Philosophical Traditions of the East

Truth be told, I had planned to write about the major differences between Eastern and Western philosophy until I realised from my own reading of Indian philosophy and existentialism that there are no unifying essences in either case (Eastern or Western). Of course, there have always been major differences in characteristics between Eastern and Western cultures that are inextricably linked to their respective prevailing philosophical syntheses, but these differences are not in themselves sufficient to establish a justifiable crystallised essence of Eastern and Western philosophy, lest a partition between the two. To point out an example, there is a huge contrast and an ongoing debate in the approaches of the Anglo-American versus Continental philosophical traditions of the West, in which case the latter is a lot closer in approach to what we may have in mind of ‘Eastern Philosophy’ today. Since the word “philosophy” is today much acquainted with the West, I shall now expand on the various philosophical traditions of the East.

Indian Philosophy

Indian philosophies are derived from what are today known as ‘Dharmic religions’, in which the word ‘Dharma’ means Truth and their traditions have laid great emphasis on truth-seeking and looking inwards. Furthermore, the philosophical schools of India can be broadly classified into two categories: āstika or nāstika. The former group accept the epistemic authority of the Vedas (as a source of true knowledge) whereas the latter reject them.

Āstika School

Abstract watercolour painting of a Vedic priest performing a sacred fire ritual (yajña).
[AI-assisted image generation: Dicson x DALL-E OpenAI]

A unifying feature of āstika philosophies lies in their affirmation of ātman (eternal Self), though each school reserves a distinct conception of it. The āstika schools of philosophy are (Indian philosophy, n.d.):

  1. Sāṃkhya – regards the universe as consisting of two independent realities: puruṣa (the perceiving consciousness) and prakṛti (perceived reality, including mind, perception, kleshas, and matter) and which describes a soteriology based on this duality, in which purush is discerned and disentangled from the impurities of prakriti. It has included atheistic authors as well as some theistic thinkers, and forms the basis of much of subsequent Indian philosophy.
  2. Yoga – a school similar to Sāṃkhya (or perhaps even a branch of it) which accepts a personal god and focuses on yogic practice.
  3. Nyāya – focuses on logic and epistemology. It accepts six kinds of pramanas (epistemic warrants): (1) perception, (2) inference, (3) comparison and analogy, (4) postulation, derivation from circumstances, (5) non-perception, negative/cognitive proof and (6) word, testimony of past or present reliable experts. It defends a form of direct realism and a theory of substances (dravya).
  4. Vaiśeṣika – closely related to the Nyāya school, this tradition focused on the metaphysics of substance, and on defending a theory of atoms. Unlike Nyāya, they only accept two pramanas: perception and inference.
  5. Pūrva-Mīmāṃsā – focuses on exegesis of the Vedas, philology and the interpretation of Vedic ritual.
  6. Vedānta (Uttara Mīmāṃsā) – focuses on interpreting the philosophy of the Upanishads, particularly the soteriological and metaphysical ideas relating to ātman and Brahman [Universal Self].

The various āstika philosophies are today collectively known as ‘Hindu philosophies’, which one of the most recently evolved and well-known is Advaita Vedanta with its doctrine of Non-Dualism (between ātman and Brahman).

Nāstika School

Abstract watercolour painting of the historical Buddha.
[AI-assisted image generation: Dicson x DALL-E]

The nāstika schools of thought that were around during the time of the Buddha (including his own) were collectively known as the ‘śramaṇa movement’ as they were thought (by Indologists) to hold doctrines that oppose the Vedas. While the Brahmanical tradition of Vedic religions emphasised continuity—household living and later on indulgence of worldly pleasures owing to their high birth (caste)—, the śramaṇas were ascetics who lived by a strict code of conduct (often involving meditative practices) in their devotion to a higher purpose. The pre-existing śramaṇic schools in Ancient India at the time of the Buddha were (Śramaṇa, n.d.):

  1. Amoralism – denies any reward or punishment for either good or bad deeds.
  2. Ājīvika – Niyativāda or Fatalism: all beings are powerless and pre-destined to suffer.
  3. Charvaka (Lokāyata) – materialism: human beings should indulge in material luxuries and sensual pleasures because all is annihilated at death.
  4. Sassatavāda – Eternalism: matter, pleasure, pain and the soul are eternal and do not interact.
  5. Jainism – focuses on the purification of actions but with a heavier emphasis on bodily actions more than verbal and mental actions. Practices restraint (often involving severe asceticism to the point of body torture) and avoidance of all evil.
  6. Ajñana (Agnosticism) –  “I don’t think so. I don’t think in that way or otherwise. I don’t think not or not not.” Suspension of judgement [evasion of any incoming question].
  7. Buddha Dhamma (Teaching) – “I teach suffering and the end of suffering”. The Four Noble Truths of suffering and the three characteristics of all existence: anicca (impermanence), dukkha (displeasure), anattā (not-self). As opposed to Jainism, the Buddha emphasised the purification of mind as mental intentions underlie all actions, whether bodily or verbal.

