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Aurobindo Ghose

By Auroville, Hinduism, Nationalist Revolutionary and Mystic

Aurobindo Ghose

An influential guru figure was Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). One complaint is that many books on Aurobindo tend strongly to hagiography. Some assessors say that the best biographical portrayal is by Peter Heehs, meaning The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. The author comments: “From 1921 on most descriptions of Aurobindo read as though they were taken out of the puranas or the mythological texts” (Heehs 2008:330). Some devotees blocked publication in India of the Heehs book, which received favourable reviews. A related feature is informative:

Heehs is gently sceptical of the claim that Aurobindo possessed supernatural powers. “To accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar is necessarily a matter of faith,” he writes, adding that “matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma.” This understated, unexceptionable statement drove the dogmatic followers of Aurobindo bananas. Some devotees filed a case in the Orissa High Court, restraining the Indian publisher from circulating the book in India.” (Ramachandra Guha, Ban the Ban, 2011)

Aurobindo was a Bengali, born at Calcutta (Kolkata). The pater, a surgeon, wanted his children to have a British education. The young Aurobindo (Aravinda) was accordingly despatched, with two brothers, to Manchester, where he was tutored by an Anglican clergyman. In addition to English literature, he also learned Greek and Latin. He entered King’s College, Cambridge, following paternal wishes for a career in the Indian Civil Service. As events transpired, Aurobindo did not take employment under the British.

When he returned to India in 1893, he joined the bureaucracy of the Gaekwad of Baroda, a city of Western India where he resided for thirteen years. Many details of that phase in his life are on record. His patron was the liberal Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, who favoured reformist activities such as prohibition of child marriage. Aurobindo penned speeches for the Gaekwad, becoming a professor of English at Baroda State College. He made a private study of Bengali literature, and learned Sanskrit without assistance. In 1901, Aurobindo married the daughter of an Indian government official. By 1903, he was evidently a nationalist revolutionary.

In 1906 he moved to Calcutta, where he joined the Indian National Congress. He criticised that Congress for a moderate policy on national education. Aurobindo became one of the extremists. The major issue was now the British partition of Bengal in 1905, effectively separating Muslims from Hindus. This “divide and rule” strategy of Lord Curzon (the Viceroy) was very unpopular with Hindus (eventually the government plan was abandoned). The Bengal Presidency was the largest province in British India, with a population of over 80 million.

Bengal was depicted by Hindus as the Goddess victimised by the British. “Militant political leaders primarily drew upon Shakta symbolism, especially the imagery of the Hindu cult of Kali worship, and they adopted philosophical justifications of nationalism which were based on modernist, neo-Hindu interpretation of Shankara’s Vedanta philosophy” (Barbara Southard, The Political Stategy of Aurobindo Ghosh, 1980).

Aurobindo became a major contributor to the nationalist newspaper Bande Mataram. In 1907, the British government moved to prosecute this bulletin, which they regarded as a goad to violence and lawlessness. That year, Aurobindo was arrested by the police on a charge of sedition. He was subsequently acquitted because of failure to establish his editorship of the insurgent newspaper. By this time, Aurobindo was a major figure in the increasingly militant independence movement, a body prepared to justify murders undertaken by members of the kshatriya class.

The American historian Peter Heehs has revealed how the Indian freedom struggle, of this early phase, had both violent and non-violent aspects. Passive resistance was only part of the story. There was a tendency to terrorism in the 1900-10 decade of the Bengali resistance. Heehs penetrates the hagiography attaching to Aurobindo. At this early period, the future Yogi was a member of the extremist Jugantar party, based in Calcutta, in which his brother strongly figured. These revolutionaries stockpiled weapons and explosives. Moroever, they secretly manufactured bombs in a garden house at Manicktola, located in a Calcutta suburb. Aurobindo was evidently in agreement with violent tactics, though he did not apparently become directly involved in that extension. He is described by some commentators as a strategist or organiser. 

During 1907-8, Aurobindo travelled to Poona (Pune), Bombay, and Baroda. As an emissary of the nationalist cause, he was seeking further support. In May 1908 he was again arrested, this time as a suspect in the Manicktola Conspiracy, also known as Alipore Bomb Case. His younger brother, Barindra Kumar Ghose (1880-1959), was Jugantar leader of young Bengali revolutionaries at Calcutta. This group resorted to a bomb attack in April 1908. Their plan was to bomb the horse carriage of a British magistrate, whom they detested for administering harsh sentences. The punitive action miscarried. The insurgents bombed the wrong carriage, killing two innocent British women.

