Roots of Indian Philosophy


Roots of Indian Philosophy

Warsaw University

I was born in Warsaw, I have always lived in Warsaw, in the same tenement, three minutes walk from the University of Warsaw where I have been doing research and teaching for more than 20 years. Parents of my father were professsors at the University, parents of my mother were artists (he was a writer, she was a painter), I am a mixture of them.

When I was sixteen years old, my father, professor of medicine, gave me the Bhagavad Gita translated into old-fashioned Polish; he told me that it might had been interesting for me. I remember I was reading the last chapter in a Warsaw park, it was April afternoon, windy day with clouds, sunshine and showers, changing quickly, and I was sitting, totally transfixed because of the text which was saying so fascinating things about philosophy.

This meant I had no choice: I simply had to study indology. But I treated the Indian culture as a keyhole to – as a poet of the Rgveda would say – an uru loka, to a ‘wide space’ of human thought; I felt claustrophobic, fenced in the European principles. So I decided to study the ancient Indian texts. That’s what I have been doing till now.

Professor Joanna Jurewicz, dr. hab.
The Faculty of Oriental Studies
Warsaw University
“Roots of Indian Philosophy”
Written for The British Toast Rack dot com
October 5, 2012, Warsaw, Poland
Roots of Indian Philosophy

Europeans are not very lucky so far as the roots of their philosophy is concerned. Ancient Greek thought before Plato is almost completely lost in its original form [1]. But philosophy is not only a European endeavour, and other cultures have preserved more of their heritage. In India, the oldest text, the Ṛgveda, goes back to the 15th _ 13th  centuries BC. It begins an uninterrupted tradition of philosophical thinking which is expressed in many texts which Indian tradition classifies as Vedic literature. The latest stratum of these texts is the Upaniads, of which the oldest were composed ca 6th _ 3rd centuries BC.

These texts were preserved and transmitted orally, which shows that human memory can be a much better data carrier than paper, papyrus or clay plates.

Vedic literature was composed by a hereditary class of priests called Brahmins.

These ancient Indian texts contain the earliest recorded human endeavour to explain how the world began, how it functions, and what is the aim of human life. What is more, one can see a clear tendency to answer these questions in a systematic way, using abstract and general notions. These texts help to fill a gap in the first chapter of the history of philosophy. The scanty remains of Presocratic philosophy enable us to presume that their way of thinking was to some extent similar to the way of thinking of the earliest Indian philosophers. However, I am not competent to compare these two strands. Here I shall just outline the conceptual apparatus and the model of reality expressed by those Indian thinkers.

In the European philosophical tradition an abstract concept is defined as a concept which does not refer to any concrete experience. A general concept is a concept which denotes a common feature of  objects, states or processes. In many cases abstraction and generalisation are two aspects of one conceptual process. Such concepts are the core of any philosophical apparatus. However, the latest research on human thinking shows that purely abstract and general concepts are very rare and that most of our conceptual apparatus refers to experience and is motivated by it, even in philosophy. We are usually simply not aware of this fact.

An important contribution in this field has been provided by  cognitive linguistics. This is a young branch of linguistics which has arisen  in  opposition to  generative grammar. Its founder, George Lakoff,  proposed this theory of language in the 1970s. Cognitive linguistics has now become a huge discipline encompassing the whole range of linguistic phenomena, human thinking and their neural base. The method of cognitive linguistics is a very useful tool for reconstructing  the beginnings of philosophical thought.

Since our thinking is motivated by our experience, cognitive linguists say that human beings understand abstract and general concepts in terms of concepts which refer to their everyday experience of life [2]. Such an understanding is called conceptual metaphor.

For example, causes are conceived in terms of physical forces. Conceptual metaphor is reflected in language, which is why we can meaningfully say: He pushed me to do that. Such thinking about causality is so deeply rooted in our culture that we do not easily recognise its metaphorical character and the empirical character of the source domain, the area of experience from which the  metaphor is drawn.

It has been  shown how other abstract and general concepts of European philosophy, e.g. time, the mind, the self, are also rooted in experience [3]. For example, Descartes elaborates the concept of light in order to express his views about cognition, e.g. “Intuition is the undoubting conception of an unclouded mind, and springs from the light of reason alone” [4].

The concept of light has an important explanatory role in this definition of intuition. It would be very difficult to reformulate this definition in  purely abstract language, without using the concept of light.

The composers of the earliest Indian text, the gveda, in a similar way aimed at abstraction and generalisation. For example, the word ‘not flowing’ (akṣara) was used in a  philosophical context to express what is imperishable and unchanging. But in some contexts the experiential anchoring of this concept was highlighted in order to say  more about creation. We can find in the gveda a formula “from that flows what does not flow” (tata k arati akaram). In these terms the activity of the Creator is conceived as internally contradictory: creation is the perishing of what is imperishable, the changing of what does not change.

The gvedic thinkers also referred to experience when they wanted to create a general concept.

In the gveda, morning light and speech were both conceived in terms of flowing water. And the concept of flowing was in some contexts used in such a way that the recipient could think about shining and speaking, i.e., the most important cosmic and human processes.

We can assume then that the gvedic poets were not only aware of the metaphorical character of philosophical concepts but also consciously used it in order to express subtle shades of meaning. It is worth noting that in later Indian philosophy the word “not flowing” (akara) is a purely abstract and general term which denotes what is imperishable and unchanging.

