Theistic and non-theistic Hindu philosophies

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Theistic and non-theistic Hindu philosophies

Post by Seva Lamberdar on Fri Mar 01, 2013 10:32 am

Hinduism considers the ultimate reality (Ref. 1) as threefold: Brahman (or God), Soul (or souls) and Samsara (or the material world) – APPENDIX below (Three components of Reality: Brahman, Soul and the World).

The philosophical systems that have Brahman included in their formulation or application are referred to as the theistic philosophies or Brahmanical philosophies, after Brahman or God (and not the brahmin caste). Moreover, these systems accept the authority of the Vedas. Thus, since the Vedas admit the existence of Brahman, these philosophies are also considered Vedic in addition to being Brahmanical. Needless to say, the systems of thought which admit the validity of Vedas are called, astika (or theistic, Brahmanical, Vedic), and those which repudiate it are nastika, atheistic or non-theistic (Ref. 2).

Theistic philosophies

The theistic philosophies (Ref. 3) include Vaisesika (Atomistic Pluralism), Nyaya (Logicism), Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa (Mimamsa), and Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta). These systems of thought are based on the concept or existence of God (Brahman). Thus even if their emphasis is on other aspects of reality, e.g. on soul or the world, they do not negate the concept of God.

The theism in the above, or a certain philosophy being theistic, implies that Brahman has a particular attribute or quality which is the basis for that philosophical system’s theism. It is not necessary that the same particular attribute for Brahman is valid or applicable in other schools of thought also. Moreover, note that since Brahman (at least as the Saguna) can possess an infinite number of attributes, any one or all of those qualities can be validly used in place of Brahman in a particular philosophical system without causing in it a religio-philosophical ambiguity. The following three paragraphs describe the considerations for Brahman according to different schools of thought (Ref. 2).

Vedanta (Uttar Mimamsa) considers Brahman (God) as the constituent cause of the universe. Mimamsa (Purva Mimamsa) on the other hand views Brahman as the general cause, implying that even though the sacrificial works are the special causes of bliss, God remains the general cause according to the Mimamsakas. The sacrificial acts in the Veda are dedicated to Indra and Agni et al., and the Veda (Rig Veda) clearly states that Agni and Indra are the names of one God (Ref. 4) and not merely words or sounds. Thus, since the Mimamsa deals with the validation of Vedic rites and works, dedicated to God specifically, Mimamsa by implication is theistic.

In the Vaisesika (Atomistic Pluralism), atoms are the material cause and Brahman is the efficient cause; whereas according to the Nyaya (Logicism), Brahman is the instrument cause, implying that the Nyayakas believe that human acts produce their results under the control and with the cooperation of God.

The Yoga philosophy considers Brahman as the guiding principle, implying that Brahman is the guide for evolution of prakrti (nature). On the other hand, in the Samkhya Brahman is the ultimate cause. Samkhya does not regard purusa and prakrti as self-sufficient realities, but accepts them as modes of one ultimate Brahman. Note that Samkhya allows the investigation of Reality or Absolute through enumeration (samkhya) of various constituents (matter, soul and God) expressed in terms of their tattva (principles). Thus for a thorough study of Reality to be possible according to Samkhya, it is imperative that God principle (Brahman tattva) should also be present in Samkhya, which makes the Samkhya truly theistic.

In addition to the above six basic philosophies, there are several derived or specialized theistic systems based on them. For example, the theistic Vaisnava philosophies (Refs. 5 and 6) are of Dvaita type and rooted in the Vedanta. Similarly, Advaita, a part of Vedanta (Ref. 6), is essentially theistic. The doctrines of Saivism and Saktism (Ref. 7) also relate to the above philosophies and are considered theistic. Specifically, Saiva Siddhanta and Saktism indicate a strong influence of Samkhya, and the Kashmir Saivism of Advaita (Vedanta). Note also that many segments of the Bhakti Movement were strongly influenced by Ramanuja’s theistic idealism (Visistadvaita, Ref. 5)

Non-theistic philosophies

The philosophical systems not based on or using the concept of Brahman and considering only the remaining two components of Reality (i.e. Soul and / or Samsara) are called non-theistic, atheistic or Nastika. Note that non-theistic philosophies are also recognized as Hindu philosophies because Hinduism considers Soul and Samsara, the essential constituents of non-theistic philosophies, as part of ultimate reality. Thus the ancient Carvaka philosophy, which has only Samsara or the material world according to it, is also recognized as a Hindu thought.

Incidentally, the philosophies of Buddhism and Jainism are non-theistic in character because they do not have the concept of Brahman in them. In addition, there are many similarities between the non-theistic Buddhism and Jainism and the theistic Samkhya, especially when Samkhya is viewed without Brahman tattva or the God principle.

Three components of Reality: Brahman, Soul and the World

In the Gita (Ch. 8 – V. 3 & 4), it is indicated that Brahman (God) is the Supreme and the Eternal, and separate from the world of matter (Samsara or Jagat) which is transient. In addition, the life arises because of atman or spirit (soul) interacting with matter during creation. In other words, the Reality according to Hinduism has three independent components: God, soul and the matter. Needless to say, any contention that Hinduism admits everything as God is not true.

To demonstrate the separateness in different components of Reality, consider the soul in relation to the creator (Brahman) through examples of a ray of light emanating from the Sun or a spark coming out of fire. Even though the ray of light originates from the Sun it is not same as the source (Sun); and similarly even though a spark may come out of fire it is not same as the source (fire).

Thus, Dwaita philosophies that admit dualistic nature of Reality are based on the principle that God and creation (basically soul and the world) are separate from each other. In addition, even according to Advaita philosophy of non-dualism, creation simply reflects a temporary and illusory aspect of reality and is not same as God, who is considered eternal, real, unchanging and complete (whole)


(1) Subhash C. Sharma, "Inter-relatedness of Brahmanical (Vedic) philosophies”,

(2) S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy (Vol. 2), ISBN 019563820-4, pp. 20, 165, 226, 316, 369, 428.

(3) Subhash C. Sharma, “Inter-relatedness of Brahmanical (Vedic) philosophies”,

(4) Subhash C. Sharma, "BRAHMAN (God) in Hinduism”,

(5) Subhash C. Sharma, "Philosophies of Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, Vallabha, Caitanya, Bhaskara and Yadavaprakasa",

(6) Subhash C. Sharma, "Vedanta Sutra and the Vedanta",

(7) Subhash C. Sharma, "The doctrines of Saivism and Saktism",


by: Dr. Subhash C. Sharma
(Aug. 3, 2007:

Seva Lamberdar

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