About thirty men were arrested, including Aurobindo. The Manicktola property of the extremists was raided by police, who discovered “inflammatory literature, loads of explosives, arms and ammunition, along with detailed written instructions on the techniques of manufacturing higher explosives” (quotation from Alipore Bomb Case, 2009).

Barindra Ghose admitted to responsibility in the lengthy trial that followed. The verdict of the court initially entailed death sentences. Deportation to the Andaman Islands was the final sentence for a number of the accused. Aurobindo and over fifteen others were acquitted in 1909. Jugantar militants murdered two opponents who had worked against them.

Meanwhile, Aurobindo was detained in solitary confinement for one year at Alipore jail; there he studied the Bhagavad-Gita. He subsequently reported a number of spiritual experiences during his incarceration. After being freed, he commenced two new weekly journals, promoting his radical ideas on national education. His anti-British tendency caused the Viceroy Lord Minto some misgivings. In private correspondence dating to 1910, Lord Minto described Aurobindo as “the most dangerous man we now have to reckon with.”

That same year, Aurobindo retired from the political arena. He took refuge in the French colony of Pondicherry (in Tamil Nadu), after receiving news that the Indian police were looking for him again. Now he opened a new chapter in his career, devoting himself to Yoga (one of his former subsidiary interests). Some critics have viewed this phase as an escape route from political problems. However, Aurobindo was evidently quite sincere in the subsequent and extensive cycle of mystical writings, appearing in his new monthly journal Arya from 1914 onwards. In that mode, his major works first emerged in a serialised format, notably including The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga.

The former political agitator was now the exponent of an avant garde Hinduism, “developing a philosophical system inspired by Vedanta, but integrating elements from Yoga, Tantra and the theory of evolution” (Flood 1996:270).

Afterwards, in 1926 was founded the Aurobindo Ashram, with a core of 24 disciples. That same year, Aurobindo withdrew into seclusion, appointing a woman as the ashram leader. Mirra Richard, also called Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), became known as “the Mother.” She was a Parisian of Turkish and Egyptian parentage. Aurobindo acknowledged her as his major disciple.

During the 1930s, a correspondence with disciples formed the main literary output of Aurobindo, eventually becoming the Letters on Yoga (3 vols). He also worked on a lengthy poem entitled Savitri. Aurobindo did not revert to political agitation. During the Second World War, he supported the Allied cause against Hitler, whom he described as an oppressor.

His major work is The Life Divine, first published in 1914-19 in serial form, later revised and enlarged for publication in book format (2 vols, 1939-40). The lengthy contents expound his version of spiritual evolution. An accompanying work, The Synthesis of Yoga, formulates what is known as Integral Yoga, which Aurobindo regarded as a unique innovation. The declared objective is transformation of the individual, including physical, psychic, and mental dimensions. The acquisition of an “inner Yogic consciousness” has the objective of “supramentalisation.” This version of Yoga is often described as uniting the dispositions of bhakti, jnana, and karma yoga as mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita, a popular Vedantic text of Hinduism.

Aurobindo opposed aspects of Advaita Vedanta, including mayavada, the doctrine that the world is an illusion. He also diverged from the Vedantic belief that an ascetic life of withdrawal is the means to liberation. Aurobindo improvised the theme of Supermind, which he also described as gnosis. He has been credited with introducing the concept of evolution into Vedantic thought. However, his version of evolution was not that of Darwinism, which Aurobindo regarded as a materialist limitation.

A disputed feature of his doctrine is that of a new supramental or gnostic human species envisaged for the future. This theme became influential in the subsequent American “new age” variation associated with the Esalen Institute of California (Aurobindo and Esalen). Some think that Aurobindo was more realistic in referring to the “intermediate zone,” meaning a danger area of deceptive spirituality, located between mundane consciousness and genuine spiritual achievement. One surely sees far more of this drawback than anything “gnostic” in the pretentious new age.