The ancient Indian thinkers arranged their views about the world into a coherent system.

Reality was one, and internally contradictory.

It was conceived in terms of fire, which contains its own liquid opposite. Reality then is conceived in terms of something which flows and does not flow at the same time.

Reality manifests itself in the world and the human being. The aim of its manifestation is self-cognition in cosmic and human perspectives. The world’s functioning repeats creation and depends on human ritual activity. In the morning the human being kindles fire (the terrestial manifestation of the fiery aspect of reality), pours a liquid oblation into it and drinks the remainder (the terrestial manifestation of the liquid aspect of reality). Then the manifestation of reality is realised in two dimensions. On the macroscale the kindled fire transforms itself into the sun (the cosmic manifestation of the fiery aspect of reality) which rises  to the zenith.

When the sun reaches the zenith, it produces rain, which falls to the earth (the cosmic manifestation of the liquid aspect of reality).

In order to explain what happened on the microscale I have to say a few words about the main gvedic oblation. It was a juice produced from a plant called Soma, which has not been firmly identified. The two main proposals are Ephedra and a toadstool (Amanita muscaria /pantherina). It was known only in the times of the gveda; when the Indians went further east and south, it disappeared. From the gvedic evidence we know that when it was drunk, it gave a strong sensation of heat, excitation and various hallucinogenic visions.

Krishna Bringing the Parijata from Indra’s Heaven
Bhagavata Purana
Tira-Sujanpur, Basohli, c. 1780
It was believed that when a human being drinks Soma, the fiery reality manifests itself in his supranatural heating and cognition. Thus a cognising human being, filled with Somic beverage, was the embodiment of internally contradictory reality. In this way, thanks to the ritual, the symmetry between macro- and microscale was preserved and the reality could cognise itself in its cosmic and human forms. I would like to emphasise that we are dealing here with a model, not a description, of what really happens, because in everyday life rain is not an inevitable effect of the sunrise, and the ritual described above was probably not performed every morning.

The concept of fire was the central concept of ancient Indian thought. Reality was conceived in its terms. It was seen as the essence of the world and the human being, both imperishable and perishable, unchanging and changing. This internal contradiction was conceived in terms of the coexistence of fiery and liquid aspects of reality.

In the fifth century BC the Buddha was born. He rejected this metaphysics.

He argued in a specific way: as Gombrich shows [5], in many cases he redefined Vedic metaphors so that he could express his own ideas.

In some cases he transformed a metaphor into an abstract concept, in other cases he took a metaphor literally. He also coined his own metaphors, using concepts familiar to the Brahmins, but he conceived something else in those terms. Let us briefly analyse the crucial concept of fire. In many places, the Buddha used this term literally: he understood it as the fire kindled in ritual. Since he thought that ritual does not promote  salvation, he recommended extinguishing the ritual fire to become a free wanderer.

This is the first meaning of the word nirvāṇa, which literally means “blowing out, extinction”.

Krishna Swallows the Forest Fire
Bhagavata Purana
Tira-Sujanpur, Basohli, c. 1780

But the Buddha also used this concept to create his own metaphor: he conceived human passions in its terms[6]. Since the Buddha thought that passions entangle human beings in suffering, he recommended putting them to rest.

This is the second meaning of the word nirvāa: it portrays  thinking about emotions in terms of fire; their pacification is conceived in terms of the extinction of fire.

What is more, in some contexts the Buddha uses the concept of fire with the same meaning as is used in Vedic philosophy: as the permanent essence of the world and the human being. He denied any permanent aspect to reality, which he defined as process [7].

In such contexts, the word nirvāa means that the metaphysical conception of the permanent essence of reality terms of fire should be rejected.

When we realise that the Buddha was preaching among people conversant with Vedic philosophy, we can appreciate how his argument was based on skilful use of the metaphor of his intellectual adversary. It is as if he were saying:

“Extinguish that fire about which the Veda says that it permeates the world and yourselves. When you do this, you will not be burnt by it, so you will not suffer; you will not have to fuel it in daily sacrifices, so you will be free!” [8]


[1]  Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E. and Schofield, M. The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd edition. Cambridge 1982, Havelock E. A.: ‘The Linguistic Task of the Presocratics’. In: K. Robb (ed.). Language and Thought in Early Greek Philosophy. La Salle, Illinois 1983, p. 7-82.

[2] Lakoff G., Johnson M. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago 1980

[3] Lakoff G, Johnson M. Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and its Challenge

to Western Thought. New York 1999

[4] Lakoff G, Johnson M. 1999, p. 394.

[5] Gombrich R. How Buddhism began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings. London: Routledge, 2006, What the Buddha Thought,  London 2009

[6] Cf. Gombrich 2006, 2009.

[7] Cf. Gombrich 2006, 2009.

[8] Jurewicz J., Playing with Fire: The pratītyasamutpāda from the Perspective of Vedic Thought”. In: Williams P. Buddhism. Critical Concepts of Religious Studies. Abingdon, New York 2005, p. 169-187

Krishna Swallows the Forest Fire: Episode from the Bhagavata Purana, c. 1730

Indian Painting, 18th century
Modern Period in North India
Opaque watercolor and metallic pigment on paper 
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum