In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indian Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Collections
  • Contemporary Indian Philosophy

Philosophy Indian Philosophy
Shyam Ranganathan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0036


The label “Indian philosophy” refers to philosophy that originates from a cultural and linguistic sphere that in classical times would have been regarded as “India.” Classically, some of this philosophy hails from regions that are in the contemporary states of Pakistan and Nepal, though contemporary Indian philosophy is unambiguously Indian. Indian philosophy has a history and breadth of literary output comparable to that of Western philosophy. While its earliest known expressions are to be found in the presystematic musings of the sacred texts of the early Indo-European people of India known as the Vedas (c. 1500–500 BCE, written in the precursor to Sanskrit, called Vedic), it quickly developed into a scholastic tradition of systematic philosophy. Each philosophical orientation, or darśana (literally meaning “view” or “perspective”), was defined by common, basic philosophical texts formed in many cases by the end of the 2nd century CE. Many of these texts were written in languages related to Sanskrit if not Sanskrit itself. The early texts were either memorized in whole or condensed into short aphorisms (sutras) that had to be decoded and commented on by teachers in a class setting. The culture of philosophical encryption and mnemonics gave rise to a tradition of open debate among rival philosophical schools. As it was often considered rude in Indian philosophical circles to claim that one had original contributions to make to philosophy, medieval Indian philosophers (from the 2nd century CE until the arrival of European colonialism in South Asia) proffered novel philosophical theses, analyses, and arguments and wrote extensive tracts like their European counterparts under the guise of commentaries on earlier philosophical texts. Later the period of European colonialism gave rise to a renaissance in interest in Indian philosophy among many Indians educated in English, albeit as an ideological effort to articulate what is Indian and diametrically opposed to an equally essentialized “European” thought. The period of colonial rule culminated in the germination of a modern and indigenous philosophical scene in India. Much of the questioning in this tradition is metaphilosophical in character and forward-looking, with only tenuous connections to the earlier commentarial tradition. While a tradition of indigenous “pundit” scholarship continues to involve Indians in Indian-language instruction with scholarship and dialogue on traditional Indian philosophy in Indian languages, the modern tradition of Indian philosophy is often oriented to an English-speaking audience.

Introductory Works

The earliest overviews of Indian philosophy are to be found in doxographic works of mostly Jaina and Vedantin philosophers (see Haribhadra 1977, Mādhava 2002), who took an interest in contrary darśanas, or perspectives. This tradition gave rise to the convention of introducing classical Indian philosophy as falling under nine schools (Chatterjee and Datta 1960). This typography continues to be useful in depicting the essential literature of Indian philosophy, though scholars with an interest in the history of Indian philosophy may take many more schools into account (Dasgupta 1975) or they may take into account the philosophy expressed in nonsystematic works, such as the epics and the Vedas (Frauwallner 1974). The most extensive bibliographical record of such philosophical schools and sources is organized in Karl H. Potter’s Bibliography of Indian Philosophies. A very useful source for scholars and students alike that is broad in scope but user-friendly is Grimes 1996. Another introductory work of note is the rare introduction to Indian philosophy as such in Perrett 2016. In the early 21st century, the connection between politics and specifically the history of the Western tradition has come to light as a factor in how Indian philosophy is thought of and depicted. A common thesis of the Western tradition, that thought is linguistic, gives rise to a strategy of explanation called interpretation: accordingly, the best or only kind of explanation is the one that rely on one’s beliefs, and these, given the linguistic account of thought, are the culturally encoded outlook of one’s language and tradition. One of the outcomes of interpretation is that traditions that are not derivable from the beliefs of the interpreter seem opaque and mysterious. If we follow this tendency to interpret back to the origins of the Western tradition, it would seem that all non-Western thought is mysterious. And hence, we can derive the idea of religion as everything that falls outside the West’s tradition. Acknowledging this history, and the minting of the idea of “Hinduism” (roughly meaning “Indianism”) as a term of British imperialists to identify the indigenous Indian tradition, a closer look at Hinduism shows that it is the disagreements of philosophy with a South Asian twist: Hindus do not have to agree on any basic doctrine to be Hindu. An exploration of Hinduism in light of the imperial history of the West provides a mature introduction to Indian philosophy often classified as religious and assumed to be cut off from other religions (Ranganathan 2018).

  • Chatterjee, Satischandra, and Dhirendramohan Datta. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. 6th ed. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1960.

    A classic if not overly simplified nine-school overview of Indian philosophy. Of particular interest to the novice.

  • Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy. 5 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1975.

    An idiosyncratic but in-depth survey of Indian philosophy. Perhaps the largest textbook on the topic. First published in 1922.

  • Frauwallner, Erich. History of Indian Philosophy. 2 vols. Translated by V. M. Bedekar. New York: Humanities Press, 1974.

    A translation of Geschichte der indischen Philosophie. One of the older but still often regarded textbooks on Indian philosophy. Of interest is the space Frauwallner devotes to the philosophy articulated in nonsystematic sources, such as the Vedas and the epics.

  • Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy. Rev. ed. Albany: State University of New York, 1996.

    A very handy dictionary that defines Sanskrit philosophical terms in English. The scope is broad, and it is a useful aid both for those who do know Sanskrit and for those who do not.

  • Haribhadra. Ṣaḍdarśanasamuccaya. Translated by M. Sivakumara Swamy. Bangalore, India: Prasaranga, Bangalore University, 1977.

    Doxography of selected Indian philosophical perspectives by a medieval Jaina philosopher, c. 770. Of historical interest.

  • Mādhava. Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha. Edited and translated by M. M. Arawal. Delhi: n.p., 2002.

    Doxography of selected Indian philosophical perspectives by a medieval Vedantin philosopher, c. 1350. The work is organized from the perspective of the author’s philosophical commitments and is of historical interest.

  • Perrett, Roy W. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139033589

    This winner of the American Library Association’s Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2016 is lauded for its analytic depth and breadth. Topics in Indian philosophy are discussed thematically and divided into (1) “Value,” (2) “Knowledge,” (3) “Reasoning,” (4) “Word,” (5) “World,” (6) “Self,” and (7) “Ultimates.”

  • Potter, Karl, comp. Bibliography of Indian Philosophies.

    This is the online version of Volume 1 of Potter’s Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. It is by far the most exhaustive compilation of citations of Indian philosophy. Both classical texts and secondary materials are included. Subsequent volumes of the encyclopedia, available in print but not online, concern specific schools of Indian philosophy.

  • Ranganathan, Shyam. 2018. Hinduism: A Contemporary Philosophical Investigation. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315694160

    According to this monograph, a careful study of Hinduism reveals it as the microcosm of philosophical disagreements with Indian resources, across a variety of topics, including ethics, logic, the philosophy of thought, epistemology, moral standing, metaphysics, and politics.

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