Specialist scholarship, in Vedic texts, has disagreed with Aurobindo’s theme of an esoteric meaning in the ancient RigVeda. Via such works as The Secret of the Veda and Hymns to the Mystic Fire, Aurobindo asserted that the Rig was composed in a symbolic language. The outer meaning is here conceived as relating to religious rituals, while  the inner meaning pertains to a spiritual knowledge. In contrast, Professor Jan Gonda viewed this as an erroneous interpretation. For Aurobindo,  the Vedic sacrifices are all symbolic, the Rig ritualism being regarded  as an “infallible authority for spiritual knowledge.” The critical Indologist did not deny an intuitive dimension to the poetry of the Rig rishis (Gonda 1975:53-4). Gonda was not the only sceptical scholar. The RigVeda context is still emerging  (Jamison and Brereton, 2014).

After Aurobindo’s death, the town of Auroville was founded near Pondicherry in 1968. The ideal was an international habitat transcending creed and politics. Auroville gained nearly 3,000 inhabitants from many countries, mainly Indians, French, and Germans. 


Aurobindo, The Life Divine (first edn 1939-40; seventh edn, Pondicherry, 2006). 

——–The Synthesis of Yoga (Pondicherry, 1996).

——–Secret of the Veda (Pondicherry, 1995).

Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo (30 vols, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972).

Flood, Gavin, An Introduction to Hinduism (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Gonda, Jan, Vedic Literature (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1975).

Heehs, Peter, The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India, 1900-1910 (Oxford University Press, 1993; second edn, 2004).

——–The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (Columbia University Press, 2008).

Jamison, Stephanie W.,  and Joel P. Brereton, trans., The Rigveda (3 vols, Oxford University Press, 2014).

Purani, Ambulai B., The Life of Sri Aurobindo (1978; fourth edn, Pondicherry: Aurobindo International Centre for Education, 1987).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd

August 2010 (modified 2018, 2021)

ENTRY no. 30

Copyright  © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. 


Swami Vivekananda

By Advaita Vedanta, Hinduism, Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar, Ramakrishna Order

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) was anti-caste in many of his recorded emphases. He was an unusual mystic, of the more daring and radical kind, in terms of social extension. Yet he identified with the traditional philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, strongly associated with Shankara (c.800 CE), a legendary exponent whose extant and attributed treatises are a subject of complex scholarly appraisal.

Vivekananda, alias Narendra Nath Datta, was born in Calcutta, where he attended college. He studied European history and philosophy, gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1884. Narendra came from a low class background, being a kayastha by birth. That sub-caste gained an increased status in Bengali society under British rule, often working as clerks and secretaries. His father was a prosperous attorney at the Calcutta high court. A strong influence upon Narendra was the Brahmo Samaj, a reforming movement advocating belief in a formless God; the Brahmos were in opposition to popular Hinduism.

In 1881, Narendra encountered Ramakishna of Dakshineswar (1836-1886), a brahman saint who lived in a Kali temple near Calcutta. Ramakrishna was not typical of the priestly caste; he would not touch money and spoke in very simple language, as distinct from the formal didactic of the pundits. The tendency of Ramakrishna was eclectic with regard to Hinduism, including reference to Advaita Vedanta.

Narendra at first rejected Advaita, deeming this an extremist philosophy. Ramakrishna’s esteem for the goddess Kali was also repugnant to reformist tastes. However, the consequence was that Narendra changed orientation completely, becoming a full-fledged disciple of the mystic.

Vivekananda as wandering sannyasin in 1892

The young disciples of Ramakrishna opted for a monastic existence at his death, living in a dilapidated house at Baranagore. A number of them took formal vows; Narendra assumed the name of Swami Vivekananda. In 1888, he left Baranagore to live as a wandering monk (sannyasin). For several years he travelled throughout India, frequently travelling on foot; he resorted to the railway when given tickets by wellwishers. He encountered priestly pundits and maharajas; he also saw at firsthand the widespread poverty and suffering of the masses, which evidently weighed upon him deeply.

At the end of 1892, he arrived at Cape Comorin (the southern tip of India). There he gained a much reported insight: the situation of so many wandering renunciates, teaching religion, was seriously discrepant. Instead the objective should be one of raising the masses from ignorance and hunger.

In 1893, Vivekananda visited America as an outspoken teacher of Vedanta and Yoga. He first lectured at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, gaining both admirers and critics, the latter including missionaries to India. For over three years he stayed in the West, lecturing in America and England; he suffered poor health as a consequence of the strain. He declined two offers of an academic chair in Eastern philosophy at Harvard and Columbia Universities, explaining that he could not accept such a career role in his vocation as a wandering monk.

