those questions. Similarly, a man wanting the answers to those metaphysical questions would die before the Buddha would answer them. One does not have to know whether the universe is eternal or not or the soul immortal, the Buddha emphasized. There is suffering, birth, aging and death. The teaching is to alleviate the pain accompanying that.


For many contemporary Buddhist practitioners this story provides a good example of the practical orientation of Buddhism. The focus of Buddhist philosophy is not on certain dogmas but on engaging in practices that change one’s behavior and mental attitude.

The eightfold path provides the set of practices that it is thought end cravings and, by so doing, eradicate suffering. In this tradition, like in Hinduism, meditation practices and ethical behavior should facilitate an understanding of the basic metaphysical truths. But for philosophical Buddhism, the three marks of existence are more fundamental metaphysical truths: impermanence, no-self, and suffering. These are viewed as rather common sense, even empirical psychological observations.

The various elements of the eightfold path work in cohort to create the necessary understanding of these, complimenting one another. Right understanding and right resolve focus on wisdom. Right speech, right action, right livelihood focus on morality. Right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation focus on meditation. Each element works together. By meditating, one breaks down the barriers of the ego and comes to be wiser, while also overcoming the wrong views that lead one to unethical behavior. The ethical behavior, for its part can also increase one’s empathy and help one to cultivate a better understanding of the world.

All of these things facilitate a conscious living in the moment. From moment to moment what we then have is a mental focus on a particular sensation. We have one interconnected occurrence after another. In the moment, the division between the self and the world break down, as one, for example, breathes in air from outside oneself or exhales it into the world upon which one is codependent. As the zen practitioners especially emphasize, the point is to prevent one’s mind from wandering and focusing on the past or the future. It is to be present.


The approach that Buddhists tend to have to many metaphysical ideas (other than the kernel ones of the three marks of existence)  is instrumentalist. As a tendency Buddhists are not epistemological realists but constructivists. Applied to metaphysical ideas such as reincarnation and karma, as well as Celestial Boddhisatvas, philosophical Buddhists tend to say that if those ideas serve useful purposes, then it is fine to use them. But if they do not, or if they have outworn their use, then one can set them aside. One finds statements like this in Buddhist thinkers as diverse as D.T. Suzuki, who along with Alan Watts was influential in introducing an earlier generation of U.S. Americans and Europeans to Zen Buddhism, as well as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, two international leaders in Buddhism, who are influential in spreading Buddhist teaching to the West. Given the doctrine of no-self, the self, as we tend to understand it, cannot be viewed as having any kind of permanent existence. It instead is viewed as a construct. It is a useful convention to refer to the self. Indeed it would likely be impossible to live without doing so. And one can hardly talk of the three marks of existence without referencing some individual’s pain or using nouns that refer to stable things. Yet Buddhists tend to adopt a pragmatic approach to these and other distinctions. Various such metaphysical ideas have their uses. But their usefulness does not mean they have any ultimate truth value.

Such constructivist pragmatism, especially about the difficult to answer questions of the gods, the afterlife, and so on, has proven attractive to many people in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere who have given up on traditional views of God but find some attraction to meditative or mindfulness practices of the Buddhist tradition, or of yoga from the Hindu tradition, which they view as improving their lives, providing them with some greater felt sense of interconnectedness with the world and others around them, or simply relieving stress and contributing to greater mental balance. Sam Harris, who is well-known for his arguments against God’s existence, is one well-known public intellectual in the U.S. who has come out in support of Buddhist philosophical ideas and some practices. He, like various others would like to separate this from the “religious” aspects of the tradition, as he understands those. But for him and many other American Buddhists, the constructivist pragmatism, at least about traditional metaphysical topics, is a great source of attraction.

Of the various religious systems, contemporary forms of Buddhism are probably the least heavily loaded with “requirements” for thick metaphysics. That said, most Buddhists practitioners do believe in karma, reincarnation. Many believe in celestial Boddhistavas. Pure land Buddhists believe in a Pure Land the people inhabit after death. They believe that some individuals can be reincarnated as gods or devils. In Tibetian forms of Buddhism, most believe in reincarnations of Llamas, who refuse the leave the cycle of life and death and are reborn to help lead others to emancipation. On these issues, the same questions arise as were raised about Hinduism in part 1 of the entry on Hinduism and Buddhism. It is these “religious” ideas that Harris and those with similar inclination would reject. But they find other things in these traditions worth affirming.

Brief comments on ethics

Much more can be said about the ethics in these traditions. Here I have only emphasized how both Hindus and Buddhists generally believe that ethical practice is part of what helps cultivate the intuition into metaphysical truths. Similarly, they both think that the intellectual intuition that meditation cultivates should break down the boundaries of the ego so that, seeing one’s self as either linked with others in Brahman (in Hinduism) or as co-dependently arising (in Buddhism), one would not act selfishly but cooperatively. Buddhists in particular focus on the virtue of compassion. Both philosophical schools otherwise have multifaceted ethical systems beyond what can be explored here.

Other teachings in Indian Philosophy

This introductory text does in some sense a disservice of focusing solely on the views of the two most well-known religious or spiritual systems of “Indian philosophy.” In fact, however, Indian philosophy (and science) has made contributions to multiple areas of human understanding. Amartya Sen, Harvard Professor of Philosophy and a Nobel Prize winner of economics, underlines in particular early views of the 4th century BCE Indian philosopher, Kautilya, who in Arthasastra catalogued all knowledge into four disciplines: 1) metaphysics, 2) knowledge of right and wrong, 3) the science of government, and 4) the science of wealth. As an early thinker of economics as a mere technical field, Sen contrasts Kautilya with Aristotle, who subsumes thinking about economics under considerations of ethics. But it is Kautilya who may be the first full-fledged economist in world history; and he breaks our mold of Indians as religious thinkers.

So, too, though I have emphasized Advaita Vedanta, the best known of all religious schools of Hindu philosophy, in fact some of the earliest known expressions of atheism, the view that there is no god, come from Indian philosophy. Of course, as we have seen, Buddhism rejects the idea of a creator god. But the Charvaka or Lokayata, beginning around the sixth century BCE, develop a decidedly less spiritual philosophy than Buddhists. They embraced a form of materialism that accepted that all things were comprised of four elements. They rejected the Vedas, a belief in gods and the afterlife. And they proposed a radical hedonism, thinking we should live for what increases our individual immediate pleasure. Even if pains sometimes arise from doing so, it is in their view worth it.

The point is, Indian philosophers have done much more than I have been able to indicate in these general statements, where I have confined myself to issues of metaphysics as they intersect with epistemology and ethics and I have focussed in particular on the religious philosophies.

See chapter 3 on Confucius and Confucianism

Some useful links:

The Upanishads

The Bhagavad Gita

Thhe Dhammapada

A short video introduction

Graham Priest on the Four Noble Truths

Graham Priest on Buddhism and Science


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