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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections
  • Hindu Ethics
  • Hindu Legal Philosophy
  • Medicine and Hindu Philosophy

Hinduism Hindu Philosophy
Shyam Ranganathan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0165


Despite over two thousand years of philosophical skepticism about the usefulness of definitions in categorizing data (beginning with Socrates, who asked for and was always disappointed with, proposed definitions), an expectation persists that we should be able to arrive at a useful definition for a religion such as Hinduism that allows us to distinguish what counts as Hinduism from what does not. This kind of definition specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions of an object, commonly known as its essence. Categories so defined are types or kinds. The history of the concept of Hinduism however, is a process of named exclusions. Originally a term, coined by Persians for inhabitants of the Indus region, and not a term used by ancient or medieval South Asians to talk about themselves, “Hindu” came to have its current meaning not by an agreement on what Hinduism is, but by agreement on what it is not. At the time that “Hindu” was minted as a term for a religion (during Western colonial administration of India) contrary religions identifiable with a founder or a text were excluded from Hinduism. The result is that the concept of Hinduism brings together items within a class that defines its diversity, but each item in the class does not instantiate the rule of class membership. In short, while some religions traceable to a common text or founder are essential, the category of HINDUISM is not an essence. HINDUISM means: South Asian, with no common founding item (figure or text). The logical properties of this concept are peculiar as it is a class, and not a kind or type (defined by an essence, where each member instantiates the defining trait). Beliefs, practices, and traditions traceable to a historical figure or text can fall within the class of Hinduism, so long as they are South Asian (to some degree), and together, have no common founding item—though each such tradition may be traceable to a founding text or figure. Hinduism can and does embrace ideas from a variety of traditions—even those native traditions that have their own religious identity. The members of the class HINDUISM are many of them ancient. The category is inclusive and open ended but as it is a class, its members do not agree on anything important by definition. This makes it possible for Hindus to provide essential and partisan accounts of Hinduism, which are contributions to Hinduism. The scholarly task of identifying what counts as “Hindu” philosophy is a project within the history of philosophy, which tracks the South Asian philosophies that contribute to the diversity of HINDUISM, and were not essentialized as religions onto themselves. Topics in this history include: ethics, politics, law, realism, meditation, ontology, logic, ritual, intuition, counterculture, and medicine. The bibliography closes with a review of recent developments in Hinduism, and of sample journals that publish scholarship on Hindu philosophy.

General Overviews

Given the logic of the concept HINDU, the boundaries of Hindu philosophy are controversial. So we find that short introductions to Indian philosophy (e.g., Hamilton 2001) depict it as a Hindu affair, beginning with Brahmanical (high caste, Hindu) thought, with protestant, non-Hindu traditions of renunciation as plot twisters. Given the messy relationship between Hindu philosophy and Indian philosophy, explications of Indian philosophy as a debate between Hindu and Buddhist ideas are useful (King 1999). The conceptualization of the Indian intellectual tradition as exemplifying a philosophical tradition is not new. Western receptivity to the prospects of Indian philosophy stretches back into antiquity—before the term “Hinduism” was in vogue though not before Hindu philosophy. Yet as Halbfass 1988 (cited under Introductory Works: Doxographies) notes, for many cultural and historical reasons, it has often been excluded from canonical articulations of the history of philosophy in the West. One distinctive feature of scholastic Hindu philosophy is its systematic nature (Mohanty 2000). The systematic nature of Hindu philosophies poses another challenge for the understanding of Hindu philosophy, namely that students of Hindu philosophy have to abstract from systematic philosophies answers to questions that are contemporarily raised in specialized debates in philosophy. Some scholars have attempted this kind of presentation (Potter 1963). Since the last quarter of the 20th century, some authors have taken it upon themselves to emphasize the contribution that traditional Hindu philosophy has made to analytic philosophical concerns (cf. Matilal 1985). Against the descriptive generalization that Hindu philosophy is more or less co-extensive with Indian philosophy, there have been some efforts to introduce Hindu philosophy thematically as a unified philosophical movement. One approach is to argue that while there is nothing philosophically that distinguishes Hindus from non Hindus, yet there is a Hindu genealogy of ideas and texts going back to the Vedas (the ancient Indo-European scripture of South Asia) that (genealogically) distinguishes Hindu philosophy from other South Asian philosophy (Ranganathan 2005). In contrast to those who would argue that Hinduism is itself nothing but an idle construction of colonialism, there is room for understanding contemporary Hinduism in terms of syncretic philosophical developments of medieval Indian philosophy (Nicholson 2010). Some have found it possible to generalize about Hindu philosophy via high-level descriptions that affirm what has been noted: the breadth of possibilities within Hindu philosophy are those of philosophy at large (Clear 1998).

  • Clear, Edeltraud Harzer. “Hindu Philosophy.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by E. Craig. London: Routledge, 1998.

    A good, short overview of Hindu philosophy, which generalizes by high-level disjunctions.

  • Hamilton, Sue. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780192853745.001.0001

    In this short introduction, Hamilton depicts Indian philosophy as a largely Hindu affair, starting out with Brahminical sources and digressing occasionally to non-Hindu criticism.

  • King, Richard. Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999.

    A comparison of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy.

  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna. Logic, Language and Reality: An Introduction to Indian Philosophical Studies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1985.

    An analytic exploration of Indian philosophy grounded in a largely Hindu, Nyāya perspective. The book also includes critical discussions of Buddhist philosophy.

  • Mohanty, Jitendranath. Classical Indian Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

    Thematically contrasts Hindu and Indian philosophical positions on epistemology, metaphysics, politics, morals, religion, and art.

  • Nicholson, Andrew J. Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History, South Asia across the Disciplines. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    A monograph that argues against a prevailing scholarly orthodoxy that Hinduism is a largely invented category of colonialism. Accordingly, Hinduism as a unified religion has its roots in a syncretic movement of earlier Indian philosophy, which covered the schools Sāṅkhya and Yoga as well as Vedānta.

  • Potter, Karl H. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. Prentice-Hall Philosophy Series. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

    This book is from a logical-positivist past, when values, such as dharma (ethics) and mokṣa (freedom) were depicted as attitudes, as opposed to things worthy of pursuit. Yet, it is an engaged and engaging account of Indian philosophy, which has a notable emphasis on Hindu philosophies.

  • Ranganathan, Shyam. “Hindu Philosophy.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Jeffrey L. Richey. University of Tennessee at Martin’s Main Web Server, 2005.

    Online, free encyclopedia article on Hindu philosophy, which covers the typical Hindu doctrines and philosophies. It is suggested that while there is no substantive differentia to Hinduism, Hindu philosophy has a genealogical association with the Vedas.

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