In early 1897, Vivekananda arrived back in India, being welcomed as a national hero on account of his recent fame. He travelled nationwide from Colombo to Calcutta and Almora, frequently giving lectures that included exhortations to an upliftment of the masses and the elimination of caste stigmas. He also favoured the study of Western science in addition to Vedanta. The implications of a national reorientation were taken seriously in some directions; later political figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Radhakrishnan acknowledged Swami Vivekananda as an inspiration. Independence from British rule was one repercussion. However, Vivekananda did not mount a nationalist campaign. Instead, his immediate opponent was the conservative priestly caste. Subsequent nationalists, who favoured violent agitation against the British, were not compatible with the monastic ahimsa of Vivekananda.

This monk detested what he called the “kitchen religion” of the brahman caste, a belief system entailing a taboo on food being defiled by the shadow of any untouchable. “Kick out the priests who are always against progress,” said Vivekananda. A British archaeologist, Frank Allchin (1923-2010), commented of this Hindu radical: “The modern student of sociology may well be surprised at the depth and objectivity of his observations” (quotes from Allchin 1968:89ff,102). Dr. Bhimrao R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader, is known for asserting that Vivekananda was the greatest man in  India during  recent centuries.

At Calcutta in 1897, Vivekananda founded at Belur the Ramakrishna Math (monastery). This was accompanied by the Ramakrishna Mission, an extension in social service. Some Christian critics say that the Mission was inspired by Christian models. The new Hindu monastic organisation later gained a centre in Madras.

During 1899-1900, Vivekananda  again visited America and Europe, creating Vedanta centres in San Francisco and New York. He  also attended the Paris Congress of Religions (1900). Because of his failing health, he was unable to meet an invitation to the subsequent Congress of Religions in Japan. Vivekananda died peacefully at the Belur monastery, while lying down after meditating.

An Indian historian (Amiya Prosad Sen) observes that Vivekananda “was often strongly anti-Brahmin, if not also anti-Brahmanical, and held saints and sadhus no less responsible for the continuing oppression of the masses. Reformers, in his view, never really touched the pulse of India…. Vivekananda’s panacea for India’s several ills was mass education: training in useful sciences and crafts, manual skills, and manufacture” (Sen 2006:33-4). 

A generally obscured matter is that Vivekananda drew from both the Sankhya and Vedanta systems of philosophy. He emphasised features of Sankhya psychology, while admitting the indebtedness of Vedanta to Sankhya. Substantial doctrinal differences existed between those two traditions (ibid:40).

A Western scholar has commented:

Although the Ramakrishna movement is not considered an orthodox sampradaya [religious tradition] by the more conservative Hindus, it has nevertheless captured the imagination of a great many modern and progressive Hindus and is held to be a non-sectarian and universal expression of a new, reformed Hinduism. (Klostermaier 1989:45)

The Ramakrishna Order now claims over 200 branch centres, mainly in India. There is an online partisan biography of Vivekananda by Swami Nikhilananda. A critical version states that some biographies “contain a lot of misinformation, tendentious statements, apologetics and plain lies” (Chattopadhyaya 1999:vii). Certain “corrective” treatments are clearly biased against the celibate monastic lifestyle, a factor not necessarily conducive to accuracy. 

There is a well known instance of an academic who encountered homosexuals in a Christian monastery, afterwards projecting his “homoerotic” obsession upon Ramakrishna, while implying that Vivekananda was misled. This eccentric exegesis was supported by a Christian theologian, whose biases likewise prove nothing about Indian mystics.


Allchin, Frank Raymond,  “The Social Thought of Swami Vivekananda,” in S. Ghanananda and G. Parrinder, eds., Swami Vivekananda in East and West (London: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Centre, 1968).

Burke, Marie Louise,  Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries (2 vols, 1957; 6 vols, Advaita Ashrama, 1983-96).

Chattopadhyaya, Rajagopal, Swami Vivekananda in India: A Corrective Biography (Banarsidass, 1999).

Dhar, Sailendra N. A Comprehensive Biography of Swami Vivekananda (2 vols, 1975-6; second edn, 3 vols, Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan Trust, 2012).

Klostermaier, Klaus K., A Survey of Hinduism (State University of New York Press, 1989).

Sen, Amiya P., Swami Vivekananda (2000; second edn, Oxford University Press, 2013).

——–Social and Religious Reform: The Hindus of British India (Oxford University Press, 2003). 

Sen, Amiya P., ed., The Indispensable Vivekananda: An Anthology for our Times (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2006).