Out of the several śramaṇic traditions, Buddhism and Jainism are two of the most widely known today. Unfortunately, some other nāstika schools described in the Buddhist and Jain texts have gone extinct and their ancient texts haven’t survived the passage of time.

Chinese Philosophy

If Indian philosophies are primarily focused on finding the ‘truth’ about the world through investigating its nature, Chinese philosophies are considerably more utilitarian—they prioritise how best to navigate the world in communal harmony.

Spring and Autumn Period

Abstract watercolour painting of Confucius visiting Lao Tzu in the Spring and Autumn period of China.
[AI-assisted image generation: Dicson x DALL-E]

The Golden Age of Chinese Philosophy began in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BCE), with the increase in popularity of the two Classical Chinese philosophies (Chinese philosophy, n.d.):

  1. Taoism – the character Dao 道 literally means ‘path’ or ‘way’. It advocated non-action (wu wei), the strength of softness, spontaneity, and relativism. It focuses on the notion that human attempts to make the world better actually make the world worse. Therefore, it is better to strive for harmony, minimising potentially harmful interference with nature or in human affairs.
  2. Confucianism – a system of moral, social, political, and religious thought that has had a tremendous influence on Chinese history, thought, and culture up until the present day. Major concepts include rén 仁 (humanity or humaneness), zhèngmíng 正名 (rectification of names; e.g. a ruler who rules unjustly is no longer a ruler and may be dethroned), zhōng 忠 (loyalty), xiào 孝 (filial piety), and li 禮 (ritual). Confucius heavily emphasised the idea of microcosms in society (subunits of family and community) and that its success’s are the foundations for a successful state or country. He also believed in the use of education to further knowledge the people in ethics, societal behaviour, and reverence in other humans.

Warring States Period

Abstract watercolour painting of the Warring States period of China.
[AI-assisted image generation: Dicson x DALL-E]

The Golden Age of Chinese Philosophy that began in the Spring and Autumn period lasted through the Warring States period (475-221 BC), with the rising of numerous philosophical movements in which the various ideologies were referred to as the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought’ by Sinologies today (Hundreds Schools of Thought, n.d.):

  1. Legalism – it asserted that human nature is incorrigibly selfish; accordingly, the only way to preserve the social order is to impose discipline from above and to see to strict enforcement of laws. The Legalists exalted the state above all, seeking its prosperity and martial prowess over the welfare of the common people and it became the state ideology of the Qin dynasty, whose infamously ruthless ruler first unified China.
  2. Mohism – its philosophy rested on the idea of impartial care (兼愛; Jian Ai; ‘inclusive love/care’): Mozi believed that “everyone is equal before heaven”, and that people should seek to imitate heaven by engaging in the practice of collective love. He believed that the essential problem of human ethics was an excess of partiality in compassion and his aim was to re-evaluate behaviour, not emotions or attitudes.
  3. Naturalists – also known as the school of Yin-yang, it was a philosophy that synthesised the concepts of yin-yang and the Five Elements. It attempted to explain the universe in terms of basic forces in nature: the complementary agents of yin (dark, cold, female, negative) and yang (light, hot, male, positive) and the Five Elements or Five Phases (water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). In later periods, the school was absorbed into Taoism’s alchemic and magical dimensions as well as into the Chinese medical framework.
  4. Logicians – grew out of Mohism, with a philosophy that focused on definition and logic. It is said to have parallels with that of the Ancient Greek sophists or dialecticians as its most notable Logician named Gongsun Longzi once argued that a white horse is not a horse for it lacks the substantiality of ‘brown’ (colour) that is a (his) defined characteristic belonging to all horses.

Apart from these four schools, there are many more other minor schools such as the school of diplomacy that purely focused on practicality when dealing with political matters, agriculturalists who advocated peasant utopian communalism and egalitarianism whose idea of a benevolent ruler is one who works alongside them (it was unpopular, to say the least), the school of military (of which Sun Tzu and Sun Bin were influential leaders) and more (Hundred Schools of Thought, n.d.). Furthermore, some. of these minor schools that didn’t survive were absorbed by the bigger ones as we have seen with the School of Ying-yang (absorbed into Taoism) while later evolutions of Confucianism (i.e. Neo-Confucianism, New Confucianism) incorporated Taoist influences and the imported Mahayana Buddhist conceptions.

All in all, if we want to compare and contrast the “essence” of ‘Eastern vs Western Philosophy’, we can only do so based on those that flourished and remain standing today—or on the flip side, those that fell and disappeared—which in the simplest sense a collective versus an individualistic one, respectively. However, as we all know too well, the fates of philosophies whether past or present can only be ‘sealed’ by undefined cultural exchanges and volatilities—which we can only tell sometime later in due course.


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