Sil, Narasingha P., Swami Vivekananda: A Reassessment (Susquehanna University Press, 1997). 

Vivekananda, Swami, Complete Works (nine vols, Advaita Ashrama, 2001).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
August 6th, 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 28

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

By Advaita Vedanta, Hinduism, Indian Philosophy


Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

A major exponent of Hinduism was Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), whose Indian Philosophy (2 vols, 1923-27) became a textbook on the subject. Born in South India, he early encountered the writings of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who influenced him strongly in the new mood of Vedantic universalism struggling against rival emphases of Christianity. This was the era of British Raj imperialism, in which Hinduism was the runner-up.

Originating at the town of Tirutani in Andhra Pradesh, Radhakrishnan was born into the brahman caste and reared to Vedantic teaching. In 1904 he entered the Madras Christian College, where he studied Western philosophy. He  observed the Christian criticism that Vedanta had no ethical content. He was subsequently able to repudiate the aspersions, becoming a professor at Mysore and Calcutta Universities.

His early writings railed at the critics of Hinduism. In 1921, Radhakrishnan gained the prestigious George V chair in philosophy at Calcutta University, where he composed his Indian Philosophy, a mature work not relying on polemic. In 1926, he was invited to Oxford to give the Upton Lectures; a sequel occurred in the Hibbert Lectures of 1929. These addresses achieved publication as The Hindu View of Life (1927) and An Idealist View of Life (1932). The lastmentioned is widely regarded as his more developed work.

In 1931 Radhakrishnan was knighted by the British government, whose policies he had not always agreed with. He subsequently became a professor of religion at Oxford University in 1936, the association with Oxford continuing for many years. His informed books caused a wide readership in the West to give serious consideration to the formerly marginalised Indian philosophy. His reflections include:

One is confronted by the difficulty of defining what Hinduism is. To many it seems to be a name without any content. Is it a museum of beliefs, a medley of rites, or a mere map, a geographical expression?  Its content, if it has any, has altered from age to age, from community to community. It meant one thing in the Vedic period, another in the Brahmanical, and a third in the Buddhist.  It means one thing to the Shaivite, another to the Vaishnava, a third to the Shakta. (Radhakrishnan 1927:11-12)

He favoured the teaching known as Advaita Vedanta. Radhakrishnan inclined to a modernised version of this outlook, which elevates the atman-Brahman themes of nondualist identity. He defended and elaborated the factor of intuitive experience which is inherent in that teaching. “All sects of Hinduism attempt to interpret the Vedanta texts in accordance with their own religious views” (ibid:23).

A frequent criticism of Radhakrishnan is that he tended to claim Advaita as a yardstick of assessment for all religions and philosophies. He also tended to ennoble the caste system in some arguments, even while recognising the problems in Hindu society.

“In a sense, Radhakrishnan ‘Hinduizes’ all religions,” in the context of Vedantic interpretation. The same commentary deduces the view of this Indian philosopher as meaning: “Religious claims…. ought not to be taken as authoritative in and of themselves, for only integral intuitions validated by the light of reason are the final authority on religious matters” (Michael Hawley, “Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan,”  Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

“Radhakrishnan clearly preferred to be called a philosopher rather than a theologian” (Shepherd 1995:580). To this remark, I felt obliged to add: “Almost in the manner of a theologian, he wrote that the scheme of social classes and ashramas is helpful but not indispensable” (ibid). The priestly adjuncts of Indian religion are now closely debated by diverse commentators.

“Never in the history of philosophy has there been quite such a world-figure.” This assessment of Radhakrishnan comes from Life and Writings, citing the philosopher George P. Conger (d.1960). Radhakrishnan undeniably achieved a widespread influence. While famous at Oxford, his administrative appointments extended to Benares and Delhi Universities; he was the Indian ambassador to Russia, and in 1952 became the first Vice-President of India. Radhakrishnan was subsequently the President of India during the years 1962-67. Conger also reflected: “Among the philosophers of our time, no one has achieved so much in so many fields as has Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.”

Bertrand Russell is not associated with Vedanta. However, he honoured Radhakrishnan in a significant statement:

It is an honour to philosophy that Dr. Radhakrishnan should be President of India and I, as a philosopher, take special pleasure in this. Plato aspired for philosophers to become kings and it is a tribute to India that she should make a philosopher her President. (Interesting Facts)

In contrast, the Dalit leader Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, and other Indians, were critical of the conservative orientation of Radhakrishnan, implying a degree of hypocrisy in relation to social issues. Radhakrishnan is viewed by sceptics as a supporter of the caste system and the Manusmriti, a document influencing orthodox codes. Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963) described Radhakrishnan (in the 1940s) as an orthodox religious preacher. The eminent Vedantist did not do anything to offset caste biases. Whereas Sankrityayan was a brahman who converted to Buddhism; fluent in nine languages, this scholar also became a political activist against British colonialism, being jailed a number of times. Sankrityayan argued that Hinduism made a third of Hindus untouchable. 

A current issue in India is the priority of Radhakrishnan over Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890) as an educationist (Kanwal Bharti, Why remember casteist Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan on Teacher’s Day, 2018). A pro-bahujan argument is that only the British made education universal, not the Hindu rulers. Phule, a low caste shudra, was educated at a Scottish Mission School. He subsequently created innovative schools for bahujans and women. The word bahujan was employed by Ambedkar and Phule in relation to a majority (including Dalits) who were victims of caste oppression in Hindu society. Phule compared the depressed bahujan category to slaves in America (Bahujan Samaj). 


Gopal, Sarvepalli, Radhakrishnan: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1989).

Minor, Robert N., Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography (State University of New York Press,  1987).

Murty, Kotha S., and Ashok Vohra, Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas (State University of New York Press, 1990).

Parthasarathi, G., and D. Chattopadhyaya, eds., Radhakrishnan Centenary Volume (Oxford University Press, 1989).

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, Indian Philosophy (2 vols, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1923-27)

——–The Hindu View of Life (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1927).

——–An Idealist View of Life (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1932).

——–Eastern Religions and Western Thought (Oxford University Press, 1939).

——–The Bhagavadgita (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1948).

——–The Principal Upanishads (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953).

——–The Brahmasutra (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961).

Schilpp, Paul A., ed., The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (New York: Tudor, 1952).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 29th 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 27

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.


Indian Philosophy

By Hinduism, Indian Philosophy, Max Muller, S. N. Dasgupta, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Shiva Nataraja, 12th century bronze, Rijksmuseum

Indian philosophy is a variegated phenomenon. Clarifications are needed in this field. One is faced with several types of Indian philosophy in the historical record. For instance, there is the early Upanishadic phase, and the subsequent growth of Hinduism associated with the darshanas or “six systems of philosophy,” including Vedanta and Sankhya. Moreover, Buddhism and Jainism were rivals to the Hindu religion over many centuries, though eventually losing ground (Shepherd 1995:389-825). 

Complex reactions in the medieval period are not traditional Hinduism at all, but something quite different. I am referring here to the Sant (bhakti saint) phenomenon and the creation of Sikhism, trends which were strongly opposed to caste practices. There was a very substantial gulf between the common people and elite custodians of Sanskrit texts. 

A conventional classification for “Indian philosophy” is that of classical brahmanical systems of exegesis. The differences of interpretation are substantial amongst traditional commentators. For instance, Vedanta is divided into rival schools. There is a current need to survey other more recent contributions to Indian thought.

Traditional Indian Philosophy

Three diverse figures, active in the introduction of Indian philosophy to the West, were the university scholars Friedrich Max Muller and Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, also the Vedanta interpreter Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who established a monastic order.

Professor Max Muller (1823-1900) effectively became the founder of comparative religion, in the sense of a scholarly discipline. His major achievement is considered to have been his editorship of Sacred Books of the East, a fifty volume series encompassing diverse religions, published during the period 1876-1904. That milestone series was published by Oxford University Press. Academic studies of Indian religion became known as Indology.

Max Muller was a Professor at Oxford University. He early studied in his native Germany with the philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), at whose request he translated passages from the Upanishads. Muller became one of the pioneers in RigVeda studies (along with Horace H. Wilson). The Rig is an ancient text of religious significance, but not directly related to the six systems of Indian philosophy. Rig poetry is generally dated to the period c.1500-1000 BC, centuries before the formulations of Sankhya-Yoga, Nyaya-Vaisheshika, plus the Vedantin and Mimamsaka texts. The six systems gained orthodox stature in high caste brahmanical religion. In one of his best known works, Muller comments:

In India we have indeed ample materials for watching the origin and growth of philosophical ideas, but hardly any for studying the lives or characters of those who founded or supported the philosophical systems of that country…. Of Kapila, the supposed founder of the Samkhya philosophy, of Patanjali, the founder of the Yoga, of Gotama and Kanada, of Badarayana and Gaimini, we know next to nothing, and what we know hardly ever rests on contemporary and trustworthy evidence.  (Muller 1899:1-2)

Some critics have complained that classical Indian philosophy generally converges with Indian religion and caste. The historical context becomes important, wherever this can be reconstructed. The approach of the investigator can be relevant in this respect. Opportunism frequently misled popular Western enthusiasm for Hinduism commencing in the 1960s. Failure to grasp the necessity for critical evaluation has caused many disillusionments with various guru figures. Close comparison of behavioral traits can be revealing, some entities being more refined than others.

Indology became a discipline of repute at several major European universities. Hindu scholars came to study Sanskrit in European universities, assimilating the scholarly exegesis developing in the West, which was quite different to the pundit method of assessment. In America meanwhile, Sanskrit was introduced at Yale University in 1841. The American Oriental Society became a signpost to Indological researches. There were initially some Christian biases discernible in Sanskritist studies (a drawback from which Max Muller was not exempt).

Professors Surendra Nath Dasgupta (1887-1952) and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) are perhaps the two best known Hindu commentators. Dasgupta studied and lectured at Cambridge; he composed a five-volume History of Indian Philosophy (1922-55). Radhakrishnan composed his two-volume Indian Philosophy (1923-27), another famous work that became widely cited, the author becoming celebrated at Oxford. These works are not  exhaustive in a field where many factors are debated. 

The Dalit Reaction and New Buddhism

A major discrepancy in Hinduism was the severe relegation of “untouchables” (Dalits) over many centuries. These people were afflicted by an acute segregation complex cultivated in high caste circles. The extent of twentieth century (and later) violence against Dalits has shocked other nations.

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1952

A sophisticated Dalit spokesman was Dr. Bhimrao R. Ambedkar (d.1956), who campaigned against high caste oppression. An erudite man, he acquired a vast collection of books. He became the first Law Minister of independent India and drafted the new Constitution. At the end of his life, Ambedkar converted to an innovative form of Buddhism, known as Navayana or New Buddhism (also called Dalit Buddhism). He influenced large numbers of Dalits to similarly convert from underdog association with Hinduism. Buddhism was regarded as the route to equality, evading the caste system. Navayana is mainly found in Maharashtra (Ambedkar’s native state) and Uttar Pradesh.

Ambedkar wrote The Buddha and His Dhamma (1957), published soon after his death. This book became regarded as Navayana scripture. Ambedkar was in disagreement with the Hindu version of karma, which endorsed the caste system. “There is no doctrine in the Buddha’s Dhamma which has created so much confusion as this doctrine of Karma” (Ambedkar 1957:337).  Ambedkar found the Hindu version of karma inconsistent with the Buddhist doctrine of no-soul. He approved the Buddha’s teaching: “Reap as you sow” (ibid:338).

Indian Rationalism

The radical development of contemporary Indian Rationalism, to some extent allied with Western science conceptualism, is very critical of traditional religion and attendant superstitions (Quack 2012). Leading rationalists have been tragically murdered by Hindu fundamentalists. The victims include Narendra Dabholkar (d.2013) of Maharashtra and Malleshappa M. Kalburgi  (d.2015) of Karnataka.

Indian Rationalism has tended to claim the Charvaka (Lokayata) tradition as one antecedent. This refers to a materialist outlook rejecting authority of the Vedas. Lokayata was originally one of the ancient shramana movements opposing Vedic doctrines of the priest (brahman) class. The early history of this dissenting tradition is obscure; a complex reconstruction has been ventured (Chattopadhyaya 1959). There are no surviving independent works describing the heterodox Charvaka philosophy, a factor making analysis more difficult. Some Rationalists see their origins in more general terms of a reaction to priesthood from Buddhism, Jainism, Lokayata, and medieval sants (saints) like Kabir and Tukaram. The relevance of reformers like the shudra  Jyotiba Phule (d.1890) is keenly acknowledged.

A more comprehensive definition refers to Indian Rationalists perceiving “as their roots the materialistic and nastika (non-Vedic, heterodox) streams of Indian philosophy (especially Lokayatas or Charvaka) and aspects of the bhakti movement in India. They also stress their intellectual roots in and continuity with the European enlightenment and specific antireligious movements in Europe and the United States from the 18th century until today” (Quack 2012:9).

Basava Premanand

The innovative Rationalist exponents have included Basava Premanand (d.2009), Narendra Nayak, and Sanal Edamaruku. Teaching a scientific scepticism, they became noted for criticism of deceitful “miracles” devised by presumed holy men who profit from mass credulity. The Indian Rationalist Association, founded in 1949, is one branch of the disputing phenomenon. The hate campaigns of fundamentalists have led to much public support for the dissidents.

Rationalists like Basava Premanand found that fraudulent healers and magicians were an extensive problem in rural India. The distinctive activity of Premanand featured dramatic confrontations with capricious holy men, including the famous Sathya Sai Baba (d.2011). More generally, the Rationalists located numerous deceivers in different regions of India. Some alarming malpractitioners stopped at nothing to achieve their ambitions. As a consequence, a new law was passed in Maharashtra to combat human sacrifice, black magic, and other extremist problems. The predatory “miracleworkers” included the tactic of “psychic surgery” in their ruse to deceive the gullible. The constraining law was passed in 2013, being known as the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act

This Act was originally drafted in 2003 by the Rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, who was subsequently murdered by conservative religionists. The Act has continually been diluted as a result of interference from fundamentalists.  The criminalised actions include “assault, torture, forced ingestion of human excreta, forced sexual acts, branding etc on the pretext of exorcising ghosts from an allegedly possessed person.”

Extremist Shaiva Tantra

The reference, in the Maharashtra Act, to a component of Aghori practices, is associated with a sect of Hindu holy men who worship Shiva as Bhairava, a Tantric assimilation associated with death. These sadhus drink from human skulls and are reported (at least in some cases) to favour a combination of alcohol and cannabis for the purpose of gaining samadhi. They have the notorious repute of practising cannibalism (to an extent very difficult to determine). Their perspective is said to be one of ignoring any differentiation between opposites. This seems to be a misconception concerning a state of “enlightenment” believed to transcend opposites. Such beliefs can easily produce aberrations. Some scholars view the Aghoris as descendants of the Kapalikas, an extremist sect of former centuries. The Aghoris are actually a small grouping; however, bizarre Tantric ideas have percolated widely in Hindu society.

The Kapalikas left no texts of their own; reconstruction of their activity is not comprehensive. The medieval Vedantic exponent Shankara seems to to have been strongly opposed to them, if the legendary biographies (centuries later) can be relied upon (Lorenzen 1972:31ff). The Kapalikas (“skull men”) possibly date back to the fifth or sixth centuries CE, and were apparently extinct by the fourteenth century. They reputedly carried a human skull as a begging bowl. Critics accused Kapalikas of propitiating Bhairava by means of human and animal sacrifice. The human victims were believed to serve as a means of redemption for transgressions of the sacrificers.

Kapalikas esteemed the eight siddhis (magical powers) associated with Shiva, powers which they believed were in the offing via eccentric practices (including ritual sexual intercourse). Kapalikas were wandering ascetics, not monks in monasteries. Some of them (possibly many) were low caste shudras in revolt against the caste system. Shudras were kept in subjection by the priests; they were denied literacy in their role as menial servants and labourers. This working class were evidently trying to compensate for the straitjacket existence imposed upon them by religious tradition.


Ambedkar, Bhimrao R., The Buddha and His Dhamma (Bombay: Siddharth College, 1957).

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad, Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1959; seventh edn, 1992).

Dasgupta, Surendra Nath, History of Indian Philosophy (five vols, Cambridge University Press, 1922-1955).

Gonda, Jan, ed., A History of Indian Literature (ten vols, Wiesbaden, 1975-87; repr. New Delhi: Manohar, 2019).

Jaffrelot, Christophe, Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Fighting the Indian Caste System (Columbia University Press, 2005).

Jamison, Stephanie W., and Joel P. Brereton, trans., The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India (3 vols, Oxford University Press, 2014).

Lorenzen, David, The Kapalikas and Kalamukhas: Two Lost Shaivite Sects (University of California Press, 1972).

Muller, Max, The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy (London: Longmans Green, 1899).

Olivelle, Patrick, The Asrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution (Oxford University Press, 1993).

——–The Early Upanishads: Annotated Text and Translation (Oxford University Press, 1998).

Quack, Johannes, Disenchanting India: Organised Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, Indian Philosophy (two vols, 1923-27; second edn, Oxford University Press, 1969).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995), 


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 22nd 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 26

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